As the calendar turns the page to 2017 let’s have a look back at the great people I met, wrote about or chatted with in 2016. Warren Beatty gave me his home telephone number, I drank cranberry juice with Denzel Washington, had Elvis’s girlfriend and JFK’s mistress on my radio show and fulfilled childhood dreams by hanging out with Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick. On stages, studios, in hotel rooms, on phones and even in the back of taxis, they spoke and I listened. Here’s some of the best stuff I heard this year:
Casey Affleck on throwing himself into the role of a depressed man in Manchester by the Sea: “It’s what you have to do. You have to go there, show up on set and be prepared to play the scene with the right feelings, the way it is supposed to be. I’m just not good enough to show up in a great mood, say good morning to everybody, check in with the kids and read the paper and then walk into the scene and be believably gutted in the way he is supposed to be. He carries around all this guilt, he’s devastated and filled with self loathing so I have to start way back in preproduction and try to slip into these bad feelings and stay there for as long as I can. If you just showed up and tried to walk through it or do anything but give 100 percent you’d really look like a jackass.”
Warren Beatty talking about casting Lily Collins in Rules Don’t Apply: “I believe very much in what I call ‘the blink,’” says Beatty. “That is the superiority of the unconscious knowledge as compared to conscious knowledge. The knowledge that when we sit and we really give it some thought, the thought we feel it is due. That thought can be misleading when we could have trusted our initial instinct, the blink. I think the unconscious has a lot more intelligence in it than the conscious.
“It was a blink with Lily. I can only say I loved the way she looked. I loved the way she sounded. I loved the way she talked. There was an integrity about her I felt I could believe in this circumstance and at the same time she looked like someone to me who Hollywood would want to exploit.”
Director Uwe Boll on why he’s quitting filmmaking: “I’ve been using my money since 2005 and if I hadn’t made the stupid video game based movies I would never have amalgamated the capital so I could say, ‘Let’s make the Darfur movie.’ I don’t need a Ferrari, I don’t need a yacht. I invested in my own movies and I lost money.”
The Magnificent Seven director Antoine Fuqua on casting Denzel Washington: “I wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse.” AND “My idea was, if Denzel walks into a room, the room stops. If Clint Eastwood walks into a room, the room stops. Is it because he’s a gunslinger or is it because of the colour of his skin? We’ll let the audience decide.”
Rebecca Hall on playing Christine Chubbuck in Christine: “I don’t think I have given [a role] like it before and I probably won’t again because it is one of those jobs that if you are incredibly lucky you get maybe three of them in a career. And that’s only if you are incredibly successful and lucky and often only if you were a man.”
Jonah Hill on how some people respond to his morally ambiguous characters: “A lot of times Wall Street bros will come up to me as if [Wolf of Wall Street] is their Goodfellas or Scarface. People see what they want to see. It is a little scary sometimes when people misinterpret.” And how he reacted after a crew of South African arms dealers approached Hill in a restaurant after seeing a trailer for War Dogs: “You don’t want to make it an overly uncomfortable environment while that is happening,” he says, “but you also don’t want to lie and be dishonest that you are agreeing with them. You don’t want to make them feel bad about their misinterpretation. It’s an unusual an awkward situation to be sure. In the end, we all want to be seen as heroes in our own story, I guess.”
Isabelle Huppert on the unique tone of her film Elle: “Sometimes you are in a Hitchcock thriller. Sometimes you are in a psychological study. Sometimes you are in a comedy and at the end of the day you are in none of those; you are in a Paul Verhoeven film.”
Riley Keough on what she learned while making American Honey: “I learned not to drink too much.”
Spike Lee on casting Jennifer Hudson as the mother of a slain child in Chi-Raq: “Do you know Jennifer Hudson’s history? It is known knowledge that Jennifer’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered in Chicago. I think that’s extra gravitas that you have with Jennifer Hudson in this film. This is not an act for her. She got hit directly by gun violence on the South Side of Chicago. I didn’t want her to think that I was exploiting her. I knew I wanted her for the part but there was some length of time before I got the courage to approach her. Also, when we did meet I was babbling. She said, ‘Spike, I know why you want me to do this film, so just stop. I’ll do it.’ I was trying to be sensitive and I turned out to just beat around the bush. I said, ‘I’ll just shut up and say thank you.’”
Stan Lee on naming his characters using alliteration —think Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdoch and Reed Richards: “It’s because I have a bad memory. If I could remember one of the names like Spider-Man, if I could remember his first name was Peter then I knew his second name began with a P. That is really the only reason. I have a terrible memory for names and by making the first and second letter the same, if I thought of one name I had a clue as to what the other was.”
T.J. Miller, star of Office Christmas Party: “Let’s talk comedy in a time of tragedy. I have a political obstacle to my social mission statement,” he says. “The social statement was, tragedy permeates our everyday lives, people are lonely, they’re scared, they have death anxiety, they don’t know how to attribute meaning to their own existence, so through comedy we can provide an opiate or distraction that permeates our everyday lives. Through satire we can hopefully frame the world in a way that people can laugh at. Also I aim to help people, through my stand up, to release the death anxiety. I aim to help people not take themselves so seriously.”
Queen of Katwe star David Oyelowo on working with nonactors on the film: “I actually took a bunch of the kids to see Jurassic World while we were doing the film and Madina (Nalwanga), who plays Phiona, sat next to me and was clutching me the whole time, terrified by the movie. She turned to me and said, ‘Is this what we are doing?’ I asked her if she had ever seen a film before and she said no. We were halfway through shooting a film in which she is playing the lead.”
Snowden co-star Zachary Quinto on how says working on Snowden made him think differently about even simple Internet searches: “I had this experience the other night. I was shopping for a washer and dryer online. I was Googling the consumer ratings. I left that search and went to another website and immediately the pop up ads on this other website, which had nothing to do with consumer reports or shopping, were about washers and dryers. What we are willing to sacrifice in our privacy without even thinking about it for convenience sake, what we’re willing to give up in our own freedoms and interests just in sitting down at our computers is shocking. You can take precautions. You can take steps to enact two-step verifications and put tape over your laptop (camera) and strengthen your passwords but all you need to do is shop for appliances and you are exposing yourself to some kind of tracking, a collection of data.”
Arrival director Denis Villeneuve on filmmaking: “It is a privilege when you can take a camera and ask people to sit for two hours in a theatre,” says Villeneuve. “It is nice if you take that privilege to explore something out of our reality, to bring some poetry to it.”
Moon Zappa on how she grew up with a rock star dad: “I longed for structure. When I saw John Hughes films I was, ‘Wait! People sit at a dinner table? Wait! People say sorry?’ Even to this day when I see somebody with a sweater draped over their shoulders, or a loafer or an exposed ankle, I’m like, ‘That is so exotic.’ I think if I had grown up in the repression my father encountered I would also have put two rocket boosters on my back, but growing up like that was too much. It was like fastball pitches every single minute.”
Most of these interviews went well and were a pleasure to do… but not all. Below is the terrible tale of a day wasted waiting for Idris Elba’s phone call.
Can You Hear Me Now? Can You Hear Me Now? Waiting For Idris Elba.
Idris Elba is a busy man. He’s released seven movies this year and has several more on tap for 2017. He’s on track to join Dwayne Johnson, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the world’s highest earning actors after turns in the mega-grossing The Jungle Book, Finding Dory and Zootopia.
If you don’t know the name you haven’t been paying attention. Rev up Netflix and check out his work on TV shows like The Wire or Luther and movies like RocknRolla or Beasts of No Nation and become a fan. You should know he was once voted one of People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People in the World and more than one twitter friend of mine refers to him as a “pretend boyfriend.”
Not only busy but good looking as well! I was pleased to be granted a fifteen-minute phone interview to discuss his debut in the Star Trek franchise as Krall, a hostile alien who causes trouble for Kirk, Spock and company in Star Trek Beyond.
I don’t usually write questions but I thought I might ask him if he watched Star Trek as a child. Would he consider himself a Trekker? Did he have a favourite Star Trek character growing up? Did he wonder what Star Trek fans would think of the predatory new character? Are there parallels between the film—and his character—and our world today? Has he considered what being part of the legacy of the show means?
If there was time at the end I might even follow up on the rumours and ask if he even wants to play James Bond.
Then the first call came in. “Idris is running behind.” Cool. This happens all the time on press days. Then another call and another and another. My phone hasn’t gotten this kind of workout since a Nigerian Prince called over and over to solicit my assistance in moving his fortune to North America. Each time a publicist announced another delay with the assurance the interview would still happen. As the time wore on the actual length of my interview began to tumble downhill from fifteen minutes down to seven.
In all two hours passed from my scheduled start time until my phone rang for real.
“Hi Richard, I’ll connect you with Idris,” said the perky voice on the other end of the line.
A minute passed before Elba’s familiar husky London accent filled my ear. Hallelujah! Better late than never. We talk over one another. “Hello… HELLO… Can you hear me?” It’s a bad cell phone connection. It sounds as if we’re talking through two tin cans connected by strings but I’ll take it.
I ask him about his childhood memories of Star Trek.
“It was a show me, my mum and my dad watched together,” he says. “They both liked it. It was a show that really took your imagination places. That’s my early memory of it. It was a really imaginative show that showed space travel in a way that was different, you know?”
It took him 23 seconds to speak the 50 words that told me his parents liked Star Trek. I mention this because as soon as he stopped talking and I started asking the next question I heard a strange beep beep sound followed by… nothing. The great void. No more husky voice. And like that, poof. He’s gone.
“Are you still there? I think we just lost him,” the eavesdropping publicist said. “Let me get him back for you. Just one second.”
I had visions of the actor walking around Fifth Avenue desperately yelling into his phone, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” but in my heart I knew that wasn’t happening.
Minutes later she’s back. “I’m so sorry. We lost him. I know you only had a couple of minutes to speak with him…” actually it was twenty three seconds… “Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with him.”
My interview with Idris was over. Still born. Terminated before it even really began.
Was I mad? Not really. Frustrated? Yes. Not only had I wasted the afternoon waiting for Idris but now I didn’t have a story to file.
My friends on social media didn’t exactly see it my way. “What do you expect?” wrote one person. “He is the hottest man alive.” Another chose to look on the bright side. “That’s 45 seconds more Idris than the rest of us.” (I hadn’t yet timed the actual quote when hit facebook to vent.)
In the end it’s not a big deal. I’m choosing to look at the bright side. I didn’t get to chat with him but I do have a contender for the Guinness Book of World Records for Shortest (And Least Satisfying) Interview Ever.
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With the good also comes the bad. From Superman as a dangerous alien to Emily Blunt riding a polar bear and the morphing of the word “faces” into “feces” over and over, 2016 offered up a bumper crop of movies that were well past their expiration date long before they hit theatres.
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice: In 1984 raspy-throated singer Bonnie Tyler warbled, “I’m holding out for a hero.” At the time I didn’t get the song’s sexy undertones but was reminded of the tune as I watched “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thirty odd years later it’s quite clear what kind of hero Bonnie Tyler was looking for—“It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet!”— but it’s less certain what kind of hero the city of Metropolis wants or needs.
These are jittery times and “Batman v Superman” is a jittery movie. Luthor’s xenophobic notion that Superman is a dangerous alien, an “other” who we don’t quite understand, is ripped right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. “People hate what they don’t understand,” says Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Mix that with depictions of the death and destruction on city streets and all-too-familiar shots of buildings with smoke oozing out of them and you’re left with a movie that as feels timely and ripped-from-the-headlines as a movie about tights-wearing superheroes can be.
Other than that it is essentially a long trailer for the next DC superhero ensemble movie tagged on to a WrestleMania style smack down. Director Zack Snyder does have a flair for staging darkly dramatic scenes—Superman surrounded by Mexican Day of the Dead revellers is a stunner and the image of Supes casually kicking the indestructible Batmobile out of frame with a flick of his foot is very cool—but while he is entertaining your eye he does little to engage your brain. There is tons of psuedo-intellectual talk about gods and monsters but it’s all surface, chatter meant to make the film seem smarter than it actually is. Very little of what happens feels motivated by the characters. It mainly feels as though someone came up with a grabby title and crafted a set of circumstances to justify the name. Characters talk and interact with one another but it feels in service of the title, as if they are all simply brand ambassadors, rather than living breathing people.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is bombastic. The experience of watching it is like having a drunk at a bar tell you the story after five beers. It’s loud and in-your-face with the occasional maudlin moment.
There was a time when superhero movies were fun, escapist entertainment. Those days seem to have passed. There are a total of two laughs in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” although there are several other unintentionally laughable moments. Now our caped and cowled heroes are as dark and troubled as a reject from a Kafka novel which, in this case, makes for a rather loud but dreary night at the movies.
Ben Hur: “Are we having fun now, brother?” Messala (Toby Kebbell) hoots midway through “Ben-Hur,” the fourth big screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” It’s a good question. If your tastes run toward “300” with a hint of “Clash of the Titans” or biblical stories laden with action, then the new Timur Bekmambetov directed epic may be just what the gladiator ordered.
A reimagination of Wallace’s book rather than a remake of the classic Charlton Heston film the story sees “Boardwalk Empire’s” Jack Huston in the title role.
The new “Ben-Hur” may be all about forgiveness, but it’s hard to forgive some of Bekmambetov’s filmmaking choices. The frenetic editing is meant to convey a sense of urgency but instead of creating drama the fast cuts only emphasize what an empty exercise this is. The most famous version of the story, 1959’s epic, may be a bit of a slog these days at over three hours, but at least that version allowed us time to get to know and understand the character’s motivations. The latest retelling ignores niceties like allowing the story to unfold gradually, creating creative tension and the old chestnut, showing not telling, opting instead to bombard the screen with random 3-D images that, when strung together, form some semblance of a story.
But what should we expect from the filmmaker behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”? He handles the action sequences with a sure hand, imagining the shipwreck from the claustrophobic ship’s lower deck. It’s wet and wild and over-the-top, but at least it isn’t boring. Ditto the classic climatic chariot race. You can’t tell Ben-Hur’s story without it, and Bekmambetov throws his camera in the middle of the action. It’s a festival of CGI and action movie tropes that lacks the classic sensibility of some earlier versions, but has one or two shots that are exciting and different. It’s just too bad we don’t know more about the charioteers other than Ben and Messala. We know they’re probably not going to survive, but the stakes might have been higher if we at least knew who they were.
In this new translation of the tale Judah Ben-Hur learns to leave behind his human desires and think in divine terms. It’s a good message but there is nothing divine about it’s telling.
Dirty Grandpa: I figure the new Robert De Niro comedy is called, simply and inelegantly, “Dirty Grandpa” because “Filthy-Foul-Mouthed-Misogynist-Sex-Crazed-Pervert-Filthy-Rotten-Old-Coot-Grandpa” was too ungainly for the marquee.
“Dirty Grandpa” is credited to one writer but feels like it was penned by a group of drunken frat boys on the beer and bourbon binge. What, I guess, is supposed to be a funny look at aging and making the most of the time we all have, is reduced to a spectacle of a once revered thespian calling his lawyer grandson “Alan Douceowitz.” If this were a drinking game where you took a shot every time De Niro says “vagina” (and all of that word’s derivations) or any number of other words I can’t print here you’d have alcohol poisoning half an hour in. It mistakes politically incorrect “did he really just say that” jokes for actual humour.
Then there is the presence of the great man himself. I can forgive Zac Efron’s participation in “Dirty Grandpa,” he’s young and the idea of starring with De Niro (who he imitated rather perfectly in “Neighbors”) must have been irresistible but what is the star of “Taxi Driver” doing here? At one point Jason yells, “What the ‘bleep’ is wrong with you?” at him repeatedly. It’s a legit question. Perhaps it’s time for a career intervention. For the good of all of cinema let’s get David O. Russell to talk to De Niro before he accepts “Dirty Grandpa Pt. 2.”
“Dirty Grandpa” is the kind of film that, one day, De Niro’s great-grandchildren will watch and wonder what all the fuss about him was.
The Huntsman: Winter War: Once upon a time there was a movie called “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Starring Hollywood princesses Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, it was a dark reimagining of the classic story that played like the love child of the Brothers Grimm and “The Hobbit” with two compelling characters, warrior Snow White and the villainous Ravenna.
Another film was inevitable, but how do you make a sequel when KStew busy making art films and Ravenna didn’t make it to the end credits? Easy, you rehire Theron, play mix and match “Frozen” and “Game of Thrones” and hope for the best.
I’m not sure what to call “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.“ It’s not a sequel or a prequel and yet it is both. Officially I suppose we’re supposed to call it a “sprequel”; I call it bloated, confusing and worst of all, dull. You would think that any movie featuring Emily Blunt riding a polar bear would be great fun but you’d be wrong. From the half hour of narration that opens the story to the cavalcade of CGI and bad accents—Hemsworth and Chastain easily beat Kevin Costner for worst-ever cinematic British Isles burrs—to sloppy storytelling, this is a grim, not Brothers Grimm tale.
Bad accent aside Hemsworth brings some swagger to the role of Eric, Chastain tries to keep a straight face and sidekicks Frost, Brydon, Smith and Roach create a badly needed sense of fun to the proceedings. Blunt isn’t given much to do, aside from her rather stunning entrance in the polar bear but Theron actually disappoints. In the first film she’s a hoot, a bundle of bad intentions gathered up in one pretty package. Here she’s not the same figure of malicious amusement but oddly disconnected and not nearly as much fun.
Over long “The Huntsman: Winter’s War“ drones on for almost two hours until the narrator (Liam Neeson) reappears. As his dulcet tones close the movie with something to the effect of the story may be over “but fairy talks never end,” it doesn’t seem so much like an ending as it does a threat that they might make a sequel to this mess.
Independence Day: Resurgence: “That is definitely bigger than the last one,” says David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).
He’s talking about the alien spaceship that puts our planet in peril in “Independence Day: Resurgence,” the twenty-years-in-the-making sequel to Will Smith’s 90s mega-hit, but he could also be talking about the movie itself. It’s certainly bigger and louder than the original, but is it better?
In the two decades since the first invasion the world has become a better place. “Our survival is only possible when we stand together,” says President Lanford (Sela Ward). The White House has been rebuilt, a woman is President and countries now work together. There’s a military installation on the moon and using the ET technology salvaged from the downed spaceships they have safe guarded the planet from another attack.
Or so almost everyone thought.
At their best big special effects movies like this should fill the viewer with wonder. Large-scale spectacle, like the world on the verge of collapse, should fill us with shock and awe but in “Independence Day: Resurgence” we have to settle for an unsettling sense of déjà vu. It’s a movie that exists as an excuse to showcase the special effects in a cynical attempt to recycle an idea that worked well enough the first time. Not only have we seen virtually everything here in the original film, we’ve seen similar images in every end-of-the-world movie from the last twenty years. Here they are bigger and louder, but not better.
Ditto the dialogue. It feels like a first draft to the original movie, updated for a new cast. Goldblum is always a welcome presence but he’s saddled with terrible, trite words and he gets most of the good lines. It’s the kind of movie were people ask questions instead of saying anything interesting. “How the hell did we miss this?” “What’s going on?” Or the classic, “What the…??!!,” delivered with mouth agape. It’s less a script than a series of catchphrases and questions cobbled together and sounds like it was all run through the Blandizer® before being handed over to the actors.
It’s the kind of movie where you root for the aliens, hoping they make quick work of humanity because that would be less painful than sitting through one more minute of this mess. You don’t watch “Independence Day: Resurgence,” you subject yourself to it because even though it could be the end of humanity there’s no real humanity here, just empty heroics.
I really hated “Independence Day: Resurgence.” It’s a popcorn flick but this popcorn stale. “Independence Day”? More like “Groundhog Day.” We’ve seen it before and better.
Mother’s Day: “Mother’s Day,” a look at mother’s and daughters featuring a Holiday Parade Womb Float bundle stars of dubious box office power in a big, glittery package with all the joy and emotional resonance of a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial.
“Mother’s Day” is filled to over flowing with faux heart warming moments, like a Lifetime movie on steroids. It hits all the emotional hot buttons—a dead wife who also happens to be a veteran, abandonment, first love, an awkward dad, kids growing up too fast—and tops off the whole thing with two, count ‘em two, dewy-eyed American sweethearts, Roberts and Aniston. To avoid troubling the audience with actual human emotions Marshall runs the whole thing through The Sitcomizer™ to ensure maximum blandness and erase the possibility that viewers will see something they haven’t already witnessed a hundred times before.
None of that would matter much if the movie was funny but real laughs are scarcer than last minute Mother’s Day brunch reservations. A likeable cast is wasted on a movie that panders to greeting card sentiment and slapstick.
The best part of “Mother’s Day” is that it puts Marshall one closer to running out of holidays to cinematically celebrate. What’s next? Hug Your Cat Day starring Courteney Cox and Luke Perry?
My Big Fat Wedding 2: It’s hard not to sound cynical and grumpy when reviewing a movie like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” It is a fourteen-years-in-the-making sequel to one of the biggest grossing romantic comedies of all time, and while it has much of the warmth as the original, it feels warmed over.
Nia Vardalos leads the reunited cast in a story that’s all about mothers and daughters, grandparents and kids, nieces and nephews, brothers, one overbearing aunt and a long lost brother. In other words, it’s all about family.
It’s a catch-all for every crowd-pleasing clichés about big families. Let’s teach an old guy how to use a computer! Kids leaving home! Wait, there’s an inappropriate aunt! Battle of the sexes! No stereotype goes unturned in a screenplay (once again penned by Vardalos) that feels as bloated as an overstuffed Yemista.
Under all the clutter, however, are the characters. Vardalos doesn’t blaze any new ground here but she does stay true to the characters that made the first film such a hit. Gus is still a sitcom stereotype who thinks the Greeks invented everything, but Constantine brings him to life despite the weight of the clichés. Ditto Andrea Martin as the randy Aunt Voula and Kazan as the boisterous Maria. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is a cartoon, an ethnic exaggeration, but the ensemble embraces it.
There’s not an ounce of cynicism here, and I think audiences might respond to the sweet open heartedness of Vardalos and company, but there isn’t a lot of originality here either.
Norm of the North: There will be a time in the near future when “Inside Out” and “Norm of the North” will be listed on your Netflix queue as animated films, but make no mistake they don’t belong in the same category. Where “Inside Out” is a happy serving of eye candy topped with a transcendent story, “Norm” seems to exist not as a story but simply as a vessel for cute characters.
“Norm of the North” is as entertaining as you’d think a children’s cartoon starring Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo will be. It’s cut rate Saturday morning cartoon level animation—some scenes don’t even look fully rendered—that relies on kid-friendly characters rather than story or jokes. In other words, if “Inside Out” is the Ferrari of kids animation, sleek and well-made, “Norm of the North” is the Edsel.
It assumes children don’t need entertainment that works on any other level than, ”Where can I buy a cute stuffed Norm doll?” Despite its family friendly messages about friends, family and loyalty, the movie doesn’t try and disguise its cynical heart. At the spokesbear audition Vera gushes over Norm, “He’s cute and marketable, it’s perfect.” You can only imagine a similar conversation in the design phase for this movie. Also, is Norm’s description of Mr. Greene as “a creepy one note villain” dialogue from the script or a passage from the stage directions that accidentally made it into the film? It’s hard to know.
“Norm of the North” has little to recommend it. Padded with dance numbers—two in the first fifteen minutes alone—and montages, the best that can be said is that bad movies like this are important to remind us that the Pixar movies aren’t flukes.
Suicide Squad: Tired of good guys? The Captain Americas, ‘yer Iron Men or Wondrous Women? If their virtuous acts and heroic posing are wearing thin or not to your liking, along comes a crew of anti-heroes willing to bend the rules to protect the planet. “We’re the bad guys,” says Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), “it’s what we do.”
Based on the DC Comic of the same name, the Suicide Squad a.k.a. Task Force X, is a ragtag team of death row villains sprung from jail by a secret government agency run by ruthless bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). “In a world of flying men and monsters,” she says, “this is the only way to protect our country.”
When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of the team in battle against “non-human entities” the C.G.I. kicks into high gear, covering every inch of the screen, and “Suicide Squad” becomes considerably less interesting. Set to a classic rock soundtrack the large-scale action scenes are muddled, dark and rather generic, especially given the special skills of each of the combatants.
About the Squad. For a group of psychopaths they sure seem to be OK people. The worst thing they do—minus the wholesale carnage the government allows them to create—is go temporarily AWOL for a drink in between battles. Over cocktails they discuss life, love and motivations. There are rom coms with more edge.
On the plus side “Suicide Squad” doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as “Batman v Superman.” On the downside director David Ayer took a premise that gave him permission to go as far overboard as he wanted and yet the movie feels familiar, like it is trying to echo the very movies it should be an antidote to.
Zoolander 2: “Zoolander 2,” the fifteen years in the making follow-up to the 2001 comedy hit, finds former “Blue Steel” supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) “out of fashion,” literally and figuratively. Following a tragic event involving his wife and his Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good, Derek stepped away from fashion and the world. He now lives the life of a “hermit crab,” complete with a long beard that obscures his “really, really, really, really, really ridiculously good looking face.”
“Zoolander 2’s” main joke isn’t the Blue Steel, the pouty-lipped move that made Zoolander a superstar, or the dim-witted antics of Derek and Hansel. No, the movie’s best joke is its commentary on how quickly the best-by date comes for modern day celebrities. The speed of popular culture has revved considerably since 2001 and what seems hip today may be passé tomorrow. Fashion is fleeting, as cameos from Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs demonstrate, but the big question is has “Zoolander 2” reached its expiration date?
I usually avoid the scatological in my reviews but suffice to say any movie whose best joke involves the morphing of the word “faces” into feces over and over, that features a hotel made of “reclaimed human waste” and subtitles itself with “No. 2” is really asking for it.
To put it more delicately, villain Mugato marvels at how “super white hot blazingly stupid” Derek is, and you’ll do the same thing about the film. Stupid can be OK if it’s funny but “Zoolander 2” leaves the laughs on the runway.
Special Mention: Knight of Cups: Sometimes it can be hard to be a Terrence Malick fan. At their best the director’s poetic films are soulful investigations of the human spirit. His greatest movies—“Tree of Life,” “Badlands”—are masterworks of spiritual introspection but his worst work crosses the lane into pretention in a way that makes Kanye West’s Twitter account look humble. It can be a struggle to actually enjoy some of his work, but never have I battled with a Malick movie the way I did with “Knight of Cups.” Fought to stay in my seat until the end. It’s a cure for insomnia not unlike watching expensive, glossy paint dry.
Broken into chapters with titles like Judgment, Death and The Hanged Man, the film stars Christian Bale as Rick, a successful but desperately unhappy Hollywood screenwriter. Like an extended episode of “Seinfeld” were nothing happens, Rick wanders around the screen accompanied by a series of beautiful women—Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer and Freida Pinto—but ultimately cannot find joy with any of them. He strolls through life with a sad sack expression on his face that makes Sad Keanu seem jubilant, moving from woman to woman, rueing, “All of those years living a life of someone I did not know.”
Apparently inspired by the 1678 Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the passage “Hymn of the Pearl” from “The Acts of Thomas,” “Knight of Cups,” is, I suppose supposed to be a dreamy look into one man’s life, but is this a sense memory visualized for the big screen or is it just the self-indulgent ramblings of an auteur? As Helen (Pinto) tells Rick, “Dreams are nice but you can’t live in them.”
Part of the problem is Malick’s storytelling, or more rightly, lack thereof. The film follows Malick’s trademarked impressionistic style but seems to have been assembled by a Random Shot Generator. Indiscriminate images of Los Angeles flood the screen—wild parties, an Antonio Banderas cameo, earthquakes, palm trees, movie studio back lots—accompanied by mumbled dialogue and Bale’s grim face.
It’s hard to feel compassion or anything else for Rick as he stumbles through relationship after relationship because we are never given any clue as to who he is. He’s a cipher, the walking conundrum with an attitude. If I wanted to spend two hours watching someone having a mid-life crisis I’d look in the mirror rather than spend another minute concerning myself with Rick’s troubles.
I gave “Knight of Cups” one out of five stars because there is something there. I’m just not sure what it is and I’m not sure Malick does either. Tedium, thy name is “Knight of Cups.”
Any year that gives us the day-to-day quest for beauty of “Paterson,” the wild eroticism of “The Handmaiden” and everything in between can’t be all bad. Sure, there were some stinkers and celebrity mortality galore, but when I think back on 2016 I’ll remember Lee and Randi unexpectedly meeting on the street, Ryan and Emma’s Mulholland Drive extravaganza, Lord Voldemort getting down to disco era Rolling Stones and the undeniable belief that every page is a possibility.
A Bigger Splash: In 1969 the Alain Delon potboiler “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”) had a look at beautiful people and sexual jealousy set against the backdrop of the Côte d’Azur. Forty-five years later director Luca Guadagnino makes the story his own, transplanting the characters to a remote island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, replacing jealousy with desire and setting the whole thing to the slinky beat of The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” “A Bigger Splash” keeps the swimming pool but reinvents the rest of the story.
Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are living a quiet life on the coast of Italy. Very quiet. She is recuperating from surgery and can’t speak. Their tranquil time, however, is shattered by the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Lane’s former record producer and lover, and his Lolita-esque daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). He’s an impulsive first-one-in-the-pool, free spirit who invites strangers over to hang out (“You’re not speaking sweetheart so I had to make other plans!” he says.), she’s a flirty presence who says things like, “My trouble is, I fall in love with every pretty thing.” A day or so into the visit the sunny Mediterranean days take a dark turn as their shared history brings up some ghosts from the past.
“A Bigger Splash” is worth the price of admission just to see Ralph Fiennes, Lord Voldemort himself, strutting his stuff to disco era Rolling Stones. He unleashes some of the goofiest dance moves since Elaine Benes in what must be his loosest performance ever.
Come for the dancing, stay for the bawdy and boisterous atmosphere. The idyllic, sun dappled backdrop plays at odds with the noirish story as Guadagnino brushes his canvas with sexual tension, slowly adding layers to the story as he builds up to a startling climax. It’s a romp, with worldly people, loads of nudity, drugs and drinking, until it isn’t and the time comes to pay the price of living a wild life without regrets. As the characters manipulate one another Guadagnino manipulates the audience with flamboyant filmmaking, unexpected jump cuts and zooms, which demand your attention.
“A Bigger Splash” could have swum in the shallow end of the pool, but subtly and interestingly goes off the deep end.
Deadpool: Don’t expect the usual kid-friendly superhero fare from “Deadpool.” He’s part of the Marvel family, a distant cousin to Iron Man, The Hulk and Captain America, but he’s a superantihero, a weaponized bad attitude come-to-life with a chip on his shoulder and a raunchy quip on his lips.
“Deadpool” is unlike any other origin story. It’s a snarky, violent, fourth-wall-breaking collision between “Van Wilder” and Marvel Comics. The opening credits–which scream the movie stars God’s Perfect Idiot, A Hot Girl, A British Villain, A CGI Character and features a Gratuitous Cameo–set the tone. This isn’t your grandfather’s superhero movie. With one bloody shot across the bow “Deadpool” makes the other Marvel movies look a little less Marvel-ous. No joke is too crass. No lines are left uncrossed. Where the last couple of Marvel superhero films have felt like odes to market research, “Deadpool” feels like an antidote to the repetition of recent superhero offerings. Politically incorrect and rowdy, it’s a down-and-dirty movie that has more in common with “The Toxic Avenger” than “Iron Man.”
This may be the role Reynolds has been waiting for. It mixes-and-matches his skill at dropping a one liner with his physical side and finally gives his bland leading man mien some edge. Self-effacing, he pokes fun at his other attempts at superhero notoriety. “Please don’t make this super suit green or animated,” says the former Green Lantern and suddenly we forgive his past transgressions.
“Deadpool” won’t be for everyone. It’s occasionally a little too rude and crude, bloody and bowed for it’s own good but at least it tries to do something a little different in the well-worn context of the superhero genre. It exists in a meta universe where Deadpool is aware he’s in a movie–“Whose BLEEP did I have to BLEEP to get my own movie?” he asks.–while another character suggests the name Deadpool “sounds like a franchise.” I hope so. Like them or not, superhero movies aren’t going anywhere soon but at least every now and again there may be a new “Deadpool” film to shake things up a bit.
Everybody Wants Some: Director Richard Linklater’s last film, the Oscar wining “Boyhood,” was a slice of life that showcased twelve years in the life of a growing boy. His new movie is also a slice of life but in a much-condensed form, spanning just three days in the life of a college baseball player.
Largely conflict free, this isn’t a story so much as it is a snapshot of a time and place. It’s a transport back to the time of waterbeds, “My Sharona,” fashionable mullets and trippy Carl Sagan cosmology. Linklater recreates the freewheeling feel of the era and the last blast of childhood before the responsibilities of adulthood. The temptation will be to label this a more innocent time, but that isn’t exactly accurate. These guys are just as interested in scoring with girls as they are soring runs on the field so innocent they are not. At most this is an affectionately nostalgic glimpse back into our recent past.
“Everybody Wants Some!!” is a charming reminiscence. Linklater gets the details right—including a crude warning against the pleasures of waterbed sex—but more importantly populates the film with characters that feel like real people and not stereotypes conjured up by a 1980s way-back machine. It’s troubling that the female characters are given little to do—perhaps Linklater’s next could be from the point of view of the woman’s experience—but the men are entertaining and compelling sorts whose conversations are occasionally inane, occasionally philosophical, just like real life.
The Handmaiden: Set in 1930s Korea, “The Handmaiden” is an epic story of madness, con games, double crosses, double-double crosses, kinky sex, desire and more. Director Chan-wook Park adapts Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” wringing every ounce of lascivious pleasure from its sprawling story of sex and intrigue.
Chan-wook Park’s films have never shied away from lurid, sensational imagery, and “The Handmaiden” is no different. Unapologetically erotic and convoluted, the film revels in its ridiculousness, luxuriating in every plot twist and turn. Told from multiple points of view with an ever-changing character dynamic, it demands your attention.
What begins as a con game ends as a (SPOILER ALERT) a triumph of undervalued women who use the manipulation of the men in their lives as a weapon. It’s a complicated revenge story, ripe with detail and secrets. As vaguely trashy art house cinema goes, however, it doesn’t get much more enjoyably escapist than “The Handmaiden.”
Hell or High Water: The real stars of the new neo-western “Hell or High Water” aren’t the top line cast, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges. All are terrific, but the main attractions are the Fast Cash and Debt Relief signs that dot the West Texas landscape. They’re the reason we’re here and the engine that propels this story of outlaws, buddies and banks.
Echoes of the Coen brothers ricochet throughout “Hell or High Water.” Aside from Coen regular Bridges, the movie exists in an amoral universe populated by down-on-their-heels types, done in either by poor life decisions, circumstance, age or temperament. English director David Mackenzie places these characters amid sun bleached landscapes and the hardened faces of citizens asserting their Second Amendment rights. It feels like the Coen Brothers but only because Joel and Ethan has visited this nihilistic comedy territory several times before. Mackenzie hasn’t simply made “No Country For Old Men Lite,” he’s combined interesting characters with a languid pace that apes the speed of life in West Texas to create a potent portrait of a time and place.
Set against the backdrop of West Texas’s perpetual economic downturn and those ever-present Fast cash signs, it’s a story not just about the four men but the circumstance that pitted them against one another.
“Hell or High Water” is two buddy movies in one. As one of the brothers Foster is reliable in his familiar man-on-the-edge role, but it is Pine who impresses. He underplays Toby, never doing more than he has to and avoiding the theatrics of his “Star Trek” films. It’s a career best performance that shows there is more to him than larger-than-life franchise work.
As the heavy-breathing lion in winter Bridges brings both gravitas and a light touch. His skill as a Ranger is evident but so is his offbeat sensibility. “Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house,” he says when meeting a recently robbed bank manager. It’s a throwaway line but Bridges brings it to life in a way that made me wonder if there is a more comfortable presence on screen than Bridges? He is matched in ease and charm by Birmingham who is a perfect foil for Bridges.
With its unhurried, deliberate pace Nick Cave’s suitably moody score and Mackenzie’s eye for detail “Hell or High Water” is more than a stop-gap between Coen Brothers neo westerns, it’s one of the most richly satisfying movies of the year so far.
La La Land: “La La Land” reinvents the traditional big screen musical by playing it straight. The original songs and new story feel like something Gene Kelly would approve of but not quite recognize as the form he helped perfect in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The real and the unreal collide in a film that values naturalism in an unnatural genre. Mia and Sebastian burst into song, dance on city streets but do so in the most unaffected of ways. It looks and feels like an old-school musical—the camera dances around the actors and it’s always magic hour—but Stone and Gosling are very contemporary in their approach to the material. Woven into the romantic, joyful script are real comments on the setting—“That’s LA, they worship everything,” says Sebastian, “but value nothing.”—a sense of the pleasure and pain that accompany passion, whether its for a person or a career and melancholy when things don’t quite work out. It’s a movie that dances to it’s own beat. By times bright and garish or atmospheric and moody, it’s never less than entertaining.
Gosling is a charming leading man and equal match for Stone whose remarkable face and expressive performance give the movie much of its heart. Director Damien Chazelle is clearly smitten with his leading lady, allowing his camera to caress her face in long, uninterrupted close-ups.
From a trickily edited opening song-and-dance number in a traffic jam to a spectacular dance among the stars to heartfelt human feelings, “La La Land” doesn’t just breathe new life into an old genre it performs CPR on it, bringing its beating heart back to vibrant life.
Loving: Imagine falling in love with someone, getting married and having a baby or two. For many people that is the dream but for interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving it was a nightmare of racism and injustice.
“Loving” is an important slice of American history told in a quiet, heartfelt way. Director Jeff Nicholls doesn’t clog up the story with dialogue. Instead he follows the first rule of filmmaking, show me, don’t tell me. For instance, when Mildred and Richard leave Virginia for the less-than-bucolic DC, the looks on the actor’s faces tell the tale, no words required. He allows the performances to underscore the potency of the story. Watch the way Mildred and Richard respond to one another physically after the arrests. Their tentative public displays of affection shows the fear that comes along with being told your relationship is illegal and wrong. It’s subtle, beautiful acting.
“Loving” is a understated movie. Some have suggested it may have benefitted from a bit more anger, but that, for me, would feel like a betrayal to the characters who fight the good fight with dignity and love.
The movie is simultaneously a powerful look at a different time and, when it asks, “What is the danger to the state of Virginia from interracial marriage?” a timely and universal reminder that Loving v. Virginia was just one of many steps humanity has to take before everyone is afforded fundamental rights.
Manchester by the Sea: “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the year’s best films. If you want to know why, read on. If not, go buy a ticket now. You won’t be disappointed.
“Manchester by the Sea” is many things. As a finely acted look at grief and the aftermath of heartbreak, it has few peers among this year’s crop of films. But it’s also very a funny odd couple/buddy flick that isn’t afraid to flip flop between drama and comedy. This is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s tempest in a teapot, a smallish film that roils with big emotional moments.
Casey Affleck is the core of the film. He’s in virtually every frame and while understated he bristles with feeling. It is a tremendous performance that never fails into morbidity as he skilfully keeps he character alive, both physically and metaphysically. Every day is a struggle for Lee and he deals with his trauma the only way he knows how, with blistering honesty and by drinking and fighting to feel something. There is emotional truth in every mumbled line and come Oscar season expect to hear a lot about this performance.
Affleck shares several scenes with Michelle Williams, but one in particular stands out. For most of the film we only see her in flashbacks, when she was married to Lee. Cut to present day and a chance encounter on the street. In a master class of acting the two rehash and come to grips with the trauma that tore them apart. It heartbreak laid bare and it is a stunning scene.
I fear I’ve made “Manchester by the Sea” by the sea sound like an exercise in Sturm und Drang but it’s not. It deals with very real, very difficult human situations but does so with honesty and a great deal of unexpected humour and wisdom.
Moonlight: “Moonlight” is a film about a young man trying to find a place for himself in the world. “At some point you got to decide who you going to be,” says an early mentor. “Can’t let anybody make that decision for you.” Director Barry Jenkins splits the story into thirds, each examining a different time in the life of Chiron, a young, gay African-American man, as he comes to grips with who he is.
“Moonlight” is a movie that beats with a very human heart while subverting expectations with almost every scene. Jenkins has placed obstacles in the way of the story telling—multiple actors playing the same characters, and a lead who is succinct almost to the point of being mute—but overcomes those hurdles with a combination of social conscience, fine acting and interesting characters who constantly defy pigeonholing.
Mahershala Ali, an actor best known as Remy Danton on “House of Cards,” is a standout as a drug dealer who allows the personal cost of his business to weigh on him. He’s a tough guy with a heart and his performance in Part I sets a high bar which is met by Harris and all three of the young men who play Chiron.
Each deliver performances characterized by deep inner work that reveals the truth behind the façade Chiron uses as a front. There’s a remarkable consistency in the trio of performances, so by the end of the film, when Chiron is asked, “Who is you man?” his answer, “I’m me. I don’t try to be nothing else,” rings true and real.
Paterson: The Jim Jarmusch movie is a week in the life of Paterson, the man and the place.
Adam Driver is Paterson, a poetry writing New Jersey bus driver from Paterson, New Jersey. He lives with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a dreamer who wants to open a cupcake shop and make them rich or, maybe, become a country singer and their dog Marvin.
“Paterson” is a wonderfully leisurely movie. It’s not in a hurry to get where it is going, instead luxuriating in the mundane aspects of Paterson’s life punctuated by on-screen depictions of his poetry. What could have been insufferable turns into a beautifully rendered portrait of people who find beauty and art in every day life.
There are small conflicts sprinkled throughout, a bus breaks down and lovers quarrel, but “Paterson” isn’t about that. It’s about gentle, loving performances from Driver and Farahani and the beauty of overheard conversations and the day today of regular life.
Santa isn’t the only one who makes lists in December.
Every year around this time I put together my annual best and worst movies lists. This year I’m changing it up. 2016 was a corker of a year in and out of movie theatres. It felt like 365 days of bad road so I’m going to concentrate on uplift; the very best of a bad year.
1. A Bigger Splash: This look at beautiful people, jealousy and desire is worth the price of admission to see Ralph Fiennes, Lord Voldemort himself, strut his stuff to disco era Rolling Stones. He unleashes some of the goofiest dance moves since Elaine Benes in what must be his loosest performance ever.
2. Deadpool: As played by Ryan Reynolds Deadpool is part of the Marvel family, a distant cousin to Iron Man and Captain America, but he’s a refreshing super-antihero, a weaponized bad attitude come-to-life with a chip on his shoulder and a raunchy quip on his lips.
3. Everybody Wants Some: Director Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood was a slice-of-life that showcased twelve years in the upbringing of a growing boy. His latest movie is also a slice-of-life but in a much-condensed form, spanning just three funny and affectionately nostalgic days in the life of a 1970s college baseball player.
4. The Handmaiden: This is an epic story of madness, con games, double crosses, double-double crosses, kinky sex, desire and more. Director Chan-wook Park wrings every ounce of lascivious pleasure from the film’s sprawling story of sex and intrigue.
5. Hell or High Water: Echoes of the Coen brothers ricochet throughout Hell or High Water but with its deliberate pace, Nick Cave’s moody score and Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the leads, it’s more than a stop-gap between Coen Brothers neo westerns, it’s one of the most richly satisfying movies of the year.
6. La La Land: From a trickily edited opening song-and-dance number to a spectacular ballet among the stars to heartfelt human feelings, this Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling musical doesn’t just breathe new life into an old genre it performs CPR on it, bringing its beating heart back to vibrant life.
7. Loving: Loving is simultaneously a powerful look at a racist time and, when it asks, “What is the danger to the state of Virginia from interracial marriage?” a timely and universal reminder that Loving v. Virginia was just one of many steps humanity has to take before everyone is afforded fundamental rights.
8. Manchester by the Sea: Manchester by the Sea is a finely acted look at grief and the aftermath of heartbreak but it’s also very a funny odd couple/buddy flick that isn’t afraid to flip flop between drama and comedy.
9. Moonlight: Moonlight is a compelling film about a young man finding a place in the world. Director Barry Jenkins splits the story into thirds, each examining a different time in the life of Chiron, a young, gay African-American man, as he comes to grips with who he is
10. Paterson: Paterson luxuriates in the mundane aspects of a poetry writing bus driver’s life, and is punctuated by on-screen depictions of his poetry. What could have been insufferable turns into a beautifully rendered portrait of people who find beauty and art in everyday life.