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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: Victoria & Abdul (2017)

* * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

To be taken with several grains of salt, I'm sure. Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul is an enjoyable movie, even though it feels like the sort of movie you're not supposed to be able to enjoy anymore. I suppose that what saves it is that it seems to know that it's that kind of movie and takes steps, however imperfectly, to try to address head-on the elements that might be used to designate it as "problematic" generally and as an undiscerning colonialist fantasy specifically. As I said, take it all with a grain of salt, but as lightweight period pieces - where the emphasis is as much on the lavish costumes and production design as on the marquee performance - go, Victoria & Abdul is pleasantly entertaining.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

* * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman

The last week and a half has been a pretty horrifying one in terms of the barrage of sexual harassment (and assault and rape) stories that have come out of Hollywood. It's been so depressing that on Friday I was very much looking forward to watching Noah Baumbach's new comedy, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), just for a bit of escapism and to have a few good laughs. I did, in fact, have several good laughs while watching it, but then mid-way through the movie one of the female characters tells a story about how when she was a teenager she went swimming and then afterwards was rinsing herself off in an outdoor shower only to turn around and discover one of her father's friends watching her while masturbating and it was like, "Is there no escape from these stories?" This isn't in any way to suggest that we shouldn't be paying attention to these stories and demanding better behavior from those who are privileged to wield power; it's just that it would have been nice to experience 2 solid hours without being confronted with a story about a dude luxuriating in garbage behavior towards a woman just because he feels that his penis entitles him to it. The Meyerwotiz Stories is a good movie, by the way, but God.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Mountain Between Us (2017)

* *

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba

I'll answer the two most important questions first: Yes, the dog lives. As a matter of fact, I left the theater convinced that the dog is immortal because nothing takes him down, but try telling that to Kate Winslet's character, who sends Idris Elba's to look for the dog each time it runs off. Second, yes, they do it. How often does a movie put two people that attractive together and not have them get into bed? Now that you know that, you can probably skip it at the theater and catch it when it shows up on your preferred streaming service or when it ends up on TV. It's not a bad movie, but it's definitely the kind of movie that probably plays best when it's raining outside and you have nothing else to keep yourself entertained with.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell

In the words of the film: "Times change. You should know. You just changed them." In the words of Hemingway: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" In 1973 Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played a match dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes" that was aired on television in prime time. It was a ratings success for ABC. I'm not sure how much of an effect it had on anything else, at least directly, but symbolism can be a powerful thing and sometimes what something means matters less than what it feels like it means. Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), presents an awfully rose-colored view of things, but that presentation is nevertheless awfully entertaining.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: David France

History is written by the victors, which means that it's written by those in power. Even when the history in question is the history of a marginalized group, it tends to be written from the perspective of those members who most closely align with the majority in power, which is why the history of the gay rights movement often seems like the history of gay white men. Just look at the controversy surrounding last year's Stonewall, which failed to gain the support of the wider LGBTQ community due to its displacement of trans women of color in favor of giving ownership of the story of a white, middle class young man. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is about two of those women that Stonewall displaced, one of whom gives the film its title, the other of whom emerges as the documentary's most fascinating figure. Although not quite as focused as director David France's previous film, the brilliant and wrenching How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is an urgent and moving film about a segment of the population that is so often disregarded.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Director: Michael Moore
Country: United States

There are few people in the film industry more widely disliked by the general public than Michael Moore. Even people whose politics align with his own have a tendency to dislike him. He's smug, he's aggressive, and he loves to put himself center-stage in his work, making it particularly difficult to separate the art from the artist for those who like his films but not his personality since to a large extent his films are his personality. As a personality I find Moore hard to take at times (but I tend to have a very Canadian reaction to abrasiveness), but over the past several months I've come to find him weirdly refreshing. He's still smug, aggressive, and PT Barnum-esque in his approach, but at least you know where he stands and he never waters his opinions down in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible - and that's something that stands the test of time. Before seeing it again two weeks ago, I hadn't seen Bowling for Columbine since it's original release and I found that it remains thought-provoking, entertaining, and so sadly relevant.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: American Made (2017)

* * *

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise

The story told by American Made is the type for which the phrase "only in America" was invented, a tale of daring and ambition and corruption fueled by the enterprising nature of the "American Dream," a story about flying too close to the sun and then bursting into flames. I don't know how much of it is actually true, but it certainly seems like the kind of story where the truth is even crazier than what ends up on screen because there are limits to how much you can expect the audience to believe. Directed by Doug Liman, American Made a greatly entertaining movie that makes the most of Tom Cruise's movie star charms as well as the audience's fondness for protagonists that do the wrong things while winking conspiratorially and making it look like a damn lot of fun - at least until a cartel gets pissed off, then the fun stops pretty quick.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: Band Aid (2017)

* * *

Director: Zoe Lister-Jones
Starring: Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally

The hardest thing about living with someone is living with someone. Everyone is kind of annoying if you spend enough time with them, and certain household issues are built to be fought over. Bathrooms, laundry, dishes - these are wars that will always be won by the person most willing to go nuclear, because the person who cares the most that the bathroom isn't clean or that the laundry or dishes haven't been done is always going to be the one to break and do it themselves. The problems at the heart of the relationship in Band Aid ultimately run deeper than the sink full of dirty dishes but... it's not not about the dishes, either. A romantic comedy about the "ever after" part of the story, Band Aid is a sharp and funny portrait of a marriage.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: Stronger (2017)

* * *

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson

Grief is hard enough. Having to grieve publicly, and as a symbol for the grief of countless others, must be an especially hellish experience. David Gordon Green's Stronger is an intimate exploration of trauma under a spotlight, telling the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became a symbol of "Boston Strong." While it contains some of the beats of the "overcoming the odds" subgenre, Stronger largely avoids devolving into a cookie-cutter drama thanks to its keen focus on exploring its characters and the very strong performances of the actors playing them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: The Mummy (2017)

* *

Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe

I'll give The Mummy this much: it takes stones to start your movie by announcing it as the inaugural entry in the "Dark Universe" when previous attempts to launch the series have already been released and failed (and then disavowed as if they were never meant to be anything of the kind in the first place). As for the rest? Meh. Marketed (in North America, at least) as a "darker" take on the Mummy story that would veer towards horror, it's actually aiming to be an Indiana Jones-style adventure yarn with frequent shots of humor, and if that's what you want to watch, well, you may as well just watch the Brendan Fraser version of The Mummy, which does everything that this one is trying to do (except kick off a shared universe) but much better.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tales from the Black List: Pan (2015)

* *

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara

When original ideas are in short supply, just turn a well-worn property into an origin story and call it "new." Pan is what I suppose you would call the "winner" of the great Peter Pan adaptation race that started about six years ago. Following in the footsteps of Snow White, who found herself in two different "re-imaginings" released in 2012, by 2011 there were no less than 5 Peter Pan projects in development, two called "Neverland" (one of which actually did get made as a miniseries prequel to Peter Pan, the other of which was a take with Peter Pan as the villain and Captain Hook as the hero), one called "Peter Pan" (a "family adventure"), one called "The.Never.Land" (described as a "Twilight-ish spin" on the relationship between Wendy and Peter), and one called "Pan" which would have seen Peter and Hook as brothers and which would have had Channing Tatum involved in some capacity. I'm not sure whether that "Pan" and this one are the same film a few re-writes apart but, at any rate, this version of the Peter Pan story, written by Jason Fuchs, made it onto 2013's Black List and presumably read much better on paper.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Dark Knight (2008)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Country: United States, United Kingdom

Some men just want to watch the world burn. There's no logic to it, no central ideas informing it; the chaos of it exists purely for its own sake. If the moral and philosophical questions posed by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight seemed fitting for the first decade of this century, they have only come to seem more so as time has gone on. Although hardly the first superhero movie to actively try to "mean" something, and certainly not the last, I would be hard-pressed to name one that more completely transcended that line between popcorn entertainment and something deeper, more meaningful, and essential in some way to understanding the times in which we are living. The Dark Knight is a film that speaks to the period of history that it came out of and continues to speak to what we're living through today, a film whose influence continues to echo through its genre, and one which is just a damn entertaining watch. No discussion of the movie century so far would be complete without The Dark Knight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: The Little Hours (2017)

* * *

Director: Jeff Baena
Starring: Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza

The Little Hours is part Monty Python, part "Nunsploitation" throwback, and just as tonally all over the place as that description implies. Many scenes in The Little Hours are really very funny. A couple of scenes in The Little Hours become really weird and uncomfortable to watch for reasons that I'll get into below. The gentle, actually quite sweet ending is somewhat at odds with the bawdiness that dominates the proceedings up until that point. Nevertheless, because it's such a fun watch overall, the film is never really bogged down these sudden shifts. It helps that The Little Hours feels so fresh in comparison to most of the comedies being put out by Hollywood studios lately, doing its own off-the-wall thing and taking a few chances. It's a silly movie, but it's silly in the best of ways.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: mother! (2017)

* * *

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem

If you follow entertainment news sites, you've heard that mother! earned the rare "F" grade from CinemaScore. An F doesn't just mean that an audience disliked a movie, it means that the audience feels betrayed by the movie, like they've been sold a false bill of goods. On one hand, this turn of events is understandable because the marketing for mother! doesn't really give a clear idea of what it's going to be, but it being a major studio release one could be forgiven for assuming that it's going to be a little more... normal. On the other hand, it's a Darren Aronofsky movie. The closest he's ever come to "mainstream" is Black Swan and that's only mainstream insofar as it was a box office and Oscar success. Most of his movies are flat out designed to alienate. Granted, even knowing that going in, watching mother! can still feel like a bit of an endurance test. I don't think there's any way to actually discuss this movie without spoiling it a little (or a lot), so consider this a spoiler warning.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Seven Sisters (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Glenn Close

Seven Sisters, which is also called What Happened to Monday? and might as well have been called "Orphan Black, but less good," is a high-concept science fiction film that takes about an hour to get beyond its concept. The second hour is pretty solidly entertaining as a thriller (albeit one that ends rather softly), but the first can be a bit frustrating, full of unnecessary exposition (the whole film contains unnecessary exposition, but the bulk of it is concentrated in the first half) and overly enamored with the idea of having star Noomi Rapace interact with herself to the power of 7 so that some scenes feel less like they're servicing a story and more like they exist as acting and technical exercises. Sure, it's an impressive feat, but less talk and more action would go a long way.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

21st Century Essentials: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender
Country: United Kingdom, United States

Even before its first screening at Telluride’s 2013 festival, 12 Years a Slave had the recognizable markers of a movie that was going to be designated as an “Important Film.” That designation, which burnishes a few films every year sight unseen and in anticipation of Oscar season, can be a blessing to those films that manage to live up to the expectation, but even those films that are successful in that respect tend to lose a bit of that glow as time goes on. What seems like an “Important Film” in the heat of awards season becomes simply a great (or even just very good) film as the cycle resets itself. When it won Best Picture in 2014 it would have been easy to assume that 12 Years a Slave would experience that same kind of fading that accompanies the sudden cessation of the awards season hype, particularly since some Academy voters admitted to not actually having seen it but voting for it out a sense of obligation, but instead 12 Years a Slave has not only maintained but grown in its importance over the years, a result not only of it being a great film borne of the meticulous craft of director Steve McQueen, but also of the fact that its challenges to Hollywood convention are something that the industry and society generally are only just beginning to reckon with.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Stephen King Adaptations

#5: Stand By Me

The first time he saw it, King reportedly declared Stand By Me the best film ever adapted from one of his works. A coming-of-age classic that marked Rob Reiner's first foray as a director from comedy to drama, Stand By Me is one not only one of the best films based on King's work, it's also one of the best films of its type ever made.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Love & Mercy (2014)

* * *

Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks

The history of rock and roll is full of weird and tragic stories and one of the weirdest, surely, is the story of Brian Wilson. From the genius at the heart of one of the most successful and enduring bands of the '60s, to a recluse rumored to have spent years in bed self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness, to someone incorrectly diagnosed and placed under the care and control of doctor/svengali eventually leading to a years long conservatorship battle, Wilson's life has so many twists and turns, ups and downs, that it would be difficult to fit it all in any one movie. Bill Pohland's Love & Mercy, written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, doesn't attempt to tell the whole story, choosing to focus instead on the time before and after the hermitage period, each of which is fascinating in its own way even if the two halves of the film don't always work so well together.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: Ingrid Goes West (2017)

* * *

Director: Matt Spicer
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen

It is perhaps a uniquely hypocritical feature of our current day and age that people share literally everything about themselves and their lives online, but then get indignant about other people wanting to be up in their business. In Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West, a sometimes pointed but sometimes toothless satire, an "influencer" meets her audience and ends up with #negativevibes, resulting in an extremely dark comedy that centers on possibly the most unapologetically sharped-edged female protagonists since Charlize Theron in Young Adult. You can't say that Ingrid Goes West doesn't go for broke with its central character, though you can certainly argue that it begins to lose the thread somewhat in its third act. It will be interesting to see how a movie like this, so firmly rooted in the technology and trends of the here and now, ages, but seeing it in 2017 is like looking at a snapshot of many of the worst qualities of our era. Fortunately the film is asking us to laugh at them and, more often than not, giving us good reason to do so.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou
Domestic Box Office: $39,175,066

And so we end the summer as it began, with the season's first high profile failure: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. At one point conceived as a means of kicking off its own "shared universe" of stories, it's instead going to go down as one of the biggest money losers of the year. Made for $175 million (and that's just the production budget; the advertising budget isn't confirmed, but I've read estimates of about $100 million), the film brought in just $39 million domestically and that figure, even when combined with the international grosses, falls far short of the amount spent to make it. This movie didn't just bomb, it failed on an absolutely epic scale, leaving a smoking crater full of burned money in its wake. Which is extremely unfortunate because, despite what you may have heard from its abysmal critical reception, it's actually kind of good. I enjoyed it a great deal (so much so that I watched it twice), which is too bad because now not only will none of the potential sequels get made, but the bad word around it probably means that it's not going to get the Best Costume Design nomination it richly deserves.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: Wind River (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen

Late in the film, a character remarks that the case at the center of the story is practically solving itself. The reason that this is true is because it's a story that's so depressingly familiar about men, women, power, entitlement, and the institutionalized racism that allows the law to cherry pick what kinds of victims are worth seeking justice for. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who's riding a hot streak after writing the screenplays for 2015's Sicario and 2016's Hell or High Water, Wind River is a sharp edged, fast moving thriller, although I don't think it's quite the advocacy piece that its final words might like to suggest. Wind River is less about giving voice to people traditionally treated as disposable by society and the media than it is a story about unforgiving men (in their most traditional form, at that) in an unforgiving land, but it's an absolutely engrossing film of its type and confirms Sheridan as one of the most exciting voices working in Hollywood today.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Phoenix (2015)

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kuzendorf
Country: Germany

At the heart of Phoenix, the sixth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, is a disagreement over how to cope with trauma. On one side is a character who is determined to leave everything behind except the memories of the people who have been taken, and start over anew. On the other side is a character who just wants to go back to the life she left behind, to put it back together as much as possible, even if it means living amongst those who were complicit in the traumatic event. In the physical and social ruins of post-war Berlin neither can find much comfort in her respective strategy, as the thing they share in common – the need to remember – is at odds with a nation already in the process of trying to forget. A thematically rich and deeply felt film, Phoenix is a work that comes stunningly close to perfection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Rules Don't Apply (2016)

* *

Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Lily Collins

Warren Beatty is a curious case when it comes to Hollywood stars. He's been a star for 56 years, since Splendor in the Grass, but his output during that time has been relatively minimal, starring in 23 films during that time. For the sake of comparison, his contemporary Jack Nicholson has been a star for 48 years, since the release of Easy Rider, and since then has made 44 movies, with a 45th on the horizon. This isn't to say that Nicholson's filmmography is necessarily better, I'm just saying that there is a heightened level of selectivity to Beatty's output. "Selectivity" might not even be the best word to describe the career of the notoriously fastidious Beatty, who is known for moving slowly on projects before bringing them to fruition. One of those long simmering projects was Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty reportedly spent 40 years working at bringing to the screen. I'm not entirely sure whether the end result suggests that 40 years left it overcooked or still, somehow, undercooked, but Rules Don't Apply doesn't exactly present itself as a film that ever really needed to be made.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: All About Steve (2009)

Director: Phil Traill
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper
Domestic Box Office: $33,862,903

2009 was a year of extreme highs and extreme lows for Sandra Bullock's career. The highs came in the form of The Proposal, her first big box office hit since 2002's Two Weeks Notice, and The Blind Side, which would become the 8th highest grossing movie of the year and win her an Oscar. But in between those two triumphs came All About Steve, one of the worst reviewed movies of her career and one of its lowest grossing. But Steve was not just a financial disappointment, nor was it a movie that people simply disliked. People hated this movie so much that you would think it ran over their dog. Critics were vicious. The Golden Raspberry Awards gave it five nominations, including Worst Actress, which Bullock won (and, because she is an incredible sport, collected in person) the day before winning her Oscar. I'm not about to launch into a defense of All About Steve, but I am going to say this: that level of hatred is undeserved and I think the level of critical drubbing it took is more the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of who the main character is and what the film is about than it is a reflection on the actual worth of the film itself.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: A Quiet Passion (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle

A Quiet Passion is one of those curious cases where the critical reception and the audience reception are so disparate that it almost seems like the two groups saw a different film. This is most apparent in its Rotten Tomatoes score, which earned 92% from critics, but only 50% from audiences. I can understand both positions. I can see how the great central performance from Cynthia Nixon and the film's meticulous craftsmanship would appeal to critics, and I can fully understand how the languid pacing, mannered style, and plotlessness of the film would have little appeal for audiences. At times I found the film quite engaging, but at other times I was honestly a little bored by it, so it's a bit of a mixed bag to be sure.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Lady Macbeth (2017)

* * * *

Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie

"Aren't you bored, Katherine?" Man, is he ever going to regret asking that question, because yes she is and her quest to not be bored is going to ruin everyone. Loosely adapted from Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the film transports the action to Victorian era England, but approaches it with a sensibility that is not only thoroughly modern, but intensely relevant. Built around a stunning and sharp-edged performance by Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth is a film that upends expectations and becomes increasingly enthralling as it winds its way towards a conclusion that is perhaps inevitable, but savage nevertheless. The feature debut of director William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth is a wonderfully confident debut that succeeds thematically where many films have failed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

Director: Harald Zwart
Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower
Domestic Box Office: $31,165,421

While box office itself can rarely be accurately predicted - movies that are supposed to be sure things can fail, movies expected to fail can sometimes find their audience and surprise everyone; the only certain thing seems to be that Star Wars will always make money - one of the most predictable things about movies when it comes to box office is that if something succeeds once, Hollywood will try to replicate that success multiple times, usually with increasingly diminishing returns, until the idea is thoroughly dead. The massive success of the Twilight movies guaranteed that there would be copy-cat properties entering the market place, even as time and again the Twilight audience rejected those properties because, really, all they wanted was more Twilight. Remember Vampire Academy? Beautiful Creatures? What about The Host, which had the advantage of being a Stephenie Meyer adaptation? I'm pretty sure nobody does. Two of those movies came out in 2013, incidentally, which probably should have made the makers of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones take a deep breath and consider that they might have made a huge mistake sinking $60 million into their adaptation.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tales From the Black List: Hancock (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman

But first, a story: I was perusing the Black List looking for a title that I could watch and write about for the feature and learned that Hancock, the 2008 Will Smith film that tries to deconstruct the superhero story, was part of the first ever list in 2005. Since I specifically use this feature to write about movies I've never written about before, I thought this was a non-starter because I was sure that I'd written about Hancock already. A quick search revealed that I was wrong about that, so I happily sat down to re-watch the film and promptly discovered that the reason I've never written about it is because I had not, in fact, ever seen it before. I'm not sure whether that says more about me (in my defense, I see a lot of movies) or about the film, which had such a long and winding trip from page to screen that it became part of Hollywood lore for a while, and which has such an easily digestible premise that apparently it can seem like you've seen the movie without ever having actually watched it. At any rate, here's Hancock, a movie that I've now definitely seen and which never really manages to pull itself together enough to bring its idea successfully to life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan
Country: United States

Style over substance is a phrase which typically signifies criticism, an accusation that the work in question is shallow and without merit. In the right hands, however, or with the right project, style can be substance itself, elevating something ordinary into something amazing. Boiled down to its basics, Drive is a pretty unremarkable crime story about a guy (the strong silent type, naturally, with bonus points for remaining unnamed) who gets drawn into a situation he didn’t ask for and becomes a one man wrecking crew in his efforts to extricate himself. In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini which adapts the novel of the same name by James Sallis, Drive is an elegant film, a film that calls attention to how it looks and how it moves. It's a film of high style, but beneath its fa├žade of dynamic visuals and music that seems to stand in for the restrained and repressed emotions of its characters, lies a deep, dark heart beating like a drum.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Detroit (2017)

* * *

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith

Typically by the time I sit down to write about I film, I've sorted out how I feel about it. As first steps go, it's a pretty important one and ultimately a pretty basic one: did I like it or not, did I think it was good or not. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I'm still on the fence about Detroit, a film in which I found much to admire, but which I also found wanting in certain respects and which left me feeling, at certain points, kind of annoyed. A lot has been written about Detroit in terms of what the film includes, what it omits, and whose story the murders at the Algiers Motel is to tell in the first place. Those are all topics worth discussing, and I believe that Detroit is a film worth engaging and discussing in that critical way (I say this because there seems to be a tendency these days for a work to be labeled "problematic" in some way or another and for the internet hivemind to decide that it should just be avoided altogether), but I'm not sure that it's totally successful as a film.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: James C. Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams

While Netflix is undoubtedly the king of streaming services, I'm starting to think that Amazon has the stronger edge in terms of content (and not just because Amazon's films are ones that you can actually see in a theater before revisiting online). Netflix probably wins in terms of quantity, but I also feel like that's why it's going to lose in the long run. Netflix's model is one that seems increasingly built on indiscriminate quantity, on acquiring "content" rather than films so that there can always be something new for an audience in constant demand for more new things. I've seen a few of Netflix's original movies and aside from their documentary selection, which is quite strong, my overall reaction has been that the gems are few and far between and the rest of the features tend to be okay at best, with the occasional film that feels like it barely qualifies as a film. The Incredible Jessica James is one of those, a wisp of a thing that feels more like a long pilot for a series than a proper movie. It's saved somewhat by the starburst of charisma that is Jessica Williams, but it's a pretty forgettable endeavor.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Land of the Lost (2009)

Director: Brad Silberling
Starring: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride
Domestic Box Office: $49,438,370

Land of the Lost is the sort of movie that feels like its genesis is in an inside joke between its makers. It has that insular specificity, that sense that the people involved in making it are so focused on entertaining themselves that they never paused to consider whether it would be entertaining to anyone else. Granted, I'm probably not the ideal audience for this movie because I've never seen the TV show, but given the film's tepid box office take it seems safe to assume that Universal took it for granted that the property was much more beloved than is actually the case. Having sunk $100 million into discovering that, the sting of the film's failure was still such that more than two years later former Universal head Ron Meyer would dismiss it as "just crap." It's an assessment that's hard to argue with.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Girls Trip (2017)

* * *

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish

And so the summer of women behaving badly continues and arguably reaches its carefree high point with Girls Trip. No strippers are killed. No Americans acting ugly abroad. It's just four friends, having a good time, getting a little wild, causing a little trouble. It's funny, it's raunchy, it's got a dance battle, a sing-along, a brawl, and a pretty solid Set It Off reference. At a shade over 2 hours Girls Trip is a little baggier than it needs to be, a result of more cameos than strictly necessary and more narrative/character complications than it requires to work, but overall it's a pretty good time and it definitely makes the most of its R rating.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

* * *

Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy

Atomic Blonde is less a movie than it is a soundtrack but, lord, what a soundtrack. A slick, bone-crunching action movie that aspires to little more than being cool as hell and succeeds at that with ease, this adaptation of the graphic novel "The Coldest City" is the sort of pulse-pumping, fleeting entertainment that the summer movie season was made for. Directed by David Leitch, director of the first John Wick film and a former stunt man, Blonde delivers one of the more realistic depictions of violence seen in cinema, to say nothing of one of the most relentless. This isn't the best movie I've seen all summer, but I can't say that it didn't deliver on exactly what its trailers promised: action, '80s music, Charlize Theron in all her badass glory, and style, style, style.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: The Happening (2008)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel
Domestic Box Office: $64,506,874

Well... what can one even say? The idea behind M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, his "the planet is trying to kill us" thriller, is actually a pretty good one. Humans are pretty terrible to the planet so the premise that, like any living thing, it would have an instinct for self-preservation that would drive it to try to rid itself of what's harming it, is a solid place to start a story. The problem is in the execution, which results in the film seeming more like a comedy (a very, very boring comedy) than a thriller. Add to it that it came from a filmmaker that audiences had clearly lost confidence in after two films that were terribly received (though much better received than some of his films yet to come) and you had a recipe for a film that had no business trying to make it work right in the heart of the summer release season.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Netflix Recommends... What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

* * *

Director: Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jermaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer

When I take Netflix up on one of its recommendations, I'm usually taking a chance. Sometimes it has made really solid recommendations and I end up watching a movie that is either pretty good or objectively bad but fun to watch, but sometimes it recommends movies that are so completely outside the realm of my taste that I have to assume that the recommendations list is created randomly rather than according to an algorithm (though I'm sure the fact that I've seen several "Not Busters," many of which are movies that are outside of what I would normally watch, through Netflix has left it feeling that I'll just watch anything). What We Do in the Shadows, which I had heard of but didn't know much about, is one of Netflix's better recommendations, a very funny movie that manages to overcome the played out nature of many of its elements (it's about vampires and it's told in the mockumentary style).

Saturday, July 29, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Sullivan Brown, Erik Steffan Maahs, Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Katherine E. Scharhon
Country: Canada/United States

To watch a Guy Maddin film is to have the feeling of being haunted twice over. You’re haunted first by the nascent years of cinema, before movies learned to talk, as Maddin uses silent films as his aesthetic inspiration. You’re then haunted by Maddin’s own anxieties as he builds his stories on repressed and forbidden desires and oh so many mother issues. In Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin invites you to accompany a man named Guy Maddin on a journey to his past, back to the island where he grew up and grappled with an absent father, an omnipresent mother, and an infatuation with both a boy and a girl (or so he thinks). Oh, and brain harvesting. Few films can truly be described as “unique” but the psychosexual surrealist adventure Brand Upon the Brain! certainly fits the bill.

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.