Reviews

Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

Review: Lucy

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lucy posterIn Luc Besson's unfortunately dumb latest film, Scarlett Johansson plays a character whose brain is suddenly more powerful than anyone else's on earth. The events that unfold don't require much thinking, though; Lucy is a schlocky sci-fi that never lives up to the talent involved or the sense of anticipation it tries to establish.

The trouble starts when Lucy (Johansson), a young American going to school in Taiwan, gets caught up with an obnoxious cowboy who drags her unknowingly into a dangerous situation. With lightning speed, she's forced to act as a drug mule by a vicious crime boss (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) aiming to hook people on a new conscious-altering synthetic substance.

Things take a turn when Lucy ends up absorbing a large amount of the strange drug herself, and from there she is no longer a normal human. Increment by increment (noted by in-your-face title cards along the way), she finds herself in possession of more and more of her brain's capacity (regular people supposedly only use 10 percent of their brains, and she's hurtling towards 100 percent). With each step she becomes better able to manipulate her surroundings through telekinesis as her human qualities fall away.

Part revenge fantasy, part science puzzle and a whole lot of nonsense, Lucy never stops to take a breath as it jumps from Taiwan to Paris and picks up speed as the heroine's brain continues to evolve. Terrible one-liners and illogical plot points prevent the movie from being anything close to immersive, however, and even Johansson's confident and dedicated performance isn't enough to save the fact that this movie is a mess of cliches and artlessly violent interactions between robotic Lucy and the cartoonish bad guys.

Over-the-top nature sequences (Tree of Life minus the subtlety) are jarringly intercut with standard action scenes, and the presence of Morgan Freeman as a professor who is Lucy's only hope of explaining what's happening to her is either very cheeky or extremely lazy. His scientist character explains what's going on like he's narrating a PBS nature show, but his booming voice and calm, comforting presence end up feeling like one of a million shortcuts taken to reach a payoff that never materializes.

Review: Sex Tape

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Sex Tape poster Sex Tape, a goofy new movie from director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher), teams Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel up again. This time, they're married parents longing for the actively passionate days of their nascent romance. The film opens with narration from mommy-blogger Annie (Diaz), who laments the loss of time and energy for sex with her husband Jay (Segel).

Hoping to shake things up, Annie suggests they make a sex tape for themselves using Jay's new iPad. And thus the trouble begins.  Jay uses an app called Frankensync that  syncs media on any iPad/laptop he's owned (if you're wondering, GQ checked with AppleCare and nope, it's not possible). The whole plot hinging on this fictional tech is laugh-out-loud preposterous, so Segel and Diaz deserve some credit for making it seem even slightly plausible.

The couple tries to delete the video from any iPads they've passed on to others. Their ridiculous romp leads them to the home of their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) and to the mansion of the prospective buyer of Annie's blog (Rob Lowe, whose character is like Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation, if he did coke and loved Eazy-E).

Diaz and Segel are game for whatever the script throws them, be it equal-opportunity nudity, physical comedy or acting frazzled on cocaine. There are a few sappy minutes involving a Jack Black cameo, but until that point, Sex Tape is continuously hilarious. 

Review: Boyhood

Boyhood

It took 12 years to make Boyhood. After seeing it, it took me about 12 seconds to declare it one of the best films ever made.

That's right, gentle Slackerwood readers -- one of the best films ever made.

Read on only if you're fond of superlatives, for this review is laden with them. And Boyhood deserves every one -- it is nothing less than a monumental cinematic achievement, a movie that may redefine what is possible in the world of filmmaking. It is stunning and amazing and mesmerizing, and I could go on and on about it -- and will.

Boyhood's story isn't complicated. It follows a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family as he grows from age six to 18. Along the way, Mason experiences the wonders of youth as well as the heartbreaks, while his family tries to remain functional despite its dysfunction. Mason's life story isn't remarkable, but it's wonderfully told and deeply meaningful thanks to writer/director Richard Linklater's terrific script.

Review: Life Itself

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Life ItselfThe documentary Life Itself, currently in theaters and on VOD outlets, is a valentine to its subject -- the late Roger Ebert -- but avoids oversentimentality or blind hero-worship. Steve James deftly balances a biography of the film critic and author with a moving look at his last days.

James is a little more present as a narrator in this documentary than in his other films (Hoop Dreams, Reel Paradise), explaining the situation surrounding the most contemporary footage. He and Ebert planned an ambitious series of interviews and other location shooting, but Ebert was hospitalized and both his time and energy became more limited. James works capably with what he can get -- a few meetings in the hospital, questions emailed one at a time. Watching Ebert as he struggles to get through each day is heartbreaking.

The shots of what we know are Ebert's last days are interspersed with a generally linear biography of his life, told through archival footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, and excerpts from Ebert's 2011 autobiography, also called Life Itself. The excerpts are read by an actor who successfully catches the rhythms of Ebert's voice, which is disconcerting. Also, the movie didn't make it clear that the chapter-titled segments were book excerpts, which is slightly confusing if you didn't realize it going in.

In addition, James interviews family members -- Chaz Ebert and their grandchildren, old friends and colleagues, and a number of filmmakers who were close to Ebert. The interviews are beautifully realized, emotional and complementary to the sequences in which they appear.

This is the paragraph where I, like everyone else reviewing Life Itself, am supposed to tell you my big moving Roger Ebert story -- that one time I met him, or wrote him, or how his TV shows made me want to review movies, or how the indie films he spotlighted broadened my horizons and changed my life.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes posterEvery type of writing has its set of rules -- not as strict as a sonnet or even a haiku, but still necessary to keep content focused and readers engaged. A standard movie review is no exception. Over the years, I've amassed a strong list from writing reviews, editing other people's reviews and discussing review quality with other editors.

I think it's important to know all the rules for your particular arena of art or craft ... so you can break them when necessary. And the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is causing me to break damn near all the rules. I'll show you what I mean.

Summarize your overall opinion of the movie within the first or second paragraph.

Broke that one, but let me make it simple for you now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a disappointing, dull movie with amazing set pieces dimmed by 3D and a storyline that is sledgehammer-subtle.

A decade after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes have formed their own quite impressive colony and fallen into a regular-guy (ape) pattern of existence. Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leads the community while raising his nearly grown son, and awaiting the arrival of his newly-born son.

But humans appear seemingly out of nowhere, brandishing (and using) guns, and destroying the colony's peace. Caesar is willing to work with them, especially the leader of the team, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who has a teenage son of his own tagging along. But Scar, oops, I mean Koba (Toby Kebbell), mistrusts all humans and their weaponry. His human counterpart is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who sees the apes as merely animals and is ready to destroy them in the name of human survival. You can see the trouble brewing -- it won't take much to start a human-ape war.

In fact, the problem is that not only can you see the trouble brewing, you can see every plot point in the movie as it hurtles toward you, and you can predict most of the terribly cliched lines of dialogue.

Review: Coherence

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Coherence still photo

Schrodinger's cat is an imaginary illustration of a paradox: "When does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states and become one or the other?" Writer/director James Ward Byrkit explores this thought experiment and various results in his first feature, Coherence, which adds a new dimension to the typical dinner party film.

Coherence evolves at an intimate dinner gathering of four couples: former dancer Em (Emily Baldoni) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), former Roswell actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his introverted wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), older couple Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and Amir (Alex Manugian) who brings his new girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher).

It's quickly revealed that Laurie has an intimate history with Kevin, which leads to awkward moments, but Em is more concerned about something she's heard -- the astronomic event of a lifetime taking place that same night. Miller's Comet is due to pass near Earth, and reports of strange occurrences during previous passings are a discussion point after Em's phone inexplicably cracks.

Lone Star Cinema: The Newton Boys

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After Slacker and Dazed and Confused but before Bernie, Before Midnight and the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a charming little movie called The Newton Boys. Filmed in Texas and featuring a band of charismatic actors (most of whom have gone on to considerable success in film and/or television), this true story depicts the bank-robbing exploits of four entrepreneurial and adventure-loving brothers in the early 20th century. 

Raised in Uvalde County, Texas in a cotton farming family, the Newton brothers are an unruly bunch whose lives tell a one-of-a-kind story of American idealism and brash (but mostly non-violent) outlaw behavior. After Dock and Willis, the oldest two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Matthew McConaughey), experience various real and perceived injustices (including class-based discrimination, wrongful imprisonment and general mistreatment by authority figures), they give up on trying to live lawful lives and instead decide to take what they think should be theirs.

This means emptying banks ("it's just little thieves taking from big thieves") and lying whenever necessary but vowing never to kill anyone. Thanks to the nitroglycerin supplied by cohort Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and the endearingly slow transportation and communication systems of the 1920s, Dock and Willis (also joined by their younger brothers Jess and Joe, played by Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich) are able to become incredibly successful bank robbers, and they proceed to spend several years joyfully blowing up and clearing out dozens of safes and trains from Texas to Canada. 

Review: Earth to Echo

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Earth to EchoWhen watching a release from a first-time director, it's always difficult to know exactly what to expect. Judging by the previews, you might have expected Earth to Echo to be a sophisticated, effects-driven grand adventure on the scale of The Goonies or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. What you'll get is a charming mashup that pulls its strongest influences from classics like ET, The Goonies and The Iron Giant but never finds enough of its own identity to become more than an "echo" of those sources.

Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden, who both worked on the small screen on the series Zombie Roadkill, have assembled a talented cast of relative unknown child actors including Teo Halm (Alex), Brian Bradley (Tuck), Reese Hartwig (Munch), and Ella Wahlestedt (Emma). The most recognizable face is the adult villain Dr. Madsen played by the unlikely Jason Gray-Stanford, best known as police Lt. Randy Disher in Monk. He turns in a very paint-by-numbers performance, but sees little screen time in a story shot entirely from the kids' point of view.

While people are calling Earth to Echo a found footage film, it is set as an autobiographical documentary shot and assembled by the character Tuck. When his friend Alex discovers that any cell phone brought into the vicinity of his house starts to exhibit unusual behavior, the two join their friend Munch, an electronics expert, to investigate. This begins a nighttime adventure as the trio follows clues to discover the tiny robot alien they name "Echo" and help it repair itself.  They are joined later by their classmate and school crush, Emma as they are chased by alien hunter Dr. Madsen.

Green makes the most of a relatively low budget, with f/x used sparingly. In a refreshing departure from the found-footage mode, every shot is from a recognizable source: one of Tuck's cameras, one of the kids' mobile phones or Echo. All are edited by Tuck to tell his story. 

Review: Tammy

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The day Melissa McCarthy stops cracking me up will be a cold day in hell. She always plays her roles with gross honesty and wit, and doesn't take guff from anyone. With her latest film Tammy hitting theaters today, it's clear that McCarthy has a knack for less-than-glamorous, ball-busting female characters. That said, however, this movie could have done a lot better on all accounts.

Tammy is the directing debut of McCarthy's husband and actor Ben Falcone (Air Marshall Jon from Bridesmaids), not to mention the first screenplay McCarthy and Falcone have penned together. Although McCarthy's humor shines through (complete with a cameo by Falcone), it falls flat due to bizarre casting choices, a faulty plot line, and downright unrelatable characters.

The premise is that Tammy (McCarthy) is having a pretty crappy day, week and life. She loses her job (at which she doesn't seem to work too hard), she catches her husband in flagrante with the neighbor, and her mother won't let her borrow the family car to leave town.  Her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) comes to her aid and sets the story in motion when she suggests they go on a little road trip together to leave everything behind.

Although Tammy is loveable, she's a complainer.  It's as if Falcone and McCarthy wanted to create a more sympathetic version of Megan, her character in Bridesmaids.  The cast is full of great cameos; I was beyond thrilled to see Toni Collette, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh and many other great names in the opening credits. But most of them are onscreen for such a short amount of time, I wondered why such big names are in such little, minuscule roles. I also found myself wondering why not-even-70-year old Sarandon was playing the role of a grown woman's grandmother, when she easily could be playing McCarthy's mother (who was instead played by Allison Janney).

Although the story moves forward, it's hard to stay focused. Much like Tammy, we find ourselves lacking interest in the things she's after, including love interest Bobby (Mark Duplass). The redeeming quality of the film is the handful of funny jokes and one-liners peppered throughout the story though, sadly, most of them are in the film's trailer.

The effort is there with Tammy. McCarthy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I'll of course look forward to whatever she and her husband come up with next.  I just hope to soon see the actress in a role where she doesn't have to wear Crocs with socks and Hawaiian shirts for a change.