Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ex Machina (2015) ****/*****

If you’ve seen any of the ads for writer Alex Garland’s (28 Days Later, Dredd) first film as a director, Ex Machina, then you know that it’s one of those robot movies that explores the murky boundaries between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. The basic setup is that Oscar Isaac is playing a genius tech billionaire type called Nathan, he’s created a robotic woman called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he’s hired an intelligent but slightly nebbish man called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test out the limits of her intelligence and determine whether she really is a fully realized consciousness, or just a very convincing approximation of one.

If this movie hadn’t been advertised, you wouldn’t know any of that until you got a good chunk of the way into it though. During the opening few scenes, Gleeson’s character has been thrown into a fairly fantastic setting that he isn’t familiar with, and it isn’t completely clear to him or us why he’s there or what he’s supposed to be doing. There’s a good chunk of runtime, before Isaac’s character explains things, where we’re forced to sit in an uncertain situation and do our best to blindly explore it, just as much as the protagonist is. Is Gleeson’s character in danger? Is he about to embark on a magical and life-changing journey? It’s not clear, but what’s clear is that anything is possible with this setup, and thanks to that the film is instantly interesting.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

While We’re Young (2015) ****/*****

A lot of people have taken a love them or hate them approach to Noah Baumbach’s movies, but often it feels to me like these people didn’t watch enough of the guy’s stuff before making such an extreme judgment. It’s true that his movies can get a bit rough to watch, seeing as they feature realist characters who often have bleak and cynical points of view that make them difficult to root for, but they also unapologetically speak to truth, and there’s only been one or two of them that actually went too far in the direction of being an unpleasant experience. Plus, his most recent film, Frances Ha, took a big step toward letting a little bit of hope break through all of that doom and gloom, and this new movie, While We’re Young, keeps that energy going, even if it isn’t quite as light. What this one does is deal with the struggle of losing the hope and energy that comes from youth once you’re older and wiser and you’ve had reality creep into your dreams a few too many times. It’s the happy medium between his bleaker stuff like Margot at the Wedding and Frances.

While We’re Young’s story sees Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts playing a married couple who find their routine and stagnant lives suddenly blossoming with passion and energy after they befriend a much younger married couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. You see, Stiller’s character is a once promising but currently floundering documentary filmmaker, and Driver’s is an ambitious amateur looking to get into the game. What starts off as a professional mentor relationship between the two men quickly turns into a friendly relationship where the younger couple begins to mentor the older in how to embrace the sort of laissez-faire, hipster lifestyle that’s currently thriving in places like Brooklyn—so there we have a premise ridiculous enough to make for a movie, old people becoming hipsters. Stiller even starts to wear a fedora as an affectation once his character becomes enamored with being hip and feeling young. Yeah, this movie turns it up all the way to fedora.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It Follows (2015) ****/*****

Modern horror movies have often relied on out-there concepts as a means of garnering interest and getting people into theater seats. Whether it’s vaginas with teeth, or people getting their mouths sewn to butts, or what have you, a new horror sub-genre that’s all about being as twisted and weird as possible seems to now exist. These days, a killer stalking some kids out in the woods almost feels passé. So, seeing as David Robert Mitchell’s (The Myth of the American Sleepover) new film, It Follows, is about a young girl who contracts a Sexually Transmitted Demon, it would make sense to assume that it’s the latest entry in this new category of contemporary films that are primarily concerned with being salacious. You’d be wrong to assume as much though, because, despite the outlandish setup, It Follows is actually one of the best throwbacks to the golden age of slow-burn, tension-building horror that we’ve seen in a while. 

A big reason for that is how effective the big scary thing we’re introduced to is at making you bite your nails. After our heroine, a nineteen-year-old girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), awakens from a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend unexpectedly tied to a chair, he explains that he’s passed to her an affliction in which a deadly specter will follow her everywhere she goes. It moves slowly and deliberately, but it never stops coming, it can appear as anyone (it usually chooses to appear as someone methy-looking), and if it ever touches her it will cause her a grizzly death. The only way she can get rid of this creeping terror is to sleep with someone else and to pass it on to them, but if it manages to kill the person she passes it to before they also pass it along, then it doubles back and starts working the other way down the line again. Death, it seems, can only be put off, never overcome.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Short Round: What We Do in the Shadows (2015) ****/*****

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have worked together extensively before, on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, so if you’ve seen that show and responded well to its comic sensibilities, chances are you’re going to love this new mockumentary they’ve co-wrote and co-directed for the big screen, What We Do in the Shadows. Why the spooky and mysterious title? Because this faux-documentary is giving us a look into the lives of a group of four vampires who live together in a rundown, spooky old house in New Zealand. In traditional mockumentary fashion, this movie isn’t about the horrors of being a nocturnal, blood-sucking fiend, however, it’s more about how hilariously neurotic and self-absorbed people can get, and how amusing it is when you get a group of narcissists all living in a house together. It would seem that not even eternal life can do much to instill maturity in some people.

The main thing that a movie like this has to accomplish is being funny, and What We Do in the Shadows is. The laughs are big and they come consistently. There’s more going on in here than just the setup and delivery of gags though. Even though our protagonists are all vampires, they’re also all completely unique characters who feel like they’ve been fully thought through and fleshed out by the actors who portray them. Clement, Waititi, and Jonathan Brugh play the main three we spend time with, and you get the sense that they each love their characters so much that they could talk at length about their histories, the origins of their individual quirks and styles, and the ins and outs of how they relate to each other in different combinations. The jokes in here are great, but the most memorable thing about this movie is the personalities it puts on display.

Clement and Waititi also manage to tell a pretty effective story by the time the end credits roll. A group dynamic is established, an outside element is introduced to that dynamic that puts it into a period of crisis, and then by the time things get resolved everyone feels like they’ve experienced a good deal of growth and change. Or, at least, as much growth as man-babies like these guys are capable of. When What We Do in the Shadows starts off, it feels like it’s going to be a one-note vehicle for nihilist joke delivery, but it develops far beyond that and actually ends up becoming a fairly heart-warming and mature story about the nature of friendship and family in the end. Coming from a movie about ludicrously dressed adult men doing sexy dances in their living room, pulling pranks from The Lost Boys, and puking gallons and gallons of blood in a back alley after a night of heavy partying, that’s a pretty nice surprise.

Cinderella (2015) ****/*****

What reason would Disney have for making this live action version of the classic Cinderella story, when they’ve already got a beloved animated version of the tale in their catalog that pretty much everyone considers to be a classic? Likely the reason is that live action versions of fairy tale stories are having a moment right now, so chances are a live action Cinderella is going to make them a ton of money. And, really, when a movie has a talent as strong as Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair and he’s being backed by a boatload of Disney money, aren’t we going to want to see what he comes up with anyway, even if he’s telling a story we’ve already heard? You don’t just bring in Branagh to make an empty cash grab.

It should be noted that you very much have seen this story before though. What Branagh and his screenwriter, Chris Weitz, have come up with is a dutiful and faithful adaptation of the classic Disney interpretation of the story, just tweaked a little bit to accommodate the switch from animation to live action. Are there singing mice in this movie? No, but Cinderella does hang out with a posse of mice that are not quite anthropomorphized, but certainly personified, and far more intelligent than any group of mice that have ever existed in the real world. The basic story that you’re used to is here, beat for beat, with just a little bit more care taken here or there to ground things in a slightly less heightened, but still fairytale reality, and with a bit more emphasis put on the backstories and motivations of all the main players. If you were expecting something more fresh, that might come as a disappointment, but most people will likely greet this film as comfort food rather than stale bread—Disney’s take on this particular fairy tale is a pretty great one, after all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faults (2015) ****/*****

Last year’s The Guest was a great movie for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that every role in the film, no matter how small, was played by a great actor who got at least a small chance to do interesting work—and one of the big highlights of that highlight-filled cast was Leland Orser playing the put-upon, casually alcoholic father. Orser’s performance was magnetic, hilarious, anxiety-inducing, and I left that film wanting to see much more from him than I’ve been getting in recent years. The producers of The Guest must have felt the same way, because now they’ve released Faults, a film from first time feature writer/director Riley Stearns that casts Orser as its lead and gives him a chance to the same sort of uncomfortably hilarious things that he was doing for them there.

This time around Orser is playing a character named Ansel Roth, a man who purports to be one of the world’s leading experts on mind-control, but whose credibility is clearly in question because when we meet him he’s stuck doing pathetically small time speaking engagements set up at chain hotels that are meant to hawk a book he wrote that nobody is reading. If things were ever going well for the guy, they aren’t going well anymore, to the point where he’s been reduced to trying to scam free meals from hapless restaurant employees. An opportunity to make some quick cash and pay off an old debt comes when an older couple approaches him and offers to hire him to abduct and deprogram their adult daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), however. You see, she’s fallen in with a cult called Faults, and Roth has a reputation for helping people who have fallen in with exploitive religious sects. Roth takes the job and abducts the girl tout de suite, but complications occur when she proves to be a stronger mind than he anticipated, and soon they find themselves butting heads in a struggle for control.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Short Round: Road Hard (2015) **/*****

The new crowd-funded film from co-writer, co-director, and star Adam Carolla, Road Hard, sees the modern Renaissance man tapping into his own life experiences by playing a frustrated former TV star whose slagging career has forced him to make money by traveling the road as a standup act, all while growing increasingly beaten down by the red tape, empty talking heads, and soul-crushing hypocrisy of the entertainment industry. “Beat down” being the key words there, because Carolla’s character is one of the most inert, blank-faced protagonists we’ve gotten in a comedy in a long time.

Despite containing a handful of legitimate laughs, the script for 'Road Hard' is nearly as stiff and awkward as the screen presence (which could best be described as Frankensteinian) of the man who co-wrote and stars in it. This film feels like an extended version of the pilot episode of one of those sitcoms they give a standup comic—you know, where huge chunks of their stage act are still being used as clunky dialogue because a full writing team hasn't yet been assembled.

And what a dour mood this movie establishes and then wallows in, even in the scenes where the resigned-to-misery protagonist is supposedly breaking out of his shell and relocating his spark. For something that sticks so closely to classic comedic storytelling structure, 'Road Hard' sure can be a bummer to watch. Maybe Carolla and his writing partner would have had better results if they fully embraced their dark thoughts and just wrote a real tragedy instead of trying to juggle tones. You know that the man’s years of talking to troubled teens about their drug and sex abuse problems on the radio has to have provided plenty of fodder for story ideas that go in that direction. Why not leave the obligation to do comedy behind and swim around in that mess if your head is so clearly in a dark place right now? Road Hard is a big step back from the first comedy Carolla co-wrote and starred in, The Hammer, and the missing ingredients seem to be any trace of life or any sense of fun.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Focus (2015) ***/*****

Based on its advertising, Focus looked like it was going to be just about the most commercially driven, Hollywood production that could possibly be conceived. It featured one of the industry’s most established stars, one of its hottest potential breakouts, a story about conmen collecting huge stacks of cash to appeal to the fellas, and a story about an emotional love affair to appeal to the ladies, all wrapped up in a glossy package. The thing looked so self-consciously commercial that there was almost no chance that it could end up being anything other than completely homogenized and boring. 

No chance except for the fact that it comes from writing/directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also made the largely non-commercial and fairly interesting I Love You Phillip Morris. Was it possible that Focus’ advertising was hiding some interesting twists and turns that make it more than just a grab at mainstream cash? Not really, no, but it turns out that it’s not so bad anyway.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Short Round: The Lazarus Effect (2015) **/*****

Director David Gelb has done great work in the world of documentaries before (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), so while it seemed a little curious that his latest project, The Lazarus Effect, was a dramatic film that fits in the horror genre, it was at least encouraging to know that the man had talent. Even more encouraging was the cast of actors he put together. Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover—they’re all fan favorites who have done great work in interesting things before, so who wouldn’t want to see what they have to offer the latest entry in the dead-come-back-to-life horror sub-genre? Well, it turns out you wouldn’t, because despite the fact that this film was made by a talented director and features a talented cast, it’s still one of the more boring things that’s hit theaters in a while.

Even though all of the principals here are charismatic people, the script they’re working with is so inept when it comes to giving them interesting things to say or do that the talent and presence they bring to the film becomes a non-factor. You could have cast amateurs in this derivative snoozer and gotten largely the same results. The story here starts off with a group of doctors and researchers working to bring the dead back to life, which makes it firmly a descendant of the Frankenstein story, and then it takes a turn where it becomes a Carrie-esque story about a troubled girl getting brain powers, the combination of which basically makes it a take on The Dark Phoenix Saga from Marvel’s X-Men mythos; but it isn’t able to be half as interesting as any of its influences. If X-Men: The Last Stand didn’t combine a script as bad as this one with even worse execution while adapting the Dark Phoenix story, this would certainly be the worst version of it made. The people behind this thing should probably send Fox and Brett Ratner a thank you note for that.

The problem with the film, aside from the fact that its characters are anonymous blank faces, is that none of the scary stuff that follows their decision to mess with mother nature is remotely original or even presented with a new twist. This movie exists as basically a pastiche of clichéd, overused horror moments that we’ve all seen a thousand times before, and in lieu of building atmosphere, tension, or mood, it relies entirely on jump scares to get any rise out of its audience whatsoever. Seriously, entirely. Half of this movie’s run time is taken up of people either being startled by loud noises or looking for something scary one place and then having it suddenly appear behind them. If it wasn’t for the amazing canine actor who played Rocky the Sad Zombie Dog, The Lazarus Effect would have been a total dud.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) ****/*****

Not only is Kingsman: The Secret Service a secret agent movie, it’s a secret agent movie about suave, well-dressed, British secret agents—so it’s treading on some pretty well worn ground. Add in the fact that these fashionable spies use a variety of high tech gadgets in their work, they battle silly, cartoon villains, and they have a series of sprawling though hidden secret bases, and one begins to wonder what this new film could possibly have to offer that we haven’t already gotten from the countless James Bond movies that have been released since the early 60s. Well, while it’s true that Kingsman is definitely a very self-aware take on the Bond franchise, it’s also crasser, more overtly comedic, and more exploitively violent than most of what we’ve gotten from 007 over the years, which keeps things just fresh enough.

The hero of the story is a young man from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks named Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Though he’s smart and athletic and probably has a lot of potential, living life in a crime-riddled neighborhood with only a single mother to watch out for him has recently seen him making poor life decisions. A chance to turn it all around comes when he gets pegged to possibly become a Kingsman though. You see, his father was once a part of the organization, but died in the line of duty, so they feel like they owe the kid a favor, and seeing as they’ve just experienced their latest casualty thanks to a conflict with a megalomaniacal captain of industry (Samuel L. Jackson), the best way to do that is to add him to the highly capable group of young people who have been recruited to compete to be his replacement. Eggsy’s goals, then, are to earn his place as the newest Kingsman, help his new mentors in the agency (Colin Firth and Mark Strong) foil the plans of their dangerous new adversary, and prove to movie audiences all over the world that him doing so is an entertaining enough proposition for this origin story to launch a successful new franchise (presumably).

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Short Round: Amira & Sam (2015) ***/*****

Writer/director Sean Mullin’s first stab at a feature, Amira & Sam, sticks pretty closely to the content and structural format of the modern romantic dramedy. It introduces two young people who chafe against each other initially but eventually fall in love, and then it introduces a moment of crisis that may or may not sabotage their blossoming relationship before it’s really started, leading to an emotional climax. It also manages to separate itself from the romantic dramedy pack in a couple of important ways though. The most obvious of which is that the two characters who are involved in the romance feel like real, three-dimensional people with actual problems and relatable faults, instead of being the affluent, insufferable, faux-hip ciphers that these movies usually tell stories about.

Amira & Sam stars Dina Shihabi as Amira, an Iraqi immigrant with a traumatic past who’s struggling to find her place in New York City, and Martin Starr as Sam, an Iraq war veteran who’s also having difficulties finding his place in the vapid cultural wasteland last was the United States somewhere presumably after the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but before the economic collapse of 2007. Starr is a great actor who I’ve been a fan of since his early days on Freaks & Geeks, so it was a lot of fun getting to see him play a lead role here and expand on what he’s been able to do with the supporting types of roles that he’s usually given, and while relative newcomer Shihabi is a new face to me, she’s such a lovely and live-wire presence here that I’m already confident we’ll be seeing much more of her in the very near future, so, if there are any problems with Amira & Sam, they definitely don’t come from the acting.

Instead, the problems that I had with the film, that other people may share, come from the writing. The script includes a handful of moments of effective comedy, and a handful of moments of affecting drama, but it’s also heavy-handed in the way it establishes the title characters as being likable and relatable, and some distracting phoniness creeps in as a consequence. This happens a bit because the greed and bigotry of many of the side characters comes off as being amplified and cartoony, which seems to have happened in order to paint our star-crossed couple as put-upon underdogs who we can root for, but the big problems stem from a subplot where Sam tries to dip his toes into the world of finance only to find that his morality doesn’t jibe with the shady dealings of Wall Street. The whole scenario could only have been written by someone who has the hindsight of watching the housing bubble burst and studying the causes of the collapse, which makes all of the dialogue we get about the bundling of mortgages and the undervaluing of the bundles some of the clunkiest and falsest-sounding I’ve heard in a movie in a while. And, even worse, none of it was necessary. Starr’s performance was already enough to get us to like and relate to the Sam character, we didn’t also need him to become a prognosticating warrior fighting for the safety of the underclass.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Paddington (2015) ****/*****

Sometimes the people who make “family films” forget that they’re supposed to be making something that the whole family can enjoy, and they fall into the trap of thinking that making little kids laugh is their only job. There’s also the mistaken notion that making little kids laugh is a simple matter of being loud and silly, and as long as you slip a few “adult” jokes into the abrasiveness in order to appease the parents who have been dragged to the theater, you’ve done your job. That’s lazy. Making movies that appeal to people of all ages in a legitimate way is possible, it’s just hard to do. It takes engaging storytelling, the creation of memorable characters, and humor that’s clever without being alienating and broad without being obnoxious. That’s what we’re dealing with here. When, in the first five minutes of Paddington, you’ve already been made to care about a couple of talking bears and you’ve already had a good belly laugh, you know that you’re in capable hands.

Paddington tells the story of the title character (who’s voiced by Ben Whishaw), an orphaned young bear from “Darkest Peru” who travels to London thanks to a promise a British explorer made his aunt and uncle long ago that, if they should ever find themselves in London, they would receive a warm welcome. You see, despite the fact that they are very much bears, Paddington and his family are a special kind of talking bears, who seem to be just as cultured and intelligent as humans. Why this is so is never really explained, which is one of the best things about the movie. Instead of coming up with a reason for why bears can talk, Paddington just assumes that the world is an interesting and magical enough place that it’s possible. Setting that kind of tone works great for drawing kids in and getting them excited about the possibilities a movie is putting before them, and it sets the stage perfectly for Paddington’s rocky road toward assimilating himself within the new human family he meets in London. You see, even when bears are smart, they still tend to break a lot of stuff.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Everly (2015) ***/*****

Everly is a boobs and blood movie, plain and simple. Its story is paper-thin—barely existent—and the two things it focuses all of its energy on doing are putting an absurd amount of violence on the screen and proving that Salma Hayek is a leading lady who’s still got it. Fans of B-movies and cinema exploitation are very much the targeted audience here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because all of the over-the-top deaths that director Joe Lynch and his team have conceived for this film are a lot of fun to watch be brought to splattery life, and Salma Hayek does indeed still got it. Boy, does she still got it. It’s not a sin for a movie to just want to be empty-headed and entertaining, is it?

There is a complication with tone that makes movies like this more difficult to pull off than they may seem though. Take the mayhem on display too seriously and the lack of a real story or any character complexity starts to look like a problem with the film, but wink at the audience and get too satirical with the bloodshed and you take all of the joy out of the ridiculousness. Movie cheese is less fun when it’s obvious the filmmaker is in on the joke. Fortunately, Everly is able to straddle this line by taking a comedy of errors approach to all of its endless killing.

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.