Friday, May 27, 2016

Smart People Making Stupid Decisions: Maggie's Plan

This review originally appeared on

Since paying money to see a Woody Allen movie these days is becoming harder and harder to justify, for oh so many reasons, it's nice to see there are alternatives out there if you are craving a romantic comedy centered are intelligent but very neurotic New Yorkers. Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan is filled with smart characters who discuss philosophy while walking around Washington Square, but then make incredibly stupid romantic decisions.

Greta Gerwig, who I've been been entranced with ever since I saw her stuff pizza into her face in House of the Devil, plays another of her patented modern-day Diane Keaton roles as Maggie, a young and single career gal who decides she wants to have a baby on her own, choosing Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former college classmate-turned-artisinal-pickle-maker as the donor. Her best friends (played by Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader) do their best to be supportive, while also pointing out just how tough parenting can be.

Then Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a "ficto-critical anthropologist" and professor who is also working on his first novel. Soon they are meeting for lunches, he's asking Maggie to read his novel, and oh yeah, he's also got a brilliant but cold Danish wife, (Julianne Moore), who of course doesn't understand him. So Maggie's first plan hits a bit of a snag when she falls in love with John, he leaves his wife, they marry, and have a child together.

But John eventually reveals himself to be a narcissistic and possibly talentless writer who just can't seem to finish that damn novel, even though he spends more time on it then he does on parenting or their marriage. Which leads Maggie to come up with another plan, one she hopes will end with everyone happy.

It's fun seeing characters recognize the terrible mistakes they've made in their romantic choices, and while Maggie's plan might not be the most realistic, it's one that makes complete sense within the world of these characters.

Hawke's been playing flawed narcissists with aplomb since Reality Bites, and his John feels like the kind of lovable asshole Troy Dyer might have grown up to be. Julianne Moore's icy Georgette is probably the funniest part of the film. She may not have a perfect Danish accent, but she's got the academic-speak down pat, and delivers all of her lines with the perfect level of intensity and condescension. She also sports a series of increasingly ridiculous scarves and sweaters, and a perpetual top knot.

But Greta Gerwig is the film's heart. If you've seen her before and haven't liked her, this probably won't change your mind; she definitely has a character type, and she rarely strays far from that. But I've found her to be an amusing and fascinating actress to watch in all but one of her movies (last year's Mistress America). I just hope she continues to make Woody Allen-esque movies while staying far away from actual Woody Allen movies.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Love & Friedship

This review originally appeared on

For those who prefer their movies without  explosions and swearing, you can't go wrong with Whit Stillman's latest, Love & Friendship, which is based on a relatively unknown, early novella by Jane Austen called Lady Susan.

Like all of Jane Austen's works, the story is set in 18th century England, among the rich and the slightly less rich. Kate Beckinsale is the widowed Lady Susan, a gleefully conniving and amoral anti-heroine who manages to get exactly what she wants, even when it's so very obvious to those around her that she's absolutely The Worst. Chole Sevigny plays her equally amoral confidant from America, and Morfydd Clark is Susan's teenage daughter Frederica, whom Susan hopes to marry off as soon as possible.

There are a lot of characters to keep straight, most related to each other either by blood or marriage, and the movie does try and help the audience out by presenting each with a humorous bio card as they're introduced. The dialogue and satire are worthy of Monty Python, especially the performance from Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin; he's a perfect forerunner to the Upper Class Twit of the Year. (Amazed by the "tiny green balls" on his dinner plate, he asks his hosts what they're called. "Peas," is the deadpan reply.)

I went into Love & Friendship as a skeptic who never really got the appeal of Jane Austen, but I came out of it wanting to see it again, and wishing Whit Stillman would take a stab at adapting everything she ever wrote.

The Nice Guys

This review originally appeared on

The Nice Guys will prove once and for all that Ryan Gosling is more than just that cute guy from The Notebook. Frankly, he proved that to me a long time ago, with his appearance in Drive; that album of weird and spooky songs he did with a duo called Dead Man's Bones; that time he broke up a fight on the streets of New York and then called himself "the guy from The Notebook" in an interview about it a few weeks later; his appearance on Funny or Die's Drunk History Christmas; and that time he saved a puppy in Palm Springs.

But still, I feel like the some people will only ever think of him as that guy from The Notebook though maybe that's mainly guys who have girlfriends who have made them watch it one too many times. Relax, guys! Here's a Ryan Gosling movie for the both of you!

Set in grimy 1970's Los Angeles, a time when the Hollywood sign was a crumbling monument, and porn movies had billboards on Sunset Boulevard, The Nice Guys pairs Gosling with Russell Crowe, as two slightly shady investigators who find themselves working on the same case, but from different angles. Gosling is a licensed private detective named Holland March. He's a widower with a pre-teen daughter and bit of a drinking problem. Crowe is Jackson Healy, muscle-for-hire, who lives above a comedy club and has a preference for brass knuckles over guns. Both men find themselves searching for the same missing girl and decide to join up, even if they each think the other is an idiot. (Both are correct in that thinking, some of the time.)

The mystery they find themselves involved in, which I won't attempt to surmise in detail since to do so would make it sound a lot more complicated than it actually is, involves a dead porn actress, (or "porn young lady," as March prefers to refer to her), a missing teenager, a porn movie, the Detroit auto industry, and the department of justice.

Director and co-writer Shane Black got his break in Hollywood with the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, so it comes as no surprise that The Nice Guys is at its best when it sticks to the buddy comedy formula. Gosling does a lot of physical comedy throughout the film, and he's a genius at it. The simple act of busting a glass window with his fist results in a comedy of errors that had me laughing for a solid two minutes. Russell isn't required to do much heavy comedy lifting, but he makes a good straight man, and gets to do almost as much fighting as he did in Gladiator, (and in real life, come to think of it).

The central mystery owes a lot to the movie Chinatown, down to a fractured family relationship, and a huge Los Angeles conspiracy centered on money, the law, and something a city needs as much as water: Clean air.

But as a mystery, it's full of holes. The threat that everyone is trying to suppress is not something that could ever be considered a real threat, and at times the facts of the case, and numerous action sequences, weigh the movie down. It's much more fun just watching these clown detectives working a crowded room looking for clues. The ending sets up the possibility for a sequel, and if so, you can count me in. Just give them an easier case next time.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Thrilling And Serious: Money Monster

This review originally appeared on

Going into Money Monster, I had some worries. Julia Roberts' presence in a film hasn't boded well for a while now, and Jodie Foster's work directing movies has been hit or miss, (hit: Home for the Holidays; miss: The Beaver). But about 15 minutes in I stopped worrying. The movie works as both an old fashioned Dog Day Afternoon type siege thriller, and as a serious indictment of American financial institutions.

George Clooney stars as Les Gates, a Jim Cramer-esque host of a financial show in which he gives investment tips and projections. It's a fast and loose show, where the tips are presented as things to take seriously, even though the surrounding show is anything but.

Julia Roberts is Patty Fenn, the show's director. She and Gates have worked together long enough to have a familiar shorthand as she is a constant presence in his earpiece. They've got a rapport, but don't share enough affection to keep her from taking another job away from the "emotionally stunted 7-year-old" host.

As they work on their last show together, a delivery guy wanders onto the live set. Thinking it's one of Gates's many on-air stunts, Fenn keeps the camera on him.

Until he whips out a gun and a vest bomb.

He's Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), a disgruntled working-class New Yorker who lost all of his savings based on a stock tip given by Gates a week before. The stock in question, belonging to a company called Ibis Clear Capital, somehow tanked, losing 800 million dollars in a single day. The stock's plummet has been blamed on a computer "glitch," as if that should ever be an acceptable excuse for the loss of millions of dollars. Kyle rightfully calls bullshit and demands that the company CEO (Dominic West), and Gates fess up to what's really going on.

All of this takes place during the live broadcast, as demanded by Kyle, but the film, while concentrated in the TV studio, also ventures out into the outside world of the viewers to an audience that is way more on Kyle's side than the side of the moneyed. Kyle's rantings about the system being rigged, and the rich taking advantage of the 99% don't sound that crazy. Take away that gun, and he could be Bernie Sanders.

The British O'Connell is terrific as Kyle, with an accent that, to my West Coast ears, sounds right, and a world-weariness that seems to seep from his pores. Clooney does both slick and terrified very well, but more importantly, knows to take his usual charm down a notch in order to let his fellow cast shine.

And I've got to say, this is the most impressed I've been with Roberts in a long time. She does the majority of her role sitting in a chair while talking to someone in another room. Because she's in close-up so often she, too, has to tame it down a little, (no reliance on a giant smile here), and the restraint is perfect for a character who must maintain complete control of the situation she's been thrown into.

The financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the criminal prosecution guy. The only real indictments America seems to be getting are coming from Hollywood, in the form of movies, like this and last year's The Big Short, that try to shed a light on the whole crooked mess. It's almost a shame Money Monster is as entertaining as it is, as the suspense and fun of watching it can make you forget that what it's actually about is very real, very depressing, and very maddening.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Anti-Batman V Superman: Captain America: Civil War

This review originally appeared on

Coming out a month after the miserable bomb that was Batman V Superman has only helped to make Marvel's latest entry into the Avengers franchise look like a damn classic in comparison. Captain America: Civil War isn't as instantly likeable as the first Avengers movie was, but it's certainly a better night at the movies than watching Batman and Superman fight a battle in a bleak and murky hellscape.

And have no doubt: this is more of an Avengers movie than it is a Captain America one, with almost all of the Avengers returning, (minus big hitters Hulk and Thor), and with the addition of a few new members, including Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), to the team.

Well, actually, teams, as the central conflict pits the superheroes against each other. The world has finally gotten a little fed up with the collective collateral damage inflicted by the Avengers every time they save the world. And after innocent lives are lost one again, during the film's opening battle, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt and his amazing wig) and the U.N. decide to force the Avengers to sign an accord that would, depending on how you look at it, either completely limit their ability to act or put some much needed governance on their growing power.

Somewhat ironically, the renegade Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is for the signing of the accord, while Captain America (Chris Evans), is against it. In both cases, their reasoning is pretty selfish. Stark thinks stepping away from the Avenging biz will result in the return of his beloved, Pepper Potts (who does not make an appearance in the movie), while Cap wants the freedom to help save his friend Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier, (Sebastian Stan), who he's convinced has been wrongfully accused of a terrorist act.

As battle lines are drawn, it comes down to a "civil war," with the Avengers either joining team Iron Man or team Captain, and it's this literal fight between them all that is the highlight of the movie. Once again I couldn't help but compare it to Batman Vs. Superman, and its fight scenes, which were dark, depressing, and ugly. Here we have a huge battle in broad daylight, on a relatively uncluttered airfield, fittingly devoid of people. (After all, more innocent deaths are the last thing they need).

But, more importantly, the battle is fun. Seeing Spider-Man fight Captain America is fun. Watching Iron Man fight-in-flight with Falcon is fun. Watching Hawkeye shoot arrows at...well, ok watching Hawkeye is never fun. But the scene as a whole is still wildly entertaining, culminating in a literal giant surprise.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed the previous Captain America movie and also won Emmys for the work on Arrested Development, recognize the franchise's reliance on humor, so the film is peppered with some humorous asides, one-liners, and dialogue that's, for the most part, not cringe-worthy. (This time around Black Widow doesn't spend half her screen time crying about how she can't have a baby. THANK GOD.) If I have one complaint with their direction, it's that some of the action is a little too kinetic, resulting in moments that are nothing but a blur. (Seeing it in IMAX and 3D certainly doesn't help the matter.)

While there is a villain in the story, it's not the usual invading alien hordes or omnipotent superbeing; It's just a dude with a grudge. The Avengers have a lot of death to answer to, but in a clever way, the movie also manages to indict us, the audience, for getting off on the massive destruction seen in all those previous films. We should be ashamed of ourselves!

Until the next Marvel movie comes out, of course.