Movie Review: “Mistress America”

Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Noah Baumbach

Real-life couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig clearly enjoy working together, but their films are far from enjoyable. The pair’s first collaboration, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” was a painfully obtuse look at self-entitled millennials living in New York City, and although “Mistress America” isn’t as bad, it covers a lot of the same ground while forcing yet another group of mostly unlikable characters down the audience’s throat. Last year, Baumbach directed a movie about a similar subject (“While We’re Young”) without Gerwig’s involvement, and the reason that film was such a success is because it skewered the faux-intellectual hipster crowd from the outside looking in. The problem with “Mistress America,” however, is that its main characters are just like the people Baumbach so effectively mocked in his previous outing; they’re great comic fodder, but they don’t make for very endearing company.

Lola Kirke stars as Tracy Fishko, a lonely college freshman at Barnard College with high hopes of being accepted into the school’s exclusive literary magazine. She hasn’t had much luck making friends, save for fellow wannabe writer Tony (Matthew Shear), so her mother suggests that she get in touch with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in the city. Brooke is more than happy to take the impressionable Tracy under her wing, and after a night on the town together, the two become inseparable. Tracy idolizes Brooke, using her wild social life as inspiration for a new short story, while Brooke loves that someone so intelligent could look up to her. But when Brooke’s latest business endeavor, a terribly conceived restaurant/hair salon/community center, loses one of its key investors, she brings Tracy with her to Connecticut to convince some wealthy college friends – former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and frenemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) – to bail her out.

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Movie Review: “Z for Zachariah”

Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Craig Zobel

Director Craig Zobel’s last feature film, 2012’s “Compliance,” was more than a little divisive. Nobody dismissed the quality of the filmmaking or the convincing performances, but the focus was on the story itself, which left audiences asking, “Why would someone do this?” But that was the point. What pushes people to make questionable decisions, ones that they didn’t think they were capable of making? Zobel’s newest movie, “Z for Zachariah,” poses a similar question, amongst many others in this deceptively simple post-apocalyptic tale.

The film is set in a near-future dystopia where most of humanity is gone. One of the survivors, Ann (Margot Robbie), lives on her father’s farm, managing to get by. She lives a fairly simple, lonely life, but that all changes when she meets Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though the man of science’s views clash with her religious beliefs, they soon develop a deep bond – one that’s interrupted by the arrival of another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine). As they spend time together, Ann becomes torn between the two men, but this story is about much more than a love triangle.

As a love triangle, though, it’s quite challenging and brutal. There’s a scene where Dr. Loomis catches Caleb and Ann in a small moment of intimacy, and the way Ejiofor silently reacts in this scene is painful to watch. “Z for Zachariah” is a film that often plays its cards close to its chest. The biblical subtext is clear – Caleb is the snake that enters the Garden of Eden and temps Ann to sin – but it never calls too much attention to itself. A conversation about science vs. religion is secondary to the lead characters’ struggles.

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Blu Tuesday: The Walking Dead, Aloha and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season”

WHAT: After escaping from Terminus, Rick Grimes and Co. find refuge in a rundown church as they’re hunted by their cannibalistic captives. But when Beth (Emily Kinney) is kidnapped amidst all the chaos, and Daryl (Norman Reedus) discovers that she’s being held hostage by another group of survivors in downtown Atlanta, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) assembles a team to rescue her, while the others investigate Eugene’s promise of a cure in Washington, D.C.

WHY: AMC’s habit of splitting each season of “The Walking Dead” into two halves has never been very popular among fans, but it actually worked pretty well with Season Five, because the first eight episodes are jam-packed with so much story that you need a break in between just to process everything. Though the hospital subplot is a completely new creation for the series, the rest of the season covers a lot of familiar ground from its pre-existing source material. Of course, with each new storyline comes plenty of new characters, and the show does a remarkably good job of juggling its large cast to keep everyone happy. The show’s most popular characters – Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, Norman Reedus’ Daryl and Melissa McBride’s Carol – are front and center as expected, and each actor delivers excellent work, but Emily Kinney (who gets perhaps the best sendoff arc yet) and newcomers Tovah Feldshuh and Ross Marquand also shine in supporting roles. Veteran cast members like Lauren Cohen are shoved to the sidelines as a result, but that’s all part of being on a show like “The Walking Dead,” which is just as much an ensemble piece as “Game of Thrones.” Though Season Five isn’t without its flaws (the handling of fan favorite Tyrese is especially poor), thanks to some great writing and interesting new dynamics among the core group, it’s easily one of the best, if not the best, seasons to date.

EXTRAS: In addition to cast and crew audio commentaries on six episodes, there are “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” mini-featurettes for every episode, a behind-the-scenes look at constructing the Alexandria set, a pair of video diaries with actors Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt, deleted scenes and more.



WHAT: Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs – Honolulu, Hawaii – to help billionaire communications mogul Carson Welch (Bill Murray) launch his latest satellite into space. Along the way, Brian reconnects with a former love (Rachel McAdams) who may not completely be over him, while falling hard for the spirited Air Force watchdog (Emma Stone) assigned to babysit him during his stay.

WHY: Cameron Crowe’s latest film came under a lot of fire following its release in theaters – some deserved and some not so much. Although it’s understandable why people would be upset over the supposed whitewashing casting of Emma Stone as mixed-race jet fighter Alison Ng, the whole point of her overeager character is that she desperately wants to be accepted by the islanders as one of their own (constantly informing people that she’s one-quarter Hawaiian) despite not really looking the part. The fact that so much attention was placed on this controversy is remarkable, because “Aloha” is such a complete disaster that there was plenty of other ammunition to choose from. For starters, the movie is all over the place, polluted with weird subplots that aren’t fully explained, an awkward love triangle that goes nowhere, and characters who are so poorly developed that you still don’t know what their purpose is to the story when it’s over. The cast looks just as confused most of the time, with Stone the only actor who comes away with any sort of dignity intact. “Aloha” isn’t the first time that Crowe has made a bad film, but this is easily his worst and most embarrassing failure yet.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Cameron Crowe, a feature-length making-of documentary titled “The Untitled Hawaii Project,” an alternate opening and ending, four featurettes, a gag reel and some deleted scenes.


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Movie Review: “American Ultra”

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo
Nima Nourizadeh

After making his directorial debut with the totally distasteful and juvenile found footage comedy, “Project X,” it wouldn’t have been surprising if Nima Nourizadeh never worked in Hollywood again. But someone clearly saw something in the filmmaker that warranted giving him another chance, and while he doesn’t exactly redeem himself with the action-comedy “American Ultra,” it does prove that he’s at least somewhat competent behind the camera. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, and deservedly so, because although the movie boasts a talented cast and intriguing premise, it never amounts to more than a mildly amusing end-of-summer distraction that squanders its considerable potential under the indecisive direction of Nourizadeh.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, an unambitious stoner who’s perfectly content with his mundane life in West Virginia alongside his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike is completely in love with her, and even plans a romantic getaway to trip in order to propose, but for some reason, he keeps having panic attacks that prevent him from leaving town. Unbeknownst to him, his crippling anxiety is actually a side effect from an experimental government program he volunteered for that wiped his memory and turned him into a CIA sleeper agent. When the program’s architect, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), learns that bureaucratic brownnoser Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) plans to terminate all the subjects from the abandoned project, she decides to activate Mike using a secret code phrase and give him a fair shot at survival. But it doesn’t work as expected – that is, until Yates sends a pair of assassins to kill Mike and he snaps out of his daze, dispatching them with only a spoon and a cup of ramen. Marked for death and forced to go on the run, Mike must utilize his new abilities to rescue Phoebe when she’s kidnapped by Yates and his team of programmed killers.

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Movie Review: “Sinister 2″

James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan
Ciarán Foy

Director Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” remains a chilling movie. It’s a quietly effective horror film that’s anchored by a solid lead performance from Ethan Hawke. Though Derrickson has returned for “Sinister 2,” it’s not behind the camera, but rather as a screenwriter alongside his co-writer from the first film, C. Robert Cargill. Taking over helming duties instead is Irish-born director Ciarán Foy (“Citadel”), and although his sequel doesn’t reach the bar set by its predecessor, it comes close at times.

Deputy So & So (James Ransone) is haunted by the events from the first film, believing he could’ve done more to help Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) and his family. No longer an active deputy, So & So now spends his time tracking down the evil spirit Bughuul. He’s dedicated his life to preventing the demon from harming more families, which brings him to Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her 9-year-old twins, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), who could potentially be Bughuul’s next victims. On the run from the law and her sons’ abusive father, Courtney hides away in an abandoned house, unaware that it’s haunted, which prompts Bughuul and his pack of possessed kids to lure the boys in by showing them 8mm films of grisly killings.

Much like the first movie, the 8mm footage is truly unsettling, except it’s lacking this time around. Part of the reason why the footage was so horrific in “Sinister” was because we were experiencing it from the point of view of a flawed, human and believable protagonist. We weren’t just watching seemingly senseless murders; we were also seeing the toll it was taking on Ellison. Those 8mm films played a role in his arc, as he was so obsessed in regaining his success as an author that he continued watching the murders. In the case of the sequel, the 8mm films don’t serve as substantial of a purpose, and they’re not pleasant in the way they’re probably intended to be. Since the footage doesn’t carry the same weight as they did in the first movie, it becomes a little tiresome watching people killed over and over again.

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