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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Jonah Hex (2010)

Director: Jimmy Hayward
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich
Domestic Gross: $10,547,117

If there's any one thing that I've learned since I began purposely seeking out the box office bombs of summers past, it's that more often than not those failed movies deserved to fail and that audiences' instincts to stay away were sounds. While there have been some hidden gems in this series, including last week's Down With Love, they represent the minority; most of these films are not merely box office failures, but in some fundamental way cinematic failures as well. Jonah Hex is most certainly a failure, a film that audiences rightly steered clear of in the summer of 2010, that failed to attract ticket buyers even with its comic book association, even with its relatively (compared to the bloated running times of most films these days) attractive short running time, and even as counter-programming to Toy Story 3, released on the same day, it couldn't manage to open to more than $5 million and change. If Jonah Hex has now been completely forgotten, it would only be fitting. The only interesting thing about it is that it features a still on-the-cusp Michael Fassbender in a supporting role.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: Young & Beautiful (2013)

* * *

Director: Francois Ozon
Starring: Marine Vacth

Writer/director Francois Ozon has made plenty of movies about women - very good movies about women - but watching Young & Beautiful, I couldn't help but wonder whether he actually understands women, as parts of it play thoroughly like male fantasy. For the most part, however, Young & Beautiful is an interesting, if opaque, coming of age story about a teenage girl discovering, and then trying to gain control of, her sexuality and sexual power. While far from the auteur's best film - I'd have to give that honor to either the hypnotic, Hitchcockian Swimming Pool or the purely entertaining, packed with French star power, 8 Women - it's still far better from many films of its type.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Netflix Recommends... This Is 40 (2012)

* *

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

Netflix has recommended This Is 40 to me on numerous occasions lately, but I've always taken a pass because I've found Judd Apatow's work as a writer/director to have sharply diminished in quality with each effort (my opinion of that might change with his upcoming film Trainwreck, but he's also only the director on that one). I think he's made one great movie (The 40 Year Old Virgin), one funny but deeply problematic movie (Knocked Up), and one bloated work of self-indulgence (Funny People). Now that I've bitten the bullet and seen This Is 40, I can say that the number of bloated, self-indulgent films has risen to two. When you give a movie a title like This Is 40, which suggests that it's trying to tell a universal-ish story about the experience and condition of a generation at this point in time, and then give it a running time of almost two and a half hours, you better actually have something to say. All this movie has to say is that Apatow has become too out of touch to represent the lives of anyone but a very specific minority, and that even then he doesn't have much to say for them.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Patch Town (2015)

* *

Director: Craig Goodwill
Starring: Rob Ramsay, Zoie Palmer, Julian Richings

Patch Town is a movie for anyone who, as a child, imagined that their toys had a consciousness of their own and feelings that would be hurt if another toy was chosen to be played with instead. Or, perhaps, Patch Town is exactly the kind of movie that sort of person shouldn't watch, because it can only tap into latent feelings of guilt. A fantasy in which the toys of yesterday are revealed to be the slave laborers of today, abandoned by those who supposedly loved them and sucked into a system of tyranny, Patch Town is a mix of dark comedy and light suspense, with a dash of music tossed in. It isn't always successful as a film (particularly as a musical, as the incorporation of songs seems to be something of an afterthought), but it's always interesting and parts of it are rather delightful.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Series Review: Jurassic Park

From the vantage point of 2015, Jurassic Park seems like a film that could never have been anything but an enduring hit. It has all the elements, after all: an intriguing premise that seems tailor made for a perfect popcorn movie that would appeal to both older and younger viewers, a director at the top of his game and with a solid track record for major hits, and awe-inspiring special effects. Yet, while the film certainly was a hit (and one which has remained beloved by many viewers), the way the series has played out certainly makes it seem like those in charge weren't expecting it to be as big as it was, insofar as the sequels were slower in coming than they tend to be for most movie series, with Steven Spielberg not even approaching writer Michael Critchton about a possible follow-up until after the first film's release, and then a 14 year lapse between the third entry and the most recent one. Granted, the middle two films aren't very good, but they did make money, and just think of how much more roaring dinosaur fun we could have been having over the last 22 years if the series were a little quicker to release its segments.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Chappie (2015)

* *

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

Neill Blomkamp is a great filmmaker in terms of creating on screen worlds that look lived-in and complete (even if they do all tend to follow the same basic pattern of a society divided into two factions, one of which is in a state of advanced infrastructural decay). This bodes well for his upcoming take on the Alien franchise. What doesn't bode well is the difficulty that Blomkamp seems to have in filling those worlds with coherent and well-thought out ideas. This isn't to say that Blomkamp doesn't have plenty of ideas that he tries to cram into his movies; just that the ideas don't always work and even when they do they can sometimes be problematic (see District 9). In the end, though, the ideas won't matter any way because the third act will push them all aside in its rush to devote all its energy to brainless, cookie cutter action. As the glow fades from Blomkamp's breakthrough film, the weaknesses in his style begin to become clearer, and have never been more so than in the confused muddle that is Chappie.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Down with Love (2003)

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor
Domestic Gross: $20,305,251

The Hollywood movie machine is often (and not unfairly) criticized for its lack of originality, but the failure of films like Down with Love is the reason why the decision makers never want to try anything new or different. A romantic comedy that eschews contemporary romantic comedy conventions in order to lovingly send up the conventions of an earlier era, Down with Love was (and remains) an outlier in the genre output over the last decade and change, and when it hit theaters it was hit with stony silence. It's a shame since the film is one of uncommon delight and a liveliness that is missing from so many modern romantic comedies. Maybe if it had been released a few years later, after TV audiences fell for Mad Men, a film set in the 1960s, and adopting the style of a certain type of '60s film, would have been an easier sell; but sadly for Down with Love it was a movie out of time in more ways than one - and sadly for audiences relatively few have gotten to experience this wonderful movie.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Certified Copy (2011)

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: Abbass Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimmel
Country: France/Iran

What does it mean for something to be authentic and to be of value? If a reproduction is as beautiful as the original, does the fact that it is a copy diminish its value, or is the value determined by what it inspires in the observer? If the observer never has a clue that what they’re looking at is a copy, but think that it’s beautiful, have they somehow been deceived? And just what makes something “real” in the first place? Abbass Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a film that plays with, and inspires, a lot of questions both textually through its dialogue and subtextually through its elusive construction and sly comedy. A film of the “two people talking” variety, Certified Copy is a slippery piece of work that is continually deconstructing its premise and then reconstructing it in a slightly different form, demonstrating Kiarostami’s commanding skill as a storyteller as he changes course midstream without in any way disrupting the flow of the film or making it incomprehensible. Certified Copy is a masterwork that few filmmakers could have successfully pulled off.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Animated Films of the 1990s

#5: The Iron Giant (1999)

Well before he gave a voice performance that provided a sentient tree with personality (while repeating the same three words over and over, no less), Vin Diesel had proved himself through his voice performance in The Iron Giant, a delightful and wonderful movie that stands out for its excellence even among other films from 1999, an all around amazing year for movies. Brad Bird's feature directorial debut didn't exactly burn up the box office, but it has definitely found a second (and much deserved) life since.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: Men, Women & Children (2014)


Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever

Put on your pearls and get ready to clutch them, because apparently there's this new thing called the internet and it is going to destroy the very fabric of society. I am genuinely perplexed as to how a filmmaker as young as Jason Reitman can make a film as wildly out of touch as Men, Women & Children, a bizarre piece of moral panic propaganda that I have a hard time believing could actually speak to anyone, it's so shrill and hysterical. Despite making the wrong choice at basically every turn, Reitman's film actually does manage to eke out a moment or two of genuine emotion, but it can hardly register when it's surrounded by so much absurdity.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Director: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Domestic Gross: $13,757,804

My feelings about the first Sin City were pretty much entirely negative, so there was basically a zero percent chance that I would respond favorably to Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, but, I'm also not the audience for this film, as I'm in the minority with respect to Frank Miller's slavering ode to hyper-masculinity. Given how passionate Sin City's fanbase remains, and in light of the fact that the original made $74 million at the domestic box office, one would think that even a nine years after the fact sequel would be greeted with more than the yawn that met Sin City 2, and which makes my negative reaction seem almost favorable in comparison, as long as you consider dislike a step up from indifference. So where does Sin City 2 go so wrong in terms of appeal? Oddly, it achieves it by giving both more and less than the original.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Great Gatsby (2013)

* * *

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

I had some trepidations about pressing "play" on Baz Lurhmann's 2013 version of The Great Gatsby, not just because of my less than stellar history with Netflix's recommendations, but also because "The Great Gatsby" is one of my favorite books so I'm wary of watching any adaptation of it. Much to my surprise, because of that and because I'm not a huge Lurhmann fan in general, I actually didn't dislike his telling of Gatsby. It has some weaknesses, to be sure, and I certainly didn't love it, but generally speaking I did like it even if it plays like the story as viewed through a funhouse mirror, and even though I found its conception of one of its major characters all wrong.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Red Army (2014)

* * * 1/2

Between 1954 and 1991, the Soviet Union medalled at every IIHF World Championship and Olympic hockey tournament, winning 7 Olympic Gold medals and 19 World Championship Gold medals. To put that properly in perspective, during this same period Canada, hockey nation itself, won 4 World Championship Golds, no Olympic Golds, and missed the podium entirely on 4 occasions at the Olympics and 8 at the Worlds. The United States' may have claim to the Miracle on Ice, but the Soviets owned the game for a period of nearly 40 years. In Red Army, director Gabe Polsky examines roughly 14 of those years, plus a few beyond, largely through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, a former Soviet team Captain, and uses his long and fraught road to the NHL to chart the decline of the Soviet Union itself. As told by Polsky and Fetisov, Red Army's story makes for an often fascinating film about sports, politics, and personal character, that is never less than wholly entertaining.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Ten Years Later... Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie

The movie that launched a thousand tabloid covers, and somehow manages to continue fueling tabloid stories even ten years after the fact. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton created a real-life spectacle with more drama than Cleopatra have two people inspired so many gossip mongers' pens. In those circumstances, you would think that the actual film they made together would have long since gotten lost in the shuffle, a footnote in the annals of gossip. But that isn't the fate that Mr. & Mrs. Smith has met, as it has proved to be a weirdly enduring film, one which is still being referenced and parodied, turning what should have been just another summer popcorn flick into an unexpectedly seminal piece of work. You might chalk that up to the enduring narrative of "Brangelina" (or "Team Angelina" vs. "Team Jennifer"), but I would suggest revisiting the film first before dismissing it that easily, because truth be told it's so purely entertaining and, as silly as it ultimately is, has held up so well that it's little wonder it's become a minor touchstone.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Spy (2015)

* * *

Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Jude Law

As much as I loved Bridesmaids and enjoyed Melissa McCarthy in it, if you had told me in 2011 that she would become one of my favorite things about the summer movie season, I don't think I would have believed you. But 2013 brought The Heat, and McCarthy in all her foul-mouthed glory, and 2014 brought Tammy, which has some deep flaws but which I enjoyed nevertheless, and now comes Spy, a film which combines her ability to tap into the vulnerable humanity of a character and her facility with outsize moments of almost cartoonishly comic crassness to great effect. In that respect, Spy is second only to Bridesmaids, only this time McCarthy is the star and has her own scene-stealing supporting player in Miranda Hart to make the film ever so robust with laughs.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: After Earth (2013)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
Domestic Gross: $60,522,097

Will Smith is not a movie star particularly familiar with box office failure. Even the notorious Wild Wild West cracked $100 million at the domestic box office. But for all Wild Wild West may have done wrong, it did something right that After Earth does not: it features Smith in the fullness of his lively, charismatic, one-in-a-million movie star persona. After Earth, on the other hand, presents a muted, repressed Smith who has traded in his charm for dourness equal in measure. Not that it's necessarily a disaster for an actor to play against type, but Smith's performance here is so airless that were he the actual star of the film, it would sink it. Instead the film is carried by the younger Smith, Jaden, who has neither the skill nor the confidence to carry the weight of a film on his shoulders, especially one as ill-conceived as this one.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

* *

Director: Andy & Lana Wachowski
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum

There are many accusations you might level at the Wachowskis as filmmakers, but you can't ever accuse them of not being ambitious. Even their worst movie (*cough*Speed Racer*cough*) at least gives the sense that it's trying to do something, that it wants to break new ground and open up new vistas. But while their best films (The Matrix, Bound, and, at least in my opinion, Cloud Atlas) manage to accomplish their goals in a way that feels, if not necessarily effortless, then in such a way that the mechanics of putting the production together can't be heard groaning beneath every scene, their worst films are ones in which the story gets lost amid their attempts to create complex mythology and their focus on the look and effects of the project. Jupiter Ascending is a film with a lot of ideas - some of them good! - but it rarely manages to fold those ideas into the story in a way that makes them seem flush with each other. Instead the film is a work that starts and stops and starts and stops as it drags the weight of its leaden exposition, which takes up so much of the film's dialogue.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Far From Heaven (2002)

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: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid
Country: USA

Lots of films are set in the past, but few films are able to shed that feeling of telling a story about the past from the perspective of the present. To be able to evoke not only the look and feel of another era, but to also capture the sensibility of the style of filmmaking contemporaneous to that time, is a rare gift that not all filmmakers can manage. With Far From Heaven Todd Haynes proves himself more than capable of such a task, modeling his film after the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s and doing it so successfully that it feels less like a throwback and more like a lost classic from Douglas Sirk.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movies About Hollywood

#5: The Player

Director Robert Altman wasn't exactly a "Hollywood" guy, having been a maverick filmmaker almost from the start, and he especially wasn't a Hollywood guy at the time he made The Player, his Hollywood-skewering return to critical acclaim after a decade spent making films that received little love. Yet The Player is a great Hollywood movie, one which remains as sharp as it is dark.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Evolution (2001)

Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Sean William Scott
Domestic Gross: $38,345,494

I've seen my share of bad movies over the years, but I'm not sure that any actually inspired me to say aloud afterwards, "What a terrible fucking movie," until I saw Evolution. For the life of me, I cannot imagine what attracted any of the people involved to this particular project, even Sean William Scott as Evolution makes Dude, Where's My Car? look like a sophisticated Preston Sturges picture. I can't pinpoint where, exactly, things went off the rails here but I imagine that it happened somewhere during the transition from the original script, which apparently saw the story as a serious science-fiction piece, into a comedy script. Turns out the "funny" element of comedy got forgotten and, with all else failing, director Ivan Reitman periodically attempted to evoke Ghostbusters in the vain hope that residual goodwill for that classic might have a chance of making this particular dreck go down easier. Allow me to assure you, it does not.