Monthly Archives: August 2016

Lords of the Plains

Jeff Bridges pursues bank-robbing brothers in ‘Hell or High Water’

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Hell or High Water
Starring Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges & Ben Foster
Directed by David Mackenzie
R
Wide release Aug. 19

Two masked men bumble and fumble their way through an early-morning bank robbery in an otherwise sleepy Texas town. They’ve got guns and they mean business, but they’ve shown up before the bank is open, before there’s any money in the cash drawers and before anyone can unlock the safe.

“Y’all are new at this, I’m guessin’?” asks a hapless secretary, the only employee on the premises, suggesting they just turn around and leave before the situation escalates—or anyone gets hurt. “Right now, the only thing you’re guilty of is being stupid.”

“Stupid” isn’t the term, however, that comes to the mind of soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who sees something smarter developing in the string of heists spreading across the parched Texas midsection, always in the morning, always by a pair of men demanding bills of small denominations, and always hitting a small branch of the same bank, Texas Midland.

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Ben Foster & Chris Pine

That’s the terrific setup of Hell or High Water, in which two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), try to right wrongs of their past in a scheme that’s much more complex, and much more understandable, than it first seems. Pine, best known for playing Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, makes a powerful dramatic breakaway as a divorced dad desperate to hold onto the family farm for his kids. Foster, who’s had supporting roles in nearly 50 movies and TV shows, is galvanizing as his older sibling, an ex-con with rattlesnake-like anger-management issues stemming from childhood.

Playing Texas Ranger Hamilton, Bridges is in somewhat of his True Grit Rooster Cogburn mode, seasoned by a pinch of Tommy Lee Jones from No Country For Old Men. As he closes in on the robbers and their plan, the movie becomes as much about Hamilton’s working relationship with his Comanche-Mexican deputy partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham, who played Billy Black in the Twilight franchise), and the affectionately racist joshing that’s bonded them over the years.

British-born director David Mackenzie has made more than a dozen films, but probably nothing you’ve seen on a big screen. Here he shows a keen grasp of 21st century America, especially the collision of the Old West and the new-world economy, gun culture, the devastating appetites of corporate greed and the painful, lasting scars of poverty. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who sharpened his craft on BBC nature documentaries and independent fare, elevates the look of practically every frame to artistry.

“We’re like Comanches—raiding where we please, the whole of Texas. Lords of the plains!” gloats Tanner. A later encounter in an Oklahoma casino with a real-life, modern-day Comanche, however, casts an ominous pall over his proclamation.

If you think you know where Hell or High Water is headed, you may be wrong. Or at least you probably won’t be totally right—which is just about right for this outstanding movie, which puts the line between right and wrong underneath a scorching, unforgiving Texas sun then stretches it out on a lonesome, steaming highway, toward a blurred horizon, with no clear end in sight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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High Notes

Meryl Streep Gives Moving Musical Performance in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Florence Foster Jenkins
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant & Simon Helberg
Directed by Stephen Frears
PG-13

“I’ve got the music in me,” proclaimed singer Kiki Dee in her pumping, thumping Top 20 hit of 1974. “I’ve got the music in me, I’ve got the music in me!”

Some three decades before Kiki Dee, another singer made a similar proclamation, when matronly New York City socialite Florence Foster Jenkins was filled with a lifelong, over-abundant love of music—but a serious lack of talent.

Director Stephen Frears, whose resume also includes The Queen, Philomena and Dangerous Liasons, brings Jenkins’ quirky story to the screen with humor as well as heart, never crossing over into camp or parody in a tale that certainly couldn’t gone there. Meryl Streep has proven she can indeed sing, and quite well—in Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods and Ricki and the Flash—which makes her enthusiastic off-key yelping, peeping and squawking as Florence all the more of a marvel.

After a big-screen, major-role absence of several years, it’s good to see Hugh Grant back. He’s terrific as Florence’s common-law husband, St Clair Bayfield, who loves her dearly and shields her from “mockers and scoffers” by bribing newspaper critics and making sure audiences at her concerts are packed with friends and supporters.

Simon Helberg

Simon Helberg

Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz on TV’s The Big Bang Theory) has a major role as Jenkins’ young piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. At first incredulous at her ineptitude, McMoon later comes—as we do—to admire and respect Jenkins’ childlike innocence and the purity of her desire to share music with others in the “profound communion” of performance.

The movie takes its basic setup—a biopic of a pop-cultural footnote character—and fleshes it out in engrossing detail. We see the tremendous lengths to which Bayfield and others in Florence’s elite social circle go to protect—and enable—her. Florence’s vocal coach uses phrases like “You’ve never sounded better” and “There is no one quite like you” to avoid hurting her feelings and pointing out her clear shortcomings.

Bayfield’s long-term relationship with a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) is strained by his equal devotion to Florence. “It’s complicated,” he tells McMoon. And indeed it is. We learn the heartbreaking reason Florence and Bayfield never married, never had children and never had a “real” marriage—and how Florence’s doomed first marriage, when she was 18, left her devastated and damaged, in more ways than one.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINSWe learn of the tragic medical condition—and its toxic treatments—that may have led to some, or many, of Florence’s oddball behaviors, phobias or even delusions.

But mostly we learn of a singer who loved to sing, who had a dream of doing it at Carnegie Hall, and about the unconventional love story at the center of it all.

“They may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing,” says Florence toward the end of the film, in a final, parting nod toward her naysayers who refused to see—or hear—the unbridled joy and happiness of her out-of-tune operatics.

“Bravo,” Bayfield replies with a bittersweet smile. And bravo, Meryl Streep, for a moving performance that reminds us that music, like any gift, is one meant to be shared, and that in 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins followed the music “in her.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Odd Squad

‘Suicide Squad’ is a crazy, colorful, over-stuffed mess

SUICIDE SQUAD

Suicide Squad
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis & Jared Leto
Directed by David Ayer
PG-13

The superhero summer gets a jolt of anarchy as a group of “metahuman” oddballs and outlaws commandeer the screen.

Based on obscure characters created by DC Comics, the Suicide Squad is a motley crew of death-row supervillains corralled by the government to combat threats too dangerous or deadly for ordinary defenses—like the “next” Superman, who might not be so people-friendly, or the slinky sorceress (Cara Delevingne) now building a doomsday machine to annihilate humanity—in exchange for lightened sentences.

Think The Dirty Dozen meets Guardians of the Galaxy, with a twist of Ghostbusters.

Will Smith

Will Smith

Will Smith is Deadshot, the world’s most lethal assassin. Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist turned psycho by her bonkers boyfriend, the Joker (Jared Leto). There’s also Aussie kleptomaniac Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), hulking human reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, buried beneath a ton of rubbery prosthetics) and pyrotechnic homeboy El Diablo (a heavily tattooed Jay Hernandez).

Viola Davis is the iron-fisted black-ops recruiter in charge of the squad. Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a samurai whose sword contains the souls of everyone its ever slain. Joel Kinnaman is elite soldier Col. Rick Flag, who has a special—though convoluted—tie to the Enchantress, the ancient, newly resurrected witch trying to destroy the world. Even Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) drop in for cameos, as if they’ve casually wandered over from another movie.

Margot Robbie

Margot Robbie

Everyone has a backstory and a rockin’ theme song. Harley gets a reworked version of the old Leslie Gore hit “You Don’t Own Me,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swampy “Fortunate Son” plays for Killer Croc, and as Diablo’s flames flicker in the night sky, we hear War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”

Writer-director David Ayer—who also directed the Brad Pitt WWII tank flick Fury and wrote Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar—has a lot on his plate. Ultimately, the huge cast, unwieldy story and muddled, sometimes downright cheesy special effects become just too much—for him, and us—and everything crashes, smashes, mashes and finally collapses into a big, boom-y blob.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto

There are some things, however, to like about Suicide Squad. Leto’s cackling Joker is an unhinged kick; you never know what he’s going to do, how far he’ll go or where. It’s good to see Smith in a semi-supporting role where he can lay back in an ensemble but still unload some great quips. Davis is deliciously ambiguous as a high-ranking agent who’ll do whatever it takes to do a dirty job. Robbie seems to be having fun as the wacko Harley, but her hyper-sexy shorty shorts, fishnet stockings, stiletto boots and smeared baby-doll makeup look like they came from a stripper’s closet—or a fanboy’s heated ComicCon dream—instead of a wacko supervillain’s lair.

In the end, the movie is a hot mess—but a loud, star-packed, proudly trashy one. At one point, Harley and the Joker jump into an industrial vat of paint, then make out, rolling around and laughing like the nut jobs they are in the swirls of blue, red, yellow and green. That’s pretty good snapshot of Suicide Squad as a whole: Stuffed full of everything, including itself, it’s mad, mucky and yucky and doesn’t make a lot of sense—but hey, look at all those crazy colors!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Bourne to Kill

Matt Damon returns as memory-challenged spy in grim, glum ‘Jason Bourne’

Film Title: Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne
Starring Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander
Directed by Paul Greengrass
PG-13

For espionage fans, Jason Bourne has always been the spy who can’t remember. Based on the character created by novelist Robert Ludlum, he’s appeared previously in three movies (2002-2007) played by Matt Damon, who now returns to the role (after sitting on the sidelines for the oddly Bourne-less The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner, in 2012).

A former brainwashed CIA killing machine who went rogue as his head began to clear, Bourne, has been wandering the Earth for the past decade (apparently) in an existential quest to distance himself from the murderous, amnestic murk of his tortured past.

When his old colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into a government computer, she discovers files suggesting that Bourne’s late father might have been involved in the clandestine government program that “indoctrinated” his young son into the CIA and erased his previous life. She tracks Bourne down to tell him, and it puts both of them in serious danger.

Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones

Learning that sensitive, covert computer files have been breached, CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones) knows the situation requires drastic action. If Bourne and Parsons leak those files, one of his advisors frets, “It could be worse than Snowden.”

That means calling on the agency’s top assassin, known only as “the Asset” (Vincent Cassel), to “cut the head off this thing.”

Alicia Vikander

Alicia Vikander

Alicia Vikander plays an ambitious CIA cyber-ops expert who thinks she can bring Bourne back in to the side of the good guys. But will she get the chance? And the line between “good” guys and “bad” guys gets plenty blurry.

There’s also a plotline about a gigantic new cybertech company, Deep Dream, and its charismatic owner (Riz Ahmed), whose ties to the CIA bring up some timely, troubling concerns about privacy and governmental policing.

A generous amount of globetrotting culminates in a slam-bang Las Vegas crescendo involving a hotel sniper, a brutal back-alley brawl and a colossal downtown chase, dozens of smash-ups and a “jackpot” of a crash inside the Riviera casino.

Film Title: Jason BournePaul Greengrass, who also directed two films from the original Bourne trilogy, is behind the camera again—but can’t seem to hold it steady for a single scene. The director’s penchant for woozy, wobbly “shakycam” shots is meant to convey edge, movement and action, but man, it sure gets old. Even when characters are having a calm conversation, the camera is fidgeting like it can’t wait to split.

And spy flicks have always been about thrills, danger and even death—but this Bourne feels and looks especially grim, glum and grungy, especially given the tenor of the times. Gunmen on rooftops, bombs, civilians dying in the fray, government corruption, a mopey Matt Damon—there ain’t no escapist sunshine here, folks.

“I remember… I remember,” Bourne intones at the beginning of the movie. By the end, the audience may remember, too—that there were other, not-quite-so-downer choices at the multiplex.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Moms Gone Wild

‘Bad Moms’ is a raunchy yarn about mothers who’ve had enough

Bad Moms
Starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn & Christina Applegate
Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rated R

“I feel like the worst mom in the world,” says Amy (Mila Kunis), the harried, hurried, overworked, underappreciated mother of two young teens. “Still, I love being a mom.”

That conflicted yin and yang of motherhood, so familiar to anyone who’s been there (or is there), is the comedic core of this raunchy, righteously rollicking yarn about a trio of suburban moms who decide they’ve had enough—of PTA Nazis, wussie husbands, doofus booses and just about everything else—and cut loose.

Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who contributed to the screenplays of The Hangover—about three guys on a Las Vegas party-pa-looza—and its two sequels, seem to want to show that they’re equal-opportunity humorists: They can write crude, R-rated sex jokes for women, too, even soccer moms!

The strong cast seems up for the task. Kunis is just the right shade of frazzled as Amy, whose world falls apart quickly after she catches her loutish husband (Dave Walton, who plays Sam on TV’s New Girl) in a compromising position with his internet girlfriend.

Kristen Bell is social outcast Kiki, struggling to raise three young children with her chauvinist mate and fantasizing about getting into a car crash where she can go to the hospital for some quality “me time.”

BAD MOMS

Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis and Kathryn Hahn raise a toast to ‘Bad Moms.’

But the real comedy catalyst is Kathryn Hahn, a veteran of dozens of TV and movie roles, as Carla, the trio’s sole single mom—and she’s a pistol, a brash, been-around-the-block sexual dynamo who gets most of the movie’s laugh-out-loud lines and visual gags, particularly the hilariously vulgar ones. You’ll have a hard time looking the same way again at any sweatshirt hoodie after Carla uses the pink one Kiki is wearing to demonstrate a particular point about male anatomy.

“I’m not going to wear this sweatshirt ever again,” a stunned Kiki vows.

Christina Applegate digs deep into the delicious dirty tricks of her role as Gwendolyn, the head of the school PTA, who rules everything—particularly bake sales—with an iron fist. Jada Pinkett Smith is Stacy, her feisty first lieutenant. Jay Hernandez is the school’s “hot” widower dad (who really knows how to speed-buckle a car seat). Wendell Pierce (who played Det. “Bunk” Moreland on TV’s The Wire) gets in a great line in his short scene as the principal. Wanda Sykes plays a marriage counselor who finally gets an un-coupled couple she can’t re-couple. And there’s a very special cameo by a very special hostess.

Amy (left) faces off at a PTA bake sale with her nemesis Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her lackey (Jada Pinkett Smith).

Amy (left) faces off at a bake sale with nemesis Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her lackey (Jada Pinkett Smith).

“It’s OK to be a bad mom,” a converted Amy eventually realizes, after a blitz of female empowerment, liberation, bonding and unification. Nobody’s perfect, every “bad mom” has a good side, there’s beauty in imperfection, and when moms are all in it together, it’s all good!

Stay for the credits to meet the real-life moms of the cast members. For anyone feeling a bit roughed up and raw by the R-rated humor, this gentle, parting dollop of smooth sweetness is guaranteed to leave you with a smile.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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