Posts tagged with Movie Review

Is the Force strong with this one? A spoiler-free review of the new ‘Star Wars’

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

There’s nothing like seeing a favorite movie from your childhood for the first time in almost 20 years to make you feel old.

That’s about how long it’s been since I saw George Lucas’ first “Star Wars.” Of course, I saw it about 10 times in the theater in the late 1970s and many more times on VHS during the '80s, but the last time I saw “Star Wars” was in 1997 when Lucas released his digital VFX-heavy “Special Edition.”

Here at the close of 2015, I’ve just seen the highly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is as close to a carbon copy of the 1977 original as anyone is ever likely to get — or attempt.

There are two main goals behind director J.J. Abrams’ very intentional continuation of the “classic” “Star Wars” saga, and he succeeds on both counts.

Disney, which bought the rights to Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, needed Abrams to introduce new characters and set the stage for a slate of new products through at least 2019, in what will no doubt be the most lucrative movie universe ever created.

This film series casts a long shadow. Abrams also has to deal with the expectations and hype like no other movie since 1999’s “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” And since Lucas’ prequel trilogy is widely considered to be a letdown (at least by those who grew up on the first one), the microscope is even more closely focused on “The Force Awakens.” That’s why the secondary goal is to convince fans across the globe that the old “Star Wars” magic is back; that the Force is strong with this one.

In a couple of very literal senses, it is.

On a purely cinematic level, Abrams recalls the first three movies by using outdated transitions like full-screen wipes and irises. He re-creates iconic shots with similar landscapes. He edits multiple action scenes together in the same time-space. He brings back classic spaceships, gadgetry and background characters — even if that character was only “classic” because it had its own action figure (and especially if that character is still clearly a person wearing a rubber mask).

The tasteful blending of CGI and in-camera VFX restores to this universe a tactile physicality that was missing from the Lucas prequels. And the aged look of all the locations and equipment — covered in sand and soot, with nicks and scratches — feels just right.

But in its effort to rekindle the Force, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” goes way beyond that, and here’s where it gets tricky: The script — co-written by Abrams, Michael Arndt and “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan — recycles nearly every single plot point and character from “Star Wars” and “Empire,” only with slightly different context.

There’s a lonely orphaned young person on a desert planet (Daisy Ridley) who stumbles across secret plans that lead to a world beyond the stars. There’s a young man (John Boyega) who must escape his past and quickly learn to care about more than himself. There’s a wisecracking spaceship pilot (Oscar Isaac) who escapes tough situations by the skin of his teeth. And there’s a powerful Jedi (Adam Driver) seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. The film smartly tweaks these well-worn formulas, however, giving powerful leading action roles to a woman and a black man, and avoiding the racial stereotyping that plagued the prequels.

If one were to create a checklist of all of the plot points in “Star Wars” and “Empire,” (like I’m sure the screenwriters did) they would be able to match about half of them up with identical moments in “The Force Awakens.” And no, I’m not talking about the many tributes to famous “Star Wars” quotes, although those are present as well. I’m talking about the main events of the story that ratchet up the stakes and build suspense. In an effort to maintain a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into this in detail. (Some fanboy probably will anyway, so look for that checklist soon at

So yes — very literally — the “magic” is back. But will the feeling of discovery ever return?

Maybe the planned and as-yet-unnamed “Episode VIII” (or the 2016 standalone one-off “Rogue One”) will bring it, but that just isn’t in the cards for “The Force Awakens.” The title of Abrams’ movie tells you everything you need to know: This reboot of the franchise awakens nostalgia and comes closer to rekindling the magic than any of the Lucas prequels. Set the stage. Stoke the fires. Make ‘em want more. That’s exactly what it does.

All of the new young actors are terrific, and out of the returning cast members, Harrison Ford especially gets it right. It’s such a warm, happy feeling to see Han Solo in such familiar settings, acting exactly as we always knew he would with new (familiar) challenges.

But “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” also points out the inherent problem with rebooting a long-dormant franchise and creating new serialized entertainment on the big screen. As pure escapist cinema, it clicks on every level, while also making plainly obvious something I’ve felt for a long time and never wanted to admit. And it’s probably the reason I haven’t re-watched “Star Wars” since 1997.

I’m not a kid anymore. That feeling — as much as Abrams and company try to re-create it — will never be the same again.

I’m not the same person I was when I was younger. Maybe the new sequels and spin-offs can be more adventurous and really take the “Star Wars” universe to new heights. “The Force Awakens” had me smiling, reminiscing, and critiquing all at the same time: It’s a western in space. A family soap opera. A hero’s journey. It hits all the marks, without any real surprises.

So, J.J.: Thanks for bringing the Force to a new generation. I sincerely hope it rises to new heights from here, and I’m happy the kids of today have something to thrill their imaginations as much as I did when I was a kid. I’m sure you can relate.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is 2 hours 16 minutes and rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, excessive call-backs, and just enough artificial sweetener. It opens in theaters Dec. 17.


‘Spectre’ pays tribute to the ghosts of Bond films past, for better or worse

“Spectre,” the 24th official James Bond movie in the Eon Productions series, is the most “Bond” movie since Daniel Craig took over the lead role in 2006.

Name any quality of classic Bond — stylish costumes, international locations, outlandish action scenes, martinis, slick cars, spy gadgetry, gorgeous women, silent henchmen, or villains with needlessly labyrinthine plans — and you’ll find it here, looking better than ever before. Every penny of the film’s reported $300 million budget is on display for 148 minutes, making it not just the most expensive, but the longest film in the franchise.

This is mostly to the film’s benefit, but paying tribute to so many of the long-running franchise’s iconic traits means “Spectre” has its share of bad habits as well.

No doubt second-time director Sam Mendes felt pressure to follow up 2012’s “Skyfall,” a similarly beautiful-looking movie that achieved massive box office success on a global scale, eventually tallying over $1 billion. From the very first scene of “Spectre,” which was shot using 35mm film stock, Mendes announces his intention to top his last film.

courtesy MGM

courtesy MGM by Eric Melin

Taking over the reigns from Oscar-nominated “Skyfall” cinematographer Roger Deakins is Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Her”), and the first part of a stunning opening sequence, shot in Mexico City with 1,500 extras during a Day of the Dead celebration, is a seemingly one-take wonder that will leave cinephiles wondering how he accomplished it for years to come. (Or at least until they explain it all on an upcoming Blu-ray extra feature.)

Sidenote: The screening I saw opened by playing the entire music video for Sam Smith’s theme song “Writing on the Wall,” which includes clips from the movie. Assuming this comes after the previews and you’ve been sitting in the theater a while already, this is a perfect time for a bathroom break. Besides showcasing Smith’s annoyingly over-emotive lip-syncing technique and giving away at least one clip from the film’s finale, this terrible video is made redundant when the song is then played again in its entirety over the credit sequence.

“Spectre” jet-sets from Mexico City to Rome for a too-brief sequence with Monica Bellucci (the oldest Bond girl, at 50) and back to London, as Bond gets scolded by the new head of MI6, Ralph Fiennes, taking over for Judi Dench. With the interplay between Dench and Craig missing, “Spectre” has little of the emotional weight that grounded “Casino Royale” — still the high-water mark for the franchise — or “Skyfall.”

Much like Ethan Hunt in the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Bond is forced to go rogue, albeit not without conning Q (Ben Whishaw) out of a nifty watch gadget and stealing an Aston Martin. Thanks to a recorded video message from Dench’s M, he’s already hot on the trail of the far-reaching criminal organization that gives the film its title. Anyone familiar with Bond lore will know what this means and which famous villain Christoph Waltz is playing.

Bond meets up with the fetching Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), whose resentment toward him predictably fades, and Seydoux has a couple of moments to rise above the damsel-in-distress part she’s given. When it comes time to admit their simmering attraction is real, it happens in the most Bond way possible, and is one of many throwback moments.

Part of the fun of “Spectre” for Bond aficionados will be trying to spot all of the myriad references to past movies. I give credit to Mendes at least for re-imagining and updating these familiar tropes with a scale of production design (by Dennis Gassner) that’s unmatched.

With this and “Skyfall,” James Bond has truly been realized with the slick, modern elegance the franchise has always chased, and in 2015, its retro-'60s style looks cooler than ever. It's hard to imagine another director topping Mendes in this department anytime soon, or ever. If you are already planning to see “Spectre,” you’ll definitely want to see it on the big screen.

The action scenes are big and badass, thanks in part to hulking Dave Bautista who doesn't speak a word but relentlessly pursues Bond, Terminator-style, and proves to be more than his equal at least once. Without quite dipping into absurd “Fast & Furious” territory, Mendes reaches some thrilling heights in this department as well, and the editing is clean and easy to follow. In these action sequences, returning composer Thomas Newman goes heavy on the bombast, which works well but gets a little old by the end.

In paying so much tribute to classic Bond themes, however, there’s no room for innovation in the plot department. The only fresh plot device in “Spectre” is a lame stab at commenting on modern privacy issues that other films have already covered ad nauseam. Most of the film plays like a game of Connect Four, piling up and grouping together characters and schemes from Craig’s last three films in vaguely related ways, in the hopes that the connections to Bond’s past will bring them some emotional heft.

They don’t, and when the fourth and final piece is finally added, it lands with a thud. Like the game, the bottom falls out and “Spectre” is left empty, with its Bond references and clichés scattered across the table.

“Spectre” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, language, and sexual politics from 50 years ago.


‘Sleeping with Other People’ a true-to-life rom-com

The biggest curse of modern romantic comedies is that they can be too clean. No, I don’t mean the absence of rough language and nudity. I’m talking about how nice and tidy — and full of crap — rom-com screenplays can be when they follow the formula but leave out the authenticity.

Movies that deal with affairs of the heart should be messy. Relationships are messy. They are chock full of give and take. And fear; lots of fear. Attraction between two people is rarely mutual for extended periods — and never in equal measure. To make matters worse, people in love make boneheaded decisions on a regular basis.

In her first two films — 2012’s underrated “Bachelorette” and the fine new comedy “Sleeping with Other People,” now playing at Liberty Hall — writer/director Leslye Headland has proven she understands this. She has a knack for taking familiar rom-com situations and injecting into them a hardcore dose of truth. Truth can be uncomfortable, but as both of these movies illustrate, it can be riotously exhilarating as well.

Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are their usual charming selves in “Sleeping with Other People,” but they are also damaged goods. This isn’t one of those dumb movies where attractive people play nerdy and only “get sexy” once they get their confidence. No, Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) are already having a lot of sex — Jake with every girl in New York, and Lainey with a married doctor (Adam Scott) who keeps stringing her along.

Lainey’s obsession with the doctor isn’t just some cute subplot to create the eventual third-act breakup and reconciliation — it’s long-term, and downright dangerous, having held her back emotionally for her entire adult life.

Jake acknowledges that his swinger mentality may be a problem on some sort of deep level, but outwardly, he dismisses it with the same casual flirty tendency that he uses to lure women into bed.

For Sudeikis, this is a chance to augment his usual quick wit and comic timing with some darkness. It’s not a lack of commitment holding him back from a real connection — it’s an intense fear of his own worst tendencies.

For Brie, it’s a chance to ditch the bubbly character she played on “Community” and more fully explore the vulnerability she exhibited on “Mad Men.” It’s the highlight of both actors’ careers — and the chemistry that’s so important to rom-coms is here in spades.

Even more so than this summer’s breakout Amy Schumer hit “Trainwreck,” “Sleeping with Other People” isn’t afraid to spotlight the frailty and stupidity of its characters. Where Schumer’s moral compass follows a more traditional path to self-awareness, Headland’s characters’ self-destructive tendencies aren’t struck down — or explained away — so simply. Whatever’s special that Jake and Lainey have is hard-earned, and the movie is better for it.

'The Martian'

For all of the plaudits Ridley Scott’s space exploration drama “The Martian” has been receiving for its scientific accuracy, it should get at least as many for its avoidance of weepy melodrama.

Yes, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon at his most Matt Damon-y) is stranded on Mars with no conceivable hope of rescue. Thanks to screenwriter Drew Goddard (adapting from Andy Weir’s 2011 ebook), however, the movie becomes a briskly moving thriller about plucky American spirit, highlighted of course by a MacGyver-esque ability to solve any problem.

There’s no time for kissing photos of loved ones back home on Earth. Mark isn’t even married — and he doesn’t have kids either (how dare a Hollywood script leave that opportunity unexploited).

“The Martian” is an efficiently plotted story about a life-or-death crisis bringing out the best in people, and it’s a joy to see Scott operate in this arena after the lugubrious excess of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Counselor.”

If there’s one fault to find in this inspiring tale, it’s that Damon’s botanist/engineer is just too smart, generous and self-effacing to be a real human being. But to say that would be too cynical — a trait this film is hiding away in the same cupboard, thankfully, with all of the schmaltz.


On the 100 percent opposite side of the spectrum as “The Martian” lies a movie of astounding technical achievement with a heart even blacker and uglier than you may imagine the U.S./Mexico border-town drug wars to be.

“Sicario” stars a mysterious Benicio Del Toro and a cocky Josh Brolin as leaders of a U.S.-led anti-cartel task force that knows no moral boundaries. Emily Blunt is the audience’s stand-in as a tough special weapons FBI agent witnessing all kinds of brutality — on both sides — firsthand.

Director Denis Villeneuve is a master of mood. Dread permeates every moment of “Sicario,” and cinematographer Roger Deakins will likely net his 13th Oscar nomination for his gritty, agile work.

There’s not much emotional investment in any of the characters, and the film has little to add to any serious discussion of its subject matter — but as a pitch-black thriller, “Sicario” succeeds with style.


‘The Look of Silence’ a fascinating, must-see documentary

"The Look of Silence"

"The Look of Silence"

A companion piece to the best documentary of the last 10 years is playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City, and it sheds more disturbing light on the darkest depths of men’s souls, but for the first time offers a sort of catharsis as well.

“The Look of Silence,” like its 2013 predecessor “The Act of Killing,” examines the events surrounding a genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. Neither film, however, is a straightforward recounting of the atrocities. Rather, director Joshua Oppenheimer weaves key information about the genocide into the threads of his unique storytelling style.

In “The Act of Killing,” he let the Indonesian commanders that carried out the murders of at least million “suspected communists” — who are still in power and celebrated in the culture as heroes — act out a dramatized version of their own story. This unusual narrative resulted in a shocking film that provided insight into the feelings of guilt and denial that plague a killer, but left no room for the voices of the victims’ families.

“The Look of Silence” is a cleaner, more straightforward documentary, and it does just that — using a low-key local optometrist as a stand-in for an entire generation of Indonesians who are scarred by the genocide and still living with massive amounts of fear of more retribution.

Adi Rukun, whose brother was brutally murdered by a paramilitary organization three years before he was born, uses Oppenheimer’s access to confront the murders about their crimes, putting himself and his family at risk. (Just how risky is this endeavor? Two dozen people who worked on the film, including a co-director, are listed as “Anonymous” and presumably still living in Indonesia.)

The title of the film is already an apt metaphor, but Adi uses his title as an eye doctor as an excuse to set up meetings with many of the people in charge of the killings. The image on the movie poster, from one of these meetings, is a frightening visual representation of the movie’s power.

“The past is the past,” says one leader of the death squads when confronted by Adi, not willing to accept responsibility or acknowledge the true context of his crimes. He is being fitted for new corrective lenses with a large apparatus on his face, his blank eyes magnified, staring straight into Oppenheimer’s camera.

The “look of silence” is an all-around crisis in the whole of Indonesia, not just on behalf of the killers. Adi’s mother is candid in detailing the emotional scars that the unlawful and violent death of her son has left her.

His 100-year-old father, who is blind, is shown having a frightening episode even when he can’t remember who he is. He doesn’t remember his family or the son who was taken from him, but the fear is so deeply embedded in him that he feels the need to hide. But even with these deep wounds, no one who lived through the genocide wants to talk about it.

Meanwhile, Adi’s son is shown at school receiving a lecture on the “purge of the communists” from his teacher. It is also full of bloody detail but here, it’s the victims of the genocide who are portrayed as the ones who ripped open people’s bellies with machetes. When his father tells him the truth later at home he says, “So the communists weren’t cruel?”

As in “The Act of Killing,” there are numerous scenes of killers boasting about their crimes in gory detail. It gets a bit repetitive, but drives home how morally bankrupt the people in power truly are and the bizarre lengths to which they must go to assuage their own guilt.

When confronted by the soft-spoken Adi, the answers are universal. It was a crazy time. They were just following orders. But “The Look of Silence” sees beyond those pat answers and into the minds of a country that is terrified to acknowledge the truth.

Oppenheimer uses a lot of close-ups and often keeps his camera not on the person talking but on the person reacting. What I will remember the most are the faces.

Adi: Calm; looking for a glimmer of understanding, rage seething just behind his eyes. His son: A blank slate; wowed by the descriptions of human cruelty, taking propaganda at face value. His mother: Her unbreakable determination cracking at the mention of the son she lost. The killers: Terrified guilt masked by outward indifference and sometimes open aggression.

“The Look of Silence” isn’t as formally exciting as “The Act of Killing” but because it’s so singularly focused, it’s a more emotionally engaging story. works great as an introduction to this topic without any prior knowledge of the first movie, and because its concerns are different, both films together are a richer experience and provide a more complete picture.

Without the protection of a camera crew and a strategic, fast-paced schedule for interviews, Adi may not have gotten out of these confrontations alive. Never before has a documentary shown family members of victims confronting perpetrators who are still in power, which is why “The Look of Silence,” filmed both concurrently and following the completion of “The Act of Killing,” had to be released second.

Oppenheimer has no plans to return to Indonesia and human-rights activists are watching over Adi and his family as of this writing. Indonesia, meanwhile, is very aware of these movies, and both the people and government are struggling to find ways to address them.

"The Look of Silence" is 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity.


‘Ant-Man’ a small wonder; ‘Amy’ goes behind the music

Paul Rudd in "Ant-Man"

Paul Rudd in "Ant-Man"

In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the mega-superheroes are taken out of their usual hi-tech, urban surroundings and brought down to Earth when they hide out at a Midwestern farmhouse. It’s a scene that writer/director Joss Whedon had to fight to keep in the movie, and it's one of the best.

In Marvel’s “Ant-Man,” the titular character (played by Paul Rudd) suffers an even more ignoble juxtaposition: He’s wearing his retro-cool, '60s spacesuit-looking outfit in a bathroom. While he hides from his roommates behind a shower curtain, and suddenly shrinks down smaller than the tub stopper, running away from the water on filthy porcelain, trying not to get washed down the drain.

One of the biggest pleasures in the tonally challenged “Ant-Man” is its overall subversion of the superhero genre. The movie still feel like a Marvel product — and it suffers from a typically one-dimensional bad guy (Corey Stoll) — but it also has a lot of fun turning expectation on its head.

The irony of “Ant-Man” is that while its action scenes and characters feel small and insignificant in the larger picture of Marvel superheroes who consistently save the world, the piece of new technology introduced in the film couldn’t be bigger.

The “Pym particle,” named after its inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), is a game–changer for the entire universe, and something Pym has been hiding from the military ever since trying it out himself in secret.

When his protege Darren Cross (Stoll) develops a suit called Yellowjacket some 25 years later and is eager to give it up to the highest bidder, Pym chooses a good man in a desperate situation to wear his original Ant-Man outfit and stop the sale.

That man is Scott Lang (Rudd), a hacker/cat burglar with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After a brief stint in prison, he’s trying to “go straight” for his daughter but he can’t even keep a job at Baskin-Robbins.

He eventually gives up and plans a heist with a group of criminals specifically designed for comic relief. Rudd is his usual likable self, and he’s perfect for a role that requires a lot of exasperation. He’s an everyman that’s easy to root for from the get-go, and his droll sense of humor allows him to comment on the stranger goings-on with the appropriate amount of “WTF?”

The script for “Ant-Man” was written by original director Edgar Wright and his collaborator Joe Cornish, and then was re-written by Rudd and Adam McKay after Wright left the project. It’s full of Wright’s signature surreal comic touches, especially in the action scenes, which is where “Ant-Man” at once feels like an extension of and departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When it tries to explain things such as how Ant-Man can summon a colony of ants, Pied Piper-style, however, the script doesn’t really stick the landing. As “Team America” so eloquently put it: “We’re gonna need a montage!”

Reed has some trouble balancing the more ridiculous aspects of a character that most people wouldn’t go near, but that’s also part of the fun of “Ant-Man.” Marvel proved last year with a talking raccoon in “Guardians of the Galaxy” that the studio isn't afraid to get weird, so it's nice to see it still taking some chances.

What “Ant-Man” is missing that “Guardians” had is a certain level of confidence. “Guardians” established a smart-alecky tone from the get-go that was reinforced by those characters during their journey, while “Ant-Man” feels a little more all over the place.

Still, it’s refreshing to see a Marvel movie that has the opportunity to end with a big action climax in a sleek, hi-tech facility and then purposefully move away to a polar opposite environment. If you’ve seen the trailer, this part of the movie has probably already been given away, but I hadn’t, so I when Ant-Man fought Yellowjacket, I was giggling like a schoolboy throughout.

“Ant-Man” is 2 hours and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and various sidekick buffoonery.


Now playing at Liberty Hall is “Amy,” the documentary that rode huge buzz from the Cannes Film Festival into breaking box office records in the U.K. and near-universal acclaim.

“Amy” follows the short, tragic life of British pop singer Amy Winehouse, and has caused quite a stir. The film has been disowned by her family, especially her father, who does not come off in a good light.

“Amy” was directed by Asif Kapadia, whose extraordinary 2010 doc “Senna” exclusively used archival footage to tell the story of Brazilian car-racing champ Ayrton Senna. The result was a “you are there” experience that felt like a Hollywood narrative unfolding before your eyes.

“Amy” doesn’t follow the same strategy, but does contain plenty of material never seen before by audiences, as it follows Winehouse’s music career alongside her history of bulimia, alcoholism, drug abuse and deliberate self-harm.

"Amy" is 128 minutes and is rated R for language and drug material.


‘Trainwreck’ tweaks the rom-com formula for the better

The genre of romantic comedy is in a sorry state these days. Besides sporting some of the most interchangeable, clichéd movie titles ever, most of the rom-coms that come out of Hollywood are full of bland writing, are overly contrived and cause their actors to amp up the energy to make up for it.

In last year’s “That Awkward Moment,” Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan are three modern Casanovas whose trajectory is so forced that it’s obvious from the setup exactly where it's going. The actors, probably sensing how unconvincing their material is, go full-on “His Girl Friday,” hoping that delivering their dialogue rapid-fire might distract from the fact that it's totally empty.

Also from last year, “Sex Tape” is a perfect example of the high-concept rom-com, where it’s more important that the title be able to explain the entire film (like “Friends With Benefits” or “Just Go With It”) rather than approach anything near believable.

Of course the solution to the rut that married couple Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel find themselves in is to make a sex tape. Who wouldn’t do that? Once again, the actors end up mugging to make up for a phony premise. This is ironic because it’s that easily marketable premise that probably got them green-lighted in the first place.

One of the worst things about “Trainwreck,” the new romantic comedy from writer/actor Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow that opens nationwide Friday, July 17, is the title of the movie. Sure, the main character — a magazine feature writer named Amy played by Schumer — has commitment issues and likes to get boozy and have one-night stands, but she’s certainly a lot closer to being a relatable person than any of the phonies that normally populate these kinds of rom-coms.

“Trainwreck” still follows lots of typical rom-com formulas, but it also proves that there is still life left in these formulas, as long as there is true chemistry and tiny subversions along the way.

Surprisingly, since Schumer and co-star Bill Hader are known mainly as broad comedians, the greatest strength of “Trainwreck” is the believability of its central relationship. Aaron, a high-paid sports medicine doctor (Hader), and non-sports fan Amy are mismatched for sure, but their first meeting doesn’t reek of that sad desperation to be funny.

Instead, like they are throughout the entire film, Schumer and Hader are pretty low-key. This isn’t a handheld-camera mumblecore movie mind you, but there’s little comic exaggeration going on here and there doesn’t need to be.

Neither actor is what you would call a typical romantic lead, exhibiting few of the obvious physical attributes of say, an Ashton Kutcher or a Katherine Heigl. They also don’t wear the latest fashions and look impeccable in every scene. Part of what gives them their charm is their sheer ordinariness, especially since they traverse the high-rolling world of sports superstars throughout the film.

LeBron James (playing himself) is one of Aaron’s patients, and in another sly subversion, is actually an overly ordinary, caring best friend to the doctor. Some of the best comic moments in the movie come from the basketball megastar playing ridiculously down-to-earth and deadpan, hilariously oblivious to his privileged lifestyle.

While “Trainwreck” gently subverts expectations in the romantic comedy genre and pokes fun at stereotypes in the sports world, it also — for the most part — avoids easy moralizing. The totally with-it Aaron doesn’t hook up with Amy so he can “fix” her, and Amy doesn’t have a wacky best friend who’s always giving her advice that’s so terrible we know it only exists to fuel the inevitable break-up scene.

Aaron takes her bad habits in stride and actually falls in love with her because of this authenticity. When they finally do have a real argument, it’s at least as much because of her insecurity as it is her bad habits.

The function usually served by the one-dimensional best friend character is split into two roles. Brie Larson plays Amy’s younger sister, a grounded young woman who accepts the mantle of adult responsibility with grace, even as her sis vehemently disapproves of it. Larson gives the small role a good amount of depth and grounds a troubled family dynamic.

On the other hand, Amy’s father (Colin Quinn) is just barely above a one-note joke as the cranky old man who gave Amy all the bad advice in the first place. A needless prologue with the sisters as young girls plays like an “SNL” sketch where they keep driving the same joke into the ground and gets “Trainwreck” off to a rocky start.

Apatow still has a problem with length, as this clocks in at just over two hours, and could use a little pruning in the joke department off the front end. It also takes a while for Apatow and Schumer to find their rhythm at first. Or maybe it’s just a matter of being able to tune into the film’s wavelength.

Schumer has a unique comic voice and she holds herself with a confidence that can’t be easily pigeonholed. That, along with Hader’s understated performance, make “Trainwreck” a refreshing rom-com that tweaks the formula just enough to remind you why formulas work in the first place.

“Trainwreck,” opening July 17, is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use, but not as much as you’d think for a raunchy comedy. Except for that one scene, I guess.


Overstuffed ‘Avengers’ sequel at odds with itself

The weight of responsibility hangs over every character in Marvel’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” It is a weight no doubt felt by writer/director Joss Whedon, who not only shepherded 2012’s “The Avengers” to its place as the third-biggest movie ever, but who also looked over and touched up scripts from every movie of Phase Two of the Marvel shared-universe films.

His last film for the Marvel-Disney empire opens this weekend, and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” now finds Whedon in the ironic position of having to accommodate future installments by introducing characters and plot points. An overstuffed plot and a heavy concentration on action contribute to a breakneck pace and general lack of surprise in the movie, which mirrors the structure of the first film.

That isn’t to say that the movie isn’t at times wildly entertaining, maintaining that touch of sparkling wit Whedon is known for, even in the darkest hour. Another overriding theme is man vs. himself, as Whedon forces his heroes to reckon with their own hubris, fueling some very poor choices that result in something a whole lot more threatening than the neo-Nazi terrorist organization Hydra.

Ever since going through a wormhole in space to sacrifice himself in the last “Avengers,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been tormented by nightmares. He wants to eliminate the need for a superhero supergroup by creating a shield for the planet that would defend against alien invaders and create “peace in our time” — a sort of advanced version of Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense umbrella perhaps (which always seemed better suited to a comic book anyway).

Through Stark’s meddling, and with the reluctant help of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a sentient being named Ultron is created, and first visualized in floating, color-coded CGI blobs that look like the final showdown between Eric Bana and his father Nick Nolte in Ang Lee’s 2003 “Hulk.” Ultron takes the form of a robot and immediately downloads all of the information in the world from the Internet, quickly determining that world peace can only be achieved through — yikes! — the extinction of the human race.

The prospect of a sentient entity roaming the Internet at light-speed to gather information might seem more crazy and subversive if Scarlett Johansson (who plays Avenger Natasha Romanoff) hadn’t already done it twice since “The Avengers” — in Spike Jonze’s sublime love story “Her” and Luc Besson’s silly actioner “Lucy.”

On the other hand, James Spader’s very recognizable voice gives Ultron more than sheer menace. He suffers from a kind of existential ennui, something each of the individual Avengers is dealing with as well. Constantly frustrated by the way humans think, he also has a really short temper. Even if Ultron’s logic is hard to follow, Spader gives the baddie an estimable soul, as he jumps from robot to robot.

On a lighter note, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” contains more blatantly cinematic fight scenes than the first film, and all kinds of creative examples of superhero teamwork. In “The Avengers,” Whedon explored what it would be like for these tremendous egos to meet for the first time. Now that they are working together, he pairs up weapons like Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield to create one dangerous, speed-of-light projectile. A moment like this does more than merely advance the action. It reinforces the characters of these boy scouts (Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans respectively) from different universes, and Whedon expands this during the film, incorporating little moments of character into most of the action scenes.

Speaking of character: For all of the hype you’ll doubtless hear about how action-packed “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is, let it be known that almost nobody in the superhero world can juggle an ensemble this big and still give each character a defining moment like Whedon. Bryan Singer figured this out in “X2,” but his latest X-Men movie “Days of Future Past” has at least five or six mutants whose names I can’t even remember.

Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has gotten short shrift in every Marvel movie until now, which perhaps explains why in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” he becomes the first Avenger to have a family. His homestead is pure old-school Americana, out in the country and cut off from all things modern and scary. Besides providing a sharply contrasting backdrop for these larger-than-life costumed heroes, it serves as a symbolic nod to the western, which is the genre the film fits into the most.

Whedon is drawing from and reinforcing other classic themes throughout “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” New superpowered characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are out for pure revenge. A subplot between Hulk and Black Widow has echoes of “King Kong.” Because Whedon understands how these conflicts work, it’s kind of a disappointment that he isn’t given the complete freedom from a plot standpoint to really dig into them. Another new creation, the Vision (Paul Bettany), is barely given any explanation at all.

There are responsibilities, after all, in long-term episodic storytelling. The original cut of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” was around three hours long, but it's been pared down to two hours and 10 minutes, which seems more like a commercial decision than anything else. (It allows for more showtimes in a single day, and therefore bigger grosses.) This is completely understandable—and maybe three hours is too long to maintain a consistent pace—but with the new characters, all of their story arcs, and multiple overarching themes, I’d be very curious to see a film that gives those elements time to breathe.

Still, for an overstuffed spectacle, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” looks inward more often than most.

“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is showing everywhere in the universe and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, suggestive comments, and semi-obscure pop culture references.


Julianne Moore shines in ‘Still Alice,’ and a showcase of Oscar shorts

Words are Alice Howland’s life, yet lately she hasn’t been able to string them together to form meaning the way she intends. She is a linguistics professor at Columbia University, but she draws a blank during one of her lectures. She’s also getting lost during her runs and having trouble finding her way home.

Alice, played by sure-fire best actress winner Julianne Moore with grace and humility, is 50 years old when she learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Now playing at Liberty Hall, “Still Alice,” which is adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel by writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is an affecting drama, blessed with two wonderful performances.

The movie casts a wider net up front, surveying the different reactions of Alice’s research biologist husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and their three grown children. John is supportive and hopeful, but with a big career opportunity on the horizon, he exercises what might be considered his own selfish desires more often than not.

The irony, of course, is that even if he were to devote all of his time to Alice’s care, she wouldn’t remember it anyway. Baldwin never quite shakes his own person, but his struggle to remain sympathetic over his own bluster is well-suited to the role.

Alice is devastated but tries to remain realistic about her prospects. Her thoughts turn toward her kids (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) who, learning that it is hereditary, are all checked for signs of the disease themselves.

Moore eschews histrionics, and her expressive face illustrates beautifully a woman who is aware of the inevitable. She wants to stay connected to people for as long as possible, and then not put everyone through the heartache and trouble of having her not be present.

A young actress who skipped college against her mother’s wishes, Stewart’s character has the prickliest relationship with her mother, and “Still Alice” is at its best as that relationship develops in surprising fashion. In “Adventureland” and “The Runaways,” Stewart was able to stretch beyond the confines of the “Twilight” series, but here she shows reservoirs of understated emotion.

Glatzer’s diagnosis with ALS just weeks before the filmmaking couple began work on “Still Alice” gave the project some urgency. In the film’s plot, that urgency takes two forms: a grave decision Alice makes early on and a speech that she is scheduled to give at a conference.

The speech is pretty obvious — unneeded proof of her determination and a reinforcement of more irony. The former works better as a suspense device because the film is full of moments that show Alice’s decline into dementia, each one ratcheting up the stakes. It’s believable that a woman of her conviction could make such a decision and stick to it.

But Moore is the real reason “Still Alice” works. She’s so natural and free of vanity. She doesn’t telegraph the tragedy of her situation like so many made-for-TV movies do. It’s a quiet performance and the uncertainty of how present Alice is undercuts everything, even the joyful moments.

Oscar-Nominated Short Film Showcases

In Hollywood’s classic era, short films regularly accompanied features. You could see anything from a Laurel and Hardy knee-slapper to a long-form Duke Ellington music video. Unless you’re seeing a Disney/Pixar animated film, however, audiences today almost never have an opportunity to see what’s happening in the world of shorts.

One reason that Oscar season is cause for celebration is that the nominated short films are packaged together and make the rounds for theatrical exhibition. Two of those packages — the animated shorts and live-action ones — are now showing at Liberty Hall.

The Animated Shorts Showcase is a brisk 85 minutes, and not only contains the five Oscar-nominated films but also three additional “commended” works that are essentially honorable mentions. The animation styles on display are across the board, from stop-motion, CGI, traditional hand-drawn and mixed-media. Disney’s “Feast” was screened before “Big Hero 6,” so it’s likely the only one viewers might have already seen, but it’s worth watching again for sure. The program this year has a distinctly international flavor and packs an unexpected emotional punch.

The Live-Action Shorts Showcase clocks in at just under two hours, and one of the shorts contains some recognizable faces. Sally Hawkins stars as a British call center employee in “The Phone Call” with Jim Broadbent’s voice on the other end of the line.

The rest of the films tell stories from Tibet, Belfast, Switzerland, Israel and even Disneyland, and are of varying lengths. The abstract 15-minute “Butter Lamp” from Beijing-born, Paris-based filmmaker Hu Wei, is by far the most adventurous of the bunch.


‘Wild’ breaks mold of pretentious self-discovery movies

It could have been pretentious as hell: An aimless young woman, searching for herself, discovers her own courage by hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone.

That’s pretty much the one-sentence description of “Wild,” now playing at Liberty Hall and starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, the real-life author who did just that and wrote a best-seller about it. It just goes to prove Roger Ebert’s old saying — and one of my favorite quotes about film criticism — “It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”

This isn’t the one-with-self drama-queen travelogue of “Eat Pray Love” or the pompous one-with-nature spiritual quest of “Into the Wild.” It’s a down-to-earth tale of a damaged woman with something to prove to herself, told in an interesting way.

Reese Witherspoon in "Wild"

Reese Witherspoon in "Wild" by AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Wild” has a real dark side — in both the flashbacks to Cheryl’s painful past and the looming threat of a woman traveling alone, meeting the wrong kind of person along the trail. There’s real danger here, but there’s also a wicked sense of humor.

Cheryl knows the trip is a bad idea, but is compelled to go forward because there is nothing to go back to. She curses her own unpreparedness the entire trip. She doubts and curses herself out loud. In the opening scenes, she chucks her hiking shoe down a steep hill in frustration, only then realizing what a dumb mistake that was.

Adapting “Wild” into a feature film has been a passion project of Witherspoon, who also produced the movie. Although she’s a little too old to play a twentysomething, she throws herself into the role, inhabiting all of her character’s contradictions.

She’s playing way against type as a grief-stricken divorcee whose downward spiral of promiscuous sex and drug addiction led her to this unlikely place. The film’s frank depiction of Cheryl’s sexuality is one of the things that supports the actress and helps to lift her out of her comfort zone.

Having written the novels “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” screenwriter Nick Hornby understands aimless characters, and his script is a skillful balancing act. It undercuts an overly serious tone whenever possible and layers in a poignancy that rarely seems forced. As she continues her journey, Cheryl earns the respect of fellow hikers along the trail. As the narrative unpacks her personal story, she earns our respect.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee ("Dallas Buyers Club") does an amazing job of varying the kinds of shots in “Wild,” which could have been overtly aesthetically pleasing — all color-treated outdoor vistas and sunsets.

Instead, his depiction of Cheryl’s surroundings is more natural; it varies by the landscape, and echoes the honest portrait of his heroine. Cheryl’s inner monologue is illustrated through a combination of clever techniques, including narration from Witherspoon, her own memories and the songs that get stuck in her head.

The flashback sequences — especially the ones featuring an enigmatic Laura Dern as her mother — are a nice break from her hiking adventure, and sport a dream-like quality, with quick flashes and lots of camera movement.

In short, “Wild” breaks the mold of other trip-as-self-discovery films with a refreshing honesty. The filmmakers succeed in telling a familiar story in bold fashion, bringing the audience into the mind and experiences of its lead character without making her an allegorical or literal martyr.

"Wild" is 113 minutes and is rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language.


‘Top Five’ dragged down by hype

Hype is a dangerous thing.

It’s a double-edged sword, because any movie studio publicist will agree that buzz helps get people in the theater, but then high expectations from an audience can sink a mediocre film. That’s exactly what happened when I saw Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which started a bidding war after its Toronto Film Festival premiere this September.

To make matters worse, all the interviews and TV appearances Rock’s been doing to promote the movie (especially the editorial he penned in The Hollywood Reporter) are far more cutting and incisive than anything in “Top Five.” Rock has always been a fearless social critic, so it’s a real disappointment that is his movie is so toothless.

Jumping off from what he knows best, Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian. After years of struggling on the circuit, Andre is now an A-list movie star, best known for a string of low-brow buddy-cop action movies in which he wears an actual bear suit and cracks wise (think Donkey from “Shrek,” only live-action and completely nonsensical).

His new movie — set during the bloody slave revolt of the Haitian revolution — is his attempt at “going serious,” only it looks equally ridiculous, and therein lies the problem. No sane person would ever think this is a good idea, and the film doesn’t have a straight-up satirical tone, like his admittedly spotty but occasionally hilarious “CB4.”

No, “Top Five” tries to develop sincere characters and situations out of the flimsiest of clichés. Andre spends one long press day with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who, like Andre, is a recovering alcoholic. She gets him to admit things he’s never told anyone, so the story continues to flash back to key scenes from Andre’s past.

Here, as a screenwriter, Rock falls in the trap of thinking that dirtier material equals adult material, which he proves isn’t the case. His “rock bottom” flashback in particular is more embarrassing for Rock the writer than it is for Andre the actor.

Rock is one of the premier stand-up comedians working today, so it’s no wonder that the funniest scenes in the film sound like stand-up bits turned into conversation. He has a couple of very funny rants while talking to Dawson. One scene has him actually delivering an “impromptu” stand-up set, and in another, he riffs with past and present “Saturday Night Live” cast members — and for once, the movie takes on a believable tone.

But then it’s right back to lazy plot devices, with a really dumb late-game revelation about Chelsea and the culmination of her already forced Cinderella obsession. (I’ll bet you can’t guess where that’s headed.)

As an actor, Rock is rarely convincing. Sure, he works as a stand-up comic, but I never once believed he was a recovering addict being tested to the hilt on one very stressful and eventful day. And if the jokes were faster and more furious, perhaps I wouldn’t have time so care so much about such unimportant stuff.

The best relationship in the film is between Andre and his bodyguard/manager (played by J.B. Smoove). There’s actually something cute — and subtle — about their mutual dependence on each other. That is, until the movie spells that out for you too.

Based on the things that work well in “Top Five,” perhaps Rock should take a page out of Christopher Guest’s book and write outlines rather than screenplays, meant to be filled in by talented actors who can improvise. From looking at the cameos in the movie (also a mixed bag), he certainly has enough friends.

When “Top Five” feels loose and lived-in, it starts clicking into place. But when it pushes its characters toward unearned saccharine, it feels as fake as the industry it’s supposed to be satirizing.


Thursday morning, one of the biggest surprise nominations at the Golden Globes was the announcement of “Pride,” up for the category of best picture — comedy or musical. Showing now at Liberty Hall, this U.K. indie crowd-pleaser is based on the true story of gay and lesbian activists in the mid-1980s who formed an unlikely alliance with Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers.

Despite a good showing at both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, promotional efforts for the movie have been mild from distributor CBS Films. Actors Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, and Paddy Considine aren’t necessarily big-ticket names, but they are certainly well-known and respected among the industry, so maybe this nomination is what pushes “Pride” into the awards conversation during this crowded time of year.