Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) ***/*****

The idea behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that of rewriting Jane Austen’s classic novel of social repression so that it takes place in a world full of flesh-eating zombies, is one that should have been clever and amusing for about a minute or two. It’s the sort of thing you hear about, chuckle at the notion of, and then dismiss. It shouldn’t have been enough to actually support an entire book, let alone a film adaptation of said book. And yet, here we are, watching a Burr Steers-directed (Igby Goes Down) film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bastardization of Austen’s novel, and the results are pretty dang entertaining.

Nine times out of ten a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film would have ended up being some kind of bottom of the barrel exploitation farce—something that looks cheap, lacks weight, and fails to connect with the audience in any substantial way, like Grahame-Smith’s other foray into this sort of cinematic myth corruption, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This one isn’t just a one-note joke though. Not only does it maintain the bulk of what makes Austen’s story entertaining and resonant to modern audiences, and not only does it handle the horror of its zombie elements pretty well, but it’s also surprisingly well-crafted.

Hail, Caesar! (2016) **/*****

Joel and Ethan Coen have made movies that people didn’t like before. Even their greatest films are far enough afield from normal sensibilities to keep them from being loved by everyone. Then there are the movies they’ve made that most people agree just aren’t very good—things like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. The Coen brothers making movies that people don’t like is nothing new. I never imagined that they’d make a movie that I didn’t like though. I’m the guy who thinks Intolerable Cruelty is oozing with way too much charm to be bad, the guy who thinks that few movies are as consistently hysterical as The Ladykillers. Unfortunately, however, the day that I didn’t like a Coen brothers movie has finally come, and the movie that made it happen is Hail, Caesar!

The film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a fixer of sorts for a prominent film studio in the 1950s. His job is to keep the studio’s unruly movie stars in line and to cover things up when their decadent Hollywood behavior threatens to generate bad enough publicity to hurt the company’s bottom line. Though he’s tasked with taking care of several unique problems over the course of the film, his primary concern is that one of the studio’s biggest leading men, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped by Communists. You see, given his position, it’s his responsibility to negotiate Whitlock’s release. People in the know will tell you that Mannix is based on a real-life figure of the same name, a man who worked for MGM rather than the fictional Capital Pictures that exists in this film.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jane Got a Gun (2016) **/*****

Throughout the 90s and the aughts, so few people were making Westerns and so few Westerns that got made were any good that it felt like the genre was dying. There were some rumblings of a resurgence back in 2010 when the Coen brothers made a bunch of money and got a bunch of critical acclaim with their True Grit remake though—and with the release of Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, and The Hateful Eight last year (which were all awesome to varying degrees), it started to look like we were on the verge of a full-on Western renaissance. Maybe those films raising expectations is why Jane Got a Gun feels like such a disappointment. Conversely, maybe the lowered expectations the genre came with for so long is why it also feels like Jane Got a Gun should be given a pass for being such a disappointment. Either way you cut it though, the sad truth is that, like most movies that get released in January, Jane Got a Gun has a lot of problems.

The film opens with a man (Noah Emmerich) returning home to his wife and child and their isolated ranch with a small handful of bullets in his body, dying. That’s not the worst of his situation though. The worst is that the bullets were put in him because he crossed a powerful gang of outlaws, the sort of gang who isn’t going to be happy with just seriously injuring an enemy, so now they’re on his trail, they aim on finishing the job of murdering him, and they’ll likely also take care of the wife and the kid when they get there. The wife is Jane (Natalie Portman), and given the fact that her husband has been incapacitated, it falls on her to protect her home and her family. The twist there is that the only gunslinger she knows who might help her is her ex-fiancĂ© (Joel Edgerton). He answers her call, begrudgingly, but once he’s in the house of his former love and her new husband, bad feelings begin to bubble to the surface. Add that to the ticking clock element of the gang of outlaws on their way to wreak havoc, and this doesn’t turn out to be a good situation for anyone. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Boy (2016) ***/*****

There’s nothing in the world better than a horror movie that starts out simple by establishing a setting and a mood and that then spends the rest of its time slowly and deliberately building the threat of whatever’s stalking its protagonist. Horror beasties are best left lurking in the shadows, where our imaginations make them more terrifying than any bit of creature design or special effect ever could, until the tension and pressure of their increasingly overt behavior becomes so great that you have to finally release it by having them do something terrible. A satisfying build to a satisfying freak-out is the recipe that good horror is made from. It’s not so easy a thing to achieve though. There’s a razor’s edge that needs to be walked, a needle to be threaded, in order to build at the right pace and then go off the rails at the exact right moment. 

The Boy is the sort of horror movie that does almost everything right, but because it builds at slightly too slow a pace and for slightly too long, its impact isn’t felt as much as it should be when it finally makes things go nuts. Somewhere in the middle of this movie you start to get a little bored, a little restless, which makes the climax feel like it comes just a little bit too late. If you think of a horror movie as being the sort of prank where you pop a balloon next to a person’s head in order to startle them, you want to pop the balloon when it’s as full of air as possible in order to get maximum effect. What The Boy does is slowly and deliberately blow up the balloon until it reaches the point where it looks like it’s going to burst at any second, and then it just kind of lets the air out of it for a while, finally popping the thing when it’s only about half full. Sure, it’s still enough to get a jump from the victim, but if they’d only popped the balloon back when it was at its breaking point, it could have resulted in so much more pants-pooping.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Carol (2015) ***/*****

Was anyone progressive and cool enough to write about lesbian relationships in the conformity-embracing climate of the early 1950s? Yes, Patricia Highsmith (‘Strangers on a Train,’ ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’) was, which is just the sort of thing you’d imagine capturing the interest of filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine). Carol is his adaptation of Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt,’ in which an unhappy housewife named Carol (Cate Blanchett) indulges in a lesbian dalliance with a pretty young shop girl named Therese (Rooney Mara) during the final stages of separation from her wealthy husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Carol is quaffed, mysterious, and enchanting, and Therese is young, spun-around, and trying to figure out what kind of woman she wants to be. This being the 50s, things aren’t going to be easy for either of them.

The reason to see Carol is that it’s ridiculously pretty to look at. The exhaustive work of costumer Sandy Powell and production designer Judy Becker teams with the work of probably about a thousand other artists to create an immersive, expansive journey into a romantic and idealized version of the early 50s. Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman’s decision to shoot the film on Super 16mm rather than 35 mm or digital lends their images a fuzzy, tactile graininess that separates the film visually from any other recent release. Carol is rich and warm and layered—the kind of movie that you feel like you could reach out and touch, or even wrap yourself up in like a blanket—and when that aesthetic gets paired with the gloss and glamour of the period-set production design, the results are a viewing experience that has the emotional resonance of flipping through a cherished old photo album that belonged to your grandmother.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Anomalisa (2015) ****/*****

A surface explanation of its plot makes Anomalisa sound like a very mundane movie. It’s about a rather ordinary guy named Michael (David Thewlis) who wrote a successful book about customer service getting flown to Cincinnati to speak at a sales conference. The first part of his trip sees him feeling isolated from everyone around him, then he tries and fails to connect with an old flame, and then he meets and finds a spark with an intriguing new stranger. That’s it. Boring, right? Not so, which makes sense once you factor in that the film was written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and that Michael and all of the rest of the characters are marionettes brought to life through stop-motion animation.

Creating a world of puppetry isn’t the only stylistic trick Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have come up with for this one either. They’ve also made the decision to have Tom Noonan voice every other character Michael encounters, in the same monotone. Well, every other character except for Lisa, the intriguing conference-goer who sports the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh. What this does is create a great filmic shorthand for that feeling depression causes where everyone around you turns into a faceless mass of humanity who you feel completely isolated from, as well as a shorthand for that electric feeling you get when you meet someone who finally stands out from the crowd and who you feel an instant connection to. Thus, with a couple of high-minded filmmaking risks (and the help of strong vocal performances from Thewlis and Leigh), our dynamic directing duo take a story that initially sounds ordinary and ends up making a movie that’s anything but.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sicario (2015) ****/*****

Back in 2010, director Denis Villeneuve released a movie called Incendies that was about a pair of siblings researching a family history full of rape, torture, and murder. In 2013 he released a pressure cooker of a movie about child kidnapping and pedophilia called Prisoners. So the guy has got something of a style. His newest movie, Sicario, is about the war currently being waged between US law enforcement agencies and Mexican drug cartels, so given the violent nature of that war and the unflinching style with which Villeneuve tackles everything, it’s pretty hardcore.

Emily Blunt stars as a hard ass FBI agent who gets recruited by a shady government task force dedicated to thwarting the business of the Mexican drug cartels, on account of how their extreme violence and disturbing level of influence has begun to creep over the border and into small town USA. Blunt’s character doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to be doing, or what the ultimate endgame of her actions are going to be, but she’s more than a little sure that what she’s involved in isn’t going to be on the up and up, and more and more it gets to looking like she’s not going to feel very good about herself, morally, when all is said and done.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Short Round: Turbo Kid (2015) ***/*****

In concept, Turbo Kid is so completely mired in the current Tumblr-generated, 80s-obsessed, throwback culture that’s been driven deeply into the ground that you’d think it would play as being tired, but in execution it’s so sincere and so concerned with celebrating the joys of everything that was fun about 80s genre cinema that you still can’t help but have a good time watching it. The story is a low budget throwback to Mad Max, with dashes of things like Star Wars and Big Trouble in Little China thrown in. The Kid (Munroe Chambers) is our hero, a young punk with a sweet BMX bike and a custom-painted helmet who lives in a fallout shelter full of every awesome toy, comic book, and bit of junk food he can salvage from the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is his surroundings. His life is every ten-year-old’s dream, which is escapist gold in itself, but it’s not all the movie has to offer.

Things pick up when he meets a very manic and very pixie dream girl friend named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), who he’s reluctant to accept at first but who eventually wins him over through the sheer force of cuteness, and they pick up even further after she’s kidnapped by the evil forces of an after society tribe leader named Zeus (Michael Ironsides). Before you know it, he’s using his turbo-powered weapon that kind of resembles an archaic video game accessory to team up with a grizzled cowboy named Frederic the Arm Wrestler (Aaron Jeffrey) in order to save the girl and bring justice to an outlawed landscape—all set to the kind of pulsing, synth score you’d expect a movie like this to have if it actually did come out in the 80s. It all sounds so cloying, doesn’t it? But it’s just so damned earnest that you can’t help but get on board anyway.

That said, the film isn’t a complete joy. In many ways its low budget nature only ads to the charm of what it’s trying to do, but in other ways it’s still limiting. Clearly there weren’t too many locations writing/directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell could afford to shoot at, so the film kind of just does the same thing over and over again in similar looking places, with diminishing results. How many battles between goofy, sporting good-equipped good guys and goofy, power tool-equipped bad guys can one sit through? Quite a few, especially given all of the delightful, over the top gore that this film provides, but not quite as many as it requires you to. Somewhere after the fifth time the heroes have suffered a devastating loss you stop caring about their plight and start looking at your watch. Turbo Kid is a lot of fun, it’s just maybe not feature film fun. Cut a half hour off this thing, throw it on Adult Swim, and it would have been legendary.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Z For Zachariah (2015) ***/*****

While the premise of setting a movie after some sort of world ending apocalypse has occurred is far from unique, Craig Zobel’s new film, Z for Zachariah, is able to separate itself from the pack a bit by telling a small story and keeping its focus squarely on character. The setting is a fertile valley on an Earth that has been otherwise ravaged by radioactivity. The setting is just the catalyst for the story though, not the focus of it. This isn’t a movie that’s all that interested in explaining why exactly the whole world went to shit, or why this particular valley was immune from the devastation, it’s just interested in putting a few characters in the middle of the situation and then exploring how the way they react to it speaks to the human condition.

The basic setup is that a farm girl named Ann (Margot Robbie) has always lived here, and she’s doing her duty as the last living member of her family to keep the farm going when she finds an explorer named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has wandered into her isolated little world. He’s the first person she’s seen in a really long time, and thanks to an understandable mishap he’s suffering from some pretty serious radiation poisoning when they meet, so being the trusting, down to earth farm girl she is, she takes him home and nurses him back to health, and after a period of time they predictably start to form a bond. Before they can consummate that bond in the way that adults do, however, a second figure from the outside world makes his way into the valley. His name is Caleb (Chris Pine), and while Loomis is a learned man of science who doesn’t have much room for religion or sentimentality, Caleb has a personality that seems to be much more copacetic with the way country girl Ann’s is on the surface. Perhaps predictably, tension both sexual and murderous then begins to be built.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Short Round: The Man From UNCLE (2015) ***/*****

Back in the 90s it was popular for movie studios to adapt TV shows from the 60s into big budget features. Kind of like how it’s popular to adapt comic books into big budget features now. Apparently the makers of The Man From UNCLE didn’t get the memo that the 90s are over though, because they’ve adapted one of the few untouched shows of the era, one about an American secret agent (Henry Cavill) and a Soviet secret agent (Armie Hammer) having to team up, even though it’s 2015. Usually when these things get adapted their stories are brought into modern times, but UNCLE has a concept so specific to its era that it was necessary to keep things back in the 60s and make a period piece. Given the dated nature of the source material and the late to the party release of the adaptation, is The Man From UNCLE an irrelevant property that should have been left in the past?

Not exactly. For one thing, director Guy Ritchie is able to utilize the 60s setting to make one of the most aesthetically slick, pleasant to look at action movies that’s come out in a while. Thanks to the costuming, to the affectations of the actors, and to all of the split-screen action choreography that gets put on display, UNCLE is chalk full of vintage cool. It’s hard to imagine a version of the film set in modern times being as visually dense or having nearly as much swagger—and it’s hard to imagine Cavill being so slick as the roguish American agent if he wasn’t always wearing an impeccable 60s suit, or Hammer being as affectively masculine as the steaming kettle Soviet agent if he didn’t have the era’s social cues and gender norms to lean into. The Man From UNCLE is a gorgeous movie full of great acting, and the fact that it’s swimming in the world of the 60s only accentuates that.

The problem with the film is that, even though its actors are surrounded by gorgeous things, and even though they’re all charming and gorgeous themselves, they’re never given anything to do other than typical spy movie stuff that you’ve already seen play out a million times before. Despite the fact that this thing is full of fighting and espionage and world-ending stakes, its most memorable scene is one in which Alicia Vikander’s plucky femme fatale puts on a pair of sunglasses and dances in her pajamas. That girl is endlessly charming, and the camera loves her. With The Man From UNCLE, Ritchie might have made the most breezy, attractive, completely forgettable movie in recent memory. It will enchant you while it’s around, and then it will be completely forgotten the moment it’s gone, like a whiff of designer perfume farted out into a strong breeze.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Cop Car (2015) ****/*****

In the opening scene of Cop Car, its two protagonists, a pair of young boys named Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), walk through a picturesque field while saying cuss words. Travis picks the word, and then Harrison dutifully repeats it. Until they get to the F word, that is. Instead of repeating after Travis, Harrison pauses, causing Travis to get more forceful. “Say it,” he commands. Instead, Harrison shakes his head no and fearfully says in a hushed tone, “That’s the worst cuss.” In just this short scene we learn everything we need to know about the boys, and about the movie, which is all about delivering cinema goodness with economy and simplicity.

The story proper kicks off a few moments later when the boys come across a cop car abandoned out in that middle of the nowhere that their running away from home has led them into. At first the boys throw a rock at the car, then they dare each other to run up and touch it, then to check the doors to see if they’re open, and before you know it they’ve got the engine fired up, the cherries and berries lit up, and they’re taking the vehicle out for an off road joy ride. This is bad for them, because the car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a drunken, dirty cop who only abandoned it momentarily so that he could take care of some seriously underhanded business, and who wants it back pronto.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) ****/*****

There’s nothing better than when you start watching a new movie and you realize that all of the big moments from its advertising are going to be taken care of within the first five minutes of its opening. Too often movie trailers give away the entire plot of the film, or at least all of the big, spectacular moments, in an effort to ensure that they capture as many potential customers’ interests as possible. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is one of the movies that’s confident enough in itself to fill its ads with mostly stuff that happens in the first five minutes, and then to let what’s left come as a surprise. Its confidence is not misplaced either, because this fifth Mission: Impossible is not only a really fun summer movie, it’s also one of the best entries in the franchise.

That doesn’t mean as much as it does when you’re talking about most other franchises that get to five installments though, because each Mission: Impossible movie has been made by a different director, and instead of being directed to make their movie as simpatico and cohesive with the others as possible, as is usually the case, each of these directors has clearly been directed to put as much of their own stamp on their work as possible, so your opinion on which ones are good and which ones are bad could very wildly to the opinions of the person next to you. For me, I found the first one to be generally fine, but fairly generic, the second to be wildly bad, the third to be a little short on thrills, but admirable in the way it tried to turn Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) into a more three-dimensional character, the fourth to be a hugely satisfying summer action movie, and this fifth one to line up pretty well with the fourth. It kind of feels like, despite the fact that each new director is likely to keep putting their stamp on future Mission: Impossible movies, that this could be a franchise that’s managed to find a voice anyway.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trainwreck (2015) ***/*****

There aren’t many things that a comedy has to do in order to be considered a success. If it’s consistently funny throughout its run time and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, then pretty much it did what it needed to do. No big whoop. Trainwreck, the new romantic comedy from writer/star Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow manages to accomplish both, which is kind of a miracle given how long and shaggy Apatow’s last few movies have gotten, but somehow it still doesn’t quite accomplish everything it needs to in order to be considered a complete success. It’s a success with an asterisk next to the word.

Before we get into the good and bad of the film, let’s talk a little bit about the story. Schumer stars as a girl named Amy, which I guess is supposed to make us believe that the role she’s written for herself is close to her heart and fairly confessional. Her character writes for a trashy men’s magazine during the day and spends her nights binge drinking and having one-night stands, which might have been cute when she was in her twenties, but is starting to look pretty depressing now that she’s getting older. All of that changes when she is assigned to write a story about a successful new sports surgeon (Bill Hader) though, because not only is there a spark between them, but he also ends up being the sort of stable, legit guy who she never goes for. Can a woman who’s lived her whole life as the titular train wreck actually settle down and have a real relationship, or have the life patterns she’s established for herself doomed her to a fate of self-sabotage?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man (2015) ***/*****

With the most recent release that exists as part of their “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, Marvel Studios hit a snag. Just when it seemed like audiences might be getting tired of the superhero-origin-story-leads-to-a-big-fight-to-stop-a-world-ending-event-from-occurring-above-a-populated-city formula, they subverted things a bit by making movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, which felt more like a 70s-era political thriller and a comedy-driven space opera than they did traditional superhero movies, and are probably the best movies the studio has put out yet—but then they released Avengers: Age of Ultron, which stuck to their established superhero formula too closely, and which felt tired and played out compared to the two movies that came before it. Age of Ultron wasn’t a bad movie, per se, it just felt like more of something we’d already had enough of. 

So, given the less than unanimous praise for Age of Ultron, how does their new superhero movie, Ant-Man, fair when it comes to changing up the superhero formula and giving us a fresh enough spin on the traditional comic book tale to prove that the gigantic slate of superhero films they’ve got planned is not only going to continue to be successful, but is going to continue to be so enthusiastically welcomed by audiences that they continue to break box office records? It does a middling job. In some ways it dabbles enough in the heist genre to feel like a freshening up of the now standard superhero movie, but in others it falls enough into formula to feel like an economic inevitability rather than an adventure the audience is being invited to go on.