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Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Hot Pursuit (2015)

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara
Domestic Box Office: $34,580,201

It seems appropriate to end the summer movie season with this summer's first high profile flop, the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara comedy Hot Pursuit. I would like to think that even if the summer of 2015 hadn't produced what feels like an inordinate number of films featuring interesting and complex female characters, Hot Pursuit would still seem like a bizarre throwback to another era. In truth, it feels less like a theatrical feature from 2015 than a bad TV movie from the 1990s, full of the kind of outdated race/sex/gender/sexuality based humor that would be offensive if it weren't so lazy and entirely out of touch with where our culture currently resides. I don't know what amazes me more: that any studio would bother making something like this (even at its relatively modest production budget), or that even with a female director and three female producers (including Witherspoon), this project couldn't have been reworked into something at least marginally less sexist.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

* * *

Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney

Sherlock Holmes has existed in popular culture for 128 years now, his name now synonymous with crime solving. Using his sharp observational skills and his wits, there isn't a case he isn't capable of solving, a foe he isn't capable of taking down. But no one is indestructible and time takes its toll on everyone, and in Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes the great detective is a shadow of himself, reduced physically and mentally by the effects of aging. As played by Ian McKellen, he remains a thoroughly compelling character and is perhaps even more so than usual in this compassionate, character-driven drama. While it doesn't have the big action thrills of the Robert Downey, Jr. franchise, Mr. Holmes is a solid and absorbing drama.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover
Country: United States

At one point in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums the family, less the man whose name provides the film with its title, sit around the table debating whether or not to let the errant patriarch back into the family fold and the younger of the two sons states, “I think he’s very lonely. Lonelier than he lets on. Lonelier than he even realizes.” It’s an accurate description of Royal Tenenbaum, but then it’s an accurate description of all the Tenenbaums, a family of deeply repressed and isolated individuals. All of Anderson’s films have a layer of melancholy to them, but Tenenbaums is the one which best demonstrates his ability to push through that sense of sadness, as well as past the distance created by affectation, with genuine warmth and humanity. Tenenbaums isn’t just one of the funniest and most quotable movies to come out so far this century, it’s also a moving story of a family learning to become a family.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday's Top 5... My Favorite Movies of Summer 2015

#5: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

It was a close call between Rogue Nation and Jurassic World as I whittled the long list down to the final list, but ultimately I've got to give Tom Cruise's big summer hit the slightest of edges over Chris Pratt's. Jurassic may have had dinosaurs, but it also had one of the dumbest endings I've ever seen in a movie I otherwise really liked, whereas Rogue Nation is a film I thought was consistently awesome from beginning to end, and I sincerely hope that Rebecca Ferguson returns for the next M:I installment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Word of advice: if an eccentric (and possibly insane) billionaire invites you to spend a week at his isolated, Bond villain style lair, even under the guise of it being the prize in a contest, don't go. Just don't. Nothing good will happen there. Especially if there are robots involved. Someone is going to die, there's no way around it. Best case scenario, you spend a week on an estate so vast that it takes over two hours to travel the length of it by helicopter, yet feels as claustrophobic as a prison cell. It makes for a bad vacation - but a pretty solid science fiction psychological thriller in the hands of writer/director Alex Garland.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: 30 Minutes or Less (2011)

* 1/2

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson

There are plenty of movies that leave you wondering how they ever got made, they're so ill-conceived and poorly rendered. Somewhat less common are movies that leave you wondering why they got made, as everyone in it seems so disengaged from and disinterested in the material. I mean, I can speculate as to why each of the principal actors showed up for this - Jesse Eisenberg to reteam with his Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, Aziz Ansari because it's not like Hollywood makes a ton of roles available to actors of color, Danny McBride because the character he plays is basically the "Danny McBride character" so why not?, and Nick Swardson because the character he plays here is marginally less grotesque than the ones he usually gets to play in Happy Madison productions so this must have been a nice change of pace - but that still doesn't explain why anyone paid to make it happen. Even if 30 Minutes of Less didn't have strong similarities to a real life incident that ended tragically, this would be an oddly joyless comedy, and one that doesn't even seem to know what its actual story is, let alone what tone it ought to be aiming for.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Torro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba
Domestic Gross: $101,802,906

Pacific Rim is a curious case among summer not-busters. With a domestic gross of $101 million, it didn't make an insignificant amount of money, but it also didn't come anywhere near its $190 million production budget. Under normal circumstances, it would be written off as a bomb and rarely spoken of again except as a cautionary tale. It certainly wouldn't have earned the greenlight for a sequel, and yet thanks to Pacific Rim's success internationally (to the tune of $309 million), a sequel is indeed coming in 2017. Pacific Rim is not the first movie to do disappointing business domestically and big business overseas, but it's extremely rare that a film that couldn't find an audience in North America, even if it found one elsewhere, would get a sequel. It's perhaps a sign of the international box office supplanting the domestic in importance from Hollywood's point of view, or maybe it's just Warner Bros.' way of giving the domestic audience a second chance to get on board with this awesome spectacle. Either way, this is a film that both is and isn't a box office bomb, which is sort of fascinating in and of itself.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

* * *

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

It's a shame that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seems destined for the summer movie season's remainder bin. While it is, at best, the third best spy movie of the summer of 2015, it's the sort of inconsequential, fluffy fun that can really hit the spot during the summer season, particularly this close to the end. It's a film that coasts on style and on charisma, but what is the summer movie season without a few entries like that? U.N.C.L.E. isn't going to knock your socks off and you'll probably have forgotten all about it by the time the holiday movie season rolls around (which doesn't bode well for the studio's obvious hope to turn this into a multi-film franchise), but it's plenty of fun while you're experiencing it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ten Years Later... The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener

To watch The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2015 is to realize how rapidly things have changed at a cultural and technological level in the last 10 years. It's hard to recall now a time before Judd Apatow was one of the most dominant figures in comedy, a man who as a writer and director and, especially, as a producer has had his hand in so many of the biggest movie comedies of the last decade, just as it's sort of weird to think that as recently as ten years ago people still had a use for videotape and VCRs, and that a group of friends looking to help their pal meet someone would, at no point, turn to the internet. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is like a time capsule that way, but it remains one of the better romantic comedies of the last decade.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: That's My Boy (2012)

Director: Sean Anders
Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg
Domestic Gross: $36,931,089

What. The actual. Fuck. How does a movie like this even get made? Assuming that we can all agree that a story about an adult having sex with a child should not be about what an awesome experience that was for the child, then we can all agree that That's My Boy starts off on a bad foot and then stays there. Given that star Adam Sandler is playing is boorish, emotionally stunted mess of a human being (ie a typical Adam Sandler character), I was willing to give That's My Boy the benefit of the doubt, as it started, that the point was that the character's experience really messed him up and that it was a bad thing that happened to him. But that's not where That's My Boy is coming from. Instead it thinks its protagonist's rough edges merely make him "real" and all the more awesome for it, and that the only trauma he experienced was from being separated from his true love when she went to prison. It's like this movie comes from bizarro world.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Netflix Recommends... Nailed! (2015)

* 1/2

Director: Stephen Greene
Starring: Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal

It was like a perfect storm: Netflix's spotty history with recommendations, a film famously disavowed by its director and then brutalized by critics, and a prediction that I would give this "recommendation" a low rating. I couldn't resist, I had to watch Nailed!, which remains the Canadian title of David O. Russell's orphaned political comedy, though elsewhere it is known as Accidental Love, a title that is approximately a million times too generic for something that is this much of an oddity. Was it worth the time? Not really. Nailed! is a bad movie, but it's not the epic boondoggle its storied production and post-production history would suggest. To be honest, it's kind of dull.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Selfish Giant (2013)

Director: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas
Country: UK

Movies like Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant are a rarity and a treasure. It is a very bleak and very emotionally raw and intense film, but it is also one which brims with life and vitality. That’s largely due to Barnard’s steady hand and strong vision as a storyteller, which makes this actually quite tragic story about two boys caught in the cycle of poverty and violence so incredibly engaging and sometimes so funny, but it’s also due to the extraordinary and charismatic performance by young Conner Chapman in the leading role. Assuming that he continues acting, years from now The Selfish Giant is a film that will be pointed to as the moment when a star was born.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Musical Biopics

#5: Nowhere Boy

The mistake that a lot (arguably "most") biopics make is that they take on too much, insisting on covering the entire span of the subject's life and as a result compressing and simplifying things in ways that can make an extraordinary life seem formulaic. The John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy sidesteps this problem by focusing on a very specific and brief period in the man's life, exploring his relationships with his aunt, who raised him, and his mother, and how they helped to shape him. The result is an entertaining, often moving, but sadly underseen movie.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: Ricki and the Flash (2015)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep

To rate a movie like Ricki and the Flash is to consider it on a special scale. Fact is, you don't really see a movie like this for the story, which you can safely assume will follow a fairly familiar trajectory (and in the very particular case of this film, the trailer pretty guaranteed that it would do just that), and which promises you nothing more than that. You see a movie like Ricki and the Flash to see Meryl Streep as a rock singer. The story around that is basically secondary, especially if it's going to be a perfunctory family drama. As written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, Ricki and the Flash does offer a couple of minor surprises, but ultimately the film is exactly what you expect it to be. And that's okay.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: R.I.P.D. (2013)

Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon
Domestic Gross: $33,618,855

"You know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look good." Within Men in Black, this is a line that Will Smith utters to Tommy Lee Jones, but it's also effective as an assessment of R.I.P.D.'s fairly shameless borrowing from the 1997 blockbuster. Men in Black worked and it was good enough to become the second highest grossing film of 1997, while R.I.P.D. is very, very bad and managed to gross an amount $100 million dollars short of its production budget. Maybe if Ryan Reynolds had sung a catchy title song to attach to R.I.P.D. things would have been different, but I doubt it. I don't know where that production budget of $130 million went, but you sure can't see it on screen as R.I.P.D. looks terrible and amateurish from beginning to end.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

* * *

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi

Described as "the first Iranian vampire western" (which is a weirdly specific descriptor, when you think about it), Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a delightful little curio. Light on plot (it's your basic boy meets girl, doesn't realize she's a vampire who stalks and kills people in his neighborhood every night story) and heavy on style, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a wonderfully arty horror movie that makes the most of its limited resources, filling in whatever blanks it contains due to a low budget with plenty of atmosphere. While the film is ultimately a work that is light as air, it's also highly entertaining and suggests a great emerging talent in writer/director Amirpour.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: Begin Again (2014)

* * *

Director: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo

Despite the fact that I love John Carney's previous film Once, it's taken me a long time to finally get around to seeing his latest, Begin Again. This was partly due to trepidation that, like a band who follow up a breakthrough album that was low budget and rough around the edges but also ringing with authenticity, with a more put-together studio album that has all the gloss of a big production but less soul than the previous effort, it would be entertaining, but also a bit disappointing. This wasn't an entirely unfounded fear, as Begin Again covers a lot of the same thematic ground of Once, but does it with big stars, a bigger city as its setting, and higher production values, while sacrificing the scrappy charm that makes the previous film so special (this isn't to say that Begin Again is without charm, but its charms are certainly more generic). The other reason I was reluctant to see the film is because of the presence of Adam Levine, though had I known that he would be styled in such a way that he looks just a little douchier every time he appears on screen, this wouldn't have been a concern.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Drop (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Michael R. Roskam
Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace

Well constructed though it may be, the problem with a film like The Drop is that if you've seen one example of its kind, you've seen them all. It's dark, it's gritty, and it's marked by the specificity of its location, where everyone in a particular neighborhood is connected in some way to organized crime, the potential for violence lurks behind every word and action, problems are dealt with "in house," and no one ever talks to the cops. Some of the particulars might change, depending on the geographical area of the setting and the cultural background of the protagonist, but it's always sort of the same: a guy with a past who's trying to lay low and keep out of what's going on around him, but ends up being drawn into it either because of a girl or because a relative has made a potentially fatal misstep, or both, and finds himself in the position of having to do clean up to ensure that things don't go from bad to worse, and has to do it before the cop that's been sniffing around puts the pieces together himself. It's formula, which isn't in and of itself a bad thing, but in the case of The Drop it would be helpful if it unfolded with a little more energy, because for a film that turns on several acts of violence, it's strangely bloodless. Cute dog, though.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

* * *

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is everything a summer movie ought to be. It's action packed, light on its feet (despite a somewhat convoluted plot), and has a sense of humor even as it takes itself, and its narrative stakes, seriously. It's a great entertainment and, even though it is the fifth entry in its series, it's easily accessible even if you haven't seen all (or any) of the previous entries. It's a film that does just about everything right, and does it in a way that's sleek and exciting and also has a classical kind of feel to it. While star Tom Cruise's career over the last ten years feels like it has seen more misses than hits, Rogue Nation is proof that you can never quite count him out as a movie star.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Director: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron
Domestic Gross: $43,139,300

Generally speaking (as with everything, there can be exceptions), self-indulgence is a terrible quality in a filmmaker. Some filmmakers can get away with it either because their self-indulgence manages to actually add to the quality of a picture (Quentin Tarantino, for example), or because their stature and legacy is so solid and revered that it's difficult to argue that they haven't earned the right to do whatever they want to do (Martin Scorsese, for example). I can understand, fully, why studios let filmmakers like that get away with these things. I can't for the life of me understand why any studio would give Seth MacFarlane such leeway on the strength of one film which, while admittedly financially successful, also had the benefit of a premise more likely to attract audiences than the comedy western which MacFarlane would release as his follow up. While a $40 million budget is fairly modest for a Hollywood production these days, it's still a waste of money when the filmmaker doesn't actually do anything with it.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Review: Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones

Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is an exercise in how to strike terror into the heart of the viewer without spilling a single drop of blood or even showing a single act of horrific violence. We don't see the horror, but we hear plenty of it as it occurs just beyond our view and begins to drive our protagonist a little bit crazy. The film revolves around a narrative gimmick, but it's a gimmick that works because Strickland assembles it so well and because it doesn't wear out its welcome. At a brisk 94 minutes, Berberian Sound Studio is a film that demonstrates restraint in more ways than one and demonstrates how less truly can sometimes be more.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

Director: Cristi Piui
Starring: Luminita Gheorghiu, Ioan Fiscuteanu
Country: Romania

Death be not proud – or, in the case of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the dying be not proud. A drama (and sometimes a very dark comedy) about one man’s long, final night on Earth and his slow descent into the great beyond, this Romanian New Wave film is a fascinating, patient, and keenly observed character piece from filmmaker Christi Piui. At 153 slow and methodical minutes exploring a deeply depressing subject, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but the richness of the piece allows it to fit right in with the best that the Romanian New Wave has had to offer, and even if it’s a film that one must “endure” rather than “enjoy,” it’s still a film that resonates and grows in your esteem as you think back on it after watching it.