Saturday, March 28, 2015

Danny Collins on Pacino, Lennon, lost letters

Writer Dan Fogelman, known largely for his Disney scripts — including Tangled, the Cars franchise and Bolt — was tucked in a back corner of the Phoenix Film Festival premiere party. No one recognized him. The luxury of being a screenwriter. 

He’s in Phoenix not just for his screenwriting, though: he’s directed his first film, Danny Collins, from a script he wrote, and the film kicked off the annual festival. I caught up with him to chat about the film just 30 minutes before Danny Collins’ Phoenix premiere. 

Terminal Volume: Tell me about the film. I know a little about it, but I’d love to hear how you describe it.

Dan Fogelman: It’s a redemption story. It’s based on real story about a guy named Steve Tilston. I came across his story on the Internet. He had done an interview as an 18-, 19-year-old guy where he said he was worried about what fame and fortune might do to his music, and if he became famous what it might do to is art and how it might corrupt it. Cut to 40 years later, and he’s in his 60s and he gets a knock on the door and someone telling him that John Lennon had read that interview and he had written him a letter that he had never heard of until that moment. The letter was advising him, cautioning him and gave guidance, and then had John Lennon’s home phone number. Steve didn’t get this letter until his 60s, long after Lennon was killed. And that was the inspiration for this redemption story. 

TV: How did the letter get lost?

DF: It’s a complicated thing, and we took some liberties with this part of the movie, but the letter was sent to the musician in care of the magazine. It’s not that the letter was stolen, but that it was just rerouted the wrong way. It didn’t come back around until many decades later.

TVAmazing cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner and Bobby Cannavale. Had any of them met Lennon?

DF: Pacino had met him a couple of times. Once or twice. He’s been telling stories lately about walking the streets of New York City and running into Lennon. He knows Yoko a little. Al only really knew him tangentially. At the premiere, I heard that Yoko had left a letter for Al . I don’t know what it said, though. One can only imagine. I’m not sure if Christopher Plummer had — I’m going to his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony tomorrow morning in LA. 

TVIf Yoko did write a letter, someone should lose it for 30 years or so and then give it him. 

DF: Exactly. There’s a line in the movie where Annette Bening asks how that letter makes him feel, and he says, “You know what I think, I wish he would have sent that to my house so I wouldn’t have lived a bullshit life for 40 years.” That’s basically the story of the film.

TVBobby Cannavale is great in everything he’s in.

DF: The film is a gentle, sweet and sentimental — hopefully not tipping over into sentimentality — but the film makes people feel good. And Bobby is perfect in the film. I’m a very harsh critic of my own stuff, and I've watched this movie more than any human being should be forced to watch a movie, but every time Bobby is on the screen he’s perfect. He’s an exceptional actor, but also a very normal guy. For whatever reason, maybe because of his theater works, it’s taken people a long time to find him. But that has made him very balanced. I think he’s on the edge of some very incredible things.

TVI interviewed him for Station Agent early in his career, and he was amazing. I’m glad he’s in more things these days.

DF: Bobby says what he thinks. We package ourselves in this day and age. He doesn’t package himself. He’s a real guy. He’s happiest on the stage, and he’s good at it. He doesn’t really care about all this stuff, yet he’s a TV star, theater star and film star.

TVSpeaking of the cast, Al Pacino seems to only get better with age. He could easily slip into parody at this point, but he can still get lost in performances. 

DF: It’s great to hear you say that, because a lot of people like to talk about the big over-the-top performances, but it’s not fair at all to him. Look at his body of work over the last 10 years. While there hasn’t necessarily been a blockbuster film, he’s still done incredible work on Broadway, on HBO, in films. He’s not a guy trying to make the almighty buck. He’s an actor and he’s 75 years old and he’s acting his ass off. It was amazing to work with him. I’ve been five years with Al, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

TVThat sounds like a great title for a movie: Five Years With Al.

DF: He’s nuts in the all the ways you want him to be nuts. And he’s a great guy. He’s great here as Danny Collins

TVHow was it directing your first film?

DF: It is different, and more responsibility. When you write a script, it could be best movie in the world or a real piece of shit. At some point the film leaves my hands and it goes to someone else. But when you’re the director it’s your job to make that script into the film. On this particular film, and I say this genuinely, any fault of the movie is my own. I’m very proud of the film. I got to make the movie I wanted to make as a director and a screenwriter. There other directors who would have made a worse film, or better film, or even just a different film, but I felt like I wanted to tell this story the way I wanted to tell it and I got that opportunity.

TVAnd now you’re here in Arizona opening it. 

DF: My fiancee went to Arizona State University, and I’ve traveled through Arizona many times. We opened the film last week in New York and Los Angeles, and then it rolls out much wider in a couple more weeks. But it’s exciting to be showing the film now because people don’t know the film. They’re walking into something they largely haven’t heard of. I’ve worked on lots of movies, and I know when I’m working on a bad one, and I genuinely think this is a good one, and it’s exciting to be in a room with 300 or 400 people who have no clue what’s going to happen. This film is a commercial and populist film and an accessible film that I know this room of people are going to love. When people don’t know anything about a movie the movie can really sweep them away.

TVI have a niece, I imagine everyone does, who would go crazy if they knew I was interview someone who had anything to do with Tangled. Does it surprise you that movies still have the power to transcend everything that came before them?

DF: Yeah, it’s always a little surreal to see films take off the way they do. My friends [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] directed Crazy Stupid Love and I wrote it. We knew as we finished it that people would attach to it in a different way. I felt that way when I saw Tangled for the first time. There are certain ones. You make movies every year or so when you do what I do, but you can just feel it when they lock in a certain way. Tangled locks in for little girls and families. Cars did the same thing. And Crazy Stupid Love. And I think Danny Collins will too for a certain audience.

Blah blah Candor blah Dauntless blah Divergent

If you ever find yourself at a hotel at the same time as a tax seminar for accountants, pop your head into a conference room and listen to the table banter, and then marvel: “This would make a great movie!”

The writers of The Divergent Series had a similar “eureka!” moment when they waded through the murky melodrama of Veronica Roth’s young adult novels, about teens obsessing over dialogue so inane that nearly every word is meaningless without some kind of long-lost decoder ring. “Dauntless is conspiring with Abnegation. Erudite and Candor are helpless. Not even Amity can do anything.” “We need a full-blooded Divergent to open the box.” “The Factionless are in the war with us against Abnegation.” You could find more interesting dialogue in a parts manual for a 1998 Tercel.

We descend further down the rabbit hole of mindless plot points with Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s ambitiously wrecked Divergent. Recall from the first movie, a dystopian future world is broken down into five factions: Erudite, Amity, Dauntless, Abnegation and Candor. There is no reason for the factions, except the big reason: teens like reading about characters being separated into groups. It’s why there is a Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, districts in the Hunger Games, tiers of professions in last year’s stupendous Giver, and all the pouty-faced beast races in Twilight

Amid the five factions are the occasional Divergent, a person whose very soul can’t be classified into any faction. Villain Jeanine (Kate Winslet) can’t stand Divergents — something about how band geeks just aren’t allowed to sit at the lunch table with cheerleaders and football players — so she wages a violent war against the factions that shelter them. The star Divergent is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who’s the Neo of this absurdly designed Matrix.

Tris runs around with a Lost Boys-like gang of other Divergents and faction turncoats — including two ex-boyfriends: Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars, and Miles Teller from The Spectacular Now — without a coherent plan except to kill Jeanine, who believes in the faction system so tremendously that there is nothing the film can do to justify her passionate devotion. 

Yeesh, this movie! It just goes nowhere and does nothing. So much time and energy is spent convincing us that these factions are important, or not important at all, that the charade can’t sustain itself for a whole movie. We visit the Amish hippies of Amity, who are so cheerful you want to sock them. Later, Tris and company board a train full of Factionless, who are proto-punk hooligans with bad haircuts. In one particularly awful segment, Tris and her current boyfriend Four (Theo James) are captured by Candor, whose motto is apparently “Truthiness Forever.” Candor bigwigs inject them with a truth serum, which reveals at least one truth: even with all barriers removed from their thoughts, these are boring people.

The biggest problem is that everyone’s motivations are absolutely confounding. It feels like the film is marching toward an abolishment of the factions, but why and for what purpose? Most people in factions seem to like their factions, so what reason would they have to join Tris and fight the oppressive system? And Jeanine only wants martial law, which is movie code for “I’ll do whatever I want,” an act that will allow her to preserve the faction system for no other reason than “just because.”

The film does end on a high note, with Tris confronting five simulated challenges within a mysterious box found in the rubble of her parents’ home. The box promises to hold secrets that are important to the plot, and it lives up to those promises. If only this box would have played a more significant role earlier in the film.

Although the movie looks great — some of the special effects, especially in the mystery box, are awesome — and has a talented cast, Insurgent can never break out of its broken premise, to which every character, every plot point and every syllable of atrocious dialogue bows in idolatrous worship.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Boxing's soap opera gets a fitting conclusion

Bert Marcus’ boxing documentary Champs has a broad vision of the history of boxing and its cultural presence, but then, like many discussions about boxing, becomes laser-focused on two people and the one event that shaped the sport’s last golden era.

The boxers are, of course, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, and the event is, of course, that one time Iron Mike chomped on Holyfield’s ear. It’s funny how that one nibble is ground zero for so much of boxing’s modern relevance. It just steamrolls everything else in its path; even Muhammad Ali is a footnote. 

This isn’t a criticism of this beautifully shot and carefully written documentary, just an observation of Champs’ meandering from grand history to petty soap opera. What’s even more curious, and this is criticism, is how the film tells the story of a third character, reformed prison boxer Bernard Hopkins, but largely neglects him in favor of the more famous fighters. I found myself wanting to watch an entire movie just on Hopkins, without all of Champs’ rehashing of the Tyson/Holyfield drama. 

The doc begins with an array of talking heads — Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Ron Howard and many others — praising boxing’s philosophical implications: man-versus-man, man-versus-self, a refuge for poor inner-city kids, “an escape from violence through violence,” … on and on with an array of metaphors. They say it’s a perfect sport, which is what the talking heads always say in these kinds of sports documentaries. 

We eventually meet Bernard, who falls in with the wrong people and ends up in prison. He takes up boxing behind bars and before long he’s the best fighter at a string of prisons. Later, after he gets out, he goes on a stunning winning streak and then devotes the rest of his career to responsibly promoting young boxers. These chapters of his life are carved up into the larger narrative of the Tyson and Holyfield fights throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 

Even people who know nothing of boxing know of Tyson and Holyfield. These are old stories, but they are given refreshingly new life in Marcus’ film. Both men are interviewed extensively, and both appear to be wiser than they once were. Tyson, a convicted rapist, even cries, in a scene that is genuinely heartbreaking. Holyfield is much more likable, especially when the film covers his 1984 Olympic controversy, in which a woefully misguided referee disqualifies him as he clobbers his way to gold. He eventually won the bronze, although everyone acknowledges Holyfield as the gold medalist. 

And then there’s the chomp heard ‘round the world. I remember this 1997 fight. I was in high school at the time, and it was endlessly debated who was the stronger fighter, a debate that is still being waged today by many boxing fans. Holyfield would later forgive Tyson, an act that director Spike Lee is still surprised by: “A piece of his ear is gone forever,” he says. 

The stories of Tyson and Holyfield always felt interrupted as they were happening so many years ago. Now that both men are older, and are at peace over their roles in each other’s lives, their respective stories have some closure. And looking at the whole thing from beginning to end, you realize how Dickensian it all is: poor kids rising up amid the struggle of sport and personality, fighting with themselves more than each other, confronting their bad decisions, owning their mistakes and pushing forward past fame. Both men are shown in their prime, in sprawling mansions with Rolls Royces, white tigers and swimming pools as big as lakes. Today they live modest lives in the suburbs with pickup trucks and Ikea furniture. 

Champs has a number of dead-end ideas, including segments about the prevalence of black fighters coming from inner-city ghettos, the role of concussions and repeated brain trauma, the need for federal regulation, the role of money and power. These are interesting ideas with no conclusions. Before the film can say anything relevant about these issues it drops them and switches topics. 

The photography, though, is wonderful. Subtle re-enactments, slow-mo footage of training sessions, examinations of boxing neighborhoods, and lots of historical footage fill the air between the interviewers. 

One scene really stuck out for me: Tyson, in the throes of despair, finally realizes how little and insignificant he is. “The world is bigger than me,” he says, which should be the mantra for every fighter.

Film noir will never die

Film noir is classic moviemaking, because when you talk about film noir you’re not talking about a setting, like the desert in a western, or genre pictures, like sword-and-sandal epics or science fiction. What you’re actually talking about are the nuts and bolts of moviemaking: the rhythm of the dialogue, the tightness or looseness of the editing, the placement of the camera, the visual composition of light and shadow. This is why noir transcends genre, and why it could, and has been, a science fiction, a western, a crime thriller or a romantic drama. It can be anything it wants.

In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are 10 of my favorite noir pictures from the golden age of noir in the 1940s right on through to today. You’ll notice by my choices that I like my noir a little pulpier than you might be used to. I’m also excluding one of my favorite noirs, which I will be adding to an upcoming list of my all-time favorite movies. 

Double Indemnity — Insurance salesman Walter Neff has killed a man, staged his death and is now planning on running away with the man’s girl. But as he walks home, he’s startled by his ears: “I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” With Raymond Chandler’s brutal dialogue, Billy Wilder’s pinpoint-precision directing, and the white-hot chemistry of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity embodies all that was great about noir in the 1940s.

L.A. Confidential — Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is a compendium of noir themes transplanted back into their 1940s source material. It’s a modern film, but other than color and modern actors — and breasts and violence — it looks, acts and sounds vintage. Told from varying viewpoints from within the Los Angeles Police Department, the film gave us Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce (who would later do another modern noir, Memento) and returned to us Kim Basinger as the sexiest screen siren since Rita Hayworth did that hair flip in Gilda. The plot can be hard to follow, but dig in deep and it’s rewarding beyond measure.

Detour — Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 low-budget Detour is down and dirty noir of the most basic order. It has a loser hero, a femme fatale, schemes with money and false identity, a convenient murder, crimes of circumstance … it borrows from all the classic building blocks of the noir catalog. Tethered, quite literally, to the plot — about a hitchhiker who assumes a dead bookie’s identity — is a murder so shocking that it still startles even after all these years. 

The Killers — Famously based on an Ernest Hemingway story, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 noir staple begins like many noirs, at the end. Two hired thugs turn up to murder a former boxer (Burt Lancaster), who is tipped off to his impending doom, but refuses to flee. After he’s killed, others begin tracing his tragic trajectory backward, revealing crime, deception, and, you guessed it, a woman. The film was remade in 1964 by Don Siegel with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, and John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role. They switched boxing to race car driving, but the general premise is the same. The first film is the better version, although both are great.

Body Heat — Lawrence Kasden’s steamy 1981 thriller Body Heat is an accessible entry point into a long legacy of noir classics that rely on gullible men and seductive women. The man here is William Hurt, playing a greasy lawyer, and the woman is Kathleen Turner, the trophy wife to a rich executive. They conspire to kill her husband, but then everything falls apart, like Walter Neff before them. The lighting is gorgeous, the sex scenes are legitimately sexy, and the Turner’s hroaty purr is just perfect for this material.

Out of the Past — One of the all-time classic noirs, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past stars two of the great, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, in a flashback-heavy crime thriller involving hush money, tax records, love triangles and cold-blooded murder. Visually, the film is luscious, with these beautiful black and white compositions, many of them with curly tendrils of cigarette smoke snaking their way through the inky blacks. If there was ever a film where the shadows could come alive and strangle the actors, this is it. 

Touch of Evil — When people talk about Touch of Evil, they often talk about the brilliant three-minute-plus tracking shot that opens the movie. It’s a masterpiece as far as long takes go, but so many discussions end there, long before the heart of this gorgeous film has been unearthed. Of course, the film is also steeped in lore, with director Orson Welles fighting, and losing — and then many year after his death, winning — for final cut of the film. Today, with Welles’ cut, the film is noir legend, from its shadowy interiors and brazen dialogue to its cynical worldview and devastating conclusion. 

Brick — Rian Johnson’s 2005 hard-boiled detective thriller takes place in a high school with teenagers. When one character talks about getting suspended from school, it’s given the same weight as Sam Spade losing his detective license — the film winks at you, but also expects you to buy into its rarely subtle interpretation of noir. And it all works brilliantly. As soon as you surrender to the setting and the characters, the noir elements take over, creating a convoluted web of crime, innuendo, deception and even murder, some of the many grown-up acts these teens undertake to prove a larger point about the genre and its long reach.

Basic Instinct — Yes, yes, Sharon Stone doesn’t wear panties. That’s what people remember about the film, but never that Stone was modernizing the femme fatale in big sweeping brushstrokes. Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller is a monument to the character, whose roots can be traced back to the very beginning of noir. Also, Michael Douglas is great, playing a cop who is blinded by his lust. 


Chinatown — Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown was one of the early throwbacks to the classics, and it was a terrific success because it understood the characters, their roles in larger plots and the sense of dread that hangs over noir plots. These films don’t have happy endings. They don’t skip off into the sunset. Noir means black, and things have to end in the darkness, which is what Chinatown is. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Modern westerns expand cowboy traditions

No genre is more ubiquitous to Hollywood than the western. Some of the very first films were about cowboys, horses and gunfights. The genre is so old that when the first westerns were being made there were certain parts of the country that were only partially removed from the Old West. Westerns were to audiences then what ’90s movies are to us now — fading, but still very clear memories. 

Yet, every year there is renewed interest in the western. It’s not a ton of interest, not like other genres, but enough that we’re reminded that the western will never die, even though the original stars — Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, Harry Carey — have been replaced by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, themselves replaced by others. 

In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are my favorite westerns of the new millennium. I’m cutting it off at 2000, because before that is filled with all the classics that would clog my list. And because you already know about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch and, my personal favorite, Once Upon a Time in the West. By removing those and sticking to modern films, we can draw attention to the films that are carrying on the great western traditions. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Andrew Dominik’s gorgeous ode to the west’s greatest outlaw is unlike any western that came before it. Rapturously narrated, photographed in poetic stanzas, and with acting that is devastatingly pure, Jesse James established the myth of the man and then shattered it, only to mythologize once again in its closing heartbreaking chapters. 

The Proposition
John Hillcoat’s Australian outlaw flick was a stark wake-up about the violent implications of the cowboy way. The bad guys here are very very bad; even the good guys are just varying shades of dark gray. About a lawman who gives a man an ultimatum — bring me your terrible brother or your less-terrible brother will hang — The Proposition is relentless in its pursuit of overturning the western stereotypes.

Open Range
Kevin Costner is the butt of a lot of jokes, but he has a sensitive eye to the Old West and its historical relevance. In Open Range he focuses on several cowpunchers and their desperate fight with a town’s heavy-handed leader. The film is notable for its realism, with gunfights taking place in agonizing realtime, townspeople who don’t vanish at high noon and relationships that don’t just take place behind swinging saloon doors. Dances With Wolves might be masterpiece, but Open Range is Costner’s smaller study of the west. 

Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s sumptuously slow Meek’s Cutoff would never get made in another age. It plods along in plain skirts, bonnets, covered wagons and so little exposition that it’s downright vague. But the film captures a rarely seen aspect of the west: tedious travel and crippling boredom. Strip the action out of a western and you have a film that is meditative and a little terrifying in its stillness. 

The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman picks up almost in the middle of Meek’s Cutoff, with Hilary Swank escorting three insane women across the frontier, where they will be cared for by what can only be described as “someone else.” The film rattles along at a fair clip, stopping for various episodes in the wild, but then it becomes something so much more when Swank’s homely cowgirl decides she’s had enough. These later passages are so powerful and tragic that they solidify Jones’ name among the western greats. 

Brokeback Mountain
Forever known as the gay cowboy movie, people often forget that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a loud declaration of the western’s right to be anything it wanted, without all the white hat/black hat cliché. The film made homesexuality, cowboys, stereotypes of the Old West, hate crimes, family values … all of it relevant in a modern context. Step aside from the cultural response to Brokeback Mountain and peer into this film’s open heart and you’ll see that had a lot to say, all of it eloquent. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird
This and maybe Sukiyaki Western Django are noteworthy examples of the western being appropriated and tweaked by other countries and cultures. Cowboys are a universal idea, an archetype of brazen fearlessness and machoness. We called them cowboys, but in other cultures they were called samurai. Here in The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, they crash the two together in a fiery mess of stylized gunfights, stunts and special effects. 

Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s bloody western acknowledged something very rare in westerns: slavery. Part revenge tale, part rescue mission, but thoroughly a Tarantino picture, Django turned two men — one white and one black — loose to fight their way through the Antebellum South. By recognizing and commenting on America’s terrible shame the film committed itself to western history. 

True Grit
I’m still a big fan of the original True Grit, but what the Coen Brothers did with their rascally remake is notable for a variety of reasons, and language is one of the big ones. Never before have we heard cowboys talk like they do here, with made-up words, stammering syntax, mumbled gibberish and tobacco drippings. Jeff Bridges is great as Rooster Cogburn, but the real star here is the authentic-sounding dialogue. 

Appaloosa
Ed Harris’ forgotten cowboy flick does not break tons of new ground for the western genre, which is why I like the movie so much — it’s more of a callback to the way these movies used to be. Lawmen with big guns, cattle barons, outlaws, shootouts, main street confrontations … innovation in the genre can only go so far before it must reach back into the past and borrow from what already works. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

Forgotten classics from great directors

The great directors became great not by sitting around plucking the occasional movie from each decade, but by relentlessly pursuing projects at every opportunity. They worked so hard and so fast that today the libraries of their films are vast with forgotten corners and dusty shelves. In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival's Your Favorite Movie theme, here is a small selection of my favorite forgotten works by major directors working today. 

Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg
Sandwiched between The Color Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is Spielberg’s beautifully terrifying war journal Empire of the Sun, featuring a young Christian Bale as a British boy caught up in the events of World War II in Japanese-occupied China. The film, treasured in certain circles and frowned upon in others, is widely forgotten today, even as a stepping stone for the young Bale, who would go on to become a superstar. I was reminded of this film last year during Angelina Jolie’s similar, but altogether hollow, Unbroken, about another figure caught in the madness of war. Spielberg, of course, has produced some masterful and timeless images for the screen, but look at any highlight reel of his work and it’s all Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, E.T. and Jurassic Park. Yet, here in Empire — which is based on a book by one of the great writers of the 20th century, J.G. Ballard — he continuously one-ups himself with marvelously poetic imagery: a boy riding his bike in a country house, playtime in a derelict fighter plane, showers of sparks on a runway, fields of stolen antiques … it has a continuously magical series of shots. And yet, it’s forgotten, right alongside another Spielberg misfire worth revisiting, 1941. Both films are Spielberg B-sides, but they’re terrific.

After Hours, Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has a fascination with men adrift in secret worlds that are invisible to the naked eye: gangsters in Goodfellas and Casino, paramedics in Bringing Out the Dead, bankers in Wolf of Wall Street. In his After Hours, his 1985 surrealist comedy, the lights go out in New York City and it becomes an absurd fantasy, where keys, art and angry mobs (but never actual money) are the currency of the film’s hapless protagonist, played by Griffin Dunne. The film bounces from one awful misadventure to the next, until you realize it has ended exactly where begun. Scorsese is frequently cited for his violence and scoundrel leading men, but it should also be noted he has a wicked sense of humor.

Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola
Years after making the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and the The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola made two movies based on S.E. Hinton books. The first, The Outsiders, was widely seen and appreciated, but the second, Rumble Fish, filmed the same year as The Outsiders, slipped into the cracks of Coppola’s long career. Some of this might have to do with the experimental nature of the film: its odd pace and composition, the jazzy bohemian soundtrack, or its high-contrast black and white presentation. But the unique style of Rumble Fish, coupled with the impressive performances of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke — playing characters named Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy — stands as a hallmark to Coppola’s power as a director. 

A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood
Coming on the heels of Unforgiven, A Perfect World did not make the splash that it was probably intended to make. The movie, about an escaped convict who kidnaps a young boy in 1960s Texas, was a moderate moneymaker and was warmly received by critics, but would be quietly forgotten when presented next to Eastwood’s later works, especially during his directing spree starting in 1997 and barely slowing down since then. The film is notable for its delicately written script (by Disney hired gun John Lee Hancock), the combination of Kevin Costner’s convict and T.J. Lowther’s malleable young boy, and the careful way in which Eastwood filmed their joint escapades across Texas. It’s still, to this day, one of his finest films.

Matchstick Men, Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott is one of the hardest working directors in Hollywood, not because he makes more films, but because he makes more big films — his projects are almost always labor intensive, besieged by extras and special effects, and have long runtimes. James Cameron makes big movies, too, but not at Scott’s pace. It was surprising then to see Matchstick Men, a low-key long con movie about a father and a daughter. First of all, I love long con movies, and this one is just spectacular. Nicholas Cage is an OCD grifter, Sam Rockwell plays a sleazy partner, Bruce McGill plays the gullible mark, and Allison Lohman is the long-lost daughter there to gum up the works. The film’s beauty is that after the con drops, the mark — the true mark — actually got what he wanted, which is something I wasn’t expecting.

The Limey, Steven Soderbergh
Between Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, Steven Soderbergh made The Limey, a crime thriller in the vein of an Elmore Leonard story. The movie is a revenge tale involving a very snappy Brit flying to the Unites States to find out about his dead daughter. He runs into characters played by Peter Fonda, Luis Guzman and Bill Duke, and is generally a cool customer as he murders his way through a criminal empire. The film works because of its star, Terence Stamp, who is simply electric as the fast-talking father with a grudge. It also works because it’s simple. Soderbergh doesn’t drown his material in style and substance. He just tells a story, as quickly and effectively as he knows how.

Salvador, Oliver Stone
Before Oliver Stone would go on to fame with Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July, he made Salvador in 1986, the same year he also made Platoon. The film follows a war photographer, whose desire for blood and carnage takes a turn on him during political unrest in Salvador. The frantic imagery, violence, the characters’ use of language … these are all trademarks that we will see in later Stone pictures. it also helped that James Woods, playing the photographer character, was at his most James Woodsian, bouncing off the walls in all his glory.

eXistenZ, David Cronenberg
This gritty science fiction fantasy likely suffered from stiff competition at theaters in the weeks surrounding its release, namely with a little film called The Matrix. But I maintain here that Cronenberg’s eXistenz is, in many ways, a better film about “jacking in” or “booting up” into a false reality. The film is punctuated with noir-inspired flourishes of mystery, some of them involving skin-draped joysticks that are clearly modeled after the sex organs of some interplanetary species. Also interesting are the almost robotic performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law. The film ends on an Inception-like top twirl that calls into question everything we’ve already seen, a trait of almost all of Cronenberg’s films.

Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow
Here’s another film that was upstaged by The Matrix, but is largely forgotten: Kathryn Bigelow’s terrific Strange Days, about a black market dealer in SQUID clips, a sensory recording made by jacking right into the human brain. Ralph Fiennes is the dealer, and he’s joined later by Angela Bassett, Tim Sizemore and a very naked Juliette Lewis (singing her own songs). The action thriller works because Bigelow takes the world she creates as seriously as the characters do. The science fiction is out there and weird, but within the scope of plausibility, and the characters react to it in ways that are believable. The film also uses these crazy first-person perspectives, which would be an overindulgence in another movie, but here they make complete sense.

Last Action Hero, John McTiernan
Bear with me on this one. Last Action Hero was a disaster when it was released in 1993, but I think the film was way ahead of its time for action movies and director John McTiernan, the director of action royalty Die Hard. It takes place in a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger, the real Arnold, plays a character named Jack Slater in a series of action thrillers. These films are watched by a young fanboy, who is eventually transported into the films, where film logic applies to everything from bullet physics and police station lobbies to car chases and the movie cliche of the Talking Villain. Later, the film escapes from the screen and enters Arnold’s real world. Charles Dance is in there with a false eye, Tom Noonan is an axe-murderer, Ian McKellen plays Death from The Seventh Seal. It’s all rather bonkers, but the movie was meta, before meta was really even a pop concept. It acknowledges the action cliches and tropes in a way that has never been done before or since. The movie has its flaws (eek — that kid!), but it spoke to entire generation of action films and it was laughed out of the room for it. By the way, McTiernan, who has been largely absent from filmmaking due to some legal troubles, needs to stage a comeback.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teen and wolves collide in Druid Peak

Wherever Jack London is he is smiling down on Druid Peak, a coming-of-age story about wolves and the rehab center they run called Yellowstone.

Marni Zelnick’s debut feature doesn’t begin with the wolves, but with bad boy high schooler Owen (Unbreakable’s Spencer Treat Clark), who’s such a rotten apple that he even intimidates his merry band of droogs, one of whom is his chemistry teacher’s grandson. When one of Owen’s bullying sessions goes a little too far, he finds himself covered in blood in a ditch, which is the universe sounding a very big alarm in his ear, to which Owen puts on earmuffs. 

His mother, though, is scared for his safety and future, so she ships him off to his father, who’s a park ranger in Yellowstone, where he monitors the wolf population. Owen’s first day in Wyoming doesn’t go so great: he steals a pistol, some ammo and treks off into the great blue yonder. You’ve heard of Rebel Without a Cause, well here’s rebel without a compass. His dad (Andrew Wilson) is mostly unfazed by all this, if only because he’s so much like Owen — he’s living off the reservation because he’s kind of sick of people too. 

It’s only through Owen’s involvement with the park’s wolves — maybe because he’s a lone wolf himself — that this reformed nihilist slowly starts believing in something, anything, that isn’t destruction. I’ve seen many movies like this before: the reformed bad boy finds a hobby and eventually makes good. This one is altogether competent, if not completely predictable. It’s also gorgeous, with filming taking place in aspen-filled forests, beautiful valleys with winding rivers and grassy meadows lined with wildlflowers. It’s like a Bierstadt painting come to life. 

Druid Peak spends a lot of time establishing the procedures and minutiae of observing wolves, which added an interesting level of detail to the science of the park. For instance, Owen begins tracking several key wolves with their radio collars. A lesser film would have given them all GPS locators and called it a day, but Owen has to lug around this big radio antenna and listen for beeps amid the static. And even when he hears something, all that’s telling him is that one of the wolves is within three miles. I appreciated that the film didn’t dumb it down for the audience. Later on the radio collars plays a bigger role as the wolves slowly encroach on nearby ranches and their scrumptious cattle. The science of the wolves and their existence fits within the world of the film’s story. And the wolves look incredible.

I have a low tolerance for teenaged bad boys, and Owen wore me thin at the beginning — I blame last year’s Hellion for that — but he matured fast enough with the plot that his misanthrope phase doesn’t last too long. Clark, a 26-year-old playing a 16-year-old, has these mysterious eyes that can be expressive and bright in the wolf scenes, and then hollow and emotionless in the opening bits. He’s an interesting choice, but a sound one that nudges the movie forward.

Andrew Wilson, sibling to actors Luke and Owen, might be my new favorite Wilson brother. He’s had bit parts in several Wes Anderson movies, but here he’s allowed to linger on the screen long enough to actually get a good glimpse of him. He’s on the screen to mostly play off Clark, but he has one scene that really stood out for me: he’s flipping through materials on his desk and he notices Owen has stolen some money from a box. The film avoids that verbal showdown you feel coming, and instead allows the father a beat or two of disappointment before moving on. It’s a subtle scene, and one of the Druid Peak’s major victories. 

Of course, there is all kinds of wolf drama near the end, and talk about a wolf-hunting season, which promises to show us all the scenes you’d imagine in a movie about a boy who owes everything to his furry new friends. I saw it coming, but that’s not to suggest it doesn’t play out well — it does.

Druid Peak adds some minor, but altogether interesting, twists to the coming-of-age story. I was pleasantly surprised. And I think you will be too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Actor Eddie Jemison talks directorial debut

To C-word or not to C-word. When given the choice, Eddie Jemison C-words. 

Which is why he spent some time shrugging his shoulders at little old ladies at festival screenings of King of Herrings, a film he wrote, co-directed and starred in that follows four on-again/off-again buddies who are not shy about dropping the taboo word that many American audiences still cringe at. 

“The Sex Pistols called each other cunts. That was just their way. It was their scene and their language,” Jemison says of the word. “But a lot of people are turned off by it. Old ladies, as it turns out, don’t like it. I don’t blame them. I just apologize. On the other side, though, people hear the word and laugh; they aren’t grossed out.”

Jemison admits the word is tempered not by his four male stars, who unleash all sorts of awful vulgarities on one other, but by the film’s female lead played by the lovely actress Laura Lamson, the actor-director’s real-life wife. Lamson plays Mary, much-better half to Jemison’s Ditch, the wildly offensive leader to his circle of misfits and miscreants. When Ditch pushes his caustic sense of humor a little too far within the group, The Professor (played by Joe Chrest) plans a retaliatory strike by befriending Mary, Ditch’s lonely seamstress wife.

“Whenever people start thinking the movie goes too far, it really centers all back around on Mary. It’s her movie,” Jemison says of King of Herrings, which played at last year’s Phoenix Film Festival and is available digitally today. 

Jemison, as the pig-headed misanthrope, plays against type; he is widely remembered as a dweebish character actor, frequently playing mild-mannered men in technical positions usually involving numbers or computer code. He’s had small parts in Waitress, HBO’s Hung and Bruce Almighty, but he’s most recognizable in fellow Louisiana State University alum Steven Soderbergh’s films, including as sweaty computer expert Livingston Dell in the Ocean’s 11 movies. 

“Of course, I’m usually typecast. I’ve always hated that, but what can you do? For this, though, I cast everyone against type. Me more obviously, but also Joe Chrest, who’s easily the most assertive of all of us,” he says. “It was a blast being a big jerk with a Napoleon complex.”

The film came to be during an acting workshop in which Jemison was asked to write a script. “I had this scene I wanted to write where a guy says ‘cunt’ a lot,” he says, adding that the class got involved and the film blossomed in front of him. “Everyone wanted to know the end of the story, so I knew I had something there that was working.”

The film works not only because of its delicate sleight of hand with the star of the film — as Jemison says it, the film may play like a boys club but it’s really about Mary — but also because its characters chew the screen. They live in a world that must smell like old cigarettes and cheap beer. Cracked vinyl seats, flickering fluorescent lighting, bowling alleys, dog tracks, laundromats. The world is lived in and worn, and the four characters are in no big rush to leave it. The film was shot in color, but given a high-contrast black-and-white treatment in post-production, a look that solidifies the film’s forgotten time and place. It looks very indie and cheap, but in this case that works quite splendidly.

This is Jemison’s directorial debut, which he shares with co-director Sean Richardson. Much of the cast, and some of the crew, go way back to their LSU days, back to around the time Soderbergh was filming sex, lies, and videotape, and casting many of King of Herrings’ actors in his early movies. Jemison hopes Herrings is enough of a success that he can take the LSU crew down to New Orleans and film a new project “with the exact same actors, like repertory cinema.” 

One actor who was easy to work with was Lamson, his wife in and out of the movie. “She’s so good in this movie. I would tell her stuff, but she would really just take over. And as I would be busy directing, she would direct me. She would remind me to give more and to not hold back,” he says, repeating again that Lamson’s Mary calms Herrings’ more sinister verses. “She provides the balance the film needs. When we were showing this movie early on, it was getting really dark responses. But the more people who saw it, the more who started seeing through the film’s more menacing tone. They were finding this sad character in it, and she was cutting through all the rawness.”

“It’s a weird, hard movie,” he admits. “But we’re very proud of it.”
 
King of Herrings is available on VOD Tuesday.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Movies of 2014

I’ll admit that 10 is a better number than 15, especially when the 15 has an asterisk, footnote and appendix. But choosing only 10 top movies of 2014 is just too difficult, and the end result is too neat and tidy. And if a year has more than 10 great movies, then why limit a list that is a reflection on that year?

So yeah, here’s my top 15 movies of the year, which is actually more like my top 16 since one entry has two movies. And then there are two honorable mentions, and a four-movie note about this year’s franchise movies. It’s not as neat as 10, but it’ll do.


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1. Whiplash

Damien Chazelle’s sensational musical drama Whiplash is about two characters — a hero and a villain — fighting to the same end. It’s only during the last 15 stupendously bonkers minutes do they finally realize they’re on the same trajectory, just shooting from opposing sides. Whiplash knows what it is, where it’s going and how it’s getting there from the very beginning, and it shows in Chezelle’s confident directing and in the determined performances of stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as master and apprentice at a prestigious music school. (This is the second time Teller has topped my year-end movie list; last year he did it in James Ponsoldt’s Spectacular Now.) I never would have thought so much tension, calamity, violence, hatred, obsession and drama could have come from jazz drumming — Whiplash has it all. 

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2. Snowpiercer
Science fiction is supposed to be a little ridiculous and Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer does not let you down in that department. It’s about a dystopian train containing all of humanity that circles the globe in order to preserve mankind from a nuclear winter. Yeah, that ridiculous. The action thriller, starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, came out in prime blockbuster season and immediately blew the doors off the summer’s usual fares. With glorious music, clever visual compositions, stupidly fun gun and hatchet fights and absurdly simple science fiction mythology, Snowpiercer is a marriage of great ideas.


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3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson continuously astounds me with his quirky diorama-like presentations. His visual style, developed over an entire career, hasn’t yet hit a dead end as he explores braver plots, more intricately layered stories and growing choruses of characters, sometimes enough to fill a small amphitheater. He really outdoes himself with The Grand Budapest Hotel, loosely starring Ralph Fiennes and about 30 other fine actors. I knew I was in for a ride when the film started with a book, an interview and two sets of flashbacks all nested together. This film’s lo-fi special effects and model miniatures are especially noteworthy for their simplicity and quaintness. Anderson has made eight great films and never repeated himself, and I can’t wait for what’s next.


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4. Life Itself
When Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, he wasn’t just the world’s most famous movie critic, he was also one of the most treasured. His reviews exposed hard truths about the films, about himself, and about all of us. They were reflections of who we as a people were, are and will be. They were also quite funny. So when Ebert lost the ability to speak amid a cancer diagnosis, his readers were afraid he would be silenced up on that balcony set where he gave thumbs up and thumbs down. His voice was silenced, but his keyboard clicked and clacked ever louder as he wrote from Facebook, Twitter and his personal blog. Steve James’ lovely documentary follows Ebert as he writes, heals and eventually passes away unexpectedly. It had a fly-on-the-wall vibe to it as the critic lived his life, but Life Itself also serves as an impromptu biography, with chapters on Gene Siskel, their shared TV show, his wife Chaz, his alcoholism, his upbringing and so much more. By the time Ebert had passed, he was no longer just a film critic; he was our collective voice broadcasting as loud as ever.

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5. Under the Skin
Nothing quite prepares you for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house sci-fi flick Under the Skin, featuring a steely-cold Scarlett Johansson as an alien viper luring unsuspecting men to their doom in an inky black goo that liquefies everything under their skin. It may sound like Aliens, but it’s miles away from an action movie as its ethereal mood and tone allow for hypnotically staged sequences of Johansson pretending to be an alien pretending to be a human. It’s all rather wacky and cerebral, but also oddly mesmerizing. 

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6. Ida
Pawell Pawlikowski’s gorgeously photographed character study takes place in 1960s Poland as a nun traces the footsteps of her parents, who were likely killed during the Nazi occupation or the years following World War II. The nun (played exceptionally by Agata Trzebuchowska), with warm eyes and skin the smoothness of elegant porcelain, is immediately out of place as she treks through small Polish villages as she ponders her mysterious past and her convent future. The film is shot in black and white, and it’s just perfect cinematography, with characters shot in poetically odd framings, natural light pouring through windows and mesmerizing compositions. No movie this year was photographed better.

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7. Birdman
Michael Keaton’s brave performance in Birdman as a washed-up actor on Broadway has made him a frontrunner in the Oscar race, a race he will likely win. But more than that, the performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s whirlwind of a movie has reminded us all how great Keaton is, and always has been. He’s a singular force in Birdman, in which he staggers and grumbles through a New York City theater where he’s staging a Raymond Carver play that has shades of his own life in it. The editing is all very slick, and the camera work is virtuosic, but mostly this is an actor’s movie, with Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and many others.

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8. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi tale is less movie and more sound-and-light show. Featuring the science of wormholes, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time travel, black holes and what can only be described as the control room of the universe, Interstellar’s reach for the stars is beyond ambitious, and Nolan mostly pulls it off aside for some sloppy editing and plot holes, which are forgiven considering the film’s scope across the galaxy. It really becomes something special when Hans Zimmer’s booming score rattles from the screen. Theater owners reported receiving complaints about the film’s volume, but loud and proud was the way it should have been shown.

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9. The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6
Besides both being wonderfully animated and perfectly paced family films, the reason these two animated gems are both on this list is the message they send to their younger audiences: The LEGO Movie encouraged youngsters to create and play outside of the rigid structures of life, and Big Hero 6 emphasized science and math as career paths. These ideas weren’t just preachy codas tacked onto each film’s endings; they are ingrained in their respective plots. Long ago kids movies were filled with farts, boogers and groin kicks, but these days they have more to say, even amid forgivable product placement and superhero formulas.

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10. Dom Hemingway
While all eyes are on Michael Keaton’s Birdman performance, I just can’t ignore Jude Law’s gonzo turn as the title character in Richard Shepard’s irreverent crime drama Dom Hemingway, about a man who gets out of prison and slowly unravels amid heists, dinner parties, hooker orgies and a car crash frozen in a tableau of flailing arms and legs. Dom is a vile rascal, but he’s kinda lovable, especially when paired with the great Richard E. Grant as his sidekick. The film has one of the best cold opens of the year, and it deserves to be on every Jude Law highlight reel from here to eternity.

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11. A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year is about a man taking every precaution to do the right thing, even as he edges closer to that which he fears — corruption, crime and violence. J.C. Chandor directs Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in this gloriously photographed crime drama about a heating oil company trying to expand in New York City. The film has a Godfather vibe, from Isaac’s stone-cold Michael Corleone performance to the warmly lit interiors that act as characters to the film’s carefully written criminal underbelly. The movie took me places I wasn’t expecting, and the ending is underplayed until you stand back and appreciate it for what it says about business, crime, and the intersection where the two often meet.

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12. Force Majeure
During an afternoon ski outing, a family is nearly overtaken by an avalanche. The mother instinctively reaches for her kids, but the husband runs off with nothing in his hands but his cell phone. During the rest of the ski trip this family is torn apart by the repercussions of the avalanche and what it revealed within the father’s personality. Ruben Östlund’s tightly wound relationship drama is mostly a series of conversation separated by interesting shots of a ski resort coming to life each morning and then resetting at night. It ends with a revelation that changes much of what we just saw, but Östlund is so delicate with the handling of it that the twist is barely noticeable. This Swedish film is a remarkable examination of the nature of married couples, and the way they spool their lives around each other in opposite directions.

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13. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s who-dun-it shows the veteran director at his very best. Rarely is a director in perfect synchronization with his editor, cinematographer, screenwriter and cast with such outstanding and fluid results. The film, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name (she also wrote the screenplay), features Ben Affleck as a husband accused of murdering his seemingly flawless wife, played with a frosty chill by Rosamund Pike. As the mystery unfolds, it’s clear that there are larger things at play, and it’s in these scenes that Fincher really digs in. What could have fallen apart only gets stronger as Flynn’s characters paint themselves into the same corner. Fincher handles it all with exquisite class, proving that he’s earned his spot as one of Hollywood’s elite directors. 

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14. Edge of Tomorrow
“Tom Cruise in a mech-suit doing Groundhog’s Day with alien time-shifters.” If that was the pitch that got this movie the green light, then bravo to the poor soul who had to look a studio executive in the eye and pitch it. Doug Liman’s mind-bending sci-fi shooter is silly and stupid at times, but then it also has an inventive streak that pushes this past mediocrity and into something special. The movie came out in June, but it is still getting thoughtful plot dissection from trip’d-out fans six months later, even after the film was re-branded for DVD and Blu-ray as Live. Die. Repeat. The film reaffirms an old myth: Tom Cruise is always better in science fiction.


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15. Cold in July

I had given up on Cold in July, and then it impressed the hell out of me. Jim Mickle’s crime thriller starts with a husband and father killing a burglar in his living room. Then the burglar’s nutty father starts terrorizing the family. Notes of Cape Fear start trickling onto the screen just before you start zoning out. But then — BAM! — Cold in July turns into something else entirely. The film is anchored by strong performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson as a tough-talkin’ private detective. This movie came out to little fanfare, but I hope viewers discover it.

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Honorable Mention: Chef

I left Chef feeling very hungry. It’s about a disgraced cook who takes his trade mobile with a food truck. Along for the ride is his line cook, his son and a growing army of loyal followers. The film is written, directed and stars Jon Favreau, and also features John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and many others. The jokes are great, the food looks delicious, the locations are warm and inviting … something tells me that everyone had a great deal of fun making this movie. And it shows, because it’s a lot of fun to watch.

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Honorable Mention: St. Vincent
Bill Murray, our national treasure, has done it again: he’s out-Murray’d himself. The comedian once again plays a loser schlub in Theodore Melfi’s charming St. Vincent, about a grumpy old man befriending a lonely kid with a working mom. It’s funny, kinda adorable in parts, devastatingly honest and just all-around earnest in its treatment of Murray’s Vincent. It also features Naomi Watts as a Russian prostitute, Chris O’Dowd as a Catholic school teacher, Terrence Howard as a bookie and Melissa McCarthy as the too-busy-for-her-kid mother. All of this might be too much if it weren’t for the central relationship of Vincent and the kid, played expertly by Jaeden Lieberher. They just click together in all the right places. 

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Some words on franchise movies: There are too many superhero movies and sequels. And each year there are more. This year there were certainly some major duds, including the new Hunger Games movie, the new Spider-Man and the second Captain America movie. If we never discuss them again that will be too soon. But I want to also commend some of these movies that excelled past the genre in which they live. They were inventive, well paced, marvelously acted (live, animated or by motion capture) and all-around fantastic. If all superhero movies and sequels were this good, I would be a happy camper. The movies that distinguished themselves are X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Let’s hope their sequels live up to the hype.