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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: Weiner (2016)

* * * *

Director: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg

Some documentaries require a bit of luck to achieve their potential for greatness. This was true of 2012's The Queen of Versailles, in which filmmaker Lauren Greenfield had the good fortune to already be filming David and Jackie Siegel to tell a different story when the housing market collapsed, turning their tale from a lifestyles of the rich and the famous type hagiography into an epic tragedy about greed and needless excess, and it's true of Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's film about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner. Conceived as a comeback story about a man putting his mistakes behind him and rescuing his legacy from the gutter, it instead plays witness to that man throwing his second chance away. Both documentaries were lucky to be in the right place at the right time with a camera, but they aren't great because they were lucky. They're great because their filmmakers know how to use what fortune has dropped into their laps to tell stories that are deeply compelling and fascinating.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Miami Vice (2006)

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx
Domestic Box Office: $63,450,470

2006's Miami Vice is a lot of things, but a summer movie, in the traditional sense of what it means for a film to be a "summer movie," it is not. It's a long movie - though compared to the increasingly common 2.5 to 3 hours given over to action/adventure/superhero presumed blockbuster-type movies, Vice's 132 minute running time looks short on paper - that feels longer than it actually is as a result of a plot that is as nonsensical as it is overstuffed, and at times the whole thing feels like a direct repudiation of everything that the summer movie is supposed to be. It's an action movie in premise, but an art film in execution, and all told it's a movie that tests one's patience even though there are moments that are so beautifully transcendent that you almost want to forgive it for its flaws and its self-indulgence. Mostly though Miami Vice is a film that raises questions: Who was this made for? Who thought $135 million was a reasonable budget? What the fuck is even going on?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: Sing Street (2016)

* * *

Director: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton

Boy and Girl meet, they fall in love, and music is made. You could argue that that's also the plot of two of John Carney's previous films, Once and Begin Again, and you would be right, but that doesn't mean that all three films are the same, or even really all that similar. Over the course of those three films Carney has played around a lot with style and with Sing Street delivers something that falls somewhere between the unadorned realism of Once and the polish of a Hollywood musical. It's a delightful and even sometimes moving film that crosses the gritty kitchen sink drama with the glamour of music videos, back during a time when music videos were considered a new and exciting art form and actually got airplay. With so much original music to its credit, fully expect to see Sing Street pop up over and again as awards season rolls around and the contenders for Best Original Song start getting whittled down.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Two Days, One Night (2014)

Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard
Country: Belgium/France/Italy

The idea of capitalism is sold to us, in part, as a system of self-determination, as a system whereby your destiny is only limited by the bounds of your imagination and your perseverance. The basis of the “American dream” is the notion that no matter who you are and no matter where you’re from, you can attain success as long as you’re willing to put the work in. For some people this is true and circumstances align in such a way that they are able to become self-made successes. For most others, however, the experience of capitalism isn’t much different from any other system, in that it ensures that the wealthy and powerful remain so, and insofar as it creates a “dog eat dog” mentality within the labor force that ensures division and stagnation in terms of upward mobility. This is increasingly true as income inequality becomes greater and greater and those enjoying the spoils of success demand bigger slices of the proverbial pie and then turn to the people at the bottom of the hierarchy and tell them that there’s only a limited amount left and certainly not enough for everyone. The fact is, the poorer you are, the less you have the luxury of choice. You might be presented with a situation where doing one thing is “morally right” but so economically impossible as to be unthinkable. In their 2014 film Two Days, One Night, the Dardenne brothers tell a story that turns on such a choice, a moral quandary put to people living on the fringes of the economy and for whom making the wrong choice will mean slipping into financial oblivion. Like all their films it is observational rather than judgmental, and it is so deeply engaging that you will be riveted from beginning to end.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Omissions from the BBC's Greatest Films of the 21st Century

On Tuesday the BBC released its list of the 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century. Why they've complied such a list in August of 2016 is something of a mystery, but it's a pretty decent list (their choice for #1 is impeccable). There are, however, some surprising (and frustrating) omissions:

#5: A Dearth of Documentaries

100 films (it's actually 102, as there's a 3-way tie for the last spot) and they could only find room for 2 documentaries. Those documentaries (The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell) are great, but the past 16 years have had a wealth of great documentaries that could have been included. Off the top of my head: My Winnipeg, The Look of Silence, Grizzly Man, The Fog of War, How to Survive a Plague, Searching for Sugar Man, The Queen of Versailles, Bowling for Columbine, Man on Wire, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Amy. Room couldn't have been made for a couple of these films?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

* * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

There's something to be said for the no stakes drama. Like anything else, when done right, it offers its own particular pleasures, even if those pleasures are short-term and the film itself is destined to fade away from your consciousness rather than stick. Florence Foster Jenkins is pretty much exactly the movie you expect it to be: a handsomely assembled period piece, anchored by a typically effortless seeming performance from Meryl Streep (the kind that makes it so easy to take her for granted as an actress), that goes down easy and doesn't present much in the way of a challenge. If you were to describe it as a simple movie about a nice lady who thinks she can sing but actually can't, you wouldn't be wrong. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention how charming it is, how funny, and how sweet. It's not groundbreaking, but it's genuinely entertaining.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Reign of Fire (2002)

Director: Rob Bowman
Starring: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey
Domestic Box Office: $43,061,982

Sometimes a movie (or any work of art, really) is going to fail to find its audience no matter what. That isn't necessarily a reflection of how good or bad it is - there are good movies that make money and bad movies that make money, and there are good movies that don't make money and bad movies that don't make money - but more a reflection of how in or out of step it is with where popular culture is at in that particular moment of time. A film's success has as much to do with the timing of its release as with its actual content, which is a roundabout way of saying that I wonder if Reign of Fire might have actually become a hit if it had been made for this summer instead of the summer of 2002. Right off the bat it would get points for originality - which was not much of a factor in the summer of 2002, which had a release slate with a positively restrained number of sequels and remakes/reboots, but was made up largely of properties that were either wholly original or adaptations that were seeing the screen for the first time - and then you factor in that it stars Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom are more popular now than they were in 2002. Then consider how thoroughly pop culture has embraced post-apocalyptic stories in the last decade, and give the film a couple of extra points for how the popularity of Game of Thrones, Godzilla, and Jurassic World might make audiences more open-minded to a film about dragons, and I think you might have at least a modest hit. Would it deserve to be a hit? Well, that's another question entirely.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton
Domestic Gross: $90,759,676

$90 million is nothing to sneeze at. If I had $90 million, that would probably be all I ever talked about. But for a movie that's supposed to be a summer tentpole, $90 million is nothing. In 2010, $90 million wasn't even enough to be included in the top 10 domestic grossing films of the summer and Prince of Persia had to settle for being the 15th highest grossing film of its season, putting it $5 million behind Sex and the City 2, which seems appropriate given that the two films have similarly problematic issues vis a vis their depiction of the Middle East. Now, if Prince of Persia had cost $30 million, this would be a win regardless. If it had cost $60 million, you could still call it profitable once you factored in the worldwide gross. Hell, if it had cost $90 million, you could at least say that it broke even, even though that wouldn't actually true once you factored in the marketing costs which aren't publicized. But Prince of Persia cost an absolutely insane $200 million to make. $200 million. Pumped into a film helmed by the director of the sweeping action adventure picture Four Weddings and a Funeral (and, okay, one of the Harry Potter movies) and headlined by an actor who, to date, has only ever starred in one film that grossed over $100 million (2004's The Day After Tomorrow). I would love to tell you that, at the very least, you can see that $200 million on screen, but alas you cannot. Money well spent, Hollywood.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen

One of life's great ironies is that it's possible to be wrong even when you're right. The father in Captain Fantastic is right when he argues that he's done right by his children, raising them to be bright, self-sufficient, capable of deep and independent thought, and possessed of practical and artistic skills, and yet those outside the family are right when they argue that, at best, he's left his children unprepared to exist in the world as it is and, at worst, he's behaved in a way that's abusive and has put his children in danger. He's right when he argues that people have become over-medicated to serve the interests of big Pharma, yet he's wrong in his belief that all medications in all circumstances are unnecessary and that a genuine and very serious mental illness can be cured simply by taking that person off the grid and living as close to nature as possible. Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic works as effectively as it does because it refuses to see its situation in black and white, choosing instead to exist in the grays that allow it to see its protagonist as a man of noble ideas and something akin to a militant cult leader.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Revanche (2008)

Director: Gotz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Irina Potapenko
Country: Austria

Just as a tossed stone will cause ripples that echo to the outer edge of a lake, so does one decision have after effects that reach out, changing not only the life of the person who made the decision, but the lives of people around him or her and the lives of people he or she doesn't even know. So it is in Gotz Spielmann's Revanche, a film which begins as a crime thriller about a small time hood with a plan and gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of guilt and the consequences of choices. A nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009 (ultimately losing to the Japanese entry Departures), Revanche has gone the way of many films nominated in the category, receiving a boost in visibility thanks to the nomination and then seeming to disappear from cultural conversation. For a film like Revanche, which is quietly devastating rather than flashy, such a fate was perhaps inevitable, but it's a film that holds up with time and is very much worth revisiting.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Mustang (2015)

* * * *

Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Starring: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, İlayda Akdoğan

The change, when it happens, is instant. One moment life is one way and in the next moment everything is different, never to be the same again. Such is the situation for the five sisters in Deniz Gamze Erguven's Mustang, one of last year's nominees for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and a powerful, deeply-felt film about young women growing up in circumstances designed to curtail any social power they might have and any sense of agency over themselves or their lives. It's an absolutely stellar film about how patriarchy works, about the hypocrisy and corruption that resides at the core of such a system, and about the minor and major ways that it can be rebelled against. It's a sad and maddening film in many ways, but in other ways it's also surprisingly funny and, ultimately, hopeful.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Bewitched (2005)

Director: Nora Ephron
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell
Domestic Box Office: $63,313,159

I would be genuinely curious to know how a movie like Bewitched could have a production budget of $85 million. A rather large portion of the film takes place on a soundstage, telling a story about the behind the scenes goings on of a television show. One would think that that would cut down on the costs at least a little, but maybe not enough to make up for the cost of the CGI involved in all the "witchery." I would also be curious to know how the decision was made to make Bewitched a summer release instead of spring or early autumn. The summer season is what it is because it's full of films that appeal to teenagers who are out of school and have time to spend at the multiplex. The presence of Will Ferrell alone - particularly Ferrell in a performance which majorly tones down the oversized comic persona he delivers in his best known roles - wasn't going to draw the younger crowd to a film based on a sitcom that went off the air in 1972, and in fact that presence of Ferrell (who, in 2005, had only just started to take steps towards branching out from broad comedy) might have been detrimental to the film's ability to appeal to an older crowd who might have been lured in by nostalgia. From a marketing perspective, Bewitched is like an ill-conceived experiments, though as a film it actually isn't all that bad.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: Keanu (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Atencio
Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key

Of the two major motion pictures about cats to come out in the last few months (the other, of course, being the "what-the-fuck-even-is-this" Nine Lives), Keanu is clearly the better choice. I mean, he only gets a celebrity voiceover for a brief moment during the course of his film, but that kitten is cute as hell. I totally get why everyone in this movie is willing to put their lives at risk in order to claim him as their own. If you're a fan of the now sadly defunct Key & Peele, then there will be a lot in Keanu that you'll enjoy. You might enjoy it more as a slightly longer than average sketch, rather than a full length feature, though. The premise of the film is pretty thin, even for a relatively short feature, and as a result the story tends to sag in places, but overall it's funny enough for a silly little diversion of a film.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Theories About How Nine Lives Came To Be

Theory #5: Kevin Spacey Has Massive Gambling Debts

I mean, there's doing a movie strictly for the paycheque, and then there's being so desperate for a paycheque that you trade your dignity for it (and if you doubt that was the cost, just watch the trailer and listen to how unenthusiastic that voiceover is).

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ten Years Later... Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen

First of all, I had completely forgotten that Amy Adams is in this. This came out right after she received her first Oscar nomination (for Junebug) and right before she really started to hit it big with Enchanted. It's too bad Talladaga Nights doesn't use her more because, as anyone who has seen Drop Dead Gorgeous knows, she can be hilarious. Anyway, the movie. It came out ten years ago today and was the second (or third, if you count Wake Up, Ron Burgundy:The Lost Movie) collaboration between Will Ferrell and writer/director Adam McKay. It's not their best movie together, but it's still their most successful in terms of domestic box office. All in all, it's aged pretty well.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Vacation (2015)

Director: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate
Domestic Box Office: $58,884,188

The good news is that Vacation, which sees the epic saga of the Griswold family's attempts to have some quality time together pass on to the next generation, didn't cost very much to make. In an era where movie budgets have ballooned so much that $100 million appears to have become a baseline rather than an anomaly, Vacation's $31 million production budget is admirable. The bad news is that Vacation secured neither the critical nor financial success necessary to revitalize a franchise that had its heyday in the 1980s (adjusted for inflation the original Vacation, European Vacation, and Christmas Vacation made $168 million, $120 million, and $152 million, respectively). More bad news: after watching it, you will have "Holiday Road" stuck in your head for at least the next three days. You've been warned.