Tag Archives: Piers Marchant

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Film Review: Blackhat

Dir. Michael Mann
Score: 3.5

Trust empty-headed stylist Michael Mann to create a cyber-thriller in which he attempts to dramatize the actual macro insertion of a virus through a mainframe. The camera swoops on the microcircuit boards like Luke’s X-Wing approaching the Death Star, then travels up through flashing impulses, triggering the lite-brite-like wave of virus. It’s the kind of gesture that Mann, who increasingly over the years, has given up his dogged pursuit of auteur status and just embraced his brand of cutting edge, flashy ’80s TV roots, finds himself making these days. If anything, given the ham-handed nature of Morgan Davis Foehl’s blithely idiotic script, he might just have figured he had very little to lose.

Sadly, he was probably right. The international, jet-setting nature of the plot, which sets off with the lone virus causing a near nuclear catastrophe in China, before spinning through Wall Street, Hong Kong, and, ultimately Jakarta, barely holds our attention, as the witless characters — a collection of multi-cultural cyber-sleuths, FBI operatives, a former convict hacker, sprung from the can in order to help catch the culprit, and the U.S. Marshall assigned to follow him — spring from unlikely scenarios in rapid-fire succession in order to make their quarry

The convict, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, with an improbable slicked back quasi-pompadour) happens to be best friends and former MIT roomies with Dawai (Leehom Wang), the Chinese representative on the task force, whose comely sister, Lien (Wei Tang), instantly and regrettably becomes Hathaway’s love interest. Rounding out the somewhat rag-tag crew, Carol (Viola Davis), the FBI agent, who more or less acts as the den mother for the others, and Jessup (Holt McCallany), the taciturn Marshall, whose expression never seems to change through the course of the film.

As they go through their wearying paces, from country to country, eventually lighting upon Kassar (Ritchie Coster), the goateed bag-man for the actual criminal kingpin, and Hathaway and Lien fall ever deeply more in banal love (as neither has a personality to speak of, we can imagine they fall at least partially for each other’s richly swank designer shades), the film sort of lurches along, propelled with ridiculous bits of revelation, all leading up to its thoroughly ludicrous climax, in which one, severely undertrained ex-con singlehandedly takes on a squadron of highly trained mercenaries, armed only with a selection of sharpened hand tools, and a protective vest of books and magazines taped to his impressive midriff (which suggests, if nothing else, Hathaway was at least able to watch “The Wire” while in the joint). Who knew prison-life could properly train you to become a skilled assassin?

To be fair, I’ve never particularly been a Mann devotee, finding the vast majority of his work (with the notable exception of The Informer) an extended exercise of slick stylistics, excusing pretty tepid films, but his previous films at least never seemed quite as empty and craven as this one. He mixes in his usual blend of jumpy, hand-held work, especially during the film’s few hand-to-hand combat scenes, a tired effect that has more than worn out its welcome, and stacks the film with an assortment of striking backdrops (one gets the feeling his location scout does more than half of his work for him), not to mention the good looks of the two leads, who nevertheless shun anything of what you might call chemistry in favor of mewling looks and gentle hand stroking.

Mann never much had the goods to back it up, but his films — by dint of their self-importance and their A-list casts, at least had the sheen of an event. This little thriller, stuck out in the no man’s land of January releases, feels like an afterthought, something between more impressive-seeming projects in development that one imagines aren’t coming down the pipeway any time soon.

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Film Review: American Sniper

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Score: 4.9

If you had somehow been tasked with creating an iron-clad, true-blue American war hero, you would likely have conjured up something quite along the lines of Chris Kyle, a Texas-born former rodeo cowboy, who watched 9/11 in horror and enlisted for the Navy SEALS shortly thereafter in order to make a difference and help protect the country he loved. Big and barrel chested, with a loving wife and family at home, Kyle was also almost alarmingly effective as a Sniper, recording an astounding 160 kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq. Such a hero that he was dubbed “the Legend” by his fellow soldiers, and had earned the highest pay-out for his head from Al Qaeda, a twisted kind of homage to his effectiveness.

A man this dedicated to his country — not to mention this bloody effective in neutralizing the enemy, and saving untold lives of the soldiers he was protecting from his perch on the arid rooftops — and seemingly for all the best and most agreeable reasons would not only be the military’s PR department’s wet dream, he would be so bulletproof, even those pesky liberals and gun-control reformers would have to grudgingly acknowledge the heroic nature of the man. To create a film celebrating his military experience, then, it would stand to reason, Clint Eastwood — he of the steely glare, right-wing politics, and storied film-making career — would be the perfect choice to craft a fable that sounded too damn good to be true, even if it were.

Unfortunately, though, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall — working from a memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Defelice — have chosen to only tell the part of his story that makes his heroism seem larger than life: He starts out a reckless cowboy, enlists when he feels needed, leads an exemplary military record over the course of four grueling tours of duty, finally comes home and after some rough patches, re-engages into civilian life and works with other damaged soldiers to give them support and care, even as their lives are crumbling around them. What the film curiously chooses to essentially ignore, except for a jarringly quick post-script, is that Kyle was eventually murdered at a shooting range by a particularly deranged former soldier suffering from severe PTSD.

What the film has to offer instead, is a rousing bit of American military agitprop, with a beefed-up Bradley Cooper in the lead role, and Sienna Miller as Taya, his long-suffering but intensely strong wife, celebrating the American spirit of bootstrap politics and a quixotic sense of justice-serving to those “savages” in the Middle East with a face-full of patriotic, expertly fired, lead.

Indeed, one of the film’s central (and completely fictional) antagonists is the Iraqi equivalent of Kyle, a former Olympic Syrian sharp-shooter named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), quick and agile as a jungle cat, who prowls the rooftops and takes out dozens of Americans without leaving a trace. For all we know, he is exactly as revered and elevated as Kyle for his country, but the film takes special care not to give him — or any of the enemy — a moment of sympathetic recognition. And when Kyle finally does take him on directly, leading to perhaps the shot of a lifetime in the sniper business, we are lead to be relieved that this “savage” (as Kyle and his fellow comrades refer) has finally been vanquished.

If there is any irony abounding, it would appear to be lost on the 84-year-old Eastwood, who, one imagines, is quite happy to play this one straight as an Indiana highway. The thing is, as depicted, Kyle is perfectly decent and honorable kind of soldier: He laments that his first confirmed kills involved a woman and a small boy who were attempting to toss a grenade at a group of marines, despite the American lives he knows he saved. He’s hardly a thoughtless, gun-toting good ol’ boy, even though he is highly revered by them. It’s certainly his other qualities that attract Taya when they first meet in a bar, and the hook of the film’s last act, wherein Kyle finally returns from his fourth tour of duty and has clearly come back a (mildly) damaged man, unable to connect with his family, paranoid, and ready to take violent action in a moment’s notice.

Naturally, this too, is something the film chooses not to dwell upon terribly much. He eventually speaks to a therapist, who advises him to go and aid other, far more physically and emotionally stricken veterans and he and his family move back down to Texas, which seems to put him back in the picture of health in virtually no time. The film’s suggestion is that Kyle is not so deeply and badly damaged because of his superior moral fiber — he didn’t just think he was doing the right thing, he felt his correctness burning in the core of his being — and, in keeping with the perfect soldier treatment, even the horrors of PTSD become just one more minor obstacle for his celebration.

This is to take nothing away from the main source of the film’s appeal, which is the generous and unflinching work put in by Cooper, who seems to have breathed the character into his very DNA. Like George Clooney, Cooper has always been able to win over his roles with his natural charm, but here, he puts it in service to a far more impressive portrait. Even if the film, like his fellow soldiers, continually wants to shine the medals of “the Legend” to a gleaming polish, Cooper downplays his character’s ego. He never wants to be above the grunts working the far more dangerous door-to-door missions, which is why he constantly volunteers to work with them, sharing the risk and in the process, offering them some of the best practices gleaned from his superior training as a SEAL.

Cooper has never been better, but one wishes the filmmakers could have ratcheted down the churning apparatus of Kyle’s constant lionization and taken their cues from the apparent humility of the man himself — even if his as-told-to memoir is being strongly questioned in the wake of the film’s release — and been brave enough to show an inkling of the complexity involved in a military-trained, highly decorated professional assassin coming home to lead a normal life, rather than place him on a raging bonfire of martyrdom upon which one imagines he never would have signed off.

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Film Review: BIRDMAN

Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Score: 7.7

When filmmakers make movies about theater, its generally to deconstruct the inherent artifice in the form, taking the audience backstage with gloomy actors peering into grungy mirrors, and high-strung directors having to cope with every conceivable kind of roadblock on their way to realizing their once-beautiful artistic vision (and to be fair, most movies about movie-making are very often depicted in the exact same way, only with much bigger crews and even more inflated egos). In this, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film more or less follows suit, but whereas most of these dramas exist almost solely to decry the difficulty of cooperative art, this film also allows for the sublime payoff of such an endeavor, even if that payoff involves one’s literally giving everything they have in order to achieve it.

Iñárritu has always been a bit of a wunderkind in his technical proficiency, not unlike his fellow Mexican auteur, Alfonzo Cuarón. But whereas with some of his early work, such as 21 Grams, that technique served to mask some of the film’s other shortcomings and pretensions, here, with a camera that sweeps and swoops on a never-ending steady-cam track, swinging down one tight, dimly lit corridor backstage or another in search of the character significant to that particular scene, it feels much more organic. It plays as a single, connected shot — though, as there are identifiable segue points and time jumps, Iñárritu isn’t trying to baffle us with his cinematic slight-of-hand, that’s not at all his point. With this film, as with his previous masterpiece Biutiful, Iñárritu has managed to incorporate his laudable technique with his artistic vision, putting the one in service to the other, and not the other way around.

We first meet Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) in his underwear, floating gently over the floor of his dressing room in a state of calm meditation. This is not to last. A former big name Hollywood actor whose major claim to fame was a series of “Birdman” superhero films in the late ’80s (obviously, much like Keaton himself), before falling into complete obscurity and financial collapse, Riggan has instead poured himself into a Broadway adaptation of the revered Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” A complete labor of love, Riggan, who wrote the play, is also directing and starring in it, with the help of his producer/lawyer Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), and his just out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s working as his assistant. His Zen calm is interrupted first by Sam, and then his Birdman inner voice, a gravelly scold who discounts everything he’s done save his superhero character, and pushes him to an insecure frenzy.

When one of his lead actors (Bill Camp) gets unexpectedly stricken from the production the day before previews are meant to begin, Riggan takes the opportunity to bring in a big name, high wattage replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), with the help of Shiner’s current girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), another of the production’s principles. Shiner brings a keen, artistic intensity — while also sparking tremendous interest from the theater-going public in the form of advance ticket sales — but he’s also enormously destructive and irresponsible, a Faustian bargain Riggan has no choice but to accept, under the dire financial circumstances.

There are other complications, of course, including the possible pregnancy of Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other principle actress and his secret paramour, and the increasing flirtation between Shiner and Sam, a young woman whose hold on her sobriety is as much on the precipice as her tendency to sit up high on the edge of the theater roof looking up at the city lights.

In his best work, Iñárritu is able to pack his narratives with many seemingly disparate elements crashing together — Biutiful involved not only a clairvoyant dying of cancer with young children, and an estranged, clinically insane wife, but also an illegal immigrant black market operation that leads to a horrific and entirely avoidable tragedy — sparking off one another and somehow coalescing into an artistic whole by the close. He spikes his work with a liberal dose of what we might call magic realism (in one sequence, shortly before opening night, Riggan literally flies up into the air and swoops around the city in a joyous epiphany), but without allowing the grittier aspect of his character arcs to get swept up in the deus ex machina of enchantment and mysticism. Instead, they are immersed just enough in the recognizable real world as to have a profound effect on his protagonists. Magic might occur in their day-to-day lives, but it’s not enough to save them from their fates.

He is also adept at drawing brave and brilliant performances from his actors. This is an obvious showcase for Keaton, a performer given to high-energy, off-kilter beats, here playing what might somewhat uncharitably be referred to as an autobiographical role, but Norton (an actor whom I find myself always thrilled to see on screen, as if a talented, Brando-like recluse only deigning to perform when mood strikes) is also excellent. Shiner is a savant on stage — he learns the lines to the play somehow in the blink of an eye — constantly pushing his fellow cast members into an integral honesty on stage, but off of it, he’s anything but. The rest of his life is a series of irresponsible half-truths and misplaced aggressions, and Norton, who still bears the stigma of being a difficult and demanding type of actor, has a line of hard-earned empathy that bleeds from his pores like so much CO2.

Given the weight of the material, Iñárritu is still able to keep a light enough touch on the material that many of the sequences crackle with humor amongst the pathos (a scene in which Riggan gets locked outside the theater during a performance and has to circle around Times Square in his underwear is like something out of Noises Off). Theater is an insane endeavor, of course, impossible to achieve and vexing in every possible way. But somehow, some way, when everything is just so, and the meld of audience and performer is near seamless, it can still all be worth it.

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Film Review: Whiplash

Dir. Damien Chazelle
Score: 8.3

I had a conversation about this film before I got to see it with a friend of mine who couldn’t understand how a movie about a gifted student in a prestigious music school could offer much in the way of drama beyond that of Fame, or its ilk; a schmaltzy ode to the power of young-person artistic desire. But then, I very much doubt she was imagining a music professor screaming “I will fuck you like a pig!” at one of his utterly cowed students, either.

Damien Chazelle’s second feature is a stunning film filled with emotional sweep and poignancy, and best of all, the ambiguousness of its two main protagonists. It’s not a facile film coming to simple conclusions about its subject matter. Like its grand antagonist, the hard-driving, abusive jazz teacher Terence Sterling (J.K. Simmons), the film offers a sharply focused array of possibilities, allowing you to take away what you will, but not before drawing more than a little blood: Most of which shed by Andrew (Miles Teller), an auspicious young drummer in his first year at the (fictitious) Schaffer School of Music in New York.

Besotted by jazz greats like Buddy Guy and James Jones, Andrew assumes his time will surely come, especially after a chance meeting with the legendary Sterling one evening in his practice studio. When Sterling then invites him to join his studio Jazz band after a fast audition, Andrew imagines how easy it will be to wow him with his technique and chops. Only that’s not how it works for Sterling. Arriving at precisely 9:00 AM, with the other members, having nervously tuned and prepped themselves, standing at rapt attention, their faces pointed to floor, it quickly becomes clear Andrew is in no way prepared for the unconscionably demanding Sterling, who screams him into tears at their first session, a moment that earns him considerably more chagrin (“Oh, my dear God — are you one of those single tear people?” Fletcher asks incredulously).

Making Fletcher even more of a monster, he tears the boy apart by first setting him up, talking with him gently during the pre-practice warm-up, and getting the naïve Andrew to open up about his home life, including his writer father (Paul Reiser), who has had a limited career, and an absent mother who left him when he was a baby. It takes no time at all for Sterling to use this information against him during one of his tirades, blaming Andrew’s lack of precise timing as a result of having a talentless hack for a father and a mother who couldn’t wait to leave him.

In a relatively short period of time Andrew learns the only way he can survive Sterling’s onslaught and achieve his goal of being “one of the greats” is to pay for it not just in sweat and blood — though both flow freely during his grueling practice sessions — but to sublimate everything else in his life, including a fledgling romance with a sweet-faced Fordham co-ed (Melissa Benoist) — to his artistic mandate. Under constant stress and scrutiny by the indefatigable Sterling, and facing other challengers for the core chair from other players, Andrew eventually works himself up into such a lather he crawls out from the wreckage of a massive car accident and starts running down the street with his stick bag in tow in order to make a competition on time.

The film is impeccably shot and brilliantly acted, but what really sets it into rarefied air is the way it quickly shifts our sympathies back and forth between the two figures: Andrew, who starts out sweet-faced and cherubic, quickly learns to be every bit as ruthlessly competitive and unlikable as his teacher, eschewing any kind of socializing for his drumming obsession; while Sterling, the cruel taskmaster, starts proving a certain method to his madness, offering a philosophic bent on the nature of greatness and how one might be able to tap into it only if you pour everything you have into what you do.

By the film’s thrilling conclusion — let’s just say it involves a wild solo in front of a Lincoln Center audience with both men glaring daggers at one another — you switch sides back and forth as if watching a tennis contest at center court. Is Sterling a savagely bitter and intense bully, who twists everyone to bend to his incorrigible will, or is he simply a realist, pushing his students beyond what they think they can do for the soaring possibility of their talent? Chazelle’s excellent screenplay allows for both interpretations to be equally true, his vision enhanced greatly by the riveting performance of his two leads. It’s a virtuoso effort from a relatively obscure young filmmaker, but after his film’s incredible showing at Sundance (where it won both the critical jury and audience prizes), he will likely not be underestimated again.

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Film Review: Tracks

Dir. John Curran
Score: 6.1

The thing about doing something extraordinary is it’s going to sound utterly unreasonable at first. Back in 1977, when Robyn Davidson, a young, callow Aussie woman with a penchant for animals and getting away from clutter, decided to solo hike from deep in the Australia desert all the way to the coast — a distance of some 1700 miles — with only the company of a group of camels to carry her gear and her trusty black Labrador to accompany her, it was seen as the kind of brainless lark a young person decides upon without regarding any of the consequences. But Robyn Davidson was no ordinary explorer.

As played by Mia Wasikowska, she’s sturdy, stubborn, and above all other things, undeterred by anyone else’s expectation of her limitations. Holing up in a deserted shack on the edge of the desert town she intends to embark from, she learns about working with camels and training them for many long months with local camel trainers, and when a group of friends come by for a night of revelry during her preparations, she’s lucky enough to meet Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, whom has now released a mind-boggling five films in 2014 alone — the man must not sleep), a photographer for National Geographic, as it happens, whom he puts her in contact with to sponsor the story.

And so it is, some weeks later, with camels in tow, and a National Geographic grant to fund her, Davidson bids adieu to the remaining members of her family — her mother, we are eventually told, hung herself when Robyn was still quite young — and starts off on what will come to be a nine-month journey.

With Rick popping in every few weeks to shoot her expedition for the magazine, Robyn makes her way across sacred aboriginal land with the aid of a kindly village elder (Roly Mintuma), endures a tragic loss, becomes completely sun-drenched and loses her bearings, and eventually encounters numerous tourists on buses and squadrons of journalists after her quest grows into both national and international news.

She also seems to encounter a steady stream of truly decent and caring people, in fact, as the film would have it, with Robyn’s strong desire to keep planning to a bare minimum and rely instead upon the kindness of strangers, she essentially does exactly that and seems to suffer absolutely no negative repercussions for her lack of forethought. She’s constantly getting bailed out, if not by the affable Smolan — whom, after one romantic evening encounter, becomes besotted by her — then by the few kindly people, both Aboriginal and non-native, she meets along the way. Naturally, she suffers a fair amount as well, but considering the circumstances, not nearly as much as she could have.

In fact, but for the slow pace and gritty naturalism of the film — there is much in the way of realistically harsh animal treatment and countless shots of the Outback itself, ineffable and pitiless — it could make a fine Disney treatment whose theme would revolve around one young woman overcoming terrific odds and the indomitable human spirit.

Which naturally leads to the film’s central issue: It doesn’t really have terribly much to say, either about Robyn, the Outback, or the human spirit. Curran dutifully follows her trail, documenting many of the incidents listed in her book of the same name, but as the film neither adds dramatic swirls, nor insightful meditation — its quite happy to leave the taciturn Robyn as a young, sun-blanched cypher; whatever she’s getting out of the experience remains either on the surface or largely unexplored — it doesn’t actually have all that much to do. Lip service is placed on giving us a psychological context for Robyn’s trajectory (the death of her mother and subsequent loss of her childhood dog, as her father had to move her away to live with an aunt), but it still doesn’t give us terribly much with which to work.

Given the lack of dramatic arc, Curran and DP Mandy Walker resort to countless artful shots of the landscape under Robyn’s feet and all around her. It’s a fair argument; it so happens that this part of the Aussie Outback is wondrous and varied, from scrub desert to large red cliffs, to the pure sandy white of the dunes leading up to the Indian Ocean, but with much less else to offer beyond its limited premise, the film never rises much beyond a simple travelogue, true to its roots as a National Geographic article, but with the sinking sense that you’d probably be better off just reading the original.

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Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached.

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Film Review: Are You Here

Dir. Matthew Weiner
Score: 2.0

In a time where Indie directors are looking for ever more elusive sources of financing (hello, Kickstarter!) and studios seem reluctant to write checks for anything that isn’t a) from a graphic novel, or b) from a YA book, the fact that Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner for “Mad Men,” must have cashed in his considerable cache as the visionary for one of TV’s great dramas of the last decade.

Consider that cache thoroughly spent: His new film, a flimsy comedy of sorts concerning a pair of stoner buddies and a large family inheritance, might well go down as one of the worst films of 2014.

To begin with, despite Weiner’s extensive TV writing and show-running background, it’s shocking how illiterate and clumsy even the most basic details of his film can be. It’s one thing to pull off the delicate balances and nuances of a given scene between actors, but Weiner can’t even seem to do the most basic tasks — blocking, say, or framing a scene — remotely competently. It lends an aura of amateurism to the whole affair, and not the good kind, like you might find in student films and ultra low-budget numbers. It’s so bad it brings to question whether Weiner was actually at the helm or trying to set up scenes while simultaneously on his phone, story-boarding the final season of his TV show.

The story is equally weak and contrived. There’s Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), this charmingly vapid weatherman on a local news station, you see, who loves seducing ladies, spending money he doesn’t have, and getting righteously stoned with his best (only?) friend, Ben (Zach Galifianakis), a misbegotten, half-crazed introvert, who lives in a hovel and writes furious notes for some insane book concerning the Rwandan genocide being a call to arms for vegetarianism (and if you think that joke sounds in poor taste, you haven’t even begun to suffer the film’s brutal witlessness). When Ben’s wealthy father suddenly dies, he bequeaths a small amount of money for Ben’s sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), a money-grubbing churl; everything else of the considerable estate to a stunned Ben; and, by request, nothing for his ridiculously young and beautiful wife, Angelina (Laura Ramsey), at roughly 32 years old, some 45 years younger than her late husband.

Somehow this state of affairs boils down to a power struggle by Terri to claim pitiful Ben — whose first idea for the money and the farm in Lancaster, PA is to start a sort of anti-technological center in order to re-educate the world — as mentally incompetent and to take over the family market in town in order to turn it into some sort of super-sized grocery store. Gradually, Ben comes to realize that he is, in fact, pretty far over the edge, and he dutifully starts taking mood stabilizers prescribed by his shrink in order to normalize himself.

Steve, meanwhile, busies himself with convincing his friend to stay stoned at all time, seducing women wherever he wanders, and trying to establish a sexual relationship with his best friend’s stepmother. And this is where Weiner really loses the thread of whatever it was he had in mind: Not only does Angelina develop “feelings” for Steve, even though the smarmy stink of opportunist oozes from his pores like swamp gas, she also develops a curious thing for poor Ben, who goes through a dizzying number of metamorphoses before finally settling on becoming an unenlightened schlub, well on his way to a dull, loveless marriage and a life of rudimentary pointlessness.

About the time Steve rushes back to the farm to embrace Angelina during a sudden, flash thunderstorm, you start to question Weiner’s own sanity: Is he trying to make a satire of such romantic comedy notions? There’s nothing overt in the script to confirm it, but the sheer idiocy of all the characters and their bedraggled motivations (seriously, this script wouldn’t have even made it through a first-year screenwriting workshop without being eviscerated) suggest he simply must have had something else in mind.

Even giving him the vast benefit of the doubt on this one — and, frankly, the skill and verbal dexterity he’s shown on seven seasons of Don Draper, seems as far away as Finland from here — there’s still the matter of his inept filmmaking that leaves his movie struggling to make a simple lick of sense.

In the end, Ben is reformed — and seemingly on his way to complete obsolescence with a bland, middle-aged mother (Jenna Fischer); while his best friend is living on his farmland with his stepmother in perpetual love, an outcome that neither one of them even remotely deserves. Whether Weiner agrees with that assessment might never be known for certain, but Don Draper had been this poorly drawn a character, his show would never have seen the light of day.

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Film Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Score: 4.3

You’ve got to give the Sin City franchise this much at least: It plays like a souped-up brand machine for its various well-known actors. Both films lean heavily on casting known stars in what might be considered their most obvious signature roles for its dark, dank protagonists and twisted villains, thus Mickey Rourke plays a giant brute with a soft spot for the underdog named Marv; Josh Brolin plays a tough-guy everyman, smitten by the wrong black widow at the wrong time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a slick kid with a smarmy smile and a luck streak a mile long; Eva Green plays a femme fatale par excellence, toying with the various men under her considerable lusty power; Powers Boothe plays a smirking senator, evil to the core, and abusive of his considerable power; and Jessica Alba plays an ungodly beautiful stripper, whose lithe sexuality barely hides a fully broken heart.

Part of the success of the first film — equally dark and violent but a good deal more effective — was watching those few actors (Elijah Wood, Clive Owen) who spun out from their noir syllogisms and actually had something resembling fun playing against their type. This sequel, coming nine long years since the first title, feels a good deal more harsh and surface — something of a problem when the film’s mise-en-scene relies so heavily on the work of graphic artist (and co-director/writer) Frank Miller.

It’s a similar effect to what Zack Snyder has almost exclusively relied upon: Actors working mostly in front of a green screen, so all the dark, seedy streets, towering festering buildings and comic-like raining backdrops can be added in post. Done well, and it can closely resemble the comic its so desperately trying to emulate; done poorly (Mr. Snyder), and it’s like a wildly overdone Photoshop job of a family portrait, with every face glistening too perfectly and the shadows melting none-too-believably into a scrim of visual hyperbole.

Much like the first film, Rodriguez and Miller attempt to weave several of Miller’s pithy short stories together, but unlike the first, which had a unifying thread or two to help unspool your possible objections, this film feels far more scattershot and unsatisfying. Marv takes out a group of college frat boys who get their kicks lighting winos on fire; Hot-shot Johnny (Levitt) blows into town in a vintage car, looking to score big at a local poker game run by the evil Senator Roark (Boothe), and runs afoul of the man after cleaning him out; the hapless Dwight (Brolin) gets played for a fool by the evil temptress Ava (Eva Green), and plots a singular revenge; while lovely Nancy (Alba) schemes to have equally rabid revenge on Roarke for her own reasons, finally enlisting the aid of quite literally her biggest fan.

There is a lot of hyper-stylized violence — the blood shots tend to be of the CGI splatter variety — with many balletic decapitations and gruesome bullet entry wounds, and plenty of smoldering sexuality (there might not be 30 consecutive seconds of screentime for Green before she’s either fully nude or draped in a see-through nightgown), but none of it has any kind of emotional impact. It’s too nihilistic and downright silly to be taken as anything more than a particularly bloody comic strip in what must be the most depressing daily newspaper ever sold on a newsstand. You can understand why actors of this caliber would flock to the production — the films are practically a calling card for them — but, at least in this case, the association isn’t really doing them any favors.

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Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Dir. Woody Allen
Score: 3.5

It’s no secret that a lot of critics feel Woody lost his fastball a long time ago. The director, whose work began in the late ’60s as ribald (and hilarious) comedy, before morphing into something far deeper and more satisfying by the late ’70s — certainly his most critically acclaimed work with the back-to-back release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall in ’77 and Manhattan in ’79 — has, over the last two decades produced some 22 features, many of which utterly forgettable. For every minor hit he’s had — 2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2013’s Blue Jasmine — he’s had eight duds.

It has long been my contention that his single biggest issue has been the insane pace of his production. Allen has said he writes his next screenplay in six weeks and starts shooting shortly thereafter, allowing the near-octogenarian to average better than a film-a-year. Many of his films, even the total failures have at least a glimmer of something salvageable in them, something a seasoned writer with his ear for dialogue could take and reshape to a more accomplished sort of level, but it appears in his haste to finish the script and get a move on with the production, he eschews further drafts in favor of just loading the camera with film and calling out “action.” The only thing that has changed in recent years is Allen eschewing his beloved New York to shoot in some of the finest cities and regions in West Europe.

His latest film is set primarily in the South of France in 1928, but it begins in Berlin, in the middle of fantastic magic act. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician whose act requires him to dress in Asian costume and fake long moustache as his illusionist alter-ego, Wei Ling Soo. One night after a rousing performance, the caustic and highly skeptical Stanley is approached by one of his few old and dear friends, Howard (Simon McBurney), who convinces him to come away with him to the French Rivera in order to help debunk a young, comely self-proclaimed mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has apparently completely fooled several members of a prominent, fabulously wealthy family into believing what Howard is certain is total bunk, only he hasn’t been able to solve the manner in which she is pulling her tricks.

With a burr in his saddle (the officious and highly pompous Stanley is greatly fond of seeking out these fakes and calling them out in public), Stanley agrees to accompany Howard and the two make their way to the fabulous estate, where they meet Brice (Hamish Linklater, always a joy), the young sire of the family, entirely smitten by Sophie and hoping she’ll agree to marry him, and Grace (Jacki Weaver), the elderly widowed matriarch of the clan, desperate to make “contact” with her long-dead husband. At first, Stanley can’t fathom Sophie’s tricks — she seems, by all accounts, entirely sincere and unflappable, leading séances and quick “impression” readings that are eerily prescient — though he remains utterly convinced of his skeptical world view. That is, until the unctuous lout takes young Sophie with him to visit a dear aunt of his living nearby (played by the winsome Eileen Atkins), and is forced to admit her knowledge of well-hidden family secrets is absolutely inexplicable.

The film goes on in this manner — rude, arrogant Stanley being forced to conceive a world in which his long and deeply held skepticism might well have been utterly misplaced — while the two completely mismatched characters are meant to be falling in love. But it is but one of Allen’s colossal misfires in this film that his two leads — being nearly 30 years apart in age, and further yet in terms of personality — share precious little chemistry. At first, Stanley is too critical and scathing to even consider such a thing, but then when he deigns to believe in her otherworldly powers, other glimmers of things start entering the picture.

But none of it makes terribly much sense — Stanley’s mood swings on the subject of Sophie are easily the most unbelievable aspect of the film and forces poor Colin Firth into twisting himself up in fully unsupported gyrations, character-wise — least of all why such an enchanting and beautiful young creature as Sophie would ever consider taking a pompous curmudgeon (whom, we are told, would much rather spend his day at home alone working on card tricks than engaging the outside world) over a dedicated and fabulously wealthy young man such as Brice, who seems hopelessly devoted to her.

Allen would have it that the magic in the title refers to the blinding authority of our hearts, which overrule our rational notions and desires despite our best efforts to curb its hedonistic impulses, but nothing save a hypnotic trance or powerful narcotic would be able to make sense of this gushing mess. What is most shocking about the film is how little fun Allen seems to be having with its conceit — a winsome vehicle by which he should have been able to mine Stanley’s crisis of faith and confidence for maximum laughs and impact. Instead, billed as a “romantic comedy” the film hardly bothers with the latter and fails horrendously with the former. Perhaps if he’d run it several more times through the aging comedic genius of his brain, he would have created something more satisfying: As it is, like its pompous protagonist, it’s a painful bore that overstays its welcome far beyond its relatively benign running time.