No Evil Thing Will

Cruella

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney possesses more of the greatest villains than any other studio or property in existence, more than Marvel, more than DC, more than even Universal and its set of classic monsters. By more we don’t mean quantity necessarily, but quality: Maleficent, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Snow White’s evil queen, Scar, Ursula, Jafar, Madam Medusa (seriously, if you haven’t seen the original 1977 The Rescuers, you need to do so at once), and of course, Cruella De Vil.

That’s a stash of villains to covet or to celebrate, so why does Disney hate them so?

Cruella is the mouse’s latest attempt to give a villain the Wicked treatment with an origin story that offers insight into the root cause of their villainy. As these things go, Cruella does have a few really bright spots.

Emma Stone has honestly never been bad in anything. She brings a charmingly conflicted Jekyll/Hyde to a character who is working against her own instincts to be a good person. Joel Fry and Paul Walker Hauser are endlessly endearing as her cohorts Jasper and Horace, respectively. But can we talk about Emma Thompson for a second?

The definition of glorious, Thompson delivers a delightfully droll Baroness Von Hellman – the fashion icon nemesis who brings out the wicked in Cruella. Scenes between the Emmas elevate the entire project, allowing Thompson to radiate devastating narcissism and Stone to mine her character’s emotional and intellectual landscape.

And who doesn’t like to see Mark Strong? He’s one of maybe a dozen performers in tiny, mainly pointless roles decorating the dozens and dozens of scenes that should have been purged from a film that runs two hours and fifteen minutes but feels twice that.

My God does this movie need trimming. You will have aged noticeably by the time it’s over. It meanders for the better part of an hour before actually hitting the catalyst for the story, then stages heist upon gala upon big reveal upon public comeuppance upon more big reveals before actually getting to the point.

Some of these are interesting and fun, but most of them serve no real purpose. Director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by committee (there are 5 credited screenwriters), belabors everything. This not only leaves his film almost structureless, but it also guarantees that nothing sticks with you, not even individual scenes that absolutely should be memorable. No scene or plot point is allowed any real emphasis or import.

It’s curious that Gillespie – who proved a master of tone with I, Tonya – can never find a consistent one here. It doesn’t help that a nearly endless parade of pop/rock hits are jammed into the soundtrack with questionable regard for cause or effect.

And still, there are fun-filled stretches that seem desperate to claw out from under all the dead weight. Cut a full 45 minutes from this film and you may have something. Instead, we get a pointless mess that can’t decide how it even feels about Cruella de Vil.

Search for Tomorrow

The Croods: A New Age

by George Wolf

At least two things have happened since we met The Croods seven years ago. One, we’ve forgotten about the Croods, and two, Dreamworks has plotted their return.

A New Age gets the caveman clan back together with some talented new voices and a hipper approach for a sequel that easily ups the fun factor from part one.

The orphaned Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) has become part of pack Crood, which is fine with everyone except papa Grug (Nicolas Cage), who isn’t wild about the teen hormones raging between Guy and Eep (Emma Stone).

The nomadic gang is continuing their search for the elusive “tomorrow” when they stumble onto the Stone Age paradise of Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann, both priceless). The Betterman’s lifestyle puts the “New Age” in this tale, and they hatch a plan to send the barbaric Croods on their way while keeping Guy for their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

But a funny thing happens along the way. Check that, many things happen, and plenty of them funny, in a film that nearly gets derailed by the sheer number of characters and convolutions it throws at us.

The new writing team of Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman and Paul Fisher keeps the adventure consistently madcap with some frequent LOLs (those Punch Monkeys are a riot) and even topical lessons on conservation, individuality and girl power.

Or maybe that should read Granny Power, since it is Gran’s (Cloris Leachman) warrior past that inspires the ladies to don facepaint, take nicknames and crank up a theme song from Haim as they take a stand against some imposing marauders.

Director Joel Crawford – an animation vet – keeps his feature debut fast moving and stylish, drawing performances from his talented cast (which also includes Catherine Keener and Clark Duke) that consistently remind you how important the “acting” can be in voice acting.

By the time Tenacious D drops in to see what condition the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” is in, the whole affair starts to feel like some sort of animated head trip.

Yeah, a little sharper focus wouldn’t hurt, but A New Age delivers the good time you forgot to remember to wonder where it’s been.

It’s Alive!

Zombieland 2: Double Tap

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“It’s time to nut up or shut up.”

“That line is so 2009.”

There you have it. A horror film that recognizes its desire to wallow in its former glory as well as its need to find something new to say.

We had our worries about the sequel to one of the all-time best zombie action flicks, Zombieland. Horror sequels so rarely work and Zombieland: Double Tap is slow going at the start, to be sure. But don’t give up on it.

Everybody’s back. Director Ruben Fleischer – who’s spent the last decade trying to live up to Z-land‘s promise – returns, as do writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, along with newbie Dave Callaham, who’s written a lot of really big, really bad movies.

Still, it was enough to draw the most important elements—all four leads. Among Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin are seven Oscar nominations and one win. That’s a lot of credibility for a zombie movie.

They reprise their roles, now ten years on as a heavily armed and somewhat dysfunctional family. Little Rock (Breslin), in particular, longs to leave the nest, get away from a smothering Tallahassee (Harrelson) and find people her own age. Wichita (Stone) may be feeling a little smothered in her relationship with Columbus (Eisenberg), though he remains blissfully unaware.

Things pick up when the girls take off, the guys brood, a new survivor enters the picture (Zoey Deutch, scene-stealing hilarious), and a sudden road trip to Graceland seems like it might reunite the family.

The filmmakers spend plenty of time simultaneously ribbing and basking in previous success. So there is plenty here to remind us why we loved the first Zombieland adventure so much (especially during the credits), although Double Tap doesn’t come to life until it embraces some fresh meat.

A run-in with near-doppelgangers (Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch) leads to an inspired action sequence inside the Elvis-themed motel run by Nevada (Rosario Dawson). A pacifist commune stands in for the amusement park from part one, letting everyone poke some blood-splattered fun at the culture clash between hippies, survivalists, and of course, the undead.

An underused articulation of the way zombies have evolved over the decade could have offered the biggest update. Still, after a 10 year wait, this revival offers just enough fun to not only avoid a let down, but instantly become Fleischer’s second best film.

Consider the Monarch

The Favourite

by Matt Weiner

Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is someone you might charitably describe as “uncompromising.” His last two English-language films include a dystopian romantic comedy and a revenge thriller rooted in Greek mythology. So it is both a delight and a relief to see in The Favourite that Lanthimos at his most accessible is also his best yet.

The story for The Favourite was originally written by Deborah Davis, later joined by Tony McNamara but with no screenplay credit for Lanthimos—a rarity. The film covers the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, during which the War of the Spanish Succession and political jockeying in Parliament are tearing the indecisive, physically frail queen in multiple directions.

But the men of the court are little more than foppish pawns. The real palace intrigue takes place between court favorite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her new maid, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), daughter to a once-prosperous family that has fallen on hard times. Sarah and Abigail vie for Queen Anne’s affection and behind-the-scenes power, although those two things are entangled together to varying degrees for Sarah and Abigail.

The Favourite might be dressed up as a period piece, but it’s not a demandingly historical one. Lanthimos admits to taking significant poetic license with the relationship and events between the three women. The effect isn’t just practical (although this should come as some relief if, like me, you were dreading a Wikipedia deep-dive on Whiggism).

It’s also an avenue by which Lanthimos can smuggle in his trademark eye for the very contemporary and very weird, cruel ways we treat each other. And in this area, Lanthimos has cast the perfect leading women to keep up with—and even rise above—his vision.

Stone and Weisz play off each other to perfection, with pitch black verbal volleys that threaten to turn as deadly as the war taking place beyond the mannered confines of the palace. But it’s Olivia Colman who dominates every scene, which is all the more impressive for her mercurial take on the physically deteriorating Queen Anne. Colman brings a measure of sympathy to Queen Anne that transcends what could have been played for easy mockery, and she deserves every award coming her way this year.

Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West) keep the camera movement as brisk as the dialogue. The film’s frequent and disorienting use of fisheye is a recurring signature, but even the more conventional wide shots manage to combine a palatial sense of openness with Lanthimos’s signature creeping, queasy dread.

It felt strange to laugh out loud so much during a Lanthimos movie, especially with the undercurrents of violence and misanthropy that stalk The Favourite. Maybe it was the irrepressible performances from the leading women. Or maybe lines like “No one bets on whist!” are just inherently funny.

Whatever the reason, this deadly serious comedy of manners is among the director’s—and the year’s—best.





Anyone For Tennis?

Battle of the Sexes

by George Wolf

A fight for equality playing out inside sports arenas. Sound familiar? Battle of the Sexes isn’t just an effortlessly engaging piece of entertainment, it’s a compelling reminder that the sporting world has long been intertwined with the social and political movements of the day.

In 1973, Billie Jean King was 29 years old and the leading name in women’s tennis. Bobby Riggs was a 55 year-old former champion who missed the spotlight. As the “women’s lib” movement grew, they met for three sets of tennis that was watched by ninety million people.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) choose wisely in running the soul of the film through King. Bolstered by Emma Stone’s gracefully layered performance, the film’s emotional connection comes from King’s dueling inner conflicts: the responsibility of carrying the women’s game forward and her growing attraction to the tour hairdresser (an excellent Andrea Riseborough).

A taut script from the Oscar-winning Simon Beaufoy finds marks that often speak directly to today’s “stick to sports” crowd. In one particularly biting scene, a defiant King argues for equal prize money on the women’s circuit, telling the condescending director of the tour (Bill Pullman) that he’s a constant gentleman “until we want a bit of what you’ve got.”

As he was in the actual ’73 event, Riggs is the film’s camera-loving ringmaster, a born huckster who tells a recovery group they don’t need to stop gambling – they just need to get better at it. Steve Carell nails the role, and not just because he has the look and the attitude. In the quieter moments away from the cheering crowds, Carell gives us a faded star in search of purpose, finding the authenticity that Riggs leaned on to remain endearing.

The period details are just right and, thanks to some nifty work by two athletic body doubles, so is the tennis. Faulting only with some fleeting moments of flippancy, Battle of the Sexes wins by serving up both a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the human drama than ultimately made it so much more.

 

 





Dream Baby Dream

La La Land

by George Wolf

What an utterly glorious piece of filmmaking La La Land is.

Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.

Nostalgia? That’s hard to get right.

“That’s the point!”

So says Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a frustrated jazz pianist whose dinner music gig will soon be gone if he doesn’t stick to the approved playlist. He meets struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and the cutest couple in town contest ends quickly.

Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is again steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.

It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.

But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.

Gosling (displaying some impressive keyboard chops) makes Sebastian a natural charmer who’s “letting life hit me ’til it gets tired,” and trying to stay true to his old school ambitions. When a well-paying gig with a pop-leaning band comes calling (the publicity photo shoot is a scream), Gosling underplays Sebastian’s sell-out frustrations but never the resonance.

And good as Gosling is, Stone is luminous. She takes Mia from the plucky Doris-Day-next-door enduring a string embarrassing auditions to a nuanced young woman facing the realities of what her dream demands, and Stone has us at hello. This film has everything going for it, yet it still rests on Stone’s ability to find the perfect blend of wonder and authenticity. She does not disappoint.

Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has hit many of us ’til we’re more than tired, we’re damned depressed. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.

Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 





Halloween Countdown, Day 28: Zombieland

Zombieland (2009)

Zombieland is quite possibly the perfect movie. Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had create the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zombie romantic comedy. The Yank counterpart is even better, and with this amount of artillery, it’s certainly a more American vision.

Let’s start with the effervescently clever writing. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions.

And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.

That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!

The performances kick ass, also. Thank you Rubin Fleischer for respecting each character enough to allow them a good balance of stupid mistakes, solid decisions and laughs.

Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing dork characterization. Yes, we’ve seen him dork before. One dork nearly won him an Oscar. Still, this is one of his finer dorks.

But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun toting, Twinkie loving, Willie Nelson singing, Dale Earnhart number wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.

I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





Rationalizing with Woody

Irrational Man

by Hope Madden

It’s always exciting when the next Woody Allen movie screens, but it’s best to keep expectations in check. Remember, for every Midnight in Paris, there’s a Cassandra’s Dream; for every Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there’s a Scoop.

The question is, on which side of that coin will his latest, Irrational Man, fall?

As is generally the case, Allen draws an exceptional cast. In this go-round, the always magnificent Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor entrenched in an existential crisis. To his aid come the fresh, bright undergrad Jill (Emma Stone), and understanding, morally loose professor, Rita (Parker Posey). But their attention isn’t enough – Abe doesn’t feel himself again until he finds purpose.

What’s his purpose? Or more to the point, what’s Allen’s purpose? It’s to spin a familiar, albeit black, joke about the relative morality of getting away with murder.

Allen’s premise is actually fairly slight and not at all unique, but he pads it with loads of philosophical ponderings. We wrestle with the existential toxin of inaction, the impotence (literal and figurative) of writing instead of doing, and the messy leap from strictly philosophical ideals to life in a real, concrete world.

Irrational Man would sink into verbal tricks and intellectual nonsense were it not for three compelling, grounded performances and Allen’s sudden interest in Hitchcock.

Phoenix and Stone deliver something both pretentious and earnest enough to befit the project. Being from Allen’s pen, there’s something in their May/December relationship that works as both self-deprecation and excuse.

Posey steals every scene with a slyly comical and perfectly realized character.

The film slogs a bit through its first act, but gradually picks up steam, offering a bemused and somewhat detached observation of a mystery as it unfolds.

Though the film is listed as a drama, in many ways it is one of Allen’s cosmic jokes, and not just because he’s again toying with how to get away with murder. It’s more the laugh of, what would it be like if Woody Allen made a Hitchcock movie?

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Fast Times in Blue Hawaii

Aloha

by Hope Madden

Aloha slips quietly into theaters this weekend. How is it that a Cameron Crowe film starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, and Bill Murray could fly under the radar with no critic screenings and barely a blip of an ad campaign?

Not a good sign.

No, on that cast alone this movie should have worldwide buzz. It should be the movie grown-ups see this weekend instead of San Andreas. Instead it’s an unwieldy, herky-jerky romantic comedy that leaves the romance and comedy behind in favor of goofy mush.

And what a waste of a cast! Hell, the sheer talent wattage nearly salvages the effort. Cooper is reliably compelling as military contractor Brian Gilcrest, a piece of seriously damaged goods with a chance to get back in with the big boys on this trip to Hawaii. McAdams shines as his former flame, and Murray is great as the charming, eccentric, billionaire villain.

Stone, however, drew the short straw with a wholly unrealistic character who’s equal parts Navy hutzpah and dreamy eyed innocent. Her hyperactive Captain Allison Ng, the Naval airman assigned to keep tabs on Gilcrest while he’s in town, rarely breaks beyond caricature and when she does it feels all the more inauthentic because of the broadly drawn comical foil we first meet.

Crowe’s writing is as likeable as ever, leaving cynicism behind and populating his islands with odd but lovable characters. He’s just not making any choices. Is this a romance? Because there’s a love triangle happening here that actually keeps your attention, under-developed as it is. Or is that cast aside in favor of one man’s dramatic attempt at redemption? Because that doesn’t work, either, as Crowe introduces a dark, political storyline that he tidies up with almost laughable convenience.

Crowe’s best work ranks among the better films you’ll ever see, but his last worthwhile film was 2000’s Almost Famous. Since then, his unchecked sense of wonder in the face of a cynical society has overtaken every film, none more so than Aloha.

Although, let’s be honest, it’s better than San Andreas.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Look! Up in the Air!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

by Hope Madden

You’ve heard the buzz. It’s loud and merited. The sharp and beguiling Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) sees a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at the height of their creative powers.

Playful and dark, the film follows a washed up Hollywood actor best known for a superhero franchise (an Oscar bound Michael Keaton, who certainly resembles that description). Struggling to regain relevance, he writes, directs and stars in a Broadway play. Meta from the word go, Birdman’s incisive exploration of the entertainment industry and the compulsion to perform couldn’t be more spot-on or more imaginative.

Director/co-writer Alejandro González Inárritu and his fluid, stalking camera ask a great deal from this ensemble as together they dissect fame – its proof and its power – in the digital age. From first to last, they are up to the task and then some.

They clearly relish a script that has such an insider’s perspective, skewering the self-absorption, insecurity and need for attention that fill the business. The performers embody these weaknesses and still create a tenderness for their characters. The comedy isn’t mean, though it is dark and edgy.

Edward Norton is hilarious in a bit of a self-parody as the true talent who pushes boundaries and strives for honesty – on the stage, anyway. He’s hardly alone. The entire ensemble – Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan and Amy Ryan – impresses.

Each has his or her own story, conflict, world, and Inárritu allows that to enrich the world he creates, but it’s all in support of Keaton in the finest turn of his often underappreciated catalog of performances.

He never falls back on the ticks and gimmicks that mark most of his comedic turns – quirks that made efforts like Beetlejuice so enjoyable. This performance is volcanic and restrained, pitiful and triumphant. His desperation is palpable and his madness is glorious. That Keaton can hit these disparate levels sometimes simultaneously inspires awe. Keaton has long been a unique talent, and while this role seems almost awkwardly custom made for the former Batman, the performance still could not have been less expected.

Inárritu, master of beautiful tragedy (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), may be in impish humor with this effort, but Birdman is as dark and poetic as anything he’s created. Impeccably written, hauntingly filmed and superbly performed, Birdman is the first real contender Boyhood has faced for the best film of 2014.

Verdict-4-5-Stars