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.

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.

American Sniper (2014)

★★½ / 👎

American Sniper (2014) poster

One of my favorite things about Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker is the line he tries to walk (not always successfully) between giving us the violence and certitude we want, and critiquing those desires, often in the same film. American Sniper is no Unforgiven, but it’s also no Heartbreak Ridge.

The film sketches Chris Kyle as someone raised to believe that violence in defense and support of others is both righteous and a moral imperative. Despite the lionizing—oh, sorry, sheepdogging—it’s quite possible to watch American Sniper and come away with the impression that Kyle was a selfish, self-righteous asshole long before he ever became a hero. That the very mental outlook that allowed him to nobly serve his country meant he faced great difficulty in being a husband and father. That his four tours in combat permanently ruined his psychological health and warped his already low sense of empathy. And that the “cowboy” culture that shaped the course of his life led directly to the manner of his death. (There’s a “playful” scene built around a jarring violation of basic firearm safety which is entirely typical of Eastwood’s career-long ambivalence about The Way of the Gun.)

Which is not to say that the film doesn’t whitewash Kyle. It does. The film portrays Kyle as unfailingly modest about his kill count and status as “The Legend,” which does not seem to accord with reality. It also makes no reference to any of the “tall tales” he seems to have told, including some in the memoir that serves as the film’s source material. It also shows a pre-Navy Kyle casually using violence during a domestic dispute that could easily have resulted in an assault charge—if he hadn’t been a white male rodeo rider in shit-kicker territory—but the scene is played mostly for laughs, complete with a joke to button the scene.

Last, but not least, American Sniper does feature one literally incredible prop infant, which is as lethal to a pivotal emotional scene as a sniper round from 2,100 meters. It’s a shocking lapse that genuinely hurts the pacing and experience of the film, at least with a crowd.

One Body Too Many (1944)

★★½ / 👎

One Body Too Many (1944) poster

Undistinguished comedy/thriller that drags despite its brief length, but is worth a look for Lugosi completists and aficionados of the Old Dark House subgenre.

Jack Haley stars as an insurance salesman who calls on an eccentric millionaire, only to find that his prospective client has already died. Mistaken for a private detective, the wisecracking but cowardly salesman becomes caught up in the antics of the dysfunctional group gathered for the reading of the will.

Haley does what he can with some very familiar material—some of the film’s funniest bits occur when he’s the only one onscreen—but Bob Hope he ain’t. Bela Lugosi makes the most of his small comic role as a sinister butler whose annoyance at the grasping relatives and hangers-on might actually be homicidal.

There’s slightly more effort expended in justifying the farce than might be expected in such an obvious programmer. The patter is relatively snappy, and it’s neat to see Lugosi have the chance to earn some legitimate laughs (such as they are) while still retaining his dignity.

Total Recall (2012)

★★½ / 👎

Total Recall (2012) poster

Starts off well enough, but worldbuilding quickly gives way to mere production design, and the film rapidly collapses into a series of increasingly weightless chase sequences. It might, of course, all be a dream, but if so it’s hardly a dream worth remembering.