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Matt Damon as Jason Bourne

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne

“JASON BOURNE” My rating: C+

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s good to see Matt Damon back in action.

“Jason Bourne” marks his return to the renegade spy franchise after sitting out 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy” (in which Jeremy Renner played a fellow super assassin).

But let’s get real: This installment is less a continuation of the saga than a recycling of stuff we’ve already seen.

To say it’s superficial is giving it too much credit.

Writer/director Paul Greengrass (who helmed Nos. 2 and 3 in the series, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”) doesn’t even make a token effort at original plotting or character development. Nobody in this film has an inner life.

What he concentrates on to the exclusion of all else is movement.

The film is one long chase around the globe (Greece, Iceland, D.C., Berlin, London, Las Vegas) captured in jittery handheld camerawork and rapid-fire cutting. Is there one shot here that runs for as much as five seconds? Don’t think so.

At first it’s exciting. The movie radiates energy like a pubescent boy on a three-day Red Bull binge.

After a while it becomes numbing.

We encounter our fugitive hero on the Greece/Turkey border, where he has a gig as a street fighter. Basically he beats up other pugilists for money. It’s ugly work, but it keeps Bourne off the grid.

Enter former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has turned on her former employers and has now discovered evidence of the origins of the Treadstone superspy program — including a revelation about the crucial role played by Bourne’s late father.

But back in Virginia, CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, looking ever more like a 3-D topographical map of Arizona) is on the hunt for our man. Dewey is putting the final touches on a sixth-generation version of Treadstone and doesn’t want a wild card like Jason Bourneout there to spill the beans.

He employs the talents of cyber analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to track down Bourne. Soon Heather comes to believe that maybe Bourne isn’t such a bad guy after all (although her long game is hard to pin down).

But Bourne still must contend with another assassin, known only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel), who carries his own grudge against our hero. Continue Reading »

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

“CAFE SOCIETY” My rating: B-

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s tough getting a handle on Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society.”

It’s not a drama, certainly. Its approach is too tangential and distant for any sort of emotional intensity.

But it’s not exactly a comedy, either. Despite a few chuckles there’s a noted paucity of laugh lines, and those bits of dialogue that do register are noteworthy not for their hilarity but rather for their weary resignation. (“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”)

And despite being set in 1930s Hollywood, it has none of the nostalgic warmth of “Radio Days,” Allen’s memorable reverie about growing up in NYC in the glory days of radio.

So what does “Cafe Society” have going for it?

Well, good performances from Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively, spectacularly good cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor”) and detailed production design courtesy of Allen’s frequent collaborator Santo Loquasto.

As the picture begins young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) has fled his suffocating home in the Bronx (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott are his bickering parents) to tackle life in wide-open Los Angeles. He hopes to get a job from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood agent who drops celebrity names with the frequency with which the rest of us use words like “a” and “the.”

Phil is so busy (or self centered) that he keeps Bobby cooling his heels for weeks. (It must be noted that unlike your usual Allen protagonist, someone who’s hugely clever and bent on a career in the arts, Bobby is pretty much an average guy.)

Finally Phil sees the kid and assigns his girl Friday, Vonnie (Stewart), to show his nephew around Tinsel Town.

Between gawking at the homes of the stars the two youngsters hit it off. But unbeknownst to Bobby, Vonnie is having an affair with a married man. This is no small roadblock to their relationship.

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Julian Dennison

“THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE”  My rating: B-

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi had a classic cult hit with 2014’s “Things We Do in the Shadows,” a hilarious faux documentary about a pack of inept bickering vampires living in a rickety urban home. With its talking-head technique and absurdist attitude it was a close cousin to the comedies of Christopher Guest (“Best in Show,” “Waiting for Huffman”).

For his followup, “The Hunter for the Wilderpeople,” Waititi is channelling Wes Anderson, especially Anderson’s sublime “Moonrise Kingdom.”  If you’re going to pattern yourself on a recent film, that’s a pretty good one to emulate.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a rotund, sullen 13-year-old juvenile delinquent. He’s been a ward of the state most of his life and now he’s out of options. Having run away from countless foster homes, he’ll be on his way to a prison if his latest placement doesn’t work out.

As the film begins he’s being deposited on the farm of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), a married couple living in glorious isolation deep in a fantastic landscape of jagged mountains, jungle and winding streams. Paula (Rachel House), the brusque social services lady who delivers him, doubts that Ricky can be turned around…but at least this far from civilization there’s a limit to how much harm he can do or how far he can go.

Bella, a talkative woman desperate for motherhood (and quite capable of killing a wild boar with a knife), does her best to make a home for this resentful wild child. Her husband Hector, a bearded survivalist type, is unimpressed by this surly interloper with a gangsta/rapper wardrobe.

Wapiti’s screenplay s boils down to an extensive chase. After an initial adjustment period, Ricky softens and starts to get comfortable with life in the sticks. Hector  still isn’t crazy about this wise-ass city kid, but they become partners in crime and soon are hiding in the woods and living off the land while an ever-growing army of cops, park rangers, bounty hunters and others try to bring them in.

Like an Anderson movie, “Wilderpeople” features titled chapters (“A Real Bad Egg,” “Another Door,” “Broken Foot Camp”) and daring tonal shifts, going from physical comedy to heartstring-tugging emotion, social satire to a celebration of innocence to a tactile emersion in a gorgeous natural world.

Continue Reading »

Edwina and Patsy

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as Edina and Patsy

“ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE” My Rating: C-

90 minutes | MPAA rating:  R

Making “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” must have been a blast.

Think about it: A reunion of old coworkers and their beloved characters, awesome scenery in the south of France, and a never-ending stream of famous-face  cameos — Rebel Wilson, Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Chris Colfer, Lily Cole, Jerry Hall, Lulu (yes, the “To Sir With Love” singer), Graham Norton, Gwendoline Christie, Perez Hilton, Stella McCarthy and more skinny supermodels than the brain can process — that turns the movie into a celebrity version of Where’s Waldo.

If only some of the fun had ended up on the screen.

Fans of the old “Ab-Fab” TV show will be bitterly disappointed. Newcomers will wonder why anybody bothered.

It’s enough to make you look back fondly on the “Sex and the City” movies.

The long-running ’90s Brit sitcom featured Jennifer Saunders (who scripted the series and this movie) as Edina Monsoon, a  hoplessly inept p.r. maven to London’s fashion industry, and and Joanna Lumley as her running buddy Patsy Stone, an aging former model who can rarely think past where her next alcohol/pharmaceutical fix is coming from.

It was a savage comedy about a couple of reprehensible people.

Eddie and Patsy are still reprehensible, but the charm has worn very, very thin.

Continue Reading »

WIENER-DOG-01“WEINER-DOG” My rating: B+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A new Todd Solondz movie should be approached with equal parts anticipation and trepidation.

Trepidation because Solondz’s take on the human condition is a grimly amusing collision of the tender and the terrifying. And because while other American filmmakers cannily hedge their bets, diluting the astringent bite of their messages (or avoiding messages altogether), Solondz appears incapable of delivering his shocking assessments at anything less than full strength.

Oh, he’s got a sense of humor. But it’s a comic vision so dark that many won’t find it comic at all.

His latest, “Wiener-Dog,” follows a format most famously established by the great French director Robert Bresson in 1966’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” the story of a hard-laboring donkey who passes through the hands of various cruel or indifferent human beings.

But “Weiner-Dog” is also a sequel of sorts to Solondz’s debut feature, 1995’s “Welcome to the Doll House,” which followed the unhappy adolescence of outsider geek Dawn Wiener.

The canine of the title is a female dachshund bought from a pet store by a middle-aged man (the playwright/actor Tracy Letts) as a gift for his son, Remi, who has only recently beat a cancer diagnosis.  Mom (Julie Delpy) is furious — one look at her sterile, uber-modern home tells us she has enough issues with a messy little boy, much less a shedding, shitting animal.

Little Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Heather Matarrazo, the star of “Dollhouse…” back in the day) lives an isolated life and is thrilled with his new pet, whom he dubs “Wiener-Dog.” The pooch is the one touch of spontaneous joy in his chilly world and his love for Wiener-Dog only intensifies with his parents’ growing irritation with this latest member of the household.

For Wiener-Dog whines and barks all night from her cage, refuses to be house trained and cannot obey Dad’s frustrated commands (“Heel, motherfucker!”). And when Remi objects to his  pet being spayed, Mom delivers a ghastly story from her own childhood about how her pet dog  was “raped” by a neighborhood cur named Muhammud and died giving birth to stillborn puppies. (Like so many memorable moments from the Solondz canon, you don’t know whether to recoil in horror or collapse in bitter laughter.)

Following an epic case of canine diarrhea — recorded by Solondz in a long tracking shot that feels like a nod to the traffic jam in Godard’s “Weekend” — the dog is sent to the vet’s to be destroyed.  But a lonely veterinary aide (Greta Gerwig) adopts Weiner-Dog, aptly renaming her Doody.

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Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

“THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS” My rating: B-

96 movies | MPAA rating: PG-13

That music is the universal language is one of the hoariest of cliches…which doesn’t make it any less true.

Since 2000 the Silk Road Ensemble, a band of international musicians spearheaded by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, has been making music that defies easy description.

“The Music of Strangers,” a documentary by Morgan Neville (maker of “20 Feet from Stardom,” that lovely non-fiction film about rock’n’roll backup singers), follows this esoteric orchestra from its inception to the present and across continents (including footage shot at K.U.’s Lied Center), offering plenty of ear-catching music and along the way highlighting the lives of several of the group’s outstanding players.

The film is inspiring, sure — the personal stories of some of these musicians are painful and the music is uplifting — but “The Music of Strangers” sometimes feels a bit like an in-house promotional effort. The film doesn’t shy away from criticisms that by participating in the Silk Road project these players may be diluting the indigenous music they seek to champion, but overall a feel-good mood carries the day.

The film begins by concentration on Yo-Yo Ma, who admits that he never actually chose to go into classical music, that it just sort of happened to him and he went along. The Silk Road project gives him a chance to branch out and explore other musical idioms.

Other segments focus on four ensemble members whose lives have taken interesting turns.  Spain’s Cristina Pato, who plays bagpipes native to her region,  is known as “the  Jimi Hendrix of the gaita” (in fact we see her tearing up the stage as a member of a rock band). She’s a live wire both on and off the stage and a champion of the traditional music of her often-overlooked region.

Wu Man is the reigning champ of the pipa, a Chinese lute, who grew up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and felt she had to flee her country if she was to expand her world by playing with foreign musicians. Now she frequently returns to her country to encourage young people to study traditional instruments.

 

 

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Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston

“THE INFILTRATOR” My rating: B 

125 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bryan Cranston became a household name on cable’s “Breaking Bad” by playing a decent family man seduced by the the money, violence and power of the drug trade.

In “The Infiltrator” he works an interesting variation on that setup. Here he’s a real-life lawman who goes deep undercover to undermine Pablo Escobar’s Columbian cocaine syndicate.

Director Brad Furman’s film (the screenplay is by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman) is a sort of police procedural enriched by intriguing psychological conflicts.

Set in the mid-1980s in Florida, “The Infiltrator” centers on Robert Mazur, a federal agent who comes to believe that seizing cocaine shipments is a losing strategy since there’s always more coming through the pipeline. A far more promising approach, Mazur believes, is to follow the money. The heads of the cartel can afford to lose drugs; they deeply resent losing their cash.

With the approval of his bosses (among them Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs), Mazur creates an alter ego, shady businessman Bob Musella, who dresses well, lives big and has created a plan for laundering millions in the cartel’s ill-gotten gains. He begins by befriending the hard-drinking, whore-running street-level drug chieftains and rung by rung works his way up to the biggest movers in the Escobar cartel.

This is all very tricky, and Bob eventually finds it a challenge to separate the venal but charming Musella from his real life with a astonishingly understanding wife (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids. It must mess with your mind going from a coke-fuelled party in a topless joint to a cozy nest in the ‘burbs.

So that he won’t have to betray his wife by sleeping with a hooker (a gift from one of his new drug buddies), Bob claims to be engaged. A fellow agent, Kathy (Diane Kruger), must then step up to portray his trophy fiance. She’s a knockout, and you’ve got to wonder if under the pressure of their shared deception the two agents might not slip into a relationship of a more than professional nature.

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