Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)

* * * *

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh

I cannot imagine seeing Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in IMAX. I'm sure it's an incredible viewing experience, I have no doubt that certain elements of the film would actually be enhanced by being seen in that format, but I don't think I'd be able to handle the intensity of it. I had to stress eat my way through the regular theatrical format as it is. That's how immersive an experience Dunkirk is; it leaves you feeling breathless and worn-out, but also exhilarated and, despite the deep wells of despair open just beneath the surface of many scenes, hopeful. The story of the evacuation of Dunkirk is one of disaster, destruction, and death, on the one hand, and the miracle of ordinary people stepping forward to do an extraordinary thing on the other. It's an epic tale told here in intimate, searing detail, minimalist in its scope but maximized in its power. Dunkirk is a triumph of filmmaking destined to join the ranks of the all-time great war movies as a standard bearer of the genre.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Domestic Box Office: $31,524,275

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of those movies that seemingly everyone within a certain age range seems to know, yet judging by its box office only a small fraction of those people actually saw it in theaters. It is the definition of a cult film and I have a hard time believing that it would ever have been anything else. The way it looks, the way it plays, its humor and its references, pretty much everything about it from top to bottom suggests that it was always going to be the kind of movie that people watch at home with a group of friends, possibly while stoned, rather than at the multiplex, so I'm not entirely sure what Universal Pictures was thinking when it put $60 million into making it because there was virtually no way it was going to make that back (and it didn't, even when you factor in its international gross its box office take still falls well short of its production budget). Scott Pilgrim is what it was meant to be - for better and for worse.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ten Years Later... I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007)


Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James

I would like to think that a movie like I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry couldn't be made in 2017, but I would have liked to have thought that a movie like this couldn't even have been made in 2007. This movie is vile. There are parts of it that are downright gleefully hateful, and it doesn't particularly matter that it ends by giving a shrug towards tolerance. Once a movie has spent two-thirds of its time positively luxuriating in homophobia, misogyny, and just a little bit of racism, it doesn't get any credit for spending a few minutes giving lip service to the notion that it's not cool to be a bigot. You don't get to throw the word "faggot" around with abandon and then close by casually remarking that people shouldn't use that word. This is one of the grossest movies I've ever seen.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)


* * *

Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson

Humans. We had a good run. We irreparably damaged parts of the planet, we wiped out hundreds of other species, we developed all kinds of inventive ways to destroy each other. You can't say we didn't leave it all on the field. Now it's time to celebrate a new champion and maybe the apes will be able to do it all better. War for the Planet of the Apes, which is the final chapter in this particular part of the Apes series (though almost certainly not the final Planet of the Apes movie), finds humanity on the brink, not yet ready to give up even though the writing is so clearly on the wall. It's a mournful film, probably not the sort of thing that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a summer entertainment, and one which unlike its two immediate predecessors does not feel the need to find any good in humans, but it's the film that it needs to be. It's a good movie and a grand spectacle and if the powers that be intend to keep it up, then I can't wait to see where the series goes from here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: The Big Sick (2017)

* * *

Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

If The Big Sick is to be considered a romantic comedy (and I'm not entirely sure it should be, given that the genre is built on the interplay of a central couple, and one half of this film's couple spends the better part of the film out of commission), then it's an entry in the genre that has a more expansive set of interests than most of its brethren. It's not just a story about a boy and a girl who fall in love, but a story about cultural conflict, generational conflict, and questions of identity played out against the backdrop of a love story. It works well, aided in no small part by a lived-in feeling that comes from the fact the star/co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon (married in real life) have mixed autobiographical elements into it. It's one of the best reviewed films of the year so far and though I'm not quite as high on it as many others, for reasons that I'll get into, I still think it's a really good film.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Pixels (2015)


Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James
Domestic Box Office: $78,747,585

Although Adam Sandler has never been a staple summer movie season - for a long time he was the sort of star who could open a film at any time of the year, so if you look at the release pattern of his films you'll see that his hits have been made in pretty much every season at the box office - when he did make a summer movie, his vehicles were pretty reliable money makers. Between 1999 and 2010 he had 8 summer releases, 7 of which met the $100 million benchmark and most of which exceeded it. The only outlier in that period was 2009's Funny People, whose $50 million gross foretold the drop that Sandler's films were about to take. Since 2010, the only $100 million summer movie Sandler has released has been Grown Ups 2 (perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the only live-action sequel he's ever done), while the rest of his summer movies have been failures of greater and lesser proportions: That's My Boy in 2012, Blended in 2014, and Pixels in 2015. Now, That's My Boy and Blended I've looked at previously in this series and they are both terrible and utterly deserving of failure. But Pixels? I'm actually not so sure.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review: Julieta (2016)


* * *

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte

In Pedro Almodovar's Julieta the sins of the child are revisited on the parent that child becomes, though that fact seems to be lost on the title character. Based on a trio of short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta is a melodrama that has been fashioned into something that's almost like a thriller in terms of tone and build up, and that weaves itself in and out of the past and present. I wouldn't put it on par with Almodovar's greatest works, but when you're as masterful a storyteller as he is with as many great works to his credit as he has, even the merely "good" is better than just about anything else out there.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)


Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray
Country: USA

“I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”

“I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about.”

To me, that exchange is Moonrise Kingdom in microcosm. It’s the story of two kids who are almost fatally romantic and so caught up in the performance of their adventures that they don’t appreciate the consequences of the actions that they’re taking, don’t understand the gravity of the pronouncements that they’re making. Misunderstood and written off by those around them, they long for adventure but, more than that, they long for where the adventure will take them: to a place where they will be understood and valued. One of Wes Anderson’s best films (to my mind, second only to The Royal Tenenbaums), Moonrise Kingdom is a deadpan delight.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Tales from the Black List: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz

In hindsight, the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful would be met with both enthusiasm and disdain was inevitable. The screenplay hit the Black List in 2010, about 8 months after the release and massive success of Alice in Wonderland, so the people who shell out money to make movies had every reason to be excited about the prospect of using people's connection to a beloved old property, pumping it full of CGI, and then watching the money roll in. But 3 years can be a long time in pop culture, particularly when your project is anchored by an actor who has become a lightning rod for animosity, and by the time Oz the Great and Powerful hit theaters, the knives were out. The film did okay box office-wise but was critically savaged and went on to become one of those movies that makes hundreds of millions at the box office but leaves absolutely no lasting mark on pop culture. As a result my expectations were pretty low, but to my surprise Oz the Great and Powerful is actually not terrible - it's not great, mind you, but it's a perfectly fine (if totally forgettable) movie.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: We Are Your Friends (2015)


Director: Max Joseph
Starring: Zac Efron
Domestic Box Office: $3,591,417

August is the cruelest month at the box office. Though still part of the summer movie season, it's the point at which the money train noticeably begins to cool off and instead of launching several big hits, is more likely to launch just one big hit that goes on to dominate for several weekends. Released at the tail end of the tail end of the summer of 2015, We Are Your Friends was probably not expected to be a Guardians of the Galaxy (which dominated the August box office previous summer) level success, though it had relatively little competition with only Straight Outta Compton hitting it big that month, but it was clearly expected to do decent box office given that it was released in 2,300 theaters. When it opened to just $1.8 million in sales, it became the fourth worst wide release opening weekend for a film since 1982, which made it not just a bomb, but an historic bomb. And this was no little indie with a boutique release either, this was a major studio release, headlined by an actor still looking to prove that he can carry a movie all on his own.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: The Beguiled (2017)

* * *

Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

The effect that he has is immediate. It's a change - a charge - in the air, a fear that pulsates through the house, something that at once repels and attracts. He's a volatile presence, a grenade tossed into a room, and yet everyone seems surprised when the situation finally explodes. A hothouse melodrama adapted from the novel of the same name, The Beguiled makes excellent use of Colin Farrell's capacity for soulful villainy and Nicole Kidman's for icy ferocity, but ultimately ends up being slightly less than it perhaps could have been. It's a handsomely mounted film (Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography, in particular, stands out for its atmospheric contribution) and well-acted all around, but it tends to strike symbolic poses more often than it actually uses its narrative to really say anything, resulting in a good movie that never quite reaches greatness.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)


Director: Dave Green
Starring: Megan Fox, Stephen Amell
Domestic Box Office: $82,051,601

The fact that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows failed hard enough to be considered one of the biggest bombs of 2016 ever so slightly restores my faith in humanity. This movie is garbage, and I say that having come into it with expectations low enough that it should have been difficult not to meet them. It's crass, visually ugly, and will leave you feeling approximately 5% dumber than you were before you saw it. In an era when kid-friendly entertainment is continuously pushing the boundaries of ambition and creating films that are intelligent and emotionally resonant for people of all ages, the existence of Out of the Shadows feels particularly egregious.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Boyhood (2014)


Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Country: United States

It’s a little known fact, but Boyhood took Richard Linklater 12 years to complete. I mention that because it’s something that’s seldom brought up in discussion of the film, provided one has never read or heard anything about it. Of course in actuality the process of making Boyhood has been scrutinized just as closely as the actual content of the film, which is probably both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s a remarkable technical achievement that speaks not only to Linklater’s ambition but also to how much the other people involved in making the film must respect and like him to keep making time to come back year after year for this project even though they had no contractual obligation to do so (due to the De Havilland Law). On the other hand, it might sometimes feel as though people are so fixated on the unusual circumstances of its creation that their appreciation is more for the process than the actual product. Boyhood is an incredible achievement, but it’s also an incredible film that easily transcends the inherent gimmickiness of its construction and captures the elusive nature of time as it passes. It’s not just one of the greatest films of its era, it is the film of its era.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ten Years Later... Ratatouille (2007)


Director: Brad Bird

The great thing about Pixar is that it's a reliable source of quality entertainment. There have been a few missteps here and there, certainly, but by and large Pixar has been consistent in delivering great film after great film after great film. That's wonderful for viewers, but something of a double-edged sword for the films themselves because it means that a new film can be the toast of its year of release only to be pushed out of the spotlight within a year by the next great Pixar movie. In 2007 Ratatouille was the best reviewed film of the year, declared a masterpiece by many. But it was followed by three of the best films Pixar has released to date and as time has passed, Ratatouille seems to have left the public consciousness even as the other great Pixar films have remained on the radar. Was it overrated then, or is it underrated now? Let's revisit it and see.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Knight & Day (2010)


Director: James Mangold
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz
Domestic Box Office: $76,423,035

For the most part, the films that I've looked at for this series have ended up being films that deserved their fate as failed would-be blockbusters. Every once in a while I'll come across a hidden gem whose failure might be chalked up to bad marketing or to being too far ahead of the cultural curve to connect with audiences, a film where the lack of box office is in no way a true reflection of its quality, but for the most part these films are lazy comedies, badly conceived action movies, or half-assed comic book adaptations and sequels. Knight & Day, a film that seems to be perpetually playing on TV the last couple of years, turns out to be one of the gems. I'm not saying that it's a great movie - it's a pretty silly movie, in fact - but it's a solidly entertaining one which reminds you just why it is Tom Cruise had such a long and sustained career as a blockbuster leading man.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Rough Night (2017)

* *

Director: Lucia Aniello
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz

As it turns out, it's somewhat difficult to build a comedy around a graphic death and its subsequent cover up. I mean, if it couldn't work with this cast - Scarlett Johansson and Zoe Kravitz aren't known for comedy, but Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer have solid comedy pedigrees - then I'm going to say that it can't work, period. It's not that Rough Night isn't funny at all; many parts of it are genuinely very funny (though it's odd that in a film with so many funny women, it's one of the male actors who ends up stealing the show). The problem is twofold: 1) the dark half of this dark comedy is so brutal that it drags the comedy half down, and 2) despite committing so fully at the beginning, in the end the film pulls back with a magical resolution that renders everything just fine.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)


Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Pullman
Domestic Box Office: $103,144,286

In the four summers that I've looked at films that failed to set the summer box office on fire, most of the films I've looked at have fallen far below the threshold of what one could conceivably consider a hit, earning $50 million or less. But sometimes a film crosses the $100 million mark, which used to be a clear benchmark of success but is less so now that some films make $100 million in their first weekend alone, and is still regarded as a financial failure. Independence Day: Resurgence is the fourth film I've looked at in this series that has made $100 million or more, but its domestic box office take falls far short of its $165 million production budget. If you believe the saying that a movie has to earn three times its production budget before it shows a profit, then even taking into account the worldwide gross doesn't bail this one out, coming to a total of $389,681,935 (for comparison's sake, Independence Day made $306 million domestically, and that's in 1996 dollars). If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that sometimes things are better left alone. Especially if you can't convince the star of the original to come back for the sequel.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Inglorious Basterds (2009)


Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt
Country: USA/Germany

I see a lot of movies. As a consequence, films that are just middling tend to get forgotten. Good films and bad films I remember, but the experience of having watched them for the first time doesn’t often stick. Inglorious Basterds came out (almost) 8 years ago, but I can still remember what it was like watching it on opening day. It was invigorating, a blast of fresh air from a filmmaker who had already done much the same to the cinema landscape back in 1994. The impact of Basterds can be measured in a number of ways, but perhaps the best way to take its measure is to watch it today and discover that it still somehow feels fresh, it still somehow feels different from everything else out there. Quentin Tarantino is sometimes criticized for being an artist of style rather than substance, but done right style can be as important, as revolutionary, and as meaningful as substance and that’s part of what makes Inglorious Basterds one for the ages.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: My Cousin Rachel (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin

Did she or didn't she? That's the question at the heart of My Cousin Rachel, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name. An ambiguous story about a woman who may, but may not, be a fortune hunter of such ruthless determination that even murder is not beyond her, My Cousin Rachel seems like a film that's bound to divide. Fascinating and frustrating in almost equal measure, largely as a result of the airless quality of Roger Michell's direction, it's not a movie that will win over anyone who isn't already inclined to enjoy a handsome period piece. However, if you're a fan of Rachel Weisz (and why wouldn't you be? She's one of the contemporary greats), then this is a must-see because she's truly wonderful here, alternately delightful and sinister, a woman who could conceivably be the vile temptress her reputation suggests or an innocent wrongly accused.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tales from the Black List: Z for Zachariah (2015)

* * *

Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, Chris Pine

I've never read the novel Z for Zachariah but I imagine that if I had, I would have been dumbfounded by the film adaptation, which diverges so sharply from the plot of the novel that it almost seems like an "in name only" adaptation. The film appears to have borrowed the premise of the book in order to tell a completely different story, one which is at times quietly captivating but ultimately a little disappointing, and now that I know what the novel's plot was, I would really like to have seen that movie instead. None of this is the fault of the cast, who all do very good work here, but the original story sounds a lot more psychologically fascinating than the post-apocalyptic love triangle that the movie, whose screenplay appeared in the 2009 edition of the Black List alongside such big-ticket screenplays as The Social Network and The King's Speech (but also, somehow, That's My Boy), relies on.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

* 1/2

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck

So it's come to this. I liked Wonder Woman so much that I decided to finally check out Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so that I could see her first onscreen appearance. That was my mistake and boy did I pay for it. It's not that I didn't expect this movie to be flawed, I had heard and read enough about it to know better than to have very high expectations, but I still didn't expect it to be quite such a ramshackle affair. I'm genuinely baffled - how do you screw something up this horribly? And why, if you're trying to compete with what Marvel is doing, would you sink $250 million into making this before you have a script that functions to tell an actual story? One can only hope that those who need to learned from the mistakes made here, because otherwise Justice League has the potential to be an even bigger mess.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Red 2 (2013)


Director:
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Domestic Box Office: $53,262,560

More than any other season, the summer movie slate is zealously geared towards meeting the interests of a couple of particular demographics. Every weekend there will be a new release designed to appeal primarily to men aged 18 - 39 and every couple of weekends there will be a release aimed towards kids (and, by extension, their parents), but there are only a handful of occasions throughout the summer when movies have intended audiences outside of those bubbles. Despite the presence of Bruce Willis, who one might automatically assume has summer movie cred even though historically his films have rarely opened during the summer and the last one that did which he headlined (as opposed to playing second or third lead) and that actually crossed $100 million was 2007's Live Free or Die Hard, Red 2 falls firmly in the category of film whose reason for being can be summed up as "older people like movies, too." It's more action-packed than most movies of its type (which would include, for example, the Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, this year's Going in Style, Last Vegas, or going way back to 2000, Space Cowboys), but it's still very much a movie of its type and not a very successful one, either creatively or financially.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine

Twice in Wonder Woman the point is made that it isn't a question of "deserve." To that end, I'm not sure if this is a film that the world of today deserves, but I think it's one that the world of today needs. That might sound hyperbolic, it's just a movie after all, but a movie is rarely ever "just" a movie and the messaging of this one feels particularly urgent right now. It's not the gender issue of this being a film with a female lead or in this being a major blockbuster release directed by a woman that makes it so, nor is it the inherent relief in there finally being an unqualified success in the DC shared universe (if only to stop some of the repetitive debate about DC vs. Marvel). The issue and the message is more expansive than that, more inclusive, and deeply humane. It's not about deserve. It's about what you believe.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)


Director: James Bobin
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter
Domestic Box Office: $77,041,381

The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, which is exactly the reaction that met Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to 2010's smash hit Alice in Wonderland. The first film made $334 million domestically and a billion dollars world-wide, making it incredibly profitable despite its ridiculous production budget of $200 million. The second film cost marginally less to make (a still not at all reasonable $170 million), but brought in less world-wide than the first film made just domestically. The gulf between the financial success of the first film and the massive failure of the second is almost hard to believe, the result of a perfect storm of things going wrong. Of course, the film could have helped itself by actually being good and having a story to tell that could act as it's second reason for being, the first being the desire to wring just a little more money out of the first film. But, then again, Alice Through the Looking Glass also had the misfortune of coming out during the summer of movie sequels no one wanted, so perhaps it would have failed regardless.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Netflix Recommends... American Honey (2017)

* * *

Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf

A van full of kids in their teens and early twenties flies by. They're as energetic as they are seedy looking, a roving band of young people who have no option except to keep moving and hustling for scraps. To most, they look like they've reached a dead end before they've even had a chance to start in life. To her, they look like freedom. Despite this, Andrea Arnold's American Honey is not a romanticized vision of poverty; it's gritty and clear-eyed and alive to the complexities of a person's relationship to his or her circumstances, even when those circumstances are bad. It's a good movie, if not necessarily a great one (trim about 30 minutes from its 163 minute running time and it might be), and it's built around what will hopefully be a star-making performance from Sasha Lane, who captivates in the leading role.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Duke of Burgundy (2015)


Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna
Country: United Kingdom

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy sounds lurid, but is actually quite thoughtful. It begins by presenting itself as a titillating story about a rich woman who takes pleasure in humiliating her maid and setting her up for failure so that she can punish her in sexualized ways, and then gradually reveals itself to be a rather funny story of how a relationship can be undone by selfishness, passive aggression, and taking the other person for granted. It is one of the most delightful cinematic bait and switches I’ve ever seen, in addition to being one of the most beautiful. Inspired by European softcore films from the 1970s, The Duke of Burgundy is a film with style to burn, but the enchanting visuals merely rest on the surface of a deep and fascinating work of psychological complexity that rewards multiple viewings.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Female-Led Action Movies

#5: Hanna

I love Hanna. I really do. Saoirse Ronan as a teenage assassin who has been raised in isolation and trained (thoroughly) to defeat anyone who comes for her? Cate Blanchett in sinister mode as the shadowy government figure who wants to capture her? That final showdown in the abandoned theme park? This movie is perfection.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: War Machine (2017)

* *

Director: David Michod
Starring: Brad Pitt

I'll give War Machine this much: it doesn't give in to the temptation to play "Fortunate Son" at any point during its running time, even at the end when you can practically hear the opening guitar riff start in your head. In just about every other respect David Michod's film aligns with pretty much every other movie ever made about the War on Terror (the exception being the great The Hurt Locker), pointing out the follies and the hubris that have already been examined and dissected ad nauseam, offering nothing new in terms of insight, and resorting to glibness whenever it can think of nothing else to do. War Machine aims for satire but, like the conduct of the wars themselves, confuses having a mandate with having the means to fully and successfully achieve the goal. And, yes, Brad Pitt is going to make that face through the whole movie and, yes, sometimes that is pretty distracting.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)


Director: Jan de Bont
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric
Domestic Box Office: $48,608,066

Lordy, I'd forgotten how dumb Speed 2: Cruise Control actually is. Even the title is dumb - I mean, Cruise Control? Really? Between this and Miss Congeniality 2 (whose full title, Armed and Fabulous, is just slightly more embarrassing than this one's), it's no wonder Sandra Bullock is leery of the prospect of making a sequel to The Heat. A sequel to the still resplendent action movie Speed, which was "Die Hard on a bus," Cruise Control very much wants to be "Die Hard on a boat" ("Die Hard on a plane" had already been taken by, um, Die Hard 2 and would be taken again by Air Force One about a month after Cruise Control's release) but, as it turns out, a cruise ship is not an ideal setting for an action movie. A grand romance interrupted by an even grander historical tragedy? Sure (to think, at the dawn of 1997 Titanic was supposed to be the year's most epic bomb). But a high intensity action piece? Not so much.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)


Director: Jake Szymanski
Starring: Zac Effron, Anna Kendrick Adam DeVine, Aubrey Plaza
Domestic Box Office: $46,009,673

If Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates had come out 10 years before it did, it probably would have been at least a modest hit. It would have been criticized for being Wedding Crashers-lite, but it would probably still have been able to cash in on the $200 million-plus domestic box office success of that film in order to crack the $100 million benchmark itself. So tied is Mike and Dave to the idea of the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson smash that not only is Wedding Crashers referenced by name in it, but the two films even had similar release dates (Wedding Crashers was released July 15, 2005 while Mike and Dave was released July 8, 2016). But, alas, Mike and Dave arrived way too late to the party and managed to bring home only a fraction of the box office of the earlier film, even though it had its opening weekend basically to itself (unless one thinks that there's much cross-over between the intended audiences for a raunchy R-rated comedy and an animated family film like The Secret Life of Pets). Of course, Mike and Dave may have helped itself by actually being good, but that's another issue.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Snatched (2017)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn

You may have heard that Snatched is terrible. By and large, the critics certainly seem to think so. I dunno. I thought it was funny. The rest of the people in the theater (which was full) seemed to enjoy it. I mean, it's not the kind of movie that's going to change your life and it's not going to end up on any year-end best lists, but not every movie has to perform at that level. As a piece of simple entertainment Snatched gets the job done pretty well, delivering a fast-paced story with plenty of laughs, and though Amy Schumer tends to be divisive, the presence of co-star Goldie Hawn should be enough to balance things out. It's a decent summer movie pick - nothing more, but nothing less either.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Man on Wire (2008)


Director: James Marsh
Country: United Kingdom

Philippe Petit’s story has all the ingredients for a hit movie. It’s got a story so audacious that it has to be true because otherwise you’d never believe it. It’s got a charismatic protagonist that you can’t help but feel charmed by. It has some visuals that are incredible, not because of their technical aspects necessarily, but simply because of what they capture. And it has weight, which it derives both from the inspirational aspects of the story itself and from the impact of historical events. In short, it’s a story that begs to be made into a movie – it’s just unfortunate for Robert Zemeckis’ 2015 bomb The Walk that such a movie already existed. That movie is Man on Wire, a bold and delightful documentary from James Marsh which remains utterly enthralling and exhilarating almost a decade later.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)


Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner
Domestic Box Office: $55,250,026

It's hard to remember now, when romantic comedies are rarely made at all, let alone become hits, but the genre used to be a staple of the summer movie season. If you were inclined to see certain kinds of movies as gendered in their appeal, you might argue that the studios used to put out big splashy action movies to appeal to guys, and big splashy romantic comedies to appeal to women. Romantic comedies don't really factor into the summer slate anymore, partially because, as at least one thinkpiece per year declares, the romantic comedy is a dead genre. If you're wondering what killed it, it's movies like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a film that, despite being part of a genre marketed towards women, isn't actually made for women - unless it was made for women who hate themselves. This movie is gross. Don't ever watch it.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tales from the Black List: The Voices (2014)

* *

Director: Marjane Satrapi
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton

It's a bad sign that the only time I truly felt engaged by The Voices was when the screen faded to black and the credits began, revealing Marjane Satrapi as its director. It was such a jolt that I actually said, "Really?" and second-guessed what I just saw. I remain confused at how Satrapi, whose autobiographical Persepolis so actively engages with the meaning and effect of patriarchy and misogyny, could be at the helm of a film about a guy who kills a bunch of women because he just can't seem to help himself, but seems to have nothing to actually say about the fact that this guy keeps killing women because he just can't seem to help himself. Maybe the script, which was written by Michael R. Perry and featured in the 2009 edition of the Black List, read better on the page. On screen it's weirdly flat and never musters up enough energy to succeed at the comedy half of the horror-comedy hybrid.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

* * *

Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel

Take what you know works and lean on it hard. It won't get you any points for audacity, but it will give you a decent chance at making sure the audience walks away happy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does basically nothing new - unless you count upping the adorability factor to about 110 via the baby version of Groot - presenting more of the same without apology. This isn't really a bad thing. Vol. 2 is a very enjoyable movie. It's not the shot in the arm that the first Guardians of the Galaxy was (I won't say that the first was a breath of fresh air since it was the Star Wars throwback before The Force Awakens became the official Star Wars throwback), but then it doesn't have the same element of surprise either. Vol. 2 is all about maintaining and it does that fairly well, returning to what worked for its predecessor and not breaking a sweat trying to surpass the expectations set up by the success of the first film.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Mothers & Daughters from Acting Families

#5: Diane Ladd & Laura Dern

The first (and, if I'm not mistaken, the only) mother and daughter pair to earn Oscar nominations for the same film: Rambling Rose, for which Laura Dern was nominated as Best Actress and Diane Ladd as Best Supporting Actress. Hard to argue with that.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Summer Not Busters: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)


Director: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone
Starring: Andy Samberg
Domestic Box Office: $9,639,125

It's a very fine line between stupid and clever. If there's one thing that should comfort the makers of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it's this: This Is Spinal Tap, perhaps the greatest movie about rock and roll ever made and one of the most celebrated movie comedies of all time, wasn't a theatrical hit either. If you look at the box office record for 1984, Spinal Tap didn't even crack the top 100 for the year and unlike now, when something like 50 movies debut every month, 1984 was a time when less than 200 films would come out in any given year. It was homevideo that made Spinal Tap a hit, its endless quotability helping to turn it into a cult classic. A similar fate may end up befalling Popstar, which is like Spinal Tap if you trade rock and roll for pop music, and which Universal had every reason to expect would be at least a minor hit given the viral video popularity of The Lonely Island. Instead Popstar went the way of TLI's previous effort Hot Rod, which crashed and burned in 2007. It's hard to say what kept audiences away from this actually very funny and incredibly on point satire, but a film this good will hopefully have the last laugh, even if it comes a bit late.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Colossal (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal is the kind of film that I want to praise for its ideas, but which falls just short enough of achieving what it's trying to do that I can't really recommend it. If Colossal was just what it appears to be - an oddity about a woman who realizes that her drunken antics are somehow resulting in a Kaiju appearing in Seoul, stomping through the city and leaving destruction in its wake - then it might have made for a fine absurdist comedy. If its ambitions had been limited to being about a woman confronting and finding a way to conquer her demons, it would probably also have been fine - as the woman in question, Anne Hathaway delivers a performance that is strong and nuanced enough to have pulled that off. But Colossal has greater ambitions than that, and while I admire it for what it's trying to address and what I think it's trying to do, I think it goes about it a little wrong.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)


Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan, Firat Tanis
Country: Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina

There aren’t many ways for a crime procedural to truly surprise the audience. The beats are all so familiar - the crime, the investigator or investigative team moving from one lead to the next and working against the clock to catch the bad guy, who is always one step ahead, until coming to the final showdown where the criminal is either brought to justice or killed in the attempt – and the genre is so well-worn that a filmmaker has to really upend conventions in order to deliver a crime movie that does more than quench the audience’s thirst for the familiar. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does that by approaching the procedural in a slow (slow - like, 157 minutes slow) and methodical way that makes the story less about the crime than about the effect of gathering evidence on those tasked with doing it over the course of a very long night. Sight unseen, the length and pace of the film might make it sound like a daunting viewing experience, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a completely absorbing movie right from the start, and a richly rewarding one by the time you reach the end.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Delayed Movies That Turned Out to Be Good

#5: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Filmed in 2009, the self-referential horror/comedy The Cabin in the Woods was originally set for release in February 2010, then pushed to January 2011, then shelved due to the financial difficulties being faced by MGM. By the time it was finally released in April 2012, Chris Hemsworth had already played Thor in two movies, but the wait was worth it: the film went on to critical acclaim and would earn several nominations from critics groups for its screenplay.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ten Years Later... Spider-Man 3 (2007)


Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco

Time can't make a good movie bad or a bad movie good, but for those films that are sort of straddling the line, the ones you might describe as just "okay," time can make the difference. Time might not change the content of the film, but it can certainly change the context of one. In the context of the 2017 film landscape Spider-Man 3 - a film which was considered enough of a disappointment that, despite grossing just short of $340 million domestically alone, Sony decided to scrap the continuation of the franchise and start over again with a new cast, new director, and a slightly different name - seems like a film that was unfairly maligned in its time. In the light of 2017, Spider-Man 3's weaknesses just seem like a common part of the genre, and its strengths have only been brought into sharper relief.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: The Lost City of Z (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller

To obsess over something for years, to work so hard, to be so close and find that it is just beyond your reach - it would be enough to drive a person mad. The Lost City of Z, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann and centering on Percy Fawcett's search for a lost civilization in the Amazon jungle, does not treat Fawcett as though it thinks he was mad for continuously returning to the jungle, but makes a fairly compelling case for how he might have been driven mad by everything outside of the jungle. The film features touches that are reminiscent of such films as Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo, and, especially, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, all films that know madness well, and reunites writer/director James Gray with cinematographer Darius Khondji after 2014's The Immigrant. Mesmerizing and often soulful, The Lost City of Z is a beautiful and bewitching story about one man's unconquerable desire to know the unknown.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Frances Ha (2013)


Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig
Country: United States

Frances Ha might well be subtitled “A Woman in Transition.” It’s a story all about a period in the life of its protagonist when everything is up in the air: her professional artistic ambitions have stalled and she’s facing the possibility of having to give up her dream in order to support herself; her living situation is in a constant state of flux and she shuffles from one home to the next; and her most important relationship – the one she has with her best friend – appears to be failing, though she doesn’t understand why. At 86 minutes, it might sound like a slight piece of work, but it’s slight in running time only. A finely attuned character piece, Frances Ha is so brilliant and charming that it even manages to use to its advantage all the “New York hipster” trappings that, in a lesser movie, would be too annoying to overcome.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Crazy Lady Movies

#5: The Roommate

The Roommate is not a good movie, but it is a hilarious watch if you're with the right people. Full points to Leighton Meester for her total commitment to playing a college girl who becomes obsessed with her roommate.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Fate of the Furious

* * 1/2

Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham

Even when grading on the generous curve you have to allow for the movies from the Fast and Furious series, which aim for nothing more than the simplest entertainment and the most instant of gratifications, the latest entry is just a bit of a disappointment. The Fate of the Furious (how is it not called The F8 of the Furious? Was that too obvious even for this series?) is an over-stuffed entry in a series that was already pretty well-stuffed and which pretty thoroughly disappears up itself by playing around with its mythology rather than continuing to build it out - to say nothing of the fact that its villain is such a non-entity that it almost seems like Charlize Theron just popped by over a weekend to film some scenes for the hell of it. But, still, it's about the action, right? The action is pretty good, though it leaves you wondering where, if each entry in the series is to have bigger action than the last, the series has left to go with the two (at least) films it has planned for the future.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Passengers (2016)

* * *

Director: Morton Tyldum
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers has a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 41 rating on Metacritic. Is it secretly a great movie? No, but is it the terrible movie that those ratings would imply? Not nearly. Those ratings would suggest something borderline incompetent, something shoddily made with little to recommend it. But Passengers is an entertaining movie with more than enough to make it worth taking the time to watch, even if it is thematically problematic. Thinking about it afterwards, I was reminded of something I once read about Jerry Maguire (I can't remember the exact wording and couldn't find the review, so I'm stuck paraphrasing), that it's a movie that knows a great deal about sports but very little about relationships. Similarly, Passengers is a film that knows a great deal about how to spin an adventure yarn, but very little about women and relationships. It suffered for the latter, but it deserves praise for the former.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Basic (2003)

* 1/2

Director: John McTiernan
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen

I'll give Basic this much: it lives up to its title. It's so basic that it appears not to have been developed beyond its very ideas for the plot and the characters, let alone beyond the first draft of the screenplay. Basic is the cinematic equivalent of a kid who gets to school and realizes that he has a project due, so he throws something together in the five minutes before the bell rings just to have something to hand in. It's bad. It's not even bad in the "so bad, it's entertaining" way. It's bad in the "so bad it's a total waste of time" way. But thanks to the new algorithm launched by Netflix, it was recommended for me with an 90% match - which isn't to say that Netflix hasn't always recommended bad movies for me, it's just that it used to recommend movies even as it acknowledged that it didn't think I would rate them highly. Anyway, on with the show:

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Personal Shopper (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart

It's far too early in the year to say whether Personal Shopper will end up on my list of the year's best, but I feel like I can confidently say that it's going to be one of the films I feel compelled to revisit later in the year, possibly more than once. It's a film that engrosses and fascinates and maybe frustrates just a little bit thanks to writer/director Olivier Assayas' refusal to play by movie rules as we know them and thanks to the questions which linger afterwards like a spirit determined to make its presence known. The film re-teams Assayas with Kristen Stewart after Clouds of Sils Maria and if anything it's even more enigmatic than that film and makes even better use of Stewart's skill set as a performer, leveraging that tranquility that sometimes plays like flatness by shaking it up so that even something as simple as the little blue bubble of a text message on a phone screen takes on a world of meaning and tension just because of how close it pushes her to the edge. Personal Shopper is the definition of a film that does a lot with a little.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: Five Came Back (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Laurent Bouzereau

I'm not sure if Five Came Back qualifies as a proper film, since Netflix is selling it as a series and it's split into distinct episodes, but I figure if a 10 part ESPN series can win the Best Documentary Oscar, then surely definitions are fluid enough that this story about five of old Hollywood's great directors putting their careers on hold in order to document WWII qualifies as a film. Adapted from Mark Harris' book of the same name (which is very much worth the read, whether you're a film buff or not), Five Came Back is an often affecting look at how the experience of the war had a lasting impact on the directors - Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston - not just as men, but as filmmakers whose careers and work would be markedly changed. Running at just a little over 3 hours, Five Came Back isn't as comprehensive as a film as it is as a book, but it's nevertheless a moving and engrossing piece of work.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

21st Century Essentials: House of Flying Daggers (2004)


Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi
Country: China/Hong Kong

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is the kind of cinematic feast that Hollywood used to churn out with semi-regularity but seems to have become disinterested in of late. Fortunately for viewers there are filmmakers working outside of Hollywood, like Zhang, who are there to pick up the slack and are still interested in making films with sumptuous production elements, epic narratives full of grand adventure, and with just a bit of romance. On a purely superficial level, House of Flying Daggers is a bold, visual masterpiece that truly goes for broke in its costumes, production design, and its cinematography. On a deeper narrative level, it’s a film that perfectly balances character work with ambitious action setpieces. An instant classic of its kind on its release in 2004, it remains one of the most beguiling and engaging films of the century so far.