Mistress America

If, when you were younger, you got to hang with the older kids, you can understand how Tracy (Lola Korke) feels when she gets to pal around with her older sister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig) in Mistress America.

It’s nice to be accepted by someone with more life experience. But sometimes you find that the more worldly person may lack certain life skills. Mistress America is a tale of a few weeks in the lives of these two likeable women and it’s a fun visit to their worlds.

Tracy is a lonely freshman at Barnard College. She meets and likes nerdy guy Tony (Matthew Shear), but he directs his affection to Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Tracy calls Brooke, the 30-year-old daughter of the widower who’s set to wed Tracy’s divorced mom. Brooke and Tracy explore Manhattan. Brooke drinks, she smokes, she exudes confidence. She is beautiful and seemingly carefree. Her life is far more exciting than Tracy’s.

Brooke shares her life story with Tracy, including details about her “nemesis” Mamie-Claire and ex-fiancé Dylan, who is now married to the nemesis. She shares her vision for a restaurant she wants to open and shows Tracy the space she’s leased.

When investors pull out, Brooke must come up with $42K within days. Amazingly, she goes to visit Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and Dylan (Michael Chernus) at their modern mansion in Greenwich to ask for money.

The mansion episode is madcap silliness. Because Tony has a car, he drives Brooke, Tracy and Nicolette to Connecticut. At the house they find Mamie-Claire leading a gathering of pregnant women. (It’s a book club meeting.)

Brooke delivers her pitch to Dylan for money. During the mansion visit, Tracy is accused of incorporating elements of Brooke’s life into a short story titled Mistress America (taken from the name of a TV show Brooke wants to create). The assemblage reads the story together and Brooke’s feelings are hurt.

The plot of Mistress America is secondary to these two characters and the way they interact, which is frequently hilarious. They present a number of contrasts: older/younger, gorgeous/plain, not obviously smart/brainy, brassy/quiet, callous/sensitive, etc.

Mistress America (directed by Noah Baumbach, co-written by Baumbach and girlfriend Gerwig) is light comedy but Gerwig’s performance is powerful and memorable. If you have 82 minutes (from opening logo to end titles), you’re likely to be amused, if not fascinated.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an uneven film with an obvious secondary goal. First agenda item is to sell a few tickets. It will. Second is to establish a franchise that will live on through sequel after sequel. It will not.

The best thing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has going for it is the finest cool music soundtrack since Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen (from David Holmes). Much of the music (credit to Daniel Pemberton) has a mid-20th-century feel; some of it is used mainly to punctuate the action, a la Tarantino.

The second best thing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has going for it are the women’s dresses. The colorful costumes on the ladies are gorgeous and the outfits do a nice job of evoking the 60s.

The story, inspired by the TV show that aired from 1964 to 1968, has the two lead characters American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) teaming up to foil the fiendish plot of some folks who have a nuclear warhead. The setting is Cold War era Europe.

Almost every time Cavill speaks in the film, I am reminded of Bill Hader’s SNL impersonation of Dateline’s Keith Morrison. Apparently Cavill was trying to channel the speaking style of the late Robert Vaughn, the original Solo from TV. Hammer is good, but not quite the compelling screen presence needed to keep the dream alive for more U.N.C.L.E. movies.

Gaby (Alicia Vikander) is on the good guys’ side. Her father has been forced to work on the bomb. She and Elizabeth Dibecki (as the villainess Victoria) get to wear the neat throwback threads. Vikander is beautiful and has genuine charm in this role that’s quite different from her breakthrough performance earlier this year in Ex Machina. Also in the film is Hugh Grant as Waverly.

Director Guy Ritchie (who co-wrote the script) maintains a good pace and delivers several memorable shots. Chuckles are spread throughout the film. My favorite silly moment has an unconcerned Solo sitting in a truck cab, enjoying a sandwich and a glass of wine, while Kuryakin is right in front of him in a burning motorboat trying to elude a pursuer.

While The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has the legacy of its TV antecedent to help generate ticket sales, the story is almost boilerplate and the lead actors lack the heft to carry The Man From U.N.C.L.E. onward to franchise glory.

The Gift

Creepy and suspenseful, The Gift is filled with people and actions that are not what they always appear to be. As secrets are revealed, outcomes remain in question.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. For Simon, it’s a return to his former stomping grounds. They encounter one of Simon’s old high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), while shopping. Gordo begins dropping off a series of gifts at the couple’s front door.

Simon is dubious about Gordo’s aggressive gifting but Robyn is welcoming. The couple invites Gordo over for dinner. Gordo drops by during the daytime when Simon is at work. Robyn invites him in for tea. When Gordo invites them to his place for dinner and steps out for a moment, Simon teases Robyn about her supposed attraction to Gordo (and his to her).

As some of the couple’s past difficulties are revealed and their relationship with Gordo stumbles, tension builds. Robyn jogs, she reaches out to neighbors, she works from home, she attempts normalcy, but there’s an underlying unease.

One source of unease is the couple’s ongoing difficulty having a baby. When Robyn becomes pregnant, there’s relief. But more revelations and troubles lurk nearby.

An uncredited character in The Gift is Simon and Robyn’s hillside home where most of the film’s scenes take place. It’s a cool mid-century modern house, with lots of glass and great views. Despite the home’s appeal, it’s not the ideal abode for a woman who has Robyn’s concerns.

Joel Edgerton not only stars as the creepy Gordo, he also wrote and directed The Gift. He was crafted a movie that works, keeping the anxiety at a low simmer with occasional crescendos of distress. Like Shrek says about ogres and onions, The Gift has layers, as do its characters.

Because you won’t just dismiss it, but will talk about it later, this film is (to use the old radio spot cliché) The Gift that keeps on giving.

Ricki And The Flash

Relationships between parents and their adult children can be difficult. Particularly if a parent is in California playing in a bar band while her kids are in the Midwest where they rarely hear from their mother.

Ricki, real name Linda (Meryl Streep), is long divorced from Paul (Kevin Kline). Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real life daughter) is having a breakdown because her husband has left her. Ricki comes back home to provide motherly support.

The contrast between Ricki’s life and that of her ex is stark. She lives in a modest apartment in the San Fernando Valley; he lives in an upscale, gated community in Indianapolis. She has a boyfriend who’s in the band, Greg (Rick Springfield). Paul has a second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) who’s been a responsible, loving stepmother during Ricki/Linda’s absence.

The visit to help her daughter through her crisis is somewhat successful. There’s a funny but sadly awkward family dinner at a restaurant where Ricki/Linda reconnects with her two sons and revisits old family emotional wounds. Before she heads back to California, Maureen vents about Ricki/Linda’s abandonment of motherly responsibilities.

Back in the Valley, Ricki keeps rocking while she works on her relationship with Greg. Maureen makes a peace offering to Ricki and an opportunity for redemption. Screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno and Young Adult script fame brings a too neat but acceptable ending.

Director Jonathan Demme, who directed entertaining concert films Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads) and Heart of Gold (Neil Young), devotes too much of the movie’s runtime to musical performances. Meryl Streep is a passable bar band singer but the performances are merely okay, not special.

The acting performances are better. Kline and McDonald (both of whom did not sing in RATF despite solid cred) are excellent. Streep, obviously enjoying working with her daughter, is having fun in a less-serious-than-the-usual-Meryl-role role. Gummer is good as a woman with more issues than impending divorce. Rick Springfield rocks a guitar but his acting abilities are on a lower plain than those of his cast mates.

Ricki and The Flash is an okay movie that will resonate with Streep’s boomer fans. This is a movie that could’ve/should’ve been better.

 

 

Fantastic Four

 

Sorry, but Fantastic Four is hokey and actually a bit boring. It’s an origin story, telling the world how the Fantastic Four came to be.

Some of the scenes and even some of the effects reminded me of low-budget mid-century sci-fi, the kind often lampooned by Mystery Science Theater 3000. The script is workmanlike, advancing the thin story, but gives the cast few chances to shine.

The beginning of the film shows promise. The setup is good, beginning with grade school and high school versions of Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) leading to their being recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) to work with his kids Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Sue (Kate Mara) at Baxter on teleportation projects.

Convincing Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to cross over from his dark side and join the team is a dicey move.

By teleporting themselves to an alternate universe, the team members undergo the physical changes that make them the superheroes they become. Teleportation issues and confrontations with Doom form much of the (yawn) latter part of the film.

Hardcore fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will feel an obligation to see Fantastic Four, out of a sense of loyalty and duty. And to see if it is, indeed, as disappointing as was predicted and is now revealed to be.

Those of us who are not Marvel fanboys but enjoy a good Marvel film may want to stick with Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron for 2015 viewing pleasure.

(Sidebar note: Reg E. Cathey has an incredible deep voice. He might want to shoot for some of the voiceover work that currently goes to Morgan Freeman by default.)

 

 

 

Shaun The Sheep

What a cool movie! Shaun The Sheep is the perfect film for kids of all ages, for several reasons.

First, it’s done via stop motion animation, which, if done well, is hard to resist. This film IS done well and has a charming story.

The film has no dialogue; the tale is told visually. Oh, there are grunts, sighs, gasps, burps, farts, chuckles and, of course, baaas. But if your two-year-old wants to scream and cry, she won’t cause other audience members to miss what’s happening.

Also, Shaun The Sheep is short, clocking in right around 80 minutes. By the time your child has finished his gummy bears, it’s time to go home.

Shaun the Sheep reminds me of some of the clever 1930s animation. Those cartoons with dancing farm animals and goofy plots (if any) depended heavily on music and sound effects to help tell their stories.

In this new film, Shaun’s boring routine on the farm is interrupted when a bus passes by. A sign on the bus suggests: “take a day off.” Shaun decides to make it happen. His fellow sheep lure the farmer into his travel trailer and send him into a deep sleep so they can sneak away. When the trailer rolls downhill, it gains enough momentum to take the farmer all the way to the big city.

The farmer is hospitalized and diagnosed with memory loss. Meanwhile, the sheep stowaway on a bus and make it to the big city. There they adopt disguises to elude the animal control officer, Trumper.

The farmer leaves the hospital and passes a barbershop where the clippers trigger his vague memory of sheep shearing. He walks in and clips the hair of a showbiz type who loves the cut. Mr. X (as he is now known) becomes a star stylist.

The sheep devise a plot to take the farmer back to the farm. A confrontation at the farm with Trumper wraps up the adventure.

Shaun the Sheep is big family fun. It’s rated PG for some rude humor, but is more than okay for all, in my opinion.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation does exactly what it is supposed to do: it provides action, thrills, suspense and a modest amount of sexual tension. Tom Cruise is back as Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt with a new trademark stunt and a new motorcycle chase.

Holding of for dear life on the outside of a cargo plane as it ascends and flies through the air is impressive. Interestingly, this latest courageous Cruise daring action occurs just minutes into the film. An underwater mission to procure a computer file midway through the movie is tension-inducing as Hunt is forced to hold his breath for an extended period.

The basic plot: CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants the government to defund the IMF while an organization of rogue agents called The Syndicate wants to wipe out the IMF. Hunt with IMF teammates William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rames) work to take down The Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

As he does in the Star Trek films, Pegg adds a touch of welcome lightheartedness to the proceedings. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite character actors.

The gorgeous babe in the mix is Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), an appropriately named character since M:IRN has scenes set in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco. Ilsa’s allegiance initially appears to be to The Syndicate, but she’s on Hunt’s side in short order. Hers is a classy sexiness, but she wears a two-piece swimsuit and a yellow evening gown very nicely. There’s no Hunt-Ilsa hookup in the movie, but there’s an attraction bubbling under.

Settings include an opera performance in Vienna, a formal state event in London and… a used record store (where Ethan Hunt gets his instructions via disc).

Director/scriptwriter Christopher McQuarrie keeps the energy going with only brief pauses in the action. Yes, Tom Cruise overacts a bit, but that’s his thing and he does it well.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation hits its marks and checks off most of the items on the list of things you’d want in an action-adventure spy story. Enjoy the ride!

Pixels

 

Pixels is based on a ridiculous premise but is executed surprisingly well.

Here’s the setup: One of those capsules filled with samples of our culture was sent into space in 1982. The capsule was recovered by aliens. They mistook the recording of kids playing video games to be an act of aggression. They respond by attacking earth by replicating classic games of the 80s. (I’ve been told that the TV show Futurama had an episode which presented a similar scenario.)

Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) was a talented gamer in the 80’s but now installs electronics systems. His childhood friend Cooper (Kevin James), who is now President of the United States, calls him to plan a response. No, you don’t need to reread the previous sentence: Kevin James plays the president.

Sandler and James’ characters are not as idiotic and obnoxious as the ones they usually portray. Not to say this is highbrow comedy.

Another childhood chum, Ludlow (Josh Gad), still as nerdy now as he ever was, jumps into the battle to help take down the aliens and their various game forms.

The aliens communicate with earth via a clever series of videos featuring 80s celebrities. Not unlike the hilarious Bad Lipreading videos that have become internet hits, the segments with 80s celebs (including Ronald Reagan, Mr. Rourke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island and Daryl Hall and John Oates, among others) tell our heroes where the next attacks will occur.

For the battle royale climax, another 80s gamer who helps the cause is Eddie (Peter Dinklage), now a prisoner, who trades his gaming skills for a presidential pardon and celebrity sexual favors.

One of Sam’s customers, Violet (Michelle Monaghan), turns out to be a military advisor who is deeply involved with the alien crisis. She’s also there to provide a romantic interest for Sam.

Pixels is perfect for the current generation of gamers, as well as for Gen-Xers who played Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga and other arcade favorites back in the day.

Pixels is silly, light amusement that provides some laughs and has many cool effects. I think it would be fun to pay for your admission with a pocket full of quarters—not unlike the coins you might carry to the arcade—but I’m not sure the kid in the ticket booth would appreciate the joke.

 

 

 

Southpaw

 

Controlling rage can be a challenge for anyone. For a boxer, uncontrolled rage can be devastating, professionally and personally. In Southpaw, a classic redemption movie, it is self-control that saves the day (along with boxing skill).

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated light heavyweight champ who wins with sheer physicality fueled by anger. Because his style is more about strength than grace, he leaves himself open to opponent punches. Following a big win, wife Maureen (Rachel MacAdams) urges him to take a break. She fears he’ll become punch drunk.

Later, as Hope exits a charity event, he is taunted by up-and-coming boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Maureen urges her man to keep moving but his rage takes over and the two boxers get into a scuffle. As the tussle escalates, someone pulls out a gun. A shot is fired, killing Maureen.

Things go downhill quickly. An angry Hope drives a car into a tree. In his return to the ring, he punches out a referee, leading to his suspension. The big money offers from promoters and HBO disappear. He loses his mansion, his cars and, most sadly, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Uncontrolled rage is the culprit again at the court hearing to decide whether his daughter becomes a ward of the state. He loses her.

Hope moves into an apartment in a seedy part of town and takes a job as a janitor at a small boxing gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). As Hope begins to mentor the kids who frequent the gym, Wills develops a fondness for Hope. Following an unsanctioned exhibition, Hope gets a shot at a match versus Miguel Escobar.

With training and support from Wills, Hope steps into the ring with a different attitude. Hope plays defense as well as offense. If you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you can guess the outcome.

Gyllenhaal, who has been brilliant in recent films Nightcrawler and Prisoners, should be a strong contender for year-end awards for his work in Southpaw. This is a gritty performance filled with realistic fight sequences and injuries that look painful.

Southpaw is beautifully directed by Anthony Fuqua. A favorite shot is a POV shot snakes around a corner to show a physically and emotionally spent Hope sitting naked on a shower floor.

The movie is good. Gyllenhaal’s performance is the reason to see it.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear is a movie about a man with a mental illness. It gets a few things about the condition right and one big thing wrong. Mark Ruffalo gives a strong performance as a bipolar person who is trying to manage his illness.

People with mental illness often smoke a lot. Cameron (Ruffalo) has an unfiltered Lucky in his mouth throughout most of the film. The story is set a few decades ago when smoking was generally permitted in public places.

Other family members may shun relatives with mental illness. This is especially true if the family is of an upper economic status. Cameron’s family fails to give him the support he needs—emotionally and fiscally.

Many people with mental illness decide at some point that they are well enough that they no longer need to take their medications. Cameron tries that trick.

The story begins with Cameron’s breakdown. He is institutionalized where he receives strong medicine. He is released to a halfway house and soon after gets his own apartment in Boston.

His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their young daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) live separately from him. When Maggie gets a scholarship to Columbia University in New York, he takes the girls. Sometimes he is up to the challenge and at other times he fails miserably.

The film’s story wraps up more neatly than those of many families dealing with mental illness. The message is “simply take you meds and things will be fine.” As anyone who has a family member with a mental illness will tell you, it’s just not that easy.

Writer/director Maya Forbes has handed Ruffalo a juicy opportunity to exercise his acting chops and he is up to the task. Infinitely Polar Bear has strong performances by actors playing memorable characters who are moving ahead in their lives. But their destination is for the Hallmark Channel happy ending crowd, not for those of us who can handle a more realistic and honest outcome.