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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ten Years Later... Superman Returns (2006)

Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth

What a difference a decade can make. Since shortly after its release in 2006, Superman Returns has seemed like a strange hybrid of success and failure. Overall, it was critically well-received with a 72 Metacritic score that puts it well ahead of Man of Steel's 52 score and Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice's 44, and it managed to take in $200 million at the domestic box office (albeit on a production budget of $270 million). Yet it is less than fondly remembered, having left little to no cultural mark, and plans for a sequel petered out fairly quickly, with Warner Bros. deciding in 2008 to simply reboot the character rather than try to carry on the series that had started in 1978, with the late Christopher Reeve in the title role. It's interesting to think how this film, which does the exact opposite of so many of the things that the DC comic book movies have been criticized for doing in the past few years, might have been received were it released in 2016 instead of 2006. Its an effort that would still pale in comparison to the complex work that the Marvel films have been consistently doing, but I wonder if the gap between Marvel and DC would seem less pronounced if this had been the film to set the shared universe's tone, rather than Man of Steel. Superman Returns is merely an okay movie, but it's a fascinating "what if?"

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Aloha (2015)

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams
Domestic Box Office: $21,067,116

No matter what happens, Cameron Crowe will always be the person who gave the world Almost Famous. No matter how many Vanilla Skies, Elizabethtowns, We Bought a Zoos, and Alohas he tosses out, he'll always be the man behind Almost Famous and he'll always be the man behind Say Anything..., and he'll always be the writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nothing can take that away from him, not even a movie as pointless, plotless, culturally insensitive, and generally misguided as Aloha. Rarely has such a talented cast of actors been so wildly misused, and yet, had Aloha been released even just a year or two earlier, it probably could have amassed a decent box office take on the strength of its cast alone (with a budget of only $37 million, it wouldn't have had to make that much to be considered a modest success, which makes its $21 million take an all the more egregious failure). Alas, it instead came out at a point in time when the social pendulum had finally swung far enough to make Aloha, and movies like it, a flashpoint for Hollywood's diversity problem, sinking it so deep in controversy that whatever virtues it may possess (and I found basically none) became obscured, while it's many other flaws became only more prominent.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: Mississippi Grind (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds

One turns everything he touches to gold and couldn't seem to care less, the other just can't stop losing. Even when he's winning, he can't help but start losing, pushing and pushing his luck until he's lost it all over again. Together, they're a pretty bad combination, but left to their own devices they aren't exactly doing great, either. Helmed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as the mismatched pair, Mississippi Grind is part buddy movie, part road movie, and part addiction drama, and though it relies on some of the well-worn tropes of each, it's well-realized and compelling enough to transcend cliches.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: Now You See Me 2 (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan

The world probably didn't need a sequel to the 2013 heist by way of magic film Now You See Me, but it made $117 million at the domestic box office so we get one anyway. Never mind that part of the reason the original made as much as it did was surely that it was something new and different, which could go a ways to explaining why the follow-up is finding considerably less success, dismissed by audiences as just another drop in this summer's ocean of sequels. Whether the sequel is actually more worthy of success than the original is difficult for me to say, because as I was watching this one, which continues the story set up by the first and is always referring back to it, I became increasingly aware of how little I remembered the first one. To me, this movie might as well have been called Now You See Me: Or Do You?, as I suspect that it will have more or less the same lasting impact on me that the first one did.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: King Arthur (2004)

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
Domestic Box Office: $51,882,244

It probably says it all that I remember having seen King Arthur when it was in theaters, but virtually nothing about it stuck with me. All I remembered about it is that it presented itself as a "historically accurate" version of the King Arthur story, that it featured a battle scene on ice, and that at one point Keira Knightley is made up with warpaint and what looks like fetish gear. Rewatching the film in 2016, everything else struck me as completely new, with no sense of deja vu at all. So what we have here is a completely forgettable take on one of the most widely known legends ever passed down from generation to generation, a tale that brims with magic and has a stature that's larger than life reduced here to something unremarkable and not particularly distinguishable from any other historical epic. Sounds like $120 million well spent.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: Jane Got a Gun (2016)

* *

Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor

Gene Siskel had a pretty simple test for determining the relative value of a film: is the end product more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch? A film with a production history as famously fraught as Jane Got a Gun can simply never pass that test. I bet a documentary about the goings on behind the scenes of this film would be fascinating. It was developed and originally set to be directed by Lynne Ramsay, but she walked off the project before shooting could begin on the first day, resulting in both a lawsuit and Ramsay being replaced by Gavin O'Connor. The role of the main character's ex-lover was originally set to be played by Michael Fassbender, with the villain to be played by Joel Edgerton. However, when Fassbender dropped out, Edgerton was recast into his role and Jude Law was brought on board to play the villain. Then, when Ramsay walked, Law went with her, as did original cinematographer Darius Khondji. Bradley Cooper was then brought in to replace Law, Mandy Walker stepped in as cinematographer, and Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis were hired to rewrite the script that had been prepared by Brian Duffield. Finally, Cooper withdrew and Ewan McGregor came aboard to take his place. All that fuss and the result is really nothing to write home about, with Jane Got a Gun ending up being, at best, an okay B-western, and, at worst, a messy mix of the original vision plus all the subsequent visions of the story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Polytechnique (2009)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Karine Vanasse
Country: Canada

In 1989 the massacre at École Polytechnique de Montreal was shocking because it was so unusual. In 2016, such events are shocking because they seem so common. There were school shootings before Polytechnique, of course, but aside from Charles Whitman’s rampage from the observation deck of the University of Texas in 1966, the number of fatalities as a result of any given attack were commonly 1 or 2, sometimes 0. In 1989, we were still 10 years away from Columbine, 18 years from Virginia Tech, 23 years from Sandy Hook. That any one person (or two, in the case of Columbine) could be responsible for taking the lives of so many at once still seemed extraordinary, unthinkable even. Excluding war-related incidents, Polytechnique remains one of the worst massacres in Canadian history and the anniversary of the event is now the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. To successfully make a film about Polytechnique, to capture its senselessness without rendering its victims meaningless, to address its political overtones without reducing its victims to symbols, requires a deft hand and a great deal of sensitivity. With Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve demonstrates both.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: The Lobster (2016)

* * * *

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz

Having seen Yorgos Lanthimos' Oscar nominated 2009 film Dogtooth, and having a general idea of what this film is about, I was prepared for The Lobster to be weird. I don't think anything could really have prepared me for how sublimely bonkers it actually is. I'm not sure anything I could say about it could properly express just how bizarre and funny it is. Allow me to say this: the premise, in which the characters live in a world that demands that all adults be romantically paired and where anyone who finds themselves single must find a new partner within 45 days or be surgically transformed into an animal, turns out to be the most normal thing about it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

* * *

Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

Good news and bad news. The good news is that Hail, Caesar!, which finds the Coen brothers in a loosey goosey kind of mood, is a treat for movie nerds, it's such an affectionately crafted paean to 1950s Hollywood and the moment when the old Hollywood started to fall away and make room for the new. The bad news is that, once you see it, you'll find yourself longing for full length versions of the Coen brothers' take on the Esther Williams swim and song movie, the singing cowboy B-movie, the swords and sandals biblical epic, and the Gene Kelly song and dance movie. Hail, Caesar is more a series of fun vignettes than anything, but when it's this entertaining it hardly matters that the plot is all dangling threads held together by the vague notion that the protagonist is experiencing a dark night of the soul.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Blended (2014)

Director: Frank Coraci
Starring: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
Domestic Box Office: $46,294,610

How do you properly criticize a movie that, by its own star's admission, exists as a result of him reverse engineering himself a paid vacation? When so little effort has been made to actually create something, when the movie itself is merely something that's been slapped together to justify the expense of its own production, then what is there to honestly criticize? In those circumstances, it's almost like the movie doesn't even actually exist and to criticize it would be like criticizing the home movie someone made during their vacation, except that the home movie would have lower production values but be much more watchable. Blended is an extremely lazy movie, even by the standard of Adam Sandler movies. It's a film without purpose, without charm, and infused by the sort of passive racism that isn't unusual when "Africa" is viewed through the lens of white people's eyes (for the record, the actual country they go to is South Africa and the actual place is Sun City, though you'd be excused for not knowing that since, save for one occasion, the film prefers to generically refer to it as simply "Africa"). By, hey, at least Adam Sandler got to see a giraffe.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Netflix Recommends... Sleeping with Other People (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Leslye Headland
Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie

For years people have been writing that the romantic comedy is dead - financially by no longer making money (though, given the scarcity of studio attempts in the last decade and given that simply declaring that anything geared towards women fails to turn a profit is generally preferred to actually testing the assumption, I think you have to take that notion with a grain of salt), and creatively by being stymied by how entrenched the storytelling is in tropes. Every once in a while, there's also an announcement that the genre is showing signs of life courtesy of a new movie that gets enthusiastic champions in some critics. You treat these announcements with caution and, if you see the movie in question, you may be pleasantly surprised or you may wonder what the fuss was about. With Sleeping with Other People, my reaction fell somewhere in between. Some of it is good, some of it is marked by the same vaguely sexist notions that pervade the genre, nothing about it is transcendent, and per usual the supporting players are more interesting than the leads. But compared to some of the other movies Netflix has recommended to me (*cough*The Canyons*cough), this is a masterpiece.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson

"You can't or you won't?" The main character in A Bigger Splash can't speak; she's on doctor's orders to rest her vocal chords lest she destroy her voice and her career as a rock star. That question, when put to her, at first seems merely cheeky, an attempt by the youngest member of the group that surrounds her to be provocative, a superficial feint at insight. Once the film reaches its conclusion, you realize in hindsight that that line actually said it all. What is the root of the tensions between the four principal characters if not the struggle between "can't" and "won't"? These are people accustomed to getting everything they want, so it must come as a shock to the system to have to choose between things they want, to say "no" even though they might want to say "yes," and to realize that how much power is contained in that denial. From the director of the great I Am Love, and based loosely on Jacques Deray's La Piscine, A Bigger Splash is a sumptuous, sordid psychological drama about four people exiled together in paradise and all the things they can't (or won't) do.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke
Domestic Box Office: $89,760,956

You know, I almost get the thought process behind this one. Before Terminator: Genisys, we lived in a world where there were two good Terminator movies and two bad Terminator movies. While the bad ones are bad all on their own, they also seem ever so slightly worse than they are when inevitably compared to the good ones. So what Genisys does is it borrows some elements from the first two, shits all over them, adds in some nonsense, and then calls it a movie. As a strategy for launching a rebooted trilogy, it's so crazy it's almost brilliant, because it erases those first two movies (within the "universe" of the series, I mean, as obviously the first two Terminators continue to exist in the real world), burning the series down in order to start over from scratch - and with a significantly lowered bar in terms of expectations. If a follow up film is made despite the angry yawn that met the release of Genisys, the bar is now so low that it would have to actively try to be the worst Terminator in order to actually achieve that distinction.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Amour (2012)

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Country: France/Germany/Austria

Michael Haneke is known for a lot of things as a filmmaker and one of them is certainly the sinister tinge that his films always have to them. Even Amour, which is ostensibly a simple and straightforward film about an elderly couple struggling through the onset of illness, has that dark undercurrent lurking beneath it and, if anything, the culprit here is even more terrifying than in Haneke’s other films. In other films, the root is a person, which means that there’s a possibility that the fear can be abetted through reason or sympathy (not that that ever actually happens in Haneke’s films, but it could); what makes the sinister element of Amour so effective is that it’s something entirely inescapable: the natural effects of growing old. Told with stark simplicity, aided by fearless and deeply-felt performances, and held together by that brutal truth that time will eventually come for everyone, Amour is a rich and completely compelling film.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Musical Mockumentaries

#5: It's All Gone Pete Tong

The sharpness of this film about a DJ who goes deaf and tries to continue his career can be summed up in one line: "Generally the field of music, other than the obvious example, has been dominated by people who can hear."