Monthly Archives: February 2015

Running to Inspire

Kevin Costner is perfectly cast coach in uplifting true-life sports tale

McFARLAND

McFarland, USA

Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello & Carlos Pratts

Directed by Niki Caro

PG

When the folks at Disney were looking for someone to play the coach in this real-life sports drama, they knew who’d be perfect.

Kevin Costner, who turned 61 on Feb. 18, has been in just about every kind of movie, but he’s become a sort of senior statesman of sports flicks, with a career arc that started in the 1980s with baseball (Bull Durham and Field of Dreams) and continued through the ’90s with Tin Cup (golf) and into last year with Draft Day (football).

McFARLAND

Maria Bello, Kevin Costner, Elsie Fisher & Morgan Saylor

In McFarland, USA he plays Jim White, a high school football coach who—like Costner—has been around the block a few times. White doesn’t have a lot of patience with pampered jock-star players who don’t put their hearts, as well as their shoulders, on the line and into the game. An “incident” at the beginning of the movie—in 1987—finds the coach, his wife and their two kids on the move, again, transferred from Boise, Idaho, to the small central California town of McFarland, where he quickly discovers that the mostly Hispanic football team is a flop—but man, can those boys run.

That’s because they’re always running home from school to help their parents, or running after school to work in the fields. White sees their potential as a cross-country running team that could compete with bigger, better-funded schools—and possibly even compete at the state level. Never mind that the school has never had a running team, or that White has never coached one.

It’s a pretty basic underdog-tale movie template, but several things about McFarland, USA make it a standout. For starters, director Niki Caro (whose three previous other features include Whale Rider and North Country, both of which received Oscar nods) never cloaks Costner in the glow of aMcFARLAND “white savior” spotlight; he may be the star, but she makes sure the high school athletes shine. This “based-on-a-true-story” movie is their story, too, and the young actors cast as the runners, all newcomers and relative unknowns, give their onscreen characters personality, substance and dimension.

There’s humor as well as heart as White and his family clash with, and ultimately embrace, their new culture. “You got burgers?” White asks on their first—bumpy—night in town before settling for the local restaurant’s only offering: tacos. Maria Bello does a solid job as Mrs. White, even though she’s not given near enough to do, and Morgan Saylor, who played Dana Brody on TV’s Homeland, is lovely as their teenage daughter, Julie, who falls for the running team’s leader (Carlos Pratts).

We meet parents, neighbors, shopkeepers and other town residents. When the camera pans the crowd at the big state meet in the climactic final race scene, we realize that we—like coach White—have come to know, like and respect all these people, who were once unfamiliar, or even threatening.

As the credits roll, you’ll get to meet the real stars of this story: the now-grown McFarland cross-country runners from the team, and the real Jim White. And if you don’t walk out of this feel-good movie feeling better, more inspired and more uplifted than when you came in, proud of what happened back in this small California town in 1987 and proud of the boys and coach who made it possible…well, you must have seen a different movie than I did.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Super(cool) Spies

‘Kingsman’ makes other spy flicks look old, slow and tame

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson & Michael Caine

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

R

Move over, James Bond—or get blown off the road. Some new supercool spy guys—and gals—have just laid claim to the multiplex, and they make just about everything that came before them look old, slow, tame and even lazy.

Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on a 2012 Marvel Comics-distributed series, takes the spy game to wildly adventurous, dizzily fun-tastic new heights of both homage and spoofery. Colin Firth, the Oscar-winning British actor best known for his roles in dignified historical dramas (The Kings Speech; A Single Man; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) makes his smashing “action-lead” debut as Harry Hart, the top agent in this international intelligence agency of high-ranking, impeccably dressed, lethally trained gents organized in the mid-1850s as a latter-day Knights of the Round Table to “preserve peace and protect life.”

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Taron Egerton & Colin Firth

Newcomer Taron Egerton is “Eggsy” Unwin, the streetwise London lad whose fate leads him into the ranks of the Kingsman elite. And Samuel L. Jackson plays, well, basically Samuel L. Jackson, as an evil, lisp-y philanthropist billionaire whose altruistic façade hides a super-sinister plan of global domination.

Michael Caine is aboard as the Kingsmen’s top dog; Mark Strong has a key role as his senior officer; and Algerian-born dancer Sofia Boutella makes a memorable impression as the high-hopping villainess Gazelle, who slices and dices foes to ribbons with her razor-sharp prosthetic feet. Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill—of Stars Wars fame—plays a college professor appearance is a bit of an inside joke that will delight readers of the comic book, which featured a character with the actor’s name.

The action is frenetic, super-stylized and sometimes gleefully hyper-violent. During fight scenes and other adrenaline-pumping moments, director Matthew Vaughn (Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and cinematographer George Richmond keep the camera moving, zooming, sweeping, bobbing and weaving, then speeding up and slowing down the film to increase the visual intensity.

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Sofia Boutella & Samuel L. Jackson

The fan-boy comic-book crowd will lap it up, but mainstream audiences will find plenty to like about Kingsman, too—its nonstop plot is full of cheeky British humor, meta spy-movie satire, and jabs at politics, government, celebrities and everyone’s greed for the latest with-it technology. But be warned: It definitely earns its R rating—especially in its final moments, when it dives into a particularly randy joke. It may be just to cap off its playful naughtiness with a real zinger, or perhaps it’s seeking something more profound, a profane parody statement about how spy movies have always “debased” their female characters.

KSS_JB_D69_06371_rgbSpy movies have also always been about gadgets and secret-agent do-daddery, and here Kingsman goes all-out: Bulletproof umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, shiv-toed shoes, holographic eyeglasses, lethal fountain pens, electrocution signet rings. And the suits! When it comes to fashion, the Kingsmen are the coolest cats around—and, in one of the most extensive merchandise marketing tie-ins of any movie ever, almost anything you see onscreen (suits, ties, shoes and—yes—umbrellas) can be purchased in special Kingsman product lines.

See the movie, buy the suit—and get me one of those indestructible umbrellas!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Cosmic Canned Ham

Loopy ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is a way-out, sci-fi mind scramble

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Jupiter Ascending

Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis & Eddie Redmayne

Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski

PG-13

There’s a dinosaur wearing a motorcycle jacket in the dining room, a shirtless interplanetary hunk (Channing Tatum) zipping around the sky on rocket skates, and a maid (Mila Kunis) scrubbing the toilet who’s actually queen of the universe.

Better buckle up: This is one way-out, sci-fi space-opera mind scramble. But the filmmaking-siblings team of writers, producers and directors Lana and Andy Wachowski typically don’t do anything small. Previously, they’ve given us the time-and-space-shifting The Matrix (1999) and its two sequels; a futuristic political thriller (V For Vendetta); a live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime classic Speed Racer; and the sprawling, brain-warping Cloud Atlas.

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Mila Kunis

The Wachowskis’ movies are often lauded for visual sumptuousness but criticized for lack of lucid storytelling, and that could certainly be said for Jupiter Ascending, a lavish, fantastically over-the-top spectacle of outrageous special effects, Baroque set design, outlandish characters and fantastical ideas that never stop zapping and zinging. But so many of those ideas fail to find their way into a coherent package, and the whole movie rings loudly, if not proudly, in the major key of gobbledygook.

The “Jupiter” of the title is Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a lowly Russian immigrant who grows up in Chicago cleaning bathrooms, completely unaware that her lofty astral pedigree has made her the subject of an intergalactic bounty hunt. As how Jupiter came by her out-of-this-world DNA is explained (sort of), we meet the various characters that have all come looking for her.

JUPITER ASCENDING

Eddie Redmayne

Channing Tatum is the genetically engineered, half-wolf, half-human mutant who zips to Earth to warn Jupiter about who she really is—and what kind of danger she’s in. Eddie Redmayne is an alien business tycoon dealing in a deluxe brand of “youth serum.” Sean Bean, from TV’s Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, is a scruffy, Han Solo-ish, galaxy-hopping good guy.

It’s all wild, weird, and a high-heavens, hot-mess hoot, especially when you realize you’re seeing two guys just coming off tony, Oscar-nominated movies (Tatum’s Foxcatcher and Redmayne, for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) now chewing such enormous, supernova-size slices of cosmic canned ham. The whole thing is so earnestly, self-seriously over-the-top, so ridiculously rich in excess, it’s like a gonzo, gazillion-dollar mash-up of Plan Nine From Outer Space and Guardians of the Galaxy steered by a committee of 13-year-old boys hyped on an all-weekend Star Wars/Star Trek marathon and fueled by an endless supply of Mountain Dew and Pixy Sticks.

But hey: In what other flick are you going to find Channing Tatum grunting like a (half) wolf, zipping around shirtless in zero-gravity shoes a la Buck Rogers at an Olympic speed-skating event, and slugging it out with a dinosaur? You’d have to traverse many a multiplex—if not the entire galaxy—to find anything that shoots for the stars quite like the loopy Jupiter Ascending. And if you’re going to ride this rocket, into an orbit that that swings w-a-a-a-y out there, well, don’t hope to understand it, just try to hang on.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Saints Alive

Bill Murray shines as a grumpy-golden coot-next-door

ST. VINCENT

St. Vincent

Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

Directed by Theodore Melfi

PG-13

Bill Murray has carved out a comfortable three-decade movie niche playing sweet-natured troublemakers, loveable oafs and world-weary wiseasses. So the grumpy old coot-next-door he now portrays, at age 64, in St. Vincent seems like a perfect fit, a natural progression.

Murray’s character, Vincent, becomes the caretaker of a 10-year-old boy, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), after Oliver and his stressed-out single mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) become his new neighbors—Vincent is strapped for cash and Maggie’s in a bind. Not knowing anyone else, she enlists Vincent to watch Oliver after school and evenings while she works.

“He’s sort of cool, in a grouchy sort of way,” Oliver tells his mother after a few afternoons in Vincent’s care. “Too old to be dangerous, but not too old to be too dangerous.”

ST. VINCENT

Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher & Naomi Watts

Vincent is hardly any mom’s dream babysitter; he drinks, he smokes, he gambles, and he takes Oliver along to the bar and the racetrack. He teaches Oliver to fight and to stand up to the bully at school. It’s no real surprise when Vincent becomes a surrogate father figure to the scrawny, sensitive lad, whose own dad, we learn, is contesting his mother for Oliver’s custody.

It’s a familiar, often sitcom-ish setup, one that most viewers will recognize from a long parade of TV and movie characters who’ve marched before, from W.C. Fields to Uncle Buck. But Murray and his fellow cast members elevate the material far above the basics, giving the story a rich, lived-in texture with grit, laughter, warmth and an easygoing dramatic groove that cuts through the script’s clichés.

We learn why Vincent seems to have given up on almost everything, why he’s out of money, and why he’s willing to gamble away what little he has left. We watch Oliver emerge from his shell, moreST. VINCENT enabled and emboldened to take on the world. And we understand the connection between Oliver’s school assignment about saints, the title of the movie, and a school assembly where everything comes together.

Murray is a gem, the scruffy, gruff-y glue that holds it all together and keeps it from flecking off into granules of sugary-sweet cuteness. It’s a treat to see McCarthy in a role where she gets to play it straight, freed from comedic slapstick and shenanigans. Watts is a hoot—and seems to be having one, too—as Vincent’s pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend. And Lieberher, as Oliver, is a natural in front of the camera who can hold his own, even when sharing the frame with the formidable funnyman.

St. Vincent, in limited release but gaining in popularity, may not be playing “in a theater near you.” But it’s well worth going the extra mile if you have to seek it out; you’ve probably heard Bill Murray’s name cropping up for some awards at the end of this movie year. And by all means, stay until the end—the very end. The extended sequence that plays under the credits, with Murray (as Vincent) singing along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm”—the whole song—as he blithely waters a forlorn-looking potted plant with an uncooperative garden hose, is a sublime bit of blissed-out backyard karaoke that is itself almost worth the price of your ticket.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘Vice’ is Nice

’70s counterculture detective yarn is one heck of a trip, man

INHERENT VICEInherent Vice

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon & Katherine Waterston

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

R

A swirling, swingin’ sleuthing tale set at the dawn of the ‘70s on the seedy coastal side of Los Angeles, Inherent Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix as a keep-on-truckin’ private investigator coasting on a cloud of dope smoke, Josh Brolin as a hippie-hating L.A.P.D. detective who likes licking on chocolate-covered bananas, and a cavalcade of other characters who pop in and out to move the story along.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark-comedy adaptation of author Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 crime-noir/counterculture novel is a thing of cinematic achievement, fitting in comfortably with his other critically lauded films, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Boogie Nights. And it’s also one heck of a trip, man.

Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, who’s hired by a damsel in distress, his ex-lover Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, actor Sam’s daughter), to investigate the disappearance of her new boyfriend, a wealthy real-estate tycoon, possibly arranged by his wife. But when Shasta Fey also goes missing, Doc realizes that he’s dealing with a love triangle that’s become an even bigger, much more unwieldy geometric tangle.

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Owen Wilson

How much bigger, and how complex? Well, there are Nazis, black power groups, a mysterious offshore schooner, a cabal of heroin-smuggling dentists, a surf-saxophone legend (Owen Wilson) who’s faked his own death, Eric Roberts in a looney bin, Reese Witherspoon as a federal district attorney who likes an occasional walk on the wild side, and a massage-parlor hoochie-coochie mama whispering a cryptic warning: “Beware the Golden Fang.”

As Doc tries to sort out who’s who and what’s what, things keep getting weirder and wilder. The characters’ names give you some idea of the story’s stoned-out La-La-Land twists and turns: Michael W. Wolfmann, Sauncho Smilax, Coy Harlingen, Rudy Blatnoyd, Puck Beaverton.

Brolin, with a perpetual scowl and a serious crew cut, nearly steals the show as Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who also moonlights as an actor (watch for him late in the movie cropping up in a “doctored” episode of Adam-12). Phoenix sports a set of mutton-chop sideburns that look like they’re about to invade his mouth at any moment. Funnyman Martin Short gets only 10 minutes onscreen as a lecherous dentist, but he makes the most of every second. Witherspoon and Phoenix have one entire conversation against the backdrop of a country song, Jack Scott’s “Burning Bridges,” which seems to be a nod to not only their relationship in the movie, but also their previous co-starring roles as John and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line (2005).

INHERENT VICE

Reese Witherspoon & Joaquin Phoenix

Phoenix worked with Anderson previously, in The Master, and the two have another fine synergy here. As Doc stumbles, unwashed and unkempt, through the case, he’s also stumbling through the end of an era, the come-together, flower-power ‘60s, and into another, the uncertain, unhinged ‘70s. Doc knows the times, they are a-changin’—and that wistful, wayward, weed-saturated vibe seeps into everything about Inherent Vice.

The story takes its title, we learn, from a maritime term about a piece of cargo’s hidden defect, something that makes it an unacceptable risk to insure. People—and places, relationships, even moments in time—can be defective, too, can spoil and go bad, as Doc knows all too well. But the defective, “damaged goods” Inherent Vice parades on screen only adds to the fractured fun of its hippy-dippy, time-tripping yarn.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Odd ‘n’ Mod

Johnny Depp’s time-warped, Brit-flavored box office bomb

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Mortdecai

Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow & Ewan McGregor

Directed by David Koepp

R

Well, at least Johnny Depp’s latest movie has something in common with The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life: All three of those films, like his new flop, were initially box-office bombs.

Those flicks much later found respect and beloved places in cinematic history. Perhaps some new appreciation may also be heaped, decades down the road, on Mortdecai. But so far Depp’s dud has been savaged by most critics and has only attracted a trickle of audience turnout. Not many people have wanted to see him, apparently, in yet another nutty role, with a fake accent and goofball mannerisms—and particularly not in this movie, which is a bit of an oddity itself.

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Paul Bettany plays the loyal manservant of kooky art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp).

Based on a series of musty 1970s British comedic cloak-and-dagger novels, Mortdecai stars Depp as the eccentric art wheeler-dealer of the title, Gwyneth Paltrow as his wife, and Ewan McGregor as a MI5 agent on the trail of a missing art masterpiece that may contain a long-hidden code leading to squirreled-away Nazi gold. Eventually everybody gets in on the action, including Mortdecai’s loyal manservant (Paul Bettany), a competing American art collector (Jeff Goldblum), his nymphomaniac daughter (Olivia Munn), and some nasty Russian thugs.

The whole story seems kookily out of time, a far-out, swingin’-’70s romp plunked down clumsily in the present. Or is it a mod, mapcap comedy run backward through the gears of a time-machine blender? Or a weird parcel from a distant era yet to come, when Depp’s off-kilter-characters are worshipped as idols by a future civilization?

The humor, the jokes, the mannerisms, everything about it is so pseudo-sophisticated British, so Pink Panther-meets-Austin Powers-meets-Mr. Bean, so camp-ily, willfully, woozily derivative of practically every English sleuth saga and spoofy bungle caper that’s ever been done, it begs the question: Why did anyone bother to make this curious, out-of-time artifact of a movie at all, and why now?

Depp, who has fashioned quite a career out of quirk, adds yet another peculiar personality to his collection. Charlie Mortdecai, a wacky conglomeration of grunts, bleats, facial tics and a moustache that becomes one of the movie’s subplots by itself, is a hoot, but dimensionally hollow, and highly unlikely to join Capt. Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Willy Wonka in his hall of fame.

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Ewan McGregor

It’s all a tad randy, but only a tad, just barely enough for its R rating. That means anyone expecting a “raunchy” grown-up comedy, like a lot of R-rated comedies these days, will likely be disappointed at its relative tameness—and that any of Depp’s younger fans, from his Pirates of the Caribbean Disney movies, won’t be able to see it at all.

There are some funny bits, like a rather novel car chase, some clever dialogue and banter, and what seems like a total commitment from the cast, who appear to be having a cheerio, cheeky old time. But the plot is a bit of a runaround slog, and some of the gags require a good deal of stick-with-it—one involves whether a character will take a bite from a slab of stinky old cheese, or not.

Mortdecai may not be Johnny Depp’s finest moment, or even one of them. It’s not looking like it right now, anyway. But hey, let’s give this slab of stinky cheese another 30 or 40 years and see what happens, shall we?

 —Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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