Movie Review: “The Truth About Lies”

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The biggest laughs in the starved-for-laughs romantic comedy “The Truth About Lies” are ones the filmmakers, and the star, could not have anticipated when they filmed it.

The comedy, about a loser who lies like he breathes, lies on the fly, answers every question that flummoxes him with a whopper.

And as he’s a bit stupid, the whoppers come fast and furious for Gilby Smalls , whose last name isn’t necessarily a reflection of his hand-size.

A job interview where he’s burnished his resume? “Harvard?”

Oh, you must have known Professor So-and-So.

“Sure, my mentor, really. Why, many’s the time he took me under his wing…”

She’s a woman.

“Right, right, although, we were never really certain, because she was just discovering her true gender…”

She’s dead.

“Yeah, and I remember the funeral, we were all weeping over the casket…”

She was cremated.

“And I spread the ashes all over Boston Common…”

I spread them. In New Jersey. She was my sister.

It’s to the movie’s detriment that the lying takes a back seat to so many other “issues” Gilby (Fran Kranz) has — a mother (Colleen Camp) who never told him who his father was (she’s a fibber, too), a girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) who dumped him…tomorrow.

“I was going to tell you…”

And after dealing with one rude customer too many at the cell phone star where this “I don’t WANT a career, I just want to live my life” he’s without a job.

That doesn’t stop him from telling a pretty woman (Odette Annable of “Supergirl”) he’s a tech entrepreneur who just sold his company at a party. And that leads to her workaholic tech CEO husband (Chris Diamantopoulos) throwing a job “baby sitting” his firm while he’s out of the country.

It takes one set of lies to impress a woman at a party, and a whole other level of lying to fool the underlings at the tech company — creating a fake name for the company he sold, for starters.

And then there are the lies required when you’re falling for the CEO’s “spiritual seeker” of a wife. “Yoga? I do it all the time.” “Sweat lodges? No no no. I did this all the time when I was a kid.” “Sushi? Love it.” Gulp.

“Wow. You must REALLY love wasabi!”

Kranz, unforgettable in “Bloodsucking Bastards,” kvetches, wheedles and exaggerates like Woody Allen playing Seinfeld’s George Costanza. He’s game enough, but he rarely makes a funny line land.

And the endless chain of fibs runs out of gas at about the time we’re thinking “Ick, he’s picking up a married woman he’s done nothing but lie to.”

Writer-director Phil Allocco punctuates scenes with blackout quotes about lies and “the truth” from the likes of Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Wilde.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

None of which is as funny as the unplanned similarities to a certain politician who never, ever admits a mistake or to a piece of knowledge he doesn’t have, covering with “Sure” and “I’m the best at” this or that “awesome” thing. Which he knows nothing about.

If this movie was better it might make rom coms great again. But I cannot lie. It won’t.

1half-star

 

 

 

MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations

Cast: Fran Kranz, Odette Annable, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Colleen Camp, Miles Fisher, Chris Diamantopoulos

Credits:  Written and directed by Phil AlloccoA Blue Fox release.

Running time 1:37

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Movie Review: “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

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“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a grim, chilly parable about guilt, revenge and Old Testament “justice.” It re-teams the director and star of “The Lobster” for another cryptic, melancholy exercise in tone and style.

Everyone in it speaks in the hypnotic and unemotional voice of the husband-and-wife doctors (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman). They, their colleagues and their “perfect” children (Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic) speak with a monotonous flat directness.

“Our daughter started menstruating last week,” the heart surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Farrell) tells his anesthesiologist (Bill Camp).

“Have you got hair under your armpits yet?” his youngest son (Suljic) asks the strange teenager (Barry Keoghan) Dad has brought home to dinner.

“Strange” is an understatement when it comes to Martin, a teen Dr. Murphy meets in diners, takes for talks by the river and patiently listens to — no matter what banalities come out of the kid’s mouth. Martin has some sort of power over Steven.

“Me and my mom thought it would be nice if you came over to dinner tonight,” sounds like an order, a veiled threat. Martin isn’t going to take “No” for an answer.

As that “power” mystery unravels (Alicia Silverstone is Martin’s mother), the life of quiet order and privilege that Steven and Anna sleepwalk through faces a medical crisis, one that could be psychological or supernatural. And its instigator, plainly, is Martin.

 

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Director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos emphasizes the near-silent sterility of a modern hospital (the film was shot in Cincinnati), unnervingly tracking down long quiet corridors behind or leading on the doctors with a close facsimile to a fisheye lens. Voices are not raised, even as the crisis starts to manifest itself.

Characters linger in extreme closeups, registering only the faintest alarm, discomfort, fear or threat — closeups that leave us rattled. A sharply dissonant musical score unsettles the viewer further.

Intimacy is alien, sex is an agreed-upon clinical routine, a cold-blooded transaction.

Until everything progresses so far that voices must be raised, threats turn overt and violence visits them all.

Keoghan (“Dunkirk”) is the very picture of “the banality of evil.” But he makes Martin mimic the tones of the doctors he is spending time with. Nothing is personal. “Blame” is pointed at someone else, always at someone else.

Farrell is doing his most intense, adult work with Lanthimos, even if the films are the least accessible of his career. Kidman lends the picture her trademark frosty humanity, a warmth slow to reveal itself.

The story they tell is every bit as cryptic as “Mother!” and almost as dark, if not quite as Biblical. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” is grim-going, too long for the thin parable it is built upon.

But Lanthimos orchestrates these performances into a perfectly-matched pitch, before lighting a match against this chill for an emotional climax that, like the picture before it, moves you even as it leaves you cold.

3stars2

 

MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone

Credits:Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos script by  Yorgos LanthimosEfthymis Filippou. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:58

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Movie Review: “The Snowman” doesn’t play fair

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Murder mysteries have a sacred pact with the audience. They have to give us enough clues to cling to the thread of the plot, some hints that point toward the “real killer,” some sense that the wrongs we see are going to be righted, that evil will be punished.

They have to make sense. They have to play fair.

“The Snowman,” a three-screenwriter adaptation of Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø’s novel, is a pitiless puzzle that points in more directions than you can count in two hours. Casting big names for single-or-two-scene performances are here to do nothing more than throw us off the scent. Fascinating back-stories are introduced, and killed off without real resolution.

It sets up its serial killer’s back story in an opening scene that does nothing to point to the real killer, but makes us wonder if the hero has some long-forgotten connection to him. It sets up a murderer’s modus operandi — building scary snowmen to taunt victims, and later to contain body parts, menacing, child-like hand-written notes with drawings to the detective-hero — and then abandons it.

It’s a Nordic cheat.

The riveting Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a detective “under suspension” for reasons we aren’t told, alcoholic and haunted by something that’s never explained. He is old school — asking the right questions, taking hand-written notes of only the details he figures matter — in an Oslo police department that’s got a new crime-crushing software/hardware system that collates daily notes, video records interrogations, tracks officers and stores everything in a master database.

Harry’s a loner who doesn’t buy into that. And when he gets a threatening note from “The Snowman,” with personal details and a hint of a murder to come — “I will build her a snowman.” — he KEEPS IT TO HIMSELF. Even after he meets a young wholly-digitized detective (Rebecca Ferguson) called in to investigate the latest missing mother in a string of such crimes.

But Katrine has one thing in common with Hole. She keeps her hunches, prior work and cold case files away from Harry…and from the other cops she works with.

So every woman we see, from the farm woman reported as “missing” by her “husband” (Chloe Sevigny), pulling the cops on the case before a crime is committed, to Harry’s ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourgh),  is in peril. Because the cops aren’t talking to each other, much less hurling their digital resources in the right direction.

A prologue has told us that the killer’s mania is driven by something we see in characters scattered all through the movie — uncertain patrimony. If you don’t know “Who’s your Daddy?” mommy’s at risk. A comment on Scandinavian open-mindedness about all matters sexual, paternal and maternal?

The cluttered pan-European cast (Toby Jones, Adrian Dunbar) includes the odd American. J.K. Simmons plays a popular rich philanthropist with a past. Val Kilmer, in flashbacks as a cop on earlier versions of this case,  looks ghastly and sounds dubbed.

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And almost none of them point, logically, toward a solution. Director Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) is used to dealing with complex plots, and the editing is by producer Martin Scorsese’s go-to cutter, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Neither of whom can connect the dots and conjure up a wholly coherent picture out of this script. It’s “Dragon Tattoo” complicated, without that one writer who could thin the material out, discerning between what is important and what should be treated as subtext, and cast accordingly.

Fassbender, Ferguson and Gainsbourgh always hold our attention. And cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Into the Woods,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) makes Norway a foggy, flurry-filled winter wonderland of shadows, scenery and snow. “Snowman’s” blue-tinted beauty is on a par with the yellowing dustscape of a climate-changed future captured in “Blade Runner: 2049.”

And the fact that we notice this, in endless scenes of cars dashing through wintry countryside, through canyon-like snowdrifts, of mountain trams and coast guard boats blasting through fjords, means that nobody is paying attention to raising tension or making it all make sense and playing fair in the process.

In the end, they’re simply content to cheat.

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MPAA Rating: R for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, J.K. Simmons, Chloe Sevigny, Val Kilmer

Credits: Directed by Tomas Alfredson, script by Peter Straighan, Hossein Amini, Søren Sveistrup,  based on the Jo Nesbo novel. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:58

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Movie Review — Neeson’s steel props up “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

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History remembers Mark Felt as “Deep Throat,” the heroic all-knowing secret informant who fueled much of the Washington Post reporting that exposed the corruption and crimes of the Nixon White House.

But the real man was more complicated than that — a top official with the F.B.I. doggedly loyal to “The Bureau” during the dark,  un-Constitutional decline of the Hoover years. He was later indicted for zealous, illegal operations aimed at attacking America’s most violent protest groups. His marriage was battered by his devotion to work and his suicidal, hard-drinking wife and daughter who fled to join a commune were proof of this.

That’s the angle writer-director Peter Landesman’s latest modern historical drama (“Concussion,” “Parkland”) pursues in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” It’s a truncated Watergate history told from a different point of view.

Felt’s motives are open to question as a man passed-over for the top job at the Bureau when the director-for-life J. Edgar Hoover died.

His self-righteousness and Bureau-worship makes one wonder if the Constitution was his first concern as he tried to resist Nixonian efforts to politicize the Bureau and “box in” the investigation into the Watergate break-in.

 

But Liam Neeson’s performance as Felt is undiluted fury, paranoia and desperation, all self-contained in a man nobody ever sees not wearing a suit. It doesn’t matter that too many lines sound like a man speaking for posterity. He reached that point honestly.

“For the first time in its history, the F.B.I. has been quarantined!”

We meet Felt as he’s playing the good company man, summoned to the White House (Dean, Mitchell, Ehrlichman) to be sounded out about his possibly replacing Hoover, whom several presidents thought of dislodging.

Neeson’s Felt doesn’t give away feeling flattered, honored or surprised. He just quickly sums up the sorts of files “Mr. Hoover” keeps under lock and key, diplomatically hinting at the blackmail that could be coming, ending with friendly reassurance.

“All your secrets are safe with us.”

White House counsel Dean (Michael C. Hall) gets the message.

“You’re a real politician, Mr. Felt.”

Within days, Hoover dies, Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate are broken into by a team of bungling ex-CIA/ex-FBI agents, and Felt’s loyalties to the administration and his skills as a “politician” are put to the test.

He leads the torching of Hoover’s blackmail files, insults a tainted former colleague, Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore) now working for the White House and is promptly passed-over for promotion. A Nixon partisan, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), is brought in to run the Bureau.

And as the media of the day tries to get at what could only be a White House-directed attack on political opponents, and tries to interest a disinterested America, Felt and a select group of close colleagues (Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn) grow alarmed at where this investigation is pointing and at White House efforts, aided by acting-director Gray, to stay a step ahead of it and bring it to a premature election year end.

Felt starts to reach out to reporters like Time Magazine’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood), but finds a lifetime of keeping Bureau secrets a hard habit to break.

That big moment in this historical epic — “Deep Throat” meeting Post reporter Bob Woodward in a D.C. parking garage — is pure anti-climax. He feeds the Post, but Woodward (Julian Morris) is so deer-in-headlights (accurate, I’ll bet) that Felt doesn’t feel he’ll get “the right story” out there.

 

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Meanwhile, at home his wife (Diane Lane) drinks and tries to rationalize why their daughter disappeared into a commune, which was totally a thing back in the early ’70s.

Neeson is utterly convincing as the 30-year F.B.I. veteran who understands the need for its independence, a man worthy of all the iconic blandishments hurled his way — “Integrity…the G-Man’s G-Man.”

We’ve seen Neeson so often as a man of action in recent years that it’s refreshing to see him burying his growing outrage — Nixon is re-elected, after all — until it finally boils over.

“We’re not telling ‘them’ ANYthing…They’re ALL lying!”

But while we’re focused on Felt’s efforts to protect the F.B.I. and keep his own secret — he was under suspicion as the “leaker” right from the start — and Landesman does an OK job at suggesting the tenor of the times (marches, bomb-throwing radicals, a failing war) — “Mark Felt” leaves out key exposition.

There’s no “Don’t you get it?” parking garage moment, that scene in “All the President’s Men” where Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat says “follow the money” and “They wanted to run against McGovern. Who’re they running against?”

That muddies the waters and waters-down the history, robbing the drama of hiding files, working around a corrupt (“absent from work” and “incompetent” are the labels history gives Gray) acting director and protecting a supposedly closed investigation from White House knowledge.

That costs the picture, and probably robs Neeson of an Oscar nomination. He’s that good. Lane supposedly had her best scenes edited out of the picture. Wife Audrey comes off as a Martha Mitchell figure — drunk, delusional, not exactly the loose cannon Mrs. Mitchell was, but a mere distraction from the movie’s main plot.

But Neeson stoic turn and the history we’re supposed to remember make “Mark Felt” work. He’s so immersed in this character it’s as if he brings Hal Holbrook’s iconic performance back to life, all-but-demanding that we revisit “All the President’s Men” and see how “loyalty to the president” enables corruption, and what it takes to bring that wrongdoing to justice.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some language

Cast: Liam Neeson, Marton Csokas, Diane Lane, Josh Lucas, Tom Sizemore, Tony Goldwyn, Eddie Marsan

Credits: Written and directed by Peter Landesman. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: “Only the Brave” do what these folks do

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Moving, majestic and manly, “Only the Brave” is a nearly perfect rendition of the sort of righteous, heroic entertainment Hollywood routinely built around its best leading men.

It’s a combat film where the enemy is fire, a Western where the code men live by is to measure up to each other, to not let the team down by being its weakest link. It finds its humor in the hazing rituals, its simple virtues in the jargon, the discipline and professionalism of men doing what men do to impress other men and the women they leave behind for this dangerous work.

And it is built on rock solid performances by players who are the measure of the men and women they portray.

Of course they’re called “Hot Shots.” No other name fits these young, adrenaline junkie firefighters, the elite forest firefighters who stand between flames and property, between charred chaos and the green.

Josh Brolin, wearing the sort of unfussy, confident machismo that has become his screen trademark, is Eric Marsh, leader of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Or they will be, once he and his second, Steed (James Badge Dale) whip this crew of 20 into shape and get them certified.

Usually, such teams are Forest Service (national or state) professionals, smoke jumpers dropped into “start ups” to cut fire breaks, do back-burns and thwart the infernos that are an increasing feature of a climate changed/over-developed/water-starved American West. Marsh, Steed and the grizzled Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, chewing a pinch) want Prescott, Arizona, to have its own municipal team.

One of the pleasures of screenwriter Sean Flynn’s script (based on a GQ article) is that in addition to all the talk of “beautiful vistas” as just “fuel” for the next conflagration, the fires which wear names the way hurricanes do — “Dragon,” “Horseshoe,” “Yarnell” — the slang — “Burn Over,” “The Play” (your game-plan for fighting a fire) and “Watch Outs” (a checklist of worries such as “fuel between me and the fire”) — is a quick lesson in the economics of this war. A small city like Prescott can make money off loan-out deployments of a crack crew, the “Seal Team Six” of firefighters.

Marsh is just in his early 40s, but he’s “Pops” to the likes of Mack (Taylor Kitsch), Rose (Jake Picking), Turbyfill (Geoff Stults) and the rest.

And he’s the only one to see promise in the aimless stoner Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose accidental fatherhood is is just the latest mistake in a blundering, drunken extended youth which he hopes firefighting will end.

Marsh talks to the fires, growling “Where’re you going? What are you up to? You want a piece’a my Carolina ass? Come get it!” But there’s one force that wholly takes his measure. And her name is Amanda, his skinny, flinty horse-whispering wife, played with a fierce intensity by Jennifer Connolly.

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She may listen to the time-tested counsel of an older firefighter’s wife (Andie MacDowell is Marvel Steinbrink) — “It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire.”

But Connolly’s Amanda gives as good as she gets, confronting, comforting, testing and questioning this perfectly-rendered, beautifully lived-in marriage. Yeah, she’s got her Oscar. “Only the Brave” is where she underlines that achievement and pounds an exclamation point onto it.

Former music video director Joseph Kosinski breaks free of the pretty but trifling sci-fi trap that “Tron” and “Oblivion” had him in with an assured, sturdy picture reminiscent of the work of Hollywood legends like Howard Hawks (“Red River,” “Rio Bravo”).

It’s in every Brolin glower at the skyline, every soot-and-sweat-stained deployment, every hard-drinking wind-down at the local bars where these heroes are given their due and accept it with an aw-shucks smile and a wink at the pretty ladies who love them a man in uniform.

The picture finds the poetry in the fiery apocalypse, the grace notes in the “terrible beauty” of forest fires, where an image of a burning bear haunts Marsh and thrills him at the same time.

And it’s in Marsh’s signature line, encompassing duty, code danger and fatalism in a single sentence.

“See you later,” the leader of a fellow crew shouts back at him as he drives off to another piece of the fire-line.

“One side or the other, brother.”

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material

Cast: Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connolly, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale

Credits:Directed by Joseph Kosinski, script by Sean Flynn. A Sony/Columbia release.

Running time: 2:13

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Movie Review: It doesn’t cost much to make movie “Mayhem”

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You never want to grade a movie on the curve, but where B, C or D movies are concerned, exceptions are made.

“Mayhem” has two not-quite-names in the cast — star Steven Yeun, of “The Walking Dead,” and character actor extraordinaire Dallas Roberts (“Walk the Line,” “Dallas Buyers Club”). And actor-turned-director Joe Lynch is best known for direct-to-video (or close to it) genre thrillers such as “Everly.”

But is has a death-dealing virus set up and a claustrophobic setting — an office building (shades of “The Belko Experiment”). There’s a satiric anti-corporate greed/office culture edge and a video-game plot that has our blood-lusting hero and heroine slaughtering their way up to the board of directors.

And the Matias Caruso script is just laced with catch-phrase friendly dialogue.

“Put the fear of ME in them,” the big boss bellows to the murderous minions who would defend him from the revenge of an unjustly-fired underling and a furious foreclosure victim.

A couple bickers, mid-“Mayhem” — over their “Top Three Bands” list. “Motorhead…Anthrax. What? You thought I’d say The Dave Matthews Band?'”

“Hey, you should hear them LIVE!”

“I’d rather chew glass.”

It all adds up to a gonzo, LOL/WTF splatter thriller, a goof of a spoof that never loses sight of an “Us v. THEM” subtext, with the players wringing every last drop of gory fun out of it.

Yeun plays Dexter (A hint?) Cho, our narrator and hero, the once-idealistic young lawyer who has sucked up the company ladder and seen his soul sucked out in the process. A rival vixen known as “The Siren” (Caroline Chikezie of “Aeon Flux,” sexy-fierce and hate-able) sets him up to take the fall with the Big Guy (Steven Brand) for a botched account. And no amount of pleading, complaining or confiding in the one co-worker who would listen saves him.

Worse still, he’s just given short shrift to a foreclosure victim (Samara Weaving), ruining Melissa’s life and getting security to muscle her out of the hi-rise where Town & Smythe Consultants (“We consult because we care!”) resides. Talk about a sell-out.

And worst of all? The world is in the grip of the ID-7 virus, an “emotional hijacking” “Red-Eye” plague that doesn’t kill you, but enrages victims and strips them of self-control, the social filters that keep us from wiping each other out.

HQ is quarantined, with Dexter and Melissa locked in a maintenance room, tortured by “security” thugs. Until they turn the tables. Until they arm themselves — with hammers, nail guns and “extreme measures.”

And that’s when the slaughter begins. If they can get past the slippery, amoral self-preserving human resources monster (Dallas Roberts, hilarious) and through legions of corporate drones up to “The Nine” — the eighth floor, where the Big Boss and Board of Directors lay low — SOMEbody’s going to learn the cost of the euphemism “reduction in force.”

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How’d this or that fight come out?

“Natural selection happened!”

I laughed at a number of pithy put-downs, and there’s a cackle or three in the Darwinian/”Lord of the Flies” breakdown in what was already a callous, cruel and murderous culture depicted here.

The color-blind casting deserves praise. Derek is Asian-American for no stereotypical “reason” (unless that helps this sell in the Chinese market) and the Korean-American Yeun has a light touch with this heavy character. The worthiest villain is a ruthless, smart, “strong black woman,” again for no special reason (Although, again, China might go for that).

Chikezie is scary, Roberts is a stitch and the fights are grueling in their realism. Nobody has superhuman strength, just native cunning and the willingness to use whatever’s handy to deliver “That’s the VIRUS talking” justice to those who stand in their way.

It’s a funny, bloody mess, but a polished C-movie that aspires to B-movie status. And Yeun, Chikezie, Weaving (she’s Hugo Weaving’s Margot Robbie look-alike niece) and Roberts make “Mayhem” memorable, and quotable along the way.

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MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use

Cast: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Caroline Chikezie, Dallas Roberts

Credits:Directed by Joe Lynch, script by Matias Caruso. An RLJ Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:27

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Movie Review: Nuns suffer for their vocation in “Novitiate”

 

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The portrait that movies give us of nuns has long been out of date, disconnected from modern reality. Even the depictions of harsh Catholic school disciplinarians and secretive baby traders (“Philomena”) belong to an earlier era of starched habits and rigid, dogmatic Catholicism, even if the patriarchal hierarchy of the church seems little changed.

“Novitiate,” the new drama about novice nuns struggling to pass muster and embrace their new lives in a Tennessee convent in the early 1960s, acknowledges that historical inaccuracy, as one Postulant (not yet a novice) admits she was drawn to this life after watching a movie.

“The Nun’s Story,” she confesses, made her want to become Audrey Hepburn.

The debut feature of writer-director Margaret Betts packs melodramatic temptation, inhumanly-rigid discipline, devotion, self-doubt and sadistic self-administered punishment into its somewhat slow-footed two hours. She shows us quite a bit of the life of a convent and the strictures of “nunnery” — the eyes-down way of walking, “custody of the eyes,” silences divided into “regular silence” and the long, post-vespers “Grand Silence,” which forces nuns to learn sign language to communicate at all.

The film, which wanders hither and yon in whose point of view it wants to depict, mainly follows the trials of a committed young woman (Margaret Qualley) new to the Sisters of the Blessed Rose convent. She devoutly believes and wants to surrender herself to a higher power. But all around her are doubts — her own, and everybody else’s.

More interesting is the backdrop to all this, the early ’60s “Vatican II” reforms, which yanked the Catholic Church into the late 19th, if not the mid-20th century. Its impact is hardest on the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), a smiling martinet who takes out her frustrations on the “relaxing” of long-held standards (and the Vatican’s impending demotion of nuns within the Church) on the contingent of new would-be nuns under her charge — takes it out on them with a vengeance.

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The future Sister Kathleen (Qualley) grew up in a broken home, with a hard-drinking absentee father and a loving but foul-mouthed, church-avoiding mom, played with a drawling ferocity by Julianne Nicholson of “Black Mass.”

A chance for a non-Catholic girl to go to Catholic school exposes Kathleen to the Church and sympathetic nuns as teachers. Their indoctrination takes, as she grows up to defy her mother and take the vows. “I’m in love,” she declares. With Jesus.

“Jesus Christ,” her mother complains. “Where did I go wrong?”

Betts sets us up for a convent war of wills story, with 18 of fresh young faces under the thumb of the Mother Superior, who keeps news of Vatican II from others in their cloistered world. But the Postulants are susceptible to the more open-minded views and temptations of Sister Mary Grace, played with doubt, intelligence and compassion by Dianna Agron of “Glee.”

But promising scenes where “our pope has gotten it into himself to be some sort of reformer” might come up for debate are brought up short by “not that it’s your place to question anything.” And this war of wills/battle for the souls of the new girls dynamic is abandoned.

Betts loses herself in depicting the girls who survive the arbitrary and cruel (“Give yourself the discipline” means self-flagellation with a knotted whip) winnowing of their ranks, the ceremony where the survivors symbolically “marry” Jesus, giving their lives to this life. And there’s the titillation that spins from the temptation — young women, denied any contact with the outside world or the simple, physical touch of another person — giving in to that need for human, loving contact.

Leo wonderfully captures the coiled-fury that her Mother Superior feels that a council of old men has banished “all that old medieval stuff” from her world, when those traditions were, she thinks, the only bulwark against the temptation her nuns are falling under. And the Oscar winner can break your heart as she relates this Vatican II “tolerance” — the bishops were breaking up their “marriages” after all — to her charges.

But her cruelty and dogmatic intolerance might make you think of others who reject “Vatican II” Catholicism — Mel Gibson’s splinter group dad, and Mel himself, for instance.

“Novitiate” is very much a mixed-bag of a movie, condemned by the fanatic at The Catholic Legion of Decency, but too revealing and realistic to discard outright, too heartfelt to fail to move, at times.

If nothing else, a film that explains this Mother Superior rather than demonizes her, that displays the rituals and routines of a convent (we never actually see the nuns doing the work to keep the place going) has more value than “The Nun’s Story” or “The Singing Nun” or “The Sound of Music” or “The Flying Nun” or “Sister Act.” Those perpetuate a myth well-worth discarding.

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MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and nudity

Cast: Margaret Qualley, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson

Credits: Written and directed by Margaret Betts.  A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:03

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Movie Preview: “Black Panther” trailer 2

More tech, more Africa, more costume. More sizzle? Not really. But one can sense the pent-up demand for this one swelling with each passing month.

Not my genre, but I’m curious.

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Movie Review: A funny old broad reminds us to “Wait for Your Laugh”

rosie1 Rose Marie was a crucial comic cog in the well-oiled comedy machine that was “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and taught the dancing/singing/pratfalling Van Dyke comic timing.

“Wait for your laugh!”

She was the first woman to host a TV game show, discovered Tim Conway, and became the ablest foil to “center square” Paul Lynde on “The Hollywood Squares” during a run that lasted 14 years.

And those were just the curtain calls on a career that began when she was “Baby Rose Marie,” a three year-old with the voice of a chain-smoking 40 something saloon singer, the “Shirley Temple of Radio” before Shirley Temple was even born.

It’s just after those bonafides are laid out in “Wait For Your Laugh,” the new documentary about her life, that the hilarious, one-liner-braying old broad  pops up on camera, cracks a couple jokes and reminds you that A) she’s still around at 94 and B) she’s looking for work.

This adorable documentary places this comic survivor and pioneer on a pedestal and recounts an epic career that had her on stage with Evelyn Nesbit — the scandalous vamp of “Ragtime” — in the ’20s.

“Baby” Rose Marie Mazetta was then taken under a doting Al Capone’s wing because her dad was a “made man,” who took and squandered every cent she made in a lucrative child-star career. She became an early star of NBC Radio, and then a singing, dancing and joking night-club legend in her teens and ’20s who could manage an Italian patter song with the best of them (She toured with Rosemary Clooney much later in life).

And when TV came calling, that voice let her play old women (at 34) from her first appearance (“Gunsmoke”) and made her “the only woman, the ONLY woman” who could play the grizzled wisecracking gag writer Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” according to the guy who cast her, Carl Reiner.

Ahead of her time? Oh yeah. Listen to her daughter recount how Mom lost her big number in “Top Banana” thanks to her public rebuke of harassing Harvey Weinstein type on the set.

“You didn’t want to cross Rosie,” longtime pal and “Squares” host Peter Marshall says.

The revelations here include how she got her personal gag-writer, Morey Amsterdam, “a Human Joke Machine,” the job co-starring with her on “Dick Van Dyke,” how she chewed on the series’ star — calling Van Dyke “a six foot tower of Jelly” whenever he refused to stand up to management on the series.

She married a GI trumpeter from the Kay Kyser (and later Bing Crosby’s) band, and lost him to blood poisoning in the middle of her classic TV show’s run. She grew up with the likes of Milton Berle and George Burns, and calls friends Jerry Lewis and Johnny Carson her “angels” for what they did to help her and her husband when he was sick.

She worked steadily until very recently, doing guest spots on TV shows all through the ’80s and ’90s — “Wings,” “Murphy Brown.” She’s “Mama” in the Gun Van Sant remake of “Psycho.”

There are hints of her rivalry with Mary Tyler Moore (the breakout star of “Dick Van Dyke”) and laugh-out-loud accounts of the troubled backstage diva-duels of that epic touring revue, “Four Girls Four,” with fellow nightclub singers Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Helen O’Connell.

There’s not enough about her improv-script polishing on “Van Dyke,” and nothing at all about any interplay — fun or feisty – she had with her fellow inhabitants of “The Hollywood Squares.”

But Jason Wise’s film honors a genuine showbiz trouper, a last survivor of vaudeville and The Golden Age of Radio, remembering what it was like (she’s ridiculously sharp) recalling those she met and still finding the laugh — and waiting for it — from her wheelchair.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity, adult humor

Cast: Rose Marie, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Tim Conway, Peter Marshall

Credits:Directed by Jason Wise, script by Christina Tucker, Jason Wise. A Vitagraph release.

Running time: 1:26

 

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Movie Nation: Daniel Radcliffe braves rapids, rain and snakes in “Jungle”

 

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“Jungle” hurls characters into the wilds of Bolivia’s then-uncharted Tuichi River region for a harrowing and hallucinatory trek from the middle of nowhere to the suburbs of nowhere.

It’s based on a true story, stars Daniel Radcliffe, and features almost everything you expect in such “man tests himself against nature” tales — snakes, storms, self-surgery and quicksand.

These are indulged college-age lads with no Bear Grylls to bail them out of their self-produced predicament. Who among them will survive?

Aside from our narrator, the Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg, who narrates the story and is played by the film’s star, I mean.

But what sets this genre picture apart is not just the usual intensity, guilt and hopelessness Radcliffe brings to the role. He’s spot on, as always, and puts us right into Yossi’s foot-rotting boots. It’s the chilling paranoia of the dark unknown, city lads in a jungle where everything noise from the night’s tiniest insects to the glowing-eyed jaguar is out to kill you, the fear that you’ve volunteered for a death march and that you’ve roped friends into it with you.

Yeah, director Greg McClean (“The Belko Experiment”) and screenwriter Justin Monjo have made this Australian production (shot in the jungles of coastal Oz) a horror movie, a living nightmare of ill-prepared uncertainty, Darwinian choices and utter despair.

Not that Yossi’s new friends, the Swiss backpacker Marcus (Aussie actor Joel Jackson) and his more outdoorsy American photographer pal Kevin (Alex Russell of “Chronicle” and “Carrie”) are warned that this awaits them. They’re having a high old time, seeing the sights, trying the local drugs and hitting it off with hot backpacking girls (Lily Sullivan) who read “A Happy Death” by Albert Camus to them.

“It takes time to live.”

But Yossi wants to top off his sightseeing/sex and hallucinogens “year off” before college with something that separates him from “every other tourist.”

And that’s what the Indiana Jonesish Karl (Thomas Kretschmann of “The Pianist”) promises. Unknown tribes, rivers running with gold, photographs no one else has taken, trails no one else has blazed. Yossi is sold, and Kevin and Marcus are persuaded. They’ll follow the rifle-packing he-man into nowhere.

“I’ll be an adventure,” Yossi promises. And he delivers. Before they’ve made much headway at all, the insects and damp have revealed Marcus as a weak link. Factions set up. Karl seems a bit of a savage — shooting monkeys, leaving them to fend for themselves for long, lost stretches.

The quest comes to a head when they all argue about how best to extract themselves form this “Lost City of Z” Hell. A raft?

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Events conspire to separate the quartet, and lost and alone, Yossi contemplates his choices, hallucinates his recent exploits (gambling in Vegas is re-imagined in James Bond tones) and remembers the Jewish talisman he was given to protect him and the disapproving family he left behind.

And that’s when the steep learning curve of surviving the “Jungle” hits Yossi — hard.

The best of these movies put us in the jungle with our hero, and this one manages that — hopeless choices, futile hiking and hacking, gruesome meals and the consequences of spending too much time in a place not meant for the coddled.

Kretschmann, one of my favorite actors, manages a mysterious swagger as Karl, a callous, cocky in his competence “Papa” to the boys.

“I know everything,” he says, and they kind of buy it, even if we don’t.

But this is Radcliffe’s movie, another challenging low-budget indie drama that puts the diminutive star in peril that no magic wand or spell can save him from. He’s tackled his version of “Lost City of Z,” tested himself and done it with an Israeli accent.

There’s no much new here, but it’s as engrossing the better entries in this formulaic quest and that’s largely owing to his charisma and focused self-martyrdom. He’s suffering for his art, and he convinces us to suffer with him.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug use

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Joel Jackson

Credits: Directed by Greg McLean, script by Justin Monjo, based on the Yossi Ghinsberg memoir. An eOne release.

Running time: 1:55

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