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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: War Machine (2017)

* *

Director: David Michod
Starring: Brad Pitt

I'll give War Machine this much: it doesn't give in to the temptation to play "Fortunate Son" at any point during its running time, even at the end when you can practically hear the opening guitar riff start in your head. In just about every other respect David Michod's film aligns with pretty much every other movie ever made about the War on Terror (the exception being the great The Hurt Locker), pointing out the follies and the hubris that have already been examined and dissected ad nauseam, offering nothing new in terms of insight, and resorting to glibness whenever it can think of nothing else to do. War Machine aims for satire but, like the conduct of the wars themselves, confuses having a mandate with having the means to fully and successfully achieve the goal. And, yes, Brad Pitt is going to make that face through the whole movie and, yes, sometimes that is pretty distracting.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Director: Jan de Bont
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric
Domestic Box Office: $48,608,066

Lordy, I'd forgotten how dumb Speed 2: Cruise Control actually is. Even the title is dumb - I mean, Cruise Control? Really? Between this and Miss Congeniality 2 (whose full title, Armed and Fabulous, is just slightly more embarrassing than this one's), it's no wonder Sandra Bullock is leery of the prospect of making a sequel to The Heat. A sequel to the still resplendent action movie Speed, which was "Die Hard on a bus," Cruise Control very much wants to be "Die Hard on a boat" ("Die Hard on a plane" had already been taken by, um, Die Hard 2 and would be taken again by Air Force One about a month after Cruise Control's release) but, as it turns out, a cruise ship is not an ideal setting for an action movie. A grand romance interrupted by an even grander historical tragedy? Sure (to think, at the dawn of 1997 Titanic was supposed to be the year's most epic bomb). But a high intensity action piece? Not so much.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

Director: Jake Szymanski
Starring: Zac Effron, Anna Kendrick Adam DeVine, Aubrey Plaza
Domestic Box Office: $46,009,673

If Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates had come out 10 years before it did, it probably would have been at least a modest hit. It would have been criticized for being Wedding Crashers-lite, but it would probably still have been able to cash in on the $200 million-plus domestic box office success of that film in order to crack the $100 million benchmark itself. So tied is Mike and Dave to the idea of the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson smash that not only is Wedding Crashers referenced by name in it, but the two films even had similar release dates (Wedding Crashers was released July 15, 2005 while Mike and Dave was released July 8, 2016). But, alas, Mike and Dave arrived way too late to the party and managed to bring home only a fraction of the box office of the earlier film, even though it had its opening weekend basically to itself (unless one thinks that there's much cross-over between the intended audiences for a raunchy R-rated comedy and an animated family film like The Secret Life of Pets). Of course, Mike and Dave may have helped itself by actually being good, but that's another issue.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Snatched (2017)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn

You may have heard that Snatched is terrible. By and large, the critics certainly seem to think so. I dunno. I thought it was funny. The rest of the people in the theater (which was full) seemed to enjoy it. I mean, it's not the kind of movie that's going to change your life and it's not going to end up on any year-end best lists, but not every movie has to perform at that level. As a piece of simple entertainment Snatched gets the job done pretty well, delivering a fast-paced story with plenty of laughs, and though Amy Schumer tends to be divisive, the presence of co-star Goldie Hawn should be enough to balance things out. It's a decent summer movie pick - nothing more, but nothing less either.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Man on Wire (2008)

Director: James Marsh
Country: United Kingdom

Philippe Petit’s story has all the ingredients for a hit movie. It’s got a story so audacious that it has to be true because otherwise you’d never believe it. It’s got a charismatic protagonist that you can’t help but feel charmed by. It has some visuals that are incredible, not because of their technical aspects necessarily, but simply because of what they capture. And it has weight, which it derives both from the inspirational aspects of the story itself and from the impact of historical events. In short, it’s a story that begs to be made into a movie – it’s just unfortunate for Robert Zemeckis’ 2015 bomb The Walk that such a movie already existed. That movie is Man on Wire, a bold and delightful documentary from James Marsh which remains utterly enthralling and exhilarating almost a decade later.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner
Domestic Box Office: $55,250,026

It's hard to remember now, when romantic comedies are rarely made at all, let alone become hits, but the genre used to be a staple of the summer movie season. If you were inclined to see certain kinds of movies as gendered in their appeal, you might argue that the studios used to put out big splashy action movies to appeal to guys, and big splashy romantic comedies to appeal to women. Romantic comedies don't really factor into the summer slate anymore, partially because, as at least one thinkpiece per year declares, the romantic comedy is a dead genre. If you're wondering what killed it, it's movies like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a film that, despite being part of a genre marketed towards women, isn't actually made for women - unless it was made for women who hate themselves. This movie is gross. Don't ever watch it.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tales from the Black List: The Voices (2014)

* *

Director: Marjane Satrapi
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton

It's a bad sign that the only time I truly felt engaged by The Voices was when the screen faded to black and the credits began, revealing Marjane Satrapi as its director. It was such a jolt that I actually said, "Really?" and second-guessed what I just saw. I remain confused at how Satrapi, whose autobiographical Persepolis so actively engages with the meaning and effect of patriarchy and misogyny, could be at the helm of a film about a guy who kills a bunch of women because he just can't seem to help himself, but seems to have nothing to actually say about the fact that this guy keeps killing women because he just can't seem to help himself. Maybe the script, which was written by Michael R. Perry and featured in the 2009 edition of the Black List, read better on the page. On screen it's weirdly flat and never musters up enough energy to succeed at the comedy half of the horror-comedy hybrid.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

* * *

Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel

Take what you know works and lean on it hard. It won't get you any points for audacity, but it will give you a decent chance at making sure the audience walks away happy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does basically nothing new - unless you count upping the adorability factor to about 110 via the baby version of Groot - presenting more of the same without apology. This isn't really a bad thing. Vol. 2 is a very enjoyable movie. It's not the shot in the arm that the first Guardians of the Galaxy was (I won't say that the first was a breath of fresh air since it was the Star Wars throwback before The Force Awakens became the official Star Wars throwback), but then it doesn't have the same element of surprise either. Vol. 2 is all about maintaining and it does that fairly well, returning to what worked for its predecessor and not breaking a sweat trying to surpass the expectations set up by the success of the first film.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Mothers & Daughters from Acting Families

#5: Diane Ladd & Laura Dern

The first (and, if I'm not mistaken, the only) mother and daughter pair to earn Oscar nominations for the same film: Rambling Rose, for which Laura Dern was nominated as Best Actress and Diane Ladd as Best Supporting Actress. Hard to argue with that.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Summer Not Busters: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Director: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone
Starring: Andy Samberg
Domestic Box Office: $9,639,125

It's a very fine line between stupid and clever. If there's one thing that should comfort the makers of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it's this: This Is Spinal Tap, perhaps the greatest movie about rock and roll ever made and one of the most celebrated movie comedies of all time, wasn't a theatrical hit either. If you look at the box office record for 1984, Spinal Tap didn't even crack the top 100 for the year and unlike now, when something like 50 movies debut every month, 1984 was a time when less than 200 films would come out in any given year. It was homevideo that made Spinal Tap a hit, its endless quotability helping to turn it into a cult classic. A similar fate may end up befalling Popstar, which is like Spinal Tap if you trade rock and roll for pop music, and which Universal had every reason to expect would be at least a minor hit given the viral video popularity of The Lonely Island. Instead Popstar went the way of TLI's previous effort Hot Rod, which crashed and burned in 2007. It's hard to say what kept audiences away from this actually very funny and incredibly on point satire, but a film this good will hopefully have the last laugh, even if it comes a bit late.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Colossal (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal is the kind of film that I want to praise for its ideas, but which falls just short enough of achieving what it's trying to do that I can't really recommend it. If Colossal was just what it appears to be - an oddity about a woman who realizes that her drunken antics are somehow resulting in a Kaiju appearing in Seoul, stomping through the city and leaving destruction in its wake - then it might have made for a fine absurdist comedy. If its ambitions had been limited to being about a woman confronting and finding a way to conquer her demons, it would probably also have been fine - as the woman in question, Anne Hathaway delivers a performance that is strong and nuanced enough to have pulled that off. But Colossal has greater ambitions than that, and while I admire it for what it's trying to address and what I think it's trying to do, I think it goes about it a little wrong.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan, Firat Tanis
Country: Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina

There aren’t many ways for a crime procedural to truly surprise the audience. The beats are all so familiar - the crime, the investigator or investigative team moving from one lead to the next and working against the clock to catch the bad guy, who is always one step ahead, until coming to the final showdown where the criminal is either brought to justice or killed in the attempt – and the genre is so well-worn that a filmmaker has to really upend conventions in order to deliver a crime movie that does more than quench the audience’s thirst for the familiar. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does that by approaching the procedural in a slow (slow - like, 157 minutes slow) and methodical way that makes the story less about the crime than about the effect of gathering evidence on those tasked with doing it over the course of a very long night. Sight unseen, the length and pace of the film might make it sound like a daunting viewing experience, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a completely absorbing movie right from the start, and a richly rewarding one by the time you reach the end.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Delayed Movies That Turned Out to Be Good

#5: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Filmed in 2009, the self-referential horror/comedy The Cabin in the Woods was originally set for release in February 2010, then pushed to January 2011, then shelved due to the financial difficulties being faced by MGM. By the time it was finally released in April 2012, Chris Hemsworth had already played Thor in two movies, but the wait was worth it: the film went on to critical acclaim and would earn several nominations from critics groups for its screenplay.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ten Years Later... Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco

Time can't make a good movie bad or a bad movie good, but for those films that are sort of straddling the line, the ones you might describe as just "okay," time can make the difference. Time might not change the content of the film, but it can certainly change the context of one. In the context of the 2017 film landscape Spider-Man 3 - a film which was considered enough of a disappointment that, despite grossing just short of $340 million domestically alone, Sony decided to scrap the continuation of the franchise and start over again with a new cast, new director, and a slightly different name - seems like a film that was unfairly maligned in its time. In the light of 2017, Spider-Man 3's weaknesses just seem like a common part of the genre, and its strengths have only been brought into sharper relief.