Playing Catch-Up: The End of the Tour (dir by James Ponsoldt) and Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)


Two of the best films released last year dealt with troubled artists.

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The End of the Tour opens in 2008, with a writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting a call that the famous and acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), has committed suicide.  After learning of the tragedy, Lipsky remembers a few days that he spent interviewing Wallace 12 years earlier.  Wallace had just published his best known work, Infinite Jest.  At the time, Lipsky himself was a struggling writer and he approached Wallace with a combination of admiration and professional envy.  Lipsky hoped that, by interviewing Wallace, he could somehow discover the intangible quality that separates a great writer from a merely good one.

Almost the entire film is made up of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace.  We watch as both the somewhat reclusive Wallace (who seems both bemused and, at times, annoyed with his sudden fame) warms up to Lipsky and as Lipsky forces himself to admit that Wallace might actually be a genius.  There are a few conflicts, mostly coming from the contrast between the withdrawn Wallace and the much more verbose Lipsky.  Lipsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) continually pressures him to ask Wallace about rumors that Wallace was once a drug addict.  But, for the most part, it’s a rather low-key film, one that’s more interested in exploring ideas than melodrama.  It’s also a perfect example of what can be accomplished by a great director and two actors who are totally committed to their roles.  Jason Segel, especially, gives the performance of his career so far.

The shadow of Wallace’s suicide hangs over the entire film.  Throughout their conversation, Wallace drops hints about his own history with depression.  Much as Lipsky must have done after Wallace’s suicide, we find ourselves looking for clues to explain his death.  But ultimately, Wallace remains a fascinating enigma in both life and death.

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Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)

Love & Mercy opens with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) selling a car to a polite but nervous man (John Cusack).  The man sits in the car with her and rambles for a bit, mentioning that his brother has recently died.  Soon, the man’s doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), shows up and Melinda learns that the man is Brian Wilson, a musician and songwriter who is famous for co-founding The Beach Boys.  After having a nervous breakdown decades before, Brian is now a recluse.  He and Melinda start a tentative relationship and Melinda quickly discovers that Brian is literally being held prisoner by the manipulative Dr. Landy.

Throughout the film, we are presented with flashbacks to the 1960s and we watch as a young Brian (Paul Dano) deals with both the pressures of fame and his own relationship with his tyrannical father (who, in an interesting parallel to Brian’s later relationship with Landy, is also Brian’s manager).  As Brian struggles to maintain his grip on reality, he obsesses on creating “the greatest album ever.”

Love & Mercy is an enormously affecting story about both the isolation of genius and the redeeming power of love.  Whether he’s played by Cusack or Dano, Brian Wilson remains a fascinating and tragic figure.  It’s hard to say whether Cusack or Dano gives the better performance.  Indeed, they both seem to be so perfectly in sync with each other that you never doubt that the character played by Paul Dano will eventually grow up to become the character played by John Cusack.  Both of them do some of the best work of their careers in Love & Mercy.

Batman v. Superman Latest Trailer Drops


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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been gathering steam and buzz since it was first announced a couple years ago at San Diego Comic-Con. The film is now just a little over 4 months away from release. The fact that we’re even talking about latest trailers and clips about this film was an accomplishment all on its own.

This was a project that had been talked about for so many years, but never got on track. While some DC fans might decry what I’m about to say I do think they should thank the success of the Marvel Studios-produced films for getting this film on the fast track to being made. It made DC and Warner Bros. realize they weren’t the big bully in the blockbuster block anymore and needed something monumental to catch up.

With Man of Steel dividing comic book fans this film had to be made whether it made sense narrative-wise or not. Another so-so Superman film would not do. So, what better way to juice up the Son of Krypton franchise than by pitting him against DC’s other juggernaut property: Batman.

So, without further ado, here is the latest trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v. Superman Finally States It’s Case to the Public


 

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A funny thing happened to the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer that was set for a release at a special IMAX screening event next week. No one bothered to tell someone with a cellphone not to secretly record the trailer. A lo-res cam version of the first teaser trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was leaked just hours after Disney released the second teaser trailer for the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Warner Brothers scrambled to take down the lo-res trailer and made sure to use their power to threaten with legal stuff if people continued to disseminate the illegal recording. During the 24 hours since the leak someone with a much more cooler head over at WB decided to just go the Avengers: Age of Ultron route (that film’s first teaser was also leaked ahead of a planned event) and release the hi-res version of the teaser trailer instead of waiting days for the planned screening event.

So, here’s the very first teaser trailer as Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment finally make their case that whatever Disney and Marvel can do they can do as well.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is set for a March 25, 2016 release date.

Lisa’s Way, Way, Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For January!


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Obviously, it’s way too early to start speculating about who and what will receive Oscar nominations in 2016.  I mean, that would be crazy, right?

So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  Just like last year, I’m going take a monthly wild guess and try to predict what might be nominated.  Next year, around this time, we’ll look at the predictions below and probably laugh.

Since the year just started, these predictions should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.  Needless to say, these predictions are heavily orientated towards what played at Sundance this week and also towards films that were directed by the usual suspects.  For instance, I know next to nothing about St. James Place but it stars Tom Hanks and it was directed by Steven Spielberg and, when you’re guessing this early in the year, that’s enough to earn it a listing.

 (And before you laugh too much at how influenced this list was by Sundance, consider that the campaigns for both Boyhood and Whiplash started at Sundance.)

Of course, for all I know, the release of some of these films might be delayed, much as how Foxcatcher was moved from 2013 t0 2014.

With all that in mind, here are my way, way, way too early Oscar predictions for January!

Best Picture

Brooklyn

Concussion

The End of the Tour

Grandma

The Hateful Eight

In the Heart of the Sea

The Martian

The Revenant

St. James Place

The Walk

Best Actor

Matt Damon in The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

James Franco in I Am Michael

Tom Hanks in St. James Place

Jason Segel in The End of The Tour

Best Actress

Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria

Blythe Danner in I’ll See You In My Dreams

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Albert Brooks in Concussion

Bruce Dern in The Hateful Eight

Jesse Eisenberg in The End of the Tour

Sam Elliott in Grandma

Tom Hardy in The Revenant

Best Supporting Actress

Julia Garner in Grandma

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Francaise

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

Meryl Streep in Suffragette 

Best Director

John Crowley for Brooklyn

Ron Howard for In The Heart of the Sea

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for The Revanant

Quentin Tarantino for The Hateful Eight

Robert Zemeckis for The Walk

The Walk

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Now You See Me”


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Maybe it’s unfair to saddle director Louis (Transporter) Leterrier’s new-ish “caper” drama Now You See Me with the “blockbuster” label, since it obviously doesn’t have the budget (or hype machine surrounding it) of an Iron Man 3 or a  Man Of Steel, but its surprisingly healthy take at the box office in recent weeks has it hedging into “blockbuster” territory in terms of its gross ticket receipts, it’s got a “blockbuster”-caliber cast, and it definitely falls into the category of lightweight, fun, summer entertainment, so — let’s just roll with it.

And let’s not take that “lightweight, fun, summer entertainment” statement as a jab, either, please, because Now You See Me is a solid little piece of film-making that anyone associated with it can (and should) be damn proud of. It’s just not particularly “deep” in any thematic sense.

But so what? It’s been awhile since Hollywood served us up a good “caper”-style thriller — the last genuinely superb one that comes to mind is Roger Donaldson’s criminally-underappreciated The Bank Job, and that’s getting to be a good few years ago now — and even though this is a film that doesn’t aim for the same level of “ooh”s and “aah”s of the latest Marvel or DC celluloid comic-book adaptation, it’s got more genuine heroics than most of them, and is every bit as finely-calculated a crowd-pleaser as anything they’ve sent down the pipeline in recent years, as well.

The all-star cast definitely helps to elevate a script that at times belabors its points with admittedly necessary but occasionally clumsy “info-dump” scenes and features a smattering of dialogue that can best be described as “clunky,” and while none of the actors involved are exactly stretching their abilities into new and unexplored territory, there’s something to be said for knowing what the folks you hire are best at doing and then getting out of the way and letting them do it.

To that end, Jesse Eisenberg tackles his role as fast-talking, arrogant illusionist J. Daniel Atlas with aplomb; Woody Harrelson delivers a solid, workman-like piece of acting as mentalist Merritt McKinney; Isla Fisher gives us a nice turn as former-magician’s-assistant-turned-headliner Henley Reeves; Dave Franco projects cool confidence as safe-cracker/lock-picker/con artist extraordinaire Jack Wilder; Mark Ruffalo gives another “believable everyman” performance as Special Agent Dylan Rhodes, the man tasked with somehow getting some charges to stick on our intrepid foursome, who have come together and billed themselves as “The Four Horsemen,” after they apparently rob a bank in front of a Las Vegas show audience (or do they?); Michael Caine gives it his usual grade-A “go” as the group’s  multi-millionaire benefactor/promoter/future victim; Morgan Freeman essentially plays himself in his guise as Through The Wormhole host, albeit with quantum physics being replaced with magic trick “debunking” as his gig; Melanie Laurent cuts a satisfying European-woman-of-mystery figure as Alma Dray, Ruffalo’s reluctant Interpol partner/potential love interest — heck, there are even notable minor performances here from Michael Kelly and Common as two of the cops who are down a few rungs on the investigative totem pole.

It’s not like the film doesn’t have any sort of statement to make about the general state of the world, either — to the contrary, “The Four Horsemen” take great pride in ripping off those who have ripped off society, and represent the kind of folk heroes the world could surely use in the wake of the mortgage crisis and the atrocious Wall Street bailout it gave birth to. Think of them as modern-day Robin Hoods with a flair for the dramatic and plenty of  flat-out amazing tricks up their sleeves.

Still, the art of deception being the constant theme here, don’t be shocked if the reasons for our protagonists’ “crimes” turn out to be a lot more personal than they first appear to be (hey, I did say this movie wasn’t particularly “deep,” remember? Not even when it looks like it might be.) . I think I’ll just leave it at that, which might even be saying a little too much already.

Leterrier, as we’ve come to expect, keeps things moving at a fairly expert clip, throws in some nifty little visual tricks along the way, and most definitely delivers the goods in the film’s more action-heavy scenes, and while he handles the script’s quasi-trippy/metaphysical conclusion quite nicely in my view, I think a lot of folks will still find it a bridge too far, and frankly, for a movie that’s all about sleight of hand, you’ll still most likely see the “surprise character revelation” at the end coming from a mile off.

But ya know what?  This is such an expertly-crafted piece of populist entertainment that I don’t think you’ll mind its admittedly-glaring weaknesses, simply because you’ll be too busy smiling from ear to ear. And that, perhaps, is its greatest trick of all.

There will surely be better films than Now You See Me released in 2013. Heck, there already have been. But I doubt there will be any that are more fun.

4 Late Quickies With Lisa Marie: Bully, For Greater Glory, Sound of My Voice, To Rome With Love


While I try to review just about every film I see, there are times when I don’t get to review a film as soon as I would like.  Fortunately, in this age of Netflix, DVDs, and Blu-ray, it’s never too late to review a film!  I saw the following four films earlier this year.  These reviews are a little late but here they are.

1) Bully (directed by Lee Hirsch)

This documentary, which follows and tells the story of several bullied teenagers over the course of one year, has the best of intentions and it’s definitely effective as far as making you dislike bullies and feel sorry for their victims.  That said, did anyone really like bullies before this film was released? 

Bully got a lot of attention when it was released earlier this year and a lot of people (who should have known better) said that the film itself was a solution to the problem of bullying.  I doubt that this film (or anything else, for that matter) will solve the issue of bullying but it is a well-made look at what kids do whenever adults aren’t watching (and, sad to say, sometimes when they are). 

One problem I did have with this film is that it chooses to limit itself to schools in small towns and rural communities, which gives the whole enterprise something of an elitist feel.  Are there no bullies up north? 

2) For Greater Glory (directed by Dean Wright)

For Greater Glory is a dramatization of the bizarrely obscure period of Mexican history known as the Cristero War.  In 1920s, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles (played in this film by Ruben Blades) started a violent and relentless crackdown on the country’s Catholic faithful.  Churches were burned, priests and nuns were murdered by supporters of the government, and eventually Catholic peasants rose up in violent rebellion.  The Cristero War lasted from 1926 until 1929, eventually ending with a truce that was brokered by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow (played by Bruce Greenwood).

For Greater Glory set box office records in Mexico but it received some pretty negative reviews from American film critics.  To a certain extent, the negative reviews are not surprising.  The film is long, frequently heavy-handed and melodramatic and it’s also unapologetically pro-Catholic in its storytelling.  (Roger Ebert, who never seems to get tired of apologizing for having been born into a Catholic family, was especially critical of that aspect of the film.) 

With all that in mind, I still enjoyed For Greater Glory.  It’s a well-made and ultimately rather moving film (though I imagine some parts of the film might be a bit confusing if you don’t have at least a little bit of a Catholic background) and it features excellent performances from Andy Garcia and Oscar Isaac as two of the rebel leaders.  In many ways, For Greater Glory feels like a throwback to the epic films of the past and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3) Sound of My Voice (directed by Zat Batmanglij)

Like last year’s Another Earth, Sound of My Voice is a science fiction film that stars and was co-written by Brit Marling.  The difference between the two is that Another Earth was a pretentious mess while Sound of My Voice is an effectively creepy little film that puts story and atmosphere above trite pronouncements about the state of existence.

Brit Marling plays a mysterious woman who claims to have been sent from the future.  She has a devoted cult of followers who spend their nights sitting on the floor around her, listening to her talk about the horrors waiting for them in the future.  Two journalists go undercover and infiltrate her cult, hoping to expose her as a fraud.  

Sound Of My Voice keeps the viewer guessing as to whether or not Marling is who she says she is and the film’s ending, while not a total surprise, is still effective enough to inspire debate after the end credits roll.  As opposed to Another Earth, Marling gives an actual performance here and is both creepy and sympathetic at the same time.

4) To Rome With Love (directed by Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s follow-up to Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love tells four separate stories that all take place in Rome.  Despite the fact that the cast features everyone from Alec Baldwin to Roberto Begnini to Penelope Cruz to Ellen Page, the true star of the film is the city of Rome.  I spent the summer after I graduated high school in Italy and this film brought back a lot of good memories.

Unfortunately, the film’s four stories are pretty uneven and the film’s frequent transitions from story to story are pretty awkward.  The worst story features Alec Baldwin meeting his younger self (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and trying to prevent him from falling in love with a neurotic actress (Ellen Page).  The film’s best story is a satiric fable about an ordinary man (played, in an excellent performance, by Roberto Begnini) who wakes up one day to discover that he’s the most famous man in Italy. 

The film doesn’t really work but I still loved to getting to see Rome once again.

A Quickie Review: 30 Minutes or Less (dir. by Ruben Fleischer)


Earlier tonight, I went and saw the new comedy 30 Minutes or Less.  The film has, so far, gotten mixed reviews and the theater we saw it in was half-deserted.  The audience laughed quite a bit during the 1st half of the movie and a little less so during the second.  As soon as the credits started, everyone stood up and left.  This is not the type of film that inspires you to sit around and wait to see if there’s any extras at the end.  Still, despite that, it’s an enjoyable comedy that has enough laughs in it to justify the 83 minutes it takes to watch the entire film.

Danny McBride plays an aimless loser who, despite being in his mid-3os, still lives at home with his wealthy but hateful father (well-played by Fred Ward).  McBride spends his time blowing stuff up with his well-meaning but stupid best friend (Nick Swardson) and fantasizing about the day that his father will die and leave him his inheritance.  However, then McBride finds out about a hitman (Michael Pena) who is willing to kill Ward as long as McBride can pay him several thousand dollars.  So, McBride and Swardson kidnap a pizza deliveryman (Jesse Eisenberg) and strap a bomb to his chest.  They tell him that is he doesn’t rob a bank in the next 10 hours, the bomb will go off.  With the help of his best friend (Aziz Ansari), Eisenberg attempts to do just that.

The film’s humor comes not from the plot (which is based very loosely on a true story — more about that in a minute) but instead from the way these very ordinary characters attempt to deal with the situation they find themselves in.  All four of the major characters have little grasp on reality beyond what they’ve seen in other movies.  When Eisenberg and Aziz plot their bank robbery, it has less to do with logistics and everything to do with Point Break.  The film is perfectly cast and all of the actors have a real chemistry with each other.  You believe that McBride and Swardson are lifelong friends just as you buy that Aziz would go out of his way to help out Eisenberg. 

Much as he did with Zombieland, director Fleischer manages to maintain a nice balance between the comedic and the grotesque.  Unfortunately, also much like Zombieland, the film starts to run out of steam during the second half as the storyline becomes more centered on action than on comedy.  These characters who were previously only talking about being in an action film are suddenly thrust into an action film and everything starts to seem a little bit too familiar.  Still, 30 Minutes or Less is an enjoyable enough movie.  I just wish the end result had been a little less uneven.

Now, 30 Minutes or Less is based on a true story and this story wasn’t a comedy.  In 2003, a pizza deliveryman named Brian Douglas Wells robbed a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania.  He had a bomb around his neck.  Unlike the characters in this film, Wells was killed when the bomb went off and blew a softball-sized hole in his chest.  The police — who, in the moments before the fatal blast, basically just stood around with their tasers drawn while Wells begged for help — later accused Wells of being a part of the whole plot.  Which makes absolutely no sense but who am I to question Big Brother? 

Regardless of whether Wells was a victim or participant, that doesn’t change the fact that pizza delivery men are easy targets.  Just last year in Dallas, two kids with guns ordered a pizza and gave the address of a deserted warehouse.  They had to call many different pizza places before they found someone willing to deliver to that area of town.  When the pizza arrived, the kids gunned down the deliveryman.  When they were arrested, they said they had simply wanted to kill someone and they knew a pizza deliveryman was the only potential victim they’d be able to lure out to the middle of nowhere.  That’s hardly an isolated incident. 

Also, as is mentioned in this movie, whenever the pizza person takes 34 minutes to get to your house and then you go, “Duuuuuuude, the pizza’s free!” that means that the cost of your pizza is going to be taken out of the paycheck of a man who puts his life in danger every time he goes to work. 

So, what am I saying?  I’m saying don’t be an asshole and pay for your damn pizza!

And leave a good tip.