by Philip Price
In Woody Allen's annual mid-year release we have a typical, late-era Woody Allen film that is more shrug-worthy than anything since the two forgettable cushions on either side of 2011's “Midnight in Paris.” Every few years the insanely consistent writer/director will deliver something more substantial, something truly affecting, but more times than not we get something akin to what we have this year in “Irrational Man.” Since becoming rather invested in the art of watching films I have returned to the essential Allen in order to be hip to my craft (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters”), but I've probably been reading about Allen's films since “Small Time Crooks” (2000) and seeing them in theaters since ‘Paris’ (2011). Since I've been catching them on a regular basis in their theatrical run though, I've only purchased two that I felt were worth revisiting those being ‘Paris’ and 2013's “Blue Jasmine.” It's hard to find much motivation to return to Allen's films because they each more or less offer the same things. There is some philosophizing about a certain area of life under a certain set of character induced circumstances that typically ends up dealing with existentialism in one way or another. This type of conversation and discussion can certainly be interesting, but because of these tendencies Allen's films themselves are more interesting to talk about than they are to actually experience. It's hard to even call Allen's films an experience as they are more lectures than anything else, but every once in a while you actually take something away from them. With “Irrational Man” though, the only things I took away were that Emma Stone is in fact Allen's latest muse and that Joaquin Phoenix is trying really hard to let us know he put on a pot belly for this role (admittedly among other, deeper things). Whether the point of Phoenix's character being a philosophy professor signals Allen is getting one step closer to just sitting down and filming himself talk for an hour and half on a certain subject, we'll have to wait and see, but more than any time over the last four years I felt like time and age were beginning to catch up to the auteur.
“Irrational Man” concerns itself with tormented professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix) and his distaste for life in his current state. In the beginning of the film Abe moves to the beautifully picturesque town of Newport, R.I. where he has taken a position in the psychology department of Braylin College. Upon arriving Abe is disheveled and an alcoholic, but he is still a well-renowned writer and philanthropist in his field so the women naturally throw themselves at him (that happens, right?). First, there is Rita Richards (Parker Posey) who seems to be the campus floozy as far as faculty is concerned and whom Abe takes up a purely sexual relationship with in order to try and find some, "satisfaction in distraction" while becoming enchanted with and rather charmed by one of his students, Jill (Stone). Jill is something of a precocious college student, but justifiably so given both of her parents are professors at Braylin as well as having been raised just off campus in this world of pure academia. As she is expected to, Jill is dating the innocent and unsuspecting Roy (Jamie Blackley) with which she expects to settle down and produce babies as they raise them under similar circumstances to her own. Still, she can't help but to find Abe attractive because of his clear complications (which she repeats incessantly). There are equal amounts narration and dialogue that tell us of Abe's internal conflicts and his struggle to find purpose in life. He talks of the differences between the theoretical bullshit he spouts off in his classroom and the real world that exists outside of it where theory and ideas aren't as relevant in real-life situations. These challenging and intriguing claims only pull Jill in further to the unintended spell that Abe is casting and the two begin what we are led to believe is a platonic relationship though things are clearly headed in a certain other direction and yet no one besides Rita seems to find it strange. Abe tries his damnedest to keep things on this strictly platonic level, but he likes his ideas to be challenged and when Jill does exactly that, he can't help but to give in.
This summation of the events of the film doesn't even get into the crux of the plot though as what I've described so far is more or less the first half hour of the film. At this point in the narrative a rather odd turn takes place where Abe and Jill are having breakfast (yes, they do these types of things and no one bats an eye) and overhear a woman talking about a corrupt judge and how she is inevitably going to lose her children to their unworthy father. This sparks a change in Abe with the idea that he can take action, include risk in his routine while in the end making the world a better place and making him actually feel alive rather than just another passive intellectual. He will accomplish this by killing the judge and justifies the thought by telling himself the world will be a better place, if only by an indeterminable percentage, for having erased this man's existence from it. This feels like it's going a long way to make a rather standard point. I mean, is Phoenix's character really so far gone that murdering someone is the only thing that can truly get this guy off? This is only the beginning of the issues I took with the film though as everything from the filmmaking to the dialogue feels stilted and forced in a way that typically doesn't accompany an Allen picture despite knowing what we're getting. That isn't to say Allen has even been a mega-proficient or progressive director (he gets the coverage he needs to get by), but writing is where he lives and yet some of the dialogue that is spoken here (while being in tune with Allen's typical style) is legitimately awful. At one point, I began to wonder whether or not this was intended to be a parody of itself. The way in which Stone delivers some of her lines as she goes on and on about how interesting Abe is included just enough sarcastic nuance to suggest there was more going on below the surface than above, but alas, by the time the film becomes a crime caper that has Abe following the aforementioned judge and stealing keys to access cyanide it reaches levels of ridiculousness that the ideas it does tap into intermittently aren't worth the hassle.
And yes, there are some interesting ideas here. Of course there are. The main idea surrounding that of Abe and his tendency to be an original thinker who can't be judged by middle class rules is especially enticing. Phoenix's performance only enhances this complex mentality by showing audiences the real struggle the man has with wanting to be responsible, for what he says and for his actions, but also challenging his rules. Of course, this is all in theory alone as the moment any real world circumstances come into play Abe becomes a sniveling hypocrite who's self-aware enough to know he isn't made for the world of hardened humans. He is a soft thinker, someone who believes himself exceptional and therefore not punishable by those who are less intelligent than he. This is likely how Allen thinks of himself as well and while Abe likes to be challenged in his ideas I can't help but wonder if Allen would enjoy the same thing concerning his films. At this point, the director seems to have an organized idea of how he likes to view the world and what he thinks on any given subject that he doesn't care to have disrupted and that he dollies out into each film. That's fine, we accept a Woody Allen film for what it is these days, a Woody Allen film. Still, despite whatever points certain ideas and Phoenix's performance garner “Irrational Man” they couldn't take away from the painfully excruciating aspects of the film that include a cringe-inducing party scene with privileged white kids, the way these people spout dialogue we might think, but would never openly share, the fact Abe and Jill can go to the fair and Roy's excuse for being "okay" with it being that he's studying or the simple, unnecessary detail about Jill having a friend she sometimes goes horseback riding with that is thrown in for no other reason than it seems to be the only reason Allen can think of for two people to know one another. The biggest of them all though is the turn that takes place in Jill realizing she's not as edgy as she thought she was. This turn almost destroys what I suspected Allen was building to the whole time in that Jill wouldn't settle for always being Abe's student, but would eventually transition to his equal. Rather than exploring this territory though we are given a reiteration of the, "difference between theoretical bullshit and real-life situations," lecture we've already discussed and examined.
by Philip Price
One would assume that with its generic title, release date and desperate seeming casting that “No Escape” would probably be pretty terrible. The indicators all align and are partially right, no doubt, as the grungy look of the movie suggests it won't be a pretty picture figuratively or literally. The glaring reason the film stands up to a serious questioning of quality though is the fact director John Erick Dowdle and his co-writer brother, Drew, only have three prior credits to their name, all of which are considered rather sub-par horror flicks (though I rather enjoyed “Devil” and haven't seen “As Above, So Below”). The Dowdle's approached “No Escape” not with the eyes of their honed horror mentalities though, but with that of their teen action fantasies they no doubt devoured in the ‘80s. Granted, we're still talking about the rather generic action movies of that decade, but campy and somewhat solid action movies nonetheless. “No Escape” has plenty to offer when it comes to tension and thrills and even wants to bring itself to hint at something more in certain spots, but is instead swallowed up by the fact there is no context for the situations we see play out and no weight to the simple consequences put into effect. Run or die is the name of the game and the literal nameless Asian villains do little to make us feel as if there is any validity to the scenarios our protagonists find themselves in. Rather, we are dropped into the middle of this civil war where the strictly labeled bad guys march around and murder hundreds of people execution style. We aren't privy to the information of who is or isn't safe until about halfway through the film when a half-hearted attempt at exposition is laid out for us, but by that point we know what “No Escape” is heading toward no matter how tense it might make us at certain times. That said, this is a film that strangely enough had a strong effect on me as I was watching it, but is one I never have any desire to sit through again.
Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is moving his family, including wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare), to an unspecified Asian country that apparently borders Vietnam for reasons having to deal with his job. Jack's dialogue explains that he is an engineer who was once on the cusp of greatness, but it never played out and now he's having to resort to such current tactics in order to support them. It is also hinted at that the last few years of marriage between Jack and Annie haven't been the greatest and that this move in is something of a last ditch effort to restore some type of structure to their family. On their second morning in their new home Jack goes out to acclimate himself to his new surroundings and pick up a paper, but ends up being caught in the middle of this war zone where rebel radicals are rising up against the police force in the streets of a market. After narrowly escaping and watching the rebels blow another Americans head off in front of their hotel Jack jumps into action in order to protect his family. Naturally, the group of antagonists that I can only identify as such because no country is specified and no names or indicators are given other than red bandanas, are relentless in their need to kill all of the Americans and so Jack really has the odds stacked against him. Lucky for Jack, Annie and the girls they made a new friend upon arrival in Hammond (Pierce Brosnan). Brosnan presents a facade of a grizzled old man with only a taste for younger women, but of course he too comes to be more than he initially appears. Brosnan's presence these days only seems to cheapen a project more, but here he is the savior in more ways than one. With Brosnan's skills as well as the screenwriters willingness to not over-indulge simply because they were able to get Brosnan the film comes out less predictable than it might have. For a long time ”No Escape” strangely counters one's low expectations, but it eventually has nowhere else to go and comes to a conclusion that, despite knowing it's coming, still feels absurd.
That moment halfway through the film where ”No Escape” stops to spill exposition comes when the script forces Wilson's Jack into an unbelievable action sequence when it would have been better off sticking to the low-key abilities of Jack to elude those that are after him. The film would have still been able to stick to its potboiler roots, but it would have proved greatly effective to keep things on a tight string of tension rather than having our main character snip that string for the sake of an action set piece. What this out-of-character moment allows for though is the re-introduction of Brosnan's character who feels wholly unnecessary and a McGuffin in and of himself that was only created to safely guide our heroes through the remainder of the narrative. I could forgive the film for being slightly racist when it came to casting the villains solely as a certain ethnicity while providing no reasoning or context for their unbelievable hatred, but if the narrative was also going to become as rote and unoriginal as the films villain then it would be time to pack it up and move on. Right when I thought the movie would fall into this trap it reversed my expectations and gave a renewed sense of curiosity. In the midst of Hammond's rescue he tells Jack of how the rebel leaders see us the same way we see them and that in all actuality most of them are just trying to protect their families. This lends the film a certain something, a moral conundrum if you will that could make things interesting, but unfortunately it goes nowhere. It goes nowhere because we never buy that the intended villains are fighting for anything, but are more just psychotic murderers on a rampage. If you can get past this qualm and simply take “No Escape” as an action thriller with legitimately tense moments and emotional stakes that involve only white, American lives than you'll be more than entertained, but if you begin to ponder the deeper complexities of these dynamics things will fall apart quickly.
All of that said, I did find myself rather relishing in the solid tension the film provides in large chunks. Wilson may be a bit of odd casting, but it works because Jack isn't supposed to be a believable hero. This is one of those situations where the challenges set in front of a person bring out a side of them they didn't even know they possessed and Jack is a fighter when it comes to his family, he does what he has to in order to keep them safe and alive. Wilson and Bell have little to no chemistry, but Bell holds her own and as a family unit the four actually gel really well with Wilson being the charmingly goofy dad and Bell being the strong, supportive female figure that influences their two girls well. With these characters the Dowdle's intend for us to really feel their plight. The aforementioned discussion that would like to add moral ambiguity to the situation would actually place the Dwyer's as more of the villains than those after their heads, but alas they are who we are rooting for here and largely because of the committed performances and familiar family dynamics we stick with it. The director also really wants us to feel every life that's taken, but his camera cuts away too quickly from the unrelenting brutality to really allow it to leave an impression. Where this goal does succeed is the moment when Jack realizes he must kill someone for he and the rest of his family to survive. It doesn't gloss over this aspect of the journey and I rather appreciated the insight even if it is only a flash in the pan. On the negative side of things Dowdle also likes to utilize the slo-mo effect just a little too much as there are a handful of scenes that incorporate this technique and inadvertently turn moments of super-seriousness into those that unintentionally elicit laughter. As a piece of late summer entertainment though, “No Escape” is completely competent, insanely tense and can be rather thrilling when it chooses to be. If only the brothers Dowdle had taken the time to really add some depth to their narrative we might have had something that really overcame the odds.
We Are Your Friends
by Philip Price
“We Are Your Friends” is a movie accompanying a soundtrack rather than the other way around. It is a movie about a DJ and we all know how rough the plight of a DJ can be. The problem with the premise in general is that it does feel rather inconsequential in the wide range of stories to be told and it seems wasteful that a movie about a DJ gets such a wide release instead of something more substantial. And so, the question is: does this DJ tale use its opportunity to say something more? Unfortunately the answer is no. While the trailer for the film did in fact hint at something more-is the cost and the grind of the collegiate system worth the job it grants you afterwards that is largely utilized to pay back those student loans? The film hints it might not be if you do something worthwhile with that time, but Cole Carter (Zac Efron) and his friends aren't doing much besides melting away in the San Fernando Valley. Despite its rather hollow exteriors I was optimistic that the film might actually take the opportunity to explore a few existential themes that become prevalent for the first time in your early twenties, but it keeps in key with its hollow exteriors by being a hollow portrait of the sunshine state lifestyle. To say that is to say there isn't much to the film and again, unfortunately that is true. Director Max Joseph makes his narrative feature debut here and while he is keen on tapping into that younger audience he knows so well, at 33 this drama of young angst feels more manufactured than authentic. ”We Are Your Friends” is one of those movies about a group of friends who are in the midst of trying to accomplish their dreams and fulfill their aspirations, but feel stuck or even worse, know they don't have what it takes to make it out of their hometown. The thing about Cole though is that he's basically granted unprecedented access to a well-known DJ and all the resources he could ever need in order to flourish and yet there isn't enough drive there for him to take the obvious path.
Cole is the talent of his quartet of merry men though even he will admit he's not as talented or charismatic as he'd like to be. We also have Mason (Jonny Weston, who's agent is killing it right now) as Cole's seeming best friend and who he's lived with since he was fifteen. We never really learn what happened to Cole's parents, but a single line of dialogue leaves the mystery lingering and there's no issue with that. Mason though, is the guy in a group of friends who is always blowing his lid, always getting the rest into trouble and the one the others are always having to deal with. Mason wants to be a good friend about as much as he wants to be the center of attention himself, but he knows he doesn't have the ambition or the talent to go anywhere. He's scared and he probably somewhat pulls his friends down on purpose so he doesn't feel as bad about his own situation. Then there is Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), the aspiring actor. Growing up on the other side of the Hollywood hills no doubt prompts a lot of expectation, but there seems to have always been something auspicious about Ollie and he is coming to terms with the idea he might never fulfill those expectations. Instead, Ollie has allowed for his side gig of selling drugs and promoting parties to overcome any larger goals. He has something of a mentor in Paige (Jon Bernthal) a local scam artist who paper works people in foreclosure out of their homes and who hires the boys to work for him full time so that they might actually maintain a steady cash flow. Lastly, there is Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) who plays the role of the sensitive one so you can guess where his character arc goes given this world of excess and indulgence. After one of their promoted parties where Cole spun a few records he runs into semi-famous DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley) who essentially takes him on as an apprentice with no questions asked. Reed also happens to be dating Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) who Cole had hit on earlier in the night so you can guess where that is going as well.
Here's the thing about ”We Are Your Friends”-it's not terrible and it has some interesting things going on visually. It is a combination of an indie documentary and a glossy music video rolled into one that wears its hipster attitude like a badge of honor. It opens with a kind of free-wheeling attitude that symbolizes the youthful mentality that will be on display and it feels appropriately improvised and somewhat overly stylistic though it never acknowledges how cool it is trying to be. Joseph likes to paint the screen with text to reinforce dialogue and this is rather effective, especially when the circumstances are inherently looked at as insignificant in the first place. Joseph feels genuine in his attempts to convey what it is like to be a young person trying to break the mold in this day and age (you can start a blog, invent an app or sell things online) and moments that include every Vine star on the planet do well to reinforce this kind of hyper-speed, instant gratification culture we all live in. The problem is that none of these core characters are complex or interesting enough to hold our attention given things aren't really that bad for them. None of these guys are facing any kind of tangible struggle. More than anything, the films protagonists seem to only have to get out of their own way in order to make something of themselves. Instead of actual hardships, it is the desire to party their life away that stands in the way of both Ollie and Cole making something more of themselves. The savior of the film is actually Bentley who, as Reed, is as equally intriguing as he is a douche. It is the moments when Efron's Cole goes to visit his mentor and the two go into the studio and talk shop that the film is at its most intriguing. Were the film to focus more on the buried complexities of Efron's character and how he brings those out through music (which it finally begins to scratch near the end) then Joseph would have been able to come up with both an interesting story about a DJ and an interesting way of visually telling that story. Instead, we get a love triangle and a clichéd conclusion that does nothing but make one hope for the music to stop.
And so, this is not what one would call a substantial film as its main character has his big epiphany by listening to the actual world around him rather than continuing to have his head buried in his laptop and headphones. Of course, this is meant to be metaphorical as well, but it feels so cheap and easy that it's hard to take seriously. I mean, a movie about a DJ shouldn't be taken seriously in the first place, but ”We Are Your Friends” never aspires to be a comedy or a commentary on the ridiculous world of European white guys getting paid too much to stand in front of a crowd and play with their computers so what are we supposed to think? As the expected plot beats play out there is only so much that can distract us from the fact there isn't much story here at all. The love triangle aspect only lasts for so long and ends with Bentley calling Cole, "Irreparable!" only to give him his big shot twenty minutes down the line. It is inevitable that Ratajkowski's Sophie and Efron's Cole will end up together so don't act surprised when that happens and finally, it shouldn't be a surprise that not only does Cole get his big break, get the girl, but that he also takes the high road in the subplot concerning Bernthal's asshole character who only cares about himself. Again, this guy gets everything he ever wanted without having to really work for it. Cole just has to show up and put in enough effort to get a pass and so when the climax comes where he's genuinely proud of something he created it's a feeling of, "that's great, but it's no underdog story," which is what Joseph and his co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer are trying to sell us. The emotional peaks of the film are meant to be felt through the music (there's admittedly a cool breakdown of the science of getting a crowd to dance that stands out) and that these feelings and emotions come to fruition through song are intended to make them feel all the more raw, but the whole time all I could think of was this. There's an idea that this film encapsulates the small moment of struggle before the meteoric rise, but some part of me can't help but think what we see here is the best these characters will ever be.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
by Philip Price
Though it doesn't indicate the quality of the film in the slightest, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” will always fall under the unfortunate circumstances of having to open two weeks after “Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation.” This is unfortunate due to the fact it will mean “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” will have less of a cultural impact than the already slight one it was going to have without having to follow-up the last great action hurrah of the summer. This isn't really relative to the film itself, but while it seems there was never much expected of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, it's worth noting it is something of a shame due to the fact it now will definitely not come to mean much in the larger pop culture landscape. A shame because the film is actually quite fun and therefore rather satisfying when taken on the terms of what it is intended to be. Coming to us courtesy of director Guy Ritchie, this film, based on the NBC show that ran from 1964-68 about two secret agents who work for a secret international counter espionage and law-enforcement agency called U.N.C.L.E. or the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is everything you'd expect from the director and all you could want from the genre in general. Enlisting Superman (Henry Cavill) and The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) to star is another way of suggesting this could possibly be another sub-par take on an old television property, which is a trend in and of itself that feels dated now (how ya doin' 2000?), but Ritchie and his team (including first time feature writer Lionel Wigram) have somehow managed to cobble together a pile of standard spy movie clichés and make them into something astonishingly direct and abundantly stylish that completely owns what it is and, as a result, comes off as confident and self-assured as Cavill's Napoleon Solo.
Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s period of the Cold War, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” centers around American agent Solo and his initial mission to befriend and enlist a Berlin mechanic in the form of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) so that he might track down her father who apparently built bombs for Hitler and disappeared a few weeks prior. This mission is abruptly interrupted by Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) when the two come head to head over getting Gaby on their respective sides. Shortly after their little run-in, the two opposing forces of effortless suave and blunt force are informed they will need to team-up. Their superiors (Jared Harris and Misha Kuznetsov) tell them this joint mission is for the purposes of stopping a mysterious international criminal organization led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It seems Victoria has married into the Vinciguerra family who are wealthy for the shipping business they own. Appealing to her own ambitions, Victoria has taken to the head of the family business after the death of her father-in-law. Vinciguerra Shipping also happens to coincidentally employ Gaby's uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth), whom both the Americans and Russians believe is the culprit in kidnapping Gabi's father so that they might weaponize the atomic bomb for their own dastardly purposes. Of course, this is all actually done with the hope of being able to manufacture such technology so that it will lead to much money being made, but our heroic duo are hellbent on restoring balance to the world of weapons control and naturally end up in a race against time to prevent a worldwide catastrophe and all that jazz.
It is impossible to divorce one's self from the expectations we hold for certain pieces of entertainment and therefore those expectations can't help but to inform our resulting opinion, but this becomes more relevant than usual with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” for some reason. It could be that I truly didn't expect much from the film, though I am always entertained by Ritchie's style, and that this does in fact feel like a complete product, a vision of a singular director who is aspiring to ambitions no bigger than to keep audiences entertained while showing us what his version of a James Bond movie might look like. In fact, from the word go the film has a certain energy to it as it more or less contains the same editing style that has infused Ritchie's work from the beginning. Wherever he may draw his own inspirations from, Ritchie is sure to include plenty from the era in which this film is set. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” doesn't just look as if it were a 1960's product because of the wardrobe or the patterns of the wallpaper (though these factors certainly help), but because of the way in which things are captured, first and foremost the glossy style of the aesthetic that imitates any number of global adventures set in foreign cities strictly for the sake of being thrilling and alien. While the Bonds of that era are clearly an influence as well, the original television show (from what I read, anyway) was something of a knock-off Bond itself and there is certainly a tongue-in-cheek mentality prevalent throughout this iteration as well. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is rather delightful for not only these stylistic choices and the sneaking self-awareness, but also for the way in which it develops the characters involved by building a plot around their origin story rather than having a standard spy mission dictate the beginnings of their friendship. That said, it is all rather standard as far as the events we see unfold until it throws a not necessarily surprising twist into the mix, but one that gives the third act the necessary energy to stay on par with the rest of the film.
While the likes of Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt have coaxed the latest iteration of Bond into becoming more serious in his approach to his super-spying (though I realize ‘M:I’ has begun to wink at the audience a bit), both Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are here to remind us, along with ‘The Kingsman’ earlier this year, that the lighter, wittier side of continental espionage can be just as fulfilling. Spearheading these efforts are the performances of Cavill and Hammer. While I've seen more of Hammer, it is Cavill who comes to be the more familiar, charismatic personality here. Solo is certainly the more confident and assertive party when it comes to not only getting his job done, but with outside factors as well. His confidence is appealing in a way that Hammer's thick Russian accent and stiff awkwardness don't allow him to be. That isn't to say there isn't any chemistry between the two of them, there is when there needs to be, but Hammer's Kuryakin is given more of his personality by allowing Vikander's Gaby to pull it from him. The film builds each of its leading personalities and their opposing methods solidly for almost an hour before the two agree to finally work together on a job and because of this, the moment feels genuinely exciting-as if we've just seen an accomplishment we didn't know we were rooting for. Both Vikander and Debicki get more to do than the typical female player in one of these types of films, especially one set in the 1960's. Vikander, who was stunning in Ex Machina, continues to do solid work as her performance will no doubt render more impressive and ultimately effective with a second viewing. Debicki is also in fine form and the movie gets points for putting her in the position of being the brains behind the operation, but gives it's more villainous moments to Groth's Uncle Rudi who gets a nice little spiel about fear and pain being the two masters in this life. Also, Hugh Grant makes good in what is essentially a glorified cameo. While “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” doesn't necessarily explore any unknown territory it does well with what it has to work with, conveying it's unoriginal content in an interesting enough way.
by Philip Price
“Cop Car” opens with a shot of newly constructed houses in a newly developed subdivision that all look like one another. There is a sense of freshness to the distant, static shot, but then it is followed by something more interesting and dynamic. Isolated trailers, convenient stores that don't bear corporate brand names and barren country roads where telephone poles still line the way. In short, we are quickly disconnected from any kind of familiarity and brought to the ground level that is the wonderment of being inside the mind of a prepubescent boy. Actually, there's probably a slight bit of puberty that has begun to alter Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison's (Hays Wellford) body and minds, but no doubt less than they'd own up to. The two boys are presumably running away from what we come to understand are rather unspectacular home lives, but of more importance is the fact they are competing in an exchange that consists purely of curse words, working its way up from the likes of "penis" to the "F-word.” Harrison refuses to say what society deems the worst of these words despite Travis employing multiple peer pressure tactics telling us all we need to know of the two boys. It is when Harrison and Travis stumble upon an abandoned cop car 10 minutes into the film that things begin to come together. Director Jon Watts works from a script by himself and co-writer Christopher D. Ford and in establishing all we've already put together by the time the titular vehicle is introduced we have a strong sense of apprehension about where things might be going. Watts eases the audience into this strange, time-warped landscape of severe austerity while making the terms of our environment clear. In both the aesthetic and mentality of our lead characters we are transported to an age where one's outlook on life and subsequently the life they lead and the circumstances they find themselves in by the end of the film are of a certain simplistic nature, but simple doesn't always mean sunny.
Upon stumbling on this cop car Travis and Harrison naturally decide the best thing to do would be to take it for a joy ride. The idea of 10 and 11-year old boys driving around a car in fields full of possible naturalistic traps and unseen obstacles is enough to make anyone tense up slightly, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. What comes next is the introduction of Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon). Kretzer is a weasel-like fella who we come to meet just prior to the boys jacking his sheriff's vehicle. Personally, I wouldn't consider it a spoiler to say why Kretzer abandons his car and therefore doesn't know how it comes to disappear given it happens 15 minutes into the film, but I'll stick to divulging as few details as possible simply because knowing as little as possible going in will undoubtedly enhance the viewing experience. Considering all of the implied circumstances of Kretzer's situation things are not as simple as we once believed them to be. In fact, Kretzer has drawn himself into a situation where getting his car back is an unseen obstacle that puts him in the very crosshairs of all that he has seemed to work so hard to gloss over. His life, we assume (can you tell there's a lot of that going on here?), is one big facade. Striving to maintain the lowly stature of a small town sheriff while his seeming aspirations hope for bigger things, Kretzer is a perfect mold of a mystery. What is so wrong with the facade that one must risk it completely though? Kevin Bacon is 57 years old and there is no reason to believe his character is any younger. What might a man of this age still be doing chasing aspirations, not settling down and not accepting the role his choices have assigned him? We don't really know, but then again we don't know the details of what he's done either and so we simply accept the circumstances of this deadly game Kretzer is playing and that these two innocent boys have put themselves at the center of it. Go ahead and tighten your belts.
“Cop Car” is a slight film. It clocks in at a mere hour and 27 minutes (including credits) and feels all the more precise because of it. This is clearly a side effect of being an independently financed feature, but it works in the film’s favor as its focused approach to story and the telling of that story leaves room for character flourishes and stylistic offerings that make the overall product feel like a single, cohesive piece of work. Where this is most evident is in the writing for the two young leads. Whether it be about how to actually drive a car or the immature, diarrhea jokes they make that genuinely crack them up-the film feels really in tune with this aforementioned simplistic mentality. This mentality is not made clear by stating it over and over again, but more by having consistent moments in which the audience can recognize at what stage of life these boys are existing within. While Freedson-Jackson and Wellford aren't exactly the greatest of actors, they clearly have much room to grow and one's not going to hold their sometimes thin performances against the film to such a degree it turns into negativity. Let's face it, this is Bacon and his mustache's movie anyway and they both kill it. While the narrative is purposefully slight it is still difficult to discuss what makes Bacon's performance so solid without giving too much away. There is one scene in particular though that demonstrates everything about the performance and the character of Kretzer himself that perfectly summarizes its effectiveness. This scene occurs just after Kretzer realizes his car has been stolen and given he can't exactly radio for help given his location would be of certain suspicion he decides to phone dispatch and put out feelers as to where he currently sits with his peers. Before dialing the phone though, Bacon walks around frantically while trying to compose his voice to a level that relays a sense of normalcy to the woman on the other end. That he succeeds in conveying his intended tone and sets out running as soon as he hangs up gives the audience everything they need in order to gather we're dealing with someone well trained in the art of deception and that the film will largely prevail because of this character alone.
All of that taken into account, “Cop Car” still has its share of shortcomings in that by the time we come to the end it more or less feels like an exercise in duplicating genre tropes than it does something significant or of actual substance. I was most definitely on the edge of my seat a few times and the performances from the adult cast (including what are essentially cameos from Camryn Manheim and Shea Whigham) are all well-worth the short time it takes to watch the film, but I wasn't necessarily moved with excitement or anxiety in the way I felt I should have been. I realize all films, like life itself and its many situations, require a different approach and filter through which we take them in and “Cop Car” is one that should be a genuine amount of fun filled with moments of deep tension that make us ask, "will they or won't they?" rather than, "who's wrong and who's right?" Most of the time, this rings true of Watts' thriller, but I can't help the feeling that there was some part of me left malnourished by the experience and that's not because I was left wanting more (the running time is perfect for the story it is telling), but because the weight of the actions I saw unfold didn't hit me as hard as they were expected and no doubt intended to.
by Philip Price
It was really difficult for me to decide whether or not I should include the 24th James Bond film on this list. I enjoyed “Skyfall” well enough and was happy to see director Sam Mendes returning to the franchise for one more go-around after delivering a crowd-pleaser with the previous installment, but I'm simply not a huge fan of the franchise and find it hard to conjure up a lot of excitement. I recognize this is in large part due to the fact I didn't really begin watching the Bond films until the latter part of Pierce Brosnan's tenure (which I again realize wasn't the best entry point) and that Daniel Craig has more or less been the definitive Bond for me so there isn't as much invested in the franchise, but I know that once the film draws closer and the realization of actually being able to see the next chapter in this new, larger world hits me I'll be genuinely excited to catch a glimpse of it and so I couldn't resist placing it at the beginning here. “Spectre” will apparently find Bond on a trail to uncover a sinister organization while M (Ralph Fiennes) battles political forces to keep the secret service alive. My only concern for the film is that after a summer consisting of great action spectacles like “Furious 7,” ‘Avengers,’ ‘Mad Max,’ “Jurassic World” and ‘M:I-Rogue Nation’ can the oldest franchise of them all compete? Premieres: 11/6
9. “I Saw the Light”
I keep a running list of my favorite films throughout the year so that when we reach the time to make the annual top 10 list I have a strong point of reference and don't simply pull from the batch of Oscar contenders that crowd theaters at the end of the year. So far in 2015 I have five films on my list that I've ranked higher than any others and two of those just happen to be music biopics. I don't know if it's because I've always had an affinity for the music-making process or have been intrigued by how the human condition reacts to the intrigue of fame and adoration due to the reaction of bearing your sole in song, but I simply adore them and I can't imagine the Hank Williams biography, “I Saw the Light,” being any different. Especially having been raised in the south, Williams is something of a mythic figure who represents more than just what he sung about, but a way of life that is still preserved. With a cast that features Tom Hiddleston as Williams and Elizabeth Olsen as his wife Audrey Mae I can't wait to see what director Marc Abraham's feature holds for fans of both music and film. Premieres: 11/27
8. “Black Mass”
I will have the chance to see “Black Mass” at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but considering it will open in wide release while I'm at the festival I may decide to skip it at the festival and see something I won't have the chance to see elsewhere for a while and catch up with director Scott Cooper's latest upon returning. That said, despite the abundance of press material for the film that has given away what feels like a lot I am very much excited to see what will no doubt be touted out as "Johnny Depp's Return!" In “Black Mass,” Depp plays Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who becomes an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf. Not only does this come from Cooper who has a knack for tapping into stark tones, but “Black Mass” features a rather incredible cast outside of Depp that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, Joel Edgerton, Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson and Jesse Plemons. Premieres: 9/18
I've always relegated the ‘Rocky’ films to something of a memory where I know I've seen the majority of them (specifically the first, second, fourth and ‘Balboa,’ so I actually have a little catching up to do), but it was in the underrated “Rocky Balboa” where I really caught a glimpse of what made the series mean so much to so many people. It was the film that came at the right time for me as I was really beginning to dig into cinema. That film deserved more than the pre-ordained bad word of mouth it received and by the time people saw it and realized it was actually a solid little closing chapter to the series the window of opportunity had passed. Almost 10 years removed from that film though and we have a new chapter in the story, but this time it isn't about Rocky-we're talking Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed (as played by Carl Weathers) and his quest to follow in his father’s footsteps despite never knowing him. From “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan, “Creed” will clearly capitalize on the nostalgia of the subject, but it also seems intent to be Johnson's story and Jordan looks to be giving a wholly dedicated performance that will only push his star further, and if we're lucky, spawn him his own boxing franchise. Premieres: 11/25
6. “The Martian”
I'm currently reading Andy Weir's The Martian and hope to have it finished before traveling to Toronto as I fully intend on catching Ridley Scott's adaptation once there. There isn't much reason to expect much from the extremely proficient director given he seems to have traded quality for quantity as of late, but it's hard to argue with the allure of the trailers for “The Martian.” The film tells the story of how, during a manned mission to mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. Watney survives though and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he is forced to draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal Earth that he is, in fact, still alive. Besides Damon, Scott has recruited a rather stellar supporting cast including the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña and Donald Glover with Drew Goddard adapting Weir's novel for the screen. Color me insanely intrigued. Premieres: 10/2
5. “The Revenant”
Anything that Leonardo DiCaprio does these days seems destined to be on my most anticipated list. Whether it's that he has truly impeccable taste or the luckiest timing in the world, he seems to be consistently picking the right projects. Truth is, it is a combination of both those things. The taste aspect is most evident in that DiCaprio is finally working with heralded director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whereas the timing aspect comes into play given he's working with him on the follow-up to Iñárritu's Best Picture Winner, “Birdman.” The fact that DiCaprio is one of the most well-regarded actors working today combined with Iñárritu's current clout and the added bonus of starring Tom Hardy (who is on a hot streak of his own as of late) in the supporting role gives off the impression everything fell in line perfectly for this film to be positioned as an awards season favorite. I'm sure the filmmakers and stars would gawk at that previous sentence though given the difficult and tumultuous shoot they reportedly experienced. Iñárritu shot the entire film with outdoor lighting in the rather inhospitable Canadian wilderness over nine months. “The Revenant” is based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass who was left for dead by his companions following a bear mauling in the early 19th century. Premieres: Limited-12/25, Wide-1/8
Speaking of Tom Hardy, the guy who has already starred in one of the most critically lauded blockbusters of the summer and will be a part of what is no doubt a front-runner in the awards race this season (see above), will make his own bid for Best Actor with director Brian Hegleland's “Legend.” With the success of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Hardy has become a more visible star than ever before and “Legend” seems perfectly poised to be that definitive performance that forever puts him on the map as one of the greats. In the film, Hardy plays both Ronald and Reginald Kray who were identical twin gangsters that essentially ran the London crime scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. The trailers for the film are selling it as a must-see and the potential for greatness seems to be off the charts. If you've been watching a variety of movies over the last few years you already know the true talent that Hardy is, but based purely on what we've seen from “Legend” so far he's seemingly getting ready to make sure the rest of the world knows who he is. The film overall looks to be a massive gangster epic with a top shelf supporting cast that includes Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Tara Fitzgerald and Taron Egerton. Premieres: 10/2
3. “The Hateful Eight”
When Quentin Tarantino makes a new film it immediately shoots up to the top of most movie-lovers most anticipated lists. It has been three years since Tarantino graced us with his last project, but he will return this Christmas with another venture into the Western genre. “The Hateful Eight” was famously the subject of a rather sordid affair after an early draft of the script leaked online causing Tarantino to more or less cancel any plans of actually making the film and instead staged a live read of the script in April of 2014. Tarantino finally confirmed “The Hateful Eight” would indeed be his next film in July of last year after much speculation about whether it would come to fruition or not. A few minor changes were made to the cast after the table read (the most notable being the addition of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and production officially began at the end of last year. So, it has been a long road for Tarantino and his crew to reach this point and for audiences who are aware of the journey, the film is a long time coming as well. Needless to say, I can't wait to see the final product as Tarantino has given himself the set-up of post-Civil War Wyoming where a small group of stagecoach passengers get stranded during a blizzard in which to flourish. Premieres:12/25
2. “Steve Jobs”
Said to be made up of only three scenes, each backstage at the launch of one of Apple's iconic products, “Steve Jobs” is not just the second movie about the Apple founder. As for the reasons why, let's take a look at the credentials this thing has going for it. The screenplay comes to us via Aaron Sorkin. The film is directed by Danny Boyle who, beyond winning an Oscar for 2008's “Slumdog Millionaire,” has directed more thrilling material with the likes of “127 Hours,” “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later” (though folks seem to really enjoy “Trainspotting,” as well). The cast is toplined by Michael Fassbender as the titular CEO and I won't be surprised if he takes home the Best Actor statue come February (sorry, once again, Leo). The supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, one of the original members of both the Macintosh team and the NeXT team, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, the man who single-handedly developed the 1976 Apple I or the computer that launched the company, Katherine Waterson Vice will play Chrisann Brennan, Jobs high school girlfriend who's also the mother of his first child. Couple this with the fact Jeff Daniels will portray Chief executive officer of Apple, John Sculley, while Michael Stuhlberg will play original member of the Apple Macintosh development team Andy Hertzfeld and this thing can't be stopped. In short, the film looks rapturous and I don't use that word often. Premieres: 10/9
1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
It's now been over a decade since we received the last ‘Star Wars’ film, 2005's ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ In that time, the ‘Star Wars’ universe has undergone some major transformations and shifts in power and thus we now have the beginning of a new trilogy that will continue where the original three films left off. Every other movie in town has pretty much cleared out of this juggernaut's path and I'm still trying to register the fact we're actually getting a new ‘Star Wars’ movie this year. All of the factors that inform this excitement are things no other film can really compete with and that's not necessarily fair, but it is what it is and while the subsequent ‘Star Wars’ sequels and anthology films may not immediately rank as high as this one I would be lying to myself if I put anything above ‘Episode VII’ on this list. Given the quality of the two trailers we've received thus far and the amount of good will that seems to be behind this project I can only hope for the best and relish in the fact no major story points have been given away as there is no need to divulge any plot details (people will show up for ‘Star Wars’ no matter what), but that we've simply been hyped for ‘The Force Awakens’ by catching glimpses of the new cast (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac) as well as a quick peak at the older one as well. Chewie, I can't wait to come home. Premieres: 12/18
by Philip Price
“American Ultra” is fine. It is somewhat ambitious and somewhat derivative, but most of the time it plays things right down the middle and offers little more than we expect. It is subtly silly, not laugh-out-loud hilarious though it maintains its ridiculousness throughout given it's honest with itself and well aware of what it is. In short, the film is a trivial exercise in triviality given it makes light of typically serious subjects such as secret agents and government operations, but will never be seen as more than a tiny blip on the pop culture radar. This is no crime against humanity as those who have even a modicum of interest in something akin to this will likely give it a shot while those who don't, won't and are not really missing out on much. Sure, “American Ultra” has its redeemers, but none are strong enough to qualify it for a recommendation and while I sat watching the film, both amused and bemused for much of the time strangely enough, I couldn't help but to think how inconsequential it all felt. I didn't actively dislike the film, in fact I was more than happy to sit down and watch both Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart again as I've come to really enjoy “Adventureland” more and more over the years, but never throughout the course of experiencing this film did I find myself invested in any aspect of what was happening. It's almost as if the film is so trivial that it's not even worth saying much about it, but that would be to diminish the solid qualities and obvious heart that has gone into creating the product and I genuinely hate to minimize that effort to less than it is. Whether it be in the inherent chemistry between our two leads, the strong supporting cast that is selling the mess out of this outlandish material or the rather deft tone of the film as a whole there are certainly selling points and things to enjoy. The problem is, that deft quality seems to be one the film owes more to its script than to its director and some of that intended mentality was lost in translation.
Written by Max Landis, “American Ultra” concerns itself with small-town stoner Mike (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). Mike is the type of guy who seems content in his dead-end job working at the local "Cash-N-Carry" which more or less looks like a gas station without the pumps. Of course, Mike is also a guy who seems to be a fairly decent artist and has created his own cast of characters for which he likes to write and illustrate comics. Phoebe is the supportive girlfriend who wants to see him do something more with his life than get high and re-stock the groceries, but at the same time is perfectly happy with the Mike she first met. And oh yeah, Mike also likes to do drugs. While the marketing has made this a key comedy selling point, in all actuality it is more of an extraneous character trait used to inform the comedy than anything having to do with the story. It makes the fact this guy is actually supposed to be a trained assassin all the more humorous, but that's about it. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh the film takes a turn once it is revealed that Mike is in fact a government operative and some result of a science experiment gone wrong (think Bourne) that has now been marked as a liability and is targeted for extermination. Enter the likes of Topher Grace as a newly-appointed CIA administrator of some sort who is keen on overseeing a successful and important mission for the sole purpose of raising his profile while Connie Britton is the veteran who started the program that created Mike and whom she sees as a puppy she needs to save rather than the rabid, scary dog Grace's character wants to put down.
What I enjoyed most about “American Ultra” though is that it's not too big for its britches. With such a premise things could have easily gone the way of Eisenberg's Mike getting pulled into some kind of mission and utilized for reasons beyond his understanding while the overarching theme would have been to make him realize how much he loves Phoebe and that he needs to get his life together or something like that. The good thing here though is that Mike already knows how much he loves Phoebe. In fact, there is a running joke about him finding the right moment to propose. The film never pulls Mike into a bigger mission and the film never takes on a bigger scope, but instead stays focused on the character development of Mike after such a revelation. Mike is the mission. This may seem like a rather small compliment, but it truly is tough to remain self-contained when the impulse to go bigger is creeping around every corner. Whether it be in the self-referential way that Grace's Adrian Yates points out the unnecessary tents pitched in the Max Mart grocery store or the number of disposable muscle men crammed into the back of a truck like sardines waiting for the word "go,” there are certainly tendencies lurking. “American Ultra” knows it's limits though and doesn't allow itself to get out of hand as far as its scope is concerned, but when it comes down to story it can't help but become slightly convoluted. This is a real shame too as I was hoping that with the way things were going and would presumably play out, Landis wouldn't have chosen to take a certain route with a certain character, but he does. While I shouldn't criticize a film for what I think it should have done and merely accept it for what it does and evaluate it accordingly, this reveal was rather disappointing. I understand why it was done and why it makes sense with the overall plot, but it just feels like a cliché in a movie calling out clichés.
The highlights of the film outweigh this slight complaint though as it ends up being rather charming when taken on its own terms. Landis has written a kind of rift on the B-movie thrillers of the eighties and amped up the bloody violence to eleven. This juxtaposition of comedy and graphic violence is, for one reason or another, always endearing and elevates the fun level to just above average. Nourizadeh and his team have crafted a set of very lived-in environments that feel authentic. The house that Eisenberg and Stewart's characters call home seems as if it's been slowly accumulating knick-knacks and other worthless junk for years while the same is true of the "Cash-N-Carry" Mike works at. With this, Nourizadeh has shot his film with a certain set of blues and reds that compliment a soundtrack eliciting the feel of a simpler time that somehow also mesh well with the more hip tone of the script. Eisenberg uses his rather lax tone and passive-aggressive manners to make the timid Mike as a stone cold killer the funniest bit in the movie while continuing the theme of juxtaposition. The way in which Mike will simply ask two strange men who are clearly meddling with his car to "stop doin' shit to my car" is what offers the subtle smiles as does the fact he feels it necessary to clean up after his kills. Paired once again with Stewart, we buy their relationship immediately, but unfortunately Stewart isn't given as much to do here as she was in their prior collaboration. On the supporting side of things John Leguizamo and Walton Goggins are having some good fun with rather caricature-like figures and the inclusion of Bill Pullman is just a nice little wink and nod to the movies that so clearly inspired Landis to write this. If only Landis had found his script compelling enough to direct we may have had something a bit more in-tune with the tone and as a result, more notable.
The End of the Tour
by Philip Price
In the first frame of “The End of the Tour,” the new film from director James Ponsoldt, we glimpse Jesse Eisenberg's David Lipsky sitting on a couch with his laptop and his dog. It is a simple setting, one we don't think much of upon initially seeing. In fact, if you know anything about the film prior to seeing it you know Eisenberg's character is a writer and therefore this setting is somewhat expected. As we better acquaint ourselves with David Lipsky over the next hour and 45 minutes though, we learn more about him, about his time with author David Foster Wallace (played here by Jason Segel) and that first frame becomes all the more telling. “The End of the Tour” is, on the surface, a road movie about one writer doing a profile on another writer, but more than that it is a film of conversation and constant introspection. It's almost exhausting to constantly think in the way our two main characters presented here do, throwing out ideas and immediately reassessing those ideas or deep-diving further to find the root of where such ideas come from. The talking — it can be a bit much, it can feel overbearing even, but it ultimately captures so much of the soul that it can't help but feel soothing at the same time. It's strange, to be sure, but it makes perfect sense, especially when it's so elegantly and perfectly phrased in Wallace speak. Wallace speaks a lot in this film iteration of Lipsky's book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, that was published two years after Wallace committed suicide. While much of the dialogue feels like a culmination of Wallace's philosophy or his verbal dissertation on the complex and mundane aspects of life and how they're one in the same it somehow manages to also be a genuine portrait of a conflicted mind. It should be noted up front that Wallace's trust has come out against ‘Tour’ outright, but regardless of what is accurate and what is not (this is a movie, after all) “The End of the Tour” is still an insightful portrait not only of the male mind, but of the messiness of life and all the bullshit one has to sift through in order to even catch a glimpse of something real.
What strikes me immediately as being the most interesting aspect of “The End of the Tour” is the way in which it never lags. This may seem like a rather basic observation considering the amount of topics discussed and the depth of the conversation that takes place in the film, but the fact the majority of the runtime is made up purely of conversation and it never lags is fascinating to this millennial who naturally needs explosions and spandex to stay intrigued. I'm exaggerating of course, but it does take a certain level of conversation, of words put together in a specific order to articulate interesting and compelling thoughts that allow them to be able to sustain a feature length film and Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies pulls this off with seeming ease. Of course, I doubt the writing and compiling of Lipsky's interview and subsequent book combined with shaping them into a coherent narrative was anything but easy, but the finished product allows it to feel that way and that says a lot for the people who endeavored to try and pull this off. The process of writing is one that appears to be unique as far as approach goes for each individual, but once your ass is in the seat and your fingers are to the keys it is a process of discovery as you propel yourself further into your own thoughts. Having to write about another writer (not to mention two) and the way their brain works is a task that sounds interesting, certainly, but is one I don't know you'd necessarily define as enviable. It would be more than easy to become muddled and weighed down by the numerous avenues one could take and in attempting to streamline such complex thoughts and people you are undoubtedly doing an injustice to the actual human being. With that burden in mind, Margulies has seemingly stared down the barrel of a week's worth of prose and fashioned it into something that, if not actual representations of these people, are at least symbolic interpretations.
While it is the ability of the dialogue to sustain a constant intrigue, it is obviously the performances conveying this dialogue that do the majority of the heavy lifting. Made up of mainly Segel and Eisenberg going back and forth, the film’s success hinges on their chemistry with only brief interludes from Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner playing friends of Wallace's who live in Minnesota and who the pair hang out with on their tour of the twin cities. There are flashes of Joan Cusack's comic genius as a Minneapolis escort that plays to the end of the spectrum in which our two David's typically find pleasure in deconstructing and dismissing. Cusack's Patty is as conventional and absent-minded as the two academics she's driving around likely suspect any average American to be, but I bring this up because it is the commonality that corporate America presents as normalcy in which both the movie and the minds of our leads find their humor. Segel's Wallace doesn't so much convey the narcissistic pretension that drips off Eisenberg's Lipsky (though this is only because Wallace is a proven writer while Lipsky is still working for acclaim) though it's clear Lipsky only presents this facade as a way to cover his own insecurities, especially around someone as imposing as Wallace. It isn't even that Segel's Wallace discounts much of what we see as good, seductive commercial entertainment for the sake of feeling better than everyone else, but more because he seems to feel sorry for us. Is this where we find satisfaction? Is this what it's come to?
The idea of self-reflection and the awareness of one's self is the theme that seems to resonate most though. Segel's Wallace is in a state of constantly discussing this thousand page tome that he is not only still wrestling with the questions and content of it, but he is already disenchanted with the process of having to deal with the attention that comes along with doing an otherwise lonely job. That Wallace can see Eisenberg's Lipsky is just on the other side of this wall, craving all that he has in terms of success and attention for his writing (only amplified by Lipsky's inclination to imitate him) he can't help but to think of Lipsky as something of a stupid, ignorant kid. It is petty jealousy in all actuality, but it propels the dynamic of our two characters forward in a fashion that keeps tension bubbling right below the surface while the ultimate goal remains the two trying to figure out if they even like one another.
That isn't to say Wallace is a complete downer who wallows in his admitted depression the entire time either. The two writers we are privy to listening in on admit to the greatness of the original “Die Hard,” they go see Broken Arrow at The Mall of America and Wallace has only a poster of Alanis Morisette on his otherwise empty walls because she feels more attainable than most pop stars. Wallace also consumes packs of diet sodas and pop tarts throughout the film making someone who is typically glorified as some kind of deity into a more accessible commoner because of the familiarity of his habits. Of course, that is what Wallace would like his fans and anyone else who's even just heard his name to think about him, but Lipsky is sure there is more to the man even if Wallace genuinely doesn't believe so. Lipsky, as played by Esienberg, is more what we expect from a writer who is in a position where it feels inevitable he might one day accomplish his dreams due to his persistent hard work, but is inevitably irritated by the success of someone like Wallace because of its effortless-like nature. Wallace is a natural academic/genius of sorts and that he has been able to accomplish all he has at his age gives Lipsky the impression he only has so much more time to attain his goals. Intentional or not, Eisenberg's Lipsky begins to emulate Wallace halfway through the film and its clear Segel's Wallace takes note. This small detail is acknowledged, but not discussed or drawn out as a major point of drama. More, the moments of observation are meant to give us further insight into these characters than even the introverted dialogue suggests. As much as Wallace and Lipsky talk about how one can never win within the vicious circle of our commercialized society that purports the ongoing battle of credibility and popularity or how intimate they get when discussing relationships, it is never as telling as the looks they cross at one another and for that, the performances deserve a mark of being rather incredible.
For Segel, this is a performance that separates him from the pre-conceived notions of him strictly starring in comedies or being the "Muppets" guy. This is seemingly a character Segel will be unable to walk away from for a long time to come. Like Johnny Cash for Joaquin Phoenix or Andy Kaufman for Jim Carrey, one can see the idea of who this real-life person was integrating itself into the actors psyche as their performance plays out on screen. Even watching interviews with Segel as he discusses the film it is rather clear it will take him years to come to terms with the ideas this deep dive brought to the surface. While this type of role is certainly a unique opportunity for the actor and life-altering to some degree, when it is boiled down to what we're actually given in the final product Segel presents just the right amount of majestic mannerisms to make one wince and smile while being sincerely funny and intelligent without being aggressively so on either front. The real David Foster Wallace may not have been one who would care to see himself on a movie screen, but despite the claims of the film being inaccurate, I can't imagine anyone not at least appreciating the effort and earnestness with which Segel portrays this human being if, for nothing else, the fact it will bring more people around to the works of Wallace.
“The End of the Tour” is art about art. It is about being able to articulate your inner-monologues in ways that bring others to you, to acknowledge that what you've put down on paper is relatable and worth something to others as well. The film does this to great accomplishment, hitting on moments, interactions and thoughts that will inevitably ring true to a wide array of viewers. It takes a deeply confident and introspective person to not only sit down and dedicate the time it takes to write a novel, but to think that random people will think enough of one's ideas to take time out of their own day to read it. Wallace has a quote in the film about his introverted personality and how he thinks being shy basically means being, "self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people." While the film finds pride in conveying universal thoughts in artistic ways this quote exemplifies why it is scary to actually release thoughts and scribbles out into the world for others to share in for the reticent person. If writing a work such as “Infinite Jest,” that ultimately connects on multiple levels with many people, is one of the loneliest experiences a person can have but is done more for the sake of getting these thoughts off one's chest than actually connecting with others why would Wallace want to bother with how it's received? Why would someone who is inherently shy risk such probable interaction not to mention creating a persona they could never actually live up to even if spectators buy into the act? Not only is this disposition a lonely way of thinking, but it often times results in an equally lonely existence save for the person who doesn't have an agenda of their own and whom you can share everything with. Oh, if it were as easy to find the person as it is to describe them this world might be a kinder place. As it is, and as “The End of the Tour” reminds us, the great irony of constantly striving to better understand human interaction, ways of thinking and the basic utilities that create our "satisfactory" lives is that this work typically ends up limiting such interaction. That life is what happens when you're busy contemplating it which only makes that opening shot as telling as ever when we come back around to it.
Ricki and the Flash
by Philip Price
Meryl Streep's latest is something of an oddity. It is difficult to see the 66-year old, Academy Award-winning actress as a lover of ‘60s and ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll who never gave up her dream of joining that world. It isn't that Streep can't pull it off (please, what can't she do?), it's just a strange sight to behold and watch unfold. Decked out in gaudy jewelry from her ears to every finger and even more excessively around her neck, she is a nightmare for airport security. She swoops her thinning hair to one side with the rest braided so as to elicit a steaming punk persona. She wears lots of black and a lot of leather and hates to go anywhere without her guitar. While the typically regal persona we see from Streep certainly doesn't correspond with what we see in Ricki there is something to be said for this unorganized, irresponsible and blatantly selfish person that chose one dream over another. Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, “Ricki and the Flash” is more a movie about the state of the American family than it is one about a failed singer. The trailers would have you believe this is something of a slight piece of melodrama that would be just as (if not more) suitable for the Lifetime network than your local multiplex, but it's clear from the moment things get a little more intense concerning Ricki's daughter (Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) that this isn't simply a familial drama with fun interludes of Streep singing classic rock. No, “Ricki and the Flash” is indeed a more subtle and intricate commentary on topics largely relatable to the casual audience member. Sure, you may could see the conventions that the film works within from a mile away, but the seasoned cast sells it and the inspired moments of writing in certain scenes combined with Demme's assured direction make for an enjoyable and rather affecting experience.
Streep's Ricki Randazzo is actually a failed rock and roll star rather than the seasoned vet one might have expected considering the marketing. Unable to give up on her dream to make music for a living Ricki lives in Los Angeles and works at a grocery store during the day making just enough to pay her rent while maintaining the status as lead singer of The Flash, a house band at a local dive bar. While Ricki seems rather content in her world of being worshipped by the regular bar patrons and it's bartender (Ben Platt) while at the same time hooking up with her lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) it seems all is not well on the home front. Getting an unexpected call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) concerning their daughter, Julie (Gummer), who is dealing with her husband leaving her for another woman, Pete asks Ricki if she might come home to help with the situation. While hesitant and barely able to afford the plane ticket, Ricki decides to take a chance and ultimately be there for her children whose lives she's already missed so much of. Once she arrives in Indiana, Ricki realizes the situation with Julie is worse than Pete initially let on. Julie is spiraling into a dark depression after attempting to commit suicide while Pete's new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), is away attending to her ailing father. Ricki and Pete have two other children together, sons Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate). Josh is currently the most open to the idea of allowing their mother back into their lives despite the fact he intended to keep his engagement to Emily (Hailey Gates) a secret while Julie only sees her as another person that abandoned her and Adam has a chip on his shoulder he can't seem to shake. What “Ricki and the Flash” isn't is a movie about a mom returning home to right all of her wrongs, but more a movie about a woman who is completely her own coming to terms with and admitting to mistakes she may have made in her past and accepting that she might actually change some things could she do it all over again.
As the film began, I felt unsure of what I was getting into. It is admittedly tough for Streep to break through the barrier that this potentially embarrassing character carries with her. Watching a 60 year old (man or woman) strut around on stage at a local bar, singing songs we've all heard countless times before isn't just potentially embarrassing, but it takes skill to pull off without the audience cringing. About halfway through the first song I began to ease up, Demme's approach of making Ricki and her band feel right at home allowing me to feel the same. What came as a surprise was that I would come to feel more awkward when Ricki returned home. Hopefully she might break this barrier the same way she did with her stage presence I thought. We all know Meryl Streep is a great actor, someone who can inhabit any persona and convey the necessary emotion to allow us to become fully invested and dammit if she isn't just as strong here. Streep maneuvers her way back into the children's lives and makes us feel her Ricki is someone we all know, someone whose mentality we understand and have struggled with in our own lives. There is a particularly moving scene in which Ricki is dealing with the repercussions of her life choices, pondering what to do when she realizes she's royally screwed up and it's too late to fix it. Ricki has flown back to LA after consoling Julie and is performing when something of an existential crisis hits her. Should she have stayed home? Should she even be where she is at that moment? She could have let the hard-working Pete make their money that would have allowed her to now be living in a lush mansion instead of a crappy apartment with close ties to her children rather than the fractured ones that exist currently, but would the constant tugging of should she have chased her dream have been too much to bear? It's difficult because she recognizes were she a man her children would have likely idolized a father who was a musician and simply chased what his heart desired, but because she is their mother, because society assigns her the role of the inherent parent, the reliable and responsible one, she is looked at as a ruined person who ruins others.
And so, “Ricki and the Flash” is more about consequences than anything else. The consequences not only that Ricki has to face for choosing to live the way she did, but those that her family is forced to face. McDonald's Maureen is especially privy to the consequences Ricki's children had to deal with in light of their mother not being around for not just the milestones, but the small moments in between. Naturally, there are two sides to every story and in a particularly heated scene between Streep and McDonald tensions come to a head. It is in this scene we see through the way each woman argues and justifies their side to what the true story is. We know that Maureen saw the hurt in Julie, Adam and Josh's young faces and held some resentment towards Ricki while Ricki saw Maureen as nothing more than a woman keen on moving in on her family only further solidifying she couldn't have her cake and eat it too. It is easy to feel sorry for Ricki, that is what the movie wants us to feel, but as the film continued I also began to wonder what resolution it could possibly want for Ricki? We know that there would have to be some kind of renewed strength in the relationship between she and her children, which is clear, but how would she shut down the dream factory and move to Indiana permanently? It seems music is all Ricki has to give and thus she will forever be unable to give it up entirely and in many ways, she shouldn't have to-she should simply adapt. By the time the credits roll we can only hope that is what the future holds for Ricki and her clan.
Cody's screenplay gives Ricki's arc considerable time and precious development as Demme and his editor efficiently pace their film while allowing the more weighted portions to be leveraged with a consistently funny tone. Adding to this interesting oddity of a Lifetime flick meshed with genuine emotion and authentic familial issues is the commentary on the state of children and how we over-analyze their behavior and diagnose them so quickly they aren't granted time to figure things out for themselves. And then there is the strongest statement the film makes in reference to our current societal outlook of not caring enough to work through or put in the effort to make things right and instead simply giving in to giving up. These themes are made abundantly clear through the performance of Gummer who, for the first half of the film, nearly steals the show from her legendary mother. Julie is more than blunt with everyone around her in the wake of her suicide attempt thus giving way to a lifetime of complicated family dynamics being brought to the table in a matter of days. This inevitably leads to more drama than one might be prepared to handle in that time frame, but it is measured just right for this hour and forty minute dramedy. “Ricki and the Flash” supplies us with solid performances, complex insight and a fair amount of laughs to leave one both touched and immediately more conscious of their decisions and the effect they might have on those most important to them.