Film

The Boss, Hardcore Henry, Miles Ahead, Demolition, Mr. Right, Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)

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THE BOSS

Well, it’s better than Tammy. The last time comic dynamo Melissa McCarthy paired creatively with her husband, Ben Falcone, the results were the disastrous, richly unfunny work that is neck and neck with Identity Thief as her worst on-screen appearance. Again with Falcone as director and co-writer with McCarthy and Steve Mallory, The Boss is something a little easier to swallow. That’s appropriate because its core idea is about a start-up company selling delicious brownies. The flaws in the film are still so obvious that it hurts to endure them at times, but at least there are laughs and characters we don’t hate spending time with this time around.

The film opens up on one of its funniest sequences with a young Michelle Darnell being taken from the orphanage where she grew up by prospective parents, only to be brought back… three times at three different ages. Sounds funny, right? It actually is, especially since the nun who meets Michelle is played by Margo Martindale, who just has a knack for cutting through the bullshit (“You can’t just return her.”) Michelle grows up to be a successful businesswoman (McCarthy), self-help guru, and someone devoted to her single life with no family. She was taught by her mentor (Kathy Bates in a Paula Deen wig) that families are for suckers, and being the best in business is everything. As a result, Michelle has no friends beyond the lackeys that work for her, including her assistant Claire (Kristen Bell), a single mother and resident doormat.

Michelle’s one-note character trait about rejecting the idea of family is the film’s most glaring issue. First, it makes it impossible for the character to get any deeper. Second, it makes the film’s turns utterly predictable. Look, I’m not going to a Melissa McCarthy film to be wowed by plot twists, but give us something unexpected.

Michelle is turned into the SEC by her arch rival (and former lover, naturally) Renault (Peter Dinklage). She gets convicted of insider trading and sentenced to four months in jail, after which her possessions have been completely liquidated and she’s left with no job or home. She ends up on the doorstep of Claire and daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson), who takes pity on her former boss and lets her have the fold-out couch. Claire now works in a nondescript job for a more conventionally terrible boss (Cecily Strong), but she also has an office mate, Mike (Tyler Labine), who takes an interest in her.

The beginning of Michelle’s return to power begins with Claire’s scrumptious homemade brownies. Michelle builds an entire Girl Scouts-like organization to sell them, but with the girls keeping a piece of the profit for a college fund. The idea is a hit, and once money starts flowing in, trouble comes sniffing around in the form of Renault. He wants to buy the company because he’s still weirdly obsessed with Michelle and wants to get his hands on anything she touches.

The Boss has just enough gags that land to make the rest of the film that much more frustrating. Parts of the film are clearly shot in Chicago (although much of it is Atlanta doubling as the Windy City). One of the best visual gags is a pan up the Trump International Hotel & Tower, which ends when the camera lands on the big ugly sign on the side of the building that reads Renault, instead of Trump (Chicagoans especially will appreciate that).

But after McCarthy’s solid work in films like The Heat, St. Vincent, and especially Spy, it’s disappointing to see The Boss turn into a lame caper film, complete with a rumble sequence between her brownie-selling girls and her cookie-selling rivals. As funny as a fight scene between her and Dinklage might sound, surprisingly, it lands flat. I’ll give the film credit for sticking to its R-rated guns, but even that only really results in a few extra F-bombs and nothing particularly inspired. The best moments in the film belong to Michelle and Claire, as they almost unexpectedly (to them, not us) become friends. As much as I love a good McCarthy face-plant, there’s something about the dialed-back version of her that I’ve grown to really enjoy. Bell can certainly be funny and charming when she wants to be. Playing straight-woman to McCarthy probably pays well, but is still beneath her abilities. The Boss is middling McCarthy, which can still be pretty funny, but there will always be that lingering sense that she could be doing better. Ghostbusters, here we come! (That’s me being optimistic…)

HARDCORE HENRY

This is effectively a movie in which you are the star—a first-person perspective film seen through the eyes (as opposed to the camera, as with found-footage movies) of the lead character. In this case, you’re Henry, brought back from the dead with no memory of what happened to him/you. He does remember that his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) was kidnapped by an nasty piece of work named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), owner of a private army of killers who never seem to stop trying to murder your ass. And this is all done while you jump, leap, shoot, get thrown from moving vehicles, flip, and any matter of action moves that are almost sure to make your stomach do flips, especially if you’re sitting too close to the screen.

Hardcore Henry is certain something of a unique experience, which is both good and bad. Produced by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and written & directed by musician and first-time helmer Ilya Naishuller, Henry is pure kinetic energy released onto the screen in a flurry of activity that makes anything resembling a plot difficult to follow. It’s an excuse to capture the visuals of a first-person video game on the big screen. As far as that ambition goes, the mission is accomplished. I love that when Henry leaps over something, we often catch a glimpse of his feet or hands. The camera doesn’t stay pointing straight ahead; Henry looks up and down, responding to stimuli all around him. It feels like we’re in someone’s head, looking at the world around us, in this case, in and around Moscow. It’s sometimes unnerving, occasionally sickening, but never boring.

To add an extra layer of insanity to the mix, Henry’s most seemingly reliable ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a British agent of some sort who has the unique ability to send his consciousness from body to body (somehow maintaining the same face, but different personalities). Copley really gets to let loose playing multiple characters, all of whom look strangely similar to him. Although he has no memory, Henry does have strange flashes to his childhood and his father (Tim Roth) teaching him life lessons that make about as much sense as the rest of the film.

The stunts and action sequences in Hardcore Henry (some done with CG) are remarkable indeed, and I’m guessing some of them might not have been possible to pull off if the film had been made in the United States. The problem with the film is that it almost never lets up or gives us a moment to collect our senses and figure out what the hell is going on. I’m sure if I saw the film three or four times, I’d pull together something resembling the plot, but I’m not really inclined to do that. I’m well aware that you rarely go to action films for plot, but I tend to like to hang the set pieces on some skeleton of a story, just to keep things interesting and allow me to care about someone in the damn story. Did I mention that Henry is a mute, so we don’t even have much of a sense of what he’s like as a person. As a result, I didn’t really care who lived or died, except I was pretty sure I wanted Jimmy to live because he made me laugh.

This brand of brutal, breathless Russian cinema is about nothing but taking the viewer on an actual thrill ride, as seen through the eyes of Henry. Director Naishuller certainly makes that happen, and I’ll give him all the credit in the world for pulling it off so convincingly. If there had been just a little more substance and less endless flash, I think I would have truly loved Hardcore Henry. As it stands, perhaps gamers and extreme athletes might get a kick out of the film, but the rest of us will probably find it exhausting.

MILES AHEAD

Actor Don Cheadle is a seemingly bottomless well of talent, so much so that I was genuinely surprised to find out that Miles Ahead, something like a biopic of the legendary trumpet player Miles Davis, was his first crack at feature film directing. It should come as no surprise that Cheadle has selected as the subject of his first film a figure so enigmatic, so perplexing in scope that it would require the filmmaker to reinvent the biopic.

Not unlike director Bill Pohlad did for the equally complex Brian Wilson in last year’s Love & Mercy, Cheadle (who also plays Davis and co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman) selects two periods in Davis’ life to help us grasp the totality and extremes of his life. We open in the late 1970s when Rolling Stone journalist Dave (Ewan McGregor) attempts to get into Davis’ home for an interview. His goal is perhaps also to peek around for the tapes of a rumored secret recording session Davis did in this period that resulted in a five-year hiatus from music. Dave is trying to be Miles’ confidante, but Miles wants Dave to be his accomplice and driver for a “Fear & Loathing”-style day out for the reclusive musician—a day that includes gunplay, car chases, drug deals and fisticuffs.

Amid this chaos, the film also dips back quite lovingly into Miles’ memories of many years earlier, one of the most productive and prolific times in his career. He was young, handsome and had a bona fide muse named Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi of The Invitation and the upcoming remake of “Roots”). But being a self-aware genius takes its toll on the relationship (as do things like drugs and alcohol), and their rows are impressive. Unlike Love & Mercy, these flashbacks aren’t simply a place to go as a break from the ’70s excitement. The two periods are braided into each other, showing us the differences in Davis’ personality, as well as alerting us to the fact that some things never change.

As much as I hate the idea of Davis’ story being filtered through the eyes of the white composite character Dave, in a way it also seems necessary that we have someone in the story to represent the audience, who needs a bit of an interpreter at times to explain exactly what craziness Davis is up to at every given moment. He storms into Columbia Records demanding cash up front for his “lost tapes.” He has truly unpleasant dealings with record exec Harper Hamilton (another composite character, played beautifully by Michael Stuhlbarg), who is attempting to attach a talented up-and-coming jazz player, Junior (Short Term 12’s Keith Stanfield) to Davis’ still-bankable star. He also would very much like to steal those tapes for himself.

I’d certainly understand if some Davis purists had issues with Cheadle’s handling of the facts, but in truth, the film is meant to be more about capturing attitude and vibrations than being a highlight reel of the subject’s life. First and foremost, Miles Ahead is a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a staggeringly singular vision of how to tell the story of an artist who literally changed his art form several times over. It’s not perfect, but it’s not afraid to be different, and Cheadle’s performance at the heart of the film is so dead-on perfect, it’s hard to argue with many of his other stylistic choices. The more time I spend thinking about the film, the more I’ve grown to really admire the ambition and execution. And if nothing else works for you, the music ain’t bad either. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Miles Ahead star/director/co-writer Don Cheadle, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

 

DEMOLITION

It’s not uncommon in the land of therapy for therapist to tell you that the best way to move past your problems is by deconstructing them, looking at their individual parts, and once you have a clearer understanding of what makes up your anxieties and fears, you can overcome them. Demolition, the latest from prolific and talented director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) is about a man who takes these ideas quite literally. He is dismantling objects in his life in a vague search for answers about why he is so profoundly unhappy with his life, without seeming too unhappy about his wife’s recent tragic death.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays investment banker Davis Mitchell, who works for his father-in-law Phil (an especially dour Chris Cooper) and seems pretty good and wheeling and dealing his way into big deals on a regular basis. On a drive home with his wife, there’s a terrible car accident in which she is killed and he barely gets a scratch, at least not the visible kind. But from that moment forward, Davis walks around in a bit of a daze. That begins when a vending machine he attempts to use leaves his candy selection hanging. This sparks him to write a complaint letter to the vending machine company, which turns into a confessional essay about his life leading up to that point (and serves as our narration).

The film gets even stranger when the head of customer service for the company, Karen (Naomi Watts) calls Davis, having been genuinely touched by his letter and the couple more that followed, perhaps spotting a kindred spirit in Davis’ dissatisfaction with his life. She’s a single mom, living with the head of the vending machine company and trying to raise her teen son Chris (Judah Lewis). The son also has issues of his own to work through while not getting beat up in school. The characters in Demolition don’t enter scenes and converse with one another as much as they drift into rooms, have wispy encounters and float back out of the room whatever way the wind takes them. It’s odd for the sake of odd and not much else. I grew increasingly frustrated waiting for these free-floating ideas about happiness, grief, fulfillment, and who the hell knows what else to lead to something beyond just the mindless destruction of so many appliances and structures.

I’m sure there are some that will see Davis’ brand of constructive deconstruction as an example of a cog in the corporate machine breaking free and sticking it to the man by breaking down all that he stands for. I wish his actions felt that anarchic, but they don’t and aren’t. Demolition wants us to believe it’s edgy by being about nothing, when in fact it’s an empty stage on which Gyllenhaal does some interpretive suffering dance that might be his single worst performance as an actor. Neither he nor the film are fun or interesting or insightful; instead, the piece just sits there, emoting for the sake of it, giving us nothing to grow or learn from. Enjoy your agony. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

MR. RIGHT

Writer Max Landis’ oeuvre is apparently to take familiar film set up or genres and give them a twist, often in directions we don’t see coming. Sometimes he just mashes two types of films together and sees how they fit (Chronicle, American Ultra); other times he attempts a decidedly different take of familiar (Victor Frankenstein, told more or less from Igor’s POV). His latest bit of writing (directed by Rage helmer Paco Cabezas) is Mr. Right, which falls more in the American Ultra mode, but instead of combining a stoner comedy with a government conspiracy thriller, he overlaps a romantic comedy with the story of assassins running amuck.

It’s almost inconceivable that a film with Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell as the protagonists would be anything less than adorable, but somehow so little about Mr. Right hits the mark. Martha (Kendrick) is a complete disaster since her last relationship ended, leaving her half-crazy and perfectly open to the friendly advances of an eccentric stranger named Francis (Rockwell). I suppose their lives colliding counts as a meet-cute, but I can’t remember a time when I was more annoyed by two personalities on screen together. They riff and do something vaguely resembling improv in charming conversations (if these back-and-forths are fully written, then more shame on the writer) that are rarely amusing or funny or endearing. Instead, they ramble and verbally stumble over each other.

It turns out that Francis, in addition to being a sharp dresser and dancer, is an assassin who has resorted to killing the people that attempt to hire him. When word gets out, a criminal type attempts to make it look like his boss did the hiring to take him out of the equation, so he can rise up in the organization. But the bad guy’s story is so convoluted that it never feels like the point of Mr. Right. There’s also the bizarre presence of Tim Roth here as a rival assassin and former partner of Francis, who is out to get revenge on his old pal for some betrayal or another. The presence of Roth underscores how much Landis would like us to think this script is as clever and layered as one by Quentin Tarantino (spoiler: It’s not). That doesn’t keep him from allowing a certain amount of verbal gymnastics to occur that is meant to deepen the character development but instead just clutters the film with empty words.

Kendrick and Rockwell certainly do their best to keep things light and breezy during the more romantic moments, but when things go violent, she panics and he does his job. She wants out, but he convinces her to stay. She suddenly gets a taste for the lifestyle and finds him all the more irresistible. Fickle, isn’t she? Now imagine an entire movie like that, where what happens in one scene is virtually forgotten in the next in order to keep the jokes popping and meaningless story moving forward at any cost. Director Cabezas (whose work will also be seen in several episodes of this coming season of “Penny Dreadful”) at least keeps things visually flowing and interesting, although it almost feels like he’s afraid to linger too long in any one scene. Still, watching Rockwell do something like choreography while he’s killing a dozen thugs is fairly impressive.

In the end, I was drowning in zaniness, as well as an underlying discomfort that all of this resembles Gigli a little too closely. It’s tough when you’re rooting for a couple (and their movie) to succeed so much, only to watch everything fall apart in a film where a Hawaiian shirt acts as a shortcut to discovering a character’s personality, or Anna Kendrick is utterly wasted. She does strong and confident quite convincingly, but she also is quite capable of doing a mature type of vulnerable—neither of which is at play in this drippy movie. I’m all for a smart film that combines love and killing, but Mr. Right killed the things I love. The film will open in Chicago exclusively at the ArcLight Theater.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE)

One of the reasons you should make seeing this restored print of the original 1946 film version of Beauty and the Beast a priority (especially if you’ve never seen it) is that filmmakers haven’t been able to stop telling this story ever since this one was released. Most recently, there was another French version made, starring Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux, directed by Christophe Gans, in a fairly faithful remake of the Jean Cocteau-directed original. (The new take will soon make its way across the United States, including a stop at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, May 20-26 at the Music Box Theatre.) And in about a year, there will be a live-action Disney version, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the title roles, which will be more of a remake of the 1991 Disney animated musical adaptation. You can’t escape it.

But Cocteau’s trippy, black-and-white original is so visually compelling and inventive that it’s always been my personal favorite. Every frame is filled with life and a haunting brand of enchantment, in which every inanimate object in the Beast’s castle moves as if possessed. Belle (the luminescent Josette Day) is captured by The Beast (Jean Marais, long said to be the director’s lover, who pulled him out of semi-retirement to do this film) and treated like a queen in the hopes that one day she will fall in love with him and break his curse of appearing animal-like. Beauty and the Beast has always been about this slow seduction, during which Belle sees past the feral temper and hairy body and finds the man inside.

When Belle’s beloved father (Marcel André) grows ill at her absence, she makes a deal with the Beast to return home briefly, and, upon her return, she’ll stay with him forever. But Belle’s greedy siblings nearly ruin everything, almost killing the Beast in the process before love conquers all. It’s a strange and emotionally heightened telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it’s also strikingly beautiful, a fact heightened substantially with this restoration.

Everything in the Beast’s castle has a either a glow or a slightly eerie haze about it. With just a few tweaks, this could have easily been quite a scary exercise, but Cocteau (fresh from opium rehab when he made it) maintains a light, innocent atmosphere that is both childlike and distinctly adult. The film’s visual trickery is clever and mostly in-camera illusion that serve to increase the level of magic in the piece. It’s not difficult to understand why this original Beauty and the Beast has sustained its popularity and significance over 70 years, and if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, you owe it to yourself, especially in this restored version. The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where a 35mm print will be screened.

Categories: Film, Screens

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