Films such as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Altman’s The Player and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are some of the most definitive movies in the “gritty inside Hollywood” canon; and really, the always interesting David Cronenberg’s latest work, Maps to the Stars (B-), doesn’t even belong in the same discussion with them. But as a bleak portrait of just how soulless and bizarre Tinseltown can be, it’s really quite a fascinating freakshow recommended only for those perversely fascinated with the underbelly of glamour and glitz. Julianne Moore plays washed-up actress “Havana Segrand,” whose character name alone gives you all the clues you need to know that the film will occasionally be over-the-top ridiculous. Moore plays against type and blurs every line between public life and intimacy as we see her in astonishing rawness playing a callow climber. She’s a touch point between several characters in a dysfunctional family including Mia Wasikowska as a whack-job returning to town after a mysterious absence, her child-actor turned rehab-teen brother played deliciously by Evan Bird and their dad (a miscast) John Cusack who is somewhere between psycho and therapist as a self-help guru. It’s a cautionary tale without answers and a puzzle box of an ensemble drama without an easy resolution. Shades of a less well thought out Magnolia hang over the multi-story proceedings like the story it could have been, with a pinch of Cronenberg’s own 1996 sex-in-car-wrecks drama Crash thrown into the stew, sending anyone without the patience for this type of thing running for the Hollywood hills, the exit door or the eject button. Still, despite its messiness, its baffling final act and its complete lack of mainstream appeal, it was an intriguing pulp curiosity and kept me fascinated throughout. Cronenberg invites his audiences to be the ultimate voyeurs, a notion repeated in his best work (History of Violence, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Eastern Promises, Videodrome – someone please give this guy an award already!) and even in his experiments (oddities such as Naked Lunch and eXistenZ). His Brundlefly mash-up with a Hollywood tell-all lends the film its sly signature. The movie is crude, tonally jumbled and often half-baked in comparison to his modern masterpieces, but it still plumbs magnificent depths. There’s no GPS system that will take you to where you’re gonna go here, but I liked the journey just fine.
In adapting a popular novel to film, writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland brought one thing and one thing only to the table: Julianne Moore, and her lead performance in Still Alice (C+) is head and shoulders above the material and all other performers. As a 50-year-old linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore is often downright heartbreaking. Her character first tries to out-game the disease and ultimately succumbs to it and gets monologues and speeches and rants and quiet conversations to work out her bouts with sadness and joy in the rich life she has lived. The directors can’t quite lift the material above a “disease of the week movie” feel, and they get no help from near-blowhard Alec Baldwin, whiny Kristen Stewart, vacant Hunter Parrish and frosty Kate Bosworth as Alice’s “loving family.” The air of melancholy over the proceedings is punctuated by a very limited selection of punchy moments, one of which involves a message from Alice’s past self to her future one. There are some accurate and affecting medical revelations as the film unfolds, except the occasional soft lighting that attempts to explain disorientation but somehow seems more like a character going slightly blind. There are also allusions intended to give literary context to the proceedings, but the metaphors are muddled. What’s left is a triumphant Moore, out-acting everyone else and out-emoting the material. She chews the bland scenery with aplomb. She’s nearly always amazing, and her Oscar will be a lifetime achievement award, and this film may go down as a very sincere but unremarkable public service announcement.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (B) is a highly suspenseful Australian-Canadian psychological horror film focused on Essie Davis in a terrific performance as a grieving single mom and superb child actor Noah Wiseman as her disturbed boy. When they discover a children’s book about a maniacal madman who is trying to infiltrate their home, the mother and son must summon all in their power to preserve whatever sanity is left in their domestic life. Music and sound effects augment this classic tale of home and hero possession, and it almost fully delivers on the promise of its premise. It’s creepy, deeply relatable and a great example of how time-honored horror tools and solid acting can pack a paranoid punch.
Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (A+) does everything a great movie should: intrigue, involve and inspire. The real-life dramatic and suspenseful story of recalcitrant British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch, offers a veritable sudoku of surprises and a surprising testimony to unexpected heroism. The smart screenplay is matched by sterling performances across the board, especially by Keira Knightley as a problem solving trailblazer who becomes emotionally involved with the prickly protagonist. Tyldum successfully interlaces several timeframes and historical insights into the spy games and builds to various levels of resonance both personal and profound. It’s a prestige picture in every sense of the word, plumbing the implications of both artificial and emotional intelligence, and it’s highly recommended.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (B-) plots the course of a lost, grieving young woman along a thousand mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail as she grapples in both adventures and flashbacks with the demons that haunt her and the passages of inspiration that could set her free. Reese Witherspoon gives an uncommon, relatable and lived-in performance as this drifter with a purpose and she imbues her character with a salty, off-kilter vernacular that’s like Hallmark for Heathens. Despite being a true story, it piles it on a bit thick: Our heroine even struggles with heroin. Few of the film’s episodic segments involving the struggle of the hike or the proto-feminist viewpoints about a “woman on the verge” are as moving or suspenseful or meaningful as seemingly intended, despite a feather-touch observational directorial style filled with montages of Laura Dern as a saintly but underdeveloped mother of the protagonist. Viewers will endure a bit of a slow-burn to the life lessons, yet it’s possible you might enjoy the trip.
It’s been a long journey to the movie screen for the Martin Luther King Jr. story, but writer/director Ava DuVernay’s Selma (B+) is a stunning and sometimes surprising biopic that taps into the zeitgeist of the continuing civil rights struggle. As amazing as he is in reenacting famous oratory, David Oyelowo is even more compelling in the quiet and more contemplative moments as his MLK wrestles with mortality and the consequences of his personal choices on his mass movement. Additionally, Carmen Ejogo gives a sturdy performance in a small role as Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson is effective as a duplicitous LBJ. DuVernay makes some fascinating choices in terms of timeline and sequence, including straightforward typed government descriptors of MLK’s whereabouts and activities from FBI operatives. The film also ends at an expected place. Overall triumph eclipses tragedy in some key moments, which may gloss over the state of the struggle a bit. But the smart dialogue, period detail and forward momentum to the narrative help the film to tell its story of a critical juncture in a specific place and time.
Directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have certainly stirred up a lot of controversy with The Interview (C), but it’s basically just another bro-comedy in the tradition of 21 Jump Street, although not as good. Seth Rogen and James Franco mug and try to outwit each other with vulgarities during an extended adventure to assassinate the Communist Korean leader. Cartoonish silliness ensues with little real insight into the grand stage hornet’s nest of geopolitics with which the filmmakers are provoking. Most of the humor comes from the barrage of back and forth insults between the two comic leads. It’s much ado about something not so distinctive.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (B+) is an absorbing true crime drama featuring spot-on performances by Steve Carell as a paranoid multimillionaire obsessed with being an Olympic sports coach and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as gold medalist wrestlers grappling with the limits of loyalty to their wealthy patron. A commentary on how power, wealth and influence can be used to advance twisted values, one can’t help but think of Michael Jackson or Joe Paterno scandals as Carell’s John du Pont manipulates the world around him to support his megalomaniacal desires. Miller creates an austere and often bleak portrait with nary a false note and an underlying tone that traps viewers into an off-kilter lust for power without boundaries. Carell creates a fully unsympathetic portrait, and Tatum and Ruffalo physically and emotionally inhabit their roles with deft skill. Bennett builds on the autumnal tragedy he brought to Capote and the slackjawed sensationalism of sports drama Moneyball to create another modern-American stunner.
When film industry legend John Huston made the durable 1982 adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie, he was accused of making a bit too literal and lumbering an entertainment, but fans should likely accept Huston’s creation or Rob Marshall’s 1999 TV re-do as an authoritative version. Will Gluck’s 2014 remake of Annie (C-) starring Quvenzhané Wallis is a beast of a wild card, a modern-day remix of the former Depression-era tale told to an auto-tuned pop beat with basically the same structure as past incarnations but very little of the faithfulness to legitimate song and dance craft. The model here is strictly in the High School Musical quality zone; and only because of the paucity of films in the musical genre is it worth an analysis. Writer/director Gluck, who made the amusing Easy A, isn’t without talent in terms of comedy and sentimentality, but he throws in too many zany elements from smart-home technology to convoluted subplots and too much flash and half-baked jokes when he should really be tightening a bloated story and giving some of those musical numbers a bit more buoyancy. A few mild gross-out gags and inconsistent characters distract from the moments that do actually spark. As the millionaire who takes in the plucky foster child, Jamie Foxx improves in his performance as the film rolls on, ultimately finding some soul in the role. Ditto for Cameron Diaz, whose acting at first seems from another planet: she too gets better as her boozy Miss Hannigan finds her way through the uneven film’s labyrinth. Wallis is largely charming and even gets her own new song, “Opportunity” by pop writer Sia, that adds to chestnuts such as “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life.” The lip-synching and dancing are sloppy and the pace sometimes lugubrious, but overall the positive family vibe eclipses the misfire moments. For every dreadful performance (Bobby Cannavale), there’s a good one (Rose Byrne). For every montage miss, there’s a stirring song. It’s equal parts ashtrays and art, but in a world with few joyful enterprises, perhaps this new deal for Christmas that marches to its own drummer can also pass for an adaptation of this family favorite.
Damned as the third and most inert installment of an already stretched out film adaptation of a novel barely as thick as a pamphlet, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (C-) is the uninvolving conclusion of a most perfunctory trilogy. Coming alive only in an epic dragon village battle and an inventive swordfight atop a sheet of lake ice, the film contains beautifully rendered special effects but doesn’t connect in terms of emotion or storytelling. You’re left to reflect on lingering questions: Was Martin Freeman even the least bit compelling as a protagonist? Was Lee Pace’s elf character the spitting image of Chloë Sevigny with resting bitch face? Was it a cost saving measure to introduce virtually zero new worlds or landscapes? And maybe the dwarves singing in the first installment weren’t really the series’ low point? With the biggest threat in the trilogy slayed in the prologue, what was a post-Smaug epic intended to accomplish? The film’s central fight over the treasures in the mountain is prolonged into about a hundred mini-fights that we’ve definitely seen before in this milieu. This isn’t the worst movie prequel about trade negotiations, but it may wear a lamentable crown of being altogether unnecessary. Perhaps now that he’s milked all the funds from this cash cow of diminishing curds, Jackson can dream up something different and return one day as a king of imaginative moviemaking.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick (B-) is an exercise in being single-minded of purpose and being pretty successful at it. Keanu Reeves plays the titular hitman whose loss of a loved one triggers a return into an underbelly of crime as he exacts all-out revenge. The co-directors, clearly inspired by anime and martial arts films, bring out the best in their feng shui fighter with the ultimate Reeves performance. Michael Nyqvist and Alfie Allen are delicious villains. The action sequences are solid and the mood and colors of the crime dens are lovingly lit like pages of a graphic novel. Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo are among the supporting cast, adding additional pedigree to the killing spree. It doesn’t add up to much, but it’s a good time.
The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (D+) commits the biggest sin in the movie universe: it was a bore to the planet core. Cribbing elements from Dune, Flash Gordon and others in the space opera milieu, this talky tale of an Earthling (Mila Kunis) who gets engulfed in a galactic struggle with a campy villain (Eddie Redmayne) and wrapped up in a forbidden romance with a wolf-eared servant on flying sneakers (Channing Tatum) is lumbering and uninspired.