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

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.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ten Years Later... Ratatouille (2007)


Director: Brad Bird

The great thing about Pixar is that it's a reliable source of quality entertainment. There have been a few missteps here and there, certainly, but by and large Pixar has been consistent in delivering great film after great film after great film. That's wonderful for viewers, but something of a double-edged sword for the films themselves because it means that a new film can be the toast of its year of release only to be pushed out of the spotlight within a year by the next great Pixar movie. In 2007 Ratatouille was the best reviewed film of the year, declared a masterpiece by many. But it was followed by three of the best films Pixar has released to date and as time has passed, Ratatouille seems to have left the public consciousness even as the other great Pixar films have remained on the radar. Was it overrated then, or is it underrated now? Let's revisit it and see.

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.

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.