Reviews

Lone Star Cinema: Giant

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Giant

A poster for Giant billed the iconic Texas film as The GIANT of Them All.

The poster hardly exaggerated. Running more than three hours, starring three of Hollywood's biggest stars of the era, spanning more than two decades and set against the vastness of a cattle ranch, Giant seemed as big as Texas itself when it was released in 1956.

To the film's legions of fans and many critics, Giant is still a giant. No other film captures the mythical Texas -- if not the real one -- quite like George Stevens' epic story. Countless films have been made here, but with its swaggering view of life in the Lone Star State, Giant may be the most Texan (again, in the completely mythical sense) of all.

Based on a 1952 novel by prolific novelist and playwright Edna Ferber, Giant is the story of the Benedict family, owners of a 595,000-acre West Texas cattle ranch. The film opens in the early 1920s, when Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels to Maryland to buy a prized stud horse. He meets the horse owner's daughter, socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), and the two marry after a whirlwind romance.

Review: Mood Indigo

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Mood Indigo posterIf one can expect anything from Michel Gondry, it is that along with the whimsy and touch of the bizarre inherent in his work is an element of truth.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses erasure imagery to illustrate the pain of heartbreak. Be Kind Rewind has friendly video store employees creating their own versions of Hollywood hits for their neighborhood.  Gondry's latest film, love story Mood Indigo, however, is utterly drowning in whimsy and lacking any figment of truth.

Debonair and bearded Romain Duris (Populaire, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) stars as Colin, living off family money in a spacious Paris apartment. Audrey Tautou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) plays cute Chloe, whom Colin meets at a party. The plot goes something like this: guy meets girl, guy and girl fall in love and marry, flower grows in girl's lung.

There's also a B-plot, involving a friend (Gad Elmaleh, Priceless, Midnight in Paris) Colin loans money to court a woman (Aïssa Maïga, Cache, Bamako), which is just as confusing as the rest of the film. The fever dream of a movie is full of fantastic visions, but the story is ridiculous beyond measure. Is fate written out for us by a room full of random people on vintage typewriters? And if so, who cares?

Unpredictabilities may rule Mood Indigo, but the film still follows the overly-familiar classic "movie cough" rule. It used to be that any time someone in a movie coughed, they were terminally ill -- after all, nobody has allergies in the movies. And indeed, as soon as Chloe adorably coughs post-honeymoon, things start going downhill for the couple. 

Review: The Giver

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The GiverReleased in 1993, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner The Giver by Lois Lowry has been one of the most controversial and influential novels of the 1990s. Banned from schools across the nation for being "violent" or "unsuited for younger age groups," this dystopic tale centers around Jonas, a young boy who lives in a literally colorless world of contentment.

Screenwriters Robert B. Weide and Michael Mitnick have adapted this book in the sci-fi thriller film The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt, The Patriot Games).

In what at first appears to be an utopian society of "Sameness" with absence of pain and suffering, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) seems content with his friends and family. He lives with his parents, the dutiful nurturer Father (Alexander Skarsgard) and his more stern and unyielding Mother (Katie Holmes). His classmates Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are frequent companions, and prepare to receive their life assignment as even choices have been eliminated in this seemingly perfect society.

Jonas receives the most prestigious and ominous assignment of all -- as the Receiver of Memory, he must learn and keep the dark history of the Community to guide the Elders and prevent the tragic mistakes of the past. However, as he begans to learn from the current Receiver who is now referred to as "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges), he discovers the dark history behind his community that has led to the absence of joy, pleasure, and color from their lives as well.

Jonas is faced with the difficult choice of accepting the role that he has been given, or do what he can with the aid of others to bring the Community back to the "real" world. Either way he must deal with the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who is fearful and distrusting of human nature in his journey.

Review: Calvary

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Calvary

The Catholic Church's seemingly endless scandals have been fodder for many great films, from the searing documentary Deliver Us from Evil to the star-studded critical darling Doubt to last year's sleeper indie hit Philomena.

The latest movie to address the church's sex scandals, the Irish drama Calvary, is one of the darkest. Equal parts whodunit (actually, who will do it), character study and meditation on faith, Calvary is a thoughtful film with a cold, grim heart.

Calvary's protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is a marked man from the film's opening scene. During a confession, a bitter parishioner vows to kill Father James as retribution for being raped by another priest decades earlier.  The parishioner doesn't accuse Father James of any wrongdoing; in fact, he singles him out for his innocence. "There's no point in killing a bad priest," says the anonymous voice in the confessional booth, "but killing a good one -- that would be a shock."

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Poster for The Hundred-Foot JourneyNew release The Hundred-Foot Journey is a beautifully-shot drama produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who likely hope it will prove a hit along the lines of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Formidable British actress Helen Mirren gets top billing as strict French restauranteur Madame Mallory. Her establishment has a Michelin star and brings in big name political figures. However, Madame Mallory's work and life isn't the main focus of this colorful film from Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), adapted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) from a novel by Richard C. Morais. 

A family of refugees, the Kadams from Mumbai, moves into the vacated building across the street from Madam Mallory's restaurant. Papa (veteran Indian actor Om Puri, Gandhi) wants to open an Indian restaurant in this quiet French village, with the help of son and aspiring chef Hassan (Manish Dayal, 90210, Switched at Birth) and other adult children (Amit Shah and Farzana Dua Elahe). Even the two much younger siblings help out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is really Hassan's story. The film opens to his narration, and lots of exposition. As soon as cute Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, Yves Saint Laurent, Mood Indigo) comes on the scene -- she's sous chef for Madame's kitchen, of course -- it is a given that she's the love interest for Hassan's character. The film deserves some credit for following the success of a character of color, but his plotline drags during the second half; this causes the movie to feel longer than its actual two-hour length.

Review: Get on Up

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Get On UpThe average music biopic has become so riddled with cliches in recent years that the entire genre was spoofed in a parody (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) that managed to be spot-on and over the top at the same time. In Get on Up, director Tate Taylor, coming off his successful big-screen adaptation of The Help, brings together a gifted cast and crew to tell the story of "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business," but it falls into many of the traps that made the biopic format so easy to mock in the first place.

James Brown's life began in 1933 while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Get On Up doesn't start with his birth, but rather opts to open with a bizarre incident in the late 1980s with him running around his office in a green velour tracksuit brandishing a shotgun to determine who had just used his bathroom. Brown is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (who also took on the role of the legendary Jackie Robinson in last year's 42) and his dedication is clearly evident, especially during the recreation of the live concert sequences. In one of the film's many odd creative decisions, he frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and explain his motivations. 

As we weave in and out of over 50 years of history in the making, the curious structure and tone of Get on Up become increasingly problematic. One moment we are running in the woods with Brown as a child playing with his mother and shortly after we're on a flight to Vietnam that is being shot at with his entire band on board preparing to land for a USO concert in 1968. We catch glimpses of Brown's difficult childhood and how he eventually ends up being raised in a whorehouse by his aunt (Octavia Spencer), but these moments only serve to feed more into the myth of James Brown instead of shining a light on the man he became. 

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the GalaxyWith its post-credits teasers for The Avengers after each superhero movie, Marvel generated excitement and buzz. After seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I'm convinced that this movie, and not The Avengers, is the ultimate end product that all those scenes were teasing. Written by James Gunn (Super, Slither) and Nicole Perlman, and directed by Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera like nothing that's hit screens since Flash Gordon in 1980.

Based on a relatively new addition to the Marvel Comics universe, Guardians of the Galaxy fully realizes the possibilities of a comic book brought to life with phenomenal visuals and a script full of unexpected surprises and laughs. Readers of the series will notice some departures from a strict retelling, including a couple of absent members of the group (who will likely turn up in a sequel), but this is far and away the most colorful, flashy and entertaining release the studio has brought us yet.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars newly-buffed Parks & Rec star Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka "Star-Lord," the wisecracking leader of the group -- an unlikely misfit of a superhero with more charisma than Tony Stark. His work as a sort of outer-space Indiana Jones soon lands him in trouble with very dangerous people, and the only way through his predicament is to save the galaxy. He is joined on his quest by the lovely green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and muscle-bound alien Drax (Dave Bautista).  

It is the last two members of the group, however -- Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bodyguard/companion Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- who will provide the best merchandising fodder. While Quill is something of a Luke Skywalker type, young and full of unrealized potential, Rocket and Groot are clear analogues for Han Solo and Chewbacca with a little of R2-D2 and C3PO thrown in the mix. They provide most of the comedic relief to the epic dark galactic struggle in which the story is immersed.

A strong contender for my favorite movie this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy features a feel-good soundtrack of 1970s hits and art direction that seems inspired by visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I can't say enough great things about this movie, and I can't wait to get to a theater to see it again.

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.