Monday, October 27, 2014

John Wick (2014) ****/*****

Good action movies, the kind that make you wince in pain one second and then pump your fist with excitement the next, were so prevalent when I was growing up in the 80s and are so rare now that whenever one comes along it feels like you’ve stumbled onto some kind of priceless artifact, or like you’re indulging in some sort of outdated thrill that’s long since been made illegal. The only differences between action movies then and action movies now though is a willingness on the part of studios to embrace an R-rating and a willingness on the part of experienced directors who know how to construct an action scene to work in the genre. Too often now the action film, which should be aimed toward a niche audience, is instead aimed at a wide one, and the results are homogenized and bland movies. And too often the genre is used as a proving ground for new filmmakers who have just come off of making music videos or web shorts, and the results are movies that are messy and hard to follow, thanks to the people in charge learning while on the job and having to take editing shortcuts to simulate spectacles that were beyond their capabilities of actually creating. 

John Wick, a new action-heavy revenge film that stars Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who goes on a rampage after a group of young mafioso punks steal his car and kill his dog, is one of those rare modern movies that does action right. It’s exciting, it’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it knows how to construct action scenes that are both thrilling to look at and also easy to appreciate. Maybe that’s because its first-time directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both have lengthy lists of credits working as Hollywood stuntmen. Could it be possible that these guys got sick of punishing their bodies to create action scenes that were ultimately ruined thanks to the close-in camerawork and quick-editing of filmmakers who weren’t savvy enough to exploit their efforts, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and make their own movie where the craftsmanship of the stuntmen and fight choreographers could be featured front and center? Whatever their motivations, Leitch and Stahelski have made a movie that at least feels like it was put together by frustrated action junkies with something to prove.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Days, One Night (2014) ****/*****

Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, The Kid With a Bike) are known for making movies that are grounded in reality, gritty, and steeped in basic human drama in all of the best ways. They tell simple stories that shine a spotlight on the inherent struggles that exist in the lives of normal, usually lower class people. Their films manage to resonate while still defying the expectations of how “cinematic” a story needs to be in order to make for a good movie. It should be said though that their work is often slow to build to a climax, once that climax happens it’s generally a personal one that affects only the protagonist and not the greater world around them, and the places their films take you can often leave you feeling a little down. If you’re the sort of person who can get on the Dardenne wavelength, then their movies are always easy to appreciate—and Two Days, One Night is no exception there—but they’re certainly not for everyone. So beware my praise.

Two Days, One Night focuses on a very important weekend in the life of a blue collar mother of two named Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who’s recently had some troubles at work thanks to a bout of depression leading to her having to take a leave of absence. Turns out the forced time off was just the beginning of her professional troubles though, as her boss has recently made the decree that the company she works for can’t afford to both give everyone bonuses and also keep on 17 employees, so if everybody wants to get a bump in pay, somebody’s going to have to get fired, and it’s Sandra’s head on the chopping block—a true problem, because she and her husband depend on her salary in order to pay their rent and feed their kids. When we meet Sandra it’s at the beginning of a weekend where she’s informed that there will be a vote on Monday to decide her fate—bonuses for everyone else or she keeps her job, everyone in the company gets a say, and she only has the weekend to visit each one and convince them to make a personal sacrifice for her well-being. It would be a daunting and awkward task even for someone who wasn’t prone to depression.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Short Round: Gone Girl (2014) ***/*****

Over the years David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network) has built up such a reputation as a master director that his name on the marquee is pretty much the only thing a movie needs to sell itself. Gone Girl has more going for it than that though. It’s also got a best-selling Gillian Flynn novel as its source material, and it’s got an intriguing ad campaign that introduces us to a couple played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, has Pike’s character mysteriously disappear, and then puts Affleck’s through the wringer as the news media turns him into the primary suspect. What happened to this man’s wife? Is he truly the good person that he projects himself as being when in the public eye, or does the handful of dark secrets he keeps behind closed doors point to the fact that he might have done something sinister? It’s a good mystery, but it only makes for about half of the story.

The problem with writing about a movie like Gone Girl is that it goes in so many unexpected places and it relies so heavily on its surprises to be a satisfying moviegoing experience that you can’t really talk about much of anything without ruining said experience. To even say anything about Pike’s performance would give away too much about her character’s fate, which is the uncertainty that everything gets built around. What should be said though is that the second half of the film, which is where all the twists start taking place, is completely different in tone than the first half, which is the material used in the advertising. Gone is a grounded story about the fate of real people and suddenly in its place is soap opera melodrama involving characters who behave far too insanely for you to maintain any real attachment to. Gone Girl’s true intentions are eventually revealed to be to stun the audience with ridiculous twists, and then to needle them with matters of gender politics that are sure to fan the flames of a good number of post-movie arguments. How one responds to all of the pulpy weirdness will likely come down to the individual and how engaged they found themselves with that first half of the film that proves to be a fake-out.

Fincher’s established aesthetic and that master craftsman’s touch that he brings to everything he makes are both on full display here, he’s gotten strong performances out of all the featured members of his cast, and he’s commissioned Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor to compose another moody score that increases the tension of everything that’s happening on the screen, but when I walked away from having seen Gone Girl, I left not astounded by the work of all of these talented artists, but instead wondering what it was about this silly story that was able to draw them all together in the first place. Taking the ride that is Gone Girl is engaging in the moment, but afterward I couldn’t help but feel like all of the dour gravity of the first act and the pedigrees of the artists involved had tricked me into watching something trashy and dumb—like if I went to a fancy restaurant and the Chef’s Special turned out to be Frito pie. I’ll eat the junk food, sure, but next time I’d appreciate a little more transparency in the menu. Expectation can be everything when it comes to how you respond to a film.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (2014) ***/*****

We’ve been asking the question of whether or not actors known for comedic work should be able to make the jump to doing more dramatic work probably as long as there have been actors acting, so it’s likely that it’s time for us to finally retire that old debate. One of the most important aspects of being an effective comedic actor is being able to play silly things straight, and one of the elements necessary to being funny in the first place is compensation for a lifetime full of pain, so of course comedic actors are generally able to transition over to dramatic roles easily. As a matter of fact, this movie, The Skeleton Twins, seems to exist solely because of its director Craig Johnson’s confidence that Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are so good at keeping straight faces during sad clown routines, that of course they would be perfect for playing damaged, suicidal characters.

Which is basically what The Skeleton Twins is, a movie about trauma and suicide. Wiig and Hader are playing a pair of twins here, who were all but inseparable when they were growing up, but who now haven’t spoken in 10 years. That all changes when Hader’s character tries to commit suicide and Wiig’s gets a call that she has to come take care of him though. One offer for him to move from Los Angeles to her New York home later, and suddenly secrets start to come out, past traumas begins to bubble to the surface, and a whole heaping pile of open wound humanity gets puts on display. Will these twins figure out how to get their shit together so that they can go forward as healthy adults, or will the pains of their childhood consume them and ultimately put one or both of them into an early grave? I’m not going to tell you the answer to that. You have to watch the movie to find out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Short Round: The Drop (2014) ****/*****

The Drop, which is the latest film from Bullhead director Michaël R. Roskam, works on several levels. On its surface it’s most obviously a street-level crime drama, and it tells a tale with enough twists and turns and rampant corruption to be effective as that, but it also manages to get deep enough into the personal lives and motivations of its players to work as a sort of working class character study too; plus it puts enough focus on the dramatization of the adopting of a puppy by a sad sack bartender to be a fairly effective boy-and-his-dog story as well. Mostly though, what it really succeeds at is being a showcase for a handful of really talented actors to put on a handful of really strong performances.

The film stars James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy as the manager and bartender of a local watering hole that’s owned by a ruthless gangster who uses it as a way of collecting and moving money that he acquires through various illegal gambling ventures. Gandolfini and Hardy’s characters are basically given the tasks of keeping up the bars’ legitimate appearance, protecting the money in their care, and keeping their mouths shut about everything that’s going down. What seems to be a regular routine for them gets interrupted after a late night robbery raises questions about everyone’s loyalty, however. Does the crime have anything to do with Gandolfini’s resentment over being usurped as the local tough guy by the foreign invaders who are now his bosses? Maybe it somehow involves the local hood who keeps claiming that the dog Hardy recently adopted is his own? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that the status quo has been interrupted, and before the end credits roll, somebody is going to have to die.

Gandolfini and Hardy get the bulk of the focus here, and they prove to be really effective in their roles, both when paired together and when paired with supporting players. Gandolfini is basically using what brought him to the table—that undercurrent of aggression that’s clearly stemming from a place of insecurity thing that he used so often as Tony Soprano—so it should come as no surprise that he appears completely comfortable in his role. Hardy is showing a bit more vulnerability than we’ve seen from him before though, and he’s still really authentic, even when working out of his comfort zone. His bartender character wilts like a flower in the face of violence, he looks at the ground and shuffles his feet in the face of social interaction, often muttering to himself afterward; but, through it all, Hardy is able to keep enough of a resolve burning in his eyes that you never write him off as a cowardly or unrelatable protagonist. It’s akin to those early scenes in Rocky, where we watch Sylvester Stallone interacting with his lower-class neighborhood and working as a low-level thug, but stretched out for an entire movie, and it’s pretty dang entertaining. Throw in Noomi Rapace resonating as a live-wire abuse victim and Matthias Schoenaerts intimidating as a Randy Savage-esque street tough who seems like he could explode into violence at any minute, and The Drop is a movie that’s well worth checking out just based on its acting alone.

The Guest (2014) *****/*****

The last time writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard teamed up for a feature, the results were 2011’s You’re Next, a film that earned quite a lot of buzz in film critic circles thanks to its style, humor, and the way it was able to add several intelligent spins on the usual home invasion movie formula. You’re Next was a lot of fun. As good as it was, it still didn’t manage to hint at the true potential these two had as a filmmaking team though—potential that has now been revealed and realized thanks to their latest stab at the thriller genre, The Guest, which takes the style, fun, and intelligence of their work on You’re Next, pumps them full of horse steroids, and then elevates them up even a couple levels higher thanks to a handful of truly first-rate performances. To put things simply, watching The Guest was the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in a really long time. It starts off fun, it continues to get increasingly more fun, and then it climaxes in a big finish that’s pretty much everything great about genre movies distilled down into a powerful potion that overwhelms all of your senses as soon as it hits you.

The film stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as a mysterious stranger, allegedly named “David,” who one day shows up on the doorstep of a fairly average American family and fairly immediately inserts himself into their daily routines. You see, the oldest child in the family, Caleb, was a soldier who went away to war and never came back, and the story David is telling is that they served together, and not only were they great friends, but he was also there in the last moments of his life. In that moment, David allegedly made a promise to check up on Caleb’s family, assure them all that he loved them, and to do anything he could to make sure they were all doing okay. I say that Stevens’ character is “allegedly” named David and that his telling of past events is his story rather than his reality because of the character’s overtly mysterious nature. This being a thriller rather than a tear-jerking drama, of course there’s something fishy going on—something murderously fishy, as it turns out.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Frank (2014) ****/*****

via Ryan Gajda
Most movies that get made about a rock band follow the same typical formula: the band gets together, they hit it big, and then that success breeds personal demons that tear them apart right at the moment when they achieve what was supposed to be their dream. Frank, which comes to us from director Lenny Abrahamson and a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats), subverts that formula. Instead, it looks at a young band whose members are already consumed and defined by their personal demons, even before they achieve any sort of notoriety, which makes for a story that’s far more madcap, and ultimately bittersweet, than any of those rise-and-fall rock-and-roll stories of substance abuse and excess. Frank starts at the point where most of these movies end, so it ends up being able to take us someplace we’ve never before been.

The eccentric band who serve as the protagonists, an experimental number called Soronprfbs, are made up of new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who is the most mundane of the group, and who serves as the eyes through which we discover their world, a consistently exasperated and painfully French guitarist named Baraque (François Civil), a silent but soulful drummer named Nana (Carla Azar), an intense taskmistress who plays the theremin named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the mannequin-molesting lieutenant to the band’s lead singer, and said lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), who obsessively wears a giant, creepy, expressionless fake head every moment of every day, and refuses to take it off. That’s an eccentric cast of characters brought to life by a charismatic cast of performers, and the ways in which they alternately bump up against each other and come together over the course of the film are a large part of what makes Frank such an entertaining movie. It’s filled with chaos and humor, and it even manages to be touching a time or two.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Short Round: The Trip to Italy (2014) ***/*****

Back in 2011, writer/director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon saw success from editing down their BBC miniseries The Trip, and releasing it internationally as a feature film. The movie basically consisted of Coogan and Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves while traveling around the North of England and eating at fancy restaurants, under the pretense that they were taking the trip in order to write it up for a magazine. Their relationship had a competitive streak, especially surrounding who did better celebrity impressions, and Coogan’s character was dealing with some pretty serious insecurity issues regarding his stagnating career and advancing age. That was about it. The movie was pleasant enough—it included a couple moments of comedic brilliance and a couple somber moments that hinted at deeper depths—but mostly it was just a watchable diversion. The Trip to Italy is them doing the same thing, but in Italy.

Seeing as Coogan and Brydon are just naturally funny together, and are both fairly strong actors to boot, The Trip to Italy manages to hover around that “watchable diversion” area that the first film fell into. It makes a couple of well-meaning decisions that keep it from being quite as strong as the original though. For starters, this time around Coogan is the character who has gotten to a more content place in his life, and Brydon is the one who’s less than thrilled with his situation and is acting out. While it’s nice that Winterbottom decided to change the dynamic up, his efforts don’t quite pan out, because Brydon is at his best when he’s playing the oblivious simpleton, and Coogan is the one whose persona naturally lends itself to angst and hidden darkness. The duo’s relationship isn’t nearly as contentious this time around either, which makes sense, because ignoring the bonding they did in the first movie in order to create drama would have felt cheap, but it robs this movie of a lot of the fun tension that the first one had nonetheless. Somehow it just doesn’t feel right to see Coogan smiling and laughing at Brydon’s motor-mouthed antics rather than being embarrassed by them.

More than anything though, The Trip to Italy is a step worse than its predecessor because it lacks that one comedy bit that’s just so impossibly hilarious that it sticks with you for months, which is what the dueling Michael Caine impressions provided the first film. They go back to the Caine well again here, and even update the bit a little in order to also make fun of the other ridiculous voices that were featured in The Dark Knight Rises, but like most comedy bits, it’s just not as funny when you hear it for a second time. There are a couple new jags the guys get on that are worth your time, and if you liked the first movie it’s likely that you’re going to enjoy this one as well, just probably not as much as the first. Which, I guess, still puts it a step above most other comedy sequels, which generally turn out being frustratingly awful. Hurray for mediocre!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Short Round: What If (2013) ***/*****

Even the good movies about young romance—the indie ones that don’t include A-list actors and that feature quirky hipster characters instead of soulless yuppies—generally manage to be at least a little bit annoying. They can be funny, and they can feature good acting, but they’re still usually a little too precious for their own good, and they’re still usually a little too pleased with how clever and above the rest of the rabble they are to really resonate. What If is that movie exactly. It’s clever enough to get some laughs out of you, and it stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who are strong enough actors to get you invested in the romantic destinies of their characters, but it’s still just your typical indie-leaning romantic comedy. It’s so precious that it will make you roll your eyes just as often as it makes you laugh, its main characters trade quips and banter so incessantly that it comes off as being slightly smug, and it still employs enough rom-com clichés that it can’t really be considered any real alternative to its mainstream counterparts. 

“Let’s go swimming.” 

“But we don’t have any bathing suits…”

The story is a step more interesting than the usual boy and girl get together, boy and girl hit a snag and break up, and then boy and girl have a reunion at the airport tale, which helps. Radcliffe plays a lad named Wallace who has recently had his heart broken, Kazan plays a girl named Chantry who he meets at a party, and Rafe Spall plays Chantry’s boyfriend Ben, whose existence puts a crimp in any plans for this movie to be a romance. Given their clear connection, is it possible for Wallace and Chantry to be platonic friends without his single status and her taken status making things weird? Clearly not, and you can probably see where this whole situation is heading, but director Michael Dowse (who also made the amazing Goon) and credited writers T.J. Dawe, Michael Rinaldi, and Elan Mastai at least give the situation a thorough and nuanced exploration. Nobody is really a villain and nobody is really a victim, valued friendship between the sexes is never treated as an impossibility due to sexual complications and it’s also never treated as the way things should be if we could just rise above trivial desires. The situation is muddy, the decisions the characters make are complicated, and there’s only once or twice where somebody acts dumb and out of character just so some drama can be injected into the story. 

That those things do happen a couple of times is a problem, but because Radcliffe and Kazan are good, and because they’re supported by actors as charming as Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, and because the movie has the good sense to build up to a big climactic moment in the central relationship and then get out quick, it never completely derails itself. Overall, this is a decent pick for the next time you’re looking to indulge in a new cinematic romance, which, if you’re either a teenage girl or as generally weepy as me, is probably pretty often.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Short Round: Let’s Be Cops (2014) **/*****

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are hilarious guys and great comedic actors—and anyone who’s seen the work they’ve done together during the latest season of New Girl can tell you that they have the chemistry necessary to make for a solid onscreen duo. So it makes sense why someone would want to make a big screen comedy and put them in the starring roles. What doesn’t make sense, however, is why Johnson and Wayans, who are both at points in their careers where they’re getting the opportunity to make lots of great stuff, would agree to attach themselves to a script that’s as lame as the one that became Let’s Be Cops

The premise of the film—that two underachieving man-children who dress up as cops for a costume party discover that people give them the respect they’ve been unable to achieve in real life while in uniform then decide to exploit the deference shown to police officers by continuing to dress up in the outfits and act like big shots—is fertile enough ground for comedy in theory, but in execution this script proves to be little more than a mixed bag of lame gags and overly serious dramatic subplots that add up to a tonally confused mess. Johnson and Wayans are good enough at delivery that they’re able to get a handful of laughs out of the material, but that’s almost a miracle when said material mostly consist of well-worn racist outrage-baiting, rapey scenarios involving lecherous men, fear of homosexuality, and silly prat falls. A handful of laughs aren’t nearly enough to keep this one from going straight into the toilet.

Especially because the humor is so broad, and the protagonists are so silly, but then a serious story involving gangsters, police corruption, and life or death situations keeps butting in and getting in the way of the jokes. Unless you’re an elite talent, like say the Coen brothers or something, you can’t have it both ways. You can either have a police movie where the protagonists are real people and the audience is supposed to take the action seriously, or you can have a cop comedy where the protagonists are cartoon characters and the plot stuff doesn’t much matter. Co-writer/director Luke Greenfield is apparently not a Coen brother, because Let’s Be Cops plain doesn’t work. This is a movie that asks you to believe that an impeccably quaffed Nina Dobrev waits tables at a greasy spoon for a living, creates horror movie makeup in her spare time, and also doesn’t have a boyfriend. You can’t introduce a premise that ridiculous and then ask us to treat your shootout scenes as if they exist in any sort of reality or that anyone important could be put in any actual danger by them. What we have here is a decent premise for a movie that unfortunately got taken out of the oven when it was still only half-baked.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calvary (2014) ***/*****

The opening scene of writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s (The Guard) new film, Calvary, is a doozy—the filmic equivalent of that attention-grabbing sentence your teachers would always tell you that your essays had to start with in school. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the priest of a rural Irish church, takes Sunday confession. What must be a familiar routine at this point in his life suddenly becomes anything but when the confessor on the other side of the booth begins by telling a tale of a childhood shattered by sexual abuse at the hands of another priest, and then goes on to explain that, in order to make a statement, he’s going to kill Father James, a good priest, and he’s going to do it exactly one week from when their conversation ends, which gives our protagonist ample time to get his affairs in order. The man’s threat is measured, confident, and both the viewer and Father James have no doubt that it’s for real. That means the film we’re watching is a detailing of the events of what is very likely going to be the last week of the lead’s life.

Calvary is a unique blending of a couple different movie genres that’s largely made up of equal parts character study and murder mystery. Over the course of the week we meet the various characters who populate Father James’ hometown, each of which who are suspicious in their own unique way, which means that each of which could possibly be the shadowy would-be murderer, despite the fact that they all have problems James needs to listen to and help with nonetheless. James doesn’t spend his week actively trying to solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill him—that’s work that’s left to the audience. Instead, he mostly just goes about performing his usual routine, doing his best to serve the people of his parish, and as we watch him do so we slowly begin to learn more and more about who he is as a man. Which, when you’re dealing with a character this layered, who’s being played by an actor as wildly talented as Gleeson, ends up being a lot more fun than it might sound at first.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Short Round: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) **/*****

Just the title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably enough to turn mainstream audiences off of this crazy property. It’s ridiculous—the kind of stuff that only kids could ever like. The fact is though, ever since the original TMNT comic books were turned into a toy line and a cartoon series in the late 80s, the turtles have become a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its little kid fans alone. It’s likely Platinum Dunes had higher aspirations when it came to relaunching them as this live action, big budget, possible franchise-invigorator though. Now there’s a possibility that the Turtles can be followed by new kid fans as well as nostalgia-seeking former fans, which could possibly make it the sort of genre-crossing, money-earning hit that the Marvel movies or the Transformers movies have become. The idea is a sound one, except for the fact that any movie about turtles who mutate into pizza-loving, Renaissance artist-named, ninja teenagers is going to have to primarily concern itself with being a mindless good time in order for broad audiences to really embrace it, and a mindless good time isn’t what this new TMNT movie is at all. As a matter of fact, it’s mostly an exposition-filled bore.

It doesn’t do everything wrong. The special effects that bring the Turtles themselves to life are generally impressive, and may even be an improvement over the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop efforts that brought the Turtles of the 1990 film to life (when we’re watching character-building scenes where they’re just sitting around), and the script seems to have a strong handle on who the turtles are as people—some stream lining and rewriting has been done in respect to their origins, but each Turtle is still easily recognizable as the distinct personality we’ve known them as, and the group dynamic is still largely in tact, so it’s hard to complain about anything that’s happened to the characters. But, on the other hand, this movie sticks so closely to what we’ve gotten in the past, character-wise, that it feels like a huge mistake for it to spend so much time explaining itself. Hollywood has made bad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies before—really bad ones—but this is the first time they’ve made one that’s completely boring.

This Turtles movie comes after an entire trilogy of live action Turtles movies, countless animated series, countless comic books, countless video game spin-offs, and even an ill-advised holiday special, and yet we’re still asked to wait for a good half hour until we see the characters, as if we’re watching Jaws for the first time or something. This is a movie that has a rock-simple plot—mutants are created, mutants escape, their creators need to get them back—but it spends so much time explaining itself with flashbacks and expositional dialogue that you get a good hour in before the plot moves forward at all. Ninety percent of TMNT is its writers explaining away what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are, like we’re not already aware, and like any excuse could ever be made for how ridiculous a concept it is in the first place, and the other ten percent is inert action sequences where the CG nature of all the effects rob everything of any reality, weight, or urgency, so that none of what you’re watching ends up mattering in the first place. This movie is everything that’s wrong with modern blockbusters, rolled into one big failure. It’s a remake of something we’ve had enough of, it’s derivative of everything else that’s come out in the last five years, it’s concerned more with empty spectacle than character-building, and it insults the audience’s intelligence at every turn. This was the Turtles’ big opportunity to move past its child-aimed roots and become a mainstream property, but if you happen to be past the age of a small child and you find yourself satisfied by this film, then you need to take a long, hard look at what exactly it is you do or do not demand from your entertainment. If you like this one, chances are you might be a Philistine.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ****/*****

Up until Marvel came around and changed the game, the approach to making a modern superhero movie seemed to be to strip the material of all the pulp, humor, and color that appeared on the original comic book page, strip down the mythology to only its most grounded, realistic elements, and then to fuse the few fantastical concepts left over to a reality that looked as thoroughly like our own as possible. The theory seemed to be that the bright colors and broad adventure of comic books lost their appeal and became inherently cheesy after getting translated to live action. A quip was made in the first big superhero success story, the original X-Men film, about how ridiculous it would be if they wore bright colored superhero costumes rather than dark, leather, battle suits. Christopher Nolan’s grounding of the Batman character in a world that looked more like the gritty crime dramas of the 70s than any comic book ever printed made more money than basically any other series ever. The strategy was a winner. 

During the period between the releases of the original Iron Man and The Avengers, Marvel once again changed the game though. They proved that bright colors could work on the big screen, as long as they weren’t exaggerated to the point of being disorienting, that humor could fit perfectly into superhero properties, as long as the scripts you write are actually funny, and that big, broad adventure was something that never really went out of style in the first place, so any urge to suppress it was a silly one. Marvel figured out how to make the biggest, best, and most beloved superhero movies of all time, and they did so by sticking closer to the stories’ comic book origins than any movie had before. Which brings us to Guardians of the Galaxy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Boyhood (2014) ****/*****

Richard Linklater has done a lot of interesting stuff over the course of his career as a director, but probably the best of what he’s produced so far comes in the form of his Before trilogy—three movies starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that take place over the course of 18 years. The Before movies are exceptional for two reasons. First of all, they’re famously about little more than people walking together and talking, yet they’re somehow able to not only keep that formula from getting boring, they’re also able to make it downright engaging for the length of three feature-length films. Secondly, because they were able to get the filmmaker and the stars back together for two sequels that each took place nine years apart, they were also able to look at a relationship from a unique perspective as it developed and as the couple naturally aged. We got to see Hawke and Delpy’s faces change and their perspectives change, without the use of phony aging makeup and showy acting meant to project aging, and with the added benefit of the creative forces actually growing in wisdom and skill in between each movie.

Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, is essentially the Before concept on steroids. Everything that was accomplished there is taken a step further and made a step more interesting because of increased ambition. This time around, instead of detailing a relationship as it grows and changes over the course of 18 years, checking in on it a mere three times, Linklater is detailing the entire childhood of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 5 to age 18, and he’s checking in on his development constantly. To be clear about that, this movie was shot over the course of 12 years, with the actors and the crew getting together every year to shoot a handful of new scenes—which means that you gradually watch all of the actors age 12 years, for real, over the course of the film, including watching the star morph from being a bright-eyed 5-year-old in the opening scene to being a scruffy-faced college freshman in the last. It’s a gimmick that would be worth checking out even if the movie wasn’t really any good, but that’s especially worth checking out because the film is so good that it just may be the new best thing Linklater has ever made.