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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

* *

Director: Mandie Fletcher
Starring: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley

It's been a little over 20 years since Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone first sweetie, darling-ed their way into hearts and pop culture in Absolutely Fabulous and, if anything, they are only more suited to the world today than they were to the world in 1992. With the rise of the internet and social media, culture has only grown more shallow, more celebrity-obsessed, and more youth-obsessed than it was 20 years ago, making it the ideal place for Eddie and Patsy. But Absolutely Fabulous the TV series was a half-hour affair that ran for 39 episodes off and on from 1992 to 2012. The stakes were never high and the ambition level was low. That was fine for a half-hour comedy, but it's pretty thin stuff for a feature length movie. Don't get me wrong: individual bits and pieces of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie are great, but the premise of the series really can't sustain 91 minutes.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Lady Vengeance (2005)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Lee Young-ae
Country: South Korea

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but what are the consequences of taking that revenge and who has the right to do it? On the surface, Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance - the final chapter in his revenge trilogy, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy - is a pretty simple thriller. An artful one, to be certain, but one that doesn't quite reach the highs of Park's masterful Old Boy. It's on reflection, in the wake of the tenacious hold that the film maintains on you, that its power really begins to reveal itself. Lady Vengeance is a thriller - a bloody, sometimes horrific one - but it's one that contains at its core a complex meditation on the nature of revenge, guilt, grief, and redemption, as well as a fascinating central character. The style may be the first thing that strikes you, but it's the story and the character that will resonate.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ten Years Later... Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin

Ten years ago today, the world began to fall in love with an independent comedy about a little girl obsessed with beauty pageants and the family around her. And when I say "in love," I really mean that. The film has a 91% Tomato rating and a Metascore of 80, which made it particularly difficult to find an example of a negative review to go along with an example of a positive review. At the time of its release, Little Miss Sunshine was the very definition of "beloved." I can't really remember how I felt about it back in 2006 - though it can't have had too much of an impact on me since I've now only seen it a grand total of twice - but seeing it in 2016 confirmed something that I've long suspected: it's one of those flashy, fleeting films that starts to seem more and more out of place in a Best Picture lineup the further away from its nomination you get. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a great movie, either, and ten years removed from the hype have only served to expose its flaws.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Jersey Boys (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda
Domestic Box Office: $47,047,013

If Hollywood can be said to have any one motto, it's got to be "If it worked once, it will work again." That's why we're awash in sequels and reboots and remakes and copycats, the thinking being that there's safety in the familiar, whereas putting out something totally new means entering uncharted territory and taking a risk. Never mind that audiences often reject those more-of-the-same things, the idea that lightning can strike twice is enough to get studios to put millions of dollars into a project before stopping to consider if the audience is going to be big enough to justify it. The "jukebox musical" subgenre should be more popular than it's proven to be, given that the songs are already popular and given that some of the most prominent recent examples are based on celebrated stage plays. Yet, the last really successful one was Mamma Mia!, while films like Rock of Ages, Across the Universe, and Moulin Rouge!, despite being built around popular songs, failed to have an impact at the box office. Add to that list Jersey Boys, the 2014 adaptation of the stage musical that came and went so fast, and made so little, that you'd be forgiven for having no idea that it existed in the first place.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Womb (2012)

* *

Director: Benedek Fliegauf
Starring: Eva Green, Matt Smith

Girl meets Boy. Girl and Boy become inseparable. Girl's family moves away. Girl returns many years later and reunites with Boy. Boy dies in tragic accident. Girl convinces Boy's parents to give her permission to use his remains to have him cloned. Girl carries the cloned fetus, gives birth to cloned Boy, raises cloned Boy as her son. Classic story. Does it get weird? I mean, it pretty much starts weird, but does it get weirder still? Oh, yes, it certainly does, and in ways other than the obvious one. Does that make it interesting? Well... Womb is sometimes intriguing and raises some complex and interesting questions, but on the whole the film is far too listless for such a peculiar premise.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

* * *

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Tyler Hoechlin

Late in Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!!, the hero worries (as much as anyone in a film this laid back can be said to "worry") that he and his teammates might look like poseurs, having spent the weekend drifting in and out of various scenes around their college campus, going to a disco one night, a country and western bar the next, a punk show, and an interactive performance party put on by art students. His companion can only shrug. Isn't that what they're at college for? To try out different hats, free from the confines of their parents' homes and their adolescent identities and without being loaded down with all the responsibilities of adulthood, and see what fits. Though never as deep or poignant as Linklater's Boyhood or Before Midnight, nor quite as much fun as Dazed and Confused, to which this film acts as a spiritual sequel, Everybody Wants Some!! makes for a nice, gentle diversion, a film that is well-equipped to entertain even if it's not all that memorable.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

* * *

Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon

So here we are, finally. After over a year of internet-destroying discussion, the most controversial movie of 2016 (at least until The Birth of a Nation comes out in October, I presume) is here. I'll skip any kind of commentary on the war of words between those who believe that the original Ghostbusters is sacrosanct and those who think that the extreme reaction to the idea of a reboot and subsequent campaign against the finished film is fueled by the most impotent kind of misogyny. It's not that I take no position on the subject; it's just that I'm so bored with it at this point that I'd rather leave this particular hill to those who have decided they're willing to die on it. So, to the point: I liked it! I thought it was really funny and Kate McKinnon is an absolute treasure. It's not a masterpiece, but it's good summer fun.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Hercules (2014)

Director: Brett Ratner
Starring: Dwayne Johnson
Domestic Box Office: $72,688,614

Dwayne Johnson has joked that he's "franchise viagra" for his ability to join established movie franchises and rejuvenate their box office draw. It's a joke based in truth, as he's joined franchises like G.I. Joe, Journey..., and most famously The Fast and the Furious to great success, but it's a somewhat curious one since until last year's San Andreas, he hasn't had much luck headlining his own movies. He's tried his hand at action and comedy (sometimes combining them) in such movies as The Rundown, Walking Tall, The Tooth Fairy, Faster, and Snitch without ever lighting the box office on fire. It's crazy because Johnson is one of the most charismatic and charming actors around, an actor with the physical presence to sell action, and the comic timing to sell lighter fare, both of which are on display in Hercules, a film which might be considered a modest success, but couldn't quite get to the next level to become a blockbuster. With a $72 million domestic take, it became the 48th highest grossing film for the year 2014 and the 17th highest grossing film of that summer, nestled between Let's Be Cops and The Purge: Anarchy. Not bad, but for a movie that cost $100 million to make, it wasn't exactly great either - and a movie this fun should have been a much bigger hit.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: High Fidelity (2000)

* * * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: John Cusack

The saying goes that misery loves company, but that seems self-defeating. Misery loves solitude, loves the thought that the anguish one is experiencing is somehow unique, something no one else can possibly understand. Misery craves isolation, not companionship, because companionship might break the spell. High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby, is about a man who is miserable, who is so entrenched in the notion that he's the sad sack who's always being rejected that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Sharp, funny, and incisive, High Fidelity is one of the rare films that manages to clearly express its protagonist's point of view without adopting it for itself. High Fidelity isn't often spoken of as one of the best films of the 2000's (perhaps because, in certain respects, it is very much a product of the 1990's), but it absolutely is one of the decade's best films.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Departed (2006)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Country: USA

There's a school of thought that Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Oscar win for Best Director for The Departed was somehow a "make up" Oscar, that after decades spent giving other directors the big prize, the Academy finally gave in and threw Scorsese a bone for a genre piece that, in a more competitive year, might not have even gotten a nomination. To me, that notion is ludicrous on multiple levels. While it's certainly true that Scorsese should have had a Best Director Oscar before 2006, he should have Oscars for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas in addition to one for The Departed, not instead of one for The Departed. And thinking of The Departed as "just" a genre piece is pretty reductive. It might not wear its artistic ambitions like a sash, the way that seemingly more awards friendly films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator do, but The Departed is a masterpiece, a film of clockwork plotting, crackling tension, and grand vision that sees the characters as both individuals and as pieces of something much bigger, a collective. The Departed is one of Scorsese's many great triumphs.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Sex Tape (2014)

Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel
Domestic Box Office: $38,543,473

The couple at the center of Sex Tape are bored and they're tired. That's only appropriate since everyone involved in the making of Sex Tapes was apparently bored and tired, too. Despite the title which, even if the film didn't reunite the stars and director of the anything goes Bad Teacher, suggests a raunchy R-rated comedy, Sex Tape is a joyless movie that lacks in either laughs or titillation and is second only to 1995's The Net for misunderstanding the very technology that gives the story it's premise. Lots of summer movies are a bit lazy, designed to claim the quickest buck before the next big thing is released a week later, but Sex Tape sets a new bar for laziness. The only thing it really puts any effort into whatsoever is the product placement. So, if you want to hear all about the great features of the iPad, including its incredible picture quality (a fact stated multiple times in the film), then Sex Tape is the movie for you.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: Midnight Special (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver

In just a decade and a handful of movies, writer/director Jeff Nichols has become one of the most consistently interesting and consistently good American filmmakers working today. His debut, Shotgun Stories, is an underseen but critically beloved movie about the feud that arises between two sets of half-brothers after their father dies, which he has followed up with the intense apocalyptic drama Take Shelter, and Mud, a drama about a teenage boy having his romantic illusions about what it means to be a man shattered. Now comes the supernatural thriller Midnight Special and, later this year, Loving, a drama about the landmark US Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. If Loving is even half as good as Midnight Special, then 2016 will be an extremely good year for Nichols, indeed.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Netflix Recommends... That Awkward Moment (2014)


Director: Tom Gormican
Starring: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan

Lesson one: Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, fine actors who have separately made fine films, should not make movies together. Lesson two (which I learn over and over again): Netflix is wrong more often than it is right. In the time that I've been keeping track of the movies that I've watched based on Netflix's recommendation, always choosing something I've never seen (which, in Netflix's defense, immediately eliminates at least a quarter of the titles in the Top Picks list, with another quarter being irrelevant because they're TV series), I've seen a lot of bad movies. Every once in a while I'll end up with a good movie, one that I either wouldn't have seen otherwise (Warrior, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or that I had always intended to see but had never gotten around to previously (Miller's Crossing, Please Give), and sometimes I'll see a movie that's objectively bad but still reasonably entertaining (300: Rise of an Empire, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), and in at least one case a bad movie that isn't entertaining in and of itself, but which can be made entertaining by tracking the subtext (This Means War). Mostly, though, I've seen terrible movies. Rendition. Runner Runner. Let's Be Cops. The Other Woman. A Good Day to Die Hard. And now, That Awkward Moment, a movie in which Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan appear shirtless often enough to suggest that women are the target audience (Efron even won an MTV Movie Award for "Best Shirtless Performance" - what a world we live in), yet is so aggressively bro-ish that every other scene might as well start with a title card reading "No Girls Allowed."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Wedding Movies

#5: Rachel Getting Married

Coming up on eight years later, I remain baffled that Rosemarie DeWitt didn't get an Oscar nomination for her performance as the eponymous Rachel, though at least co-star Anne Hathaway got a nod as Rachel's sister, the fresh-out-of-rehab powder keg Kym. Rachel Getting Married is easily the darkest movie in this list, but its intimate examination of the shifting dynamics of a broken family make it worth a watch.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: American Ultra (2015)

Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
Domestic Box Office: $14,440,985

August is a strange month in the movie calendar. It's still technically part of the summer release schedule, but it behaves like the crash following the sugar rush of May, June, and July (and, increasingly, April). Like January and February, two months which traditionally act as the dumping ground following the prestige months leading into awards season, August is a month for misfits. This is not to say that hits don't happen in August, but that because studios tend to use the month to schedule quirky comedies and reboots and action movies that they don't have enough confidence in to put up against the huge tentpole movies that will unfold over the preceding three months, that the hits of August tend to be fewer and smaller in size. August will see one, maybe two, $100 million plus films (you have to go all the way back to 2009 to find an August where there were more than two films that earned more than $100 million), and unlike May, June, and July, where the biggest hit of the month in any given year will end up with somewhere between $200 million and $600 million, it's rare for an August release to crack $200 million. Every once in a while there'll be a release like Guardians of the Galaxy, which will become one of the biggest money makers of the year, but generally August is a month for modest hits. This is a long way of saying that I get why Lionsgate would take a chance on American Ultra, a movie which only cost $28 million to make and so wouldn't have had to bring in all that much to make a profit, and which could have become one of those weird, only-in-August-type hits. But, while the abysmal Let's Be Cops managed to attain that status in 2014, it was not to be for American Ultra, even though it would have been much more deserving.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review: Zootopia (2016)

* * *

Director: Byron Howard & Rich Moore

Zootopia won me over easily and early. What can I say? Nothing beats baby animals, even animated ones. It's too adorable to resist, which is why all of the inevitable sequels to this film will also be successful. Of course, it helps that the film has a premise that would lend itself to multiple stories as, even once the mismatched partners narrative that drives this one runs its course, there's still a whole world left to explore. If the sequels can manage to be as charming and clever as this one (and, perhaps, be slightly less confused in its political allegory than this one, which has its cake at the beginning and then eats it, too, by the end), I'm sure they would be critically, as well as commercially, successful. Like the best animated films from the past several years, it's a film straightforward enough to appeal to younger viewers, but with depth enough to appeal to older viewers as well. Zooptopia is a winner.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Tyrannosaur (2011)

Director: Paddy Considine
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
Country: United Kingdom

There’s no hope in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, no redemption, no triumph of the human spirit, no respite from gloom. Even the moment which represents what it could be (arguably) a moral victory is so skewed and dark that it unfolds with the same violence that marks everything else in the story. Tyrannosaur is a bleak and unrelenting film about broken people for whom brutality is a way of life and who have no thought that they might escape it because it would never occur to them that there’s any other way to live. This is not a film that will make you feel good, but it’s one of those rare gems that is so excellent and captivating that it hardly seems to matter that it crushes your soul as you watch it. Tyrannosaur is the sort of film that, once seen, can never be forgotten.