Focus (2015)

Focus-2015-MovieWarner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Produced by Denise DiNovi. Photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet. Edited by Jan Kovac. Music by Nick Urata. Production designed by Beth Mickle. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong.

The movies love stories about con artists. And why not? Since the very beginning, the motion picture has essentially been a 24-frame-per-second magic trick, and what is grifting if not a type of magic where the prize ends up in your pocket and not the true owner’s? We are told several times in Focus that con artistry is all about distraction, manipulation and misdirection, and so are movies: why invent editing if there weren’t things we were meant to see and things we weren’t? Alas, Focus is a trick that doesn’t quite work like it should. It’s got suavity and charm, but it isn’t surefooted, and we never forget it’s just an exercise.

The movie is great to look at: it’s slickly photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet, globetrots to some picturesque locations, and it stars two of the most good-looking people in the world: Will Smith and Margot Robbie. He’s a professional con man named Nicky, she’s a pickpocket and amateur grifter named Jess looking to graduate to bigger and better. They meet one snowy night in New York; after she incorrectly sizes him up as a mark, she asks him to be her mentor, following him to New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend and ingratiating herself into his crew. She has real skills and is good at learning on the job, and although both she and Nicky are aware of the pitfalls of workplace romances in the world of scammers, some things are hard to resist.

To say that Nikki is a good con man is a gross understatement. He’s smart, cool, collected and perceptive, and he runs his operations with tight control. Some of his schemes are ingenious in their simplicity. Others have such intricate, hidden infrastructures that they reach preposterousness and then lap it. This stuff—as our heroes bathe in luxury and vie for more of it – is exceptionally fun to watch, even when it borders on ridiculous. Which it does often, like during a very tense (and very long) betting duel between Nicky and an impetuous Japanese businessman (B.D. Wong). Petrified of his own feelings for Jess, Nicky breaks ties with her, and then we cut forward three years to Buenos Aires, where a down-and-out Nicky finds himself in the uncomfortable employ of a dangerous billionaire racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Nicky is on his game as he plots with Garriga to gift the millionaire’s competitors with stolen (and faulty) equipment, until one night he meets Jess again…this time in the arms of Garriga…and I think that’s quite enough of the plot, don’t you? Trust me, you do.

What Smith and Robbie generate in Focus is that rarest of movie elements: real chemistry. One of the most entertaining things a movie can do is show us two characters falling in love and make us believe it. Smith as Nicky fondly recalls the wit and ease of a Cary Grant, but joined to the aggressive likability that Smith has made his brand. Robbie, an Australian who impressed as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jersey-flavored sugar-and-spice  wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, makes a solid case for movie stardom. They’re great together. It’s no surprise that the movie’s second half keeps contriving ways to pair them up, even after she warns that Garriga’s the violent-and-jealous type. Well, that’s what she says anyway.

That’s the key disappointment about Focus: its stakes never feel real. The story that co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have concocted is loaded with twists, but by anticipating them, the movie keeps a touch so light that even from minute to minute we don’t really believe what it’s doing — it’s got too many extraneous bits that call attention to themselves. Like the great con artist movies, Focus loves to pull the rug out from under us, but it doesn’t quite have a knack for getting us to step on the rug in the first place. The performances and story seem out of sync when they should click together: Smith and Robbie’s romance is cute but doesn’t really seem to inhabit the same world as the danger personified by Santoro’s overacted villain. Like an imperfect flim flam, Focus grabs our attention, but out of the corner of our eye we can see all too clearly what it’s really doing.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015)

Adam+Scott+Craig+Robinson+Hot+Tub+Time+Machine+qKC31TVNiyRlParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Steve Pink. Written by Josh Heald. Produced by Andrew Panay. Photographed by Declan Quinn. Edited by Jamie Gross. Music by Christophe Beck. Production designed by Ryan Berg. Starring Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Collette Wolfe, Bianca Haase.

2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine delivered exactly what it promised: there was a hot tub, it was a time machine. In that seriously vulgar—and pretty funny, if you can look past that—movie, four estranged friends renewed a bond and also came to terms with their troubled pasts, essentially by rewriting them. The mean-spirited party animal Lou (Rob Corddry) made himself into a billionaire software entrepreneur. Failed musician Nick (Craig Robinson) became the world’s most successful recording artist, mainly by passing off endless song covers as originals, since in this new timeline the originals don’t exist anymore.  Jacob (Clark Duke) learned the truth about who his father was (it was Lou, and it was ugly) and has now settled into an agonizing life with his selfish lout of a father. Adam (John Cusack), meanwhile, sorted out his romantic life and ended up married to Lizzy Caplan in a nice house.

In Hot Time Time Machine 2, Cusack is out of the picture, perhaps because his character got the happiest resolution out of the last movie, or perhaps because Cusack wanted too much money. Cusack’s absence (which is commented on) may foretell the quality of this sequel, because without his sense of sad-sack wistfulness that anchored much of the original, Hot Tub 2 casts its lot mainly with a bunch of jerks.  The central figure is now the drug-addicted moron Lou, and backing him up are a compulsive plagiarist and a spineless dweeb. And there’s no discipline, either. Like many sequels, Hot Tub 2 takes shortcuts to get back to the series’ central gimmick, and it is so convoluted with endless time travel trips from future to present to past that I’m not sure it makes any sense. And sometimes sequences go way too far, with not enough reason. Take a look at the poster of Hot Tub 2 and you’ll have an idea what the movie is: a cheaper, scruffier, coarser version of the first, with not as much soul.

But…somehow that’s okay. Well, sort of. It helps that the film’s leads are so good at riffing; they somehow turn Hot Tub 2’s demonstrable lack of momentum into a virtue, as odd as that sounds. The movie’s central conceit for getting back in the tub involves tracking down the murder of Lou, which happens in the present in the middle of one of the millionaire’s wild bacchanals. The gang (with still-alive Lou) travel into the future and inhabit their future bodies, which have seen better days (Nick calling the bearded, crazed version of Lou they see in the mirror “Gandalf the Poor” is one of the more printable putdowns). The three navigate the future and try to suss out clues, and soon pick up a fourth time traveler: Adam, Jr. (Adam Scott), Cusack’s long-lost son. Scott, playing a sweet-faced riff on his character from Parks and Recreation, is very funny in the movie, and makes a good match for the three established regulars.

Since he’s the new guy, however, Scott is put through back-to-back sequences that verge on supreme miscalculation, one involving a futuristic game show and the other a trip to the hospital. These scenes have real moments of comic ingenuity (like a bit of very practical medical advice, or anything that deservedly turns the karmic tables on Lou), but they go to uncomfortable extremes. Other moments are more successful: a futuristic drug trip for Adam, Jr., the guys’ reactions to the ridiculous nature of the plot (and Jacob’s relative ease with figuring it out), and a moment where Adam Jr.’s fiancé (Gillian Jacobs), blindsides us with the setup to a perfectly-delivered punchline.

The only defense I can give to the sloppy mess that is Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is that I laughed a lot at it, despite its numerous flaws. It’s not a great comedy, and it sure isn’t a perfect movie, and it’s so rough around the edges it feels like it was slapped together over an industrious weekend. But there’s something so proudly twisted and rebellious about it that I have a sneaky affection for it. It’s so unapologetically mean-spirited, and yet so fast with its jokes that it kind of…gets away with murder.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

54da64ad8a2fdf64645fdc15_fifty-shades-of-grey-reviewUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the book by E.L. James. Produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael DeLuca, E.L. James. Photographed by Seamus McGarvey. Edited by Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning. Music by Danny Elfman. Production designed by David Wasco. Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden.

Fifty Shades of Grey is kinky trash that wants to re-orient itself as a tragic love story, which means it dials down the kink and tries mightily to misplace the trash. To be sure, this long-awaited adaptation of E.L. James’ controversial erotic bestseller (which began as Twilight fan fiction) isn’t exactly chaste, and the most notorious scenes are more graphic than your typical blockbuster. But they’re also timid, and are built in service of a “sincere” romance that, alas, doesn’t actually exist. The result is a slick, well-made drama that’s ultimately as vacuous as its key relationship.

For Dakota Johnson, who plays the virginal heroine Anastasia Steele (yes, that’s her name), the movie is an acting decathlon. It’s hard to think of an actress who has recently been put through an ordeal that could so easily be humiliating or degrading. That she survives practically unscathed is a dual testament to both her skills as an actress and to the notion that she has better things ahead of her. If she tries too hard to quiver her lip and generate heat between herself and multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), whom she meets when conducting an interview for a friend’s journalism school assignment, maybe it’s because Dornan, as Grey, is the ultimate nowhere man. He’s an empty suit, and although he looks good in one (and out of one), there’s no spark, no real human interaction between them. He persistently seems as distracted as Bruce Wayne would at a fundraiser when the bat-signal is fired.

Grey, of course, has a secret: he’s into bondage and sadomasochism, and he’s already eyeing Anastasia as his new playmate, in behavior that is clearly predatory but is meant to resemble genuine affection, or at least a rich man’s simulacra of it. He haltingly pursues Ana, plying her with helicopter rides, cars, priceless gifts and unrelenting attention, but apparently all their moments of human connection happen offscreen. As Anastasia finds herself drawn to this mysterious man, we don’t get enough of his personality to truly understand how she sees him except as a ticket to consumerist fantasyland. Soon he deflowers her, a preamble to his pitch to join him in a bedroom stuffed with bondage apparel, where she will be the submissive to his dominant. He calls it his playroom. “Where you keep your Xbox?” she wonders. It’s tossed off as a joke, but, yes, it is a place where he keeps his toys, Anastasia among them if she signs a complex contract that effectively sells her into sexual slavery.

This becomes a sticking point between the two of them, as well it might; it doesn’t help that Christian is a possessive creep who never met a stalking opportunity he could pass by, even showing up unannounced when she visits family in Georgia, making the visit all about him. To the story’s credit, it does see Christian’s obsessive actions as poisonous and unhealthy, but that is mainly because it purposefully conflates such behavior with the S & M scenes, implying that anyone who participates in such activities must be severely damaged.  She staves off signing the contract, but he is fixed on it, and when their relationship reaches a breaking point, we don’t sniffle like the movie wants us to, we cheer because our heroine has finally woken up and smelled the coffee.

In actuality, a lot of emotionally balanced people do all sorts of things behind closed doors, but that wouldn’t fit the story’s Puritanical need to shock us with some of these pretty tame details. The creepy stuff is the contract and Grey’s need for utmost control, not the actual sex. As for the sex scenes themselves, they are done tastefully…far too tastefully for what should be lurid. If you’re going to make a superficial erotic thriller, there’s ways to do it, but not by sounding the unconvincing clarion call of true love. Fifty Shades of Grey wants us to hope that these two work out their issues, but doesn’t give us much reason why we should care. The film inevitably sets up a sequel, but the only one worth making would be the ultimate conclusion of this story, Fifty Shades of a Restraining Order.

Project Almanac (2015)

still-of-sam-lerner,-allen-evangelista-and-jonny-weston-in-project-almanac-(2014)-large-pictureParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Dean Isrealite. Written by Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschmann. Produced by Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Michael Bay. Photographed by Matthew J. Lloyd. Edited by Julian Clarke, Martin Bernfeld. Production designed by Maher Ahmad. Costumes designed by Mary Jane Fort. Starring Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista.

When the young heroes of Project Almanac receive the blueprints to a working time machine, they are ecstatic. They compose a mental checklist of things they’d like to accomplish, including walking with dinosaurs, killing Hitler, and acing last week’s Chemistry project. Well, only one out of three turns out to be possible, since this is a time machine that can reach only a few weeks into the past. And so we have a group of teenagers that would love to visit Woodstock, but instead have to make do with last month’s Imagine Dragons concert. What a disappointment.

And so, unfortunately, is Project Almanac, a found footage sci-fi thriller that once upon a time had a different title (Welcome to Yesterday), a different release date (last summer) and possibly a plot that made a lot more sense. Removed from last year’s schedule and now dumped at the end of January with little fanfare, Project Almanac, in its finished state, bears the hallmarks of last-minute reshoots and editorial tinkering. Many time-travel stories can’t hold up under scrutiny, but this one fails the test of its own logic, as it presents “rules” that can be casually broken, characters that are written inconsistently, and a plot that just doesn’t add up. We can accept that messing with the past can have unpredictable consequences; if a butterfly can affect the weather half a world away, think of what some silly teens could do. But positing chaos theory does not mean your movie can devolve into narrative chaos, which Project Almanac does (and the bumpy found footage aesthetic does not help).

That’s a shame, because Project Almanac gets an A for effort in trying to target a more subjective and nightmarish form of time travel story: more Twilight Zone than Back to the Future. The setup: our hero is David (Jonny Weston), a technological genius who is accepted to MIT but gets disastrously stiffed on scholarship and grant money. Looking for some financial security, he discovers a hidden panel in his father’s old basement workshop containing blueprints for a working time machine. David decides to build it and enlists the help of his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), and his sarcastic sister Christina (Virginia Gardner). She films everything, leading to the inevitable found footage-inspired question of why on Earth someone would record some of these things (except for our benefit, of course). She even captures on camera an after-hours raid on the high school science lab, a choice that seems questionable at best.

With Christina spending much of her time behind her camera, however, the movie senses a pretty girl shortage, and so it supplies another one in the form of the uber-popular Jesse (Sofia Black-D’Elia). She is inadvertently entangled in the group’s plans and soon graduates to willing participant, then later gravitates into David’s romantic orbit. It’s a cute spin on the idea of the high school girl who likes the guy with the coolest car, I suppose. The group uses their newfound abilities to ace finals, win the lottery, and spend a whole day at Lollapalooza, and then David starts abusing the machine it in order to perfect the trajectory of his relationship with Jesse, Groundhog Day-style.

Don’t even get me started on how these kids constantly avoid their past selves; wouldn’t trip after trip create a real traffic jam? Let’s just say that at some point Project Almanac quite definitively falls apart, specifically as David spirals into a reality nightmare and the world stops making sense…in a way that doesn’t make sense, if that makes sense.  This leads to a frantic closing sequence that tries to make us feel something other than complete confusion and fails.  This is probably the first found footage movie ever that could inspired a debate about whether, given the nature of the story, the footage in question should even exist at all. But the real issue isn’t the questions; it’s the lack of well-crafted characters and stakes to care about. This is a film that name-checks Back to the Future, Looper, Terminator and Timecop, and you know you’re in trouble when you wish you could watch any of those instead. Yes, even Timecop.

Mortdecai (2015)

(FSR:AA)Lionsgate presents a film directed by David Koepp. Screenplay by Eric Aaronson. Based on the novel “Don’t Point That Thing At Me” by Kyril Bonfiglioi. Produced by Christi Dembrowski, Johnny Depp, Andrew Lazar. Music by Mark Ronson, Geoff Zanelli. Photographed by Florian Hoffmeister. Edited by Jill Savitt. Production designed by James Merifield. Costumes designed by Ruth Meyers. Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum.

Imagine everything annoying about Johnny Depp, assembled together and cranked up to eleven. That gives you a hint of the catastrophic miscalculation that is Mortdecai, a dismal and desperate comic caper that aims for 60’s swagger and misses, big time. As Lord Charlie Mortdecai, manor-born art historian, Depp dines high on the caricature hog, crafting a sneering, prancing, preening, mincing, fey monstrosity who is supposed to be our incorrigible hero, but he stirs only loathing. With his curly mustache, Terry Thomas-inspired voice, cultivated style and vulgar demeanor, Depp’s Mortdecai is pure-grade pest and just plain unpleasant to be around. And the movie, constructed with all the one-note smugness of a star-studded vanity piece, is no better.

It takes a special breed of actor to disappear into a role, especially one as arch as stylized as this one. Ralph Fiennes just did it last year with his brilliant turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Depp is no Fiennes. Nor is he much of a Peter Sellers, whose Pink Panther series informs a number of Mortdecai’s tics and mannerisms. Sellers was a perfectionist and a comedic genius, while Depp, perhaps, has been once too often that he is a genius. Here he makes choices that are just obnoxious. We never forget that it’s Depp in the role, and Depp never feels the need to create a consistent caricature, nor even a series of caricatures that feels like they’re tied to an actual character. This is tricky to achieve, but it’s possible, and it’s helpful.

The supporting characters have the advantage of not being Charlie Mortdecai, but they’re employed by a script and direction that favors limp, repetitive comedy. There’s Mortdecai’s long-suffering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), who cannot stand the new mustache on Charlie’s face; kissing him makes her retch, which inspires his sympathetic gag reflex. This joke used a number of times, and you can only imagine how hilarious it could get at iteration number ten. Yes, it’s literally a running gag.

There’s also a sexually frustrated police inspector (Ewan McGregor) who wants to steal Johanna from under his nose. We’re not supposed to root for him, even though the two of them are clearly the better match. And there’s Mortdecai’s faithful and brutish manservant, Jock (Paul Bettany), who does all the work while Charlie gets all the credit. Jock’s only consolation prize is that he’s a skilled pickup artist and a tireless lover, and his efforts to help his master are always punctuated by quickies. The movie keeps telling the same joke over and over about how it’s preposterous that beautiful women could be drawn to a man who looks like Paul Bettany, which may come as news to Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly.

The plot, involving a lost Goya painting with Nazi bank account numbers scribbled on it, is inconsequential, but it leads to a great many chases in London, Moscow and Los Angeles, the last of which fills Lord Mortdecai with disdain. See, it’s funny because Depp is an American playing an Englishman who hates Americans. Ha ha. Jeff Goldblum then turns up as an American millionaire and art collector, and while Goldblum has been turning up a lot lately, his role is so abbreviated that he probably should have stayed home for this one. Olivia Munn is Goldblum’s daughter, who is introduced as a nymphomaniac, and so one would assume that, as a comic principle, something would be done to pay off that setup in some way. One would think that, but that’s not what happens.

And so on. Like many bad movies, Mortdecai must have seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s based on a series of novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli that are liked. It’s directed by David Koepp, who is a successful Hollywood player (he wrote the script for Jurassic Park). But something went terribly wrong here, and the picture is a jaw-dropping, borderline-inept disaster. But maybe the most shocking thing about Mortdecai is its R rating, which makes it too adult for kids and yet too juvenile for adults. Who was this movie for then? Possibly no one, in which case one can hope it reaches its intended audience.

Blackhat (2015)

635570106665586780-BlackhatUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Mann. Written by Morgan Davis Foehl. Produced by Jon Jashni, Michael Mann, Thomas Tull. Photographed by Stuart Drybergh. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross. Edited by Mako Kamitsuna, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Stephen R. Rivkin, Joe Walker. Production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas. Costumes designed by Colleen Atwood. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Richie Coster, Holt McCallany, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehorn.

Blackhat is a slick and solid thriller by Michael Mann, who usually aims higher and does better (Heat, Thief, Collateral, The Insider). In his first film since 2009’s Public Enemies, Mann reassembles the key building blocks that have populated much of his career: criminals, lawmen, technology, weaponry, synthesized music, gunplay, avant-garde camerawork, oppressive urban spawl and locations with unique flavor. It gets the job done with those elements in entertaining fashion, but it’s a little shallow when all is said and done.

In films past, Mann has specialized in crime stories. In Blackhat, he sets his sights on cyberterrorism, as an anonymous hacker stages elaborate (and, at first glance, seemingly unconnected) attacks on both a Hong Kong nuclear plant and on Chicago soy futures. The FBI sets up a multi-national task force and bring in a specialist to advise, who inadvertently becomes their de facto leader. That would be Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), playing a character known all too well to Mann fans: the weary alpha male professional haunted by regret. But we don’t get much of that, or much of anything, with the stock Mann character here. A federal prisoner sprung loose by a desperate bureau, Hathaway is, sadly, a thin sketch enriched simply by Hemsworth’s rock-steady and charismatic portrayal.

The other characters are even less fortunate. A Chinese brother and sister team, Chen (Wang Leehom) and Lien (Tang Wei) are instrumental team members, but they are ciphers from start to finish, and FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) shares a few personal details with the camera but mainly keeps to herself. Hathaway and Lien fall in love, but the actors don’t have much chemistry and the screenplay doesn’t have much reason for why this happens, as Mann’s instincts to strip his stories down to the bone doesn’t give us much to go on with them. Nevermind; Mann’s point this time is to deliver gritty action against an almost-ripped-from-the-headlines cyber-criminal backdrop.

The opening scene reveals a globe infinitely crisscrossed by electric lines of computer code, and more than once Mann visualizes enemy viruses traveling up motherboards like glowing, microscopic maelstroms. The film basks in the tropes of hacker movies: pages and pages of near-indecipherable code, keystrokes that determine life or death, computers that beep and whine at even the tiniest of commands. But for the most part, it is plausible and persuasive in its tech knowhow, and the cutting-edge equipment complement the old-school James Bond thrills of the movie’s globe hopping: Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Jakarta. Pleasingly, the worldwide nature of the threat and task force create a welcome sense of casual multiculturalism (making the point that computers have made the world tiny).

The film’s major set pieces (like a surprise gunfight in an airport loading zone, or a tense exploration of a radioactive disaster area) are well-made and gripping. Mann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, stage the action in elaborate networks of both circuity and cityscapes; there is no director better at finding poetry within steel and concrete, fluorescents and neon. They employ unpolished digital camerawork that brings an immediacy to the moody, still shots, but the action sequences are blurry and look like they were filmed through soup. Few filmmakers have married to as divisive an aesthetic as Mann has in the past decade, and in Blackhat, sometimes it doesn’t work. But Mann takes ownership of every choice, and sometimes they pay off excitingly (one late shot, for example, which shows a sharp figure cutting through a parade that becomes a huge foreground smear, is wonderful).

Blackhat’s major flaw, regrettably, is an anticlimactic ending that doesn’t really solve as much as it should, followed by a real whimper of a closing scene. It almost feels like a setup for a glossy cyber-cop TV series, which Mann (Miami Vice, Crime Story) would be no stranger to. But, nevertheless, Blackhat’s suspense and thrills are real.

American Sniper (2014)

TA3A5741.DNGWarner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Jason  Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan. Photographed by Tom Stern. Edited by Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach. Production designed by Charisse Cardenas, James G. Murakami. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller.

American Sniper comes billed as the story of “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” That’s the claim that Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL who served multiple tours in Iraq, made when he wrote his memoir in 2012, shortly before his murder the following year. The veracity of the book’s more outrageous claims has been hotly debated since it was published (and some probably will never be confirmed, given that the military rightly has no interest to do so). If he did embellish, then Clint Eastwood’s film embellishes more, roughly adapting and stretching the book and paying attention to Chris Kyle, the legend. Unfortunately, American Sniper short-changes Chris Kyle, the man.

The fault is not Bradley Cooper’s. He uses extra weight and an impressive physicality to convey the intimidation and toughness of a Navy SEAL. His Texas accent walks the right line between charming and weary. He successfully shows the way a solider has to build walls around himself, and those walls don’t easily come down at home. Most cannily, he finds the right way to subvert his own natural likability as an actor: when his features become unrelentingly grim, we feel it so acutely because Cooper is an actor who we like to see smile.

Deployed in Iraq, Chris’ life becomes an unrelenting series of grisly episodes. Upon arrival, Chris and his fellow SEALs are instructed that anyone remaining in the evacuated rubble of Baghdad must be automatically considered an enemy combatant. Perched in his sniper’s nest, Chris must indiscriminately target men, women, children. He grows (and starts maintaining) a mythic reputation with his skills, so much so that an Iraqi sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Shiek) emerges, and a sort of duel develops between the two men. The combat sequences are well-staged and effective throughout (especially a brutal escape that occurs mid-sandstorm), even if we question the number of crucial decisions that the story gives to Chris, because as a story, giving them to someone else probably would not do. Print the legend, after all.

The real issue with American Sniper is that it fails to truly dig into Chris Kyle as a person. Despite Cooper’s best efforts, Chris spends a lot of the movie’s time as a cypher, and every emotional beat that is there is underlined with on-the-nose, trite dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that spends half its time recapping things verbally that Cooper has already told us through his acting. This is never better illustrated than with Chris’ wife, Tay (a misused Sienna Miller), who has no function in the movie’s second half except to tell Chris how much he has changed and how much she is worried. The film is structured like a character study, but it’s a thin one because it explains everything through huge bullet points. There’s not much nuance or any sense of discovery. The movie feels much more at home putting Chris in action than it does showing him battling PTSD.

Clint Eastwood remains as revered as any working Hollywood director, and his speed of output is impressive as ever (he has made nine films in the past ten years). But he also has a nasty habit of producing work that feels frustratingly unfinished, and American Sniper continues that tradition. The screenplay briefly sketches ideas that it never fleshes out later (such as when it draws a parallel between the two snipers as family men protecting their homes, a comparison that the movie quickly forgets). It also doesn’t dramatize the procedural element of becoming a great sniper (the movie just jumps ahead to him being one), so the sequences where Chris has his rifle feel a little empty because we never get a chance to fully understand the process. Even when he returns home, the movie glosses over things it could make a meal of, especially since his ultimate fate is cruelly ironic given his own post-tour troubles. Eastwood’s reputation as a restrained filmmaker sometimes gets in the way, because it means he neglects to pounce on things that he should.

As it stands, American Sniper is a disappointment, although it is worth seeing for its central performance. But it lacks the most crucial thing in a sniper’s toolkit: precision.

Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODSWalt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Rob Marshall. Produced by John de Luca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt. Screenplay by James Lapine, based upon the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Lapine. Photographed by Dion Beebe. Edited by Wyatt Smith. Production designed by Dennis Gassner. Costumes designed by Colleen Atwood. Starring Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Johnny Depp (The Wolf), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife), Chris Pine (Prince Charming), Meryl Streep (The Witch), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Stepmother), James Corden (The Baker), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Lilla Crawford (Red Riding Hood), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother)

The tagline for Into the Woods states: “Be careful what you wish for.” For fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine’s revered 1986 Broadway musical who hoped for a movie, that advice is perhaps more poignant than it was intended to be. Rob Marshall’s new adaptation of Into the Woods roughly retains the source material, but it has also sanded its rough edges, flattened its sly, subversive qualities, and purged it of much wit. This is a glum and airless recitation of something that should be sneaky, alive and wicked. It’s been turned into a disjointed, machine-made live-action Disney production. What a shame.

The plot, famously, involves a gaggle of fairy tale characters colliding in riotous fashion. Servant girl Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dreams of attending a ball with Prince Charming (Chris Pine). A farmer boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades his prized cow for some magic beans, which can grow beanstalks. A chirpy Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) ventures to grandmother’s house, pursued by a salacious Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). A lovelorn Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) meets the man of her dreams, but fate conspires to pull them apart. And a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) strike a bargain with a witch (Meryl Streep) to become parents, as long as they jump through the right magical hoops.

What happens is, we can agree, a foregone conclusion. The musical’s fast pace practically depends upon the audience’s knowledge of each and every one of these stories, so, please, let’s not talk about spoilers. What differentiates Into the Woods is that these conflicts are solved early, resulting a second act of what happens next: tidy resolutions giving way to messy, all-too-real consequences, as the Brothers Grimm stand in the wings and harrumph at the rewrite. Happy endings, it seems, are not all they are cracked up to be.

The prime innovation of Sondheim and Lapine (besides popularizing overlapping fairy stories, which Shrek and Once Upon a Time later capitalized on) was that it had the temerity to extend these stories to their logical conclusions. What if the baker discovers he doesn’t want to be a father? How good a husband is someone as fickle and dim as Prince Charming? The show’s clever central conceit is to poke at the edges of these stories and overturn them to teach more sophisticated lessons—all done to top-notch music, of course. Sondheim, a sharp wit if there ever was one, is deservedly regarded as the supreme Broadway composer-lyricist of his era.

But the film itself guts much of the darker, juicier material from the show’s later passages, and soft-pedals what remains. This makes the show’s crucial theme—to stop looking for quick fixes and face the mess of life with real responsibility—muddied and occasionally incoherent. You just can’t do Into the Woods if you’re willing to neutralize the edgier stuff. It’s missing the very point to compromise in such a way. Many have speculated in the 25 years it took to make it to screen that Into the Woods couldn’t work as a movie. Maybe that’s true. It definitely doesn’t work as this movie.

It doesn’t help that Marshall and his longtime cinematographer, Dion Beebe, have chosen a palette that is gloomy and drab (and increasingly ugly as the film goes on). Marshall, a stage veteran, now has a decade of film work under his belt. He made the wonderful Chicago (2002), and has since specialized in movies that are dunderheaded (Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4)…but at least they’re good looking. What exactly happened here? His camera fawns over the material, but his overly controlled style provides little energy, and if there is a surefire method to photograph the same tiny forest set in constantly new and exciting ways, he has not found it. His standard mode in the film’s final third is dingy, bleached blue filters and lazy compositions.

Marshall at least trusts his actors, and indeed the solid cast is…worth seeing? I guess. Every number is performed with brio and vim. Streep has fun in a role that could veer into overacting; she instead finds the right balance of ditzy and threatening. Depp is admirably restrained, sort of, for once, and Blunt has a lot of fun, while Pine ends up being the true ham (channeling William Shatner instead of Captain Kirk, it feels like). Everyone can sing at least well enough, but one of the more experienced voices, Kendrick, is possibly miscast; she seems too sensible to ever truly sell Cinderella’s essential wishy-washiness.

Everyone involved clearly felt they were signing up for a very nice production. But nice, as Red Riding Hood will tell us, is different than good, and by the time Into the Woods reaches a rather embarrassed and silly climax (one that effectively botches the show’s own finale), the waning sense of fun has completely drained away. If only it were gutsier. Or sharper, or more confident. Or something.

I wish.

Gone Girl (2014)

?????????????????????????????????????????20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn; based on her novel. Produced by Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon, Ceán Chafin. Music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Photographed by Jeff Cronenweth. Edited by Kirk Baxter. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens.

It’s a setup that Alfred Hitchcock could have devised: a Missouri man named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to his posh house on his five year anniversary to find his wife missing. There are signs of violence, but not enough to provide leads. A detective (Kim Dickens) enters the picture and begins asking questions, ones that Nick frustratingly doesn’t have answers to. The missing girl is a minor celebrity (her parents made a fortune on children’s books that she became an inadvertent model for). So the media gets involved, her parents enter the picture, searches are organized…and all the while, Nick Dunne…there’s something just not right about Nick Dunne. It’s not that he looks suspicious. It’s just that the media and society start mutually agreeing that he’s not behaving like an innocent person should. And maybe, for that matter, he isn’t one. Or maybe he is. Or maybe…

This is the (very simplified) outline of Gone Girl, first a novel by Gillian Flynn, and now a movie by David Fincher with a screenplay again by Flynn. The novel had diabolical fun with unreliable narrators, prose tricks, and lies that inform, belie and recolor reader sympathy from page to page. Fincher and Flynn, somehow, have managed to retain the book’s nasty, prickly spirit even while reworking it for cinema. I shan’t spoil, but viewers going in expecting a routine mystery will be met instead with a psychosexual thriller that meditates on media, marriage, projected selves and stymied expectations. Yes, including ours.

As the film begins, we cut between two parallel stories: the police and Nick investigating the disappearance, and the diary entries of Amy (an icily, trickily perfect Rosamund Pike). Amy’s story tells how the couple met, in scenes that have the dialogue and magical realism of a romantic comedy, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ flowing fantasy score teases us with artifice. The procedural scenes are played with mounting dread, as Nick feels a nightmare noose tightening around his neck: his own character flaws might make the lack of a body virtually irrelevant. There’s also savage commentary on Nancy Grace-type news personalities that trade in fabricated outrage and enlist viewers as armchair vigilantes. Gone Girl is a very dark movie, but it’s also bitterly funny when it wants to be: when a TV show talking head begins an analysis with “I’ve never met Nick, but…” the line is so true it’s almost anti-parody.

That there’s more happening here is fair to say. Amy’s diary entries take a sour turn as the recession moves the couple out of their New York brownstone and into a heartland malaise. Nick in the present seeks out the help of ace attorney Tanner Bolt (a wry Tyler Perry), “the patron saint of wife killers.” Nick’s sister Go (Carrie Coon) watches in mounting horror as the investigation takes its toll. Dickens’ detective is fair and not trying to railroad anybody; that makes the case she starts to build against Nick all the more frightening. Eventually some..unexpected…things occur and, from a certain perspective, Gone Girl almost changes into an entirely different movie. It remains a mystery, yes, but it’s less about the how and more about the why. It’s an emotional horror movie, a lurid and intentionally schizophrenic missive about how hard it is to truly know someone. In Flynn and Fincher’s cynical worldview, people are selfish companies that sell inflated versions of themselves, and marriages are merely ugly corporate mergers. Or possibly hostile takeovers.

This material is pitch perfect for David Fincher. A gifted stylist and expert at wringing superb performances out of the most unlikely of actors (a key supporting role comes from Emily Ratajkowski, best known from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video), Fincher is also a master of detail-obsessed paranoia (Zodiac), plot twists (Fight Club), and thriller material that masks a dark, nasty agenda (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). There’s also echoes here of his Social Network, especially in the way his detached eye finds sympathy within sociopathy. Fincher’s penchant for endless takes and methodical camera movement creates crisp frames that hang with discomfort, and Affleck gives one of his best performances as the secretive, harried Nick. He’s topped only by Pike, in a performance that demands Oscar recognition for the range of levels it occupies. By the time the beautifully sick and twisted Gone Girl ends, you may be tempted to see it again, now equipped to strip out its complex layers. This is one of the year’s best films.

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

This-Is-Where-I-Leave-YouDirected by Shawn Levy. Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel. Produced by Levy, Paula Weinstein, Jeffrey Levine. Photographed by Terry Stacey. Edited by Dean Zimmerman. Music by Michael Giacchino. Starring Jason Bateman (Judd Altman), Tina Fey (Wendy), Adam Driver (Phillip), Rose Byrne (Penny Moore), Corey Stoll (Paul), Kathryn Hahn (Alice), Connie Britton (Tracy), Timothy Olyphant (Horry), Abigail Spencer (Quinn), Dax Shepard (Wade Boulanger), Jane Fonda (Hillary), Aaron Lazar (Barry), Ben Schwartz (Boner).

This is Where I Leave You is a dysfunctional family comedy/drama that devolves into a traffic jam. It takes a familiar (but workable) premise and then burdens it with too many characters, details, quirks, subplots, former lovers, current partners, revelations, reversals, ironies, and zingers. Screenwriter Jonathan Tropper has adapted his own well-liked novel, but it feels like something genuine that was ambushed by an army of sitcom writers along the way. It’s likable and has a big heart, but its overwritten state is just too much of a muchness.

The center, more or less, is Judd Altman, played by Jason Bateman in the mode he knows best – smarmy guy who unsuccessfully protects real hurt. He arrives home early one day to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepherd), and Judd retreats into misery. When his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to let him know about the death of their distant father, both siblings return to the Altman house, which is ruled by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in the Jane Fonda role). Although no one in the family was a practicing Jew, dad’s will stipulates for everyone to mourn sitting shiva: that is, all under one roof for seven days. That also includes uptight and successful brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and womanizing layabout Phillip (Adam Driver).

Each sibling except for Judd brings along a significant other (Aaron Lazar for Fey, Kathryn Hahn for Stoll, Connie Britton for Driver), and some of them disappear for large chunks of time, even though the house is big but isn’t that big (Judd is relegated to sleeping in the basement in a bed that doesn’t fold out all the way). Judd himself reacquaints with high school flame Penny (Rose Byrne), a character that we learn absolutely nothing about except for (a) she likes Judd and (b) she runs an ice rink that no one, apparently, ever goes to. The movie just doesn’t have time for her, nor does it have time for either of Fey’s love interests (she also has mentally handicapped Timothy Olyphant across the street), or even very much time for the great Jane Fonda. Nor does it give Quinn much credit once she re-enters the picture under very changed circumstances. Ben Schwartz shows up as the “hip” rabbi overseeing the shiva, and his schtick is funny, but it’s too many flourishes spent on a character who is not at all the focus here. Breathlessness is the name of the game in This is Where I Leave You, not in the manner of a farce, but in the style of a story that is constantly looking at its watch.

And yet. The movie is sincere and well-acted. Bateman and Fey are welcome in any movie, and they generate a warm brother-sister relationship that feels natural and real. Fonda makes her big moment of the film really work. Driver is brilliant and winning as a brother who can light anyone’s fuse, and Stoll is dependable as a man with a very short one. The spouse and girlfriend scenes play like convincing trailers for movies out there somewhere that are about them. The only two actors that come closest to not working here are Olyphant and Byrne; both can be fine performers, but only when they are being given actual characters to play. It’s a very busy movie, and the good moments that are there feel like the eyes of loud mini-hurricanes. The family’s surname, Altman, I fear may be a reference to a certain movie director who was infinitely more gifted at juggling a large cast of seriocomic characters.

The director of record here, however, is Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night), who has not really distinguished himself at plumbing the emotional depths that could be explored. He keeps everything surface-level and nice, and that only helps the feeling that every emotional beat feels less therapeutic and more like obligatory marks on a bingo card. A dysfunctional family can certainly be mined for the material of fine dramedy, but perhaps one could have been made here that was paced with more honesty, with fewer side plots, and where the characters speak in fewer punchlines. Perhaps a movie where Judd Altman asks not just where he was left, but why. B-