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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.