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.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015) */*****

Hollywood has been remaking and rebooting so many huge movies from the 80s in recent years that it feels a little bit like I’ve been reliving my childhood—if my childhood were filled with really bland, bad movies made by studio committees instead of really great movies full of blood and boobs that were made by exciting young filmmakers, of course. Terminator Genisys takes this process a step further by not only remaking or rebooting the franchise started with James Cameron’s 1984 film, The Terminator, but by using the series’ killer-robot-sent-back-in-time conceit to actually revisit meticulously recreated scenes from The Terminator and spin them off in new directions, which effectively erases the other sequels and creates a launching point for a new franchise that still pays respect to the original. Watching the film must be what it feels like to experience déjà vu.

Or to use a more damning metaphor, watching Terminator Genisys is like having a dream that starts off as a revisiting of old memories and then spins off in nightmarish, hallucinatory directions. This is a bad movie—a really bad one—maybe the worst Terminator movie that could have been made by generally competent people. Its director, Alan Taylor, proved that he could work in a strictly controlled studio environment before by making the generally acceptable Thor sequel for Marvel in 2013, but when faced with the task of filming a script that’s as broken on a fundamental level as this one, he falls flat on his face.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Short Round: The Overnight (2015) ****/*****

Gross-out comedies have had a few moments in the sun, the latest of which being in the late 90s. Movies like American Pie and There’s Something About Mary were huge with audiences, made tons of money, and spawned an avalanche of imitators who seemed to be in a body-function-fueled arms race regarding who could be bigger, crasser, and more wrong. Audiences are bound to get desensitized to gags like this eventually though. No matter how strange the thing the wiener gets stuck in, how comically large the tuft of pubic hair gets, or how inventively someone is led to unwittingly interacting with semen, if enough of these gross-out movies come out in a short enough period of time, it’s not going to be long before the target audience starts to feel like they’ve seen it all.

In recent years we’ve definitely passed this point, and filmmakers are having a tough time creating comedies that shock the mainstream enough to earn strong word of mouth. Recently, Ted 2 underperformed at the box office, and even though it contained a symphony of offensive language and a waterfall of strange semen, you don’t really hear anyone talking about how crazy any of the things they saw in it are. There’s one form of comedy similar to these cringe-inducing gross-out gags that never gets old if you do it right though—the comedy of manners—that may be the answer to filmmakers’ prayers. These movies require an establishing of social norms, a character whose purpose is to obliviously break these norms, and a character whose purpose is to be made uncomfortable every time they’re confronted by another taboo. If the rule-breaker is committed enough to get you to believe in the authenticity of their transgressions and the put-upon party is vulnerable enough to get you to squirm alongside the transgressions, then the viewer can’t help but give in to a fit of bodily contortions and nervous laughter. Comedy of manners movies are evergreen, because the laughs come from character instead of from shock, and when they’re done well enough they’re able to make audiences just as uncomfortable as any sex or poop joke ever written.

Writer/director Patrick Brice (who did similar character-based cringe with last year’s Creep, though more in the genre of horror) has gone back to the classic comedy of manners formula to make his new movie, The Overnight, and his efforts have resulted in the funniest, most outrageous movie that’s come out yet this year. The film stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a straight-laced couple who have just moved to LA and are desperate to meet new friends, and Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche as a Bohemian couple who invite them over for dinner and seem friendly at first, a little bit too friendly after a couple bottles of wine, and then… dear lord, they’re trying to seduce us into some sort of swingers’ orgy, aren’t they? The hosting couples’ antics properly build from curious, to uncomfortable, to transcendently outrageous, and Schwartzman and Godrèche are so straight-faced and genuine that they’re always able to keep you questioning their motives, while Scott and Schilling are so polite and pained in their efforts to navigate the social land mines put before them that you can’t help but empathize with them the whole way through, so you’re left with a movie that starts off funny enough and then gets funnier as it goes on—and at only 80 minutes, it’s able to get in, do it’s job, and get out while still leaving you wanting more. Too few movies are able to accomplish that these days, especially comedies.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Ted 2 (2015) ***/*****

When Seth MacFarlane jumped from making animated TV series to directing his first live action feature with Ted back in 2012, there were a lot of questions surrounding how successful he would be. His crass, pop-culture obsessed humor was divisive, had arguably been run into the ground through years of Family Guy and American Dad reruns, and nobody knew whether or not he could handle shooting live action. Ted turned out to be a really strong debut though. The hit to miss ratio of the jokes outclassed what was happening on his series at the time, and the guy proved to be adept at blocking and shooting scenes in a way that felt comfortingly like old Hollywood. One could even have argued that his visual style elevated the material. His second film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, was awful though, so now this new sequel to Ted is debuting with just as many questions surrounding its quality as the original.

Happily, Ted 2 is, in most ways, a pretty spot-on continuation of what MacFarlane was doing with the original. Its story is about Ted needing to legally prove that he’s a person so that he can get married, but that’s not what’s important here. This is a Ted movie. What’s important is if it’s funny. The strengths of the first film, which mostly lied in the chemistry between Mark Wahlberg and the CG bear and a skin-crawling villain turn from Giovanni Ribisi, are all brought back, the joke writing is nearly as strong as it was in the original, and overall the thing is funny enough consistently enough to keep you engaged throughout. So it’s got that stuff going for it.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) ****/*****

One of the annoyances of being the type of person who’s really into movies is when other people ask you about the newest action movie, or the newest teen comedy, or whatever type of movie Hollywood constantly churns out new versions of—and they’ve clearly seen the movie and are excited about it—and then you have to break it to them that you didn’t like it very much. People take it personal. They tell you you’re a snob. They tell you that you go into movies wanting to hate them. Then you think back to the latest indie or foreign or whatever kind of alternative movie that you recently saw at a little arthouse that really affected you—that too few people are ever going to see—and how much more interesting, or thoughtfully made, or just plain better it is than whatever generic product they’re praising, and you want to tell them that you don’t go into every movie wanting to hate it, they just don’t see enough movies to know what’s actually good; but you don’t say that, because you want to be polite, even though people aren’t polite to you when you disagree with them. Well, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that interesting, affecting, more thoughtfully made movie that too few people are going to see that you’re going to be thinking about the next time someone is pissed that you didn’t like the Pretty in Pink remake, or whatever is next on Hollywood’s agenda.

From a Jesse Andrews novel that he himself adapted into a screenplay, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl tells the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), a closed-off teenager who has decided to navigate the pitfalls of the high school social structure by opting out of it entirely, Earl (RJ Cyler), the childhood friend Greg calls a “co-worker” because they make cheesy parodies of classic cinema together, and Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the “dying girl” who Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) forces him to spend time with and be nice to after she’s diagnosed with cancer. If this development seems to you to be destined to break down the walls that Greg puts up between himself and others, you’re not wrong, but the great thing about this movie is that it doesn’t take the usual path to get to that point that you’d expect it would, and once it gets there it doesn’t hit the usual emotional beats that stories about death always do.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Inside Out (2015) ***/*****

Pixar’s movies have a great reputation for putting just as much focus on character and emotion as they do comedy or adventure, which generally allows them to be a cut above the other animated features that hit the multiplexes. Their characters are deep, three-dimensional, and they develop over the course of the film. Their plots spring out of character, rather than the other way around. The newest movie to come from the studio, Inside Out, adheres to these unwritten rules. This time around, however, the focus on character is so great that a little bit of tunnel vision appears to take place, and the film suffers as a result. Here, the internal life of the protagonist is all that the filmmakers seem to be concerned with, so things like story and humor fall by the wayside to the point where you start to wonder if the studio as a whole isn’t starting to split into two extreme approaches—making either vapid sequels to their big hits like Cars 2 or Monsters University, or original works like this that are going to become increasingly dour to the point where you can’t imagine kids enjoying them at all.

Of course, that sort of defeatism is definitely a reactionary response to the fact that Pixar hit a high with the back-to-back-to-back release of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up that they’re likely never going to be able to live up to again, and there’s a certain disappointment that always comes from the realization that any magic in the world isn’t going to be able to stay. In truth, Inside Out is a perfectly acceptable animated movie that wouldn’t be viewed as a disappointment if it came from any other studio. It tells the story of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) whose young life reaches a crisis point when her very acceptable life in Minnesota is interrupted by a sudden move to San Fransisco, which isn’t a burg that gels too well with her sensibilities. Well, that’s half of the story. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jurassic World (2015) **/*****

A big part of what made the original Jurassic Park work so well and that makes it so memorable is the sense of wonder that comes from experiencing something truly incredible for the first time. In an in-movie sense, that wonder came from the characters being among the first human beings to ever lay eyes on real, living dinosaurs. For the audience, the wonder came from seeing CG special effects that brought these dinosaurs to life on the big screen in a seamless, realistic way for the first time ever. The visuals of the first Jurassic Park still look great even this many years later.

Seeing something incredible again isn’t as memorable as seeing something incredible for the first time, however, so the Jurassic Park sequels each experienced diminishing returns upon release. One might even argue that, despite its success, Jurassic Park was exactly the kind of movie that should never have had a sequel, and now that the franchise is seeing a reboot with director Colin Trevorrow’s (Safety Not Guaranteed) Jurassic World, those problems have multiplied to the point where the characters in the film even have to address them. In this world, seeing dinosaurs has become old hat and boring, much like seeing impossible things brought to life on the big screen via CG effects has to movie fans in our world, so the answer that the film offers up is that it’s become necessary to create a dinosaur that’s bigger, scarier, and more impressive in order to capture people’s imaginations. The problem with that strategy in our world is that, after seeing entire cities destroyed on film countless times over the last decade, the visuals in these summer movies can no longer be made any bigger, scarier, or more impressive, so Jurassic World, as it’s crafted, really has no reason to exist. Instead of solving this franchise’s irrelevance problem by making something bigger, they should have attacked it by making something completely different.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

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

After stealing the show with her supporting role in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy was all primed and ready to take over the comedy scene in Hollywood. Everybody seemed to want her in their movies. With the right choices, she could have rode that momentum into being a huge star. Problems arose when everything she did after Bridesmaids varied from being awful to mediocre though. In the last couple of years, it’s even felt like she’s wore out her welcome with movie fans and needs a starring role in a great movie fast. Unfortunately, her latest collaboration with her Bridesmaids director, Paul Feig, isn’t that great movie. It falls more in the mediocre section of the comedy spectrum like their other collaboration, The Heat. It’s good enough to watch, but it’s not anything that’s going to stick with you.

McCarthy is playing a CIA agent who’s really good at working on the technical side of things down in the headquarters’ basement, but who doesn’t really have any experience in the field. That all changes when the agent she supports (Jude Law) is killed by a target who has compromised the field agents’ identities though. Suddenly, management needs someone new to go out into the field, and McCarthy is their woman, giving us a fish out of water story ripe with comic potential.

The problem with that is the movie is never as funny as it could have been or needed to be in order to be a truly effective comedy. It’s got a handful of chuckles here and there, but ultimately it gets too caught up in espionage plots and the creation of action scenarios to be truly, powerfully funny. The film was never going to blow anybody’s hair back as an action flick, so it should have stuck to being more broadly comedic. Luckily, though she never produces any big belly laughs, McCarthy is always likable and relatable enough that you root for her characters, so her journey from being an unsure agent to becoming a confident ass-kicker is effective enough to keep the movie from sinking under the weight of its own ambitions. Well, McCarthy’s character work and a couple of awesome supporting performances work in tandem to keep it afloat. Jason Statham and Rose Byrne both play completely ridiculous characters and straight-face-commit to their ridiculousness so much that they become the funniest parts of the film by far. Bless those two.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

San Andreas (2015) **/*****

Movies have been obsessed with depicting the end of the world for a really long time. Whether it’s death and destruction by storm, volcano, asteroid, or, yes, earthquake, there have never been any shortage of films where some sort of natural calamity strikes a popular area, destroying all of the landmarks and killing all of the nice people who call them home. Audiences love it. Maybe there’s a unique thrill we get from seeing filmmakers depict awful fears that we don’t like to admit to ourselves could some day become real that explains it. Maybe seeing this sort of material visualized taps into a place so deep in our subconscious that we don’t know how to access it any other way, so there’s some part of us that needs to see it. Or maybe people are just really messed up.

Either way, writer/director Brad Peyton’s (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) San Andreas is another one of these disaster movies, in the most generic way possible. It features all of the same character archetypes that these disaster movies always do, it builds to all of the same moments of peril that these disaster movies always do, and it ends in the same Hollywood way that all of these disaster movies always do. Basically, this is exactly the sort of cookie-cutter, studio movie that feels like it could have been directed by the same guy hired to make things like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and Cats & Dogs: Kitty Galore

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Slow West (2015) ****/*****

The movie Western has been ubiquitous for decades now. Even during the down points of the ebb and flow of the genre’s popularity, there have always been at least a couple movies about hard, gun-wielding men trying to make their way in the American frontier that have come out every year. Combine the vast quantities of Westerns with the relative sameness of all of their content—they’re generally all gritty-toned morality tales that feature shots of wide open vistas—and the prospect of sitting through yet another Western can begin to sound like an exercise in pointlessness, or even a chore. That’s why it’s so danged refreshing whenever somebody comes along and actually manages to do something different with the genre like writer/director John Maclean has with his first feature, Slow West.

The film sees Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, Paranorman) playing a naive young Scottish preppy traveling across the Colorado territory in the late 19th century in order to search for the girl who he’s in love with (Caren Pistorius). There are a couple problems with that. The first is the fact that he’s completely unsuited for survival in the American west, and the second is that, unbeknownst to him, the girl is wanted for murder, dead or alive, so all of the vicious, cutthroat bounty hunters in the region are also on her trail. Help with these problems comes in the form of a mysterious but capable frontiersman who offers to serve as his guide (Michael Fassbender), but further complications come in the form of the leader of a band of grimy bounty hunters (Ben Mendelsohn) who are looking to bag the girl (probably dead) and collect on her bounty.