Thursday, August 27, 2015

The End of the Tour

***1/2 out of ****

We may want to leave it to the most intense bookworms out there to judge Jason Segel’s portrayal of renowned writer David Foster Wallace. My only experience with the author was through listening to him read his collection of essays, titled Consider the Lobster through an audiobook. He came across as a thinker, whose obsessive explorations of every subject he approached would be taxing, if his thoughts were not so engaging. Jason Segal plays Wallace as a man reluctant to go off on the tangents he will inevitably lunge into. If this movie doesn’t capture his real character, it still may reveal what he was like when under examination. No, I have not read his most celebrated work, Infinite Jest, which catapulted the writer into a world of fame.

James Ponsoldt’s new film is about Wallace’s struggle with becoming a star writer after that thousand-page novel was published. It is based on a novel by David Lipsky, which recounted five days during the winter of 1996, when he conducted a series of interviews with Wallace for Rolling Stone during a book tour.

Lipsky is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg with the determination of a reporter digging for details about his reclusive subject, conflicted with the fact that he is a fan. Wallace comes across as a ball of discomfort, considering all the possibilities, intentions, and outcomes of having agreed to this interview.

As a critic, I tend to worry if I fail to represent most moviegoers, when I voice my preference of a good conversation movie to a shallow action flick, rom-com, or biopic. Every genre has potential, but when a drama focuses on the power of an engaging conversation, I feel closer to understanding what Roger Ebert meant when he called movies, machines that generate empathy. A conversation is a raw bit of reality similar to what we experience every day. When a movie gives me the simulated privilege of spending time with a great artist and to hear this artist’s thoughts on the allure of fame, the fear of it, and the struggle to exist with a brain that just won’t shut up, I feel grateful. Focusing on one little corner of a great man’s life can be more telling than the misplaced ambition to try cramming all the highlights into one cinematic experience.

As the movie begins in 2008, Lipsky hears of Wallace’s suicide, which provokes the flashback to 1996 as he listens to recordings of their conversations. I felt as though this movie could have been more daring, if it had committed those flashbacks to only where the cassette recorder was rolling and left the words spoken in between to be expressed by Lipsky’s character in the present day, as he writes his book. I’m getting off track when I explain what a movie isn’t as opposed to what it is, but it also seems so close to taking this stylistic shape, that I’m sure the filmmakers danced around with the idea before arriving at a more conventional form that would be easier on an audience.

The End of the Tour is still a well-acted and honest film that probably does most audiences a favor by simplifying the eccentric personalities on display and it is among the better movies I’ve seen this year.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

*1/2 out of ****

Straight Outta Compton is the cinematic origin story following those who pioneered gangsta’ rap on the west coast. Unsurprisingly, F. Gary Gray, a director who can't think past conventional approaches, gives us a movie filled with the characteristics that I don’t typically enjoy in biopics –particularly the biopics attempting to cover the lives of multiple figures.

You don’t have to like hip-hop in order to appreciate this movie’s intentions. There's very little music from the genre that I truly like. However, I’ve always been infuriated by ignorance regarding the music’s existence. This movie is seeing success, because we still live in troubled times between citizens and law enforcement. The blatant brutal racism of the LAPD in the late eighties/early nineties is on display in the film and serves to remind us all of where the anger of these artists came from, and why it continues to this day.

The movie chronicles the glory, tragedy, and legacy of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – Ice Cube’s son), Easy-E (Jason Mitchell), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) over 147 minutes of beautifully shot, decently acted material that is sadly unfocused in structure and boring in its dialogue. Other than the epic concert scenes, the re-enactments fail to be truly compelling and left me with a bigger appetite for something closer to the truth. When I can't tell the difference between the exaggerated stories and the true ones that are stranger than fiction, I find myself wishing that I was watching a documentary instead. 

I was convinced that I was watching a great movie at the beginning, but not too far in, I was losing interest due to its weak portrayal of the creative process. By the point the film was an hour in, and the lead characters were rolling in dough through the questionable advocacy of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) managing the group, I was annoyed by the tired old tale of business conflicts corrupting collaborative art. The movie hadn't even reached the halfway point and I was sure it was past the point of recovering all the atmosphere and emotion it began with... and that's a drag.

Ice Cube, Dre, and Tomica Woods-Wright (the widow of Easy-E) co-produced the film, and while this is evidence of a lack of objectivity, there shouldn't have been a problem in making an old rags-to-riches story seem interesting. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin approached this kind of drama in the heavily embellished, yet seriously engrossing The Social Network and made it feel fresh. Straight Outta Compton also doesn't come as close to humanizing the seedy side of hip-hop in the way that the great fictional film, Hustle & Flow did.

Essentially, this movie is no different than one of those godawful network TV movies about Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Steve Jobs from the nineties; it's just more polished in appearance by a great cinematographer like Matthew Libatique and some very uncanny casting to match its subjects.

There is an enthusiastic audience for this film, prepared to forgive its dull stretches that turned me off - and some people who know nothing of N.W.A's history, who will find the film informative; but I don't think it's primed to be the Scorsese-inspired American epic it wants to. It's the music that this movie is about, which will continue to live on - and if I can give this film any credit; it gave the nostalgia for the music a little boost.

Ricki and the Flash

*1/2 out of ****

Meryl Streep plays an aging rock singer in Ricki and the Flash, not because she's perfect for the roll, but because she hadn't done it yet. I find it embarrassing to call this movie disappointing, because I found the trailer to be such a turnoff, that it’s amazing I was able to maintain a little faith in the people involved in its making. After Young Adult, I had finally come to like Diablo Cody as a screenwriter; aging director Jonathan Demme has proved, with films like Rachel Getting Married, that he still has a strong empathetic vision and a love for music; and Meryl Streep always has something new to prove.

The film focuses on Streep as the title character, the singer of a Rock cover band that plays regularly at a blue-collar California bar. Ricki, while out of money, goes to visit her estranged well-off family in Indiana due to a crisis with one of her grown children, Julie (Mamie Gummer). Ricki’s ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), is the most welcoming while Julie and her two siblings reasonably resent the mother who rejected them during childhood, in search of success as a musician.

This seems like a good concept for a movie, but it never comes together in an impressive way. Even with the benefit of Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter, in the cast, I still didn’t believe the film’s characters could have ever shared a kinship and I found a lot of the dramatic scenarios, to be forced and unbelievable (This was the problem I had with Cody's work in Juno).

Segments involving Ricki and the Flash - the band - are among the only ones that seem close to the heart of a director who once raised the bar for filming live concerts. Along with the inclusion of Rick Springfield as Ricki's frustrated on/off boyfriend, the band members are played by Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, and Joe Vitale -all veterans of famous bands. 

A strange amount of this movie concentrates on Streep's character as a blue-collar republican version of a free-spirit who can't live up to the sophistication of her liberal family members - including the gay son she never understood - but can bring a little "rock and roll" into their stuffy lives -especially during the lame climax, where the crowd Ricky plays for are such a generic version of classy snobs, that I thought they belonged in an Adam Sandler movie. This film is attempting some kind of weird cultural statement, but its lost on me.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Irrational Man

** out of ****

Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is a typical weak entry in his movie-a-year body of work, where he's obviously falling back on old ideas, but with nothing fresh to apply. It has a good plot that probably required a little more thought and time than this busy, aging auteur was willing to put in. 

His Rhode Island-set drama about a depressed college professor – played by Joaquin Phoenix - who feels uplifted through the planning of a perfect murder, seemed to dance around some heavy moral and philosophical concepts but none of these elements seemed to gel.

Still, the dialogue and narration between Phoenix and Emma Stone - as his student - contains a lot of analytical banter that may be exactly what turns people off from Allen’s work, but I’ve always found refreshing when compared to the unending list of movies with characters who don’t seem to think at all.

I guess I don't need to spell out that this is not funny Woody Allen, it's the bitter dark drama territory he brought us with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. Although, this time he scores it with upbeat jazz piano. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but it's a collision of tone and meaning. 

Mr. Holms

*** out of ****

Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes stars Ian McKellen as the classic Arthur Conan Doyle detective –now an elderly man in poor health as he stays in a country cottage by the sea under the care of his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and the inquisitive attention of her young son (Milo Parker) who helps him explore an unsolved haunting case from his past by evoking fading memories of the facts surrounding it.

The case itself never becomes intriguing but the drama and tender interactions between a tired old man and an ambitious child are the heart of the film. The movie is slow, but very hypnotic. This is recommended entertainment for a lazy Sunday.