Magic Mike XXL

Posted: July 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

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****

Any film that spends a sixth of its running time watching its lead characters take ecstasy and following the come-on, the high and the come-down is not playing by the rules. Magic Mike XXL plays by nobody’s rules. Practically plot-free (and, with the exception of a couple of moments in the beginning, totally conflict-free, thereby violating the first rule of drama), the film is a like a free-form experiment in jollity and humanity. It is also, easily, the feel-good movie of the year thus far, and the funniest. My goodness, is it the funniest.

Whereas the first film, directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on the early career of its star Channing Tatum, was a sexy melodrama, Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs and who knows if it is based on anything, is a sexy comedy, and the comedy is unique. There is not a single line in this film that feels like a written gag, yet it has at least thirty laugh-out loud moments and a million more chuckles. My mouth ached after the screening, I’d been smiling so much.

Instead of jokes, there is simply repartee. Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and the absurdly deadpan Kevin Nash play five male strippers travelling from Tampa, Florida to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to participate in a male stripper convention. Along the way they have fun, and so do we. That’s it. That’s totally it.

But what fun we have! These guys are an incredible delight to hang out with, and the talent they represent is unbelievable. Each can spin a joke, a character, an outrageous dance move – and they all look like their bodies were sculpted by Michaelangelo in his ab period. It’s ludicrous how much ease they display, while obviously presenting such deep reserves of natural skill and immense rehearsal.

The film is full of throwaway moments – at one very moving point, Nash’s character Tarzan reveals that he’ll never have kids or a wife – that are never resolved, because the movie doesn’t play by screenwriting rules, and leaves endless questions, events and suggestions dangling. It’s all about character, and these characters are just absolutely freaking delightful.

See this movie. See it in a crowded cinema. It’s a riot.

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)****1/2

Paul Dano gives an astonishingly rich, award worthy performance as the younger, prime-of-creative-best Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy, a major film which easily takes a seat not only amongst the very best music biopics, but amongst those rare films that are able to dramatize the creative process. Essentially, the film boils down to the recording sessions for Wilson’s (with his Beach Boys) seminal Pet Sounds album, and the many scenes set inside that studio feel as authentic and inspiring as you could hope for.

Dano has been quietly achieving greatness for about a decade now. Completely invisible outside of his work (when was the last time you saw him in a gossip column, on a red carpet, or misbehaving on Twitter?), he has held his own with Daniel Day Lewis and Toni Colette, among others, and picks and chooses his roles carefully – so much so that they seem to pick him. Lord knows no-one casts him because he sells cinema tickets, so there’s something else afoot – he’s the real freakin’ deal. And despite his superb body of solid work, none of his previous roles compare to his Brian Wilson, a performance he has crafted so carefully that the real Brian Wilson, viewed on YouTube, may seem less authentic than Dano’s portrayal.

John Cusack plays Wilson later in life, during the period when he was shockingly imprisoned by a psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who had assumed legal guardianship of him based on a dodgy diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (Wilson certainly had / has serious mental illness, but not necessarily that diagnosed by Landy). Cusack is also excellent – perhaps at career best – but the older Wilson is a side story. The real juice is the portrait of an artist as a young man.

Bill Pohlad, an enormously tasteful producer (12 Years A Slave, The Tree Of Life, Into The Wild) directed one film in 1990, but Love and Mercy is really his announcement of intent, and man, he’s worth backing. The film was was made with limited resources but achieves epic emotional grandeur. Imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon biopic done right – that’s what this film is for Wilson. The fact that it’s done on an independent scale reflects the strange career and life arc of its subject. Wilson is McCartney and Lennon – but with a severe illness, which sidelined him from big budget, mainstream, red carpet acclaim. The casting of Dano – a true artist rather than a “movie star” – becomes ever more prescient.

Love and Mercy deeply investigates the relationship of creativity and mental illness, the obsessive need for artists to please their fathers (and father figures), and, indeed, what it means to be a creative person. Wilson’s father, Murry (excellently portrayed by Bill Camp) is reflected and refracted by his carer / imprisoner Dr. Landy, who employs the most basic methods of fatherly foolishness – tough love, a slap then a kiss – in an extremely deliberate methodology of control. Landy was a scam artist, an emotional bully who got his comeuppance, and is played to the hilt by Paul Giamatti, an actor who constantly goes to the edge of taste, and somehow never falls off into tastelessness. He and Dano deserve each other – they are both supremely brave artists.

Laboured with a supporting role – connecting tissue, really – Elizabeth Banks rules. As Melinda Ledbetter, who met and fell in love with Wilson while he was under Landy’s control, she is never less than fully believable. Banks’ extreme beauty almost works against her (hello Charlize Theron, who has shaved her eyebrows, her head and her limbs to adjust our perceptions) but here, as an ex-model come Cadillac dealer, she’s found her role. Her quiet dignity, and growing strength, is extremely well modulated. Late in the film, she has a silent moment with Giamatti that is breath-taking. She won’t win awards for this, but she’ll win respect.

The last time I was so moved by a music biopic, or by a film about the art of creation, was Ray, but Ray feels very conventional against Love and Mercy, and that feels appropriate. Wilson is anything other than conventional. His art was – is – that of true tortured genius. Make a film of that! Pohlad has, and it’s fantastic. I can’t get it out of my mind. Love and Mercy joins Mommy and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the great films of the first half of 2015.

Minions

Posted: June 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

minions-wide***1/2

The French animated comedy Minions is a prequel to the monster hits Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. I haven’t seen either; no matter, Minions is an absolute hoot on its own.

The first thing you need to know, as an adult contemplating spending an hour and a half on this, is that it’s set in 1968, in London for the most part, and has wild fun with both time and place. The sight gags – which are endless – don’t just seem to be there for the adults; they seem to be what the whole thing is about. I’m sure the sound and colour and frantic plotting and characters will appeal to the littlies, but most of the jokes in Minions will fly over their heads, and right into yours. The soundtrack is also a killer. You know you’re a successful franchise when you can license a Beatles track for your closing credits.

The Minions speak in their own language which seems to comprise, to my ear, about seventy percent gibberish, fifteen percent Spanish, then a melange of English, European and Asian dialects. It’s hysterical and will provide many bonus laughs for parents once this thing goes massive on DVD and into high rotation in young households. Most impressively, all the Minions are voiced by the film’s director, Pierre Coffin, who deserves some sort of special award.

Being a French film, there are endless jokes at the expense of the English – none offensive, mind you – and the human characters are all a lot sexier than you’d find walking around in a Pixar, Disney or DreamWorks flick. Even Britain’s Queen – quite a major character! – slouches louchely. C’est très amusant.

Jurassic World

Posted: June 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

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*** (out of five)

Jurassic World is as meticulously crafted as the strange, clean, efficient theme park that is the real central character of the movie. This script knows how to hit a story beat, how to let a cliffhanger of a line lead directly to the next scene, with appropriately cued, swelling music. It knows that a large part of its audience will be kids, so it charms you before it scares you – it gets you in the mood. In other words, it takes Steven Spielberg’s directing style and births itself from its DNA, which is also the plot of the movie, if you substitute dinosaurs for Steven Spielberg.

It’s good. It’s been engineered to be good. There are no random occurrences in this film, no improvised asides or accidental moments captured by a sharp camera operator. This is filmmaking as structural beast, as corporate entity, and it’s a precise and perfectly massaged version of the form. Its as Hollywood as it comes, when Hollywood’s having a good day.

Bryce Dallas Howard provides the most human appeal, even as she plays the ostensible villain of the piece, a corporate wonk desperate to keep Jurassic World – a dinosaur theme park that is essentially a new version of Jurassic Parkin the black. She and her team of scientists (always a team of scientists!) are splicing genes to create bigger creature attractions, and, well, that’s not going to end well, is it? (Naturally, she has a chance for redemption. Naturally, she takes it).

Technology has come a long way since the first film, and seeing the dinosaurs simply doesn’t have the same wow factor that it did in 1993. And Chris Pratt, as a dino trainer now having to deal with a very big problem, just doesn’t have the juicy appeal of Sam Neil. But this is a clean machine, and, really, you’ll get your money’s worth. They spent one hundred million more times what your cinema ticket costs. You may as well help them out. You’ll be entertained, and that’s the transaction here – it’s all that’s going on.

Entourage

Posted: June 9, 2015 in Uncategorized
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**1/2 (out of five)

There is nothing inherently awful about the big screen version of HBO’s Entourage television series, other than it has absolutely no reason, or justification, to exist.

Big screen versions of television shows are nothing new. I’m not talking about decades-later reboots but simply transitions to the big screen, including original actors and, often, sets, props and situations. As they come to mind, I’m thinking back to Batman – the camp ‘60s version – as well as The Muppet Movie, Veronica Mars, South Park, The X Files, Jackass, The Simpsons and Sex and the City – I’m sure there are plenty more. To justify being on the big screen – and, let’s face it, to charge you good money for something you once got for free (well, not really in HBO’s case, but you know what I mean) – it was generally accepted these versions either had to (a) give you a lot more production value bang for your buck and / or (b) “finish off” the story the series started.

Entourage fulfils neither of these requirements. It feels no “larger” than the TV show, nor does it have any sense of closure. Even more unforgivably, the storylines within it are no more ambitious than anything attempted on the show, and some of them are simply lazy, boring and fatuous. Turtle’s storyline, for example, simply has him having a crush on a MMA fighter and giving her confused signals (her name is Ronda Rousey, and she plays herself, terribly). E’s is little better. Both are emblematic of some really pitiful examples of the gratuitous male gaze. Basically, the guys in this show get to quip (often without wit) whereas every woman under 35 seems to have to show her breasts, her butt or both to earn entry. If they get a piece of dialogue that’s not about having sex with one of the boys, they’re one of the very few.

The plot – Vinny directs a movie – is really, really threadbare, and exemplifies the big problem I always had with the TV show: these are not just first world problems, they’re the one percent of the one percent problems. We’d all give our right feet to have their “problems”.

If you loved the show, you’ll be happy, I guess, to spend time with the dudes again. It’s got nothing for anyone else, except a great performance from Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). Stealing every scene he’s in, you wish he had more.

strangerland

**** (out of five)

Kim Farrant’s debut feature Strangerland has high ambitions. It wants to be associated with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake In Fright, Walkabout and The Last Wave – great Australian films that explore the mysterious, creepy energy of Australia’s innards – the outback, and / or the regions that lie close to it.

It succeeds. Strangerland is a bold, extremely accomplished and confident first feature from director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons (it should be noted that Seres was the instigator of the story). It tackles fascinating and unique themes, the most provocative being, is sexuality an appropriate response to tragedy, trauma and grief?

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes play the Parkers, the delicately disengaged parents of a pre-teen son and an all-too-teen girl (Maddison Brown, in a career-making debut). They’ve moved to a very isolated town for reasons that we will learn, and the move will decimate their lives.

Hugo Weaving plays a local cop who becomes deeply involved in their situation, and it’s the best role I’ve seen him in in ages. He’s just terrific, at ease and fluid, open and free, as a lanky, robust outback policeman who suddenly has a real case to deal with – along with the accompanying personalities. Given a wide-open landscape, a nice beard and a generous character, he flows, freely, givingly. It’s a great performance.

So is Kidman’s. She constantly needs to come back to Australia to give her best, it seems, and she does so here. It’s a cracker of a role and she gives it her all. Catherine Parker is a an extremely well-written character, driving the emotional subtleties of the film with fascinating contradictions. Kidman hits every note, and those notes entail some very challenging scenes. She dominates the film, and she should – it’s about her.

As Lily, the extremely present Maddison Brown makes an important feature debut. She carries the film’s first act off naturally, with the confidence of someone who is only just discovering what it means to be attractive, confident and skilful: there is connection here between actor and role. Joseph Fiennes, saddled with the least fleshed out of the major roles, is a terrific piece of casting: his otherness in this world (simply by being English) is deeply entwined with the currants of the film, and his surprising bursts of anger are unexpected for those of us who have pigeonholed him to Shakespeare In Love. Mayne Wyatt also gives an excellent, complex performance.

Strangerland is a terrific beast: it’s got a foot in each of the commercial and arthouse camps, and is entertaining in both. It knows exactly what it’s doing at each and every turn. It is assured, confident and well constructed. It is also gripping, thrilling, creepy and exciting. See it.

***1/2 (out of five)

sanandreasposternew_largeA Los Angeles Fire Department Helicopter Pilot gets the chance to save his marriage when the biggest earthquake in history rips open the San Andreas fault from LA to San Francisco. If that co-mingling of the personal and the devastatingly tragic makes you a little queasy, San Andreas – which, amid hundreds of thousands of deaths, is only concerned with a few actual lives – may not be for you. The astonishing thing is that the film kind of pulls it off.

The performances help. As our little family unit at the centre of a little family drama that just happens to unfold during the total annihilation of California as we know it, Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and especially Alexandra Daddario give emotionally honest portraits. Daddario plays the (surviving) daughter of what was once a four person household; her sister drowned in an accident some years ago. The threat posed to her life as San Francisco crumbles around her gives her parents the chance to find redemption, and their love back.

I know, it sounds cheesy, and the worst scenes – which see Johnson and Gugino sharing happy memories even as they’re choppering to find their daughter who could very well be dead – are laughable. But Daddario, who easily commands as much screen time as Johnson, is excellent and believable even as she’s thrown into the most physically dangerous situations imaginable, accompanied by Ben and Ollie, a charming Brit and his younger brother, played by Australia’s Hugo Johnstone-Burt and wee Art Parkinson, Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones. Johnstone-Burt is tremendously capable, and his amount of screen time – and close-ups – is quite staggering considering his last feature was the seen-by-three-people Goddess. A huge Hollywood career is now his to lose.

It would be enormously easy to dismiss this film as tasteless, exploitative or stupid. Coming after the Nepal calamity, its premise hardly seems to qualify as fair entertainment, and its many, many depictions of skyscrapers coming down in explosions of glass, concrete and dust are so reminiscent of the actual images of the World Trade Centers’ felling that they border on some sort of history porn. But the film has a massive heart and makes the right choices at the right moments, and manages to skilfully avoid the many inherent pitfalls with this sort of material. There is no actual gore; Johnson’s character does actually help some other folks besides his family; the science behind the quakes seems soundly researched – and Paul Giamatti plays the main scientist! Giamatti’s committed, heartfelt performance sums up what’s right with this film: he, and the creative team, knows how bad it could be, so they’re determined to be careful, and make it good.