SINISTER 2

by Jeff Schultz

Check out Stormy’s and my reviews of the first one. Same applies here. It’s another winner, and for the same reasons. What we get is a slight advancing of the original, with jolting variations on the first one’s scariest element: the torture killings. Here, be they by fire, by ice, by beasts or electricity, they are (again) deeply disturbing and unsettling. James Ransone’s welcome return is matched by… well, the credits say Shannyn Sossamon, but I’m damned if that isn’t the young Jessica Lange. The plot is woven through with a well-played family struggle that could have succeeded as straight drama. Its realism helps make us believe in the horror. Kudos to two unknowns, Lucas Jade Zumann and Lea Coco as, respectively, boy and man villains. There will clearly be more SINISTERs (a double digit opening, if barely), and I say if they’re as good as the first two, bring ‘em on!

AMERICAN ULTRA

by Alan Yudman

No AMERICAN ULTRA is not a new campaign to tell everyone how star spangled awesome America is (tip of the cap to Aaron Sorkin and “The Newsroom”). It is a sleeper CIA program that has been mothballed. One arm of it involved taking at risk youth and turning them in to sleeper agent killing machines. For some reason that is not fully explained (or even coherently explained) Topher Grace wants to take out the last remaining asset in the program. That asset is Jesse Eisenberg. He’s not so much a sleeper agent as he is a stoner agent. Eisenberg and his girlfriend, Kristen Stewart are a couple of potheads living in a small town in West Virginia. There is intrigue, psychotic killers employed by Grace’s CIA department (lead by the always great Walton Goggins), a love story and some killer action sequences. There is some truly funny stuff in AMERICAN ULTRA, but it is not really a comedy. It is more like the first stoner/spy/action movie. Director Nima Nourizadeh has a lot of plates to keep spinning and he does so with a fair amount of success. The set pieces are pretty standard (save one involving a Humvee and fireworks), but well executed. The editing and direction mostly keep up with the frantic, stoner vibe. One bone to pick is that a lot of the fight scenes seem to be shot close up and hand held so it is a little tough to follow who is kicking whose ass, but Nourizadeh pays off each with a comic, almost ridiculous conclusion. Grace is loathsome, Connie Britton has a nice turn as Eisenberg’s CIA handler and it’s great to see Tony Hale in anything. Here he plays Britton’s former assistant who faces a real moral dilemma and comes out smelling like a rose. There is a nice twist to the whole plot which was telegraphed a bit, but not annoyingly so. Eisenberg’s “Woody Allen-ness” plays perfectly here and feeds his stoner, neurotic vibe. Kristen Stewart continues to baffle me. She has done some good work (THE RUNAWAYS is one I’ve seen that I enjoyed), but she also has a tendency to mail it in and rely on her “tough girl/I don’t give a shit” demeanor. It kinda works here, but not completely. AMERICAN ULTRA isn’t the best movie, but it does have its moments. And at only 95 minutes, how can you really go wrong.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

by Alan Yudman

I recently watched an episode of the 1960’s TV spy show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. I had fond memories. I think that’s why memory is unreliable. The TV show was kinda campy and kinda awful. So when I went to the theater to see the big screen adaptation, I was unencumbered by much nostalgia. I was just looking for a good, fun movie. For the most part, that is exactly what I got. I will warn you, do not go into this expecting to be dropped into the middle of the TV show. This is an origin story. How U.N.C.L.E. came to be. Henry Cavill (an Aussie) is the American CIA operative Napoleon Solo. Armie Hammer (an American) is Illya Kuryakin a KGB agent. At the start they are both trying to get to Alicia Vikander (a Swede) who is the daughter of a German rocket scientist who helped America build the nuclear bomb. He’s apparently gone rogue or been kidnapped and is helping some diabolical spy organization build a nuke. It turns out the threat is so great that Solo and Kuryakin must work with the girl to find her father and stop the “end of the world”. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is great. Hammer is much better in this than he was as The Lone Ranger (ugh). Cavill is all American bluster and dashing confidence, helped out by an array of stunning 3-piece suits. Vikander, who shined in EX MACHINA is very good here also. Guy Ritchie’s manic direction and gift for great set pieces is a match made in action thriller heaven. There are some story telling devices that may have you scratching your head at times, but in the end it is very satisfying and sets up well for a sequel. Here’s hoping a disappointing opening weekend at the box office doesn’t scare studio executives off. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is well worth another go ‘round.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

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by Alan Yudman

I recently had a fairly intense discussion about rap music with someone on Facebook. His contention was that it is not music and that anyone who listens to it is an idiot. His argument was mainly about the violence and foul language that make up the lyrics. I argued that he may not like it, but to deny the truth of the lyrics or the experience of those who write them is to deny that any of what they sing about ever happened. That is what makes STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON such a powerful film. Yes, it is filled with foul language, naked women, misogyny and violence. But that is the truth of the lives of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren. Those five young men made up the groundbreaking rap group NWA. This is their story and the story of so many young men in Compton or Chicago or Detroit. Harassment at the hands of police, drugs, and death. This music was their way out. It was also their way to shine a light on what was going on in their neighborhoods. It was their way of speaking truth to power, similar to the way anti-war protesters did in the 1960’s. The cast is perfect. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. plays his father, Ice Cube. it is a brilliant piece of casting because after a while you forget it is Junior up on the screen and get involved in his story because he is Ice Cube. Corey Hawkins is Dr. Dre, the young DJ with the vision to get out and onto something bigger. Jason Mitchell is an absolute dead ringer for Eazy-E, the drug dealer who is convinced by Dre that the future is with his hand wrapped around a microphone rather than a weapon. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is also a cautionary tale about success, friendship and the despicable ways of the music business. NWA was defiant. They did not heed warnings from Detroit police that if they performed “Fuck the Police” they would be arrested. They were, but it all to make a point. No one could tell them what to do. Their first amendment rights would not be abridged even with threats of violence and arrest. R. Marcos Taylor is Suge Knight, the founder of Death Row Records who has been in and out of jail for years. He is portrayed as a violent gangster, and Taylor’s performance is spot on. The movie is about 2 hours, 30 minutes long and it still feels like it races past some moments in order to move onto the next. Such is the problem with trying to cram all this history up onto the screen. But director F. Gary Gray keeps it all humming along very nicely. In one interview portrayed in the film, Ice Cube says he is a journalist, but he’s just more honest about what he is reporting. Journalists are historians and gangsta rap chronicled a dark time in the 1980’s when parts of Los Angeles were a war zone of gang violence and police tactics that were wrong headed, but right hearted (at least on their face). STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is the perfect film companion to that music. It will shock you, outrage you and tug at your heart and conscience. This is a film that must be seen if you want to even begin to understand where these young men were coming from.

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE

by Jeff Schultz

Totally sweet, lovingly made, this British Claymation feature is of course in the Wallace & Gromit vein: it comes from Nick Park’s Aardman Animations. It’s so lighthearted and delightful that when the inevitable moment-of-true-peril comes, while you might feel silly for feeling upset and involved, you still will. This movie could be a great introduction to the concept of “silent film”. There’s no dialogue, just sound effects and music; the entire story is told visually, and there are moments of brilliance: a sequence involving sheep disguised as humans trying to act naturally in a restaurant, a dog in surgeon’s gear distracted by a bone, a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS reference that is even marked in the credits. SHAUN would be a lovely companion piece on a double bill with BABE: PIG IN THE CITY.

THE GIFT

by Jeff Schultz

Jason Bateman is truly a protean actor. He can give an incandescent performance in a comedy that all but blinds his co-stars (SMOKIN’ ACES), then find quiet dramatic power, as here, in a movie that takes a sharp turn halfway through, allowing us to watch Bateman steadily morph into the person the mystery’s unraveling shows him to truly be. The naturalism of the acting — strongly echoed by Rebecca Hall (Sir Peter Hall’s daughter, but really, the love child of Jennifer Connelly and Joyce Carol Oates) as Jason’s wife — gives heft to this stalkeresque thriller. Killer sets: a Midcentury Modern house (in Sherman Oaks), demonstrating once again that you have a 300% better chance of being stalked if your home has floor to ceiling glass windows. And we get to see what a corner office in City National Plaza (the former Arco Towers) looks like. I’d call THE GIFT more unsettling than scary, but it made me tense. Joel Edgerton is a bit of a bland “villain” (those quotes are important). But as a (first-time feature) director he keeps the screws turned.

THE END OF THE TOUR

by Alan Yudman

David Foster Wallace. The brilliant, troubled and now deceased writer won acclaim for changing the voice of American writing. And it only took him 46 years to do it before taking his own life because of inescapable depression. Back when his novel, “Infinite Jest” was published another writer thought there would be a story in profiling Wallace for Rolling Stone. David Lipsky pitched that to his bosses and they went for it. So Lipsky joined Wallace for the last five days of his book tour and that revelatory five days is the framework for James Ponsoldt’s wonderful THE END OF THE TOUR. Ponsoldt has been around for a while, but he really blew up with 2013’s THE SPECTACULAR NOW. T.E.O.T.T. is at least that film’s equal. So many times I watch a movie and my mind wanders, I think about other things and then get back to the narrative and don’t feel I’ve missed a beat. Maybe it’s a little ADHD. About 10 minutes into this film I realized that I would have to pay close attention because there was some important stuff happening up there on the screen. The film is about a five day long conversation so by nature it is very “talky”. That is not intended as a criticism in this case. Every word that comes out of the Wallace character’s mouth feels like it needs to be heard, learned and remembered. The casting is genius. Jesse Eisenberg plays the frustrated Lipsky. He’s written a novel but is writing for Rolling Stone to make a buck. He doesn’t seem happy about it at all. Eisenberg’s natural skittishness works great. The real revelation for me was Jason Segel. We know he can play comedy, but this was something deeper and more soul wrenching. He hits every note perfectly. Wallace is kind of a gentle giant with a ton of “issues” lurking beneath a skin of self-loathing and insecurity. Lipsky has said he felt Wallace was giving him what he thought he wanted as a writer for Rolling Stone, for example hoping to get laid on the book tour. But as the two spend time together you start seeing Wallace for the true genius/mess that he is. His anger in certain situations seethes rather than boils. Segel understands how to play that gentle, troubled giant perfectly. T.E.O.T.T. is funny, insightful, moving and ultimately tragic. It is based on Lipsky’s book (Rolling Stone never went with the profile), “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” which chronicles his five days with Wallace. It’s brilliantly adapted by Donald Margulies and Ponsoldt hits all the right notes using the bleakness of Illinois in winter to frame Wallace’s struggle. I always like a movie that makes me think. THE END OF THE TOUR has me thinking, has me wanting to explore Wallace’s writing. I can’t think of higher praise for a film.

RICKI AND THE FLASH

by Alan Yudman

Diablo Cody showed such promise. Heck, she even fulfilled it. Winning an Oscar for best screenplay for JUNO. She showed similar talent with the biting YOUNG ADULT. So, if there is anything such as a “paycheck” movie for a screenwriter, RICKI AND THE FLASH fits the bill. Meryl Streep is aging wanna-be rock star Ricki Randazzo. She’s happily playing in a bar band in Tarzana at night and not so happily working at a Whole Foods type store by day. Then she gets a phone call from her ex-husband played by Kevin Kline, that their adult daughter’s husband just left her and she needs her mother. So Ricki (whose real name is Laura) jets back to Indiana to play mom. It’s a role she’s ill-equipped for having left the family when the kids were very young to fulfill her rock ’n’ roll dream. It’s predictably awkward when she arrives at her ex-husband’s mansion, penniless, without even money to pay the cab driver. And that is where the movie kinda fails. It’s very predictable. Not a twist anywhere to be found. Ok, one twist that wasn’t very “twisty” at all. The audience could easily guess what was coming next. Cody telegraphs her punches. There isn’t much of a surprise about anything. If it’s well written that may not be a problem, but this is very pedestrian stuff. Streep gets points for committing to the role. Yes, she can sing. We all know that by know. But she capably belts out rock standards like Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. Rick Springfield continues his career resurgence (see the creepy psychiatrist in season 2 of TRUE DETECTIVE) with a winning performance as Ricki’s love interest and lead guitarist for her band The Flash. Kevin Kline is refreshing as her uptight ex. Hollywood needs more Kevin Kline in movies. Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer plays her fictional daughter. Audra McDonald is wasted in her very small role as Kline’s wife. She has one featured scene with Streep, calling her out as an absentee mom, proclaiming she was there for all the big stuff while “Laura” was off being irresponsible. But again, it’s a fairly standard argument with little to make it interesting. The dialogue isn’t clever and is only mildly funny. It seems to back away from every opportunity to “go for it”. Jonathan Demme’s direction is unnoticeable. Sometimes that’s good. Not in this case. The most authentic part of the movie is the band, Ricki and the Flash. They belt out rock ’n’ roll songs like any bar band would. They’re good, but rough enough around the edges to make it believable that they were never good enough to make it big. RICKI AND THE FLASH is like flat beer at a seedy bar. You’re there, you might as well drink it. It’ll give you a buzz, but you won’t enjoy it much. — Alan Yudman

BOJACK HORSEMAN – Season 2

This second time around, the season does not end with a punch to the gut. But by the time we get to its tenuous, hope-inflected sign-off we’ve watched 12 episodes in which the characters have become so enriched and “fleshed out”, it’s almost beside the point that it’s animated. Except, of course, for the wonderful animal/human jumble that makes up the cast. Among the terrific new characters, a triumphant return to cable by Lisa Kudrow as Wanda the Owl, Bojack’s love interest, which he inevitably fucks up; Charlotte the Deer, Bojack’s other love interest, which he fucks up even worse; ego-crazed NGO swashbuckler Sebastian St. Clair, who throws a wrench into Diane’s marriage to Mr. Peanutbutter; and Rutabaga the Rabbit, with whom Princess Caroline hooks up to form a new agency (and who strings her along with a tepid promise to divorce his wife). Not to mention one of the most evil mothers in television history, whose self-hating, hate-inflicting bitterness is shown to be at the root of Bojack’s dysfunction. (The scenes of young Bojack in his little sailor suit being psychologically abused are the most heartbreaking of the series’ many pitch-dark moments.) Netflix put the entire season online at once, and this is the first show I’ve ever binge-watched. I could not get enough of it, but the downside is that instead of having an episode to look forward to each week, I now have to wait until Season 3. It can’t come soon enough. — Jeff Schultz

TRAINWRECK

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “Loveable” loser coasts through life with no responsibility and no consideration for others. They meet someone who’s the complete opposite, realize they like them, has some personal setbacks, decides to be a better person, and lives happily ever after. That’s TRAINWRECK…which is less funny than this review. Why critics are falling over themselves for this movie is beyond me…the story is cliché, the characters one dimensional, and the final act horrendous. I seriously don’t get it. When Lebron James is the funniest part of a 2 hour R rated comedy you KNOW you’re in trouble. A movie whose title says it all. You were warned.

Stormy Curry