Sunday, January 25, 2015

Short Round: The Boy Next Door (2015) **/*****

If there was one thing I thought that the entire world could agree on, it’s that there’s no such thing as a sexy teenage boy. That was before I saw The Boy Next Door, however, which is a movie that sells itself on the titillating premise of Jennifer Lopez giving into the dark urge to indulge herself in some underaged man-meat, and then suffering the consequences of her indiscretion. Of course, the problem of there being no such thing as a sexy teenage boy was mitigated by director Rob Cohen (xXx, Stealth) casting 27-year-old Ryan Guzman as a high school kid, but that premise alone should still be enough to help you understand just how ridiculous and ill-conceived a movie this is. 

From Play Misty For Me to Fatal Attraction to Single White Female to Chuck and Buck, stalker stories have long been a staple of the thriller genre. They’re great for building tension, they tell a story that’s horrific but nonetheless grounded and relatable, and they generally make for a good excuse to inject some sex into a story. Maybe they don’t usually make for great art, but they almost always make for good trash entertainment. So, seeing as the second half of The Boy Next Door moves on from the salaciousness of J-Lo having an underage love affair to the terror of having said love affair turn into a dangerous stalker situation for her, you’d think that maybe the movie would still be able to entertain, if even in a half-ironic way. Unfortunately though, it’s not even competent enough to achieve that small level of success.

The Boy Next Door is a dumb movie—not just dumb in concept, but also dumb in execution. Its characters don’t act like people so much as they act like characters in a movie. They don’t speak like human beings so much as they speak like pawns in a melodrama who were conceived simply to drive a narrative forward. The disconnect between these people and the world they live in and real people and the real world is so severe that it becomes impossible to care about anything that happens to the Lopez character, or any of the peril she’s put in—which is ample. In fact, her stalker goes so over the top crazy, and the danger elements of the film get so broad and unbelievable, that a more charismatic actor could have used the antagonist role here to really chew some scenery and produce a potentially memorable bit of movie cheese, but Guzman is not that actor. He’s committed enough that he doesn’t embarrass himself, even when delivering bad material, but that’s the best that can be said of anyone involved in this production—they’ve made something bad, but something that’s too blandly bad for anyone to remember it or hold it against them in a month’s time. It’s probably best for everyone that we never speak of this movie again.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Short Round: Predestination (2015) ***/*****

Predestination is very much one of those movies where plot is the whole point. It’s full of ins and outs, twists and turns, and it demands that you dedicate the bulk of your attention to following along with its various narrative threads and fully absorbing how they eventually tie together. Because of this, it’s hard to discuss what the movie is about. To talk about its themes, conflicts, and ideas would give away too much and rob the movie of the bulk of its magic. When Predestination opens though, it’s clear that the main character is a time traveling cop of some sort played by Ethan Hawke, and it’s clear that his current mission is to use his time traveling powers to stop a series of bombings that happened in New York City in the mid-70s. There’s also a transgendered character played by Sarah Snook who ties into his investigation in some way. There. That’s all we’re going to give away.

You see, this is a movie from twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who also co-wrote and co-directed a 2003 movie called Undead, where meteorites turned the populace of a fishing village into zombies, and the 2009 movie Daybreakers, which concerned itself with a future in which a plague had turned the bulk of humanity into blood-craving vampires, so it comes as no surprise that Predestination is heavily steeped in big science fiction concepts and biological weirdness. There probably hasn’t been a movie as concerned with the logistics of time travel and all of the paradoxes and time loops that come with them since 2004’s Primer, but unlike that Shane Carruth movie, which was known for its dryness and bordering-on-homework complexity, Predestination will likely become known for how pants-pooping crazy it is and how much fun it is to predict just how far it’s going to go with all the head-slapping silliness.

Despite the surface level fun of watching all of the plot pieces converge in the third act, Predestination is ultimately too mediocre a movie to strongly recommend to everyone though. Hawke and Snook are both good in their roles, but by “good” I mostly mean that they take characters and stories that should have played as being ridiculous and they’re able to ground them enough so that you stay with the story. And that story itself—it sure asks a lot of the viewer. While it pays itself off in the end, the pacing problems that come with it setting up all of the disparate pieces that eventually prove to be related are a series of hurdles that the audience has to leap over if they don’t want to get left behind. If you’re into time travel stories, the weirder corners of the sci-fi genre, and movies where Ethan Hawke tries to pull off a mustache, then Predestination will be worth giving a look to, but if none of those things sound like they’re in your wheelhouse, there will be plenty of more pleasing ways for you to spend an evening. Maybe a nice game of canasta?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014) *****/*****

One of the best things about the movies Paul Thomas Anderson makes is how rich and dense they are. They’re full of thematic dots that need to be connected, visual details that need to be noticed, and the revelatory sort of performances that are so fresh and nuanced that they send your mind racing off in a thousand different directions all at once. They’re the kind of movies you have to see more than once to feel fully comfortable with, and that tend to get better the more times that you see them. He’s a master director, and maybe the only one working who has the skill set necessary to make a worthy adaptation of one of the works of Thomas Pynchon, a novelist who’s also known for creating art that’s difficult to digest, though rewarding once you do so.

Inherent Vice is the fruits of Anderson’s attempt at bringing Pynchon to the big screen. It’s a drug and sun-soaked detective story set in 1970 LA that has more to do with the mourning of lost love and the corruption of the 60s counter culture thanks to its poisonous introduction to sex-crazed cult figures and heroine than it does to presenting you with an actual mystery or introducing you to a protagonist who does any real detective work. Said protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is much more of an observer than he is anything else—an incorruptible figure who’s pushed through a gauntlet of deceit and wrongdoing by a femme fatale ex-girlfriend named Shasta (Katherine Waterston) so that we can see if he’s able to come through the other end still pure and in one piece. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Selma (2014) ****/*****

Biopics of famous historical figures are probably my least favorite type of film that Hollywood habitually releases, and there are a couple reasons for that. The first is a matter of focus. Too often these movies feel an obligation to cover the entirety of their subject’s life, from childhood to death, and they suffer from their attempts at cramming too much in. A lifetime is made up of thousands of stories, and when you try to touch on all of them you can’t help but give each short shrift. The second reason is the problem with recreating iconic imagery. When you’re recreating moments that have been replayed and reabsorbed by an entire culture time and time again over the course of decades, your recreation can’t help but distract the audience with its creepifying inauthenticity. Thankfully, Ava DuVernay has avoided these potential problems by making a Martin Luther King movie that focuses on one specific period of the man’s life rather than glossing over its entirety, and that doesn’t include his legendary “I have a dream” speech anywhere in its run time.

Selma manages to get to the heart of who King was as a person and what it was like for him to be at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the 60s by lasering its focus in on one critical period of the man’s life—when he was organizing a march from Selma, Alabama to the capital building in Birmingham in order to protest the extreme levels of voter suppression that blacks were experiencing in the state. Despite the fact that this event is only one piece of a very large puzzle when it comes to the things that King and his supporters were able to accomplish over the course of their efforts, it alone is enough to convey to us the personal toll that dedicating your life to a cause puts on a public figure, the shrewd politicking that’s necessary to bring about even the most righteous and idealistic change, and the danger that comes with confronting people’s prejudices and trying to change beliefs that they very passionately hold. By not being the typical biopic of a historical figure, Selma manages to be one of the rare entries in the genre that actually accomplishes what every one of these movies should be setting out to do—giving us a window into the everyday humanity of their iconic subjects.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

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

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been writing movies together for a while, and with last year’s This is The End they even branched out to becoming co-directors. If you’ve seen anything that they’ve made together so far, then you pretty much know what to expect from The Interview. It’s an irreverent comedy that’s more concerned with wiener jokes than it is in telling any kind of straight-faced story. It’s pop culturally aware and far more concerned with making references to current trends than it is in creating something that will become an evergreen classic. It’s a trifle, really. A well made and often funny trifle, but a trifle nonetheless. The biggest hurdle it’s likely to face when it comes to pleasing audiences, then, is that its subject matter has thrust it into a global spotlight and built up big expectations around what should have just been a disposable comedy.

In case you somehow missed the controversy, The Interview sees Rogen and James Franco playing an ambitious TV producer and a witless talk show host who manage to land an exclusive interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), and who get recruited by the CIA to use the opportunity as a chance to assassinate the young megalomaniac. Due to the potentially politically charged subject matter, cyberattacks were perpetrated, terrorist threats followed, and the film’s planned release was eventually scrapped in favor of a much smaller theatrical release and a simultaneous VOD rollout that came days later. It’s been a big deal, an international incident that even the President felt the need to comment on, and the way it’s turned watching this movie into an act of protest rather than the minor diversion it was designed to be is likely to earn it some backlash.

All we should really be discussing is whether The Interview works as a comedy though, and in a general way it does. It’s a little slow to get going, but once Rogen and Franco’s characters actually make it into North Korea, things start to pick up and then never let up. Probably the highlight of the film is Franco’s chemistry with Park, as the two play their characters like giddy school girls whenever they get together and the results can be infectious to watch. In general, it’s Franco’s dumb guy act that really keeps this movie from being a stinker, as he’s always best when he’s going big with his performances, and the clueless nature of his character not only allows him to do that here, it also imbues the film with an aggressively empty-headed and lowbrow approach to comedy that feels almost transcendentally appropriate given all of the political hand-wringing its release has caused. Relax, it seems to assure us, movies are supposed to be fun.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) **/*****

While Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a landmark series of films that will go down in history as being seminal works, his prequel trilogy, The Hobbit, has been a mixed bag that has produced diminishing returns. At this point, this is the sixth film that Jackson has made that’s set in this same world, striking this same tone, and that has a run time that’s well over two hours. Even for huge fans of the overall franchise, the magic has to be running out. Truth be told, though The Hobbit started off as a less than perfect though perfectly entertaining companion piece to The Lord of the Rings, with this final chapter, The Battle of the Five Armies, the series as a whole has revealed itself to be quite a tedious slog.

If you’ve seen the first two Hobbit movies, then you should have a good idea of what this one is about. If you haven’t, then you’re going to be confused, because Five Armies exists as little more than an extended action climax that caps off all of the setup that was put into place by the first two films. When The Desolation of Smaug ended, the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) had left his home in The Lonely Mountain and was heading toward the nearest town, presumably with the intention of destroying it and killing everyone who lives there. When we pick things up in this film, that’s just what’s happening. The dragon attack is big and spectacular and starts the film off on an exciting note. And then another big action scene follows it. And another. And another. It doesn’t take long before the sight of hoards of CG beings smashing into each other becomes numbing and boring.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Short Round: Foxcatcher (2014) **/*****

After directing Capote and Moneyball, Bennett Miller has become fairly renowned for being a go-to guy when it comes to biopics. So you’d think that him tackling the life of John du Pont—who was an heir to a fortune, weirdly obsessed with amateur wrestling, and who suffered from issues with self esteem and mental illness that eventually led to him committing a murder and being incarcerated—would make for a pretty amazing movie. Unfortunately, this time around, it doesn’t. Miller isn’t a director who I’ve found to be too on the nose in the way he tells stories before, but for some reason his hand gets fairly heavy here (through extraneous use of flashbacks, camera work that over emphasizes what we’re supposed to be feeling about a scene, etc…), and the result is a movie that contains individual scenes that are good on their own, but that doesn’t work as a whole.

Probably the thing about Foxcatcher that’s earning it the most attention is its performances, which makes sense, because Steve Carell is really going out on a limb as du Pont, and Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum are burning an equal amount of calories playing David and Mark Schultz, a pair of Olympic gold medal earning brothers who get sucked into du Pont’s bubble of influence thanks to his obsession with wrestling, and eventually suffer negative consequences because of it. Each performer doesn’t work to the same result, however. Ruffalo is absolutely amazing here, disappearing so completely into the older brother David that you never once catch him performing. Tatum and Carrell are a different story. Tatum is so forcefully playing the younger brother Mark as a hulking, confused, lump of focus and simplicity, that to behold him on screen is like laying eyes on a cave man. But at times he goes a bit far and it feels like he’s doing a caveman impression—and poor Carrell fairs even worse. He’s really making a go of it as du Pont, but they’ve got him buried in so many stupid looking prosthetics and have dressed him in so many silly outfits that it’s never not clear that you’re watching Steve Carell play-acting a wacky character.

The main problem with Foxcatcher is that it’s boring though. Slow burns can be effective, especially when they’re building up to as big a moment as this film is, but this one goes beyond being a slow burn. This movie is barely ever smoldering. It’s so much longer than it needs to be, it spends too much time on scenes that don’t actively drive the narrative forward, and it asks us to be far too interested in the day to day existences of characters who exist as little more than blank slates with one critical personality flaw. There’s no life, no humor, no anything in this script other than a slight awkward tension in the interactions between the principals that’s just barely able to keep you from turning it off. Foxcatcher is a story that may have been worth 100 or so minutes of screen time, but at 134 minutes it gets sunk by its own weight.

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

For a first time writer/director of a feature, Jennifer Kent did an amazing job making The Babadook. Seeing as the film doesn’t seem to be getting praised as a strong effort from a first time director though, I fear that it could generate something of a backlash. Currently there are a number of respected voices praising the movie as being an instant classic and an immediate member of the horror canon, and it seems to me that such a large amount of hype could cause audiences to come out of it feeling disappointed when they eventually get a chance to see it (currently it’s not playing on too many screens, but is available on VOD if you know to search for it). I guess what I’m saying is that the best way to watch The Babadook would be to go into it expecting to see a typical, overdone haunted house movie, and then come out of it pleasantly surprised that it’s actually got a couple of assets that help to raise it a step above the rabble.

The main thing that the film has going for it is the lead performance of Essie Davis, who’s playing a single mother whose house is plagued with supernatural happenings after she reads her son a children’s book about an insidious figure named Mr. Babadook that seems to invite demonic energy into their lives. Her character goes from sad, to terrified, to manic, to menacing over the course of the film, and she’s able to sell absolutely everything that’s asked of her. Perhaps more impressively though, even though she’s put through a traumatic amount of stressful and annoying situations, she’s able to make you identify and sympathize so much with her character that you never want the camera to cut away from her, no matter how much her ordeal is making you squirm in your seat. The other main character, her son, isn’t realized quite as well. He’s played by newcomer Noah Wiseman, a youngster who the script simply asks too much of. He has scenes where he needs to go big and broad and sell rage, panic, and screaming insanity to the audience, and it’s just more than he can muster—and perhaps more than any actor his age could muster. The scenes where he’s freaking out are supposed to have real weight to them, but when you watch them you can’t help but feel like you’re just watching a little kid being silly.

That they go so far with the kid losing control is part of the other big reason this movie is better than your typical evil spirit movie, however. The horror of this film comes not only from the usual malevolent presence, but also from the crushing responsibilities of being a parent. The typical trials and tribulations of parenthood, and how they’re able to sometimes make even the best parents resent their children, get amplified so thoroughly here that the stress they cause skyrockets off the charts, to the point where you begin to believe that the misbehaving/uncompromising child could have been the only antagonist in the film, and it still would have been just as scary. The way that being haunted by an evil spirit would interrupt your life gets woven in with the way that having a child does interrupt your life, and presenting the two situations next to each other provides the film with quite a bit of meaty thematics for the audience to chew on—which is a pretty unusual thing to say about a movie in this genre, and is probably the big reason that it’s earning so much praise.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014) ****/*****

After all of the profits he generated by making the Dark Knight movies and Inception, filmmaker Christopher Nolan basically had carte blanche to spend as much money as he wanted making whatever movie he wanted the next time around. Similarly, after all the universally praised work that he’s been doing over the course of the last few years, Matthew McConaughey has become essentially free to star in whatever projects he chooses. Given all of that rarified power, what both men chose to do is to work with each other on Interstellar, a science fiction movie about a dying Earth, the ties that bind us together as a species, and a last-ditch gambit to find a way to keep our species—and, by proxy, that connection—alive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Interstellar is an event movie—large in hype, scale, visual splendor, and storytelling ambition. This isn’t just a story about how humanity deals with a crisis, though it is that. It isn’t just a story about a regular man who gets called on to do an extraordinary thing, though it’s that as well. It’s a big screen adventure. It’s a meditation on the relationships between fathers and daughters. It’s that sort of genre-heavy “hard sci-fi” story that’s more concerned with exploring future possibilities and imaginative ideas than it is in being pure escapism—all while still being pure escapism. When you factor in all of the things that Interstellar is trying to do in one movie, it becomes clear that it really is an attempt at creating one of those sweeping, mythic pieces of art that’s looking to provide answers to all of the big questions of life, the universe, and everything. And, sure, maybe it isn’t quite able to pull all of those lofty goals off, but it is still refreshing to see a mainstream release that’s got the chutzpah to try.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Short Round: Laggies (2014) ***/*****

The film industry creates no shortage of indie movies about characters who are old enough to be adults, but who nonetheless live in a state of depressed, arrested development. That doesn’t mean that these movies can’t still be good if they find a unique voice or are made especially well though. Lynn Shelton is the kind of director who likes to make loosely-scripted, improv-heavy, small-scale, realist movies, so they too need to bring a little something extra to the table in order to be good. Her Your Sister’s Sister cast found an amazing chemistry and created an amazing movie together as a result, while her more recent film, Touchy Feely, came off as more of an unfocused mess. Laggies, which is both a lost young adult movie as well as a Lynn Shelton movie, is a solid-though-unspectacular effort that puts it not only right in the middle of the pack of slacker movies, but also somewhere right in between the spontaneous joy of Your Sister’s Sister and the frustrating faults of Touchy Feely. What that means to you will probably depend on how strongly you respond to the genre and the creator.

Laggies is about a girl who’s probably somewhere in her late 20s, named Megan (Keira Knightley). After a decade or so of hanging out with the same group of friends she’s had since high school, Megan comes to realize that everyone she knows has turned into married, careered, dead-eyed yuppies, while she still feels that exploratory spark of youth and has yet to figure out what she wants her life to be. One proposal from her painfully earnest-though-lame longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber) later and Megan reaches a crisis point. Is she really ready to lock in to this kind of traditional existence? Retreating, our would-be hero ends up skipping out on her responsibilities and loved ones and holing up in the bedroom of a random high school girl (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) who she meets outside of a liquor store. As if this wasn’t intrigue enough, even more conflict creeps into the picture when, after running away from her own problems, Megan then finds herself deeply involved in the troubles of not only this young girl, but also the frazzled-though-charismatic single father (Sam Rockwell) who’s been raising her.

Overall, Laggies is good but not great, though if there is one aspect of the film that elevates it above mediocrity and makes it worth seeking out, it’s the lead performance given by Knightley. She’s an actress who I’ve been hot and cold on in the past, but after what she accomplished here, I feel as though I’ve reached the point where I’m sold on her as a leading lady completely. Not only is she great at playing open-wound vulnerability (a refreshing change from all the repressed period picture performances of her early career) while letting every nuance of emotion that her character feels play over her naturally emotive face, but she’s also able to impress with the chemistry she’s able to conjure with her co-stars, which is just off the charts. Whether she’s lending an ear to Moretz’s confused kid or trading quips with Rockwell’s lonely adult, you absolutely believe in the onscreen relationships as they’re developed; which is essential to a movie like this whose premise is so inherently ludicrous. A movie about an adult hiding out in a teenager’s bedroom probably should have been a train wreck, but in the hands of the people involved here, it’s more like a train ride—maybe not the most exciting way to spend an afternoon, but it certainly has its charms.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Short Round: Big Hero 6 (2014) ***/*****

Disney Animation’s recent delving into video game-themed adventure, Wreck-It Ralph, proved that they’re a studio who could step outside of their princess roots and make animated movies that appeal to both boys and girls alike. And Marvel, the super hero factory who they teamed up with to make this movie, Big Hero 6, are the last people who need to have their credentials once again listed. In theory, Big Hero 6 looked like it represented the perfect marriage of content and creators—a surefire home run if there ever was one. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite manage to get there. If we’re going to stick with baseball metaphors, we’ll call it a solid double.

Big Hero 6 is a loosely adapted big screen version of an original Marvel comic that told the tale of the forming of a team of Japanese superheroes. This being mainstream Hollywood moviemaking though, we’re not getting the stories of Japanese-speaking people this time around. Instead, the film has created the city of San Fransokyo as it’s setting—an immersive metropolis that mixes San Francisco with Asian iconography and then pumps itself full of visual steroids. The story told is that of a troubled young genius named Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his loyal and lovable robot Baymax (Scott Adsit), who outfit a team of science-obsessed grad students with high tech weaponry in an effort to solve the mystery around and avenge the death of Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), and inadvertently create the world’s newest team of superheroes in the process.

Big Hero 6 is a solid film, the kind that is likely to be enjoyed quite a bit by children, but, in the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t bring anything to the table that would allow it to stand out from the rest of the animated pack. It’s frequently amusing, but never legitimately funny. It’s packed full of action, but it’s never legitimately thrilling. And, most of all, the things that it does manage to do well are things that too closely resemble aspects of other movies that already did them better. The Iron Giant did the boy and his robot story better. The Incredibles did animated superhero adventure better. Things like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or ParaNorman told the story of the sensitive and intellectual outsider better. Big Hero 6 never makes any major missteps, but in a world that’s so inundated with great animated family films as well as great superhero adventure movies, it needed to find a more unique angle to attack these storytelling forms from in order to not feel like such an also-ran. Baymax is cuddly and cute, but not enough to support an entire feature.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014) ****/*****

Dan Gilroy has been working as a screenwriter for a while, long enough to have started his career by penning the script for Freejack, that ridiculous movie about time travel and body swapping that Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger starred in back in 1992. Even given his lengthy career, he’s still never really done anything that hinted at the idea he had the ability necessary to become a true voice in filmmaking though, or even a successful director (some of his other works include the abysmal Reel Steel and that Bourne sequel that got rid of Matt Damon and introduced us to Chems). Still, ignorant as we may have been to his talent, it turns out it does exist, because he’s now written and directed Nightcrawler, which is such a strong movie that it almost seems impossible that it was made by a first-time filmmaker.

Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a sort-of lost soul who nonetheless has lofty aspirations to improve his station in the world. When we meet him he’s a petty thief, stealing scrap metal and selling it for a few dollars here and there, but after he happens upon a highway accident and is introduced to a freelance news photographer named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) he’s suddenly struck with the inspiration to begin a new career. These freelance photographers refer to themselves as nightcrawlers, and the general idea of what they do is that they’re the ambulance-chasing version of a news reporter—they listen to a police scanner and wait for a violent crime or gruesome accident to happen, show up on the scene, shoot as much footage as they’re able to get, and then they try to sell it to a local TV station’s news department. It’s a scummy job that could only really be done by people who don’t mind being annoyances and who don’t mind exploiting the suffering of others, and thanks to the pile of social quirks Louis very clearly has, it winds up being a job that he’s very good at.

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.