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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Fantastic Four (2015)

Director: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell
Domestic Box Office: $56,117,548

It's always interesting to go back and watch a film that came out not just to bad reviews, but to the kind of critical pile on that makes reviewers seem less like people and more like sharks who smell blood in the water. When Fantastic Four was released at the end of the summer of 2015, rebooting the lackluster two film series that starred a pre-Captain America Chris Evans, people didn't just dislike it; they reacted to it as if its very existence was offensive to them. Seeds of contempt had already been planted long before the film's premiere, when the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch inspired racially tinged ranting from the corner of the internet where all of the most special and sensitive snowflakes reside, and it's possible that some of those people went into the film wanting to hate it merely to justify their own entitled idiocy, while others merely swam with the tide and then floated along the currents of disdain. By the time 2015 came to a close, Fantastic Four had been counted as one of the worst movies of the year, coming in at #614 out of 639 films ranked by Metacritic for the year. Seeing the film in 2016 is to wonder what all that fuss was about. Fantastic Four is not a good movie but, good lord, it is not quite the abomination its reputation might have you believe.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: Deadpool (2016)

* * *

Director: Tim Miller
Starring: Ryan Reynolds

Every time a superhero movie comes out (so, uh, every week lately) and becomes either a massive hit or a massive failure, scores of articles end up being written of the "What X can learn from Y" variety. Batman & Robin taught Hollywood that superhero movies shouldn't be so campy and nakedly geared towards selling toys; Batman Begins taught Hollywood that superhero movies should be gritty and "realistic;" Marvel's run from Iron Man through The Avengers taught Hollywood that shared universes are a recipe for continuing success; and now there's Deadpool to teach Hollywood that superhero movies should be funny and graphically violent. The thing is, if there was a blueprint for success, then everything would be a success. What works for one film isn't necessarily going to work for another; it's all a matter of finding the right tone and style for the right character and the right franchise and finding them at the right time for the right audience. That's not the lesson that Hollywood is going to learn from Deadpool, a film that goes fantastically against the grain of other superhero movies (until all the copycats come along in the next couple of years), but it's a set of variables worth keeping in mind the next time whatever is trendy at the moment takes a would-be franchise completely off the rails.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review: High-Rise (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston

Ben Wheatley's take on J.G. Ballard's High-Rise comes so very close to working that it's tempting to suggest that he just take it back, tweak it some more, and try again. But that's not how it works, and the film is what is it, which is a stylishly crafted and executed piece that is visually engaging and even, at times, daring, but which never offers much more than a surface perspective on its allegorical tale of income disparity and social inequity. It gets off to a good enough start, leading with the dark humor and element of the grotesque that will define so much of what is about to unfold, but somewhere around the middle it starts to sag, its storytelling style leaving its lack of depth exposed, and by the end it actually starts to feel a bit tiresome. There are a number of great images and individual scenes and moments in High-Rise, but taken as a whole it ultimately doesn't amount to very much.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

* * *

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe

There are moments in The Nice Guys where you watch Ryan Gosling's performance and think, "Is this about to go too far?" The performance is so broadly comedic that it threatens at times to cross the line from being genuinely funny to trying too hard to be funny to actually be funny. Fortunately director (and co-writer) Shane Black is always able to keep him on the right side of that line, reeling him back in whenever it seems like he's about to drift away. The performance is ridiculous, but it's ridiculous in exactly the right way and in what is ultimately a very funny and very good comedy/noir/buddy movie mashup.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

* * * *

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Gong Li

Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower is an intimate family tragedy played at the level of spectacular, operatic grandeur. Telling a story of revenge, divided loyalties, forbidden loves, and power, and involving a husband, a wife, their sons, and another family that exists in the shadow of theirs and contains explosive secrets that, once brought to light, might destroy everything, Curse of the Golden Flower has a little bit of everything packed into its narrative. It also has a more is more (is more!) aesthetic informing its visuals, including enormous, elaborate sets and scenes which involve a massive number of extras, Curse of the Golden Flower is one of the great cinema spectacles, right up there with those old Hollywood films that played on an almost impossible scale, such as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and Intolerance.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Judge Dredd (1995)

Director: Danny Cannon
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Domestic Box Office: $34,694,481

Here's the situation: you're making a movie with one of the biggest names in Hollywood, who was one of the greatest box office draws of the early to mid-80s, even if most of those hits came from entries in the same two franchises. He's been on a bit of a losing streak lately, having failed to broaden his appeal by branching into comedy, and even the action movies that are his bread and butter have lately failed to set the world on fire, though in the midst of this he's also had one bona fide hit that shows there may still be some life in his career. The movie you're making is based on a comic strip that, in North America at least, is fairly obscure and whose best known element is the distinctive look for the character, who wears a helmet that obscures half his face. Here's the question: do you accept that, by choosing obscure material, you're making a film that will likely have limited appeal and hew faithfully to the source material so that it will be embraced, at least, by fans of the comic and perhaps became a cult favorite that makes most of its money from video/DVD; or do you try to force the material into a star vehicle, stripping away anything weird or unique (including that helmet, which the character will only wear for about five minutes) until the work is as generically like everything else in the star's CV as possible? It's Hollywood. If they'd gone with the first option, we wouldn't be here.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Dreamers (2003)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel
Country: United Kingdom/France/Italy

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is a fever dream of intertwined passions. It is (famously) about sex, but it is also about art (specifically, intensely, vocally about film) and about politics, and about the heady set of circumstances in which all three collide. Tinged with nostalgia and regret, unfolding alternately with impish delight and crushing anguish, and always with a hazy restlessness, The Dreamers is a visually striking piece of work and, one might argue, a deceptively simple one. You watch it for the first time and it feels like it just washes over you, a collection of engaging and sometimes lurid images, but you find afterwards that it stays alive within you and visiting it again, be it immediately or years later, it reveals more depths than you might have originally given it credit for.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday's Top 5... The Year's Least Necessary Sequels

#5: Bad Santa 2

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Bad Santa. I just think that, like Zoolander and Anchorman, two other comedies that gained a worshipful enough cult status to inspire a late-coming sequel, this is a property that's probably best left as a one-time thing. However, given that the film won't come out until Christmas and the trailer hasn't even been released yet, I'm totally prepared to end up being wrong on this one.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ten Years Later... The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is one of the most derided novels of the last 15 years, as well as one of the most popular. With respect to both facts, I can understand why. I've never read the novel in it's entirety because after reading the first 10 pages I knew that I'd never be able to finish it, the quality of the writing was so poor, but I can definitely see why the story was embraced. After all, there's a conspiracy theory out there for just about every major historical event and person and it's possible to be entertained by the story even if the actual writing is sub-par. To that end, the film adaptation had something of an advantage because it could tell the story and drop Brown's writing - something that it doesn't really take advantage of, given that the dialogue remains clunky and simplistic - and having Tom Hanks (even with a terrible haircut) couldn't hurt, either. The movie was always going to be a hit; the real question was how well a property already so critically pilloried at the time of its release would hold up over time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War

* * *

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr.

I would say that a film featuring superheroes doing battle with each other is a can't lose proposition but, as one film has already shown and (if early reviews are to be believed) another is about to show, it takes more than simply throwing a couple of popular characters into the ring and having them trade punches to make a satisfactory story. With Captain America: Civil War, Marvel continues to extend its tradition of success, creating a film that is wildly entertaining while also building on the narrative established in the previous films and setting up storylines for future films. As a film in its own right and as a piece in the ever-growing Marvel universe puzzle, it's a success, which is all the more impressive when you consider that the plan crafted by its villain doesn't really make any sense, unless you think relying on a series of fortunate coincidences constitutes a solid "plan."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: The Island (2005)

Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson
Domestic Box Office: $35,818,913

Michael Bay is not a director accustomed to failure - at the box office, at least. His films being critically savaged is par for the course, but failing to rake in the money? That's a slightly more unusual circumstance for him. Sure, the last couple of years have resulted in Pain and Gain and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi amid the Transformers movies (though it's worth noting that those two middling performers are also two of his lower budgeted movies), but for the most part, Bay has been pretty consistent in delivering critic-proof money makers, particularly during summer. In that respect, 2005's The Island was his first real bomb, a science fiction thriller that cost $126 million to make and only brought in $36 million at the box office - and remains his lowest grossing film to date. Thematically, The Island is arguably the most ambitious film Bay has ever made, playing as it does with large philosophical questions, but there's a reason that Bay is known more for extravagant special effects than compelling character drama: he doesn't know what to make of a character when he or she isn't involved in a car chase, shoot out, or explosion.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Oblivion (2013)

* *

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise

How can a movie cost so much to make and still seem so incredibly half-assed? Is it really so much to ask that, with $120 million dollars to play with, the result not be shoddily constructed from the spare parts of other science fiction, action, and post-apocalypse movies? That at least one of the two female characters not be wafer thin? That it at least have enough of a spark of originality to not name its hero "Jack," the go-to name (along with "John") for everyman heroes? Action movie screenwriters of the world: if you need your hero to have a down to earth, dude's dude name, can we maybe start branching out a bit? If you're going to surround your protagonist with every cliche and recycled plot point that comes to mind, can you at least make him a "Mike" or "Dave" or "Chris"? That alone wouldn't make the movie better, of course, but it might make it somewhat less annoyingly familiar.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Tomorrowland (2015)

Director: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney
Domestic Box Office: $93,436,322

It seems only appropriate to start off a new series of "not-busters" with the first high profile disappointment from the summer of 2015 (a year which seemed to be full of summer movies that failed to live up to expectations), one which also raises the question of what truly makes a movie a "bomb." Tomorrowland made almost $100 million in the domestic market alone, which is not only a lot of money, but is enough money to make it the seventh highest grossing film in star George Clooney's filmmography (behind Gravity, The Perfect Storm, all three Oceans movies, and Batman and Robin). If you consider the film in terms of Clooney's historical box office draw, then Tomorrowland is actually kind of a success, because Clooney's films average a gross of about $61 million. If, however, you consider the film's success in terms of its box office against its budget and marketing costs, then Tomorrowland is clearly a failure. It cost $190 million to make and only brought in $93 million at home, and even when you account for the gross from foreign markets, it still didn't recoup its costs. As a product, it's a failure absolutely, but as a piece of art, I think it's better than its reputation (despite some questionable thematic elements).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Netflix Recommends... A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)

* 1/2

Director: John Moore
Starring: Bruce Willis

Good lord. A Good Day To Die Hard is a waste of everything except effort, of which none seems to have been expended. This is the kind of movie where it seems entirely plausible that once they came up with the tag line ("Yippie Ki-Yay Mother Russia"), they called it a day and assumed that everything would just work itself out from there. Five films in, John McClane has long since strayed from what he was originally supposed to be and what set him apart as special in the first place - an average guy who finds himself in an extraordinary set of circumstances and finds a way to rise to the occasion - to become something that could only exist in a movie, but A Good Day To Die Hard goes so far beyond ridiculous that it becomes a little insulting.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney
Country: United States

Stories about divorce and the disintegration of a family unit and the trauma for all involved are rarely (if they ever are) nice, but few eschew sugarcoating quite as thoroughly as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, a film in which none of the members of the family escape unscathed from criticism and which is relentless in the way that it exposes and dissects the flaws and pretentions of its characters. Laid bare like that, the characters are almost endearing in their intense vulnerability – or they would be, if they didn’t act like such assholes so often. But the honesty of that is what makes The Squid and the Whale such a strong piece of work, telling its story of a family dealing with the pain, resentment, and confusion of divorce in a way that is unforgiving and forgiving in equal measure. Embraced as a great film when it first came out in 2005, The Squid and the Whale has aged incredibly well, and its combination of tenderness and bitterness has only become more captivating with time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

#5: Peggy Carter

Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter belongs more to the television portion of the shared universe, but she's awesome enough to make you wish for another film set in the 1940s so that she can join in the adventures.