REVIEW: “Love & Mercy”

love poster

It was 1961 in the Southern California city of Hawthorne. Three brothers, a cousin, and a high school friend formed a group that would grow into one of the biggest American  bands in music history. They called themselves The Beach Boys, a reference to their harmonious “California Sound”. They would go on to sell over 100 million records and have 36 Top 40 hits. The creative center of the group was Brian Wilson.

“Love & Mercy” is a dual narrative biographical drama about the life of Brian Wilson. The film hops back and forth between two specific timelines. One takes place in the 60s and follows a young Brian during the band’s heyday. The second takes us to the 80s where Brian’s life is dictated by opportunistic handlers and heavy medications.

There are two important creative decisions that help distinguish this from other films of its type. First, director Bill Pohlad keeps his focus strictly on these two periods of Wilson’s life. It’s a wise move that distances the film from more conventional structures. The periods don’t always feel connected and there are times where the leaps from one period to the other are a bit clunky. Still I appreciated the nuanced approach and they both helped tell a compelling and personal story.

love1

Second, “Love & Mercy” is a very inward-looking biopic. It is much more interested in showing the inner brilliance of Brian Wilson on a creative level as well as the mental and emotional turmoil that sends his life careening out of control. We spend a lot of time inside his head surrounded by voices and swirls of sound. We also spend a lot of time examining the aftermath. This is all calculated and much more interesting than I was expecting.

Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson from the 60s. Dano is an actor who can play certain roles well, but they have to be very specific to his narrow talents. This happens to be one of those roles. Dano stares into space, makes weird faces, and relays a general awkwardness – all things that he can do very well. But I don’t want to sell him short. He is very in tune with his character and with Pohlad’s vision. I like Dano a lot here. It’s a very human portrayal. But he also keenly shows us Wilson’s creative drive. He does all of this through a cleverly understated performance.

love2

Dano takes us through Wilson’s struggle with the pressures of being in a hugely popular band. The stresses, the panic attacks, and eventually the drugs. John Cusak plays Wilson in the 1980s, a shell of a man mentally damaged by his past but also by a leech of a psychotherapist and guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Cusak is given a much different role than Dano and he too succeeds in showing us another phase of this complicated life.

At this point Wilson is a man on a leash with literally no life to call his own. That changes when he meets a goodhearted car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). She catches glimpses of the real Brian buried inside by Landy’s mental oppression. She likes what she sees and she is willing to fight the sleazeball Landy. Banks does a really good job drawing personality out of Wilson. It is through their relationship that we see this Brian Wilson as more than a heavily sedated zombie. And Giamatti, well he is always fantastic at playing a scumbag.

As I’ve pointed out there are so many things “Love & Mercy” does well. There are some small bumps, but ultimately the biggest reason it succeeds is because it operates in human terms. It doesn’t bog itself down by adhering to the common mainstream biopic formula. Instead it shows us what made this creative genius tick. Do we ever truly understand where that drive and inspiration came from? Not exactly, other than it came from the same dark place that eventually broke him. This is compelling stuff. It is a story worth telling and “Love & Mercy” tells it really well.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Focus”

FOCUS poster

I can’t say I have always shared the general enthusiasm for Will Smith’s movies or his performances. It’s not that he is a bad actor. But, with a few exceptions, he often seems to play variations of the same type of guy. That is certainly not a problem for his fans who have made him a bonafide box office draw, but as someone who doesn’t always care for ‘that guy’ he plays, it can be a turn off.

Smith’s time on the big screen hasn’t been as prominent as during his heyday. He had at least one film (sometimes more) come out every year between 1995 and 2008. “Focus” ushers in a bit of a return to the starring spotlight and once again he is playing a variation of the same type of guy. He’s cool, stylish, cocky, and a bit of a wise guy. Sound familiar? Here he plays a dapper professional con-man with a seemingly endless amount of resources at his disposal. But more on that later.

 

FOCUS1

The story begins with Smith’s character, Nicky Spurgeon, being seduced and conned by a novice scammer named Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky isn’t fooled and he sees through her amateurish scheme. A few days later Jess approaches Nicky in dire straits begging to be his protegé. Nicky agrees and tests out her sticky fingers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Impressed by her success Nicky invites Jess to join his crew. A few good scores and a painfully predictable romance follows.

Nicky’s dad always taught him that business and pleasure don’t mix, so he drops Jess after realizing he was falling for her. But obviously the story doesn’t stop there and the two meet again three years later in Buenos Aires. Is it a chance meeting or doesn’t Jess have something up her sleeve? A web of twists, turns, deceptions, billionaires, parties, and race cars make up the second half of the story.

FOCUS2

There are times when “Focus” could be called a fashion extravaganza masquerading as a con-artist movie. Some scenes serve only as opportunities for the two stars to show off their good looks, nice physiques, and chic attire. This works well with the aforementioned typical Will Smith character. We get a lot of that here. It’s interesting that the film’s best scene features Smith casting aside that persona and showing us a vulnerable and intensely human side of his character. I won’t build it up but you will know it when you see it.

Ultimately “Focus” is a movie stymied by its amoral vanity, its overload of mediocre twists and turns, and the lukewarm chemistry between Smith and Robbie. If you view it through a very simple and straightforward lens you’ll notice a few fun moments. But it is never as cool or crafty as it tries to be and designer sunglasses, swanky sports jackets, and posh gowns only carry things so far. And even the movie’s title makes you wonder if you are the one being conned because there isn’t a lot of focus here.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2 Stars

REVIEW: “John Wick”

WICK POSTER

Let me say I have always liked Keanu Reeves even when his movies didn’t quite hit their mark. He has always come across as a likable guy which has often translated onto the screen. That’s why I’m glad to see him put out a movie like “John Wick”. Let’s face it, Keanu’s career reached its high point during the 1990s and early 2000s. Now at 50 years old he stars in a stylized revenge thriller that tips it hat to several films that came out during his heyday.

Let’s get this out of the way first, “John Wick” is a hyper-violent action movie and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There isn’t much character development. There isn’t a lot of shoehorned drama. There aren’t hidden deeper meanings. But there are a ton of bullets, blood splatters, and broken limbs not to mention a body count that would rival anything from Stallone or Schwarzenegger. In many ways it’s a throwback flick and I really appreciated what it set out to do.

WICK1

Reaves plays the title character John Wick, a retired hitman mourning the recent loss of his wife to an unspecified illness. We don’t get any drawn-out backstory about their relationship or the onset of the illness. Just quick flashes that indicate they had a very healthy and loving marriage. After her funeral he receives a delivery – a puppy his wife had arranged to be delivered upon her death in hopes that it would help John cope with her passing. It doesn’t take long for John to take a liking to the puppy and it appears that it may be helping him deal with his loss.

That changes when he meets three thugs tied to a Russian gang led by Iosef (Alfie Allen). Iosef takes a liking to John’s ’69 Mustang and is angry when John refuses to sell it. Later that night the trio attack John in his home, kill his puppy, and steal his car. This triggers the other side of John Wick – the side directly tied to his past as a lethal hitman. He sets out to find Iosef who we learn is the incompetent son of the Russian mob boss Viggo (played by Michael Nyqvist). Viggo knows John Wick which means he knows what’s coming so he sends his mob army out to kill John before John kills his son. Obviously that is no easy task.

From there directors Chad Stahelski and the uncredited David Leitch stomp the accelerator and rarely take a breather. The action comes furiously and without remorse. And the influence of Hong Kong action cinema is undeniable. Both the early martial arts flicks and the later stylized John Woo shoot-em-ups are represented in some form in “John Wick”. It’s that style and sense of homage that keeps this from being your run-of-the-mill action tripe. The fight choreography is intense and the gunplay is absurdly entertaining. It’s so insanely over-the-top but it never becomes dopey or farcical.

WICK2

Recently Keanu Reeves has shown his affection for foreign action movie formulas so he is right at home here. In fact you can even see reflections of his popular “Matrix” series which makes sense. He first met Stahelski and Leitch on the set of “The Matrix”. In “John Wick” he becomes the familiar but convincing blank-faced killing machine, but he isn’t restricted to that thanks to some subtle, timely humor and the feeling of sympathy we have for his character.

“John Wick” may not do anything to reinvent the revenge thriller or action genre, but does it really need to in order to be successful? Not for me. It’s definitely a movie made for a particular audience and if wall-to-wall action and stylized violence isn’t your cup of tea neither is “John Wick”. But as someone who grew up during the time when big action movies were topping the box office, this was a satisfying and entertaining retreat. It is a cool nostalgic trip that also managed to feel surprisingly new. It definitely had more to offer than I ever expected.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Ender’s Game”

Enders game Poster

It would be easy to lump “Ender’s Game” in with the current trend of science-fiction films centered around young people. These movies seem to be popular now and modern Hollywood has shown it will milk popular trends dry. But while “Ender’s Game” has several elements that puts it in this category, it also does somethings that sets it apart. It is a movie with a thinly-veiled message, but it’s also a fun bit of science fiction that doesn’t always feel original but still works as a whole.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved as the wide-eyed title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, plays a young prodigy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. After months of observation, he is sent to an advanced battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school is the first step in preparing the kids for war with an alien species known as the Formics. 50 years earlier the Formics attacked Earth but were finally repelled by the heroic and sacrificial acts of a now iconic soldier named Mazer Rackham. The military believes another alien attack is inevitable so they plan to strike before the aliens do.

ENDERS2

The film follows Ender and a number of other kids through various stages of Battle School. You see apparently these video game savvy youth have acquired a better skill set for the video game-like combat of the future. As Ender advances he encounters an assortment of new kids, some of which are characters we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before. For example, there is an adolescent “Top Gun” rivalry that was just too corny to buy into. All of this is going on under the watchful eye of the cold, businesslike Colonel Graff and his counterpoint Major Anderson (Viola Davis) who is more interested in the children’s emotional well-being.

The story builds and builds towards the seemingly inevitable war to come. Ender develops a few close relationships with fellow cadets including an outgoing girl named Petra. She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld, one of my favorite young actresses in Hollywood. Ben Kingsley also pops up in the second half of the film with an interesting role and a face full of tattoos. The performances from all who I’ve mentioned are solid. I’m really impressed with Butterfield and Steinfeld, both of whom know how to handle themselves in front of the camera. Some of the other young actors, not so much.

ENDERS1

While I liked the story of “Ender’s Game” as a whole it does run into a wall about two-thirds of the way through. It begins to feel as if it is repeating itself (with slight advancements of the plot) at certain junctures. I eventually found myself ready to move past Ender’s training and get to the big finale. It certainly does come with some big special effects and a few rather disorienting twists that took a minute or two to soak in. Some interesting ramifications and personal conflicts follow which I thought was a neat way to end the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “end the story” because “Ender’s Game” is clearly set up with a franchise in mind. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. I would check out another chapter of this story although I’m not sure how compelling the new direction might be. As for this first installment, it is a fairly satisfying bit of science fiction that walks the tricky line of trying to appeal to youth and adults alike. For the most part it succeeds. It’s not a movie I would rush to see again, but it is a film I can appreciate.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Enough Said”

ENOUGH poster

“Enough Said” is an interesting romantic comedy/drama from writer and director Nicole Holofcener. It’s one of those films that has magically latched onto critics who were giving it rave reviews. It has one of the highest aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes and it has found its way on numerous Top 10 lists from well respected critics. But what is it about this movie that has earned such high praise? Here are a few things that come to mind: charm, wit, an intelligent script, and two very strong lead performances.

The true magic of “Enough Said” starts with two fine leads. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced single mother and self-employed masseuse. Her life is in a repetitive rut at least until she meets Albert played by James Galdolfini in the first of his final two roles before his death. He two is divorced with a young daughter. The two decide to go on a date which launches a very unlikely relationship. In some ways the two couldn’t be more different. She is a fit and attractive middle-aged woman while he is an overweight middle-aged regular Joe. The film points out these physical differences on numerous occasions and I feel it’s for a specific reason. At first Eva may be desperate to fill a void in her life but soon she sees beyond physical appearances to what really anchors a relationship.

ENOUGH1

“Enough Said” develops one of the purest depictions of an adult relationship you’ll see on screen. For years Hollywood has been fixated on divorcees when it comes to depicting relationships. That has fascinated and at times frustrated me. But here it is very pertinent to the story and more importantly to the characters themselves. Dreyfus and Gandolfini are fantastic and have a remarkable chemistry. You do root for them to make it and overcome their faults and past mistakes. Dreyfus has always had this infectious wit that I’ve been attracted to, and Gandolfini shows a brilliant range that many of us didn’t realize he had.

Holofcener’s script is smart and authentic but I have a few quibbles with it. There are a handful of subplots that are vaguely introduced but never really explored. A couple of them do reflect on our two main characters but others feel tacked on and unnecessary. There is also a twist with a character named Marianne (played by Catherine Keener). She and Eva become friends and they have some good moments together, but I couldn’t really buy into the overall idea behind the twist. I can see where it would work in a film a little more focused on straight comedy. But here it felt like a stretch.

Still, “Enough Said” is an intelligent and refreshing alternative to the bulk of what passes for romantic comedies these days. It’s mature in the sense of its middle-aged focus and it’s grounded in its portrayal of fallible and believable characters. But the biggest treat is watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini effortlessly embody these two characters. Both are fantastic and they are the real heart of the film. And for me, it’s their performances that are the biggest draw.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

DAWN POSTER

While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

DAWN1

Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

XXX DAWN-PLANET-APES-MOV-JY-3806-.JPG A ENT

Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS