Zoolander 2

When Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) make their runway return early in Zoolander 2, they are wearing shirts that read “Old” and “Lame.” It is, of course, lame of me to point out how accurately those shirts’ sentiments reflect my thoughts about the film. Sorry.

Zoolander 2 has a handful of slightly funny moments, but many more moments that are supposed to be funny but are not. But hey, the numerous surprise cameos ARE fun! (Note: Other reviewers will spill the beans about certain cameo appearances. I will not. You’re welcome.) And the soundtrack includes some cool EDM.

Not “cameos,” per se, because they appear in the trailer: Benedict Cumberbatch as an androgynous model looks like Voldemort during his brief appearance. Justin Beiber as himself manages to hang on for a selfie before he makes his final exit.

The 2001 Zoolander movie was relentless as it poked fun at the fashion industry. Stiller and Wilson were hilarious as clueless male models. Will Ferrell, as goofy looking villain Mugatu, was a hoot. Try though it may, the new version just does not connect. (Stiller, by the way, directed both films.)

During their 15-year absence, Derek constructed a building in NYC. The building collapsed, killing his wife and disfiguring Hansel. Unfortunately, the shots of a building falling down in New York City recall the real-life event that happened two weeks before the release of the first Zoolander.

In Z-2, Derek and Hansel are dispatched to Rome to be part of a fashion show. But the focus of the film is on Derek’s effort to reconnect with his son (who just happens to be in a Rome orphanage). Mugatu is now in a “fashion prison” which, amusingly, is built to resemble a giant thimble.

The film’s climax involves a quasi-religious ritual involving real life fashion industry figures.

Penelope Cruz appears as a gorgeous Interpol agent. An unrecognizable Kristen Wiig is an oddly-attired fashionista. (She looks almost like the late Tammie Faye Baker.) Keifer Sutherland is the leader of Hansel’s diverse “orgy crew.”

Some sequels are better left unmade. Zoolander 2 might’ve been a good idea on paper. But on film, not a good idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Mass

If you’ve seen the ads on TV, in print and on the web for Black Mass, you’ve seen Johnny Depp’s latest look. When he appears on the movie screen, with his blue/green eyes, thinning hair and bad front tooth, even if you’ve seen the ads, it’s still a stunning transformation.

Depp gives a mighty performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life notorious Boston criminal who committed numerous murders, many in a particularly violent manner, along with lesser felonies. For Depp, the role redeems him after several recent misfires. Award nominations will be forthcoming.

But Black Mass is more than just Depp. Director Scott Cooper deftly relates a complex narrative in two hours. The brooding soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg (AKA Junkie XL) complements perfectly the dark story and its gloomy look. The tight script is by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill.

(Side note: Is it always cloudy in Boston? Based on this film, Mystic River, The Departed, The Town and others, it seems that the city is constantly under overcast skies.)

The story is told in flashbacks, framed by investigator interviews with Bulger lieutenants Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). In 1975, Bulger is a small-time hood. Soon, he forms an “alliance” with FBI agent and fellow “Southie” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). They trade information. The deal helps the FBI take down Mafia interests in Boston, but also opens up those crime areas to Bulger and his cohorts.

The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, an elected official who somehow escapes being directly connected to his brother’s treachery. Dakota (Fifty Shades of Gray) Johnson plays Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey, who is mother of Whitey Bulger’s son. The FBI crew includes Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour. Corey Stoll is a take charge U.S. attorney who is baffled by the FBI’s coddling of Bulger.

Black Mass has already generated controversy in Boston. Family members of those killed by Bulger are upset that the movie shows his humanity. This week, Depp said of the character: “There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.” (Yes, and John Wayne Gacy gave great clown shows for the kids.)

Just as there are many sides to Whitey Bulger, there are many aspects of Black Mass beyond its central character. Depp is excellent. So is the rest of the movie.

The Imitation Game

 

Another movie based on a true story, The Imitation Game tells a fascinating story of brilliant minds deducing methods to break Germany’s unbreakable Enigma cryptography code during World War II.

The genius of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) causes him to be a bit of an egotist. He knows how smart he is and he flaunts it: first, with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) at the UK’s secret code-breaking agency; later, with his co-workers who have a hard time liking the guy.

Intercepting the Germans’ encrypted messages was easy. The mission to break the constantly changing code was deemed impossible. But Turing and his team made it happen. They required patience and a major outlay of funds from the government to finance the project. With Winston Churchill’s support, they got the money. The result was an early, primitive version of a modern day computer.

The team battles a series of frustrations. In the film, when they are able to finally break the code, they can’t share the info they obtain. Their fear that the Germans would quickly realize that the Allies know their plans might compromise the whole mission. Ultimately, the breaking of the code was credited with saving millions of lives.

The Imitation Game has similarities to the current release The Theory of Everything. Both central characters are brilliant British men who have circumstances that could challenge their abilities to accomplish great things. For Stephen Hawking in Theory, the challenge is ALS. For Turing, the challenge is his closeted homosexuality. (Turing was actually arrested for being gay.)

Keira Knightley appears as Turing’s friend Joan Clarke, a fellow code breaker. Her character’s significance is said to be inflated a bit in the film, but Knightley provides box office appeal and a feminine presence in a male-dominated movie.

The story of Alan Turing and his work is one that has not been widely told while many have been familiar with Hawking for decades. Benedict Cumberbatch is a certain best actor nominee and The Imitation Game is a likely best picture nominee. The film is directed by Norway native Morten Tyldum.

The Imitation Game is one of 2014’s best films and one that I recommend highly.

 

 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 

Let’s get this out of the way up front. The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies is not at good as the first 2 Hobbit films. But it provides much to enjoy and, as it’s the end of the trilogy, it delivers resolution.

2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had a wonderful bit of light-hearted fun as the dwarves engaged Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to be their burglar. The mix of hilarity and peril was in perfect balance. The scene with Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) trading riddles is classic. Director Peter Jackson created a film that was beautiful to look at and set the table for further adventures.

2013’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ramped up the peril and introduced new characters, including the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Oliver Bloom) are brought aboard to provide eye candy. And the Laketown village was visually stunning.

The start of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings Smaug out of his cave to attack the Laketown village with fire and taunts. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that the dragon is decisively neutralized.

The film’s main course is battles aplenty. But there’s a problem: when all the various factions face off, you can’t always tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It’s like in Syria, where so many factions are trying to gain traction. But, as in Syria where everybody opposes ISIS, so too in Hobbit III, everybody hates this one particular group of Orcs.

The final showdown up on the mountain involves several fierce one-on-one hand-to-hand battles. It’s classic, violent, enthralling stuff that provides the film’s real soul.

Afterward, Bilbo and Gandolph (Ian McKellan) hoof it back home where the locals are busy auctioning off Bilbo’s goods, presuming him dead. A brief coda flashes forward and provides a satisfying conclusion for the hobbit, setting him up for what’s to come in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One could argue that lengthy battle scenes with director Jackson’s terrific effects are what the audience wants. And one could reasonably argue that it’s appropriate for the Hobbit films to get progressively darker. But I still like the first 2 better.

 

 

 

 

August: Osage County

If you think your family is screwed up, go see August: Osage County. The Weston family from Oklahoma is among the most dysfunctional you will ever witness. The main source of the trouble is the family matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill and booze addicted woman who is filled with resentment.

Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) all have their own issues, some of which have come straight from mother. Just as Violet has had a tempestuous relationship with her husband (Sam Shepard), so has Barbara with her man Bill (Ewan McGregor).

August: Osage County should win the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble. Without listing the entire family tree, here are some of the other talented actors in the film: Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin and Durmot Mulroney.

Director John Wells and writer Tracey Letts have done an excellent job of taking a stage play to film. Only a handful of scenes have a stagey feel.

August: Osage County has been described by some as a comedy. Chris Cooper’s long-winded blessing is a classic scene and quite funny. And there are several more laughs in the movie. But, make no mistake, August: Osage County is more tragedy than comedy. The Westons are not a happy family.

Originally set for a Christmas Day 2013 release, A: OC did get the necessary runs in NYC and LA to qualify for awards season. (Expect Meryl Streep to grab an Oscar nom for Best Actress when they’re announced next week.) Don’t skip it just because it was pushed back to the movie wasteland of January. See it to witness an all-star cast delivering the goods—especially Meryl.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The visual effects in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug are incredible. The movie looks great from first frame to last. But the movie lacks the perfect mix of peril and playfulness that made last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey one of my top ten movies of 2012.

The second movie of any planned trilogy has a primary function: to set up the concluding episode. TH: TDOS does that. And it entertains along the way.

The dwarves and their hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue on their journey to reclaim their homeland, addressing dangers along the way. The Orcs pursue the dwarves on a river chase that is one of the all-time great movie chase scenes. A bit of welcome help comes from new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who has excellent battle skills and looks gorgeous.

Tauriel adds tastefully sexy eye candy for the guys and offers real girl power for female fans. The appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a Lord of the Rings character, may be another ploy to make The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug more appealing to women.

Following a visit to the village of Laketown, the clever Bilbo manages to find his way into the mountain lair of Smaug. The dragon Smaug is frighteningly menacing in appearance and, importantly, in sound. (That’s Benedict Cumberbatch providing the Smaug voice.) While Bilbo deals with the dragon, the wizard Gandolf (Ian McKellan) is off on a different mysterious path, leaving the dwarves behind.

As with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, much is accomplished in this second segment, but plenty more is left unresolved. To be continued, as they say, in 2014.

I mentioned to a movie promotion person that, while I did not enjoy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as much as last year’s Hobbit film, I can’t wait to see this new one again. Last year’s film felt somehow fresher, yet TH: TDOS has much to offer. See it and make your own comparison.

 

 

12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.