Ricki and the Flash (2015)

★★½ / 👎

Diablo Cody, Meryl Streep, and Jonathan Demme collaborate to bring out their respective worst tendencies, in what feels like three separate vanity projects stitched into a single feature film. The result is a mawkish melodrama with an unconvincing layer of irony, about a deeply talented performer apparently driven entirely by ego, and directed with the precise craft of a concert film designed to be aired during every annual PBS fund-raising drive until the end of time.

The first two-thirds of the movie do a fairly decent job of establishing the characters, setting up the conflicts, and getting in a few patented Diablo Cody barbs. The third act is an ineffective and sentimental rehash of the second, complete with sitcom-level social awkwardness, a pair of awards-show—friendly monologues and an insultingly pat ending.

Streep’s vastly more convincing as a third-rate musician who’s achieved all the success she ever will than Pacino was in Danny Collins as a genius who wasted his talent on bubblegum pop. It’s a “brave” performance in that Ricki is a genuinely unlikeable character (until she isn’t) with problems that can’t be easily waved away (until they are).

There are highlights. Demme still knows how to shoot concerts, even fictional ones. Audra McDonald kills in a straight dramatic role, despite barely being in the movie. (One of the script’s best touches is how well it establishes that character long before she shows up on screen.) Kevin Kline displays just enough humor to suggest how the hell he and Streep’s character stayed together long enough to have three kids. Rick Springfield is actually pretty good as Streep’s bandmate (and potential soul-mate); the pair have chemistry, and he helps carry Streep musically. There are even some interesting feints at making Ricki more three-dimensional, such as the strong suggestion that she is more of a reactionary than her square ex-husband in his Midwest McMansion. Unfortunately, nuance is completely at odds with the plot, and the claptrap wins.

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Fantastic Four (2015)

★★ / 👎

The most fun I had with Fantastic Four was when a sepia-toned, mass-murdering Thing skulking in the shadows made me realize that this film could accurately be called a Grimmdark reboot.

It’s difficult to tell which parts are bad because of the obvious reshoots—Kate Mara’s fluctuating hairstyle is the true fifth member of the team—and which parts are bad due to a fundamentally flawed approach to the material. Even if we assume the abrupt and disastrous third act is solely due to executive meddling, that only made a bad film worse.

I wonder if those canon-obsessed reactionaries who were so angry at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm will be just as pissed by a script that gives him nothing to do, sidelines Sue Storm in a way I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and turns Ben Grimm’s powers into a mere externalization of a cycle of abuse.

Maybe Fox really was like the military-industrial complex in this film, trying to stifle and channel impulses it couldn’t really understand to retain control and power. And maybe Josh Trank really is boy genius Reed Richards, who just needs to be given the space and resources to do his work in peace, with no obligations to his backers. But then, as comic book fans know (and this film acknowledges) Reed Richards is also kind of a dick.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Mr. Holmes is a rare and precious specimen in Sherlockiana: a Holmes pastiche which engages with the concept of nostalgia, without succumbing to it.

McKellen is excellent playing effectively two different versions of the character, separated from each other by more than just the passage of decades. From a fanboy point of view, McKellen’s work here is to Holmes what Craig’s was to Bond in Casino Royale. Not enough to knock Brett or Connery off their respective perches, but good enough to shift everyone else down in the rankings.

Laura Linney is less showy but equally as moving as Holmes’s efficient housekeeper (and reluctant caregiver) Mrs. Munro. The script allows her character the interior life that Doyle never provided for Mrs. Hudson, and Linney makes the most of it.

(Oh, and just for the record: Connery, Craig, Dalton, Lazenby, Brosnan, Niven, Moore; Brett, McKellen, Rathbone, Cumberbatch, Plummer, Wilder, Downey Jr.)

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

A gorgeous display of minimalist style, and minimal substance, in a film as limited as the week-long Turing test that is the basis for its plot.

I’m an antisocial nerd over-reliant on an inflated measure of my own intellect, who dabbles in non-specific contempt for the human race. The cold and distant aspects of Kubrick or Nolan films are frequently the only things I find tolerable about them. I loved this movie, and I find that disturbing, because it has very little to say.

One difficulty in stories about AI—particularly ones based around the notion of a Turing test—is the difficulty of constructing fictional people who seem like real, baseline human beings. Garland doesn’t do this (or try to). All of the characters in Ex Machina, be they human or android, are simulacra whose moving parts and emotional subroutines are conspicuous in their operation.

The most consistent theme in Ex Machina is not the wonder of intelligence in an artificial being, but rather the limits of sapience in Homo sapiens. If the subject of Ex Machina is a Turing test, the form of Ex Machina is a reverse Turing test, in which very talented actors spend two hours trying to confuse the audience as to whether their characters are actually as stupid as they seem, or merely pretending to be so. (That the film tends to the latter more than the former doesn’t necessarily make it less tedious to watch.)

This is a remarkably well-crafted film, and I sincerely respect that. But I don’t particularly want more films like it.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

The best James Bond film since the Casino Royale reboot.

Each of the three films Christopher McQuarrie has directed has been bigger and, for better and for worse, less quirky than the last. I personally love the “slow car chase” from The Way of the Gun, but the muscle-car pursuit in Jack Reacher topped it in every way. The much more expansive (and expensive) mayhem in Rogue Nation is probably as readable and exciting as you can get without going too deeply down the latter-day Fast & Furious franchise CGI rabbit hole.

As is so often the case in this phase of his career, Cruise is most convincing here when showcasing his prowess, and least convincing when feigning vulnerability. This is actually a somewhat disappointing regression from his previous collaboration with McQuarrie as director. One of the reasons I let Jack Reacher off so lightly despite the utter miscasting was the relative novelty of seeing Cruise actually show fear during some of the more death-defying stunt work. Ethan Hunt, however, is made of sterner stuff. Like James Bond, he may falter occasionally, but in the end, he always wins. (At several points in Rogue Nation, the paeans to Cruise’s [alter] ego become so effusive that they almost feel like a sly joke, but ultimately that’s just a bit of clever misdirection.)

The film loses a bit of momentum near the end, if only because it starts out so strongly. Happily, this shift to a smaller-scale espionage thriller allows Sean Harris to retain more of his menace—and dignity—than Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael Nyqvist were allowed to in previous installments.

Southpaw (2015)

★★½ / 👎

A boxing picture, subtype riches-to-rags-to-redemption, in which Jake Gyllenhaal overcomes enormous odds to out-mumble Forest Whitaker.

The script for Southpaw is exactly what I’d expect from Kurt Sutter: melodramatic nonsense about a testosterone-driven dude with a temper who is ultimately less interesting than every other character in the story. (Despite every other character being an underwritten cipher who exists only to serve as a foil for The Great White Dope.)

I know I’m not the first person to snicker at the idea of Gyllenhaal and McAdams as foster kids from Hell’s Kitchen, but this film’s vision of Noo Yawk owes a lot more to Leo Gorcey in Dead End than it does to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I grew up as a poor white kid in city-owned housing in the 1980s East Village, and found these characters—my alleged contemporaries—not only ludicrous, but alien to my own experience.

Forest Whitaker uses all of his trademark twitchiness to (almost) convince you the character he’s playing is a real person instead of a particularly effective Yoda puppet. Oona Laurence gives possibly the best performance in the film as Gyllenhaal’s young daughter; she shows a fair bit of emotional range, and only falters when the script fails her. McAdams and Naomie Harris are both wasted in thankless roles, but do what they can. (So does Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, but what he can do is very, very little.)

If you want faux-erudite earnestness about overcoming impossible odds that feels like the sincere output (however misguided) of an auteur, watch Rocky Balboa or Redbelt instead. If you want to watch a movie in which a pale male underdog triumphs in a field long since overtaken by people of color, preferably while an Eminem track plays, watch 8 Mile. If you want melodrama that actually feels like it has something to say about the men who step into the ring, watch Gavin O’Connor’s vastly superior Warrior. If you need to kill two hours in a dark, air-conditioned room this summer, then okay, watch Southpaw.

Ant-Man (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

I genuinely enjoyed my time with Ant-Man more than I did my time with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, it’s product straight off the assembly line from Marvel Studios, but it’s better than it had to be, and much better than I expected it to be.

Rudd is charming. The humor is mostly engaging. The special effects are adequate if not spectacular. Evangeline Lilly shows just enough range here that I may finally be able to move on from how much I hated her (character) for six seasons on Lost.

The mix of caper comedy, science fiction, superhero action, and family drama is definitely awkward at times, a little too “Ocean’s Eleven meets Interstellar, but Marvel” for its own good. It feels like a film that needed a few more drafts to hide the seams of the jackalope stitched together by Adam McKay & Paul Rudd after Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish left the project.

The fairly deep references to the evolving lore of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are exciting to someone like me, who was preaching the “comic books are our Greek mythology” gospel long before I knew what words like “intertextuality” meant. It’s a pity that production circumstances have turned the Pym/Ant-Man legacy into a mere copy of the Stark/Iron Man story, right down to the Evil Bald Corporate Mad Scientist. Still, any suggestion that this universe’s history wasn’t entirely on hold while everyone waited for Cap to defrost and Tony Stark to “mature” is very welcome indeed.

Finally, I would watch the hell out of a reboot of The Streets of San Francisco starring Bobby Cannavale and Wood Harris. Your move, ABC/Disney.