Movie Preview: “La La Land” looks loverly

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in an LA romance from the folks who made “Whiplash, a movie utterly unlike “Whiplash.” Sumptuous.

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Movie Review: Anna Gunn hides her cards well in “Equity”

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Every shaker and mover in the world of Wall Street captured in “Equity” is wary, guarded, downright paranoid you might say.

Each and every character has reason to be. Backs will be stabbed, and each knows this because in this world, you’re either stabbing or getting stabbed. There’s no in between.

The principals are all women throwing elbows in what we used to call “a man’s world,” struggling to survive, to endure the sexism and hostility, the different standards they’re being held to.

They’re learning that “It is OK to do it for ourselves,” says investment banker Naomi Bishop, played with a poker-faced fury by Anna Gunn of TV’s “Breaking Bad.” Naomi is a fortysomething IPO (Initial Public Offering) specialist having a rough patch. Her Jenga-playing boss is telling her “It’s not your year,” and she’s frantically treading water, hoping this next deal will allow her to prove him wrong.

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Naomi is single, having a romance with a colleague from the company’s hedge fund division (James Purefoy) and holding back her up-and-coming associate, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who figures she’s overdue for a raise.

Erin has her own paranoia. In this ruthless business, she lives in mortal fear of a baby bump. With all the “meet for drinks” wheeling and dealing here, she knows somebody will find her out.

Then there’s Naomi’s old classmate, now a prosecutor with the SEC. Sam (Alysia Reiner) is hunting the folks looking for “an edge” in every IPO, that inside information that will allow them to manipulate a stock price and make a killing doing it.

The telling scene comes early — an alumni gathering where Naomi speaks to young women about to enter business and confesses “I like money…I like knowing that I have it.” She is happy — OK, happy-ish — that the day has arrived when women can allow themselves to be just as ambitious, just as greedy, just as cutthroat as their male counterparts.

But while Naomi may rebuff Erin’s salary demands and be quick to blame her if things go wrong, when the boss (Lee Tergesen) wants to know who she can let go in the latest round of layoffs, it is men who work for her she is ready to throw under the bus. Childless and single, she figures out Erin’s baby secret, but keeps it to herself.

The script, from a story by actresses Thomas and Reiner, is fiercely feminine and adept at juggling conflicting agendas and “needs.” It’s informative in showing the way one woman’s “edge” is, from the Security and Exchange Commission’s point of view, another’s lapse in compliance.

These are women willing to use their wiles, when all else fails. They’re smart and self-interested, and occasionally cunning. But this isn’t a soap opera, none of the cliched crying binges or catfights materialize, and the only melodramatic splashes come in an uptempo third act.

The cattiness comes from the other sex. The men are, almost to a one, scoundrels, save for the aged mentors on each side.

“Equity” coasts for too long on petty indignities Naomi must soldier through, and minor intrigues involving a new “invulnerable” social network, its youngish/sexist founder (Samuel Roukin) who seems underwhelmed at having to depend on a woman to take his company public.

But those third act fireworks pay off. And Gunn presents a clinic in close-to-the-vest card playing, a banker in a panic whose greatest fear is that she will let others see that fear and use it against her.

stars2

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout

Cast: Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan ThomasAlysia Reiner
Credits: Directed by Meera Menon, script by Amy Fox. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: Brosnan plays a tycoon whose “I.T.” troubles are just beginning

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Pierce Brosnan has wizened from the days when he sipped martinis, “shaken, not stirred,” into roles as assorted well-heeled men who sip Scotch in their designer homes. Or private jets.

It’s not that he’s out of the action hero game. Films such as “The November Man,” “No Escape” and “Survivor” still pose him with a pistol on the poster as assorted agents, ex-agents, hit-men, etc. But even if he still has that Bondian hint of danger about him, at 63, he’s more suited to characters trying to hang on to what they’ve got than hungry hunters settling grudges, carrying out final hits and the like.

In “I.T.,” he plays a private aviation tycoon whose only means of saving his company is a new app that enables private jet owners to hire out and make more efficient use of their aircraft.

Mike Regan, assorted news stories on CNN and NPR tell us, is 52. And if Ireland (where they shot this) can pass for suburban Washington, D.C., why not? No need to trust every crusty close-up, which gives up his actual mileage.

Regan is something of a technophobe. He needs his wife’s (Anna Friel) help to operate the coffee maker. And he needs his IT team to make the app work and ensure that his Power Point presentation to his worried employees goes smoothly.

It doesn’t, but an IT temp on staff (James Frecheville of “The Drop” and “Animal Kingdom”) saves the day. That prompts Mike to invite the guy to fix the wi-fi in his new “smart” house. They discuss the house’s complicated electronics, so many devices interconnected, so many with cameras built into them. They’re turned off.

“I like my privacy,” Mike purrs, over his latest Scotch.

“Privacy’s dead, Mike,” Ed, the IT guy, declares. “Privacy isn’t a right. It’s a privilege.”

it1Ed proceeds to prove that to Mike by assuming a familiarity, a friendship. He takes that further when he inveigles his way into the life of Mike’s teenage daughter (Stefanie Scott). As boundaries fall and Ed fails to pick up signals that Mike doesn’t want them to fall, they fall out. And that’s when the real trouble begins.

“You are not the master of the universe, Mike.”

Director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) can’t smooth out the abrupt edges of this thriller, and can’t improve the script’s weary archetypes. Ed is ex-NSA (of course), lives alone in a nearly-abandoned building with only a wall of video screens to keep him company (of course). He stalks waitresses and reaches out through social media, where mixed messages and confused signals are rampant.

He’s a lonely loner in a vintage Charger, raving along to Missing Persons’ “What are Words For?” as if he’s never figured out the answer to that question, and never will. Frechville gives off a sinister vibe that we sense, even if Mike doesn’t, the first time we meet Ed.

Brosnan plays a classic technophobe here, a man whose house, family, business and wired-in Maserati are all threatened by this privacy-averse child of the voyeuristic/electronic New World Order. He responds by switching to his analog ancient Mustang, and a fixer (Michael Nyqvist of the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) as old as he is. And he responds with violence, which of course begets more violence.

It’s all quite predictable — save for the sinister use of the music of Missing Persons — and a trifle bland. But the depictions of password-access mayhem are chillingly real, and Brosnan gets across the helplessness that many his age, all over the world, feel at the new tech and the new rules — no rules at all — threatening his ruin.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: Unrated, with bloody violence, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, James FrechevilleStefanie Scott, Anna Friel, Michael Nyqvist
Credits: Directed by John Moore, script by Dan Kay and William Wisher, Jr. An RLJ Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: “Southside With You”

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Yeah, it came too soon. Like his candidacy, his presidency, his premature Nobel Prize.

But “Southside with You” is a lovely little Michelle and Barack first-date romance, a celebration of a symbolic presidency and a classy First Couple. This understated and chatty movie ignores that distant future and focuses on that romantic staple — that first date story, the awkward moments, and the sweet ones.

Actor turned first-time feature writer-director Richard Tanne zeroes in on the awkwardness, the competing agendas and different backgrounds of native Chicago lawyer Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, a Hawaiian/Harvard man spending his summer in his adoptive home, Chicago. Tanne found two good, under-used actors, wrote them conversations that cover everything from religion to desserts, family to politics, and followed them for one long, dreamy afternoon and evening in the summer of ’89, the year of Spike Lee’s watershed film, his masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing.”

Michelle (Tika Sumpter of the “Ride Along” movies) is primping entirely too much for her family to buy “It ISN’T a date.”

Barack (Parker Sawyers of “Zero Dark Thirty” and other military films)? He’s smoking. And taking phone calls from his granny, assuring her that yes, “Her skin is of the dark persuasion.”

She was his adviser at the corporate law firm where he was interning. Michelle, a Princeton/Harvard Law grad herself, was already an associate and bridling at “being two different people,” at living in “Planet Black,” her family, and “Planet White,” the work world where she “fills a quota” in the name of diversity, but where the price is a chunk of her identity.

She describes this fellow she’s going to a community organizing meeting as “another smooth-talking brother.” But she’s going. Just so long as “this is NOT a date. Because that would be tacky.”

He picks her up. He’s late. Then comes the first misunderstanding. The meeting isn’t for hours. Let’s go to an African American art exhibit at the museum. Walk in the park. Maybe grab a sandwich and a slice of pie.

“I don’t like pie.”

“You’re MISTAKEN!”

He may be driving a battered Tercel with the floorboards rusted out, but he oozes self-confidence. They banter, lightly bicker and reveal bits and pieces of themselves. Then they reach the meeting, where the “smooth-talking brother” shows himself. He’s mastered rhetoric, the politics of persuasion. He pipes up, just as the crowd is voicing frustration at how little gets accomplished, and his words take flight. If he was trying to impress a woman, this is the set up to end all set-ups.

For those not swept up in the politics of “personal story,” a lot of this will be a revelation. She lived at home in an ambitious family of hard workers where responsibility and devotion are paramount.

His Kenyan dad may not have been around, and his mom was a rolling stone her own self. But Dad got into Harvard before Barack, and Mom showed him the world.

Sawyer’s got the gangly, unworried and unhurried Obama “cool” down pat. He mastered the cadences of Obama’s speech, if not the stammers and occasional vocalized pauses evident when he’s off-script, putting thought into what he’s going to say.

Sumpter makes Michelle the one with some bite, someone who will turn on you if you suggest she’s selling out, doing corporate law. Maybe because she wonders if that’s what she’s done. Sumpter makes us feel the attraction she must have felt, and the embarrassment when people from his world (the meeting) assume she’s “his woman.”

“We’re not together. At ALL!”

The resemblance is good, but the edge these players give their characters makes them interesting.

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Tanne has crafted a winning film of smart, probing conversation that plays like an affectionate going away gift to the Obamas. It won’t reach the birthers, the Dinesh D’Souza disciples and their ilk. It isn’t freighted with a sense of destiny about this transformative figure.

It’s just a date, no matter what “she” says, a meeting of the minds of two like-minded people who have to get past the “smooth-talking” and pie barriers to realize just how like-minded they are.

3stars2

 

 

 

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Tanne. A Miramax/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:25

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Movie Review: Ramirez, Usher tangle impressively in “Hands of Stone”

Two things every sports fan remembers about the boxer Roberto Duran — that his nickname, “Hands of Stone” (“Manos de Piedra“) came from his ferocious, knock-out delivering fists — and “No mas,” the infamous phrase attached to a fight he was losing to Sugar Ray Leonard, a fight he quit in frustration.

But can you make a movie titled “Hands of Stone” without “No mas”? You can’t. But if it’s based on Duran’s autobiography and thus officially sanctioned, you don’t have to have him say it.

That’s a quibble with “Hands of Stone,” a swaggering and colorful boxing bio pic from the Venezuelan writer-director  Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Secuestro Express”). It presents an impulsive, temperamental and Yanqui-hating Duran, the face of Panamian nationalism during the “Give us the Canal” 1970s. He took titles in multiple weight classes, going a very macho toe-to-toe with all comers, often knocking out opponents with those rock-hard fists.

Edgar Ramirez plays Duran with a dazzling brio, a true “street kid” who brawled his way was from stealing fruit from trees inside the U.S. “Canal Zone,” to champion of the world.

Robert DeNiro brings a world-weary caginess to Ray Arcel, the veteran American trainer who was forced out of boxing by the mob, but got back in to turn “the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen” into a world champ. Not that Duran wanted that. Remember, he had a life-long antipathy for gringos.

“I don’t need advice from an American.

DeNiro’s Arcel narrates the story, which begins with Duran’s childhood and the days when Arcel crossed the wrong “wise guy” (John Turturro, quietly menacing) and had to give up the sport he loved. Arcel is full of grandfatherly advice in the corner.

“Luck is a woman you must seduce.” And he endures the taunts of the jerk he trained, an insecure man who could flip out if you so much as complimented, in a warning way, a foe they needed to prepare for.

“you love him so much, go and train HIM!”

Ramirez (“Joy,” “The Liberator,” “Point Break”) devours the screen as Duran, a man of dash and desire who eats like someone who used to starve (he did) and pursues everything he wants with an alarming vigor — including the rich chica rubia (blonde) school girl he eventually married (Ana de Armas of “War Dogs”).

Ruben Blades is the long-suffering rich Panamanian who sponsored Duran, and put up with him. A couple of solid character actors impersonate promoter Don King (Reg E. Cathey) and Howard Cosell.

And Usher Raymond transforms himself from pretty boy singer to pretty boy boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, a guy who fought Duran, lost and figured out how to beat him. It’s a canny performance, not a showy one.  Duran got under his skin, and vice versa.

“I will make him fight like a man!” Duran declares.

DeNiro’s Arcel is the force of calm in the corner, trying to give his fighter discipline, hoping the world will see him as the harbinger of Boxing’s Greatest Era, which he did.

A nice touch — Arcel brings a comb into the corner with him and grooms Duran’s hair during his between-rounds pep talks. Nothing more demoralizing to an opponent than for you to come back out there, handsome and unruffled as ever, after what the other guy was sure was a brutal, I’ve-got-this-guy-beat round.

This is Ramirez’s movie, a celebration of Duran that includes the sex, the infidelity, the America-bashing, the drugs and the indiscipline (hard to make weight when you love to gorge). It’s a playful, entertaining turn and he brings an exuberance to the guy that wins you over, even if you are a Leonard-loving Yanqui.

And he says he never uttered the phrase “No mas,” as he waved his gloved hands, mid-round, giving up in a rematch with his nemesis, the charismatic Yanqui Guar Ray Leonard.

Maybe he didn’t. It’s entirely possible Cosell, calling the fight  at ringside, got carried away with the little Spanish he knew and blurted that out to the world.

But no matter. “Hands of Stone” is still a first-rate boxing picture, a B-movie with just enough A-picture touches to make it sting.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Robert DeNiro, Ana de ArmasUsher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Ellen Barkin
Credits: Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz A Weinstein Co. release.

Running time: 1:45

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Box Office: “Ben Hur” becomes “Ben Who?” “High Water” hits per screen average double

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Not a big weekend for any film rolling out of Hollywood this Aug. 19-21. Summer is essentially over, so Laika’s traditional mid-Aug.-late Sept. release (“ParaNorman,” for instance) underwhelmed, with its kid-audience back in school. Just over $12 million is a shame, because “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a winner — smart, funny, beautifully animated. Expect this one to have Oscar legs. Go see it.

“War Dogs” suggests that Miles Teller is no box office star — yet, and that Jonah Hill’s top end of appeal is under $15 million in a movie where his name is above the title. $14 million and change for that one.

And “Ben-Hur” is final proof, if “Exodus: Gods and Kings” wasn’t proof enough, that big budget Biblical spectacles are too risky to throw a lot of money at. Even the huge returns on “Noah” didn’t allow it to break even. “Ben-Hur,” remade to death, on TV constantly, recast and rejiggered, with zero star power to sell it, hit just $11 million and change. Thousands of screens, millions upon millions of potential Christian viewers, and…zilch.

Bad reviews from critics, silence from the pulpit? Probably. It messes with the Gospels, and you don’t do that to reach that audience.

“Hell or High Water,” the big wide release of this summer, went into a few hundred more theaters and is doing well enough to stick around to mid-September. Not sure if I’d throw it into more theaters, though. Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges aren’t big enough names to get it above $6K per screen, in some 400 theaters. Not enough to crack the top ten. Not sure there’s much more to be made from a darkly funny and politically pointed modern Western/heist picture.

“Suicide Squad” continues to top the box office, over $20 million this weekend.

“Sausage Party” is looking like a sleeper, a dirty cartoon with a pro-atheism message will double or triple “A Tale of the Christ” at the box office. Ouch.

 

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Movie Preview: “Zoom” marries animation and sex dolls and drugs and…

This one opens Sept. 2, and stars Allison Pill as a comic book artist who conjures up a filmmaker (Gael Garcia Bernal) in a spec script, stumbles into some drugs and connects to the custom-made sex doll business.

And then it all becomes a blur as comic book (animation) comically invades her reality.

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Box Office: “Ben-Hur” bombs, “Kubo” underwhelms

kuboSo it’s to be another weekend won by that limp Warner Brothers comic book actioner, “Suicide Squad.” Because none of the new releases has a prayer of pushing it off the top spot, despite the downward spiral of ticket sales for a blockbuster that’s been out for three weeks.

“Squad” will earn $19 million or so by Sunday, based on Friday’s sales. “Sausage Party” opened huge and earned much better reviews, but it too is  hemorrhaging audience and will only hit the mid-teens this weekend.

Which is just a little better than the buddy dramedy “War Dogs,” an underwhelming pairing of Miles Teller, Jonah Hill and the director of “The Hangover” in a story of gun dealing going wrong.

Doesn’t have a “prayer” is what Paramount has to admit about the latest remake of “Ben-Hur.” A $100 million faith-based epic that twists the New Testament and fails to be “epic” in more than a couple of scenes, starring a cast of little-knowns (and Morgan Freeman), it will be lucky to break $12 million this weekend.

Money poorly spent, as this past spring’s “Risen,” earned just as much and cost a fraction of that.

The weekend’s best new movie, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is on a lot of screens and is only managing about $13 million itself. If only parents could figure out that Laika (“Coraline”, “ParaNorman”) is a more entertaining and enriching animation bet than Pixar, lately, these stop-motion classics would be blockbusters. But no.

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Movie Review: “The Confirmation”, now on Netflix

confirmA little Catholic boy tries to stop his dad’s downward spiral into alcohol and poverty in “The Confirmation,” a bleak but funny comedy from the screenwriter of “Nebraska.”

What writer/director Bob Nelson has dreamed up here is a “Bicycle Thieves” for the New Economy, a moving yet humorous story of an underemployed alcoholic trying to right his life, but failing until he’s stuck taking care of his eight year old son over a long weekend.

Clive Owen is impressively disconnected and disheveled as Walt, a finishing carpenter a long time between jobs, a short time between drinks. And Jaeden Lieberher is the same face of innocence he was in “St. Vincent” as Walt’s son, Anthony.

Anthony is getting ready for Confirmation, soon to take his first communion in the church his mother drags him to, several times a week, in a working class suburb of Seattle. He’s too young to have much to confess, even when his priest (Stephen Tobolowsky) prods him.

“I don’t see my dad often enough to dishonor him.”

Walt’s ex-wife (Maria Bello) has remarried and is off for a weekend with her new husband. Walt, barely sober and with so little money on hand he can barely keep home, hearth and pickup truck together, will look after Anthony.

And it’s obvious, right from the drive to Walt’s house, that Anthony will be the caregiver here. Walt leaves him in the truck while he stops off at his local bar.

Over the course of their weekend, calamities pile up as Walt is evicted, his truck fails, and the woodworking and carving tools he needs to save himself from doom are stolen. He and Anthony embark on a picaresque journey through a blue collar nightmare of unemployed barflies, living hand to mouth, many of whom Walt and the kid must confront as Walt searches for the tools for the big break job he starts on Monday.

Robert Forster plays the old family friend who might help out, Patton Oswalt is a dry-waller whose “leads” on the theft are just daft, and Tim Blake Nelson is a fellow barfly raising his sons, including one Anthony’s age, with the careless obliviousness of Every Gun Control advocate’s nightmares.

“How many times do I have to tell you boys that these guns I give you are not playthings?”

Anthony hides Walt’s booze, hides his car keys to keep him from buying booze and aches to get Dad’s permission to get out of this Confirmation jazz.

“I don’t want to take Communion, Dad. I don’t want to eat Jesus!”

Owen makes Walt nicely frayed, yet competent. He can fix things, when he’s sober.

The “comedy” here comes from the situations and confrontations, and the peripheral characters, old Otto (Forster) trying to rule out one possible thief — “But he’s a good guy now. He found Jesus.” You may never believe Oswalt is a dry-wall installer. But you’ll believe he’s a little crazy, and that he’s “back on the Meth.”

As with his “Nebraska” script, Nelson demonstrates a near-peerless grasp of working class values and despair. The problems are tiny to an outsider. But lose your toolbox, as Antonio lost the bicycle he needed to ride to work in Vittorio De Sica‘s 1948 classic, “Bicycle Thieves,” and your whole world is consumed with getting it back.

Nothing in your worth as a man and a father will make sense until you do.

3stars2

 

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some mature thematic elements

Cast: Clive Owen, Jaeden LieberherMaria Bello, Robert Forster, Patton Oswalt, Matthew Modine
Credits: Written and directed by Bob Nelson. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:41

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Weekend movies: “Ben Hur” beaten down, “War Dogs” neutered, “Kubo” conquers all

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Had to happen. I mean, last weekend had “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Anthropoid,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Sausage Party” opening wide, “Hell or High Water” opening wider.

And all were at least pretty good (“Pete’s Dragon”) and most were outstanding.

So this weekend, naturally, Hollywood taketh away.

Sure, the animated “Kubo and the Two Strings” from Laika and Focus Features, is a winner. “Lo and Behold,” the latest meditative documentary from the great Werner Herzog, scores. Rave reviews from one and all for those.

But the widest releases don’t earn raves.

“War Dogs” was a promising dark and supposedly funny Miami yeshiva alumni sell arms to the military buddy dramedy. Doesn’t really come off, and reviews are mixed. Teetering right on the brink of fresh or rotten on the Tomatometer all week.

Then there’s “Ben-Hur,” about which there is no doubt. Good action beats, alterations to the well-known “Story of the Christ” — some of which work, some not so much — and a general choppiness and heartless approach to the emotional high points that we KNOW are there, break it. Consistently poor reviews for this one.

Another “Final Fantasy” video game adaptation sucks the life right out of you. “Kingsglaive” isn’t the silliest word in it. 

Will “Ben-Hur” find a big faith-based audience? We’ll know by Sunday.

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