Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: "Jason Bourne"

I wonder if the CIA has ever run an analysis of what percentage of their resources are spent just chasing Jason Bourne. It must be at least 25 percent, based on what we see in the movies, now in their fourth go-round with this self-titled and completely redundant film.

(Five, if you count the Bourneless Jason Bourne movie starring Jeremy Renner, and nobody does.)

“Jason Bourne” isn’t so much a single story as a series of chase set pieces played out against international backdrops. Jason (Matt Damon, grayer and thicker since his last outing nearly a decade ago) appears in Berlin, the local CIA team is sent after him, he leads them on a merry chase on foot and by vehicle, he takes a few out with his super awesome spy skills, and gives the rest the dodge.

Now we’re in London. Jason appears, the local CIA team… you get the idea.

The plot, such as it is, involves Bourne again trying to ferret out the truth of his background as an assassin in the Treadstone Program. He’s already recovered most of his lost memory, but there are a few more tantalizing pieces floating out there. Like that his dad was involved in the creation of Treadstone, and the current CIA Director, the reptilian Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), had something to do with his death.

There’s also another super-spy on the hunt who’s only referred to as “Asset,” played by Vincent Cassel. No, I mean literally, people call him on the phone or one of those spy ear piece thingees and say things like, “Asset, are you in London yet?” We know it’s going to come down to a faceoff between these two, since they’re setting up Asset as Jason’s supposed equal (ha!).

There’s an inordinate number of car chases in this Bourne outing, most notably a SWAT truck driven by Asset mowing through vehicles on the Las Vegas Strip, with Jason piloting some sleek black Product Placementmobile.

Alicia Vikander is the newbie, Heather Lee, a computer expert who acts as Dewey’s protégé but really sees him as a dinosaur. The Swedish actress speaks in a weird glottal voice that I think is supposed to be Generic American but comes across as Irish with the flu. Anyway, in her Bourne finds an unexpected sympathetic ear; she wants to bring him back into the CIA fold rather than just take him out.

It’s suggested that Bourne is truly tempted by this; but hasn’t he spent the last 15 years killing or crippling CIA agents chasing him? I can only imagine what the office Christmas party would be like. “And Mark’s Secret Santa was Jason, who’s given him… an artificial knee joint to replace the one he crushed in ’03. How nice!”

Turns out Dewey’s cooked up a plan for a new program, Iron Hand, which will allow the spooks to monitor everyone, everywhere. How scary! He’s even teamed up with a Facebook-like mogul, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), to do it without the public’s knowledge.

Of course, during the course of the film we witness the CIA cut off the power to a remote hackers’ den in Iceland, activate street cameras as spy cams in Berlin, and tap into a landline phone to use it to wipe a laptop computer sitting a dozen feet away. Why is it they need Iron Hand, again?

I also find it weird that Bourne never even makes a passing attempt at disguise. Oh, he’ll put on a hat or take one off, but that’s about it. He’s, like, the greatest spy ever, but he can’t even don a fake beard or something?

Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Rouse, directs another adrenaline-fueled expedition into the land of Shaky Cam and Hyper Edit. His action scenes have no weight or impact; watching this movie is like looking into a shattered mirror that somebody reassembled without much care as to what goes where.

The ugly truth is there’s just no juice left in the Bourne shtick. Damon seems dyspeptic and impatient; his Jason Bourne is no longer the wide-eyed youngster trying to recover his soul, just another immortal action hero mowing down bad guys. But without quips – he barely even talks, in fact.

Final edifying tidbit: In the last movie Jason’s birth year was given as 1971, but now in the documents we see flash on screen it’s updated to 1978. Clearly somebody is worried about Jason Bourne’s act getting old … with good reason.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: "Nerve"

Ever since we had personal computers, Hollywood has been making movies about kids getting in a pickle playing with them. Back to Matthew Broderick nearly setting off nuclear annihilation in 1983’s “War Games” up to last year’s “Unfriended,” about a half-dozen teenagers being stalked on social media, we learn that irresponsible teens and powerful electronic devices are not a good mix.

And here comes the latest cyber-thriller, “Nerve,” which sounds ludicrous until we realize all the technology that makes Pokémon Go possible could easily be repurposed this way, and already exists in our smartphones. It’s about teens accepting dares to do increasingly dangerous acts, with the rest watching as ghoulish witnesses, egging them on with money and instant fame.

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco -- who I’d like to point out are ages 25 and 31, respectively -- play the main couple, thrown together by the “watchers” of Nerve. It’s an open-sourced game with no one controlling it but deadly democracy. The watchers pay money for a voyeuristic thrill, which is then given to the players as a reward. Refusing a dare, or failing to complete it, means you’re out of the game and lose all the dough you’ve won.

Roberts is Vee, a bookish sort who sticks to photography and pining for boys she’s too shy to even talk to her. Her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), is already a star in Nerve. She’s after the thrill more than the money, since she’s a trust-fund baby; early on she gets suspended from school for showing her tushie during the cheerleading performance.

Too afraid to even tell her mom (a harried Juliette Lewis) that she’d prefer to go to an art school in California than local commuter college, Vee takes up the challenge to play Nerve. Her first dare is simple enough: kiss a stranger. She selects Ian (Franco) because he’s sitting in a diner reading one of her favorite books. But it turns out he’s a player too, and soon the watchers have upvoted them into a pair.

There’s a fun sequence where they’re directed to Bergdorf’s in Manhattan to try on ridiculously expensive clothes, then their own clothes are swiped (the dare of another player) and they are directed to leave the store immediately.

Vee may like breaking out of her wallflower mode, but crosses the line at shoplifting a $4,000 dress. Fortunately, she notices a loophole that the dare doesn’t say anything about keeping the clothes. So they strip to their skivvies and make a run for it; it’s an endearingly silly and flirty moment. Roberts and Franco are over-the-top cuties.

But things get much darker quickly -- like, riding Ian’s motorcycle at 60 m.p.h. while he’s blindfolded -- and ratchets up from there to deadly levels. Plus, other players up the ante, including Ty (Colson Baker), a punk type who looks like he walked off the set of the latest “Mad Max” movie.

Sydney, meanwhile, is nonplussed about the competition from her sidekick. And Tommy (Miles Heizer), a nerdy sweetheart who’s badly concealing a crush on Vee, attempts a late rescue with his hacker buddies to crash the game.

Directed by Henry Roost and Ariel Schulman from a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based upon a novel by Jeanne Ryan, “Nerve” is decent disposable entertainment that really wants to be a cautionary tale.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Video review: "Sing Street"

"Sing Street" is the most unabashedly romantic movie of the year. It's less about the music young people make than why they make it. Writer/director John Carney ("Once") creates movies about despair, and using art and love to find a way out of the dark holes into which we sink.

On the surface “Sing Street” would seem like a conscious effort to make this generation’s version of “The Commitments,” Alan Parker’s seminal 1991 tale of a fictional Irish band that (almost) makes it big singing the blues. But the new film is less about the allure of fame than the inner lives of those who feel compelled to start a band, get up in front of people and risk making a total fool of yourself.

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Cosmo, an upright lad of 15 who’s just had to transfer to the rough-and-tumble Catholic public school because his parents are breaking up and can’t afford his posh private school anymore. Bullied by the working-class tough (Ian Kenny) and lorded over by the priests -- he’s forced to go about in his socks because he can’t afford the requisite black shoes -- Cosmo struggles to fit in, and struggles hard.

Then he sees Her.

Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a year older, already out of school and might as well as live on another planet. She stands on the stoop of the orphan girls’ home across the street, smoking a cigarette and projecting disdain. She’s rumored to have an older boyfriend who’s a drug dealer, and says she’s soon to depart Dublin for London to start her modeling career.

In a fit of uncharacteristic confidence, Cosmo walk up to her and convinces Raphina to be in the video his new band is shooting. What band? asks his equally dweeby friend, Darren (Ben Carolan). The one I have to start now, he responds.

Cue the familiar process of putting together the band, practicing, dealing with doubting parents, the nervousness of the first gig, and so on. One of Carney’s best moves is avoiding the mistake of trying to flesh out the other members of the band, instead relegating them to their deserved roles in the background.

Only Eamon (Mark McKenna) is given anything like co-equal status, since Cosmo doesn’t really have anything beyond a basic musical background, while the bespectacled loner can pick up just about any instrument and play it. Like a teenaged McCartney and Lennon, they’re soon cranking out pop hits.

(Gary Clark wrote most of the tunes, while Adam Levine co-wrote and sings one for the end sequence.)

Jack Reynor shines as Cosmo’s brother Brendan, who dropped out of college and hasn’t really left his room ever since, smoking doobies and hurling resentment at their parents. He ends up as his younger brother’s mentor, giving him records to listen to and imparting wisdom, both musical and otherwise.

So what is “Sing Street” really about?

It's about being a teenager and loving a girl clearly out of your league and Ireland in the '80s and brothers who brim with disappointment at themselves and hope for others and warring parents and bullies and abusive priests and gender morphing and rock 'n' roll.

Really, it's about everything.

Bonus features are a wee bit on the slim side. There are audition tapes for nine principle cast members, a making-of documentary and a Q&A with Carney and Levine.



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Video review: "Elvis & Nixon"

Forty-six years after it was taken, the iconic photo of Elvis Presley meeting President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office is still the most requested image in the National Archives. Here are two disparate figures who still have a tight hold on the national consciousness, decades separated from their heydays.

“Elvis & Nixon” is a great premise for a movie: What’s the story behind that impromptu meeting? Director Liza Johnson and screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes explore the subject with humor and a surprising amount of insight into each man’s troubled soul.

It’s a fictionalized account, but we suspect events could’ve transpired much as they are depicted.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey is Nixon. Both are completely authoritative in their roles, despite never trying to do an impersonation of their character. Shannon, the king of brooding cinematic figures, doesn’t much look or sound like Elvis but suggests a thoughtful wariness behind the gaudy façade.

There’s a great scene where he’s putting on his standard get-up of that era – black coat and pants, gold buckle, shirt open to the navel, high-altitude pompadour, omnipresent sunglasses -- and comments to one of his rare, close friends, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), that people only see the “thing” and not the boy from Memphis.

Already the recipient of numerous honorary badges, he undertakes the mission because he craves a federal one. Dismayed at the drugs and unrest he sees on television, he concocts a story of becoming an undercover “agent-at-large” to help save America’s youth. He’s so cut off from the world he doesn’t realize you can’t take firearms on a commercial airplane.

Spacey gets less screen time, but projects an image of a man who never got over his humble roots despite the position he’s attained. At first he doesn’t want to meet Elvis, partly because he’s so handsome; guys like me had to work hard to get a girl’s attention, he grumbles to one of his flunkies.

(To Nixon, everyone is a flunky… or should be.)

Colin Hanks plays Egil Krogh, the president’s right-hand man who pushes the meeting to help with the youth vote; Evan Peters is fellow flunky Dwight Chapin; Johnny Knoxville plays Sonny West, another Elvis hanger-on who’s not above using the boss’ allure to entice feminine company.

I won’t say too much of the meeting, other than it goes exactly as we might expect, and completely not. Nixon is totally flustered by the singer’s self-importance – slurping down the Dr. Pepper and M&Ms reserved for the POTUS – but to his own surprise finds a kindred soul to whom he can relate. Both men are constantly surrounded, yet eternally lonely.

A bit kooky with a serious undertone, “Elvis & Nixon” is a smart and funny take on the little foibles history throws at us.

Bonus features are a mite skimpy, consisting of a commentary track by director Johnson and the real Jerry Schilling, and a featurette, “Crazy But True.”



Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie"

Absolutely mediocre.

OK, OK, that was a cheap and easy shot. But it’s still a bullseye.

Full disclosure first: I have only a passing acquaintance with “Absolutely Fabulous,” the popular British TV show about two awful, aging women who never want the party to stop. It ran for two decades, off and on -- though in the British M.O., a “season” of television can mean a handful of episodes.

Still, I think I’ve seen enough to pass judgment that the biggest problem with “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie,” is the “movie” part.

It is a hoot to watch Jennifer Sanders (who also wrote the screenplay) and Joanna Lumley sink their teeth into parts they’ve honed so well over the years. But there simply isn’t enough material here to sustain a feature-length film, even a shortish one. The film has plenty of laughs, but also plenty of long dead spells.

Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Lumley) are would-be fashionistas who make a living of sorts on the fringes of the fashion industry. Edina does P.R. for a few has-been celebrities, and Patsy is fashion editor for some hoity-toity magazine. But really they live a life of West London luxury by sucking at the teat of ex-husbands and anyone else they can scam.

Things go poorly when Edina is cut off by her ex, followed by an unfortunate event in which she apparently kills supermodel Kate Moss by knocking her off a balcony into the Thames. (Things I did not know, #1: Kate Moss is still a thing?) The women lose their gigs and become international pariahs, fleeing to the south of France to hide out and find a new meal ticket.

In tow is Edina’s granddaughter, Lola (the winsome Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), who provides a sense of adventure – and her father’s credit card. Chasing them is frumpy daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her erstwhile police detective boyfriend (Colfer). On the edges of the action is Edina’s own mother (June Whitfield) and Bubble (Jane Horrocks), her off-kilter personal assistant, who dresses in inflatable materials and appears to be sniffing the gas inside them, too.

The film features tons of cameos, literally dozens and dozens of celebrities. And by “celebrities,” I mean “people from the fashion world I think I’m supposed to know but have no clue about.” I recognized Jon Hamm and Gwendoline Christie -- “That’s Brienne of Tarth!” someone chirps -- but that’s about it. So if names like Judith Chalmers, Poppy Delevingne and Daisy Lowe ring your bell, have at it.

The best parts are simply the two main characters interacting with each other, calling their counterpart “darling” and engaging in stuff that would be irresponsible for women half their age. Assessing the facial damage after a long night on the scene, Patsy tells Eddy she needs “a little spritz of afterbirth to freshen things up.”

Director Mandie Fletcher is a television veteran, and it shows in the pacing (or lack thereof). Certain characters are cast aside as needed, plotlines are picked up and quickly dropped; in general, it feels like a greatest hits compilation of the TV show. The last act has a decidedly Benny Hill feel to it, with lots of chasing about in weird costumes and oddball modes of transportation.

My advice is to fire up two decades’ worth of “Absolutely Fabulous” on your favorite streaming service if you need a Botox-and-baubles fix.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: "Captain Fantastic"

“Captain Fantastic” is about a rebel who learns the limits of rebellion. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, who long ago gave up on Western civilization and is raising his six kids in the woods like primitive American Indians.

They grow or hunt their own food -- the opening scene is of his eldest son tackling a deer and slitting its throat, thereby marking his ascension into manhood. They keep some books and musical instruments to feed their minds and souls, and have an old tour bus for rare trips into town for mail, phone calls and to barter their handmade goods.

Otherwise, they’re doing the Thoreau thing to such an extreme even Bernie Sanders might find their liberalism in need of watering down. They celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas, for God’s sake.

Then Ben’s wife, who has been hospitalized for some time with mental illness, dies, and he and the children undertake an adventure to attend the funeral in New Mexico and see that her last wishes are honored -- namely, cremation and flushing down the nearest toilet. Mom (Trin Miller, glimpsed only in flashbacks and visions) may have been schizophrenic and depressed, but she did not lack a sense of humor.

This means confronting modern American society, which to the kids is as alien as Jupiter, with its heffalump-sized people, violent video games and obsession with material stuff. Representing the epitome of The Man is Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella), a rich and connected fellow who has forbidden the motley clan from attending the burial ceremony.

The two men, representing arch extremes of the American Dream, are set up for an inevitable showdown.

If this were all there was to the movie, then I doubt I would’ve admired “Captain Fantastic” as much as I did. Sure, Mortensen has a sly, dry charisma to his performance, the kids are distinctive and authentic, and there’s plenty of comedic material in their encounters with everyday awfulness.

“What’s cola?” one munchkin asks during an impromptu (and abortive) visit to a diner. “Poison water,” Ben deadpans.

But writer/director Matt Ross -- who won the director award at the Cannes Film Festival -- takes the next, more ambitious steps. Without giving too much away, the movie shows the supremely confident Ben confronted with his own ego. He’s forced to recognize that the super-kids he’s raising are still just children, and have needs beyond the intense home-schooling and survival skills he imparts with a stern hand.

The relationship between Ben and his children is at the heart of the movie. Each child actor shines, creating a distinct personality that stands out while assimilating into the group’s commune existence.

George MacKay plays Bodevan, the eldest. (All the children have unique names, so they’re the only one of them in the world.) Though he’s smart enough to get into every Ivy League school -- applications made without his father’s knowledge -- Bo finds he knows little of the real world, especially young women.

Kielyr and Vespyr (Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso) are the red-haired voices of reason and contemplation. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) is the tween and resident rebel, and the most eager to leave the cloistered home. Zaja (Shree Crooks) is 8 years old but can already give an insightful overview of the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Nai (Charlie Shotwell) is the youngest and most mercurial, having to be reminded to wear clothes at meals.

(Though Dad also needs such reminders, as we see in a brief encounter with Mortensen breaking his fast.)

“Captain Fantastic” is a very entertaining film, but I was impressed by its willingness to question its own premise. Here is a family with its own very radical interpretation of independence, finding that true wisdom isn’t relegated to a single place or creed.

Review: "Hell or High Water"

For a decade or so there’s been a thing in Hollywood called the Black List, which is screenplays that are greatly admired but for some reason haven’t been picked up for production. In general these tend to be smaller, more challenging stories that might not necessarily have mass appeal. The idea is to garner these languishing scripts attention so somebody will make a movie out of them.

Roughly one-third have been, including Best Picture Oscar winners “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Spotlight” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” But there have also been many Black List flops like “Black Snake Moan,” “Our Brand Is Crisis,” “47 Ronin,” etc.

“Hell or High Water,” despite that subpar, generic-sounding title -- I at first thought it had something to do with boats -- belongs among any estimation of home runs.

Deeply moody and evocative, yet with a potboiler plot that steadily builds a head of steam, “Hell” is sharp as a leather strap cracked against bare skin in the scorching West Texas sun.

The film is part crime story, part throwback Western, part family reconciliation. It’s about old cowboys and young, lawmen versus bandits, the sins of bank robbers weighed against those of the bankers. It wears the long prairie duster of the Old West, as hard men wander out of the hot, flat pan and converge toward a grim reckoning.

Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster each deliver some of the best performances of their careers, layered and bone-deep. They’re playing outwardly simplistic men who’ve thought about their lives and found them wanting.

Bridges is Marcus, a Texas Ranger facing mandatory retirement in a few weeks who’d like to go out in a blaze of glory rather than face the terror of sitting on his front porch with no purpose to life.

With a silver mustache, thick middle and a tendency to chew his words like cud, Marcus is a legend fading before his own eyes -- probably been carrying around the same bullets in his sidearm for 15 years. He’s ornery and cussed, likes to insult the hybrid Mexican/Comanche heritage of his partner, then dismiss it as teasing.

“I don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart,” the partner (a fine Gil Birmingham) says, giving a little back.

Pine and Foster are Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers both alike and differing in a lot of ways. Toby is reserved, thoughtful, remorseful. His marriage and job have cratered, he’s estranged from his ex-wife and teenage sons, just buried his mother after a long illness and is trying to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the family ranch.

Tanner is a career criminal who calculates he’s spent half of his adult life behind bars, a dead-ender who embraces his outlaw reputation and calls it an ethos. He never makes any plans beyond the limits of the cash in his pocket or what he can steal. He does what he does because he’s good at it and he likes it; as Marcus wryly observes, if Tanner ever got himself a big pile of money he’d probably spend it all on stupid junk just so he could have an excuse to go out and steal again.

The Howard boys are knocking over small-fry banks in tiny Texas towns, places with names like Coleman and Post, sometimes two or three a day. Too small a haul to warrant FBI attention, it’s dropped into Marcus’ lap. He makes the rounds, interviews the witnesses, is confounded by the repeated lack of video surveillance. At first bored, his old juices get flowing again. They’re just the sort of crimes that seem random and stupid, but require a smart mind to string together.

Directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam”) from a script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), this is the sort of movie that’s always on the move but never seems in a hurry. It takes the time to flesh out scenes and polish minor characters, like the sassy waitress who refuses to relinquish the fat tip the brothers left with (maybe) stolen money. Or the elderly cowpoke caught up in one of the robberies who, when asked if he’s armed, spits, “Of course I’ve got a gun!”

“Hell or High Water” is a taut modern masterpiece that learned its lessons well from the classics -- both the tough, unruly Texas folk and the movies made about them.