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Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
Domestic Gross: $35,168,677

One of the stranger things about growing older, at least in terms of the way that you engage with pop culture, is watching as the icons of your youth and adolescence fade out of popularity. Sometimes this is a process so gradual that you hardly notice it, and sometimes it's so abrupt that you're left scratching your head and wondering how the decline could have happened so fast. When I was growing up, Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise were the movie stars, the two actors who could seemingly do no wrong when it came to box office success, give or take a Regarding Henry or a Random Hearts. Ford was a force to be reckoned with through the 1980s and 1990s, a star of three franchises and a bunch of successful stand alone pictures, but since 2001 he hasn't had a bona fide hit other than an Indiana Jones film that most people wish he'd never made, and the box office disappointments have become the norm. That streak started in earnest with 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, though in fairness to the film it probably would have sunk at the summer box office even if it had been released in the midst of Ford's hot streak since it was all wrong for a summer movie, particularly a "Harrison Ford summer movie."

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: They Came Together (2014)

* * *

Director: David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler

She's a quirky klutz, he's witty and "vaguely Jewish," and the city of New York is their constant and beloved third wheel. Theirs is a story that is just like a romantic comedy, which is the first and then most often repeated joke in David Wain's They Came Together, which is not itself a romantic comedy, but rather a send up of the genre. Proceeding in the same spirit as Wain's under appreciated 2001 gem Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together is a film with its tongue firmly in cheek, and though it isn't as laugh out loud funny as that earlier film, it is nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable. But then, how could it be anything less when its leads are two of the most consistently likeable comedic actors around.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: Tracks (2014)

* * *

Director: John Curran
Starring: Mia Wasikowska

In 1977 Robyn Davidson walked 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, crossing deserts, hunted by reporters and curiosity seekers, and trying to find herself in the midst of a period of social and political change. That Davidson would go on to write about her experience twice - first for National Geographic and then in the non-fiction book which shares a title with the film - might remove some of the tension from the film but, speaking personally, that tension was replaced by a great deal of anxiety over the fate of the dog she brought with her on her journey (spoiler alert: it was right to be concerned). The resulting film is one which is often visually stunning and solidly anchored by an unfussy performance from Mia Wasikowska, even if it does fail to properly follow through on some of the themes it introduces.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Partners In Crime: Wilder & Lemmon

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations:

It's one of the all-time best pairings of director and actor. Over the course of 22 years, Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon made 7 films together, 2 of which are considered amongst the greatest films ever made. Together, they made some of the smartest and most memorable comedies ever committed to film, bringing out the best in each other in the process. Though each would have great success with other artists, the power of their work together cannot be denied.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

* * *

Director: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum

There is no reason at all that 21 Jump Street should have worked the way that it did. At best, it should have been a marginally funny but sort of forgettable way to kill an hour and forty minutes, the sort of movie you watch if it comes on TV and there's nothing else on. Instead it was pretty much awesome, setting a bar for television to film adaptations that is almost impossibly high. Magic happened with the first film, so what were the chances of the follow-up, 22 Jump Street, being anything but an utter disappointment? I don't know what the odds were exactly, but I know that somehow the team behind the franchise has found a way to make lightning strike twice. 22 Jump Street is a great summer movie, an entertainment of the very first order.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Gigli (2003)

Director: Martin Brest
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha
Domestic Gross: $6,087,542

You almost have to feel bad for Gigli. Under other circumstances, it would have been released and dismissed as just another bad movie, forgotten and left to die quietly and with dignity. Instead, it had the misfortune of being released when the pop culture tide had turned against its two stars and after all the knives had been sharpened. Don't get me wrong. Gigli is terrible, an utter mess of a movie in which no one really seems to know what they should be doing because the project has no voice of its own, but I'm not sure that it's actually "the worst movie of all time" or that it deserved to be so ruthlessly savaged that you would be forgiven for thinking that on opening weekend it had come to life and stabbed an audience member to death (given the box office, perhaps I should say "the audience member" *rimshot*). Gigli is a bad movie, but it's bad in such ordinary ways that it's hard, eleven years after the fact and with "Bennifer" so far in the distance, to get worked up about it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

* * *

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

For every rule, there is an exception that proves it. The rule, in this case, is that good movies don't come out of games and toy lines, that the added dimension of commercial interest - the film needs to be successful on its own terms, as well as work as advertising for the source product - smothers any deeper elements, leaving behind nothing of artistic value. The Lego Movie is a 100 minute ad for Lego, but it's also a film which justifies its own existence by telling a solid story, taking a well-trod narrative blueprint and putting a funny, referential, and sometimes compelling twist on it. But I suppose at this point we should expect nothing less from writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who are developing what appears to be a golden touch.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Sex and Lucia (2001)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Julio Medem
Starring: Paz Vega, Tristan Ullola
Country: Spain/France

Even 13 years after its release, Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia stands out as a film of narrative complexity and cleverness. Telling a story that falls back on itself, into itself, weaves in and out of timelines, and blurs the line between fiction and reality, memory and imagination, this is a film in which you may never quite know where you stand, but which is so charming and intriguing that you won’t care. The film itself says it best: “The first advantage is at the end of the end of the story. It doesn’t finish, it falls in a hole, and the story starts against halfway. The other advantage, and the biggest, is that you can change course along the way.” Sex and Lucia is a film of seemingly endless possibilities, and it makes good on that promise.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Adaptations of Tony Winning Musicals

#5: My Fair Lady

While not George Cukor's final film, his adaptation of My Fair Lady is in many ways his swan song and won him an Oscar for Best Director. Though the film is far from perfect (it's a bit bloated at 170 minutes), it's a stylish piece of work with plenty to its credit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Computer Chess (2013)

* * * *

Director: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Patrick Rieseter, Myles Paige, Wiley Wiggins

There's nothing new under the sun and every story that can be told has been told in some form before. In light of that, coming across a film that feels as original as Mumblecore hero Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess is pretty thrilling. The film itself is a comedy, sometimes broadly so, sometimes more slyly, built on a stylistic gimmick that quickly comes to seem less like an affectation than a necessity to the story. Computer Chess is probably an acquired taste - its visual aesthetic, certainly, will be a dealbreaker for some - but it's a brilliant little piece of work if you can embrace its eccentricities.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dean DeBlois

The first How to Train Your Dragon was pretty much perfect: beautifully animated, moving, simple enough to be followed by children, but running deep enough to connect with adults. It set a bar so high that any sequel could, at best, only hope to reach it rather than surpass it. Four years after the first comes How to Train Your Dragon 2, gorgeously rendered, full of sequences that are alternately thrilling and moving, and almost as good as the original (seriously, it comes so close). Though it falls a bit short of perfection, I expect that it will emerge as the best movie of the summer and probably one of the best movies of the year.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: MacGruber (2010)

Director: Jorma Taccone
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer
Domestic Gross: $8,525,600

Never underestimate the importance of branding. While Saturday Night Live has found varying degrees of success in television for 39 seasons and counting, attempts to transfer that success over to film have, for the most part, been failures. Of the eleven feature films spun off from Saturday Night Live, only two have really been successful: 1980's The Blues Brothers and 1992's Wayne's World. Eight failed films since Wayne's World meant that MacGruber came with a lot of baggage and a very bad pedigree. Instead of having good associations based on being part of a series of funny and entertaining films, it would have to fight an uphill battle against the notion that it was a concept stretched far too thin, based on what amounted to one joke. Judging by its box office, that battle was lost, which is a shame since unlike every other film I've watched for this series, MacGruber is actually pretty good.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Barbara (2012)

* * * *

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss

Christian Petzold's Barbara tells us everything we need to know about its eponymous character within its first two minutes. Having arrived at the rural hospital where the Stasi have banished her to work, she checks her watch and then sits down to have a cigarette. From an upper window inside the hospital two men watch her, one stating to the other, "She won't be even one second too early. She's like that." She'll do what's required but absolutely nothing more, quietly rebelling against the totalitarian government seeking to crush her under its thumb, biding her time until she makes her move. Anchored by an incredible performance by Nina Hoss and proceeding in steady, methodical fashion, Barbara is a film that uncoils itself slowly, but leaves a lasting impression.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review: Under the Skin (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

Nothing can really prepare you for the hypnotic power of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, a science fiction film that is as coldly graceful as it is inaccessible. A film in which none of the characters are named and nothing is explained, full of striking, brutal images, it's a film that starts to unsettle you immediately and keeps you unsettled right up until its final image. I don't think I've ever seen a movie quite like this one; the closest I could think of was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which this film seems to echo in one sequence in particular. While I don't think that Under the Skin possesses the same transcendent power of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, it is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking from a director completely confident in what he's doing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Larry Crowne (2011)

Director: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts
Domestic Gross: $35,608,245

Between them Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have 25 live action films that have grossed more than $100 million, 15 of which (8 for Hanks, 7 for Roberts) were within the top 10 grossing films of their respective years. On paper, this pairing seems like a no-brainer and a guaranteed success, and it probably would have been had the two stars been paired up in, say, 2001, when Roberts was still the undisputed Queen of romantic comedies and pretty much everything Hanks touched turned to gold. By 2011 the picture was different, with Roberts having spent the decade finding modest success at the box office outside of ensemble pieces like the Ocean's films and Valentine's Day, and Hanks experiencing a bit of a box office decline himself, albeit one far less sharp thanks to films like Catch Me If You Can and the Da Vinci Code franchise. Neither star, at this point, is really known any more for romantic comedies - the closest Roberts has come since 2001's America's Sweethearts is probably Eat Pray Love, which is more of a drama, and the closest Hanks has come since 1998's You've Got Mail is probably The Terminal. So you could argue that Larry Crowne was a good idea that simply came too late, "could" being the operative word there since even if the film had been made and released in 2001 and was still this same film, it would have failed entirely on its own merits anyway.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Tom Tywker
Starring: Ben Wishaw
Country: Germany/Spain/France

Tom Tykwer’s film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is not merely a masterpiece, it’s a miracle. Based on the novel of the same name, this is a story which takes the sense of smell as its center and then ties every emotion and thought (not to mention much of the characterization) in the story to scent. Despite the difficulties that would seem to present in translating the story to as visual a medium as film, Tywker is somehow able to take this premise and create a work of great visual impact. Perfume is a story that should be impossible in this context, that absolutely should not work as a film – and yet it does, emerging as seductive and repulsive in equal degree, a great vampire film about a character who isn’t (technically) a vampire.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review: Maleficent (2014)

* *

Director: Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie

Maleficent is the kind of movie that happens when the only thing that the people in charge of making the movie are sure about is that they want to make money. Ideally, of course, all filmmakers and studios would like to make money on their movies, but good movies tend to have a purpose beyond that, too. When they do not, they end up like this, with a muddled tone, muddled message, and all the good things buried under as much CGI as can be crammed in or otherwise given short shrift in favor of the glory shots meant to justify a 3D release. Maleficent is not a good movie. It's derivative, it's confused, and, perhaps worst of all, it has stretches when it actually comes together for a little while, showing what the film could have been if it had any real idea of what it wanted to be or what it wanted to do.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The Internship (2013)

Director: Shawn Levy
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson
Domestic Gross: $44,645,496

Movies and manipulation are inseparable. From musical cues that are designed to tug at our heart strings or put us on the edge of our seats, to the little beats and details that are designed to align our sympathies with one character over another, to genre conventions, and a million things besides, every film is a complex web of little manipulations designed to get the audience to where the filmmaker wants them. There's an unspoken accord between audience and filmmaker in which the latter sets out to manipulate the former and the former agrees to let it - as long as those manipulations are subtle enough that they don't insult the intelligence. The first mistake that The Internship makes is that it doesn't bury its manipulation deep enough, unfolding as a movie length commercial for how awesome Google is. Its second mistake is that it came out about 7 years too late, taking a pairing that once set the box office on fire and expecting lightning to strike again, not recognizing that both actors had seen their box office power decline as a result of offering much of the same over and over and over again.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Which Lie Did I Tell?

Many books about Hollywood written by "insiders" are thinly veiled score settlers, behind the scenes stories which pull skeletons out of closets and tell all about where the bodies are buried while casting the writer as, perhaps not a "victim," exactly, but as a sort of noble spirit who's goal was to make quality movies, putting him or her at odds with the corrupt forces of Hollywood for whom "quality" is the least concern (a prime example of this type of book is the notorious You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again). Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade starts out as though it's going to be that kind of book as writer William Goldman relates the anecdote which gives the book its title. However, though it features some of those behind the scenes, gossipy tidbits, for the most part Goldman seems to view his book as a potential teaching tool about the art of screenwriting and offers up in depth analysis of what does and what does not work when it comes to writing a screenplay, a fact which helps Which Lie Did I Tell? to stand out from the crowd of "inside Hollywood" books.