Friday, December 11, 2015


This review originally appeared on

Todd Haynes is back with another story about homosexuality in the 1950s, but this time he's adapted a book, The Price of Salt, written by famed mystery author Patrica Highsmith in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. But unlike Far From Heaven, his 2002 homage to classic family melodramas, Haynes stays away from the filmmaking style of the 1950's, crafting a "woman's film" that could only be told now.

Cate Blanchett stars as Carol Aird, an upper class mother of a young daughter, in the midst of divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). She's a strikingly beautiful blonde in creamy mink that instantly catches the eye of shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Actually, they catch each other's eyes, and the spark between them is undeniable. Therese, who has a boyfriend, aspires to be a photographer. Though she isn't confident about either of those situations, she doesn't hesitate when Carol invites her to lunch...and when circumstances push Carol to drive out west, Therese jumps at the chance to join her.

Like Far From Heaven, Carol is filled with impeccable costuming and set design; every detail rings absolutely true to its 1950s era. I swooned almost as much as Therese every time Carol enters a room — the hats! The coats! The jewelry! So enraptured was I by the look of the movie, I was almost able to overlook the fact that we don't actually get a lot of dialogue between the two women. What do they talk about during those long hours on the road? The movie would have us believe they spend most of those drives dreamily staring through the car's fog covered windows. In silence.

Carol is an absolutely terrific movie in many, many ways. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deserve all the nominations they're going to get; Carter Burwell's score is lovely; the Super 16 cinematography by Edward Lachman is beautifully grainy. I just wish there was as much attention to detail given to the relationship between Carol and Therese as there was given to the world that surrounds them.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

In any other year Pixar's The Good Dinosaur would garner the usual universal praise and go on to win an Oscar. Unfortunately, it comes the same year as the remarkable Inside Out, and it just can't help but pale in comparison. That said, it still stands well above the rest of the animated films released this year, and while it doesn't do anything revolutionary, it does the familiar exceptionally well.

The central premise is that the meteor missed Earth all those millions of years ago, so the dinosaurs lived, and evolved enough to talk and create agriculture ahead of man, who are only beginning to learn to walk on two legs and communicate. Arlo, the timid and smallest of three siblings that live on a farm with their parents, is the center of the story. During a storm he gets swept far away from home, and a tiny little caveboy is his only hope of getting back to his family. Arlo names him Spot.

The Good Dinosaur is basically a "Boy and His Dog" story, except in this case the boy is a dinosaur, and the dog is a boy. Like many Pixar movies, the story is a quest to return to family and home, and like almost all Pixar films, it has moments that had me bawling, and others that had me laughing out loud. (I'd see it again just for the scene with the Pet Collector and a bird named Debbie.) It's also filled with some truly amazing animated scenery that you would swear are actual rolling plains of grain, acres of trees, and storm-filled skies. It may not redefine what animated kids' movies are capable of doing, like Inside Out did, but I'll take it over a song-filled princess movie any day.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Love the Coopers

This review originally appeared on

As I've previously noted, if the cast is large and full of well-known names, you can be pretty sure the movie will be terrible. Love the Coopers proves that point once again. If you think this looks like an uplifting Christmas story about the love of family, think again. Sure, it wants to be, but instead it's a depressing mess. And I'm not talking depressing in the way say, It's a Wonderful Life is a depressing Christmas movie that makes you cry but also feel good about humanity. Love the Coopers is about as enjoyable as one would imagine spending the holidays with a highly dysfunctional family would be.

And that huge cast is just all wrong! Diane Keaton and John Goodman play mom and dad Cooper. I was wondering why the camera seemed to be smeared with Vaseline every time they were on screen, then saw who was cast as their siblings and grandparents and understood; they're suppose to be playing a lot younger than they actually are. Keaton is 69. Alan Arkin, who is 81, plays her father. Marissa Tomei plays her younger sister, and we're talking younger by like six years, not the actual, real-life, 20 year difference between them. Finally, Ed Helms plays their son, who became a father during high school, but whose oldest child is only about 15 and WHAT?!

I bring this all up because it makes for a confusing movie when you're spending the first half trying to understand how all these people could possibly be related to each other. (And don't even get me started on why Steve Martin narrates the whole thing.)

The movie does have its one bright spot, and that's the romantic storyline centered on the Cooper daughter, played by Olivia Wilde, and a newly enlisted solider, (Jake Lacy) she recruits to be her pretend-boyfriend. They'e the source of the film's only real laughs and heart-tugs.


This review originally appeared on

It's both a good thing and a sad thing that I went into the movie Spotlight not knowing all that much about the molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic community in Boston — and the entire country — in 2002. Good because the shocking truths that are slowly and painfully revealed throughout the course of the movie make for some pretty suspenseful viewing. Sad because Jesus Christ everyone should know about this! Hopefully this movie will make sure that happens.

Comparisons to All the Presidents Men are easy but accurate to make: they both present journalism as exciting, important, and riveting stuff. Michael Keaton heads the cast as Walter "Robby" Robinson, lead editor of the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, a team of investigative journalists that are able to work separately from the daily reporters, following stories for as long as it takes to get them told right. When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over as the Globe's Editor-in-Chief, he decides to dig deeper in a story about molestation by local Catholic priests, and puts Spotlight on the story.

Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James are solid as the other Spotlight reporters, and their investigation uncovers years and years of abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church, as well as a devastating number of abusers and victims. For the most part, the reporters' private lives are left out of the story, and what we see is the team doing their jobs, something that certainly doesn't sound movie-worthy, but most definitely is. The cast is also, for the most part, delightfully subdued, with only Mark Ruffalo having a scene that's just a little too "For Your Consideration."

Friday, November 6, 2015

Too Much Plot: Spectre

This review originally appeared on

I have a conflicted relationship with James Bond movies. In some respects I find them quite boring, as they always follow the same story arcs, and predictably end with Bond living to die another day. The main entertainment comes from the theme song, (can Adele just do them from now on because this new one by Sam Smith is a snooooze), the cool gadgets, the silly villains, and Bond himself. At least, that is, when he's played by Sean Connery. He is and will always be the best Bond.

But I will admit that Daniel Craig has grown on me. He's certainly below Connery in Bond rankings, but definitely above Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. And he's at his most appealing thus far in Spectre, which may or may not be his final Bond appearance. (If it is, I'm fine with long as Idris Elba fills his shoes.)

In previous films, especially Skyfall, Craig's Bond has been a bit of a downer, coming this close to complaining he's too old for this shit, and looking almost bored by his bedroom conquests. In Spectre, which takes place soon after the events of Skyfall, he has some renewed purpose, going rogue by following the posthumous orders of his beloved M. In all, he's cockier, cracks a few more jokes, and seems a little more eager to get those Bond girls into bed.

The feared merging of MI5 and MI6 that was threatened in Skyfall comes to grim fruition in Spectre, while Bond follows a trail that leads him to the global crime syndicate, Spectre, and a possible connection between it, his past, and the future of MI5 and MI6.

Along the way, Bond visits the dry lands of Mexico and Africa, the snowy alps of Switzerland, and the crumbling ruins of his former offices; hooks up with a mafia widow, (played by the refreshingly age appropriate Monica Bellucci); teams up with the daughter of Quantum member Mr. White, (she's played by Lea Seydoux, who was the blue girl in Blue Is the Warmest Color); destroys one city block, several cars, and one plane; and eventually meets the head of Spectre, played by Christoph Waltz. It's probably not much of a spoiler to say who he is, but just in case I'll only say he has a white Persian cat, wears a Nehru jacket, and has a prominent facial scar...

Spectre's biggest problem is too much plot. While connecting all the Craig Bond films together in this (possibly final) entry may seem like a good idea, the result is way too confusing, and in some ways, just plain silly. (Sibling rivalry is the root cause of Spectre? Really?) The movie drags, at two-and-a-half hours, and by the end of it I was more than ready to leave that theater. Who can blame Daniel Craig for wanting to do the same?

Friday, October 23, 2015


There are men who kidnap and imprison women in order to keep them as their own personal sex slaves, often for years. This is a real thing that happens, and that fact will never cease to sicken me and completely freak me out. So, starting with a premise like that means Room is a tough film to experience. Some might wonder if it's worth it. I think it is, primarily for the extraordinary performances from Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as her five-year-old son, Jack.

Jack narrates much of the story, so we see things through his young, literally sheltered eyes. Room, as Jack calls their prison, is all he knows, and as such, it's much less of a prison to him as it is to Ma. The objects around him are treated like friends, and named: Lamp; Wardrobe; Meltedy Spoon. Excitement can be had in the changing shadows on the wall. A child's imagination can blossom even in the most constricting of settings.

But the concept of a world "outside" is difficult for Jack to comprehend. A skylight is their only view outside of Room, and a patch of sky is all they can see; a blurry TV serves as the bigger window. Ma does her best to teach Jack about the world and eventually comes up with a plan to escape. What results is a scene filled with as much tension and suspense as you'll find in any action film.

Young Jacob Tremblay is really remarkable to watch. There is not a single moment of his performance that feels phony or amateur. (Get this kid a tiny Oscar, stat!) Ma is a more challenging role, as she's (deservedly) bitter and depressed, and can easily come off as unlikable. But Brie Larson does a good job of making her heartbreaking, tough, and admirable. Ma is a hero, and the best mother she could possibly be. It's just a shame no one in the movie ever really tells her that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Not Particularly Scary: Crimson Peak, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

Is a horror movie a failure if it doesn't manage to scare you? Perhaps. And especially if an aim to fright is the only thing its got going for it. But Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak is so insanely lush, beautiful, and classically gothic that it almost seems like nitpicking to point out that it's not particularly scary,

Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, (a nice nominal nod to Hammer star Peter Cushing), the only child of her widowed father (Jim Beaver), a wealthy industrialist in early 1900's Buffalo, New York. She's an aspiring writer, and therefore a bit of a social outcast. When a member of the local high society chides her as being the next Jane Austen, "She died an old maid, didn't she?," Edith replies, "I'd rather be Mary Shelly; she died a widow."

She's the plucky kind of anachronistic heroine modern audience can get behind. She's not just writing a story, she's writing a ghost story, a subject she knows something about, having been visited by the ghost of her dead mother when she was a young girl. Edith would rather stay home with a pile of reference books than accept an offer of a date from handsome friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunman).

That is, until a Sir Thomas Middleton, (Tom Hiddleston), enters the picture. He's an English baronet who has come to America seeking investors for a mining machine of his own invention, one that will mine the mineral rich red clay (used to make bricks) that sits below his property. Edith's father is not impressed with him, or his creepy sister, (Jessica Chastain, in her 86th screen appearance this year).

The film's beginning is filled with gorgeous costumes: lots of corseted waists and bell sleeves for the ladies, and white ties and top hats for the gentlemen, along with homes full of dark wood interiors, walls of books, and ten piece table settings. It's easy to sink into the comfortable opulence and eye candy; it's like The Age of Innocence with ghosts. Which makes the change of scenery to crumbling Allerdale Hall all the more shocking; the only thing the two homes have in common is the ghosts.

Allerdale Hall is so over the top creepy, it's like Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion" on acid. There's a giant hole in the roof, allowing leaves (from unseen trees) to constantly rain into the entrance hall, along with snow and bugs. The mansion sits atop (and is slowly sinking into) a mountain of Sir Thomas's precious red clay, and red ore seeps through the floors. And the walls. And the water. Basically, what isn't covered in dead flies or fluttering moths is or will eventually be covered in red ooze.

It's little surprise that a brother and sister who would choose to live together in a rotting mansion with oozing walls have something else up their fancy sleeves, and following classic gothic romantic tradition, there are secrets to be found in locked up rooms, and a mysterious past that will be revealed. Wasikowska, with her porcelain skin and yellow blonde hair is the perfect waify counterpoint to the uber-goth siblings. Within the darkened halls of Allerdale, she almost looks like a ghost herself.

Which brings us back to those ghosts. Oh, the ghosts. They do a lot of screaming, and slamming around, and are, I suppose, spooky looking. But they never do anything truly unexpected; they aren't apparitions that will haunt your dreams. Maybe this is why de Toro amps up the gore factor. It's always easier to gross an audience out than it is to scare one, and there are plenty of stabbings, slicings, and head crushings to add a good dose of splatter to the movie's horror.

Crimson Peak wants to be a lot of things, and it doesn't succeed at all of them. But when it does succeed it is so bewitching that its faults can be excused. It belongs alongside the classics of the Hammer Studios and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, visual masterpieces that take advantage of all the indulgences the horror genre has to offer.

Bridge of Spies

This review originally appeared on

I was convinced I'd be bored silly by Bridge of Spies, mainly because I'm not a fan of Spielberg's "serious" movies. When it comes to those films, he never has any confidence in his audience, hammering his points home over and over again, just in case someone in the back row was sleeping the first time the point was made. But Bridge of Spies is more of a classic espionage film than any kind of commentary on the Cold War, so it falls in an area between Spielberg's "fun" movies, and his Oscar-bait. (Joel and Ethan Coen are co-writers on the screenplay, so that might have something to do with the film's enjoyment factor, although there's nothing overtly "Coen-esque" about it.)

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is forced to defend accused Russian spy Rudolph Abel (an excellently wry Mark Rylance), and ultimately finds himself in the middle of a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. Donovan was a real guy, and the story is based on real events, which means unlike most spy movies, there aren't any big shootouts or car chases. Instead you have your basic everyman sitting in a series of very chilly German locations, fighting off a cold, while he negotiates the highest level release of not one, but two American prisoners; it's not action, but it is suspense.

Hanks brings his expert comic timing to the role, making Donovan inherently likable and relatable, while Spielberg brings his expert craftmanship to the direction. Even when I don't like a Spielberg movie, I still appreciate that he knows how to tell a story well and has a firm grip on all the tools at his disposal. Happily, the result this time is a solid bit of entertainment that probably won't garner any Oscar nominations — which is a sure sign that it's actually worth seeing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian

NASA's shuttle program was shuttered a few years back, and Hollywood has reacted to this by producing a number of movies that center on astronauts and their adventures in space; if you can't be it, dream it. And now it seems like space itself is reacting to the slowing of NASA, basically screaming at us to get back up there: "LOOK! WATER! COME! NOW!"

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left behind by his crew after they assume he was killed by the sand storm that forced them to abandon Mars before the end of their mission. At first Watney fears the worst: that he's just going to starve to death up there, since he has limited food and no way of contacting his crew or anyone back on Earth. The rest of the movie is about how he — and his fellow NASA scientists — solve those, and many other problems.

I read Andy Weir's original novel and, frankly, it was one of the most boring books I've ever read. But I will freely admit I just don't have the kind of mind that's entertained by math and lengthy — and I do mean LENGTHY — explanations on exactly how you can grow potatoes on Mars using your own crap. For me, the book was a fantastic story, poorly told. The movie takes that story, and tells it exceptionally.

It's fitting that it comes from director Ridley Scott, whose Alien is a perfect dark counterpart to The Martian. While both are, ultimately, about trying to survive in the inhospitable realms of space, Alien narrows that survival down to one woman having to figure out how to do that on her own. The Martian is about how even the smartest guy on Mars can only get so far before needing help from a bunch of other smart men and women back on Earth.

Unlike the recent Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian doesn't wander off into deep philosophical realms. Instead, it sticks to facts, problem solving, and science. And while this may sound incredibly dry and boring, (as it often was in the book), thanks to a strong and very humorous performance from Matt Damon, and Scott's veteran direction, it's unapologetically entertaining, with a pretty simple message: Space is pretty amazing; but there's nothing more amazing than the capabilities of the human mind.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Goodnight Mommy

This review originally appeared on

Twin boys enjoying summer explore the corn fields, lake, and caves that surround their remote house. Then they hear a car in their driveway. Mother's home.

Or is she?

That's the basic set-up of this unnerving and ultimately disturbing bit of psychological horror out of Austria. The boys, named Lucas and Elias, are perturbed by their mother's appearance, as well they should be. Her head and face are covered in bandages, and bruises line her eyes. Soon, they begin to realize mother doesn't just look different and scary. She's acting it too, not speaking to one of the boys, insisting on quiet and a dark home, and is so short tempered it borders on abusive. They want to know where their real mother is, and they'll go to extreme lengths to figure it out.

Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh, or, I See, I See in the original German) could, at first look, be a simple metaphor: Mommy gets a face lift, is cranky — who wouldn't be after that kind of surgery — and her boys simply don't recognize her, since she does, in fact look different. But everything about the house, the countryside, and the boys themselves is creepy. The house is all angles, with stark, white interiors, and large but blurry paintings; the brothers explore a cave filled with bones; one of the boys collects giant roaches in a fish tank. The film unsettles you at every turn.

Eventually, things turn violent, and the movie becomes a variation on the "home invasion" horror movie, a genre whose most disturbing entry, Funny Games, is also from Austria. (Remind me never to Airbnb a house in Austria). Ultimately, what begins as something genuinely creepy and mysterious turns into something a little too visceral and nauseating. (I'll look at Krazy Glue with fear from now on.) When the movie ends, there's a genuine desire to watch it again, to look for those clues you missed the first time. I'm just not sure I could stomach a second viewing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend: Black Mass, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

Black Mass tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), who lead a crime ring in Boston in the 1970s and 80s; his brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts state senator; and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who was childhood friends with the Bulger boys. It's a tale tailor-made for the movies: FBI agent convinces the gangster to help gather information about the Mafia, promising to keep the law off the gangster's back, while the senator brother does what all corrupt politicians do best: lies.

The main appeal of Black Mass is likely seeing Johnny Depp step away from his series of extravagant wacko roles to take on an evil real-life wacko role. Alas, Depp is still playing a character that's way too dependent on make-up. Instead of, say, dreadlocks, or baby smooth skin, we have a bald cap, a thinning white wig, creepy icy blue contacts, and a dead tooth, all on a pale, mottled face. All that, and he still doesn't look much like the real Whitey Bulger, who was always a strapping Irishman, and not the relatively dainty guy Depp is. Instead, Depp looks more like Gary Oldman in the first act of Dracula.


Which isn't to say Depp is terrible in the role. He's does a pretty good job with the Southie accent, and has a few moments that are genuinely evil and creepy. I just couldn't help thinking how any number of other actors could have done it better.

Which is kind of the problem with director Scott Cooper's film in general. You can't make a movie about gangsters, informants, and Whitey Bulger and not be compared to Martin Scorsese, who tackled both subjects in the far batter movies Goodfellas and The Departed.

Like Goodfellas, the movie starts out with narration. It comes from a former Bulger gang member (Jesse Plemons) who has turned state's witness, and is talking about how he met Whitey in the 70's. The narrative is set up like it's going to be told by the informants, then immediately veers away from that conceit by showing us stuff the person supposedly revealing the events would never know. This happens with two more former gang members-turned witnesses. What we're seeing is not through their eyes, and the movie would work the same without it, so why bother?

Needless to say, women don't play much of a role in this boys' club. And, really, I don't have a problem with that; the story is primarily about the three men, and their dealings with each other. But, I'd almost rather have no women in the movie, than what we're given: the usual "Your job means more to you than me!" whining wife (Julianne Nicholson, as Marianne Connelly) and a doomed hooker (Juno Temple), which, aside from a brief appearance by Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger's only child, is all we get.

Since the ground covered in Black Mass has been covered before, many, many times, and often much better, I think a moratorium should be placed on stories centered on the rise and and fall of gangsters. Instead, gives us some movies about gangsters after they've made their getaways. I'd love to see Henry Hill ordering those egg noodles with ketchup and then getting into a fight with the delivery boy. And I'd especially love to see a movie about Whitey Bulger, aging fugitive, taking a trip to his former home of Alcatraz with his girlfriend, balls still big enough to pose for this classic tourist photo.


Sleeping With Other People

This review originally appeared on

When does an homage/tribute turn into a copy? Granted, Sleeping With Other People isn't hiding the fact that it owes much to When Harry Met Sally, but I was amazed by just how much.

Jason Sudekis and Allison Brie star as college students who lose their virginity to each other during a one night stand, go their separate ways, and then meet again years later in New York. Brie's Lainey is a grade school teacher with a serious love addiction to an unavailable man (played Adam Scott). Sudekis's Jake is a self-professed womanizer who just sold an app or something for a ton of cash. After they re-meet they decide any kind of romantic involvement with each other would be bad for both of them, but they still end up spending all their free time together platonically, shopping for Christmas presents, walking through the park, going to parties, and running into exes. The only thing missing is a soundtrack full of old standards. (Instead we get some forgettable modern tunes and one David Bowie classic.)

What Sleeping With Other People has that When Harry Met Sally doesn't have is the sleeping with people part. There's a lot of sex in this movie, and a lot of talk about sex. Where Harry and Sally have a fake orgasm moment in a deli, we instead get Jake explaining female masturbation to Lainey, who has apparently never done it (!?). First, please. And second, let me just say that the way he demonstrates how to do it? Makes no sense since he's showing her from an angle that only another person, not a solo wanker, would be able to use. I'll just leave it at that.

Allison Brie, who deserves to make the break from TV (Community; Mad Men) to big screen stardom is lovely, funny, and sad in the role of Lainey. She's probably the best thing about the movie. And while I know I should like Jason Sudekis — he's also funny and is a fine actor — there's still something about him that continues to rub me the wrong way.

Sleeping With Other People isn't terrible, it's just unnecessary. Which, come to think of it, probably often applies in real life as well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Visit

This review originally appeared on

The good news is, M. Night Shyamalan has made his best movie in years. The bad news is, it's another damned found footage horror movie.

The divorced mother (Kathryn Hahn) of Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) had a falling out with her parents when she left home at 19, and hasn't seen them since. But after receiving a phone call from them wishing to meet their grandchildren, mom has a change of heart and allows a week-long visit. (This time apart also allows her to take an extended cruise with her boyfriend.)

Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker, and decides to film the entire event and turn it into a documentary — hence the found footage conceit. I will grant Rebecca this: She has the presence of mind to set her cameras up on tripods and other solid surfaces much of the time, so the movie has a little less of the shaky, vomit-inducing camera work of the majority of the genre. As a teenage filmmaker, Rebecca is also pleasantly pretentious as she narrates her footage, (but the less said of brother Tyler's rapping, the better).

At first, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem nice, if a little distracted. Nana loves to cook, and Pop Pop putters around their farm, chopping wood and trekking out to the shed. A lot. But then, bed time arrives, (at 9:30 p.m. which is simply appalling to the wifi-less kids), and things start to get weird.

The first real scare of the movie is genuinely startling, because it's so weird. But as the movie progresses, Shyamalan tends to rely too much on conventional frights: faces suddenly appearing on screen and images of a long-haired woman crawling across the floor straight out of numerous Japanese and now, too many American, horror movies.

As the visit, and The Visit progresses, it's clear there's something seriously wrong with the grandparents. The film plays up on fears many people have of the elderly, from dementia to incontinence (and hoo boy, does that bit have a disgusting payoff) that, unfortunately, at times borders on a distasteful prejudice. That the kids have some genuine mental issues of their own to deal with adds to the feeling that this is one fucked up family line, and anything could happen.

The twist — this is M. Night Shyamalan, of course there's a twist — isn't as ridiculous as Shyamalan at his worst, and works perfectly well for the story, even if it's hammered home more than it needs to be. While both actors playing the grandparents are great, I have to single out Deanna Dugan's portrayal of the grandmother. She does some really spooky and...revealing stuff in the movie, and doesn't hold back.

This Sunday is, probably no coincidence, Grandparents Day. If you plan on seeing yours to celebrate it, maybe do yourself a favor, and save a viewing of The Visit for some time afterwards. That way you won't get freaked out if grandma asks you to help clean the oven after dinner.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Walk In the Woods

This review originally appeared on

I read Bill Bryson's A Walk In the Woods right after I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, and it was the perfect counterpoint: fewer dying moms, more funny moments communing with nature. It's such a funny book it seems like it would be a pretty easy job to translate to the screen, which is something star Robert Redford has been trying to do for about 10 years, originally hoping to team up with his best loved co-star Paul Newman.

Obviously, that didn't pan out. Instead we have Redford paired with Nick Nolte in a movie that is supposed to be a comedy, but fails completely and utterly to be funny.

Maybe the first problem is that the Bryson who originally attempted to walk the over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail was a middle-aged guy in his 40's. Redford and Nolte are in their 70's. Even if they're supposed to be, say, 15 years younger in the movie (ha, nice try, if so), it still changes the tone from "This idea is folly! You aren't in your 20's anymore you know," to "Oh god you're both gonna die." Pratfalls lose their comedic edge when all you can think about is broken hips.

I'll grant that in some ways the casting of Nick Nolte as Katz seems perfect; I can think of few actors who you can take one look at and instantly think: This guy is in no condition to walk across the street let alone two thousand miles. The problem is, it's uncomfortable to watch. Nolte's face is perpetually crimson; he doesn't walk, he stumbles; and his gravelly voice has gotten so rough that at times it's impossible to understand what he's saying. It's like watching a heart attack personified.

Both Redford and Nolte have been in comedies — some good ones! — before. But they have no comedic chemistry at all, and throughout the film, they come off like actors who have zero understanding of comedic timing. Perhaps this is the fault of the director Ken Kwapis, or screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. All I know is two hours of Redford just sitting on screen reading the book out loud would yield more laughs than this movie does.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Phantom Of The Opera At The Orpheum

This review originally appeared on

Since its premier in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera has broken records as the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, and has played San Francisco more than once. It returns to the Orpheum for a six week engagement via SHN through October 4th.

This latest touring incarnation has been pared down a bit from the original production, with fewer elaborate props (no giant elephant during the Hannibal scene), and a simpler set. But what's replaced those sets is still pretty neat: a kind of rolling cylinder that can serve as a spooky backdrop, opens up to reveal various inner sets, and sprouts stairs that lead characters down to the Phantom's subterranean lair. And yes, the chandelier is still there, although this time around it doesn't so much threaten to crush the cast on stage as kill the audience below it. (Those orchestra seats will earn their cost in thrills).

So, while smaller, this Phantom is still a spectacle, which is a good thing. It's not the type of show you could give a minimalist Sweeney Todd approach to because, save for the best —
and most popular songs — a lot of the music is just plain boring, and without the elaborate sets and costumes to back them, would likely put audiences to sleep.

The story remains the same: Christine (Katie Travis), is an opera ingenue who gets her big break when the resident diva storms off the set, in fear of the "ghost" who haunts the opera house. This ghost is, of course, the Phantom (Chris Mann, in the performance I saw), the mysterious masked figure who has been tutoring Christine in music. Christine isn't even sure if the Phantom is real, or all in her mind, but she comes to reality once Raoul (Storm Lineberger), her childhood love, enters the picture.

The Phantom is a little younger in this version, so he's clearly meant to be more of a potential love interest than any kind of father figure for Christine. But the love triangle doesn't completely work. I never bought that Christine was ever torn between the two guys, mainly because the Phantom is, well, a total dick, and kind of a creepy drip as well. I wanted to take the guy aside and tell him to just own that mask! Go the Daft Punk route and never take that thing off. Or just follow Mariah Carey's lead, and only allow your good side to be photographed! The point is, Phantom, if you want the world to accept you, don't be the creepy guy who enters the party in a cloud of smoke, with a fancy mask on, basically confronting people with "WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!"

The show's biggest problem is it blows its wad in Act One. It's this first act that contains the introduction of the Phantom, the boat trip to his underground home, and the two best songs, "The Music of the Night," and "The Phantom of the Opera." Thankfully, orchestration for the latter hasn't changed much since its very obvious 1986 production, complete with synthesizers and electric guitar chords. It's insanely cheesy, and also completely catchy. I still find myself humming it to myself, days later. Act One also ends with the chandelier scene, and the show never again reaches that moment's fun intensity.

As one would gather from the setting, there's also a lot of opera sung. And while it's all in English, it's at times impossible to understand. I'm not sure if this is the fault of the performers, the compositions themselves, (several include three or more people singing at once, but not in harmony), or the sound production. Regardless, large chunks of the lyrics were unintelligible. Still, The Phantom remains a fun, albeit slightly silly show. But, much like the titular character's cursed mug, one half is a lot more fun than the other.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Women Of A Certain Age Rule 'Grandma' And 'Learning To Drive'

This review originally appeared on

Unless you're Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton, good, complex lead roles for Actresses of a Certain Age can be hard to come by. Which is why it's refreshing that we have two movies opening this week, Learning To Drive and Grandma, that don't star either Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep--that are centered on and starring women who said goodbye to their 20's a while ago.

Of course, the other truism is that once an actress hits forty they are no longer cast as love interests and are instead cast as mothers. So, naturally, anything over 50 must means it's time for the grandma roles! Enter Lily Tomlin in Grandma. She plays a lesbian poet named Ellie Reid. Still grieving over the death of her partner of over 30 years, she's depressed, angry, and at times, cruel, especially to her current, younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), who's had enough and is leaving her. An already bad day gets worse when her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door needing $600 to help pay for an abortion she's already scheduled for later in the day.

In a (in)convenient twist, Ellie has just paid off and cut up all her credit cards, and currently only has forty bucks to her name, and neither women wants to go to Sage's mother for help. This dilemma sends the two of them on a Los Angeles-based road trip in an attempt to scrounge up the money by cashing in some old debts, selling some old books, and forcing the jerky boyfriend to pay a share of the responsibility.

Abortion is obviously a controversial topic, but the movie doesn't dance around it, and also doesn't skirt the issue by giving the teenager a convenient miscarriage. Instead, the emotions around such a decision are represented honestly, and respectfully.

Lily Tomlin is simply phenomenal as the very liberal, short-tempered grandma. She hasn't been in a lot of movies of late, so it's easy to forget that while she's best known for her comedic work, she's always been a fine dramatic actress--even garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Robert Altman's Nashville. And if there's any justice to the Academy's nominations this year (wishful thinking!) she'll get a Best Actress nod for Grandma. I'd also love writer and director Paul Weitz to get some kind of nomination as well, if only because it's seems impossible that a movie like this could from the director of American Pie.

Patricia Clarkson hasn't reached grandma-roles status yet, but she's definitely had her fair share of mom roles, and she plays another in Learning to Drive. (Her daughter is played by Grace Gummer, whose mother is, yes, Meryl Streep. We can't escape!) Like Tomlin in Grandma, Clarkson is facing a difficult situation--a divorce, after her husband falls in love with a younger woman--and deals with it by getting in a car. As a New Yorker, she's never learned to drive, and has always relied on public transportation and her husband to get her where she needs to go.

Enter Ben Kingsley as Darwan, and Indian Sikh who works as a cab driver and a driving instructor. Darwan has some life challenges as well: the every day racism and harassment associated with being a Sikh in America, and his newly arranged marriage to a woman (Sarita Choudhury) his sister picked out for him.

In Grandma, the act of sitting and driving in a car leads to funny, intense, and often revelatory conversation between the women of two generations. But in Learning to Drive, the conversations and "lessons" exchanged by both feel too scripted; life lessons disguised as driving lessons, deliberate and contrived. When Lily Tomlin learns something about herself in Grandma we believe it, and it feels genuine. Learning to Drive is pleasant enough, and Patricia Clarkson is always fun to watch. But when it comes to ladies of a certain age steering their own movies? Grandma's the better ride.

No Escape

This review originally appeared on

The jokes about this movie and its title — "No escape from this garbage!" — are easy, and not entirely true. There is an escape: just don't see it, because it's terrible.

A failed entrepreneur (Owen Wilson, how could you?) moves his wife (Lake Bell) and two daughters to an unnamed East Asian country that borders Vietnam, (the movie was filmed in Thailand), for an unnamed job having to do with the local water supply. While there, a coup breaks out, and masked rebels decide to take out all Americans and anyone else who crosses their paths. Pierce Brosnan has a supporting role as a mysterious Brit who's good with a gun and hand-to-hand combat.

If you watched the trailer, you've already seen the movie's best and most ridiculous moment: Owen Wilson tossing one of his daughters across a rooftop. I'll grant that the movie does have some suspenseful moments. But it's all wrapped up in some murky politics and crystal clear xenophobia that I just felt gross sitting through it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mistress America

This review originally appeared on

I fell in love with Greta Gerwig the minute I saw her make a face while eating bad pizza in the horror movie The House of the Devil. Since then, I've seen almost all her movies, and even in the bad ones, she's been enjoyable. She's immensely watchable, and her performances always feel completely authentic. When she teamed up with writer and director Noah Baumbach (they're also romantically involved) for Frances Ha, it felt like a perfect melding; this century's Annie Hall. So I was eager to see their latest team-up, Mistress America.

Unfortunately, it's a misfire, and Gerwig gives her first performance that feels like a performance.

Gerwig plays 30-year-old Brooke, a New Yorker who "does everything and nothing." Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a freshman at Barnard College, and her divorced mom (Kathryn "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" Erbe!) is set to marry Brooke's widower dad. Tracy is reluctant to give her soon-to-be-step-sister a call, but after a few lonely months at school, she does, and very quickly falls under Brooke's manic spell.

Brooke is everything enviable to the naive writing student, and soon she becomes inspiration for Tracy's latest short story. Brooke lives in an apartment that's zoned commercial, is a part time singer, interior decorator, math tutor, and enthusiastic home cook. She has dreams of creating a TV show, writing short stories ("but longer"), and developing an app. But her big dream is to open a restaurant/hair salon/community hangout called Mom's, with help from her boyfriend of whom she says "he's everything I hate except I love him." Problem is, Brooke is 90% dreamer, 10% doer, and her boyfriend is soon out of the picture.

We're supposed to understand why Tracy would be so drawn to Brooke, and this is where the movie — and Gerwig — falters. Brooke is, frankly, annoying as hell, and Gerwig is never able to get her Brooke to rise above that fatal character flaw.

It also doesn't help that much of the dialogue feels stilted and mannered — like it was written to be a stage play. This style dominates the middle portion, an extended sequence with an ever-increasing number of superfluous characters that's supposed to come off as screwball and quirky, but instead grinds the movie to a halt. What had felt slightly like a stage play turns into something that feels like the dress rehearsal for a play desperately in need of a final rewrite.

Friday, August 14, 2015

'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl' Is Perfect, Frank, And True

This review originally appeared on

The media was having a field day trying to figure out why Alexander Skarsgard showed up in drag to the San Francisco premiere of The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Castro Theatre last Monday. Some wondered if it was because he plays a gay or drag character in the movie (he doesn't). Others thought it was a tribute to "costar" Josh Grannell, AKA Peaches Christ, (yeah Grannell is in the movie, but blink and you'll miss him). But the truth is closer to what I figured all along: half the audience was in drag, and when in Rome--or the Castro--well, why not wear a dress? So, sure it was part tribute, but it was also just solidarity.

Director Marielle Heller took to the stage at the same premiere and introduced Skarsgard and costar Bel Powley; all three looked fabulous in their 1970's dresses. But before anyone could really say anything, Cousin Wonderlette--acting as MC--ushered them all off stage to make way for a bunch of Rocky Horror Picture Show performers to lead the audience in a round of the Time Warp. It was pretty obvious the majority of the audience was not ready to do the Time Warp again; they wanted to see the movie...

..which opens exuberantly, with young Minnie (Bel Powley) walking through Golden Gate Park, a smile on her face, "Looking for the Magic" playing on the soundtrack. "I had sex today," we hear Minnie say. "Holy shit!" It's a perfect, frank opening for what lies ahead: a movie that recognizes that teenage girls can be just as sex-obsessed and horny as teenage boys.

Minnie is fifteen and lives in San Francisco with her divorced mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and her younger sister Gretel (Abigal Wait). It's 1976. They all live in flat in Laurel Heights, (actually filmed at a house on Haight Street), and Minnie goes to a private school in the neighborhood (the Presidio Library poses as the high school). She doesn't think herself very beautiful, even using the word ugly to describe herself, so having someone actually desire her feels momentous. She starts to document this pivotal change in her life via an audio diary, recorded on a cassette recorder she hides under her bed. These recordings serve as the film's narration.

As she tells her diary, having sex for the first time officially makes her an adult, although she can't talk about this sexual encounter with anyone aside from her blue-eyed, blonde feathered-haired best friend Kimmie (Madeline Waters). (Minnie's mother deems Kimmie kind of white trash, "but in a good way.")

Minnie's losing her virginity is a bit....complicated, because the man she's sleeping with is her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), "the most handsome man in the world." Most of the film's summaries describe this relationship as "an affair," glossing over the whole pesky statutory rape angle. It's certainly an easier way to describe the situation, and in many ways, the two of them are more equal than any two people with that age difference should be. And it also makes sense within the context of the film's setting. Of course, a 35-year-old man having sex with a fifteen-year-old can't be excused with "It was the 1970s; things were different then!" But it can be explained with that.

Minnie is not a victim. She's not a victim of Monroe, or of her own sexuality. If she's a victim of anything, it's the era. The 70's were tough — perhaps even tougher for San Franciscans. Many parents were barely out of their teenage hippie phase before they were faced with the daunting task of raising the next generation. And a lot of time, they didn't do much raising. Sure, many kids had a lot more freedom than they do now, which can be a good thing, but it also meant a lot of learning had to come from painful experience, and not from parental guidance. All of this is illustrated in Diary to tremendous effect, from Minnie's sexual experience, to having a mother who is more of a buddy who shares her drugs than a parent who pays much attention to her kids' welfare.

And yet, Minnie's mother isn't a villain, and neither is Monroe. Skarsgard portrays him perfectly: he's a tad pathetic, basically weak, and is playing at being an adult as much as Minnie is. Wiig is also great as Minnie's mom. She's never a caricature. Moments where she's being a, frankly, terrible parent, feel very real. You don't hate her, but you do wish she'd just get her shit together already.

Minnie's and Monroe's relationship is fun for a while, but then it isn't, and the main reasons it isn't is because it's not right. Which isn't to say it's only wrong, and isn't to say Minnie can't learn from it. Minnie is able to embrace her own sexual needs, accept that wanting to feel another person's body against hers is natural, and go out and get what she wants, and needs.

I'm reluctant to call this presentation of female sexuality "brave," because I don't think it's brave so much as just plain true. Yes, it's rare for a movie to explore it, though it's not unheard of. Some comparisons have been made to 1980's Little Darlings, (a personal fave), but I was also reminded of the 1987 British film Wish You Were Here, which also focused on a teenage girl with a sexual appetite, and little to no shame about it.

And while sex does take up much of Minnie's thoughts, she has other passions that blossom at the same time. It being 1970's San Francisco, Minnie is familiar with the local underground comics scene, and styles her own drawings after them, and her personal hero Aline Kominsky. Minnie's drawings show up as occasional animations in the movie, illustrating her inner thoughts, and giving the movie an extra kick of 1970's nostalgia.

Minnie's fondness for drawing is more than just a passing hobby. Towards the film's end, as Minnie's choices turn a little dark, we know she's going to be OK, because she has an artistic talent and a passion for it that will be able to pull her out life's darkest moments.

Let me end with praise for Bel Powley's performance. She's British, and in her early 20's, but she pulls off playing an American teen perfectly. (It also helps that she's tiny and Alexander Skarsgard is like 7 feet tall.) She's able to appear naive and innocent in one moment, and sexual and eager in the next; not just scene to scene, but sentence to sentence. It's quite remarkable.

Her performance and the film's message were summed up perfectly for me in one brief moment. As Minnie is leaving school one day, a fellow student walks by her and mutters "slut," under her breath. Minnie hears this, and her reaction is: a brief look of puzzlement, followed by a laugh, and a slight shrug of her shoulders.

And she keeps on walking.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

This review originally appeared on

These days, attempting to separate the image of Tom Cruise, loony Scientologist elder, from the image of Tom Cruise, Big Movie Star is a nearly impossible mission. But movies like last year's Edge of Tomorrow and this fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible are making it a little easier.

All five M:I movies have had different directors, which is a tradition I hope continues with the inevitable sequels — it lends the series a nice level of unpredictability. And while current director Christopher McQuarrie doesn't bring anything revolutionary or insane to the series, (for that, you'll have to reach back to John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2, which was the nuttiest — and thus my favorite — M:I movie), he has crafted a solid bit of action-filled entertainment, complete with the requisite villain hoping to destroy the world (Sean Harris); an upper level management type who wants to keep the IMF team apart; (Alec Baldwin); and a femme who may be a fatale, or may be a friend (Rebecca Ferguson).

Ferguson steals the show on more than one occasion — which could be a testament to Cruise, who isn't afraid to be upstaged. In fact, he's probably at his best when he's fighting against someone who's clearly a little smarter and/or a little stronger; it gives his Ethan Hunt a nice does of humility, and humor.

Besides, he'd never be able to come close to the moves Ferguson masters in her fight scenes, particularly the classic "lady crushes man's head between her thighs" maneuver, which she tends to combine with an initial flying leap over the guy, resulting in her landing on top, head between legs, neck in perfect position for snapping.

The IMF gang is also back: Ving Rhames as Luther, who does NOT do much leaping in the movie; I think he spends most of it lying down; Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, who has to fight off Alec Baldwin's CIA chief; and; Simon Pegg as Benji, who gets more feet-on-the ground action this go-around.

Sure, the movie's probably about 20 minutes too long, and the ending is the furthest from surprising that you can probably get. But the Mission: Impossible series has always been a nice alternative to the more serious Daniel Craig 007 and Bourne movies, and Rogue Nation is so much fun it almost manages to make you forget about Crazy Cruise. And that's an accomplishment.

Friday, July 10, 2015

More Than Smeared Eyeliner: Amy

This review originally appeared on

While most of the world seemed to view the death of Amy Winehouse as unsurprising and an inevitable end, I was shocked. I thought she'd end up the equivalent of Keith Richards, or Courtney Love: rock stars who live the lifestyle to the extreme, but who never made into the 27 Club. But after seeing the documentary Amy, I now know there was no hope of that; she was doomed.

If you're a fan of documentaries, the film is worth seeing — even if you aren't a fan of Winehouse's music — because it's a remarkable piece of curation: No new footage was shot for the film, and all new interviews are only heard as voiceover. Instead, it consists entirely of archival video and film, shot by her family and friends, as well as stuff shot for TV and, most disturbingly of all, paparazzi footage; she was hounded by them until her death.

And it's this image of her that prevailed, until now. Thanks to this film, we get to see the Amy that, at age 14, could belt out a version of "Happy Birthday" worthy of the jazz singers she idolized; the Amy that was a burgeoining musician — still just in her teens — promoting her first album, and answering questions about fame with answers like "I don't think I'm gonna be at all famous. I don't think I could handle it. I'd probably go mad."

It's also great seeing the subtle look of disgust she gives when asked what it's like to be shot by photographer Terry Richardson, and not hiding her complete boredom at an interviewer's droning on about Dido's lyrics. Seeing these moments of personality that are so different from the images of her walking through the streets of London in bloody ballet slippers and smeared eyeliner turns her downfall into something heartbreaking, and not something to be joked about — as was the case so often towards the end of her life.

The film doesn't shy away from presenting those who surrounded her after she hit it big as the shitty support system they were. An opportunist father; a dirt bag junkie husband; managers who really didn't know what the hell they were doing. She was only 22 when Back to Black was released, and clearly not prepared for the fame it would bring her. If only she had lived long enough to learn how to live through it.


This review originally appeared on

Imagine being able to live forever in the body of Ryan Reynolds. Welcome to the (sort of) plot of Self/less. Ben Kingsley plays a dying New York billionaire with a ridiculous accent and an insanely tacky, gold-plated apartment worthy of Donald Trump (and ha, it actual IS Donald Trump's apartment, as revealed in the credits). When he's told about a procedure called "shedding," he forks over the money to have his consciousness transferred into the lab-grown body of a virile young man. This involves MRI-type machines and no actual brain transplantation, so is, in other words, completely preposterous.

When he wakes up in his new body, he has all the memories of his former self (although he doesn't have the ridiculous New York accent, which, huh?), but must start a new life, as giving up his old life is part of the deal. And the transition isn't entirely smooth, since without daily drugs, he starts to have weird seizures that come with memories that seem to belong to someone else.

Ah ha! There's the rub. "Lab-grown" body indeed! The majority of the movie features Reynolds searching for the truth behind his new body while being chased by the shady org that facilitated it all. There are some interesting philosophical discussions to be had about the potential for immortality, how the brain facilitates consciousness, and the ultimate opportunities of the haves and the have-nots. But this movie isn't really concerned with any of that that. It's more interested in car chases and gun battles. Your enjoyment depends on your preference for the former or the latter in your entertainment.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear

This review originally appeared on

Mark Ruffalo stars as Cam, the bi-polar father of two young girls in 1970's Boston, who must take on full-time fathering when his wife, Maggie, (Zoe Saldana), goes back to school to earn a business degree.

The story is a fictionalized version of director Maya Forbes's actual childhood, and her real-life daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, plays a fictionalized version of herself (she's named Amelia in the movie). Both she and Ashley Aufderheide, who plays younger sister Faith, give amazing performances in the film, complete with some really expert comic timing. Their frequent outbursts of embarrassment over their father's actions lighten some moments that would otherwise come across as upsetting. After all, Cam does some really dangerous and irresponsible things while parenting those kids — like leaving them alone at night because he's fed up, and wants to go out drinking. Or driving them around in a car that doesn't have a solid floor.

Cam's illness isn't played entirely for laughs. Mom Maggie knows too well what the manic episodes can wreak. But she also knows that the sight of a drugged up Cam is much more traumatizing to the girls than a Cam that's only occasionally manic. Of course, that's a difficult balance to master when you don't take your medication consistently, which tends to be the case with Cam. So, while the movie attempts its own balance between comedy and drama, it doesn't always succeed, and sometimes — even knowing those kids actually turned out fine — I couldn't help but be distracted by the constant feeling that something could go terribly wrong at any moment.

The Day Cynicism Took A Holiday: Batkid Begins

This review originally appeared on

I had barely dried the tears from my face after seeing Inside Out when I had to go to a screening of the documentary Batkid Begins, and just as I feared, I was overcome by another bout of quiet sobbing. Of course this didn't come as a surprise; I was crying at my desk that November day in 2013, when it seemed like everyone in San Francisco was either in the streets, or glued to social media and local TV stations, watching a little kid in a Batman suit save the city from fictional crime, and real life cynicism.

I'm not sure how the documentary got started, as it is clear from the outset that no one knew the day was going to be as huge as it turned out to be. It's likely that as Miles' wish began to take shape, those at Make-a-Wish saw there was something to be gained from documenting the process, perhaps just to use as a short film that could then be shown to and shared with those within the organization. This foresight results in some great behind-the-scenes moments, interviews with some of the key players, and reactions from the Batkid (and Batman) as they day played out. (They were miked the whole time.)

But no superhero tale would be complete without an origin story, and young Miles Scott's is told via some comic book style animation at the film's start. We learn about his life in the small northern California town of Tulelake, how his parents were childhood sweethearts, and how, at only 18 months old, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and underwent almost three years of treatment.

Since Miles's biggest love was dressing up and superheroes — and dressing up as superheroes — it made sense that when given the chance to live a wish, he chose being Batman, and it was up to Bay Area Make-a-Wish chapter CEO Patricia Wilson to make it happen.

Granted, that part of the movie is not the most enthralling — watching someone co-ordinate an event, gather volunteers, and make phone calls is seldom riveting, but it does give Wilson her due — she turned a vague wish into something concrete, and that idea turned into something huge, with the involvement of 25,000 people within San Francisco.

We also meet some of the other players, including Eric Johnston, the inventor, engineer, and circus school teacher (!) who played Batman, Mike Jutan, the ILM engineer who played the Penguin, and some of the social media professionals who helped turn the day into something huge. (SFist's coverage also gets some love.)

I was most impressed with Johnston, and the effort he put into making the day extra special. For instance, he created a small projector that he could attach to his wrist, so he could project the "commissioner's" messages to Batkid on the ceiling or wall, instead of having Miles look at a boring iPhone screen. He also trained Miles — and a slew of other superheroes — the day before the event, and that scene is one of the movie's highlights.

It's also great seeing the before Miles, who is, indeed, a pretty shy and reserved kid — a kid who answers the question, "Did this all turn out the way you thought it would?" with "Yes" — and seeing how, when he finally puts on that Batman suit, he suddenly turns into a tiny John Wayne, strutting through the streets of San Francisco, ready to kick some butt.

Seeing how the day progresses, not without its fair share of hitches, including severe time delays, WAY bigger crowds than were originally expected, Lou Seal having to take an Uber to the kidnapping spot, and a Batkid who almost throws in the towel in favor of a nap after lunch — he's a five-year-old! — made me doubly appreciate just how well it really did turn out. The odds were against it.

And while the movie does suffer a bit from some self-congratulation — I didn't really need to learn how a PR company put together a social media action plan for the day, or how that guy from Twitter accomplished a life goal by having the President re-tweet him — I prefer to view it with the tearful eyes I had on November 15th, 2013...

...and save the cynicism for Julia Robert's planned movie version.

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Extraordinary Thing: Inside Out

This review originally appeared on

It's basically a given that if the movie comes from Pixar, I'm going to be crying at some point. Maybe within the first 10 minutes (Up); or closer to the end (Toy Story 3); or even after it's over (Cars 2, because I just realized I'd lost 90 minutes of my life I'd never get back). Pixar has emotional storytelling down to such a science that Inside Out can be read as a movie about what it's like to experience a Pixar movie: how memories can have a tremendous effect on how you react to life events — and art; how happiness can relate so closely to sadness that they're often inseparable; and how one of the best feelings in the world can be laughing while there are still sad tears on your cheeks.

Inside Out centers on 11-year-old Riley, who has moved from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents so her father can start a new job. Leaving the home she loves, her friends, her school, her favorite sport, hockey — and facing a new city, a run-down house, (that probably cost her parents their entire savings), a school full of strangers, and pizza covered in BROCCOLI (the food she hates above all others), is tough for Riley. But she does the best she can to keep her emotions in check... at first.

Riley's Emotions are literal characters that live in her head, or, headquarters, if you will. They make sure Riley's emotional life is steady, and filled with appropriate moments of Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy. Most of Riley's young life has been filled with happiness, so it makes sense that sparkly blue-haired Joy is the the de facto leader of the group. (Also, she's got more than enough energy to take on the job.) But suddenly blue Sadness, who had previously not had much of a purpose, is doing things that are having a seemingly negative impact on Riley. And soon, Joy and Sadness must venture into the heretofore unexplored realms of Riley's mind to save Riley from what they fear may be an irrevocable loss of happiness.

The world of Riley's mind is like a slightly askew, dreamed up version of Disneyland, and how it all works is best to discover yourselves, with its literal "Train of Thought," "Islands of Identity" and lands devoted to abstract thought, daydreams, and nightmares. Joy and Sadness's adventures through this virtual id are colorful, exciting, and very, very funny. You'll find out why you can't remember that phone number, but can sing the words to that stupid commercial jingle at the drop of the hat. You'll see how your nightmares are really formed. And you'll learn that your childhood imaginary friends might still be running around up there, waiting for you to want to play again. (Riley's is named Bing Bong, and he's voiced by the hilarious Richard Kind.)

All of the emotions are cast perfectly. Of course Lewis Black makes an ideal red-faced Anger. Bill Hader's Fear is like Bill Nye the Science Guy if he were literally afraid of everything. Mindy Kaling's valley girl voice has finally found the perfect home in her green-haired Disgust. And Amy Poehler's Joy is basically the animated equivalent of her Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, filled with boundless optimism and never-quit spunk.

But it's Phyllis Smith, who is probably best known for playing Phyllis on The Office, who is the biggest revelation. Personifying sadness could easily lead to some, well, depressing cliches, and a character you'd never want to spend any time with. But Smith's bulky sweater-clad, bespectacled Sadness, who is always a little slow, and a tad quiet, but also very smart, is completely endearing, and the film's highlight.

If this were a simpler animated movie, then there would be a clear villain the Emotions have to conquer in order to save Riley from permanent sadness. But part of what makes Inside Out so great is that what the Emotions are trying to save Riley from — Sadness — is one of them. And a very important one of them at that. It's not for nothing that both Joy and Sadness are the only Emotions with a matching hair color...

Much of Inside Out will probably go over the heads of younger viewers, but there's plenty of action, color, and laughs to keep them entertained, so, go ahead. Bring those kids of yours. Especially those girls! Because one of the film's biggest accomplishments is finally giving us an animated movie, centered on a girl, that isn't in any way about princesses, or quests, or being "special." This is a story about, very simply, one girl's happiness. And it turns out, that can be an extraordinary thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tomorrowland: A Cold And Bloated Mess

This review originally appeared on

Imagine a world filled with only geniuses, inventors, dreamers, and thinkers, who are allowed to be awesome and fulfill their potential without the constraints of societal laws or expectations. That is the world of Tomorrowland.

Now tell me: Who picks up their trash, does their laundry, builds their elevated highways, and makes their lattes? Oh right. They're all geniuses! I'm sure they'll figure it out.

Director Brad Bird has been accused of objectivism before, and he's denied there are Ayn Rand-inspired themes in his work. While one can definitely read some Randian influence into both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, (some people — and rats — are just better than others!), the films were charming, entertaining, and filled with enough heart that I could give it a pass. But Tomorrowland is such a meandering, cold, and bloated mess that you just can't escape its theme this time.

As a huge Disneyland fan, the opening of the movie had me filled with hope. Well, actually it's the second opening of the film. The first opening has George Clooney (Frank Walker) talking directly to the audience and then arguing with his costar (Britt Robertson), something that happens a few more times through the course of the film, and is absolutely unnecessary. In the second opening we see Clooney's character as a kid at the 1964 World's Fair, entering a jet pack into an inventions contest. While rebuffed by the contest judge (Hugh Laurie), a girl who appears to be Laurie's daughter (Raffey Cassidy, who gives the best performance in the film), takes a liking to young Frank, gives him a pin with a "T" on it, and has him follow her onto the It's a Small World ride.

I'll give the film this much: it understands Disneyland fandom. After all, It's a Small World really is right next door to Tomorrowland, and what little boy hasn't been forced to ride it hoping the entire time that the bottom would drop out and his boat would get to travel to a much cooler part of the park? That's basically what happens to Frank, as that magic pin gets him whisked away into a gleaming 1960's retro-future world filled with robots, rockets, and women in space age minis.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't spend much time there. Instead we transition to present day, where Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a gifted teenager sad about the dismantling of NASA, doing all she can to make sure the launch pad doesn't get demolished. Her school lessons are filled with the doom and gloom of our horrible world, and Casey dares to ask "What can we do about it?" Of course, her mediocre teachers have no answer to that.

After finding a "T" pin in her possession, and discovering that touching it brings her into the gleaming world of Tomorrowland, but only temporarily, Casey goes on a quest to get to the bottom of it. When she meets her "recruiter," she directs Casey to Frank, now a middle-aged inventor living in seclusion. Seems he was banished from Tomorrowland years ago for building something, the end of the world is neigh, and Casey is the only person who can stop it. As long as they can get back to Tomorrowland.

While all of that sounds simple enough, the movie takes forever to get the plot moving, and once it does, it's still a muddled mess. What did Frank do that was so bad? Why is the villain a villain? What's to be gained from letting the world die? And is a future where all the world's awesome people get to live somewhere else, while us plebes have to stay on Earth doing our mediocre best really a future to aspire to?

But perhaps some good can come of the film. If its success means Disneyland will finally get off its butt and turn the actual Tomorrowland back into the gleaming model of futurism it once was, I hope it makes a billion dollars.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Welcome to Me

This review originally appeared on

Welcome to Me is like a Saturday Night Live movie based on a character that really shouldn't have a back story. Would Penelope, Kristen Wiig's recurring SNL character who is always one-upping people at parties, be funnier if you found out her backstory is that she has borderline personality disorder, is a virtual shut-in, and she's just stopped taking her meds? Because that's pretty much the set-up of this indie comedy that just screams indie comedy at every step.

Wiig's Alice Klieg lives in Palm Desert, and, due to her mental illness, has a limited life and very set routine. The TV is always on, either airing infomercials or old VHS tapes of Oprah shows that she knows by heart. She visits a therapist (Tim Robbins). She buys pudding and lotto tickets at the corner store. And most of what she says comes via prepared statements she pulls out of her fanny pack.

And then she wins the lottery.

What she chooses to do with that money is the bulk of the movie: She convinces a flailing public access station, run by two brothers (James Marsden and Wes Bentley) to produce a talk show starring her, about her, and air it two hours a day, five days a week. Of course her myopic worldview makes for some funny moments--her insistence that she always make an entrance in a swan boat; sitting and eating a meat cake for 10 minutes; rehashing past hurts with badly acted reenactments. But it also makes for some really disturbing ones, like her deciding she's going to neuter dogs, live and on the air for several episodes. (She was once a veterinary assistant.)

A person as self-centered and unwilling to address her illness as Alice would likely have estranged her family and friends long ago, but in the movie they have, inexplicably, stuck by her. They include an ex-husband, played by Alan Tudyk, and a best friend, played by Linda Cardellini. Her friends, for reasons never made clear, care about Alice as more than just the source of some of uneasy laughter. But we're never given any other reason to care.

Friday, April 17, 2015

True Story

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

In 2001, Michael Finkel, a journalist with the New York Times, was fired for partially fabricating a story about brutal working conditions and child slaves in the Ivory Coast coco trade. The same week, an American named Christian Longo was arrested in Mexico, where he had fled after his wife and three children had been found murdered in Oregon. When he was arrested, he had been using the alias, Michael Finkel, passing himself off as the journalist.

Seeing the potential for an interesting–to say the least–story, Finkel contacted Longo, and they began a lengthy correspondence that eventually resulted in the book True Story: Murder, Memoir, and Mea Culpa.

The movie version, perhaps better titled Kind of a True Story, stars Jonah Hill as Finkel, and James Franco as Longo. Right from the casting you can tell the filmmakers will be taking some liberties with how things played out, since there is no resemblance between the actors and their real life counterparts aside from the fact that they’re all men. (Also, imagine not looking anything like Jonah Hill and then finding out he’s playing you in a movie. Ouch!)

Such casting lead me to think the actors would be bringing something a little edgier to the film, but Hill and Franco play it very, very, straight, sometimes to the point of inertness, which can be a bit of a bore to sit through since a vast majority of the film is the two men talking to each other in a stark prison visitor’s cell.

Hill’s character is given a girlfriend, Jill, played by Felicity Jones, for reasons that are never completely clear, as she spends most of the movie just hovering around, silent, with a distressed look on her face. The best that can be said about her is at least she doesn’t fall into that most tired of cliches, the girlfriend or wife who is constantly yelling at her partner for being too obsessed with his work. (Instead, she takes it out on the object of his obsession.)

Still, despite its flaws, the movie manages to be engrossing, because it’s simply a hell of story. True crime is a hugely popular form of entertainment for a reason. Some of the liberties the film takes with the story are understandable–after all, watching a guy think and write does not make for terrific drama. But I still find it funny that this version of the story is the kind of thing that would have gotten Finkel fired all over again had he turned it in as fact.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Clean Yourself Up, Or Get Ribbed: Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Every time I go to the theater, I'm a little amazed by what people choose to wear. Theater tickets are, in general, not cheap, and it seems like paying that kind of money to go out would mean it's a special occasion. And aren't special occasions those times when one dresses up? But perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe these folks had to sell their smartest outfits in order to pay for their theater tickets. It's a tragic tale straight out of O'Henry!

I bring this up because the attire of the audience is something Dame Edna will not let pass unnoticed, so if you decide to see the show, and have tickets in the first few rows, either clean yourself up, or be prepared for some vicious ribbing. (Dame Edna will insist she's only trying to be helpful.)

I will admit that while I have always been aware of Dame Edna, I have never before taken in an entire show, and am most aware of the character through various appearances on PBS and BBC America. I had no idea she's been around since the 1950s! That puts Edna, and her creator, Barry Humphries, in their 80's (or, as Dame Edna says, "approaching 60, but from the wrong direction"). That's a pretty astonishing run for character that came to life in a small Melbourne theater.

I imagine much of the show and shtick will be familiar to Edna's biggest fans, or "possums," but the video that opens the show, played within the stage's giant bedazzled spectacles, serves as a good introduction to those less familiar. Presented as a tongue-in-cheek version of an "E! True Hollywood Story," it includes vintage footage of Dame Edna, some testimony from celebs, (Hugh Jackman speaks of her years as an acting coach, and the traumatizing "private time" he had to endure after class), and other scandalous history.

Aside from videos, which begin and end the show, it's pretty much all Edna, with the occasional back-up dancers for the musical numbers, and a pianist who remains on stage the entire time. Her interactions with the audience are the primary focus, and while all of this seems quite spontaneous and improvised, have no doubt, it's well rehearsed.

She even manages to work the Bay Area into the show, with tales of her "disappointing daughter," her daughter's "partner," and their house full of pit bulls in Visitacion Valley, discussion of which causes Dame Edna to--in a rather alarming moment--have a very physical reaction. This bit is also the evening's only sour note, as it's a bit of a rant that has no satisfying conclusion.

At the show's end, after the audience has waved a virtual garden of Edna's gladiolas (organically raised in her own garden, using her own manure, of course), there's a surprise appearance by the man behind the woman, Barry Humphries himself. He gives a heartfelt thank you to the fans, and to San Francisco, assuring us all that this is, indeed, the end.

Followed by a plea that we all promise to come back for the next farewell.

Friday, March 13, 2015


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

If you're looking for a modernization or feminist updating of Cinderella, ala last year's Maleficent, look elsewhere. This is certainly not that. Instead, it's a pretty faithful remake of the 1950 animated Disney classic, though expanded a bit story wise since the original was barely over an hour long.

These expansions are, for the most part, welcome additions since it means the Prince (Richard Madden) gets to fall head over heels in love with Cinderella (Lily James) after two meetings and some conversations, instead of after one measly song and dance.

Also expanded on is the role of the Evil Stepmother, as well it should be, since she's played by the fantastic Cate Blanchett, and she deserves all the screen time she can get. There's a little bit of pathos given to the character, as her jealousy over Cinderella is given some explanation, and she's fully aware she's been saddled with two idiots for daughters. But for the most part, she's a seriously mean and nasty mother, albeit a fabulously dressed one. (Although, why she's dressed like a 1930's screen siren, while everyone else if prancing around in some approximation of 19th century garb is a little inexplicable. Fabulous, but inexplicable.)

Cinderella's sisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), are Technicolor nightmares, better looking than their animated counterparts, but no more talented or charming. And Cindy's Fairy Godmother is not the elderly bippity boppity boo of the movie, at least, not for long, as she's played by Helena Bonham Carter, in full Glinda-esque mode. But, because this is Helena Bonham Carter, and she can't play anything perfectly straight these days, she caps off the glittery look with a huge set of glistening, white, fake teeth.

I'm not a mother to a young girl, so I can't really share in the agony some parents have with the princess-ization of so much of the pop culture aimed at girls. But I was a young girl once, and I loved my princess-based fairy tales, and frilly dresses, and happily ever afters, and came out of it relatively unscathed.

In fact, I think girls these days might have it even better in the princess department, since they have some excellent alternative princesses to choose from, (see: Frozen; Brave; Mulan; The Frog Prince; the aforementioned Maleficent and its version of Princess Aurora, et al), while children of my generation had standard waiting-for-their-prince-in-shiny-armor princesses, and not much else to choose from.

This Cinderella isn't breaking any new ground, but if you aren't opposed to classic tales beautifully filmed, well acted, and well told, then you can't get much better than this.

Even if it doesn't have any singing mice.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bring On The Dancing Boys: Newsies

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm about ten years too old to have been overcome with Newsies fever in the early 90's, but will admit it's always seemed an odd phenomenon. A Disney movie musical that flopped upon initial release, but gained a huge following on video and subsequent airings on the Disney Channel? And it's about turn of the 20th century New York news boys? Who go on strike? And Christian Bale sings and dances? WHUT?

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense. It's filled with a cast of dozens of cute boys in newsboy caps and knickers, who despite the New Yawk accents are about as threatening as your average boy band. Of course tweens loved it.

The stage musical is also a Disney production, and like the movie, I imagine the key attraction is the large cast of dancing boys (although, most seem to have past their teens years by a while ago). There's so many of them, it can be hard to keep track of who's who but I do know this: Jack Kelley (Dan DeLuca) is the defacto newsie leader, and Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) is the one with the crutch.

The industrial set, made up of steel stairs, runners, and scaffolding, rolls around the stage to create the various settings including the slums, newspaper headquarters, a vaudeville theater, and rich newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer's office. While the plot involves price gauging, child labor, unions, and strikes, it's presented rather simply: the newspaper bigwigs decide to increase the cost of the "papes" they sell to the newsies by 10 cents per bundle, and the newsies, already poor and virtually homeless, fight back by going on strike.

Yes. This is a socialist musical, centered on child workers, produced by Disney. My head nearly exploded too.

There's a subplot about a young reporter named Katherine (Stephanie Styles) who falls in love with Jack Kelley while writing about the boys, but frankly, I found their story kind of snoozeville. The musical is at its most fun and entertaining when the large cast of newsies are doing their group dances, which often include moments of tap, and lots of leaps and somersaults, all perfectly synchronized.

The musical's highlight is probably "Seize the Day," which features an ingenious use of newspapers as dance props, (and provides super fans a change to seize some of those papes, as they're tossed into the audience). And while some of the slower numbers are pretty enough, ("Santa Fe;" "Something to Believe In"), I found myself wishing those songs would end so we could get back to some newsie dancing.

That's one advantage those young movie fans had back in the 90's: a fast forward button.