Movie Review: Dakota Fanning underwhelms as “Effie Gray”

2stars1She just turned 21. So perhaps the cruel truth can be at last be said about Dakota Fanning without fear of being called a child-abuser.
Whatever “it” is, that spark that film actresses and actors have that makes them interesting and empathetic and anything else on the screen, Fanning doesn’t have it. Dead-eyed and expressionless, the once-wondrous child actress hasn’t matured into anyone worth building a movie around.
You can see it in the pained smiles of Emma Thompson, her co-star in “Effie Gray,” in which Fanning plays an ill-used child bride in the art world of Victorian Britain. Thompson wrote this vehicle, which co-stars her husband Greg Wise, and she’s not so great an actress that we can’t read “This dull child is absolutely ruining my wonderful period piece” in her performance.
Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray was the obsession of her much-older suitor, the artist, critic and “greatest (art) teacher of our time,” John Ruskin. She “loves” him and accepts his proposal and moves from Scotland to London with the great man. He was the first to recognize the genius of “Mr. Turner,” for those who caught that biopic of the famed pre-impressionist English landscape artist.
But Ruskin was schooled for nothing less. When Effie moves in with her husband and his parents, she sees his passion is only for the work his exacting father (David Suchet) and smothering martinet mother (Julie Waters) have groomed him for. Ruskin has no time or interest, in ANY way, in Effie. And she’s not allowed to protest her lonely lot.
“You forget where you are,” his mother hisses. “You forget WHO you are!”
Thompson plays the forward-thinking arts patron Lady Eastlake (James Fox plays her husband), a woman who recognizes neglect and fears for Effie’s health and future. Robbie Coltrane is a doctor, Derek Jacobi a lawyer. The supporting cast is impeccable.
The problem begins and ends with Fanning. Effie is meant to be a hothouse flower, a “great beauty” who “blossoms” when a young protege (Tom Sturridge is painter Everett Millais) pays attention to her. Fanning cannot manage it. Her Effie’s sufferings have been lacking, and Effie’s romantic desperation is a non-starter.
Fanning’s name still gets movies financed, after a fashion. But after this, the latest in a long series of film-killing performances, perhaps even producers will get a clue. If you can’t get Elle, no Fanning is better than any Fanning at all.

ef

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic and sexual content, and some nudity

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise, David Suchet, James Fox, Julie Walters
Credits: Directed by Richard Laxton, written by Emma Thompson. An Adopt Films release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: Running afoul of a femme fatale in “The Girl is in Trouble”

grl
There’s an extraneous word in the title of the thriller “The Girl is in Trouble.” The moment we meet the sexy, calculating Swede Signe (Alicja Bachleda), we know the girl IS trouble.
But co-writer/director Julius Onah’s clever genre film never lets us off the hook with a simple femme fatale moment. Because we’ve seen, in the film’s opening, what she saw — a man, covered in blood, strangling another man.
It’s a scene Signe had the presence of mind to record on her cell phone. And even that act suggests that this blunt blonde, on the run, ready to hide out in the bed of a casual pick-up if need be, is playing the angles, leaning on her assets — maybe to survive, maybe to escape justice, perhaps to profit.
August (Columbus Short) is the woman-weary DJ wannabe whom she draws into her problems. It’s his bed she ends up in and his voice that narrates the story.
“It’s the real to see death lying right in front of you,” he growls. August is involved because he recognizes the guys in the video, which he stumbles into by searching through Signe’s phone. And when the dead man’s brother, Angel, shows up asking questions, August lies. Bad move.
Wilmer Valderrama utterly reinvents himself here as Angel, a hard man trying to keep his abuela (grandmother, Miriam Colon) from knowing what he does for a living, trying to keep his kid brother out of the business and trying to find that kid brother. He won’t be happy when he learns out August knows Jesus is dead. Short is flinty and spare and Bachleda a blend of desperate, cunning and hard to read.
The narration gets to be a bit much, filling in backstory and such.
“She always thought fate would bring her to New York.”
But Onah uses his few NYC locations well, doles out the extreme violence sparingly and strings along a fairly suspenseful story that has the killer’s “fixer,” and Angel and Angel’s friends all looking for this woman, and August mystified as to why he’s helping her. She isn’t who she seems.
“The Girl is in Trouble,” that much is obvious. But so is the fact that the girl IS trouble. Why is the narrator always the last to know?

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, explicit sex, drug content, profanity

Cast: Columbus Short, Alicja Bachleda, Wilmer Valderrama, Jesse Spencer
Credits: Directed by Julius Onah, script by Julius Onah, Mayuran Tiruchelvam. An eOne release.

Running time: 1:34

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Movie Review: “The Living” is a hitman tale that offers cheap thrills, and consequences

livSir Alfred once said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” Committing this truism to memory would still serve any film student well.
It’s stunning how few filmmakers remember that when writing, casting and producing their independent films. Write a weighty villain, spend the cash on hiring a quality heavy to play him or her.
Writer-director Jack Bryan learned that for his feature “The Living.” He had a lean, gripping murder-for-hire tale with a sharp and troubling undertow of what it takes to be a man in some corners of the culture. But it wouldn’t work without Chris Mulkey, playing a heartless sociopath ex-con hired to kill a man.
Mulkey’s credits go back to “48 Hrs.” and “The Long Riders,” through TV’s “Twin Peaks” to “Grimm” and “Scandal.” There are echoes of every hard man he’s ever portrayed in Howard, the redneck murderer-philosopher Gordon (Kenny Wormald) pays $2,000 to punish his abusive drunk of a brother-in-law.
Teddy (Fran Kranz of “The Cabin in the Woods”) woke up one morning with a hangover, bruised fists and a bloodied finger. Somebody took his wedding ring off after he passed out.
That someone was his willowy wife (Jocelin Donahue of “Insidious, Chapter 2″). She ran off to mom’s house covered in bruises. Mom (veteran character actress Joelle Carter) is livid when her daughter Molly returns to the creep. She’s even madder at the cowering son (Wormald) who did nothing to stop it.
“I hope you’re half as ashamed of you as I am.”
Gordon mouths off to a co-worker, the co-worker says he knows a guy who knows a guy, and next thing you know the kid has set events in motion he has no control over.
Bryan sends Gordon from rural Pennsylvania, the film’s setting, to Mississippi, in search of Howard. And then he has events back home supersede the mission Gordon has undertaken. Molly has her own ways of punishing Teddy.
“You’re not my husband again until I say so,” she growls. He has to court her. First date? Everybody’s favorite restaurant. She wants their friends to see what he did to her.
And Teddy takes it, because maybe he’s not a bad man, maybe it’s the alcohol that’s the source of their issues.Mom’s lectures go unheeded.
“Men always change until you give’em a chance to change back.”
Gordon, meanwhile, is getting an education from Howard, who grows scarier and more unpredictable with every mile they travel from Mississippi back to Pennsylvania.
“You never gonna be a man in your own mind unless this thing is finished,” Howard concludes. “And you ain’t doin’ it yourself.” He’s not ” man enough.”
Mulkey is chilling, first moment to last, in this brutal, blood-stained film noir. The moral subtext gives the film heft, the performances make it real and Mulkey makes “The Living” fear the man who doesn’t fear death, a Devil released from Hell who knows it’s not about the killing or the killed, but the guilt carried by “those left behind.”

3stars2
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language

Cast: Fran Kranz, Jocelin Donahue, Kenny Wormald, Chris Mulkey, Joelle Carter
Credits: Written and directed by Jack Bryan. A Monterey Media release.

Running time: 1:31

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Box Office: “Home” hits a homer, “Get Hard” is solid — “Insurgent” plummets, “It Follows” underwhelms

boxThat late March animated window — spring break for elementary school kids, nothing else at the movies for them to see — opened wide for “Home,” a lesser Dreamworks offering that cleared $50 million, easily, a $54 million weekend for the Jim Parsons-voiced alien “invasion” comedy.

“Get Hard” did a very healthy $34 million on its opening weekend. Kevin Hart’s winning streak continues, Will Ferrell buys another year of box office relevance.

“Insurgent” fell off steeply, over 57%, to a $22 million weekend. It won’t hit $100 million until next weekend.

“It Follows,” the first decent horror movie of the year, opened pretty wide and didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Over 1,000 screens, over $4 million overall.

“Cinderella” is now over $150 million, and will pass Universal’s ghastly “Fifty Shades of Gray” next weekend as the year’s biggest hit. It’s doing great overseas, too.

“Do You Believe?”, from the folks who made “God’s Not Dead,” is still in the top ten — $7 million so far.

“Focus” will be a weaker Will Smith offering. It will finish up in the $60 million range, a little better than much older Kevin Costner’s latest, “McFarland, USA” is over $40 and will top out at $50, when all is said and done.

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Movie Review: “Danny Collins”

dc“Danny Collins” may be the closest Al Pacino ever gets to playing Pacino the legend on the big screen.
Perma-tanned under that vast black mane and Mephistophelian goatee, blinged in the Jersey Italian style, effortlessly larger than life and bowl-you-over charming, this is the post “Hoo-Hah” Pacino that he’s presented to the press and the public since “Scent of a Woman.” And he’s never been more engaging at being, well, himself.
Credit actor-turned-director Dan Fogelman for putting the real Pacino into this “kind of based on a true story…a little bit.” “Danny Collins” is about a rich and super-famous singer-songwriter sell-out in the Neil Diamond mold, a guy cruising for decades on hits that the sing-along audience basically performs for him. Then, like the real-life singer we see in the closing credits, he’s gifted with a letter John Lennon once wrote to him back at the beginning of his career, a little advice about “riches” and “fame” that might have served him well…forty years ago.
Danny quits his tour, ditches the “coked-up teenager who can’t keep her nipples covered” (his fiance, played by Katarina Cas) and heads to Jersey to meet the son he never knew.
That son, played by Bobby Cannavale with an exhausted, weary rage that long ago lost its heat, wants nothing to do with him. Nor does his slightly more sympathetic wife (Jennifer Garner, glorious). Their adorable ADHD daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) is another story.
Danny turns on the twinkle for the staff of the Hilton where he’s staying, especially the “age appropriate” manager (Annette Bening in a pasted-on grin that isn’t falling for anything). He sparkles for his “family.” And he drinks, even as he tries to stop sniffing the coke he keeps in the garish crucifix he wears beneath his constantly open shirt wrapped in an omnipresent scarf.
“Danny Collins” is entirely too on-the-nose to be much of a challenge, but it is about something, about taking stock, trying something hard and then wondering if the easy thing that’s gotten you by all these years is what you should go back to.
Bening and Pacino make their “banter” work.
“I’m an old man, with ten Scotches in him. What can I do?”
Fogelman laces the soundtrack with John Lennon songs, gets Christopher Plummer to play the saucy old manager/father confessor to Danny and Josh Peck to play a starstruck doorman. And in this F-bomb laced showbiz dramedy, he makes sure the only F-bombs that matter are from that crusty agent and the saintly “best daughter-in-law ever.”
It’s cute, with an R-rated edge that doesn’t insult the sensibilities of the AARP audience this should appeal to. And the gekko-eyed, leathery grin of Pacino holds it all together, whether it’s croaking Danny’s biggest hit on stage, dancing the “moves” that made the groupies swoon, back in the last century or hinting at the lonely vulnerability of a guy who gets — almost too late — the affirmation from his idol that could have changed his life.

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and some nudity
Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner
Credits: Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. A Bleecker Street Media release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: “While We’re Young”

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It hits us all, that day when “hip” suggests “replacement” and “Old Man/Old Woman Talk” enters our vocabulary. We scratch our heads over names like Kanye and Lena and cope, with growing confusion, at the next generation’s values.
It happens to Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s biting and bitterly amusing “While We’re Young.” And not just to his character, Josh, an creatively-blocked once-hip documentary filmmaker, but to Stiller, the actor who just turned 49 and has finally mastered the stooped, bowlegged walk of his elderly father (comic Jerry Stiller).
Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) hurls youth right in the faces of a couple of New York artsy types — Naomi Watts plays Josh’s producer-wife, Cornelia — in the form or two generous and unambitious  twentysomethings, “makers” who whip up their own ice cream, cobble together handmade desks and eschew pricey clothes, swank apartments and expensive toys in favor of tattoos, ancient IBM typewriters and lofts they can share communally with other people “in the moment.”
Josh is in slack-jawed awe of would-be documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver), who approaches him as a fan, gives him nicknames (“Joshy, Yosh”) and helps him pick out a hipster Homburg. The fact that Jamie married Darby (Amanda Seyfried) despite having no plan, no visible means of support, impresses Cornelia, too. They’re an antidote to their usual friends, couples who have “joined the baby cult.” Those folks (Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) are mystified at the transformation in Cornelia and Josh.
“You guys wanna hit this Street Beach with us?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
As he proved in “Greenberg,” Stiller is a wonderful conduit for Baumbach’s ideas and pithy, witty dialogue. Josh leads his wife into group vomit “cleansings” with a con-man shaman and admits that “the only feelings I have left are ‘wistful’ and ‘disdainful.'”
And the young? They have it all, so comfy in their own skin they think nothing of dancing in drag bars, F-bombing each other lovingly and defusing any situation — even involving strangers — with “I love you.”
Stiller does that twitchy, bug-eyed fury thing, Driver (“This is Where I Leave You” and TV’s “Girls”) is a master of offhanded hip. Watts’ Cornelia hurls herself into the wide-eyed Darby’s hip hop exercise classes, and Charles Grodin has his best part in years, playing Ben’s much-resented legendary filmmaker father-in-law. That plays into the doubts Josh starts to develop over just how generous, original and “sharing” the succeeding generation really is.
Young” is Baumbach’s most conventional film, but also his most wholly realized, from a baby’s music box playing David Bowie’s “Golden Years” to the shrewd observations about what becomes of documentaries in an age “when people record EVERYthing.”
So gather ye tight jeans while ye may, hipsters. The prophet sees “relaxed fit” in your future.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:  R for language

Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Credits: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:37

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Mo vie Review: “The Barber”

2stars1glennGood acting and sharp editing make “The Barber” a most engrossing serial killer thriller. But too much talk, mostly in a lecturing over-explained finale, almost undoes all of that.
Scott Glenn has the title role, a Chicago man once a “person of interest” in 17 Chicago murders — young female victims were often buried alive — now an elderly, mild-mannered barber with a different name in a small Midwestern town.
Glenn, who has conveyed both menace and quiet kindness in a career that has had him playing convicts (“Urban Cowboy”) and FBI agents (“The Silence of the Lambs”) , is well-cast as a man who won’t stand for profanity, a friend to all, but with just a touch of menace.
Chris Coy of “The Walking Dead” is a young man who shows up in town, identifies the former Francis Visser, possible serial killer, and threatens him.
“I know that that itch doesn’t die,” the kid says. “Teach me how not to get caught.”
A clue about who he is. When the small town sheriff (Stephen Tobolowsky) arrests and roughs up the kid, the boy gives his name as “J.D. LaRue.” That’s a cop from TV’s “Hill Street Blues.” We’ve seen a cop, years before, kill himself over failing to build a case against Visser — a cop with a son.
Now, some stranger with serial killer leanings wants Visser to guide him.
“Class starts tomorrow,” the old man purrs.
The old man tells his protege to “Be clean, don’t rush…”Everywhere you go, you’re leaving puzzle pieces.”
And the kid learns — an oversexed waitress here, a rain-soaked hitchhiker there.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, we meet a cliched garter belted hooker (Kristen Hager) who turns out to be a cop, and turns out to know the kid. She tracks him down to intervene.
Director Basel Owies deftly keeps parallel storylines marching forward, maintaining suspense despite the occasional lapse into situations that were worn out back when “Hill Street Blues” was on the air.
And as we head to the inevitable, predictable conclusion, the monologues lengthen and logic goes out the door. But in spite of its failings, chatty and otherwise, this “Barber” still delivers a pretty close shave.

MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexual material

Cast: Scott Glenn, Chris Coy,Kristen Hager,Stephen Tobolowsky
Credits: Directed by Basel Owies, written by Max Enscoe. An ARC release.

Running time: 1:30

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Movie Review: Small kids, and small kids only, will love “Home”

hmm

“Home” is a energetic, obvious animated comedy packed with the sort of low humor and silly laughs that drive very small children wild.
It’s a lesser Dreamworks work, in other words, no more ambitious than those later “Madagascar” movies. There’s not much here for anybody over the age of eight.
Jim Parsons voices Oh, a six-legged nuisance member of the Boov, an alien race that is “Best species ever…at running away.” They change planets at the first hint of danger. No stretch to think of the actor most famous for the robotic, socially-inept hermaphrodite on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” as a socially inept, English-mangling alien.
“What for you did this?” And “You have in nick of time SAVED us!” That’s the sort of thing Oh says.
Captain Smek, a very funny Steve Martin, is the head coward, the one who drags the Boov to Earth, where they relocate all the humans to “Happy Humans Towns” in Australia, and take over.
But teen Tip (Rihanna) has hidden out. And when Oh ineptly sends an Evite to a party to the entire universe (thus giving away the Boov’s hideout to their enemies, the Gorg), he is on the lam from his own people. They need his password to stop the email from being delivered.
Tip (short for Gratuity, hmm) only wants to find her mom (Jennifer Lopez). Handily, she and mom croon a few tunes on the soundtrack while their characters seek each other out.
Toss in a few 3D sight gags — not enough to justify making this in 3D — the odd “lactose intolerant” flatulence joke, restroom humor (“a number one, a number two? Or a number three?”) and you’ve got a kids’ movie.
Not a great one. But the voice actors are engaging. Martin stretches out vowels and brings back the mock incredulity that was his comic trademark back when he did comedy albums, not movies.
“The Internet does not lie!”
But if you’re old enough to surf that Internet without adult supervision, “Home” is entirely too familiar, and too childish to visit.

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor

Cast: The voices of Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin
Credits: Directed by Tim Johnson, written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on a book by Adam Rex. A Dreamworks Animation/20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:34

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Movie Review: “Apartment Troubles”

troublesThe time-honored actor/actress tradition of “if Hollywood won’t hire me, I’ll make work for myself” is the origin story of “Apartment Troubles,” a nearly laughless comedy that doesn’t do its writer/director/stars any favors.
But cute character comics Jennifer Prediger (“Life of Crime”) and Jess Weixler (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”) convinced Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte and Megan Mullally to come on board their “Two Broke Eccentric Girls” farce, so that’s something.
Nicole (Weixler) is a wildly unstable artist who never sells anything, and Olivia (Prediger) is an actress who never acts.
The landlord of their slovenly-kept illegal sublet (Tambor) has had enough. When he ducks in to avail himself of their shower, he realizes their power has been turned off.
“We’re choosing to live without electricity!”
There’s no food?
“We’re on a CLEANSE right now!”
Since those are the film’s funniest lines, you can guess it’s all downhill from there. Absurdly unlikely events put these two paupers on a private jet from New York to L.A., into a car for a “lift” driven by a loony-perv played by Forte and into the home of a rich reality TV producer/aunt (Mullally).
A vapid, tired riff on LA via a dinner party — You’re an artist? What do you do? “I’m working with a lot of SAND right now.” — a broad and brief TV talent show goof, and they’re done. As are we. It’s over so quickly, yet the pity is it wasn’t more quickly.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, some profanity

Cast: Jennifer Prediger, Jess Weixler, Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte, Megan Mullally
Credits: Written and directed by Jennifer Prediger, Jess Weixler. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:18

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Movie Review: “White God”

whiteBudapest, Hungary, has a serious PR problem thanks to the movie “White God.” The film, a grimly dark satire, depicts a city of serious dog haters — from ordinary apartment tenants intolerant of canines, to the homeless who steal them, to the Gypsy underground which trains them to fight to the death and the ruthless legions of dog-catchers who swarm in on escaped animals.
Standing alone against this sea of Hungarian hound hate is Lili (Zsófia Psotta). She’s 13, her parents are divorced and her big mutt Hagen is her best friend. But when Lili is forced to stay with her bitter ex-professor dad, now reduced to being a meat inspector at a slaughterhouse, Hagen is not a part of the deal. Dad puts up with the dog only until a busybody neighbor lies to the authorities to get Dad (Sándor Zsótér) into trouble. Fed up with the dog and Lili’s growing defiance over it, he dumps Hagen in the street.
“White God” — the title seems to be a play on Sam Fuller’s “White Dog,” a film about a girl whose pet was raised to attack black people — is mostly about Lili’s efforts to find her beloved dog, the awful odyssey Hagen endures when he joins the ranks of Hungary’s strays, and the possibility of revenge when those strays escape. The film’s opening image is of Lili, a teenage “white god” at the head of a vast pack.
Co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó allows for a little anthropomorphism when a Jack Russell terrier mutt takes Hagen under his wing and into a street pack. But when animal control swoops in on a SWAT-style raid to round up the strays, Hagen is on his own. Stolen, sold, brutalized, trained and injected, he becomes a dog fighter. And that’s not a pretty sight.
Meanwhile, Lili’s defiance has her quitting the youth orchestra where she plays trumpet, roaming the city on her bike, searching. A musical pun — Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” is a piece she’s learning, and also features in a Tom & Jerry cartoon that plays on a TV in the animal shelter, calming the dogs about to be euthanized.
A quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke opens “White God” — “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” But that goes for the film, too. Who will want to see a movie so focused on dogs, in which they’re brutalized and killed?
Perhaps the satiric laughs came easier in Budapest, in the original Hungarian (with English subtitles).

3stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, mostly involving dogs.

Cast: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, László Gálffi
Credits: Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, written by Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:01

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