Get On Up

 

The number one reason to see Get On Up is to witness the performance of Chadwick Boseman. He’s fantastic—singing, dancing and acting.

The story of singer James Brown (Boseman) is cleverly told out of sequence by director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Episodes depict performances as well as Brown’s dealings with family, fellow musicians and strangers.

James Brown’s dysfunctional upbringing led him to unsavory behaviors as an adult. That rough childhood also gave him the will to be his own man, not dependent on others.

The musical performances in locales from Vietnam to Paris to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the set of the movie Ski Party to a Cincinnati recording studio are uniformly excellent and fun to watch. If Boseman really did all those dance moves, he proved himself to be just as athletic here than as he was in last year’s 42 biopic where he starred as baseball great Jackie Robinson.

Brown and mom Susie (Viola Davis) had a troubled relationship. His abandonment issues resurface in a tearful reunion. Brown was abusive to his wife Dee Dee (Jill Scott, who makes a strong impression in her minimal screen time) but she hung in with him. Brown’s up and down relationship with musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is resolved in the movie’s final half hour.

Unlike many black characters from all eras in modern movies, in Get On Up, James Brown has an authentic Southern black dialect. Hats off to the filmmaker for making that choice. Boseman nails the memorable rasp in JB’s voice.

Get On Up could use a bit of tightening up. But despite its just-a-bit-too-long run time, the film reveals much about a man who was a genuine pop icon. And whether you are/were a James Brown fan or not, Boseman’s performance will impress you.

 

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Guardians Of The Galaxy

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is a big ol’ chunk of sci-fi fantasy fun. Because of its characters, the film resembles a cartoon. But it’s all live action, with some help from computer-generated images. St. Louis native James Gunn directed and co-wrote the script.

Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) AKA Star-Lord is a child of the 80’s who grooves on music from the 70’s. (Come And Get Your Love by Redbone is the film’s opening theme.) He’s the quasi-leader of this motley crew, similar to Han Solo, but with more flaws and funnier.

Rocket Raccoon is a CGI figure that could pass for real. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper and has a sardonic smart-ass attitude and several good laugh lines.

Another CGI guy is Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. Groot—who resembles a big tree—is not particularly graceful but he gets to play a vital role as the 5 guardians try to save the galaxy.

Rounding out the team are Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an alien assassin with bad attitude and Drax (Dave Bautista). You saw Saldana as a blue character in Avatar; here she’s green. Drax is an enormous hulk of a creature with a violent streak.

The film’s plot centers around a mysterious orb that Quill has stolen. Bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) and his henchmen and women want it back.

The story is not why you want to see GOTG. You want to meet and enjoy these characters, especially Quill. This role appears to be a star-making turn for Chris Pratt. (He also was a key player in another of the year’s better films, The Lego Movie. He voiced lead character Emmet Brickowski.)

Another reason to embrace Guardians of the Galaxy is its cool oldies soundtrack. From Go All The Way by Raspberries to It Takes Two by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Good stuff!

Is GOTG suitable for younger kids? It’s rated PG-13, so this is where moms and dads will have to exercise real parental guidance. Today’s 8 and 10 year olds may have been exposed to more violent images than Millenials born just a few years earlier, so recommending a minimum age is dicey. But the content has huge kid appeal.

Presuming that your age is well into double digits, I have no qualms about recommending Guardians of the Galaxy to everyone. Big fun!

 

 

 

 

Boyhood

 

Even if director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had turned out to be a poor or mediocre movie, the project would still be recognized as a noble effort. The fact that he has delivered an excellent film is a lucrative payoff for the time and the risk invested in the making of Boyhood.

Boyhood is a genius piece of filmmaking. Linklater and key cast members got together for filming every year for 12 years. We see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a small child with a high-pitched voice into a man. And it’s the same actor from start to finish!

That alone would be enough to make Boyhood an interesting curiosity item. The better news is that Linklater tells a compelling story of Mason and his family as they move through those 12 years.

Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke) are Mason’s divorced parents. As Mason’s life gains focus, so do those of his parents. Mason’s slightly older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) grows up before the audience’s eyes as well. But the central spotlight is on Mason.

As he goes through the stages of boyhood that most males experience, he also does a few things particular to his generation, such as playing modern video game systems and getting a youthful glimpse of internet porn. As he grows into a young man he becomes an accomplished photographer.

When I heard about the project, I’d feared that Boyhood would be shot as if it were a slice of life, in documentary fashion, like many so-called “reality” TV shows. Instead, Boyhood is presented as a traditional movie narrative about the ups and downs of Mason and his family. Honestly, Linklater’s story has plenty of meaningful moments without the manufactured conflicts of a reality show.

Boyhood will certainly be on many 2014 top ten lists. Richard Linklater will likely receive several awards nominations.

But what about Ellar Coltrane? Because inept juvenile actors can derail the best work of moviemakers, mere competence from Stone would be enough to keep the project on track. But he has great screen presence and handles the role masterfully—from early childhood through adolescence into the beginning of adulthood. Those awards organizations that tend to embrace new talent could easily be honoring him at year’s end.

Boyhood is a must-see for serious movie fans. It’s a bit long at 2 hours, 45 minutes, so budget some extra time to enjoy the brilliance of Boyhood.

 

A Most Wanted Man

 

A Most Wanted Man is a movie that asks two questions: 1. In the spy game, can you trust anybody? And 2. Will Philip Seymour Hoffman win a posthumous Oscar? (Answers are “no” and “maybe.”)

Günther Bachman (Hoffman) is a chain-smoking German espionage schlub working on a plan to expose—and halt—an operation that’s transferring money from to terrorist organizations. A new arrival in Hamburg from Chechnya is central to Heinrich’s scheme. Gunther is working angles with a variety of players, managing to manipulate certain activities but needing cooperation to make other pieces fall into place.

Martha (Robin Wright—with black hair!) is an American spy whose motives are parallel to those of Gunther’s. Annabel (Rachel McAdams) is a lawyer who helps conceal Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) from authorities who would deport him back to Chechnya before he can get his hands on a large sum of money. Tommy (Willem Dafoe) is the banker whose efforts are vital to Gunter’s plan.

Hoffman’s acting skills are top notch as usual but this is not the kind of role that screams for an Oscar nomination. However, his untimely passing coupled with the admiration of his talent by the movie community, could lead to year-end honors. Some online commenters have called PSH’s German accent into question, but Sally Field and Tom Hanks won Oscars with unauthentic Southern accents, so that issue should be moot.

A Most Wanted Man has a story that requires strict attention to the cast of characters and their respective needs and wants. No running out for more popcorn during this film—too much going on. A Most Wanted Man is not a likely crowd-pleaser. But if you enjoy a dark, heavy spy film, and/or you are a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting, don’t miss it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And So It Goes

 

And So It Goes is a nice, sweet, occasionally funny romantic comedy for older people. It stars Michael Douglas, age 69, and Diane Keaton, age 68. Rob Reiner, age 67, is the director. Good to see that some outfits still hire people over 60!

Oren (Douglas) is a real estate salesman who has issues: resentment, anger, selfishness, etc. A decade after his wife’s death, he’s selling his family home in a well-to-do Connecticut community. He has moved into a four-plex next door to a widow, Leah (Keaton). She is a torch song singer who often becomes so emotionally involved in her songs that she often can’t finish her set.

Oren’s ex-addict adult son Kyle (Austin Lysy) saddles Oren with a 10-year-old granddaughter to care for while Kyle goes to jail. When Oren is initially cool to the girl, Leah is warm and welcoming. Young Sarah (Sterling Jerins) even calls Leah “grandma.” Over time Oren’s heart softens and he works to heal the emotional damage in his life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to share that he falls hard for Leah.

And So It Goes has a decent number of laughs scattered neatly throughout the film, along with a couple of comic characters. Reiner appears as Leah’s accompanist (and would-be suitor) Artie wearing a laughably horrible toupee. Presumably to make the lead characters appear younger by comparison, Oren’s co-worker Claire (84-year-old Francis Sternhagen) is a hoot as a chain-smoking quipster.

And So It Goes is another film with a generic title that gives little clue as to the film’s content. (Other recent films guilty of this same crime include Begin Again and Enough Said.) Are all the good titles taken?

Because older folks do go to movies, it’s good to see a film with mature lead characters in theaters. And So It Goes is not a film that makes a big impact, but it’s likely to make people—especially fans of Douglas and Keaton—happy. And that, as Martha Stewart likes to say, is a good thing.

Sex Tape

Sex Tape is not a dirty movie. Yes, there’s nudity and sexual content and language galore but this film is designed to tickle more than titillate.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) are a loving married couple. In college, they had sex and lots of it, as illustrated by a hookup montage near the beginning of Sex Tape. But, as often happens with married couples, work and kids seriously impact their carnal couplings.

On a night when the kids are at mom’s, Annie and Jay go for it. Do they ever! They shoot for every position shown in the book The Joy of Sex. After 3 hours they are exhausted.

The next day Jay becomes aware that he has unknowingly shared the video with several people to whom he had given iPads. Jay and Annie go on a mission to recover those iPads. Their close friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) are recruited to accompany them.

In a brilliant casting move, a key player in the film is Rob Lowe, who famously starred in a real life sex tape 1988. In Sex Tape, Lowe is Hank, a narcissistic marketing guy who wants to sign Annie to blog for his toy company.

Since he has one of the iPads, they go to his house. While Hank and Annie’s conversation leads to his offering her cocaine, Jay runs through the house looking for the iPad while being chased by a German Shepherd.

After Jay is finally satisfied that the iPads are wiped clean of the recording of their coital marathon, he learns that it has been uploaded to the internet. He and Annie—and their kids!—drive to the website’s headquarters to break in and destroy the computer servers. What happens when they get there won’t be revealed here.

When Jay is handed a thumb drive that contains the last remaining copy of their sex tape, he and Annie finally watch the thing, portions of which are included in the Sex Tape film. There’s some funny stuff here!

Sex Tape is the perfect film for a married couple date night. (Even if you’ve never made a sex tape.) Segel and Diaz are funny and charming. Rob Lowe is weirdly amusing. Unless you’re prudish, go and laugh.

 

 

 

Life Itself

Roger Ebert had a fantastic life. The medical issues of his last few years were difficult and his passing last year was sad, but his was a life full of high points. The new documentary film Life Itself shows Roger Ebert in all stages of his life, but is most revealing during last portion when he was faced with one health challenge after another.

Though he is best known for talking about movies on TV, mainly with fellow critic Gene Siskel, Life Itself makes it clear the Roger Ebert was an immensely talented writer.

An excerpt from a byline piece he wrote for the Daily Illini after the 1964 Birmingham church bombing is featured in the film. An on-screen commenter opines that the column from this 21-year-old was the best thing written after the incident.

Ebert’s review of Bonnie and Clyde, written early in his tenure as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times proves to be an accurate assessment of that film’s importance.

Among the film’s highlights are outtakes from his work with Siskel. Their relationship was contentious for many years but got better as they got older and realized the value of their partnership. Several of the show’s producers and Siskel’s widow provide useful perspectives.

As they became famous, they often guested on the Johnny Carson show. In one of the movie’s funniest clips, Ebert trashes the film Three Amigos while sitting next to Chevy Chase, one of the film’s stars. Chase’s takes are hilarious.

While Ebert’s wife Chaz is mentioned prominently in the book Life, Itself, she is even more front and center in the movie. She provides support and caregiving during his health crises and shares numerous meaningful observations.

Some viewers may find the nurses’ suctioning of Ebert’s throat and other hospital scenes hard to watch, but Ebert and Chaz were okay with cameras being there. Chaz mentions Ebert having been hurt by Siskel’s decision not to share word of his terminal illness with Roger. Ebert, in turn, vowed to be open about his cancer, even posing for the cover of Esquire magazine after cancer had affected his appearance.

For fans of movies, especially those who enjoy talking about movies and reading movie reviews, Life Itself is a film you need to see. And Roger Ebert, the critic and the man, is a person you’ll appreciate knowing more about.

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

 

The early Planet of the Apes movies had a cheesy look about them. Because the apes looked like guys with bad masks or prosthetics, it was hard to buy into the stories.

This is not the case in 2014. The apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes look like real apes. This makes the story easier to appreciate and enjoy. The entire team led by director Matt Reeves is to be congratulated for turning out a movie that has a great look.

In the future world depicted in DOTPOTA, following disease that has wiped out most of the human population, the apes have it together. Their ability to communicate is highly developed. Their community structure allows them to enjoy a relatively civil society. And they can still swing through trees!

Shortly after one ape wonders about the fate of humans, a small group of humans shows up in the apes’ domain, just north of a devastated San Francisco. The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), want to repair a hydroelectric dam to provide juice to SF. (The settings, including the sad future vision of the city by the bay, also look great.)

Initially, the two sides co-exist. But factions cause discord within each group and, ultimately, distrust between humans and apes diminishes.

Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a beef with ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who tries to kill Caesar. And a leader of the surviving humans, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) has disagreements with other humans. These internal problems provoke some elements of the faceoff between the two main groups.

Whether you view the apes-versus-humans conflict as a metaphor for racial or religious differences in current society or as just a cool sci-fi future vision, you will be impressed. First, by the best depiction yet of the highly evolved apes of the future. And, second, by the overall look of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Why can’t we all just get along? Because our differences overwhelm what we have in common. As in real life, so things are and ever will be on the planet of the apes.

 

 

Half Of A 2014 Top Ten List

Halfway through 2014 I have seen exactly 5 films that I think would be worthy of a year-end top 10 list. I’m guessing at least a couple will actually survive the end-of-year onslaught of quality films to make it to the 2014 top 10. (Which ones? Hard to say right now.)

So here are my top 5 for the first half of the year:

The Lego Movie—Clever, funny and sweet. Just a pure delight!

The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson delivered what the trailer promised. It’s like a 2014 Marx brothers film.

Chef—Jon Favreau wrote, starred and directed the ultimate foodie movie with a happy ending. Cool music, too.

Snowpiercer—Great story, well told. Fierce battles, amazing settings aboard a non-stop rail journey in the near future.

Boyhood—Opening in St. Louis on August 1. Director Richard Linklater shot scenes once a year for 12 years. Mason grows from a little kid to a man on screen as his family evolves, too. (The story is fiction. Better than a reality show.)

Looking forward to an exciting 2nd half of 2014!

 

Snowpiercer

 

Snowpiercer is a clever, original, violent, highly entertaining sci-fi allegory. Snowpiercer is implausible fantasy, but it commands attention in every frame.

The story is adapted from a graphic novel published in 1982 by two French guys. Director Bong Joon-ho just happened to find the source material in a bookstore in Seoul in 2005. Bong, a Korean making his English language debut, also co-wrote the script.

Here’s the setup: Just a few decades from now, in response environmental wackos screaming about global warming, the world’s nations release something called CW-7 into the atmosphere. It works too well and the result is a frozen planet.

The only survivors crowd onto a train, which moves continuously on a track that goes around the earth. Those who populate the train are a microcosm of the world’s citizens. The elite types up front, those lowest on the socioeconomic scale at back. (The train’s name comes from its ability to burst through avalanches that have covered the rails with snow.)

Curtis (Chris Evans) and sideman Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a group of downtrodden “back of the train” people toward the front of the train and a confrontation with Wilford (Ed Harris), who has been unseen by the Curtis and company for the 17 years they’ve been on board.

Key players accompanying Curtis on his quest are Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Tilda Swinton plays semi-comic character Mason, a Wilford operative. The journey to the front is filled with gritty battles and amazing surprises.

Chris Evans, whose improvement as an actor is visible in the latest Captain America movie, does a nice job as Curtis. He balances the physicality of the role with appropriate humanity. Ed Harris is solid as the smart-ass know-it-all Wilford.

Snowpiercer rises above other apocalyptic sci-fi because of its story and the skillful telling of that story by Bong. Lucky for us that he chose to pick up that graphic novel that day.