2008's Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire" beautifully showcased the incredible French artist Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, defined cultural American history by walking on a wire hung between the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City. The story itself is remarkable, and as the Hollywood version of Petit's feat, "The Walk", once again proves - Petit's saga leading-up to his daring stroll is so unbelievable there's no way any of it could have possibly been made-up.
The previous film from legendary director Robert Zemeckis, 2012's airplane pilot drama "Flight", featured a memorable sequence early on with Denzel Washington landing a 747 upside down. The rest of that film wasn't nearly as strong, though Washington's performance definitely held your attention. "The Walk" has a reverse effect. It's Petit's backstory and the preparations for his walk that are interesting and escalate in quality as we get closer and closer to the critical morning of August 7th. And then, after 90 minutes, the showcase visual scenes finally appear.
"The Walk" had been primarily screened for critics, and marketed to audiences, in its IMAX 3D format. I decided to see it in regular 2D, and trust me, the visuals and this interpretation of Petit's actual walk are still very effective. And the climactic wire walk sequence is accompanied by my favorite film score of the year so far - it's absolutely lovely.
Early on, and at certain key spots, Zemeckis intentionally throws us a gimmick aimed for the 3D effect, and you can tell that much of his vision was aimed for that format. Otherwise this fictionalized execution of the story is as straight as a wire. His biggest risk was allowing Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is quite convincing as Petit in the dramatic and conversation scenes) to narrate the entire film. And he does this, often, on camera, looking directly at the lens while standing next to the torch atop the Statue of Liberty. For me, this device was the one element "The Walk" could've easily walked away from. We do get to hear Petit talk about his psychological struggles and first-hand experiences of the amazing event, but each time we go to Gordon-Levitt on Lady Liberty it feels awkward, leaning towards corny (or maybe that he's going to try to sell us auto insurance).
Even so, "The Walk" succeeds with a fine lead and solid supporting work from Sir Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a veteran trapeze artist who mentors Petit, and Charlotte Le Bon (who shined opposite Helen Mirren in "The Hundred-Foot Journey") as Petit's girlfriend Annie. The real Petit personally trained Gordon-Levitt, which must've been an unforgettable experience for the Golden Globe nominated actor.
Most of all, "The Walk" pulls-off something rather difficult in the symbolism department: making us believe in and care for buildings that, tragically, no longer exist. It's clear throughout that Zemeckis has the importance of these structures on his mind, honoring them through this triumphant event. The towers will live on, as Petit puts-it, "forever".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Walk" gets a B.
We’ve seen a Disney animated classic, a Cathy Rigby musical, an NBC live TV musical and a Johnny Depp drama that all involve the story of Peter Pan. What else can possibly be done with this character we know too well? “Pan” dares to answer that by going the prequel route with the tale of young Peter’s first adventures in Neverland.
All of the elements were in place for something special: 13-year-old Levi Miller, who was chosen from more than 4,000, set to shine as Peter. The multi-talented Hugh Jackman taking-on the villainous role of Blackbeard the Pirate. And Joe Wright, the brilliant director of the thriller “Hanna” and the 2012 Keira Knightley version of “Anna Karenina”, steering this “Jolly Roger”.
But when Warner Bros. released "Pan"'s first trailer last November and then announced they were moving it out of the Summer season and into Fall, I knew that wasn’t a good sign. It turns out I was right. “Pan” is a consistently underwhelming and weak effort that never comes close to reaching the second star to the right.
Things don’t get off to a great start, as Peter, who was abandoned by his mother (Amanda Seyfried has little more than a cameo), lives at an all-boys orphanage in London during the height of WWII. One night, he and many others are magically taken from their beds by pirates to become “The Lost Boys” on a ship set for Neverland. When they arrive and are greeted by Blackbeard, Jackman and the others are singing the classic Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. As bizarre and confusing as this scene is to watch, it’s one of “Pan”’s only legitimate surprises.
Wright makes some other interesting decisions, mostly involving the visuals, and the results are largely unimpressive. As for the performances - Miller is not as likeable a Peter as he should be, and at times I simply couldn’t make-out what he was saying due to a strong British accent. Jackman’s Blackbeard is a mix of Willy Wonka and another cinematic pirate - Captain Jack Sparrow, as he delivers some quick and quirky one-liners. He does have a few solid early scenes, but once he, Peter, and a young and goofy Hook (Garrett Hedlund in a carrer-low) meet-up with Rooney Mara‘s Tiger Lily, the rest of the film plays-out in a dull and straightforward fashion. Oh - there are action scenes - including multiple sword fights and ship races - but the uninspired results are anything but swashbuckling fun.
Where were the crocodiles when we needed them? On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Pan” gets a D+.
Matt Damon plays an astronaut stuck on Mars in director Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”. But unlike another recent space saga - 2013’s Oscar-winning “Gravity” - “The Martian” doesn’t have enough dramatic pull to last its entire 2 hours and 20 minutes.
This “Martian” is not named Marvin, but rather Mark. On the 18th day of their Ares III exploration of the red planet, Mark Watney and the five other astronauts get caught outside in a severe storm. A giant piece of debris flies into Watney, sending him flying-off into the darkness. The other crew members, led by mission commander Lewis (played by Jessica Chastain), can’t locate Mark and presume he’s dead. And they must abort their mission and quickly leave the planet to save themselves.
But - guess what? Watney wakes-up the next morning and realizes two things: he’s the only person left on Mars and he’s probably going to die. However, he’s not going down without a fight. Staying positive, he comes-up with plans to grow food, because, as he says while holding an instruction manual to the video camera for a log entry: “Luckily - I’m a botanist!” This is one of at least a dozen notable corny one-liners delivered throughout what should be a very serious film.
Once NASA chief Teddy Sanders (played by Jeff Daniels), a character you’ll hate if you’re always the last person to learn about something important, marketing chief Annie (an interesting casting choice in Kristen Wiig) and Ares missions director Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find-out that Mark is alive, they decide they must (as the poster reads) “Bring Him Home”.
Though “The Martian” never gets dull, the first half is far more compelling than the second, which features an overly cinematic and cliché-filled finale. And only early on does Damon get a chance to show-off his acting abilities, when dealing with his situation and possible fate.
Scott has made a good-looking film that doesn’t feature any of the noisy sound issues of last year’s “Damon and Chastain space movie “Interstellar”. What “The Martian” lacks are a lot of actual outer space scenes. We get more atmosphere inside mission control than in the real atmosphere. And unlike “Gravity”, which focused mainly on one person with one goal for the entire time, “The Martian” is filled with distractions, from the long list of supporting characters to the absolutely unnecessary 70’s disco music score. Scott was obviously trying to mimic the success of “Guardians of the Galaxy”’s 80s soundtrack, but the attempt fails badly, adding to the film’s uneven tone.
“The Martian” is solid entertainment, but it’s scattered and too cute for its own good. In short - this is far from an “Out of this World” experience. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Martian” gets a C+.
Ten years ago, Anne Hathaway played the personal assistant to high-strung fashion magazine mogul Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in "The Devil Wears Prada". Now, a decade later, Hathaway is the passionate, stressed-out, bike-riding at the office boss of her own successful online fashion company and 72-year-old Robert De Niro is "The Intern" -though he quickly becomes much more than that. The latest comedy from writer/director Nancy Meyers ("It's Complicated", "Something's Gotta Give") isn't about two people falling in love, but rather two people needing and finding a new best friend.
De Niro's Ben Whitaker was a successful businessman for 40 years - much of that spent at a now extinct phone book company. A widower and recently retired, Ben is looking for new purpose in his life. He reads an ad for a senior citizen internship program at the internet start-up "About the Fit", run by Hathaway's workaholic Jules Ostin. After a few interviews, Ben is chosen for the program, and he's picked to be Jules' personal intern. At first she's not thrilled with the idea of having to interact closely with a man twice her age. But as situations begin to develop with Jules, both professionally and with her personal life, she comes to rely on Ben, and he gets more involved with his new position, bringing some much-needed stability into her modern, out-of-control life.
The first-half dialogue is light, brisk and occasionally sharp, hitting on topics such as old school vs. new school and sexism in the workplace. A couple of situations are played-up for big laughs, including Ben's sessions with company masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo) as well as an "Ocean's 11" style sequence that's a bit over-played. The tone changes dramatically in the second half, and because of that, and the investment you now have in these characters, the final half hour packs a pretty good emotional punch.
Over the course of "The Intern", through a series of events and situations, ranging from humorous to heartbreaking, and all quite authentic, these two somewhat lost souls realize how much they need each other. There are numerous scenes in which De Niro and Hathaway are alone together on screen, and they all generate a special kind of magic. De Niro is charismatic, charming, confident and heartwarming as a seasoned gentleman with depth and class. And Hathaway is consistently believable as a woman struggling to balance her business and family responsibilities. They may just be the best movie pair of the year. And, for me, this is the strongest substantial performance of Hathaway's career.
Meyers has pulled-off something rare these days for a big-studio Hollywood comedy. She's overcome a fairly formulaic premise by combining a smart, heartfelt script with great work from two knockout leads. Here's hoping the Critics Choice and Golden Globes voters keep it in mind for several of the Comedy categories. I had a feeling that "The Intern" could be something special and it exceeded my expectations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Intern" gets an A-.
Sony Pictures Animation welcomes you back to “Hotel Transylvania” with a sequel to their 2012 all-star “monster” comedy. Unfortunately, you may not want to check-in, as “HT2” suffers from a scattered script and uneven pacing (aka the Adam Sandler Syndrome).
Sandler earned high marks for his voice performance of Dracula in the original “Hotel Transylvania”, doing a updated, but still honorable impression of the iconic character. For this follow-up, Sandler took on duties of co-writer - and his fingerprints are all over the too-thin story with very little comic bite. And this time Dracula sounds a lot more like Sandler - maybe because he gave himself a lot more lines.
As the film begins Dracula’s daughter Mavis (voiced nicely by Selena Gomez) and human boyfriend Johnny (Andy Samberg) are getting married. Flash forward a year and Mavis is pregnant. Flash again - little Dennis arrives. And with one final flash Dennis is about to turn 5 - and no one still knows whether he’s a human boy or a vampire. And Drac is worried. If Dennis doesn’t get his fangs by his birthday, he’ll stay a human forever, and Mavis and Johnny will move to California to live near his parents.
Parts of “HT2” work quite well - including pockets from an extended section in which Dracula rounds-up fellow monsters Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Werewolf and the Invisible Man to re-live their glory days and show Dennis how to be scary. Problem is he and his buddies have become too “humanized”, and the modern world has softened them up. Meantime, Dennis’ biggest inspirations are Batman and his favorite TV character, the puppet “Cake Monster” - a friendly jab at a certain, blue Sesame Street creature. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these clever elements to keep the laughs coming for 90 minutes.
As you’d expect the animation is strong and a few aerial sequences (though simply included as time-fillers) are visually impressive. But Sandler, co-writer Robert Smigel and director Genndy Tartakovsky, jammed-in way too many one-liners, satirical references and silly gags, and most have no pay off. Clearly a case of quantity over quality - another recent Sandler trademark.
The casting of Mel Brooks as Dracula’s father Vlad was perfect, but saving him for the final 15 minutes and giving him almost nothing to do was yet another mistake. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Hotel Transylvania 2” gets a C.
"Mississippi Grind" is a solid and engaging drama about the extreme highs and lows of the world of gambling. This low-budget indie more effectively portrays this culture (just how quickly you can make money - and how destructive it can be when you lose it) than both Mark Wahlberg's recent remake of "The Gambler" and Will Smith's con/crime caper "Focus" from earlier this year. Credit goes to writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as well as the performances from leads Ben Mendelsohn ("The Dark Knight Rises") and Ryan Reynolds.
Mendelsohn's Gerry is a struggling real estate agent with a gambling addiction. He owes a lot of people a lot of money. At a casino in his home state of Iowa Gerry meets-up with Curtis (played by Reynolds) at a poker table. Curtis seems like a guy who's just passing through town...and who's passed through more than his share of towns. The two hit it off and eventually decide to travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans to take part in a major poker tournament, which promises a payoff that could change both of their lives.
The two make stops in cities to gamble along the way, including St. Louis, where Curtis reunities with on-again/off-again girlfriend Simone ("American Sniper"'s Sienna Miller). Boden and Fleck do a nice job, with quick shots of the buildings, restaurants, theaters and casinos in each area, providing a real feel for the roadtrip the men are on. Even at nighttime, the grim and gritty cinematography sets the perfect tone.
A strong theme throughout "Mississippi Grind" is the idea of rainbows bringing Curtis and Gerry good luck. The symbolism is not heavy-handed and works quite well. However, some of the scenes in the second half get a little messy and aren't as compelling as the set-up, particularly a section when Gerry decides to re-connect with his ex-wife. And the ending doesn't quite match-up with the feel of the rest of the movie. But Reynolds (who's having a highlight year with this performance and his work in "Woman in Gold") and Mendelsohn make us want to stay with "Mississippi Grind" to its somewhat predictable ending. Even after all they go through, there may just be that pot of gold at the end of their rainbow.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mississippi Grind" gets a B-.
Johnny Depp has given a lot of great performances in his career…just not lately. With his portrayal of ruthless gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger in director Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass”, Depp is generating the most positive buzz since he played Sweeney Todd on screen back in 2007.
Often it’s the Depp performance that either makes or breaks the movie he’s in. But that’s really not the case with “Black Mass” because both Depp and the film are simply just OK.
A star-studded ensemble accompanies, but never overshadows, Depp, led by Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, who was boyhood friends with both Jimmy and his brother Billy Bulger, growing-up in tough South Boston. Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who struggles with his Boston accent) has become a powerful Massachusetts senator. And Jimmy, well, let’s just say he and his pals have been “taking care of business”.
Set in the 70s, and based on real-life events, “Black Mass” begins with Connolly and the FBI convincing Jimmy to become an informant so they can get information on the notorious Italian mob that rules the north side of the city. And over the course of the film, as Connolly’s boss (played by Kevin Bacon) and others keep telling him that the alliance with Whitey is a mistake, Connolly’s loyalty and ambition allow Bulger to expand his crime empire.
Unlike in the classic mob movies, the best scenes in “Black Mass” come during quiet times, including two exchanges between Depp and Dakota Johnson, from “Fifty Shades of Grey”, who plays Bulger’s wife. A conversation that Whitey has with their young son at the breakfast table is quirky, memorable and perfectly foreshadows what’s to come. However, other intended showcase moments for Depp, away from the predictable shootings and strangulations, don’t provide much impact.
All the elements are here for a classic crime drama. This could have been the Boston version of “Goodfellas”. But “Black Mass” never comes close to rising to that level. In fact my interest in this story and these characters fluctuated drastically over the two hours. And ignore the buzz: Depp’s performance is largely one-note and not nomination-worthy. But the biggest black mark for “Black Mass” is the over-the-top score, which ruins otherwise effective scenes and consistently hits the wrong note.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Black Mass” gets a C.
“The Visit” is the latest effort from “The Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan. His last several movies, including “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” were both critical and box office flops. “The Visit” is being advertised as a traditional modern horror movie…with some touches of comedy. And it’s actually a pretty good film - just don’t expect a lot of scares or laughs.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: a mother decides to send her two teenage kids - 15-year-old Becca and her 13-year-old brother Tyler - on an Amtrak train to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents for a week. The catch: Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents. Once the two arrive they are immediately welcomed by Nana and Pop Pop who, at first, seem sweet and innocent.
But not too long into their stay, Tyler (a wannabe rap star) and Becca (who’s filming their visit for a documentary) begin to notice strange circumstances involving their grandparents. Nana has issues during the day and seems completely possessed at night (the kids capture this on video), and Pop Pop has a mysterious shed and anger management issues.
Things escalate quickly, and even though there are some story and character flaws, I bought into the premise and bizarre happenings. And then, about an hour in, Shyamalan hits us with a twist that comes as a complete surprise. But it also causes the last act, which should be the most dramatic, to drag on to an uninspired conclusion.
Interestingly, “The Visit” isn’t particularly scary and is rarely intentionally funny. My favorite line comes from Pop Pop, who at one point tells the kids that he thinks they are acting strange - this after we’ve seen him collecting his dirty adult diapers and sticking the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth.
Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, clearly focused more on his director duties. “The Visit” is well-shot, though the handheld camera style has been overused lately - and it’s taken to extreme measures at times. And I appreciate the satirical approach Shyamalan takes concerning this device, this genre and his critics. At least I hope that’s what he was doing.
Or I may be guilty of over-analyzing this over-the-top thriller. Either way, this “Visit” is worth taking - I just wouldn’t want to live there. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Visit” gets a C+.
“A Walk in the Woods” is about two older gentlemen who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. It certainly couldn’t have been a walk in the park for 79-year-old Robert Redford and 75-year-old Nick Nolte to make this film. And, unfortunately, it’s a bit of a struggle to watch as well.
This is a true story, based on nature writer Bill Bryson’s personal account. Redford plays Bryson, who was 44 at the time of his real walk. Redford is nearly double that. Even with that major problem the set-up does have potential. Feeling the need to do something adventurous, Bryson decides he wants to tackle the mighty Appalachian Trail. He admits that he can’t explain his motivations for the quest to wife Catherine (played by Emma Thompson), but he’s determined, against her wishes, to go. In last year’s true-life hiking movie “Wild” we had Reese Witherspoon taking-on the Pacific Crest Trail, and there was plenty of purpose behind her journey. Here - not so much.
Joining Bryson on his “Walk in the Woods” is old friend Stephen Katz (played by Nolte), who’s not exactly in great physical condition. Together they make their way along the trail, starting in Georgia and hoping to end in Maine, some 2200 miles later. They experience plenty of ups and downs - literally falling into rivers, sliding down rocks and getting stuck in mud patches. And they get themselves into predictably wacky situations involving fellow hikers and even a couple of bears. It’s all played for laughs and the execution is so corny that many scenes are simply embarrassing to watch.
However, I never lost interest in “A Walk in the Woods” mainly because I had to see what these veteran Hollywood A-listers were going to be put through next, even though the results are rarely entertaining. The script does include some solid dialogue and exchanges between Redford and Nolte, who proves he’s still one of our best actors. As for Redford, maybe since he hardly spoke in 2013’s “All is Lost”, another film in which he tried to prove he could beat nature, he’s forgotten how to properly deliver lines.
There‘s a bit of a surprise ending, but we never learn what the point of the hike really was or what these two men were trying to achieve. One thing is clear - you need to walk the other way if you’re tempted to buy a ticket.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “A Walk in the Woods” gets a C-.
“We Are Your Friends” star Zac Efron has called his latest film the “Saturday Night Fever” of this generation. But instead of a white jumpsuit and disco, Efron sports headphones and blares techno music as a DJ looking to make it big.
Efron’s Cole Carter is part of a four friend posse. They live in California’s San Fernando Valley - on the backside of the Hollywood hills. All four of are struggling to make money and desperately want to become successful. Cole meets superstar DJ James Reed (played by Wes Bentley - Seneca Crane in “The Hunger Games”), and Reed instantly takes Cole under his wing, vowing to help Cole perfect a signature track that could send him on his way to the top.
A lot more happens in “We Are Your Friends”, mostly involving the four friends and some enemies and friends who become enemies. A love triangle emerges, as Cole begins to take an interest in James‘ assistant and sort-of girlfriend Sophie (played by Emily Ratajkowski). But it’s the music that controls this movie, as the loud and relentless techno-pop soundtrack dominates most scenes, including numerous montages featuring predominately girls at parties and clubs dancing in slow-motion.
And yet, even with all this beat, “We Are Your Friends” has very little energy. In one distracting segment, Cole takes you completely out of the moment with graphics, charts and narration about the science of dance music, explaining, in detail, how 128 heartbeats per minute is the perfect way to get people moving. Unfortunately, this script kept me at a steady 60 heartbeats per minute for the entire film.
Efron’s Cole is in a complete daze from start to finish, even in a couple of fight scenes, and his buddies are pure stereotypes. Jon Bernthal (from “The Wolf of Wall Street”) does have a solid supporting role as a shady real estate tycoon. “We Are Your Friends” provides a little insight into this end of the music industry and avoids (for the most part) a “Happily Ever After” ending. It tries to set itself apart from other “finding yourself in Hollywood” stories that also feature conflict and romance, but all good efforts are erased by the cornball finale.
“Saturday Night Fever”? - No. “Tuesday Night - Very Mild Temperature.” is more like it. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “We Are Your Friends” gets a D+.
“No Escape” sounds like the title of a direct-to-DVD (or, these days, direct-to-VOD) movie. But The Weinstein Company thought they could make a little bit of money at the end of an action-packed Summer by releasing it in theaters. But there’s “no escaping” the fact that this thriller belongs in a discount bin at Walmart and not your local multiplex.
Owen Wilson is known for playing the goofball or sidekick in comedies - not a heroic action star. In “No Escape”, he’s inventor and businessman Jack Dwyer, who’s just taken a job with an international corporation that supplies clean water to 3rd world countries. So he’s moving his family - wife Annie (Lake Bell from “Million Dollar Arm”) and two young daughters - to Southeast Asia.
But to say his timing is bad would be a gross understatement: On the first day in their new country, the Prime Minister is assassinated and a revolution begins. The coup escalates quickly, and the violence travels directly to the Dwyers’ hotel. So Jack is forced to act fast - and take some wild chances - in order to survive this horrific nightmare and get his family to safety.
Pierce Brosnan has a 007-style supporting role and he does add some lighter touches to the very serious tone. This film doesn’t just depict one of the worst possible circumstances parents could ever face - but places you right in the middle of it, early on, making you feel like you’re in just as much danger as the Dwyers. But there is such as thing as “too much of a bad thing”…and once Jack is forced to throw his daughters from one rooftop to another (shown in ridiculous slow-motion), “No Escape” begins its decent into the land of unbelievability.
It’s always tough to buy-into movies, especially fictional ones - in which a family or small group of people are at the center of their own apocalypse and, somehow, they’re the only ones to stay alive. There are literally hundreds of people, just like the Dwyers, graphically slaughtered in this film, and yet this husband and wife, dragging two little kids along, are able to survive deadly situations, time and time again. Wilson and Bell do their best, but it’s all pretty far-fetched.
And I always find it distasteful, manipulative and desperate when a screenplay (this one is written by the film’s director John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew) has to rely on young children being put in extremely dangerous situations in order to draw emotion out of an audience.
“No Escape” also has some rough editing and shaky story elements in certain spots. And while it does do a good job of convincing you to maybe put-off that planned vacation to Southeast Asia, it never feels gripping or genuinely suspenseful.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “No Escape” gets a C-.
"The End of the Tour" is an immersive true-story drama starring two actors who give two of the year's finest performances. For five days back in 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Oscar-nominee Jesse Eisenberg) travelled with and interviewed prolific, 34-year-old author David Foster Wallace (played by potential Oscar-nominee Jason Segel) as he made his final stops on the promotional tour for his latest book, the 1,079-page, critically praised novel Infinite Jest.
As Lipsky discovers early on, Rolling Stone hadn't done an author profile in the last 10 years, and he needed to prove to his boss that Wallace was someone worth doing a piece on. Fourteen years later, Lipsky would publish the book this film is based on - Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Many of the scenes with Eisenberg and Segel take place inside the rental car Lipsky gets for the trip, as he asks Wallace about a variety of topics of his life, including his love of writing, substance abuse issues, and the price that comes with success and fame. But the focus here is also on Lipsky, who is a struggling author and sees Wallace's life as something to strive for - at least for awhile.
From the first minute they meet, you are completely engrossed in this relationship. Much like in "Frost/Nixon", there's a fascinating dynamic taking place between interviewer and interviewee that we have a front row seat for. And it constantly changes throughout the five days, with the tables getting turned and stakes being raised, leaving you always wondering how far both men will go and how much about themselves they will reveal. And Lipsky's tape recorder becomes a third and very critical character in this relationship, used by both players at times to their advantage.
This is Eisenberg's best work since "The Social Network". Joan Cusack has a small, but memorable role as Wallace's book tour escort. As for Segel, this performance should earn him plenty of Awards Season attention in the Best Supporting Actor category. While his character is the focus of the interview and he has the more showcase role, this is really Lipsky's story. So, just as J.K. Simmons' domination of "Whiplash" last year was a Supporting role, so too, is Segel's work. And it's just as much of a powerhouse. He displays Wallace's pain, joy, humor and sadness through both words and actions. The dialogue between these two characters, the philosophies they share, reveal their loneliness and insecurities. Wallace's beliefs on world's obsession with television and the media are incredibly on target (and even more meaningful 20 years later). They make the scenes in which he's glued to the movie screen and hotel TV even more profound.
Writers, journalists and storytellers at all levels will relate to and embrace everything "The End of the Tour" stands for. Director James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") and writer Donald Marguiles (this is his feature film screenwriting debut) condense a typical relationship arc of two people over a lifetime into just a handful of days, but the complexities of this film will stay with you for a long time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The End of the Tour" gets an A.
"Hitman: Agent 47" is a reboot (of sorts) in a film franchise that started, and should've ended, with 2007's bomb "Hitman" starring Timothy Olyphant. Both of these movies are based on the popular video game series that's been around for 15 years. While video games, especially the shoot-em-up variety, are typically have extremely thin storylines, it seems the script for "Hitman: Agent 47" was likely written in about 15 minutes.
Katia (Hannah Ware), who has some telepathic tricks in her noggin, finds-out from a mysterious man named John Smith (played by "Star Trek"'s Zachary Quinto) that a genetically-engineered hitman, who has a human body but few human emotions, is out to kill her. His name is Agent 47 (the other 46 names were apparently taken). He's played by Rupert Friend, who has a slight resemblance to "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Orlando Bloom (which, of course, has nothing to do with the plot of this film, but that's what happens when one's mind wanders when the film one is watching is so completely uninteresting).
Soon the plot becomes a search for Katia's dad, complete with the typical advanced technology mumbo-jumbo. The dialogue is so boring that ALL of the characters may as well have been genetically-altered non-humans (maybe they are?) As for the performances, Quinto is overdramatic, stiff and stingy - basically Spock in a nice suit. And all this time I thought he was acting in the two "Star Trek" films. This may be how Quinto plays all his roles. Friend's major responsibilites are fast driving and shooting people. For some reason his accent becomes noticably more American halfway through the movie.
There are some uninteltnionally hilarious moments during the goofy, slow-motion-filled action scenes, complete with corny one-liners. I must say there are some creative ways that people are killed in "Hitman: Agent 47" (clearly inspired by the game). And the body count is massive. In fact, 31 people die on screen even before the opening "Hitman" title appears, about five minutes in.
Mindless, ridiculous, but certainly not painless to watch, this is the worst pure action film of Summer 2015. On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hitman: Agent 47" gets a D.
“American Ultra” is the latest in a long line of movies which suffers from the “Pulp Fiction” syndrome: the attempt to mix quirky characters, sarcastic comedy and very graphic violence into one wild, cinematic experience. No one’s been able to successfully pull it off since Tarantino over 20-years ago (including Tarantino himself). The result this time is an absolute mess.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike. He works at a small town convenience store and has a longtime girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart). They were supposed to go to on vacation to Hawaii, where Mike was finally going to propose. But that gets put on hold when Mike has one of his violent panic attacks just before getting on the plane.
A few nights later back at the store, a mysterious woman enters and warns Mike that he is in serious danger. A few minutes later he notices two men messing with his car in the parking lot, and suddenly, he has the strength and abilities to not only beat them up but actually kill them. Mike has no idea how or why this happened, but the CIA does. Turns-out Mike was once an experimental agent, and now he needs to be eliminated. If only someone at Lionsgate felt the same way about this film before it made it to theaters.
“American Ultra” is one of the most unfocused and discombobulated films in recent memory. The plot never makes complete sense, with holes in common sense and logic everywhere. The concept of an ex-agent, now in the real world, becoming a target is so unoriginal that for it to work there has to be a unique spin - and here there is not. The “stoner” element, pushed in the ads and the trailers, doesn’t even apply in the actual movie.
The acting is so ridiculous I don’t know where to begin. There’s no chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg, whose Mike - a combination of dumb, naïve, and high - just doesn’t work. And the two are laughable together in the “dramatic” moments. Connie Britton (from TV’s “Nashville”) is miscast as Mike’s former CIA boss. John Leguizamo is completely unfunny as Mike’s drug dealer. The Emmy-winning co-star of “Veep”, Tony Hale, adds nothing as a goofy agent. But worst of all are Topher Grace, who plays the weird and wacky CIA operations head - and Walton Goggins (“Justified”), as “Agent Laugher”. They give two of the most embarrassing on-screen performances in recent years.
And then there’s the style: One minute “Ultra” tries to be cute and clever with Mike’s “Space Ape” comic book drawings - seconds later he’s slicing someone’s head off with a dust pan. Shocking? A little. Effective in helping make this a quality film? No. In fact nothing here works. Even the only “twist”, which is hardly unique, comes way too early and has no impact.
I didn’t like a single scene or element in this entire film. Just another example of a studio burying a bomb at the end of August. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “American Ultra” gets an F.
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is based on a semi-hit 60s TV series, and while director Guy Ritchie does a nice job capturing the style and feel of the decade with fashion, sets and music, he fails miserably at delivering a film with any actual substance. This should've been a light and fun summer popcorn spy adventure. Instead, it's close to a complete F.L.O.P.
Ritchie was clearly trying to duplicate the successes of his "Sherlock Holmes" movies (BTW - the sequel was better than the original) by having Henry Cavill (aka the guy who plays our current Superman) and Armie Hammer (aka the guy who played two guys in "The Social Network") as foes begrudgingly forced to work together to stop a nuclear warhead from getting into the wrong hands (how original). The plot of the film is continually explained to each of them by a handful of supporting characters speaking multiple languages. And early on, the two leads even recap the other's life story TO EACH OTHER, just for the sake of the audience.
Both American thief turned CIA agent Napolean Solo (Cavill) and star athlete turned KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer), both actors speak with phony accents - Hammer's Russian, Cavill's, James Bondian. I'm still debating which one is worse. Illya constantly referring to Solo as "Cowboy" made me think back to one of Hammer's other recent bombs "The Lone Ranger", another failed "buddy film". As "U.N.C.L.E." progresses, Ritchie tries other "Holmes" tricks, including having characters reveal how they pulled-off certain stunts, and re-showing previous scenes while "surprises" are being explained. A little of this goes a long way and all of it is unnecessary. It's not cute or stylish, but is an insult to audiences who are much smarter than this director thinks.
And on top of all of this: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is supposed to be an action comedy. There are numerous, intentional and extensive attempts to illicit laughs with dry, obvious dialogue and a few cringe-worthy scenes, including one in which Solo eats a sandwich in a truck while his partner is being shot at in a boat. In another, Alicia Vikander, who's one of "U.N.C.L.E"'s only bright spots (she gave a breakout performance earlier this year in "Ex Machina") dances suggestively while Hammer is playing chess alone. It's one of those "I fell bad for the actors" moments. This movie has a lot of those.
Hugh Grant pops-up from time to time, including in the final scene, which sets the stage for a sequel. If one is made, and I'm forced to see a different version of this misguided project, I may be forced to "cry uncle".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." gets a D+.
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