Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghostbusters, The Infiltrator, Café Society, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Men Go to Battle


The Infiltrator

Café Society

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Men Go to Battle

A seriously great undercover mission highlights the week in film:

I'm not a male chauvinist pig who believes women can't be funny (of which there are many). To the contrary, most of the great American movie comedies of recent years ("The Heat," "Sisters," "Spy," "Trainwreck") have featured female leads. But if I were that comedic MCP, Paul Feig's "Ghostbusters" reboot would be Exhibit A. This is a numbingly unfunny movie that induces not laughter but deep sleep, wasting the talents of two our finest comediennes in Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.

The concept of "Ghostbusters" just isn't a good one. It's neither fish nor fowl, not inherently funny and not seriously scary. McCarthy and Wiig are too good not to distill a chuckle or two out of the slime, but mostly the movie's all gadgets and gizmos and cheap-looking (but not -costing) CGI. Kate McKinnon attempts to bring yee-haw edge to her character, but gets nothing out of it. As for Leslie Jones, I put her career upside at Marsha Warfield. The best idea is Chris Hemsworth as the ladies' himbo receptionist, but even that is funnier on paper than on the screen.

From the ridiculous to the sublime… Brad Furman's "The Infiltrator" is one of the best films of the year, a smorgasbord of suspense, action, riveting drama and laugh-out-loud comedy. Bryan Cranston (my choice among last year’s Best Actor nominees for “Trumbo”) cements his status as one of our most important working actors as Customs agent Bob Mazur, who's offered retirement but instead volunteers to go undercover as money launderer Bob Musella in an attempt to get close to Pablo Escobar. John Leguizamo plays Emir Ebreu, Mazur's rookie partner, who likes to fly by the seat of his pants. Their relationship echoes that of John Ashton and Judge Reinhold in the "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise: high praise indeed. After Mazur sends home a prostitute purchased for him by one of Escobar's men, citing a purported fiancée (he's long married, his wife Evelyn played by Juliet Aubrey), no-nonsense boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) assigns him one: equally green agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).

Together, they set out to and do become friends with Escobar's top lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). One false move at any time could spell a slow and painful death, a reality that heightens the tension to an exquisite peak. Meanwhile, Bob's aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis) wants to tag along with them and pose as a moneyed Miami matron for a lark. The supporting cast is uniformly first-rate - Kruger in particular is one to watch - but the movie belongs to Cranston, who has us on his side from the jump with an alive performance that brings out the wry comedy in the well-paced script penned (I was enchanted to learn) by the director's mother, Ellen Brown Furman. After Kruger plays a daring and unplanned gambit during a dinner with the Alcainos, Roberto compliments Bob on his bride-to-be. Cranston's subsequent line reading - he takes a moment to process what's just happened, then replies, "She's remarkable" - alone is worth the price of admission. Add to his work the atmospheric cinematography by Joshua Reis and original music by Chris Hajian and you have a movie that delights the eyes and ears and stirs the heart and mind. "The Infilitrator" will have a place among my top ten of 2016.

Quick capsules on the rest: There’s enough to like in Woody Allen’s new “Café Society” that fans won’t be disappointed: worthy lead performances by the supremely talented Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (rekindling memories of 2009’s great “Adventureland”; we’ll just pretend “American Ultra” never happened), with fine support from Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll and Jeannie Berlin (a dead ringer for her mother, Elaine May); luminous art and set decoration and cinematography by first-time collaborator Vittorio Storaro; and some of Allen’s most unabashedly Jewish humor since “Deconstructing Harry.” It’s not at the level of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or “To Rome with Love,” but it’s more substantial than “Magic in the Moonlight” and altogether better than “Midnight in Paris”… You would expect Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s biodoc “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” to contain a lot of laughs, given both Lear’s groundbreaking television comedies and sunny disposition. They’re there, but the film is unstructured almost to the point of inchoateness, unacceptable for a production of PBS’ “American Masters” series, let alone a theatrical release at first-run prices… One should come to a film prepared to engage with it on (among others) an intellectual level, a storytelling level, and an emotional level. I try to do so. But after seeing thousands and thousands of films, I’ve also come to accept that when I do check out, it’s the filmmaker’s fault, not mine. I checked out early in Zach Treitz’s “Men Go to Battle,” with two brothers in Civil War-era Kentucky the leading players in its esoteric comedy of aimlessness, fecklessness and ineptitude.

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