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Mortdecai Mortifies 

Whiplash whips it good

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MORTDECAI. It was one of the great, pleasant surprises of my adult literary life when a friend introduced me to the Charlie Mortdecai books (Don't Point That Thing at Me; After You with the Pistol; Something Nasty in the Woodshed). Written by the late (I'd say great) Kyril Bonfiglioli, the three slim volumes detail the darkening adventures of the louche, sardonic, hard-drinking cad-cum-art-dealer Mortdecai. Bonfiglioli's protagonist may or may not be a heightened/debased version of the author himself, but the books are rich with detail: from the palpable atmosphere of the debauched 1970s London upper crust, to the impossibly clean, lethal air of the wide open American West, to the savor of a fine bottle. They are also beautifully written, almost impossibly funny and tragically under-acclaimed.

So I was of two minds before seeing the film: Bookworm hoped that no one would attempt a cinematic adaptation, so pure and perfect are the novels; Movie Nerd thought these stories could, if handled carefully, easily translate into the language of the big screen. While the novels are internal, with the action filtered through the foggy lens of the hero, that could be handled by a capable actor and savvy direction. The stories themselves hit all the marks of well-crafted screenplay, moving briskly and sometimes sexily through elegantly constructed mysteries.

Bookworm was right, though, as Movie Nerd should have known. Instead of having the temerity — or the influence — to make an intimate, '70s period piece based on obscure books, someone decided, likely in some airless boardroom, to make a big-budget "update" of same source material and piss on the grave of its author.

David Koepp most recently directed Premium Rush (2012), which was enjoyable if not entirely successful. He is also responsible for the script to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), however, so his cinematic karma account is in arrears. Working from an adaptation credited to Eric Aronson, he recasts the portly crank Mortdecai as a trim, idiot lothario played by Johnny Depp, liberally deploying a British accent. Cash-poor landed gentry, Charlie Mortdecai is called upon by an old-school-associate-turned-policeman named Martland (Ewan McGregor) to surreptitiously investigate the disappearance of a significant Goya painting. Martland offers forgiveness of Charlie's sizable tax debt as compensation. So off toddles our "hero," equally bent on misconceived subterfuge and self-destruction. His bumbling sleuthing eventually sends him to America, attended as always by indispensable manservant/thug Jock (Paul Bettany). There's some pointless business with a billionaire (Jeff Goldblum) and his "nymphomaniac" daughter (Olivia Munn), with the suggestion of international terror in the background. Throughout, Charlie attempts to salvage his marriage to the lovely, much-too-good-for-him Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow, also faking Briton).

While the movie pretends to honor the legacy of its source, it amounts to lip service of the most insulting sort. Mortdecai isn't technically awful, which might make it all the worse. The actors, in spite of their annoying fakery, are charming in an overblown Hollywood sort of way. The story clips along at a serviceable pace, even if many of the scenes feel padded. As forgettable entertainment, it's adequate. But gone are the glorious seediness, threadbare luxury and the vicious sarcasm that define the novels. Koepp sacrifices atmosphere and pith for a Depp-centric Brit minstrel show punctuated by occasional violence. The result is a ball-less trifle that shares little more than a skeleton with the work from which it is derived. R. 106m.

WHIPLASH. Come Oscar time, there's always one scrappy little indie in the mix. For 2015, this is it: Damien Chazelle's punishing, nuanced examination of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer bent on greatness, and Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the bandleader who may or may not be the one to help him achieve it.

A first-year student at the competitive Shaffer Conservatory, Neiman's drumming attracts the attention of Fletcher, who gives him a shot sitting in with his vaunted studio band. Neiman has talent and a strong work ethic, but maybe not the fortitude to withstand the constant withering attacks of his instructor.

What follows is an emotionally involving, often painful give-and-take that questions the nature of success in art. What does it take to succeed? Which teaching method best serves the gifted student? What does one have to sacrifice in order to "make it?"

It all may sound a little jazz-connoisseur pretentious — I had to put aside my own non-musician resentments in the early going, too. But Whiplash is utterly engrossing. Not only is the playing truly impressive (Teller performed all his own drumming), the performances captivate, and Chazelle creates a breathless, enveloping atmosphere with his visual compositions and pacing. The script constantly surprises with the authenticity of its emotional material, and refuses to let us off the hook with convenient resolutions or pat endings. This feels a lot like the some of the best work of the 1970s American movie renaissance, and that is a very good thing. R. 107m.

— John J. Bennett


BLACK OR WHITE. Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer play grandparents battling for custody of a biracial girl. PG13. 121m.

THE LOFT. A shared secret apartment turns into a real estate nightmare for five dudes when somebody murders a woman in it. R. 102m.

PROJECT ALMANAC. Brainy teens build a time machine. Don't worry, they'll probably make good choices. PG13. 106m.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac and David Oyelowo in an '80s organized crime drama. R. 125m.

AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.

BIRDMAN. Excellent weirdness as a former superhero franchise star (ahem, Michael Keaton) grasps at a second act. While his character struggles, Keaton clearly still has his chops. R. 120m.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR. Jennifer Lopez as a mother whose tryst with a teen goes Fatal Attraction. Seriously, JLo, do you not know a Lifetime movie trap when you see one? R. 107m.

THE IMITATION GAME. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in a biopic about the mathletes and cryptologists trying to crack the German code in World War II. PG13. 114m.

INTO THE WOODS. As soon as the singing starts, interest wanes and even the strong cast bores in the fairytale mash-up. PG. 124m.

PADDINGTON. A South American bear moves in with a London family and dodges a museum taxidermist in a live-action adaptation of the children's stories. PG13. 128m.

SELMA. David Oyelowo is a fine MLK, but the director pulls punches on violence and realistic bigotry, diminishing the impact of this biopic. PG13. 128m.

STRANGE MAGIC. This animated fairy-fest is "inspired" by A Midsummer Night's Dream. Voiced by Evan Rachel Wood and Elijah Kelley. R. 135m.

WEDDING RINGER. A matrimonial buddy movie with Kevin Hart as a best-man-for-hire suiting up for the wedding of an awkward dude (Josh Gad). R. 101m.

WILD. As author Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon narrowly escapes Eat, Pray, Hike territory to honestly explore self-reliance, love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail. R. 115m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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John J. Bennett

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