Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Monuments Men (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for on February 7, 2014.

The Monuments Men is a World War 2 story, but it's unlike the traditional World War 2 stories we have become familiar with over the years. Many of the historical touchstones are present, including Normandy and The Battle of the Bulge. Roosevelt, Truman, Hitler, and Goering all make appearances. However, The Monuments Men is more about the aftermath of the war's great moments than the participation in them. These characters don't join in the bloody fray of D-Day; they arrive sometime after the beach has been taken. They don't fight in The Battle of the Bulge; they show up after the German retreat has begun. People die in The Monuments Men but in offhand ways rather than in the thick of combat.

The unit of eight men is under the command of Frank Stokes (George Clooney), an aging art expert with movie-star good looks. His group, dubbed The Monuments Men, consists primarily of old historians and professors with a simple goal - save as much of Hitler's stolen art as possible. As the war draws to a close, the Nazis intend to embark upon an orgy of destruction. The Russians want the art as reparations for the damage inflicted upon their country. The Western allies, however, intend to reclaim it and restore it to those from whom it was stolen. The seven men serving under Stokes include three grizzled Yanks - Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) - looking to do their part in the war effort; Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a Brit searching for redemption; Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a Frenchman in exile; and the younger James Granger (Matt Damon) and Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Once in Europe, they split into teams to go in search of the missing treasure, and then, when they locate promising leads, reunite to pursue them. For the most part, they follow in the wake of the advancing army - near but never at the front.

There are several significant plot-related problems with The Monuments Men. The episodic nature of the story disallows any sort of narrative momentum to build. There's a lot of switching back and forth between the teams but too little time is spent with any of them for the characters to grow and the story to cohere. In many cases, I didn't know the characters' names - I identified them by the actors playing them. It's a bad sign when the film doesn't draw you in sufficiently for stars like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett (who plays an art curator and member of the French Resistance) to disappear into their characters. And it's a definite problem when you think of Donald Jeffries as the guy from Downton Abbey or Jean Claude Clermont as the guy who won an Oscar for The Artist. Most of the characters get A Big Moment but not much beyond that. The movie, which runs a hair under two hours, feels like it needs at least another hour to reach critical mass. I wonder how much was left on the cutting room floor.

With talent like this in front of the camera, it can't be all bad. The cast brings 17 Oscar nominations and five wins (with a sixth likely pending) to the party and there's not an inauthentic performance to be found. The most stirring moment is provided by Bill Murray as, while taking a shower, he hears the voice of his daughter singing a Christmas carol. It's a lovely, moving scene - the kind of thing The Monuments Men needs more of. The film also looks great. Not only does it effectively capture the look of wartime Europe, but it reflects the feel of some of the war films made during the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly, the story told by The Monuments Men is worth telling and it's easy to see why a luminary like Clooney would be sufficiently attracted to want to direct it. Unfortunately, this treatment, written by Clooney and long-time collaborator Grant Heslov, isn't the best fit. One gets the sense that The Monuments Men might work better as a longer form project. There's simply too much going on to cram into two hours and the end result is a feeling that pieces of the tale are being skipped while others are rushed through. The movie does a good job of illustrating why protecting art from the Nazi scourge was important but it's far less effective fleshing out the personalities of the people who did the protecting. [Berardinelli's rating: ** ½ out of 4]

Labels: biography, drama, history, war, WWII

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for on Oct. 17, 2014.

Birdman (subtitled Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an ensemble film about theater life that occasionally takes time away from its dramatic/comedic narrative to skewer the pop culture sensibilities that have given rise to the so-called modern blockbuster. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film occasionally ventures into Spike Jonze territory, making the viewer uncertain whether certain bizarre interludes are depictions of the main character's mental instability or actual events. The movie is punctuated by comedy that at times verges on slapstick but there's an underlying anger in evidence - anger at the popular mindset that allows movies like Transformers to flourish while artistic endeavors fail.

At the focal point of Birdman is aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Twenty years ago, he was a household name as the star of the mega-successful Birdman superhero franchise. After the second sequel, however, he turned his attention to other things, none of which were successful. Now, in an attempt to prove he can do something other than Birdman, he has adapted a Raymond Carver short story into a play that's in previews for a Broadway opening. In addition to being the writer, Riggan is also the director and star. As opening day approaches, he is understandably nervous. His cast consists of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a genuine talent with a deserved reputation for upstaging directors; his old friend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is realizing a lifelong dream of appearing in a Broadway production; and his lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is disappointed about a false pregnancy. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently out of rehab, is hanging around backstage and his best friend/manager, Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), is trying to hold everything together. Meanwhile, the vultures - in the person of the influential New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) - are circling.

One of the most notable aspects of Birdman, for good or ill, is the manner in which Inarritu, a notoriously unconventional director whose previous endeavors include 21 Grams and Babel, has chosen to make the movie. With the aid of digital editing to erase the seams, Birdman appears to have been filmed in a single, unbroken take (excepting a short prologue and epilogue). This is partially illusion but the actors have spoken about having to recite page after page of dialogue while hitting their marks so the stylistic conceit has its roots in reality. Although this is a unique approach (especially in an era when long takes have become increasingly rare, replaced by rapid-fire ADD editing) and emphasizes the theatrical elements of the narrative, one could ask the legitimate question of whether it becomes a distraction. Does the style become so cumbersome that it detracts from the narrative? There are instances when I would argue that the answer is yes. Consider, for example, the visual contortions when the camera has to navigate corridors in order to follow a character or when there's a time lapse to indicate the passage of time.

Inarritu unquestionably has an ax to grind and he has honed the edge. By contrasting theater with cinema, he is able to posit that the former represents art while the latter is overcome by crass commercialism. He has a little fun with this concept - there's a scene in which he indulges himself by trying his hand at a little Michael Bay-style mayhem. (This, by the way, is the movie's most logistically challenging sequence - presenting an alien/monster attack without cutting.) He uses the fictional Birdman as a stand-for Batman, the role Michael Keaton played until 1992 (the year Riggan quit the Birdman franchise). And, in addition to Keaton, he employs two actors who have had major roles in superhero franchises (Edward Norton, who played the title role in The Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel).

The performances are uniformly excellent. This is the best work Michael Keaton has done in years. Edward Norton is in fine form in a role that allows him to poke fun at his own reputation while simultaneously creating a new and memorable character. His portrayal of Mike Shiner is riveting. Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts all contribute. Lindsay Duncan has a small but memorable part as an acerbic theater critic - it's hard to decide based on this portrayal how Inarritu feels about the profession, although it's clear he believes critics wield too much influence for the effort they put forth. (This may have once been true but, especially in the internet era, could be disputed today.)

There are times when the dialogue in Birdman verges on the pretentious but the quality of acting covers some flaws and the overall storyline is so compelling that it's easy to forgive some of the movie's excesses. The film also includes its share of laugh-out-loud moments - Michael Keaton navigating Times Square in his underwear comes to mind. The girl/girl kiss seems gratuitous but I'm not going to complain. Overall, Birdman offers two hours of thought-provoking entertainment. For those who have grown weary of the multiplex blockbuster culture, it's refreshing to have a filmmaker join the choir. And, in an era when far too many directors play it safe, Inarritu's penchant for the quirky and outrageous offers a welcome change-of-pace, even if it doesn't always work. Birdman won't find many adherents among the Transformers-loving crowd but, for the rest of us, it says a lot of things worth hearing. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Amy Ryan (as Sylvia).

Labels: comedy, drama

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) [PG] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for, on Aug. 7, 2014.

There's something gentle, charming, and old-fashioned about The Hundred-Foot Journey, a family-friendly motion picture from director Lasse Hallstrom based on the book by Richard C. Morais. A non-confrontational movie about the power of food and family, The Hundred-Foot Journey makes good use of the considerable talents of its veteran leads, Helen Mirren and Om Puri, to represent the cultural and culinary differences that exist between India and France. The sweep of the movie isn't all placid; elements of romance and whimsy are counterbalanced by instances in which the ugliness of xenophobia emerges. Only toward the end, when the narrative stumbles during an extended epilogue, does the concoction crumble a bit.

Director Hallstrom's last great movie was probably The Cider House Rules, which came out in 1999. In the interim, he has made some low-key, pleasant films (like Chocolat, An Unfinished Life and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and a couple of forgettable adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels (Dear John and Safe Haven). The Hundred-Foot Journey is vintage Hallstrom - genial and meditative, focusing more on characters and emotions than an overcooked plot. The story is simple; the people inhabiting the movie make this worth seeing.

Om Puri plays the patriarch of the Kadam family, a group of six who have departed India and come to France to open a restaurant. He is accompanied by his three adult children: Mukthar (Dillon Mitra), Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe), and would-be chef Hassan (Manish Dayal). Hassan has great talent in the kitchen but the death of his mother haunts him. Papa decides that the best place to start this new life is in an abandoned building near the outskirts of a town in the south of France, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. To him, it seems to be a great place to open Maison Mumbai but his children point out a problem: across the street is the highly respected restaurant of Le Saule Pleureur. The proprietress of this classical French establishment, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), is not keen on competition. Not dissuaded, Papa presses on. Meanwhile, Hassan forms a quasi-romantic friendship with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), one of Madame Mallory's sous chefs. Soon, the two rival establishments are engaged in an all-out culinary war… until things go too far.

Hallstrom's filmmaking techniques are straightforward - the images lensed by his cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, emphasize the beauty of the terrain, creating an almost fairy tale locale. Although the movie is set in contemporary times (as evidenced by the presence of a cell phone early in the proceedings and modern equipment during the epilogue in Paris), it feels as if it's taking place in the '70s or '80s. There are rotary phones, people use bicycles or old cars for transportation, and there's nary a computer to be found. For the most part, the lifestyle in and around Saint-Antonin feels like it's frozen in an earlier, simpler era.

There's a sense that Hallstrom is attempting to develop the kind of food-saturated ambiance that has characterized films like Babette's Feast and Big Night. However, although the various dishes are lovingly presented, they don't reach into the stomach quite the way those earlier films did - although it wouldn't be entirely unexpected if some viewers expressed a desire for Indian cuisine for a post-movie repast. There's also an interesting montage of shots in which Hallstrom uses the chopping and dicing of vegetables to represent skirmishes in the ongoing conflict between Maison Mumbai and Le Saule Pleureur.

The Hundred-Foot Journey represents a pleasant diversion for those who have grown weary of traditional summer movie fare. The picture is about people and how they interact. There are no explosions or car chases. There are no sex scenes - only a few kisses and a little dancing. The movie is at times too sentimental and the story line is neither original nor surprising, but the production as a whole gains points for its unalloyed charm. This is one dish that has been cooked well enough to satisfy. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: comedy, cross-cultural, drama, food, Paris, romance

Big Eyes (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, Dec. 23, 2014.

Tim Burton's name is on the credits but Big Eyes doesn't feel at all like the visually eccentric, gothic-tinged productions we normally expect from the offbeat director. Oh, there are some Burton-esque moments, like a vacation in Hawaii that's suffused in pastels and hyper-real colors. The big eyes of the title, the central feature of the Keane paintings, are in keeping with Burton's sensibilities but he doesn't overuse them. Aside from those elements, this is a straightforward and mature film with little in the way of overt weirdness. And neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter is anywhere to be found.

Big Eyes opens in 1958 with picture perfect period detail and a voiceover by Danny Huston, who sounds eerily like his father, John. Our intrepid lead character, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), has jumped in the car with her daughter, Jane, to flee a failing marriage. She relocates to San Francisco where circumstances bring her together with flamboyant landscape painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Margaret is also an artist, although all of her creations are variations on a theme: waifs with exaggeratedly large eyes. After a whirlwind courtship, Margaret and Walter are married and that's when the trouble starts. After working out a deal with a local nightclub owner, Walter is able to display his and Margaret's paintings. When hers sell and his don't, he begins passing off her art as his own. When she learns what he's doing, she's hurt but reluctantly agrees to promote the sham. The big eyes paintings become hugely popular but, despite all the money, Margaret is increasingly unhappy, feeling as if something important has been stolen from her. For his part, Walter becomes unpredictable, especially when he has been drinking.

In addition to being a biography, Big Eyes has strong themes about the importance of the act of creation to an artist and the tug-of-war between art and commerce in popular media. The ideas related to these subjects are incorporated in such a way that, although not subtly presented, they blend into the narrative flow. Plagiarism, it is said, is the greatest sin that can be committed against an artist. Big Eyes illustrates that it's no less traumatic when the artist is complicit in the act. From the moment when Walter claims Margaret's art as his own, she feels as if she has lost her identity. She becomes morose and withdrawn. It's not that she desires wealth (which she has) or fame (which has been ceded to her husband), but she wants recognition for her creations. They are her babies. Worse, to keep the gravy train rolling, Walter forces her to labor, day and night, churning out big eyes paintings. The soul goes out of her work.

The face of art belongs to Terence Stamp, who plays high minded art critic John Canaday, a man cut from the same cloth as Lindsay Duncan's theater appraiser in Birdman. Canaday dismisses the big eyes paintings as the work of a hack and decries their popularity. When Walter objects, claiming that people love them, Canaday rebuts that the adulation of the masses doesn't make them art. Further highlighting the art/commerce divide is the modern art gallery across the street from where Walter sets up shop. After refusing to show the big eyes paintings, the owner of that venue (played with perfect snootiness by Jason Schwartzman), is forced to watch as his new neighbors' popularity explodes. Burton pokes fun at those whose artistic views are pure but he also hints that his sympathies lie with them.

This is probably a very personal tale for Burton, who has always had an uncertain relationship with Hollywood. Many of his films have been financially successful but his pet projects have often been ignored and unloved. For every Batman, it seems, there's a Frankenweenie. Ask the director which means more to him, and there's no doubt about his answer. Ask the studios which they prefer and the response will be different. Although dissimilar in many ways, Big Eyes and Birdman share a core theme that reunites Keaton and Burton 25 years later.

Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are solid but this isn't the best recent performance for either. That may be unfair considering how many awards and nominations they have received but the truth is that no actor not named Streep can be nominated for everything they do and just because their work here isn't Oscar worthy doesn't mean it isn't effective. Stirring portrayals emerge through small parts, in particular Danny Huston as a '60s era newspaper gossip columnist and Stamp. They bring color to supporting, clichéd roles.

Like all based on tales, Big Eyes takes some liberties with the facts but the result works dramatically. The ending satisfies in a way that only a courtroom scene can and Waltz plays it with just enough buffoonery to inject humor into the proceedings. For the most part, Big Eyes works because of its restraint - something rarely claimed about one of Burton's cinematic offspring. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Krysten Ritter as Margaret's friend DeeAnn.

Labels: biography, drama, Fifties

Two Night Stand (2014) [R] ***

A film review by Sara Stewart, for, on Sept. 24, 2014.

The considerable charms of Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton elevate this middling rom-com, in which a simple hookup turns into a lengthy hangout during a New York blizzard.

Megan (Tipton), unsure of herself after college graduation and a breakup, dips a toe into the online dating world with a Tinder-like site (I converse like a mother**ker! she brags on her profile) and ends up at the apartment of the genial Alec (Teller), who’s a pretty lucky find for a first-timer. When she attempts to sneak out in the morning, she finds the city’s snowed in — and so are they, together.

First-time director Max Nichols (son of Mike) wisely keeps the focus on the banter between the two, though he does allow for a few unremarkable high jinks, like the duo breaking into a neighbor’s apartment to borrow a toilet plunger.

Tipton has something of the young Meg Ryan about her — both in her vivaciousness and in her cartoonishly adorable features — but her character is inexplicably haughty, early on, about being trapped in the apartment with Alec.

The two actors work well together, though, once Megan’s able to let her guard down, thanks to Alec’s suggestion that they make the most of the snow day by smoking pot.

The screenplay, by Mark Hammer, feels theatrical in its intimate scope, and hits its stride when the two decide to critique each others’ sexual performance — and, by extension, a laundry list of each gender’s typical shortcomings in the bedroom. Their second tryst, with running commentary, is both funny and sexy.

I found myself wishing the conversation had gone on longer and gone a bit deeper; once the film sends Megan out into the world again, Two Night Stand wears thin, trotting out the rom-com clichés you’ve seen time and again. There’s the weary singles New Years’ party, then the heartfelt declaration of feelings in front of a group of onlookers.

Jessica Szohr, as Faiza, Megan’s more polished roommate, and Scott Mescudi, as her boyfriend Cedric, manage to be the annoyingly in-love couple without being overly annoying, though they get very little screen time.

As a testament to the power of good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation as aphrodisiac, the film works fairly well, if not as a primer on safe online dating. Only in Hollywood is venturing to the apartment of a total stranger to spend the night a good idea. [Stewart’s rating: ** ½ out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Levin Rambin as Daisy, and Victor Cruz as a police officer.

Labels: comedy, romance

Blogger’s comment: I thought the romantic chemistry between Teller and Tipton was pretty good. I also enjoyed the observations about how men are visually-oriented (striptease during foreplay and lights on during sex), how women believe men are clueless about female reproductive anatomy, how men have to be subtly trained (different kinds of moans) to get it right, and how virtually every woman has faked orgasm at some time in every relationship. Another film in this vein is Better Than Sex (2000) starring David Wenham and Susie Porter. See my blog post for this one.

My Old Lady (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Sept. 8, 2014

Kevin Kline is a failed American writer, broke and in Paris to collect his inheritance — an ancient two-story apartment with an accompanying garden in the center city Marais district. Maggie Smith is the 90-something little old Englishwoman living in it. And Kristin Scott Thomas is the little old Englishwoman’s irritable, unmarried daughter who is determined that Mom won’t be moving anywhere, not any time soon.

Those are the makings of My Old Lady, a comedy of troubled family histories, Franco-American culture clashes and arcane real estate law. Because that’s the heart of the thing, this French concept of viager. Madame Girard (Smith) is grand-mothered into this apartment, which Jim Gold (Kline) inherited from a father he hadn’t seen in decades. He shows up to check out and sell this property for some much-needed cash, and there she is — immovable because of this viager. He owns the property, but only after she dies. The reverse annuity contract means that he has to pay rent to her, as well. It’s all in his dad’s will.

I own this apartment, Jim, whom Madame Girard insists on calling Mathias, mutters. And I own… you?

Jim was born in Paris and left when his parents split up. Now Jim is 57, penniless and with a property he can do nothing with… until she dies. What’s more, she insists on getting her rent. That’s a nice watch there, Mathias. You’re a pirate, Madame Girard!

Jim enlists a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon of Delicatessen) to explain viager contracts to him. Ever the greedy, impatient and yet practical American, he starts spiriting away furniture and such from the many unused rooms in the apartment, selling it to antique dealers for a little pocket money.

Meanwhile, the precise Madame Girard, a semi-retired English teacher who holds English conversation salons with a chef, a doctor and others who barter for her lessons, reveals a little of her story. She knew Jim’s father. WELL. And while she doesn’t know the details of the rift, she would like to hear it.

How do you get to be 57 and 11 months and have so little to show for it?
Then, there’s her daughter, Chloe (Scott Thomas). She’s easily rattled, a tad highly-strung and furious at this gauche American’s intrusion into their lives. She knows the law and isn’t above enforcing it. All Jim can do is scheme and sneak about, questioning Madame Girard’s doctor about her health, plotting a sale of this onerous contract to any wily Frenchman with more patience and the deeper resources it takes to wait the old lady out. Even her toasts at dinner — served Pre-CISE-ly at 8! — have a taunting tone to them. To good health! And LONG LIFE!

Veteran playwright Israel Horovitz (Author! Author!) adapted his play and directed this film of it, a theatrical movie that benefits from an immensely engaging and accomplished (two Oscar winners) cast. It’s a comedy of confessional monologues and overheard conversations, quite like a stage play at times.

But Smith and Kline and Scott Thomas give this a chance to sparkle. Kline dresses down wonderfully, and his offhand way with the Franglais dialogue beautifully clashes with Smith’s English precision. SPARE me the fromage! And Scott Thomas, as cutting in French as she is in English, makes a wonderfully spare sparring partner, vulnerable and wholly capable of lashing out.

My Old Lady gets tangled in its own feet in the third act as Horovitz tries to invest mystery where there is none and ratchets up the melodramatic connections between these three. But the accomplished acting of Smith, Kline & Scott Thomas make certain that this Paris trip is anything but a waste. [Moore’s rating: **½ out of 4]

Blogger’s comment: This is a dialogue-rich film but, sadly, there are no subtitles on the DVD or the Blu-ray versions. Maggie Smith is particularly hard to understand, partly due to her age, and partly because she interweaves French and English in her speech. If you have a hearing impairment or just enjoy watching a film with subtitles, you’ll be disappointed. Also, while the Blu-ray version is visually beautiful, the standard DVD appears grainy, dark and muddy.

Labels: comedy, cross-cultural, drama, Paris, romance

Wild (2014) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, on Dec. 7, 2014.

This is Reese Witherspoon's big Oscar push and the strength of her performance - easily the most forceful and memorable aspect of an otherwise unremarkable motion picture - may well earn her a nomination. Witherspoon certainly goes all-out, doing her best on-camera work since Walk the Line (for which she won an Academy Award) and offering her most daring exposure since Twilight. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), Wild attempts to show how getting back to basics can arrest the downward spiral of a life pulled out of orbit by the gravity of pernicious influences.

While Cheryl's journey is interesting, it isn't as compelling as the one embarked upon by Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild). The most arresting aspect of Wild isn't Cheryl's perambulation along the 1000-mile long Pacific Crest Trail but the memories that percolate to the surface as flashbacks. Understanding why she started the journey is more dramatically satisfying than watching the trip unfold. There's never much sense that her life is in danger - maybe that's because we know she survived to write the book. It was different in Into the Wild (in fact, McCandless died).

The present-day storyline, set in 1995, follows Cheryl's trek along the trail from the California/Mexico border all the way up into Canada. She encounters some of the typical issues faced by hikers: sore muscles, inadequate provisions, inclement weather, and other travelers who aren't always helpful. (The creepiest sequence is one in which Cheryl shares filtered water with a couple of men.) There are opportunities for humor, as on the occasion when Cheryl first struggles to don a heavily laden backpack that probably weighs as much as she does.

As she walks, she reminisces. The flashbacks jump around the way memories do. Cheryl remembers her childhood and happy times as a young adult still living at home. Then the darkness begins: the death of her mother (Laura Dern), taken by cancer; the deterioration of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadowski); drug use and reckless sex; and finally the recognition that if she doesn't do something to change her life, an early grave awaits. Her solution, a personal rehab of sorts, is the three-plus month challenge of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The two most compelling reasons to see Wild are Witherspoon and the cinematography. There's no doubting the actress' dedication to the role. She goes all-out and, as a result, brings Cheryl vividly to life. There may not be a more committed female performance in a 2014 film. This isn't just Oscar-bait; it's evident that Witherspoon believes in what she's doing here. Valle, who steered Matthew McConaughey to an Oscar in 2014, shows an understanding of how to bring the best out of his actors. As with Dallas Buyers Club, Wild is more about acting and characterization than narrative. Strong, resilient women in non-superhero settings are a rarity; it's refreshing to encounter one in these circumstances. And, although the camerawork never threatens to overwhelm Witherspoon, there are some lovely shots (but one wouldn't expect otherwise from a movie called Wild).

Psychological transformations are more easily depicted in writing than on film, and the one explored in Wild is no exception. The narrative is effectively woven and the flashbacks fill in the background but the final tapestry is a little threadbare. I wasn't bored but neither was I as engaged as I expected to be. And, for me, the ending falls flat. The point of Wild is the journey, not the destination but to have everything wrapped up with a few-line voiceover feels like a cheat. Nevertheless, this is a solid, character-based drama with one of the year's best performances to recommend it. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Michiel Huisman (Jonathan), Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), W. Earl Brown (Frank) and Kevin Rankin (Greg).

Labels: biography, drama

Bears (2014) [G] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on April 17, 2014.

The first two Disneynature documentaries, 2007's Earth and 2009's Oceans, were visual feasts - amazing experiences made all the more remarkable when blown up for big screen viewing (they were distillations of TV miniseries). Since then, the label has embarked upon less ambitious projects: African Cats in 2011, Chimpanzee in 2012, and now Bears in 2014. If one was to rate Bears solely on the basis of its photography, it would receive an easy A. But there's more to this film than just striking images, and that's often not a good thing. As with Chimpanzee, the movie's rampant anthropomorphism is a major drawback and John C. Reilly's too-earnest narration is as irritating as a toothache. The nature aspects of Bears are undercut by the need to turn this into a live-action Disney cartoon, complete with cuddly heroes and nasty villains.

Bears tells the year-in-the-life story of a mama brown bear and her two cubs. Residents of the Alaskan peninsula, the three animals emerge from their den, make their way down out of the mountains (barely avoiding an avalanche), scour meadows for meager food, become embroiled in territorial conflicts with other bears, and sate themselves on salmon before returning to hibernation. To liven things up, the filmmakers have created names and personalities for many of the bears (and one wolf). Nothing truly upsetting is shown (salmon being devoured alive are referred to as sushi) and any violent wildlife footage has been scrubbed clean. The G-rating is a testimony to how sanitized Bears is.

No one in their right mind will deny that Bears contains its share of amazing photography. The images of an avalanche captured by co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are remarkable. Similarly, the salmon run arrests the attention. However, despite its attempts at Disneyfication, Bears is too sedate to attract the attention of younger children (who may also be frightened by the growling bear-on-bear confrontations) and John C. Reilly's prattling is likely to get on the nerves of many older viewers. The cinematography is big screen but the content is small.

As a narrator, Reilly is an odd choice. His voice lacks the power and resonance of a James Earl Jones (Earth), Samuel L. Jackson (African Cats), or Patrick Stewart (who provided the U.K. voice work for Earth and African Cats). He might have been selected because the narration required someone who could make goofy pronouncements. It's difficult to say whether the biggest problem with the voiceover is the content or the delivery but this is easily Bears' least appealing element.

Fothergill, who previously co-directed Earth, spent a year in Alaska following the title creatures. The end credits show glimpses behind the scenes and, as is often the case, this makes one wonder whether a documentary about the making of Bears might have been more interesting than the actual film. For the most part, what we see on screen is more a result of decisions made in the editing room than it is an accurate representation of twelve months in the life of a mother bear and her cubs. It's easy to understand the reasons behind that but it makes one wonder whether this deserves a documentary label.

Despite the visual splendor, it's difficult to get too enthused about Bears. It has a generic nature documentary feel and, even at only 77 minutes, it feels like it runs long. Coupled with Chimpanzee, which also disappointed, there's reason to wonder how many more titles of this sort Disneynature will churn out. [Berardinelli’s rating: **1/2 out of 4]

Labels: documentary

The Last Five Years (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 19, 2015.

The Last Five Years: A Tiresome Couple Warbles, Whines about Love

Oh, quit your whining.

Watching The Last Five Years is like sitting at a table at one of those restaurants where they think it’s a good idea to place you within 18 inches of another couple — and this particular couple next to you are attractive 20-somethings who think they invented love at first sight, career ups and downs, fighting, cheating, reconciling and breaking up.

It’s exhausting.

The Last Five Years is based on a stage musical written by Jason Robert Brown, which premiered at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, moved to Off-Broadway and won Drama Desk awards, and has been staged numerous times in subsequent years.

In the stage version, a young woman tells her side of a five-year relationship beginning at the end, while the young man tells his side in chronological order. They meet only in the middle, at their wedding.

In Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation, we start with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) lamenting the end of the marriage — but then we flash back to the early, giddy days of her relationship with Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), and the two share the screen for most of the rest of the film as it hop-scotches back and forth in time in unnecessarily confusing fashion.

There’s very little dialogue. Cathy and Jamie will recite a line or two, and then one or the other or both will burst into song. And while both have Broadway-level pipes, neither has a particularly distinctive, knock-it-out-of-the park voice. It doesn’t help that the songs, while solid, become repetitive in melody. And there’s not a home run in the bunch. I walked out humming… nothing from this movie.

The biggest problem with The Last Five Years is it’s pretty much an argument against couples getting married too young. It’s hardly compelling stuff. When Cathy and Jamie first find each other, he sings about the joys of finding a shiksa goddess after dodging a dozen Jewish girls. What a turn-on for Cathy to hear Jamie singing about how this is going to kill his mother, even as Jamie is tumbling into the bed with Cathy.

Jamie’s a would-be writer; Cathy’s a struggling actress. The wheels start to come off the relationship when Jamie’s first novel turns him into a superstar, while Cathy gets the heave-ho at one New York audition after another and finds herself doing summer stock in Ohio year after year.

In the fantasy world of The Last Five Years, being a successful young novelist means your publisher throws a huge party for you pretty much every weekend. Cathy whines about Jamie getting so much attention. Jamie tries to keep Cathy’s spirits up for a while but then explodes at her for throwing herself a pity party. It doesn’t help Cathy’s case when she and Jamie take a drive to visit her parents in the suburbs, and she sings about how she’s better than her high school friend who got knocked up, and her former classmates who never made it to New York. (In this particular number, Cathy seems to have forgotten she made it TO New York, but she hasn’t made it IN New York.)

Jordan has a puppy-dog earnestness and a dancer’s athleticism, but he’s a playing a self-centered, self-serious egomaniac who can’t stay faithful for more than a couple of songs. We know Kendrick can sing, but her voice sounds a little thin in some numbers, and the Cathy character doesn’t have much depth beyond falling in lust with Jamie, complaining about the audition process, resenting Jamie’s success and singing about her superiority to her childhood friends and her fellow Ohio actors.

The Last Five Years moves along pretty quickly, and we get some beautiful shots of New York, and one terrific musical number on the streets in which the pedestrians become a part of the show.

Ultimately, though, I found myself growing tired of Jamie and Cathy, and understanding why they didn’t want to be with each other. [Roeper’s rating: ** out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Tamara Mintz and Cassandra Inman.

Labels: comedy, drama, musical, romance

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli on March 12, 2014.

From The Royal Tenenbaums to Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's movies have always been quirky with exaggerated characters and surreal settings. The Grand Budapest Hotel is instantly recognizable as the director's output - it possesses all the qualities that make Anderson beloved by his admirers and disliked by those who find his films pretentious and inaccessible. Compared to his earlier work, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a middle-of-the-road effort. It's not as endearing as Moonrise Kingdom but not as tedious as The Darjeeling Limited. It offers an engaging 90+ minutes of unconventional, comedy-tinged adventure that references numerous classic movies while developing a style and narrative approach all its own.

The Grand Budapest Hotel's structure resembles a nesting doll. The opening scene features a young woman approaching a statue in a cemetery. She begins to read from a book written by the man whose image is before her. Cut to the 1980s, where that man, an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson), discusses his craft. He talks about how one of his stories relates to a past experience. Flash back another 20 years to the lobby of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a once storied venue in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka that has fallen into disrepair. There, a younger incarnation of the author (now played by Jude Law) encounters the hotel owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and, over dinner, another tale unfolds - one that transpires during the 1930s when Mustafa was just a lad. That account, buried four layers deep, is the primary subject matter of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everything else is window dressing.

In the 1930s, with a fascist government on the rise and war looming on the horizon, The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Europe's premiere resorts, due in no small part to the efforts of the superlative concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his apprentice, Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori). Things change when a frequent guest dies and leaves a valued painting to Gustave. The woman's heirs, led by her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), seek to retain the painting by any means possible. Gustave ends up falsely imprisoned for murder in a military stockade. Meanwhile, Dmitri, aided by his psychopath associate, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), searches for a copy of a second will that, if discovered, would be disadvantageous to his inheritance aspirations. Jopling's preferred method of handling this investigation involves murder - something he's quite good at.

Gustave, as played by the impeccable Ralph Fiennes, is a caricature of the always-proper gentleman. He is immaculately groomed and cares more about appearance and decorum than anything else. He's never unctuous and manages to be strangely endearing. Some of the film's most amusing moments occur when Gustave slips out of character with a burst of anger or profanity. He is at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel - everyone else is in orbit around him.

The film's longest stretch transpires within the walls of the stockade where Gustave is imprisoned. This segment has been influenced by and serves as an homage to classics like The Great Escape and Stalag 17. Later, a lengthy downhill chase pokes fun at the propensity in modern cinema to embrace increasingly elaborate, computer-enhanced action sequences. The punch line, which I won't reveal here, is laugh-aloud funny. As is his modus operandi, Anderson's shots are carefully composed. He uses multiple aspect ratios (depending on the time frame in question) and one scene is in black-and-white.

Anderson packs the cast with familiar faces in cameo roles: Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban. Many of those actors have previously worked with the director. Of those with more substantive roles, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Edward Norton have a shared history with him. This is Fiennes' first journey with the director and it represents a rare comedy for an actor who is drawn to darker, more serious material.

The unpredictability of The Grand Budapest Hotel's narrative allows it to progress at a fast clip. Infused with Anderson's idiosyncratic humor as delivered by a squadron of accomplished actors, the movie provides compelling reasons to seek it out. This won't convert those who find the director too abstruse, but it represents a pleasant diversion for those who are weary of cookie-cutter motion pictures. [Berardinelli’s rating *** out of 4]

Labels: comedy

Draft Day (2014) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for, on April 10, 2014.

Draft Day is a sports movie that's almost entirely about the business of sports as opposed to what transpires on the field. This isn't the first film to make that claim - Jerry Maguire and Moneyball were more about the goings-on in the front office - but it is arguably the most focused. The film looks at the 12-hour span immediately preceding the NFL draft, taking us into the back rooms of several franchises and exposing their moves and motives from a strategic perspective. The owners and GMs are like generals and they all have their battle plans. The material is compelling although there's little doubt it has been dumbed-down and sanitized for universal consumption. There's also a sense that this is little more than a 110-minute commercial for the NFL, going beyond product placement to lionization. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine anyone who isn't a football geek (or a rabid fantasy football player) caring much about Draft Day even though, when one looks deeply enough, this is as much about the personalities of the characters as it is about the trades they're involved in.

Kevin Costner, who has been on the comeback trail of late, plays Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. This is his third year on the job and his tenure thus far has been rocky. His dad, a Browns legend, died only a week ago and he's trying to keep his personal feelings at bay while preparing for the draft. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), informs him that she's pregnant. Adding to the pressure is the fact that the team owner, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), wants to make a big splash. The guy Sonny wants to draft, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), may be a difference-maker on defense but he won't sell tickets. Then along comes opportunity. The Seattle Seahawks own the #1 overall pick that would presumably be used to snare can't-miss prospect Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). They're willing to make a trade at the right price. That turns out to be a king's ransom - three consecutive #1 picks - a cost that infuriates Browns' head coach, Vince Penn (Denis Leary). But, under pressure from all sides, Sonny makes the deal… then spends the next 8 hours wondering if he did the right thing and trying to figure out if there's another move he can make.

Costner, who has never been the most emotive of actors, is perfect for this role. His portrayal of Sonny expresses what one might expect from an NFL GM. Professionally, he's driven to win and willing to take risks that might seem insane. Personally, he fumbles the ball with alarming frequency. His relationship with Ali is a perfect example. He obviously loves her but he can't find the words to express his feelings. Jennifer Garner is strong and it's nice to see that the character functions as more than a stereotypical love interest. Other notable actors with supporting performances include Denis Leary as Coach Penn, Ellen Burstyn as Sonny's mother, Frank Langella as the publicity-loving owner, Chadwick Boseman as the star linebacker, and Josh Pence as the can't-miss prospect.

The director is Ivan Reitman who, throughout his career, has become synonymous with comedies. This is the man who was behind the cameras for Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins, and Kindergarten Cop. Reitman hasn't done much in the past decade and now he has emerged with a film so unlike anything he's done before that only the credits verify his association with the project. This isn't a comedy/drama, it's a straight drama. Humorous moments are downplayed. There are some in-jokes, like Sean Combs playing a smarmy agent, but nothing is overt. Still, there's a soft edge to everything that makes one wonder whether the film would have seemed more substantive with a hard-hitting filmmaker in the director's chair. The predictability of the narrative is also disappointing; Draft Day is devoid of true surprises. One can map out what's going to happen based on which supporting characters get screen time.

Without an insider's perspective, it's impossible to say how closely the events depicted in Draft Day replicate what really goes on. The sense of verisimilitude is strong but there's also a feeling that things have been greatly simplified. Nothing on-screen comes close to sullying the NFL's reputation and that calls into question how much influence the league had over what appears in the movie. Fair and balanced is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

The bottom-line question is whether the drama inherent in the narrative overcomes the odious, relentless NFL cheerleading. At times, it's a tough call but, on balance, the story wins out. Sonny is an interesting character and the adroit way he eventually manipulates his situation generates the urge to stand up and cheer. Reitman's take on the business of sports at least encourages us to think twice before calling a GM an idiot. Then again, maybe not… [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: drama, football

Fury (2014) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, on Oct. 18, 2014.

The first thing I noticed was the mud. Even more than the copious blood and violence, it represents the defining visual element of Fury. It's everywhere. Feet are caked with it. Tires and treads churn it under. Roads - if they can be called that - are paved with it. Rarely has a World War II film depicted just how filthy everything was during the 1945 slog across Germany's rural country on the race to Berlin. If writer/director David Ayer is to be credited with nothing else, he gets this right, illustrating that, unlike what's shown in less historically exacting war films, the final push for the Allies was no post-D-Day picnic.

In a way, Fury and 1970's Patton could be considered companion pieces. Both deal extensively with tank warfare but from different perspectives. Patton provides a top-down view of battle - one from the perspective of the strategist gazing from afar and moving pieces around on a chessboard. For the controversial general, engagements were less about Shermans against Tigers than him against Rommel. Fury takes us down to the mud, into the heart of the Purple Heart boxes. This is an intense movie, with taut, expertly depicted tank battles and a believable sense of camaraderie among the characters. It flouts as many war movie clichés as it embraces and, because Ayer doesn't play by all the rules, there are times when it's unpredictable.

In his famous speech to the Third Army, Patton said the following: Some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do. This is one of the themes of Fury; it shows how the experience of war can harden a man, transforming even the most timid clerk into a killing machine.

Fury introduces us the crew of a Sherman M4 tank making its way across Germany in April 1945. Led by their tough-as-nails sergeant, Wardaddy Don Collier (Brad Pitt), they are Bible-thumping Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), pugnacious Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and immigrant Gordo Garcia (Michael Pena). The fifth seat in the tank, tragically vacated, is filled by typist-turned-gunner/driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is as unenthused about being with the four as they are about having him there. During its quiet moments, the movie offers snippets of the sometimes fractious interaction between the tank-mates. There are also five or six engagements (including one in which three Shermans square off against a bigger, more advanced German Tiger) and an interlude in a captured town.

As good at the battle sequences are (and they're very good), Fury's best moments occur during that interlude. In it, Don and Norman find two women hiding in an apartment. They lock the door behind them. At that juncture, it's unclear how things will proceed. Although Don is a heroic type, the film has already shown how war's cold tendrils have changed him. A merciless quality has broken through his personality (illustrated when he shoots a prisoner in the back). There's uncertainty about how this encounter will resolve, and an uncomfortable tension that is could turn ugly. Would Don participate in a rape (or worse)? Without bullets or blood, this fifteen minute segment represents a suspenseful pinnacle for Fury as it peels away layers of the characters to expose things about who they are. Then it's back into the field.

Brad Pitt's Don is a toned-down version of the character he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Don is just as determined and uncompromising but far less gung-ho. He lives by a code of honor with principle #1 being to keep his men alive. Principle #2 follows Patton's directive about killing Nazis. In particular, he has no sympathy for the SS. The only good one is a dead one and it doesn't matter if he has surrendered. Pitt is believable in this role; the actor vanishes into the character. Logan Lerman doesn't have Pitt's screen presence but he fills the role of the clerk-turned-warrior capably. His character has the longest and most extreme arc. Shia LaBeouf, who may or may not have retired from acting after this performance, fulfills the promise that once had Hollywood insiders predicting great things from him. Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal fill out the quintet.

Ayer (the writer of Training Day and the writer/director of End of Watch) does almost everything right in Fury. He captures the grotesque side of war without completely removing the heroic element. This isn't two hours of the Saving Private Ryan Normandy Beach sequence but it has a similar sensibility: the meaning of war to those on the front lines and in the trenches is survival. It's kill or be killed. Looking for something loftier than another day of life is left to the generals, strategists, and politicians. The tank battles are presented with as strong a sense of verisimilitude as there has ever been in a World War II film (with only a limited reliance on special effects). Fury offers sufficient down time to develop the characters but not so much that it causes the pace to become sluggish.

Is this an Oscar contender? It's hard to say considering the Academy's sometimes bizarre choices. This is a memorable motion picture, accurately depicting the horrors of war without reveling in the depravity of man (like Platoon). Equally, it shows instances of humanity without resorting to the rah-rah, sanitized perspective that infiltrated many war films of the 1950s and 1960s. It's as good a World War II film as I've seen in recent years, and contains perhaps the most draining battlefield sequences since Saving Private Ryan. [Berardinelli’s rating: ***½ out of 4]

Labels: action, drama, war, WWII

Million Dollar Arm (2014) [PG] ****

A film review by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY, May 16, 2014.

Jon Hamm knows how to play an opportunist, intent on reinvention. From his rise and fall as Don Draper in Mad Men to his latest role as a sports agent trying to keep in the game, Hamm is convincing as a charismatic schemer.

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm (**½ out of four; rated PG) has believable lead performances and a crowd-pleasing premise, as written by talented screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Visitor). But it comes off somewhat like a Jerry Maguire wannabe, with a touch of Life of Pi.

Better than some inspirational sports movies, due mostly to its humor quotient and exotic Indian locations, this baseball movie is hampered by a predictable storytelling style and not enough curve balls. It should have been more winning, given that director Craig Gillespie also made the charming Lars and the Real Girl.

For starters, Hamm's character, sports agent JB Bernstein, could have used even half the dimension that has made Draper so fascinating. Bernstein is watching his career tank. He needs some big-name clients or his business, and glamorous lifestyle, will become has-beens. A former top agent with a big firm, his persuasive way with corporate types and athletes propelled him to launch his own firm. But his business acumen sometimes pushes his humanity out of the picture.

JB's partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) is a big fan of cricket. JB doesn't get the appeal. Then one night he comes up with a scheme that is more public relations stunt than sports event. The idea is born as he channel surfs and toggles between a cricket match and the TV show Britain's Got Talent.

Why not go to India and stage a nationwide contest to transform cricket bowlers into top-notch baseball pitchers? From there, the big leagues will snatch up the winners — or so JB surmises. As the world of professional athletics becomes increasingly globalized, the Indian contest seems a wise idea. If Ichiro Suzuki could come from Japan to play in the major leagues, then the same could happen to a talented rookie from a small Indian village.

JB signs a deal with a deep-pocketed investor and off he goes to India to find a baseball star tucked away somewhere in the sub-continent.

The musical score, courtesy of Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, helps brings Indian cities like Jaipur and Bangalore to vivid life. Indeed, scenes in India are the lively heart of the film. The soul comes through when the Indian transplants arrive in Los Angeles. Instead of indulging in clichéd fish-out-of-water scenes, the guys fall into a slump, homesick and lonely for their families.

JB is too self-absorbed to notice their malaise. It takes the wisdom of his tenant, Brenda, a tell-it-like-it-is medical student deftly played by Lake Bell, to jolt him into realization. Both delightfully natural actors, Hamm and Bell have an appealing chemistry, which helps mitigate the predictability of the life lessons JB absorbs.

Three Indian actors stand out, though their characters could have used more development. As eager translator Amit, Bollywood comic Pitobash has an irrepressible enthusiasm. The two young men who eventually win the contest, Rinku (Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal) are engaging performers.

When it focuses on the clash of cultures, laughs naturally flow. When it follows the familiar sports movie playbook too slavishly, it grows tedious. But everyone loves an underdog and the story capitalizes on that. Like JB's persona, Million Dollar Arm is flawed, but also slickly presented and likable. [Claudia Puig's rating: ** ½ out of 4]

Labels: baseball, biography, cross-cultural, drama