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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

* * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

There's something to be said for the no stakes drama. Like anything else, when done right, it offers its own particular pleasures, even if those pleasures are short-term and the film itself is destined to fade away from your consciousness rather than stick. Florence Foster Jenkins is pretty much exactly the movie you expect it to be: a handsomely assembled period piece, anchored by a typically effortless seeming performance from Meryl Streep (the kind that makes it so easy to take her for granted as an actress), that goes down easy and doesn't present much in the way of a challenge. If you were to describe it as a simple movie about a nice lady who thinks she can sing but actually can't, you wouldn't be wrong. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention how charming it is, how funny, and how sweet. It's not groundbreaking, but it's genuinely entertaining.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Reign of Fire (2002)

Director: Rob Bowman
Starring: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey
Domestic Box Office: $43,061,982

Sometimes a movie (or any work of art, really) is going to fail to find its audience no matter what. That isn't necessarily a reflection of how good or bad it is - there are good movies that make money and bad movies that make money, and there are good movies that don't make money and bad movies that don't make money - but more a reflection of how in or out of step it is with where popular culture is at in that particular moment of time. A film's success has as much to do with the timing of its release as with its actual content, which is a roundabout way of saying that I wonder if Reign of Fire might have actually become a hit if it had been made for this summer instead of the summer of 2002. Right off the bat it would get points for originality - which was not much of a factor in the summer of 2002, which had a release slate with a positively restrained number of sequels and remakes/reboots, but was made up largely of properties that were either wholly original or adaptations that were seeing the screen for the first time - and then you factor in that it stars Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom are more popular now than they were in 2002. Then consider how thoroughly pop culture has embraced post-apocalyptic stories in the last decade, and give the film a couple of extra points for how the popularity of Game of Thrones, Godzilla, and Jurassic World might make audiences more open-minded to a film about dragons, and I think you might have at least a modest hit. Would it deserve to be a hit? Well, that's another question entirely.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton
Domestic Gross: $90,759,676

$90 million is nothing to sneeze at. If I had $90 million, that would probably be all I ever talked about. But for a movie that's supposed to be a summer tentpole, $90 million is nothing. In 2010, $90 million wasn't even enough to be included in the top 10 domestic grossing films of the summer and Prince of Persia had to settle for being the 15th highest grossing film of its season, putting it $5 million behind Sex and the City 2, which seems appropriate given that the two films have similarly problematic issues vis a vis their depiction of the Middle East. Now, if Prince of Persia had cost $30 million, this would be a win regardless. If it had cost $60 million, you could still call it profitable once you factored in the worldwide gross. Hell, if it had cost $90 million, you could at least say that it broke even, even though that wouldn't actually true once you factored in the marketing costs which aren't publicized. But Prince of Persia cost an absolutely insane $200 million to make. $200 million. Pumped into a film helmed by the director of the sweeping action adventure picture Four Weddings and a Funeral (and, okay, one of the Harry Potter movies) and headlined by an actor who, to date, has only ever starred in one film that grossed over $100 million (2004's The Day After Tomorrow). I would love to tell you that, at the very least, you can see that $200 million on screen, but alas you cannot. Money well spent, Hollywood.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen

One of life's great ironies is that it's possible to be wrong even when you're right. The father in Captain Fantastic is right when he argues that he's done right by his children, raising them to be bright, self-sufficient, capable of deep and independent thought, and possessed of practical and artistic skills, and yet those outside the family are right when they argue that, at best, he's left his children unprepared to exist in the world as it is and, at worst, he's behaved in a way that's abusive and has put his children in danger. He's right when he argues that people have become over-medicated to serve the interests of big Pharma, yet he's wrong in his belief that all medications in all circumstances are unnecessary and that a genuine and very serious mental illness can be cured simply by taking that person off the grid and living as close to nature as possible. Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic works as effectively as it does because it refuses to see its situation in black and white, choosing instead to exist in the grays that allow it to see its protagonist as a man of noble ideas and something akin to a militant cult leader.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Revanche (2008)

Director: Gotz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Irina Potapenko
Country: Austria

Just as a tossed stone will cause ripples that echo to the outer edge of a lake, so does one decision have after effects that reach out, changing not only the life of the person who made the decision, but the lives of people around him or her and the lives of people he or she doesn't even know. So it is in Gotz Spielmann's Revanche, a film which begins as a crime thriller about a small time hood with a plan and gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of guilt and the consequences of choices. A nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009 (ultimately losing to the Japanese entry Departures), Revanche has gone the way of many films nominated in the category, receiving a boost in visibility thanks to the nomination and then seeming to disappear from cultural conversation. For a film like Revanche, which is quietly devastating rather than flashy, such a fate was perhaps inevitable, but it's a film that holds up with time and is very much worth revisiting.