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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: Ingrid Goes West (2017)

* * *

Director: Matt Spicer
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen

It is perhaps a uniquely hypocritical feature of our current day and age that people share literally everything about themselves and their lives online, but then get indignant about other people wanting to be up in their business. In Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West, a sometimes pointed but sometimes toothless satire, an "influencer" meets her audience and ends up with #negativevibes, resulting in an extremely dark comedy that centers on possibly the most unapologetically sharped-edged female protagonists since Charlize Theron in Young Adult. You can't say that Ingrid Goes West doesn't go for broke with its central character, though you can certainly argue that it begins to lose the thread somewhat in its third act. It will be interesting to see how a movie like this, so firmly rooted in the technology and trends of the here and now, ages, but seeing it in 2017 is like looking at a snapshot of many of the worst qualities of our era. Fortunately the film is asking us to laugh at them and, more often than not, giving us good reason to do so.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou
Domestic Box Office: $39,175,066

And so we end the summer as it began, with the season's first high profile failure: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. At one point conceived as a means of kicking off its own "shared universe" of stories, it's instead going to go down as one of the biggest money losers of the year. Made for $175 million (and that's just the production budget; the advertising budget isn't confirmed, but I've read estimates of about $100 million), the film brought in just $39 million domestically and that figure, even when combined with the international grosses, falls far short of the amount spent to make it. This movie didn't just bomb, it failed on an absolutely epic scale, leaving a smoking crater full of burned money in its wake. Which is extremely unfortunate because, despite what you may have heard from its abysmal critical reception, it's actually kind of good. I enjoyed it a great deal (so much so that I watched it twice), which is too bad because now not only will none of the potential sequels get made, but the bad word around it probably means that it's not going to get the Best Costume Design nomination it richly deserves.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: Wind River (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen

Late in the film, a character remarks that the case at the center of the story is practically solving itself. The reason that this is true is because it's a story that's so depressingly familiar about men, women, power, entitlement, and the institutionalized racism that allows the law to cherry pick what kinds of victims are worth seeking justice for. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who's riding a hot streak after writing the screenplays for 2015's Sicario and 2016's Hell or High Water, Wind River is a sharp edged, fast moving thriller, although I don't think it's quite the advocacy piece that its final words might like to suggest. Wind River is less about giving voice to people traditionally treated as disposable by society and the media than it is a story about unforgiving men (in their most traditional form, at that) in an unforgiving land, but it's an absolutely engrossing film of its type and confirms Sheridan as one of the most exciting voices working in Hollywood today.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Phoenix (2015)

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kuzendorf
Country: Germany

At the heart of Phoenix, the sixth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, is a disagreement over how to cope with trauma. On one side is a character who is determined to leave everything behind except the memories of the people who have been taken, and start over anew. On the other side is a character who just wants to go back to the life she left behind, to put it back together as much as possible, even if it means living amongst those who were complicit in the traumatic event. In the physical and social ruins of post-war Berlin neither can find much comfort in her respective strategy, as the thing they share in common – the need to remember – is at odds with a nation already in the process of trying to forget. A thematically rich and deeply felt film, Phoenix is a work that comes stunningly close to perfection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Rules Don't Apply (2016)

* *

Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Lily Collins

Warren Beatty is a curious case when it comes to Hollywood stars. He's been a star for 56 years, since Splendor in the Grass, but his output during that time has been relatively minimal, starring in 23 films during that time. For the sake of comparison, his contemporary Jack Nicholson has been a star for 48 years, since the release of Easy Rider, and since then has made 44 movies, with a 45th on the horizon. This isn't to say that Nicholson's filmmography is necessarily better, I'm just saying that there is a heightened level of selectivity to Beatty's output. "Selectivity" might not even be the best word to describe the career of the notoriously fastidious Beatty, who is known for moving slowly on projects before bringing them to fruition. One of those long simmering projects was Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty reportedly spent 40 years working at bringing to the screen. I'm not entirely sure whether the end result suggests that 40 years left it overcooked or still, somehow, undercooked, but Rules Don't Apply doesn't exactly present itself as a film that ever really needed to be made.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: All About Steve (2009)

Director: Phil Traill
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper
Domestic Box Office: $33,862,903

2009 was a year of extreme highs and extreme lows for Sandra Bullock's career. The highs came in the form of The Proposal, her first big box office hit since 2002's Two Weeks Notice, and The Blind Side, which would become the 8th highest grossing movie of the year and win her an Oscar. But in between those two triumphs came All About Steve, one of the worst reviewed movies of her career and one of its lowest grossing. But Steve was not just a financial disappointment, nor was it a movie that people simply disliked. People hated this movie so much that you would think it ran over their dog. Critics were vicious. The Golden Raspberry Awards gave it five nominations, including Worst Actress, which Bullock won (and, because she is an incredible sport, collected in person) the day before winning her Oscar. I'm not about to launch into a defense of All About Steve, but I am going to say this: that level of hatred is undeserved and I think the level of critical drubbing it took is more the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of who the main character is and what the film is about than it is a reflection on the actual worth of the film itself.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: A Quiet Passion (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle

A Quiet Passion is one of those curious cases where the critical reception and the audience reception are so disparate that it almost seems like the two groups saw a different film. This is most apparent in its Rotten Tomatoes score, which earned 92% from critics, but only 50% from audiences. I can understand both positions. I can see how the great central performance from Cynthia Nixon and the film's meticulous craftsmanship would appeal to critics, and I can fully understand how the languid pacing, mannered style, and plotlessness of the film would have little appeal for audiences. At times I found the film quite engaging, but at other times I was honestly a little bored by it, so it's a bit of a mixed bag to be sure.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Lady Macbeth (2017)

* * * *

Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie

"Aren't you bored, Katherine?" Man, is he ever going to regret asking that question, because yes she is and her quest to not be bored is going to ruin everyone. Loosely adapted from Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the film transports the action to Victorian era England, but approaches it with a sensibility that is not only thoroughly modern, but intensely relevant. Built around a stunning and sharp-edged performance by Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth is a film that upends expectations and becomes increasingly enthralling as it winds its way towards a conclusion that is perhaps inevitable, but savage nevertheless. The feature debut of director William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth is a wonderfully confident debut that succeeds thematically where many films have failed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

Director: Harald Zwart
Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower
Domestic Box Office: $31,165,421

While box office itself can rarely be accurately predicted - movies that are supposed to be sure things can fail, movies expected to fail can sometimes find their audience and surprise everyone; the only certain thing seems to be that Star Wars will always make money - one of the most predictable things about movies when it comes to box office is that if something succeeds once, Hollywood will try to replicate that success multiple times, usually with increasingly diminishing returns, until the idea is thoroughly dead. The massive success of the Twilight movies guaranteed that there would be copy-cat properties entering the market place, even as time and again the Twilight audience rejected those properties because, really, all they wanted was more Twilight. Remember Vampire Academy? Beautiful Creatures? What about The Host, which had the advantage of being a Stephenie Meyer adaptation? I'm pretty sure nobody does. Two of those movies came out in 2013, incidentally, which probably should have made the makers of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones take a deep breath and consider that they might have made a huge mistake sinking $60 million into their adaptation.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tales From the Black List: Hancock (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman

But first, a story: I was perusing the Black List looking for a title that I could watch and write about for the feature and learned that Hancock, the 2008 Will Smith film that tries to deconstruct the superhero story, was part of the first ever list in 2005. Since I specifically use this feature to write about movies I've never written about before, I thought this was a non-starter because I was sure that I'd written about Hancock already. A quick search revealed that I was wrong about that, so I happily sat down to re-watch the film and promptly discovered that the reason I've never written about it is because I had not, in fact, ever seen it before. I'm not sure whether that says more about me (in my defense, I see a lot of movies) or about the film, which had such a long and winding trip from page to screen that it became part of Hollywood lore for a while, and which has such an easily digestible premise that apparently it can seem like you've seen the movie without ever having actually watched it. At any rate, here's Hancock, a movie that I've now definitely seen and which never really manages to pull itself together enough to bring its idea successfully to life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan
Country: United States

Style over substance is a phrase which typically signifies criticism, an accusation that the work in question is shallow and without merit. In the right hands, however, or with the right project, style can be substance itself, elevating something ordinary into something amazing. Boiled down to its basics, Drive is a pretty unremarkable crime story about a guy (the strong silent type, naturally, with bonus points for remaining unnamed) who gets drawn into a situation he didn’t ask for and becomes a one man wrecking crew in his efforts to extricate himself. In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini which adapts the novel of the same name by James Sallis, Drive is an elegant film, a film that calls attention to how it looks and how it moves. It's a film of high style, but beneath its fa├žade of dynamic visuals and music that seems to stand in for the restrained and repressed emotions of its characters, lies a deep, dark heart beating like a drum.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Detroit (2017)

* * *

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith

Typically by the time I sit down to write about I film, I've sorted out how I feel about it. As first steps go, it's a pretty important one and ultimately a pretty basic one: did I like it or not, did I think it was good or not. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I'm still on the fence about Detroit, a film in which I found much to admire, but which I also found wanting in certain respects and which left me feeling, at certain points, kind of annoyed. A lot has been written about Detroit in terms of what the film includes, what it omits, and whose story the murders at the Algiers Motel is to tell in the first place. Those are all topics worth discussing, and I believe that Detroit is a film worth engaging and discussing in that critical way (I say this because there seems to be a tendency these days for a work to be labeled "problematic" in some way or another and for the internet hivemind to decide that it should just be avoided altogether), but I'm not sure that it's totally successful as a film.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: James C. Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams

While Netflix is undoubtedly the king of streaming services, I'm starting to think that Amazon has the stronger edge in terms of content (and not just because Amazon's films are ones that you can actually see in a theater before revisiting online). Netflix probably wins in terms of quantity, but I also feel like that's why it's going to lose in the long run. Netflix's model is one that seems increasingly built on indiscriminate quantity, on acquiring "content" rather than films so that there can always be something new for an audience in constant demand for more new things. I've seen a few of Netflix's original movies and aside from their documentary selection, which is quite strong, my overall reaction has been that the gems are few and far between and the rest of the features tend to be okay at best, with the occasional film that feels like it barely qualifies as a film. The Incredible Jessica James is one of those, a wisp of a thing that feels more like a long pilot for a series than a proper movie. It's saved somewhat by the starburst of charisma that is Jessica Williams, but it's a pretty forgettable endeavor.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Land of the Lost (2009)

Director: Brad Silberling
Starring: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride
Domestic Box Office: $49,438,370

Land of the Lost is the sort of movie that feels like its genesis is in an inside joke between its makers. It has that insular specificity, that sense that the people involved in making it are so focused on entertaining themselves that they never paused to consider whether it would be entertaining to anyone else. Granted, I'm probably not the ideal audience for this movie because I've never seen the TV show, but given the film's tepid box office take it seems safe to assume that Universal took it for granted that the property was much more beloved than is actually the case. Having sunk $100 million into discovering that, the sting of the film's failure was still such that more than two years later former Universal head Ron Meyer would dismiss it as "just crap." It's an assessment that's hard to argue with.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Girls Trip (2017)

* * *

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish

And so the summer of women behaving badly continues and arguably reaches its carefree high point with Girls Trip. No strippers are killed. No Americans acting ugly abroad. It's just four friends, having a good time, getting a little wild, causing a little trouble. It's funny, it's raunchy, it's got a dance battle, a sing-along, a brawl, and a pretty solid Set It Off reference. At a shade over 2 hours Girls Trip is a little baggier than it needs to be, a result of more cameos than strictly necessary and more narrative/character complications than it requires to work, but overall it's a pretty good time and it definitely makes the most of its R rating.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

* * *

Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy

Atomic Blonde is less a movie than it is a soundtrack but, lord, what a soundtrack. A slick, bone-crunching action movie that aspires to little more than being cool as hell and succeeds at that with ease, this adaptation of the graphic novel "The Coldest City" is the sort of pulse-pumping, fleeting entertainment that the summer movie season was made for. Directed by David Leitch, director of the first John Wick film and a former stunt man, Blonde delivers one of the more realistic depictions of violence seen in cinema, to say nothing of one of the most relentless. This isn't the best movie I've seen all summer, but I can't say that it didn't deliver on exactly what its trailers promised: action, '80s music, Charlize Theron in all her badass glory, and style, style, style.