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 no 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.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) ****/*****

If you look back at the last few decades of popular cinema, it’s possible to see the state of the art form as being a pendulum swinging back and forth between realism and fantasy. The New Hollywood movement of the 70s ushered in an era where everyone was making movies that were gritty and street level, the rise of the blockbuster created an era in the 80s where everyone was making genre films that were sillier and more escapist, the independent boom of the 90s swung the pendulum back the other way for a while, and then the exploding popularity of things like Harry Potter and Marvel superheroes firmly put us back in a place where a premium has once again been put on the fantastical and the strange. 

Recently, modern Hollywood’s penchant for only investing in properties that have built-in name value has led to a new trend where things from the past keep getting relaunched, rebooted, and reconceptualized. So, seeing as genres like sci-fi and fantasy are all the rage right now, of course the film catalogue of the 80s has been raped and plundered in order to create a whole new generation of the same old franchises. The problem with most of these remakes is that they’ve been shit. They’re glossy and generic and they lack all of the insane personality that made the originals stand out back in the day. The new Mad Max reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road, has a big advantage over the rest of those boring studio-led reboots we’ve seen so far though—it’s brought Mad Max’s creator George Miller back to write and direct. If you haven’t seen a George Miller movie, he’s kind of a unique talent who’s hard to put your finger on, so his involvement has resulted in a nutty new take on the post-apocalyptic action genre that’s blowing a lot of people’s minds.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Short Round: About Elly (2015) ****/*****

Back in 2011, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi turned heads and won awards with his tense drama A Separation, which not only featured great performances and subtle writing, but was particularly interesting to Western viewers because of the way it mined Iranian culture for dramatic moments that just wouldn’t be all that dramatic if they happened over here. Watching it felt fresh. Well, it turns out he also made another film that was first screened in 2009, About Elly, which has slowly been playing the festival circuit ever since, and which is now finally getting a regular release in the US.

How does this earlier work stand up to A Separation, which amazed everyone with how affecting it was able to make the dissolution of a marriage by exploring its conflict from each opposing point of view, while obscuring the truth of the inciting incident being squabbled over from the audience? It’s not quite as good, doesn’t feel quite as assured in its filmmaking, but it’s still really great, and it has a lot in common with the later film (e.g. awkward interactions aplenty). 

The story sees a group of young parents and their children traveling to the sea alongside one of their kids’ kindergarten teacher (Taraneh Alidoosti) and a single male friend (Shahab Hosseini), with the duel purposes of having a relaxing weekend and hooking the teacher up with the friend. The chill vibe collapses when the teacher, Elly, disappears though, and nobody is quite sure if some curious behavior led to her suddenly bolting without telling anyone, or if she drown in the sea while trying to save a young boy. Thanks to some judicious editing, we don’t know her fate either, so we’re left just as confused as the characters as they panic, try to process the situation, and eventually fall apart as their conflicts bring various lies and indiscretions to the surface. About Elly is human drama in capital letters, and well done human drama to boot. It’s exactly the sort of thing we need more of in theaters. Go see it, if for no other reason than to see the performance given by Golshifteh Farahani, who plays the story’s matchmaker, who clearly took herself to hellish emotional places to properly play the role, and who deserves the recognition.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) ***/*****

Marvel keeps making movies that introduce the world to new superheroes, and then they keep making these Avengers movies where all of the heroes from their other movies get together and take on a common threat. It’s a pretty solid plan they’ve got going, and it’s very unlikely that it stops happening this way any time soon. What this means is that you already know the bulk of the characters who appear in Age of Ultron. Nobody is coming into these movies cold anymore, there’s just too much backstory you’d have to be aware of to make sense of things. In one respect, this makes things easier for the person who has to write the film. There’s no need to take up time introducing everyone and establishing their relationships to each other, so the story can hit the ground running. In a similar fashion, it makes writing reviews of these movies a little bit easier too. There’s no longer any need to explain who and what The Avengers are, or even who the actors who play the individual characters are. You know them, you love them, and the only question is what kind of adventure they’re getting themselves into. 

This time around our team is taking on one of the HYDRA cells that emerged at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and a pair of super-powered twins (a speedy Aaron Taylor-Johnson and a telepathic Elizabeth Olsen, both trying out Eastern European accents) who were given their unique abilities via the terrible experiments of HYDRA head Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). The Avengers’ foes don’t remain singular though, because after a Tony Stark experiment in AI accidentally creates a genocidal robot named Ultron (James Spader), our heroes find that they then have to somehow juggle taking on a pair of angry young supervillains as well as stopping the world-ending plans of an unbreakable robot (Ultron makes himself a body out of the same metal Uncle Sam used for Captain America’s shield) and his horde of more easily dispatched drones. People get punched, explosions are exploded, and worlds get saved. Pretty typical day in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Short Round: Adult Beginners (2015) ***/*****

When movies tell a story that features dramatic and comedic elements pretty equally, we’ve taken to calling them dramedies. Many indie movies fall into this category, because the category itself usually lives and dies on acting and screenwriting—two things that are more dependent on talent than they are funding. The best thing we can hope for from these movies is that we care enough about the characters to find the dramatic moments affecting, that the actors are charming enough to make the comedic elements funny, and that enough tonal consistency exists in the script that the success of one element doesn’t sabotage the success of the other. Adult Beginners, the new film from co-writers Nick Kroll, Liz Flahive, Jeff Cox, and director Ross Katz, is solid enough that it accomplishes all of these essential goals, but never so successful at them that it truly excels. 

The story sees Kroll playing one of those adults in an arrested state of development who these indie dramedies love so well. He’s financially crashed and burned while trying to launch an internet startup and now he has to go back to his childhood home to stay with his sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale), and their three-year-old son (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). While their life seems more idealistic on the surface than his, parenthood has lead to them having their own problems, and when they all start bubbling to the surface and their lifestyle starts to chafe against Kroll’s, we then have adequate enough sources for comedy and pathos alike.

As was mentioned earlier, the nuts and bolts of this movie are fine, so in general it’s fine. The characters are well drawn and played by talented, likable actors, so you care when they’re going through something rough and you laugh when they’re saying something funny, but there are still a few things holding Adult Beginners back from being a true success. While you care about the characters in general, they way they’re drawn is so archetypical for indie movies like this that watching them navigate their travails can feel quite a bit like experiencing deja vu. And while the film does feature a few really big laughs, the chuckles don’t come consistently enough for it to succeed as a straight up comedy. The biggest problem may be that the story peters out a bit in the third act though. The tension and the conflict builds well throughout, but their resolution comes in a scene that exists as a too on the nose visual metaphor—so suddenly there is clunkiness where the movie needed there to be catharsis. Adult Beginners is well-acted and entertaining enough to be a perfectly pleasant diversion, but it just misses that next level of being a truly memorable film.

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.