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The allure of Superman is inescapable. A baby arrives on earth with super human strength and is cared for by a Midwestern couple. As he grows up, he must learn to surreptitiously use that strength for good, wondering all the while the nature of his origins.

Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) gives us a few flashbacks to Clark Kent’s upbringing under the tutelage of his earth father, Kevin Costner, and these are by far the most interesting scenes in the film. But it is clear Snyder is more interested in the fate of Krypton, which results in a tedious dramatization of the planet’s politics and an over-the-top performance by Michael Shannon as the maniacal General Zod. Cue the inevitable, droning CGI fest at the end, plus Superman’s ridiculous triumph (all he had to do was snap Zod’s neck?), and you’ll be awakened from your slumber just in time to see Superman take a job at The Daily Planet, a newspaper populated by such dim bulbs that the mere accoutrement of horn rims serves to disguise the man who just saved them from certain death.

At least the film includes that sly indictment of modern journalism. Other than that, and a spunky performance from Amy Adams, there is little to recommend.

Part 2 would appear to be unavoidable, and word on the street is that Denzel Washington is in talks to take the role of The Green Lantern (green being the operative word).

When I was in a college band in the 80s, I played on one LP. We recorded it in Richmond, VA over a hurried couple of days and had the audacity to call it Hits, one of many mistakes associated with the disc.  But the songs on the record were a marked departure from what the songwriter had written before. It soon became apparent (at least to me) he was under the influence of Big Star, if not melodically, in the bold choice of record name.  That said, it was a long time ago, and I may be making this all up.

Big Star would influence much better bands (The Replacements and REM, to name two) and Big Star’s first two records – #1 Record and Radio City – are, as affirmed by the critics and other interviewees in this documentary, mind-blowingly great.  Exhibit A–

The documentary, however, is merely good. While it does a creditable job of showing how the band, under the direction of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, came together and missed its shot at the golden ring, its coverage of the aftermath is alternatively listless and revealing. Particularly surprising is the time given to the peculiarities of Chilton and Bell after Big Star failed to make it. Disappointing is the meager attention given to the actual music, and make no mistake, those first two records are seminal. Instead, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on, in the words of one contemporary, Chilton’s “self-absorption, self-focus, [and his use of ] drugs and alcohol.” The documentary whizzes by Big Star’s 3rd record but offers a lengthy exploration of Chilton at his worst, his foray into punk and then a gruesome endeavor called Panther Burns.

As for Bell, the film does better with his story after Big Star missed its shot. In the words of one interviewee, Bell just “lost interest in bands period. He just wanted to hear his songs not translated.” He also became a born again Christian, told his brother “you should do drugs. It takes away your sexual urges”, and eventually found himself working at a local restaurant. But Chilton reconnected with Bell, and the result was an astonishing single, I Am the Cosmos, that harkened back to the sound of the first two records.

Much of the weaknesses of the documentary are inescapable. Bell and Chilton are dead (Bell died in a 1978 car accident, Chilton in 2010 of a heart attack) and they were extreme introverts while alive. In their stead, however, the film does a great justice to the broad music community in Memphis. And it wisely ends true to the form in the last 20 minutes, with a host of acts providing testaments and tributes to the band and its influence.

 

My nephew recommended this picture and it was directed by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth). I feared I’d missed a hidden gem. Monsters come from beneath the ocean to get us, and we humans make big metal suits helmed by duos to fight them. This is Transformers (and Real Steel) for middle schoolers instead of mental defectives, scored bombastically, loaded with manly exchanges (“let’s gets this son of a bitch!”, “you can finish this”) and cast with the immediately forgettable (except poor Idris Elba, who I trust just wants to forget).

There is some cool CGI and at the outset, it poses as being cynically dystopian. Still . . .

Ryyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaan!!!!!! You owe me one dollar!!!!!!!!!!

Thirteen years later, Martin Scorsese has re-made Boiler Room, writer-director Ben Younger’s patient and understated Wall Street picture about a sweet kid (Giovanni Ribisi) who gets sucked into the easy cash of a penny stock chop shop run by crooked investment manager Tom Everett Scott. Scorsese’s picture is from the vantage point of Scott’s character, penny stock maven Jordan Belfort, and clearly, the guy who played the drummer in That Thing You Do wasn’t going to cut it as his lead. Enter Scorsese’s boy Leonardo DiCaprio, an able and unsurprising choice. But as I sat through this excessive, gaudy, and at too many times, repetitive extravaganza of the go-go 90s, I pined for the more muted touch of Ben Younger.

DiCaprio as Belfort is an aspiring stockbroker tutored by Matthew McConaughey (who is hilarious; what a year he’s having) but wiped out on 1987’s Black Monday. He reinvents himself by switching to penny stocks, where the clientele is working class, the investments not so much risky as ludicrous, and the broker commissions 50%. Soon, with a band of merry fuckups (including Jonah Hill, who walks a steady line between an ambitious man and a raging child), he is crazy rich. He is also a drug and sex addict of mythic proportions and his life is an endless bacchanal, until, like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, he must pay the piper.

The Wolf of Wall Street apes Goodfellas and Casino in its exposition, showing us through voiceover or DiCaprio speaking directly to the camera just how the securities game works. But writer Terence Winter lacks interest in the mechanics, and many times, DiCaprio leers and tells us directly, “You don’t want to know this.”

The film deduces that what we really want to know is what it’s like to live a high-wire act where every desire is fulfilled, and then some. For the most part, the filmmakers are correct, but in depicting the excess, they overindulge in it. There are two too many orgies, drug crack-ups and the like and at times, the mind wanders. Worse, as in Casino with Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro, Scorsese wrongly presumes we are interested in the marriage of DiCaprio and his trophy wife (Margot Robbie), a union founded on lust, greed and advancement that doesn’t deserve the time given to dramatize its crack-up. Our interest in Robbie peaked on her first date with DiCaprio, when she alights from the bedroom naked save for thigh highs of her own design.

Despite these foibles, the film is often very funny, and when it hits strides, dizzying and infectious. It also does not labor under the burden of a heavy message. Oliver Stone would surely have had Martin Sheen arrive in the final chapter to lecture us about American greed. Hell, Adam McKay, he of titanic films that reach to the heart of who we are as nation, closed The Other Guys with a tutorial on the excesses of Bernie Madoff (but we would expect no less from our new Capra, the creator of not only Anchorman, but Step Brothers and Anchorman 2). Instead, Scorsese and Winter don’t provide a message as much as a testament to the tribal customs and loyalty of certain American subcultures (Winter wrote 19 episodes for The Sopranos) and the universal intertwinement of the American dream and gluttony. But really, this is a picture about how crazy shit can get when those who pray at the altar of the dollar are fueled by endless cash, and the result is both alluring and grotesque.

The cast is very good. DiCaprio gives such a muscular, physical, manic performance (his 1 mile trip from his country club to mansion while on too many Quaaludes is herculean) , he is a lock for a best actor a nomination, but the win will go to McConaughey for Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Melancholy, compelling and lyrical, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of the year, whether you like folk music or not.

Davis, a folk singer in 1961 New York City, is in crisis, his aspirations undermined by his uncomfortable and unwilling status as a solo act, a less than capable manager, and his own selfishness. The film is his journey to the realization that it is not to be (not that he lacks talent) just at the advent of Dylan. As club owner F. Murray Abraham tells him after an audition that is heartfelt, impressive and inapt, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Davis made his way to Abraham via a harrowing trip to Chicago where he not only abandons something he has come to love, but may well have killed it. During the trip, he is harangued by a junkie jazz musician (John Goodman) whose takedown of folk as elemental is just another dagger in Davis’s ambition. Soon, he becomes too weary to pretend he can be successful, to flop on yet another couch, or to play local celebrity for well-meaning patrons on the upper West side.

The Coen brothers possess an attention to detail that serves the film exceedingly well. Their depiction of 1961 Greenwich Village and the folk scene feels just right, and the travails of Davis, a local Simon who has split with his Garfunkel and become more gritty, take the viewer back in time. Like David Chase’s Not Fade Away, the milieu is drab, smoky and intimate, and the music is at the forefront, but nostalgia is replaced by an elegiac feel and the Coen brothers’ signature dark humor. This is not a film about an unheralded legend, or something as corny as Chase’s paen to rock, but about art as work.

As for Davis, Oscar Isaac is anything but a character you champion. But he can sing and play and he embodies the sadness of having just enough talent. He is also loosely based on a real folkie, Dave Van Ronk.

If there is a weakness, it is Carey Mulligan as Davis’s bitter lover. She is so angry and one-note you feel pity for Davis when you should not. As she gets older, Mulligan is strangely morphing into a replica of Katie Holmes.

When Dead Again came out in 1991, 31 year old Kenneth Branagh was fresh off his stunning Henry V, and along with Emma Thompson, threatened to be the next big thing. So as a follow-up, why not try a modern Hitchcockian homage set in San Francisco, with Branagh playing the hard-bitten gumshoe who runs across Thompson, a mysterious woman who has lost her memory, is terrorized by nightmares from her past, and needs Branagh to sort it out.

At the time, the film was well-received (Roger Ebert – “I am a particular pushover for movies like this, movies that could go on the same list with Rebecca, Wuthering Heights or Vertigo”) and it holds an 82% on Rottentomatoes. I can’t scoff. In 1991, I thought it was clever and well-conceived.

How wrong I was.  Dead Again just became available on Netflix streaming. It is an atrocious film.  Branagh’s “American” accent is an awful, nasally annoyance; Thompson barely makes an impression; the story (Thompson and Branagh both lived past lives where he, a famous composer in the 40s, was executed for her murder) is a preposterous pile of pure Gouda; and the villain is so obvious and nonsensical that you are offended at the degradation of the fine actor playing him.

He’s also not so good with scissors.

I’ll give credit where credit is due – Robin Williams does a few decent cameo scenes as a disgraced former psychotherapist and a babyfaced Campbell Scott shows off some nifty ninja kicks. 

Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won Oscars in this James L. Brooks comedy about a cantankerous romance writer with OCD (Nicholson) and a worn-out, single mother waitress (Hunt) who meticulously serves him at the only Manhattan diner at which he will eat. Nicholson is a holy terror, complaining “there are Jews at my table” when it is occupied. At home, he is no better, throwing the dog of his gay artist neighbor (Greg Kinnear, who won a best supporting actor Oscar) down the trash chute. But Nicholson is soon drawn into the world he loathes out of necessity. Hunt has to leave her job because of the health of her son, and Kinnear is beaten into a wheelchair by local thugs, which leaves Nicholson to take care of his dog. The man has to eat, and he bonds totally with the pooch, so soon, he is arranging for medical treatment for Hunt’s child and acting as support for Kinnear. In the process, he and Hunt begin a relationship that is halting at best.

This picture can be riotously funny, and Nicholson gets all the good lines, including my favorite.

If I have a problem with the movie, it is Hunt’s character. Her harried waitress is overbearing, self-pitying and often bullying, and her demand for control is every bit as off-putting as Nicholson’s knee-jerk rudeness and his fear of cracks on the sidewalk. Yet Brooks denies us any judgment of her – she is presented as plagued, but somehow noble. Mind you, Hunt’s performance is excellent, but her character is unpleasant without the benefit of making me laugh, and my teeth are always set on edge during her scenes.

That’s probably my hang-up.

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Matthew McConaughey’s transformation from wiry homophobic cowpoke to frail, determined AIDS survivor in mid-80s Texas is riveting, and he is ably supported by Jared Leto as a young transvestite who becomes his business partner (the business being the importation of non-FDA approved drugs for AIDS patients as an alternative to the toxic AZT). I expect Oscar nominations for both actors for their understated and moving performances, when showy and overwrought was to be expected.

The first half of the film paints a portrait of Ron Woodruff’s (McConaughey) fast living, his “I ain’t no homo” denial of his diagnosis, and his determination to stay alive and flourish, and your investment in his fate is total. But that leaves half a film, and unfortunately, the picture then stumbles. McConaughey makes the jump from survivor to advocate and soon, his finger in in the face of the FDA, the presumably corrupt dispensers of AZT at the hospital, Big Pharma, and yes . . . the system.

The institutional corruption and failure story has been done to death, and it carries a feel wholly distinct from what has come before – inauthenticity. I’ve read a great deal about Woodroof, and much of his tale is corroborated, but in that corroboration, there is no confirmation of the most Hollywoody of the film’s vignettes, such as his attacking the evil doctor in the hospital or his crashing of Big Pharma roll outs of AZT. Perhaps these things occurred, but even if they did, their depiction in the film is cheap and easy. As a historical aside, the availability and affordability of AZT was demanded most vigorously by Act-Up, and its therapeutic value was significantly greater than shown in the film.

There are other problems. Jennifer Garner, as the doctor who McConaughey charms to his side of the drug fight, is a fictional character. She never should have been drawn, or at least, she should have been cast with a more compelling actress. Garner is no match for McConaughey. She gamely tries to communicate empathy and dawning but musters mere wet eyes and wonder.

The bad guys (Dennis O’Hare and Richard Barkley) are stock, almost sneering suits and what Steve Zahn is doing in this picture as a 3 foot ridiculously mustachioed sheriff escapes me.

Otherwise, Dallas Buyer’s Club is a serviceable platform for McConaughey and Leto which eventually succumbs to its own good intentions.