Archive for July, 2016

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Bryan Cranston proved in Breaking Bad that he can comfortably play both sides of the Man is Good/Man is Evil duality. But while Bad called on the actor to convey a slow and steady devolution into darkness, drug-war thriller The Infiltrator maintains Cranston’s hand on the chain as he flips back and forth between real-life federal agent Robert Mazur and his alter ego Bob Musella, a money-laundering simpatico to the Medellin Cartel and other shadowy interests.

Set at the height of the Reagan-era drug paranoia, an aging and retirement-eligible Mazur launches an undercover operation to go straight at Columbian cocaine lord Pablo Escobar through his wallet, rather than working his way slowly up the food chain through lower-level busts.

The plan works well, and before long Mazur is reeling in high-level targets like Roberto “The Jeweler” Alcaino  (a pitch-perfect and sinister Benjamin Bratt) and the C-level honchos of a major international bank, while also dodging bullets and suspicious as the noose tightens.

Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) takes a slick, no-frills approach to the heady subject material. Much like  2014’s Kill The Messenger, the true story behind Infiltrator already contains the twists and turns of a feature film, and Furman wisely steers clear of excesses to craft a satisfying and sophisticated drama that captures a lesser-known but noteworthy moment in America’s criminal history.

With Cranston at its center, and heavy assists by John Leguizamo and a well-utilized Diane Kruger, Infiltrator is a well-executed, grown-up drama that informs while it entertains.

*The Infiltrator opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 13.

Grade: B+

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Spotlight (2015)

If you still haven’t seen last year’s Best Picture winner, then you have no excuse now. Spotlight has arrived on Netflix, so it’s the perfect time for a first, second, or hundredth viewing of the film, which focuses on the dogged work of a team of reporters at The Boston Globe that exposed the widespread cover-up of child abuse  by Catholic priests. It’s heavy stuff, but not without its moments of levity, all of which are performed exquisitely by the talented cast (led by Michael Keaton). And as a fellow journalist, the newsroom scenes are on point.

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The Big Short (2015)

Another of last year’s Best Picture nominees, The Big Short is one of the two best movies ever made about the subprime mortgage crisis (the other being Margin Call, which unfortunately is not streaming on Netflix right now). The economy took a nosedive in 2008, taking  a lot of regular people down with it. A few Wall Street watchers saw the crash coming and bet against the markets, but the hard thing about foresight is being proved right. Watch this movie, and prepare to get angry.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Do you have kids? Do you ever worry that they might grow up to be mass-murdering sociopaths? Don’t worry, they won’t.

Unless they do…

Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who struggles to bond with her son and, over time, is increasingly suspicious of his actions. The film squeezes a suffocating amount of tension out of the inevitability of Kevin’s evolution, and Ezra Miller (the future Flash) stars in a  breakout role that toes too many emotional lines to even describe.

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An Honest Liar (2014)

This biographical documentary looks at the life of  James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and escape artist who retired from performing and devoted his life to debunking psychics and mystics as charlatans and frauds. He excelled in both careers, going from guest appearances in Happy Days as “The Amazing Randi” to exposing televangelist Peter Popoff, who relied on a hidden earpiece to receive diving inspiration about his flock.

The dual-track of Randi’s legacy is affectionately captured in An Honest Liar, as is the charm and charisma of Randi himself. He is, as they say, a character, and this documentary does him justice.

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Experimenter (2015)

Did you ever hear about that study where people were told to shock a man for giving wrong word-association answers? And they did, for the most part, despite the man’s pleas to stop?

Or perhaps you’ve heard about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone can be connected through a chain of six people?

They both are the work of Stanley Milgram, a controversial social psychologist with a penchant for devising thought-provoking experimentation on human behavior. His work gets the biopic treatment in Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and a brief appearance by the late Anton Yelchin, who died last month.

 

 

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In 2013, two dude-bro brothers named Mike and Dave posted an ad on Craigslist looking for dates to accompany them to a wedding. You likely heard the story, as the stunt quickly gained the viral ubiquity of our fleeting national attention.

And like clockwork, here we are three years later with an irreverent comedy based on Mike and Dave’s antics (an eventuality overtly prophesied in the Craiglist post in question). As the down-to-business title suggests, this is a movie about Mike and Dave, played by Zac Efron and Adam Devine, who need wedding dates, which they find in Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza through the miracle of the internet and daytime talk show television.

Both men are well-intentioned and affable manboys whose life-of-the-party aspirations are inevitably undone by flying too close to the sun. This premise is introduced in probably the only coherent and comedically consistent vignette of the film, as Mike and Dave’s family visits with a slide-show montage of their past destruction and a mandate to arrive to their sister’s upcoming nuptials with plus-ones in tow as a protective measure against their accidentally destructive nature.

There are a few more laughs to be had, but not many. The movie plays as if SNL devoted an entire episode to a single sketch: it’s largely improvised and occasionally funny, but most of the jokes fail to land and everything would be better with a few more celebrity cameos. To their credit, Efron, Devine, Kendrick and Plaza are committed to their bits, working overtime to squeeze a few more drops of comedy blood out of the stone that is the film’s outline of a script. But their performances are also grating, particularly Plaza, who is forced to relinquish her otherwise capable comedy timing in favor of a barely two-dimensional caricature of a “bad” girl playing nice.

At every turn “Mike and Dave” seems desperate to position itself as a spiritual extension of Wedding Crashers, going so far as to name-drop the earlier film in a particularly on-the-nose scene. But while leads Efron and Devine exhibit some of that Wilson/Vaughan chemistry, the surrounding film is severely lacking in the showmanship and ingenuity of better comedies.

It’s a failed attempt that barely entertains for its shorter-than-it-feels running time.

Grade: C+

*Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates opens nationwide on Friday, July 8.

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