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

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)

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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tales From the Black List: 50/50 (2011)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

"That doesn't make any sense though. I mean, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I recycle..." Cancer is the great equalizer. You can do everything right and live an entirely unimpeachable life, you can be young or old, male or female, be anyone anywhere, and still get the news. Loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser's experience with cancer 50/50, which was part of the 2008 Black List (a list which also included such films as Inglorious Basterds, Up in the Air, The Descendants, Easy A, Foxcatcher and Sherlock Holmes), doesn't linger on the shock of the diagnosis. It comes fast, is given a moment, and then the film carries on, cycling through the stages of grief as it follows its protagonist, whose story is as much about him learning to deal with his diagnosis as it is him learning how to deal with the people around him as they deal with his diagnosis. It's a film that finds the comedy in tragedy, alternately funny and moving, and ultimately very humane.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

* *

Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

I was a great admirer of Tom Ford's debut film, A Single Man, which was not only incredibly stylish but also managed to be a moving portrait of a man struggling to grieve a loss that the mores of the time keep him from openly acknowledging. I'm considerably less keen on Nocturnal Animals, which is also stylish and even, in moments, expertly made, but overall reeks of fraud. Nocturnal Animals is a movie that doesn't actually seem to have anything to say, save for the most superficial and banal things possible, but revels in empty symbols that give the appearance of profundity. It's unfortunate, because the film actually contains some pretty incredible performances (including that of Michael Shannon, which received an Oscar nomination), but even the fine work of the actors can't disguise how vapid an enterprise this is.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Certain Women (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart

Over the course of six feature films, writer/director Kelly Reichardt has become a master of the small-scale story, narratives where the stakes are slight and deeply personal, driven by character more than plot. In Certain Women "plot" barely even registers; things happen, but what happens seems almost incidental. It's a film that's all about reaction, about how the women in the film respond to things they hadn't anticipated and how they're changed, or not changed, by them. It's an expertly told, intuitive film that tells three tenuously connected stories, each one anchored by a different actress. Most films struggle to find room for one good female character; this one features four and makes it look so easy that you're left wondering what the problem is with other movies.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

21st Century Essentials: No Country For Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
Country: United States

Most artists are lucky if they create one bona fide masterpiece - such things are special precisely because they are rare. Having made both Fargo and No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen have made two (one might even argue that they've made three, including Blood Simple). An instantly iconic film, thanks in part to Javier Bardem's villain, Anton Chigurh, the most dangerous person ever to sport a Dorothy Hamill haircut, No Country For Old Men was one of the most hyped movies of 2007 and would become the Coen brother's most successful film at the box office (until being supplanted in 2010 by True Grit) and be nominated for 8 Oscars, winning 4 (including Best Picture). That's not always a recipe for longevity - plenty of movies have raked in the money and won Oscars only to be forgotten afterwards, and if anything a lot of hype tends to hurt a movie in the long run as it sets expectations impossibly high, but No Country For Old Men is a film that can withstand that kind of pressure. It's the real deal, a film that continues to mesmerize after a decade and multiple viewings.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Movies Based on Graphic Novels (That Aren't About Super Heroes)

#5: Ghost World

Dry as a bone, Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, is about a teenage girl who is very smart, but maybe not as mature as she is intelligent, and the breakdown in the relationship with her best friend as their interests begin to diverge. It's a funny, complex look at that weird transition between adolescence and adulthood, and it features great performances from Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, and Scarlett Johnasson

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: The Misfits (1961)

Director: John Huston
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

The marathon comes to an end, appropriately enough, with The Misfits, a film which has "the end" written all over it. It's the final film that Marilyn Monroe completed, the final film of Clark Gable, its production was the final nail in the coffin of Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller (who wrote the screenplay), and its story is all about things ending and people struggling to accept it. There's something funereal about The Misfits, something which makes it as poignant as it is upsetting (on the whole I wouldn't describe the film as "upsetting," but that last 20/30 minutes is pretty hard to watch). It's a melancholy film about very sad people, but it's a great film and I don't think Monroe was ever better than she was here, even if the making of this movie took everything she had left.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe

A great movie is the result of a lot of elements coming together in just the right way. There's no formula to it - what works in one film won't necessarily work in another, what doesn't work in other films might work marvelously when guided by the right hand - and great works of art tend to be great in their own specific, unique ways. But if there's any one thing that great movies, of any genre and from any time period, tend to share, it's a strong ending. Casablanca, The Godfather, Fargo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - wildly different films, but each possessed of a perfect ending. Some Like It Hot is another member of the perfect ending club, its final two words arguably the greatest comedic payoff in cinema history. Everything that comes before that is pretty great, too, but damn what an ending. A classic among classics and a highlight in the careers of all of Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot is one of those enduring films that just works no matter when you see it and which reconfirms itself as a masterpiece with few equals every time you see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell

If I had to define the difference between a movie star and a movie icon, I would argue that a movie star is someone that people are familiar with because of their movies, while a movie icon is someone with whom a majority of people are familiar because of isolated moments and images from their movies. Everyone knows the image of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate, but outside of film buffs, Monroe fans, and Billy Wilder fans, how many people who know that image know what film it comes from? And if they can name the film, can they describe the context of the scene? The moment is bigger than the movie, having taken on a life of its own in the 62 years since the film's release, and in the popular imagination it's now considered less a moment from a film than it is a part of Monroe's identity. If most people are only familiar with the subway grate scene in isolation, and not from having seen The Seven Year Itch, that's kind of a shame because the film is a highly entertaining farce - even if it works for precisely the reason that Wilder felt it ultimately didn't.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Director: Walter Lang
Starring: Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Marilyn Monroe

This will be a short one, because there's frankly not all that much to say. Of all the films I'm watching for this series, There's No Business Like Show Business is the only one that I had absolutely no familiarity beforehand. I actually hadn't even heard of it before, which is odd considering it's a film from right in the thick of the years when she was a super star, with just about every role a notable one. A fairly unremarkable film, There's No Business Like Show Business has got some decent song and dance numbers to it (though it would have to, with this cast), but it's kind of a bland and formulaic "showbiz" movie, even by the standards of showbiz movies. If you're a Donald O'Connor fan or an Ethel Merman fan, then it's worth a watch to get to see them do the things they do best; but with respect to Marilyn Monroe, this is a film for completionists only.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: River of No Return (1954)

Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe

And now for something completely different. From the frothy, female-centered comedy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, to the rugged western/adventure of River of No Return, a movie brimming with testosterone. How manly is River of No Return? It opens with Robert Mitchum chopping down a tree so that he can build a log cabin all by himself, and then proceeds to have him get into three hand-to-hand combat fights, prove himself an expert marksman, captain a rickety raft down the eponymous river whose rapids are supposed to be unconquerable, capture and kill a deer while rafting down that river, wrestle a cougar, and single-handedly fight off a war party. If River of No Return was a person instead of a movie, you'd think it was overcompensating for something.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Director: Jean Negulesco
Starring: Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable

Carrying on with the biggest hit of Marilyn Monroe's star-making year, How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Monroe is teamed with fellow icons Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. All told, this one doesn't age quite as well as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, primarily because its strategy for creating conflict is to have one of the women act like a complete cow to whatever guy she's with at the moment and to have him react not by dropping her (as any reasonable human being would) but by wanting her more. That being said, it does have more than a few moments that are sharp and funny and a couple that are just downright strange (such as an early scene in which the three women discuss the kind of men they're willing to associate with, who will only be the best of the best in terms of class and wealth, while sitting around eating hot dogs, the classiest of all food), and any movie that features scenes of Monroe, Bacall, and Grable, each an icon in her own right, is worth a look at the very least.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe

I'm kicking a week-long Marilyn Monroe marathon with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film which features, courtesy of the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, the second most iconic moment in Marilyn Monroe's film career (the first being the grate in The Seven Year Itch, naturally). Starring Monroe and Jane Russell as two little girls from Little Rock, one of whom is out to close the deal by marrying her wealthy suitor, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a delightful comedy that adheres to the principle of K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid. The plot is about as straightforward as it comes, even when the potential twists are right there waiting to be used, and the pacing is zippy, as befitting a film from the expert hands of Howard Hawks, but perhaps the most surprising thing about this comedy is how generally unobjectionable its gender politics are. It's amazing that a 64 year old film about a woman trying to land a rich husband can manage to do so much better in terms of depicting women than many studio films released today.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Toni Erdmann (2016)

* * * *

Director: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller

There are things about Toni Erdmann which, sight unseen, might seem daunting. It's a non-English language film, which is a dealbreaker for a number of people. Don't let that be a deterrent - a sizable portion of the dialogue occurs in English, surprisingly enough. It's two hours and forty-five minutes long, a positively unseemly length for a film that bills itself as a comedy. Believe me, you won't feel it. It starts a little slow but once it builds up steam, it zips by. Paramount is already gearing up to remake the film with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. Don't wait for it, see the original first. Not only is this movie brilliant and unrestrainedly bizarre, it is genuinely very funny. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw a movie with scenes so outrageously funny and surprising that people in the audience literally shrieked with laughter, but that happened when I saw Toni Erdmann. Seriously, just see it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Look of Silence (2015)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Country: Denmark/Finland/France/Germany/Indonesia/Israel/Netherlands/Norway/Taiwan/United Kingdom/United States

Taken separately or together, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are the most intimate look at the banality of evil ever captured on film. Taking as their subject the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, a purge that resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 to 1 million people, the films go right to the source, with the first getting some of the men who carried out the killings to describe in detail what they did, where they did it, and how they did it, and the second following the efforts of a man whose brother was a victim of the purge as he attempts to get the families of the killers to acknowledge the evil that was done to his family by theirs. They are not easy films; they are often chilling, they are sometimes sickening, and they are ugly for what they reveal about humanity and how easily brutality can become normalized and embraced by a community. The Look of Silence is an enormously powerful film, the kind that makes an immediate and lasting impact.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday's Top 5... My Most Anticipated Movies of Summer

#5: The Beguiled (June 23rd)

I'm not really a fan of Sofia Coppola, but the trailer looks atmospheric and promising (though Colin Farrel's wailing at the end about "vengeful bitches" immediately made me think of the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man, which maybe isn't a great sign).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ten Years Later... 300 (2007)

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Rodrigo Santoro

Blood. Abs. Scenery, thoroughly chewed. This is history as seen through the eyes of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, two artists who for a hot minute 10 years ago had some people convinced that they might be visionaries, but who have since been brought down to earth by proving to be, respectively, a one-trick pony (at least in terms of his work in film) and the man who has made Ben Affleck depressed about playing Batman. 300 was definitely a landmark film in terms of a certain visual style that spawned many imitators (though one might argue that it merely continued the work started by Sin City), but with all that imitation comes a watering down of what was once so impressive. Without that shock that comes from seeing something visually exhilarating, is there anything left to recommend 300?