The Lobster

May 30, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I feel that I need to start with a caveat: I did not like this movie but everyone else did. It has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and it won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. The person I saw it with loved it. Some of my favorite film critics loved it. Everyone loved it, it seems, except me. Now, granted, this is not your average film going experience. Set in some bizarre parallel universe, it takes place in a society where being single is outlawed and the punishment is to get turned into the animal of your choice. Colin Farrell’s character has been sent to “the hotel” to find a new mate after his wife left him. If he fails to within 45 days, he will be turned into a lobster. This sounds like it might be funny and maybe it would be, if it weren’t all so damned bleak. Various hotel guests, including John C. Reilly (“Wreck-it-Ralph,” “Step Brothers”) and Ben Whishaw (“The Danish Girl,” the recent “Bond” films), shuffle around giving such understated performances that they all appear heavily sedated and hopeless. When the story shifts unexpectedly, we are introduced to characters played by Léa Seydoux (“Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Spectre”) and Rachel Weisz (the “Mummy” movies, “Oz the Great and Powerful”). Given the circumstances in which we meet them, we might have expected more emoting. That would be a mistake. Director Yorgos Lanthimos clearly wanted quiet, introspective, minimalist performances. Unfortunately, they left me feeling completely uninvested in any of the characters which, given the grim arc of the storyline, may have been a good thing. Lanthimos is a critical darling, who is well respected for his complex and difficult movies, like “Dogtooth” and “Alps.” He uses fantastical imagery to explore deeper issues but, here, the metaphor felt lost for me. He is clearly saying something about dating in our modern age and the obsession we have with finding mates through the matching of random characteristics (he’s talking to you, OKCupid). And, on another level, he seems to also be making commentary about fascist governments, resistance groups, sex laws and hypocrisy. It’s all heady stuff but, for me, it all fell flat because I could never get beyond the silliness on screen. It was neither funny enough to be parody, nor grounded enough to be commentary. Add to that the empty, shuffling performances and nothing resonated with me at all. I was bored for two very long, checking-the-clock, hours. It’s a shame because I feel like I missed out on something that others enjoyed. Clearly, they were relating to the film on a level that I could not. Perhaps, that makes my review suspect. So, in fairness, here is a link to A.O. Scott’s review from the NYTimes. I’ll let you decide who’s opinion feels like the better fit for you.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

May 29, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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“Everyone knows that the third movie is always the worst,” says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones” fame) to her friends after they have just seen “Return of the Jedi.” It would be a funnier inside joke if it weren’t so bitterly true of this, the 3rd in the new incarnation of X-Men films. If there is any silver lining to having sat through 2 1/2 hours of a mind-numbingly self-important B-movie, it is that I can finally end my long streak (almost 15 months) of not hating a movie. When there are so very many things wrong with a film, it can be hard to know where to start or what to include. But, I think I have to start with what felt like the biggest sin of all: turning good actors into bad ones. Nobody can honestly question the skills of the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac or Rose Byrne. Even lesser known actors like Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”), Tye Sheridan (“Mud”) or Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) have shown they know their craft. Yet, if there is a truism in Hollywood it is that you cannot always get a good performance out of a bad actor but you can always get a bad performance out of a good one. Melodramatic, emotionally-disingenuous dialogue and ham-fisted direction will result in moments like Fassbender’s painful, “is this what you want, God?” speech. Director Bryan Singer, who once was capable of the genius of “The Usual Suspects,” has shown a recent perverse glee at trading emotional honesty for the illusion of it. He doesn’t try to make simple, fun comic book escapism, like Marvel Studios does so well. Nor are his films dark, brooding and atmospheric the way the current DC films are. He seems happy to create films that think they are saying something important about life but are just dull, emotionless and self-important. This one plods along with a storyline that is not worth explaining and full of contradictions, both big and small. In an attempt to reboot the series, Singer and Fox Pictures decided not to simply recast and start over (as so many superhero films have done).  Rather, they decided to go with an altered timeline (a la the “Star Trek” franchise reboot). However, unlike JJ Abrams’s carefully constructed re-envisioning, this one has been an increasingly lazy attempt. Characters are reintroduced in radically different ways that could not have been created by the timeline reset as envisioned in the last movie. That said, the one positive here is that some of these reimagined characters (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel and, especially, Storm) are real improvements over past incarnations. This movie was both vapid and pretentious, impossibly convoluted and dreadfully dull. But, maybe… just maybe… it doesn’t deserve a ∅ because it introduces the characters that might make for some interesting films in the future. No, wait. I changed my mind. It does deserve a ∅.

Love & Friendship

May 22, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

Based on Jane Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan,” this film appears to want to be a sort of “Dangerous Liaisons”-lite. With half the intrigue and half the bite, it also has half the appeal. By all accounts, Lady Susan is an awful woman, determined to use the social mores of the time to manipulate everyone in every way possible. Set in what appears to be the late 1700s, the story follows Lady Susan around London and the British countryside, as she causes disruption and discomfort wherever she goes. This may not sound like much to base a story on and, in truth, it isn’t. The film mostly comes across as a series of vignettes that seem to exist mostly to allow for Susan (and occasionally others) to say something dreadfully clever. And, to be fair, she usually does. The dialogue is genuinely funny and gratefully free of the sort of heavy sentiment that is so typical for these types of films (this is definitely not a Merchant-Ivory production). But, beyond the wit, what we are left with is a weak and wandering story, in which the audience is never quite clear what Lady Susan is trying to do. She is clearly manipulating people but to what end? And, when it does end (which the film does rather abruptly), we still aren’t sure. Did she get what she wanted? Given that I was never quite sure what that was, its hard to tell. As funny as it could be at times, it’s hard to recommend a film when I have no idea where it was trying to go and if it ever got there.

The Nice Guys

May 22, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Perhaps I was just in the right mood but I don’t know if I have laughed this hard in a movie theater since “Moonrise Kingdom” in 2012. Somehow, Shane Black, who is best known for the “Lethal Weapon” flicks, has managed to make a film lies on the better side of partway between the genius of “The Big Lebowski” and the amiable attempt that was “Inherent Vice.” Set in 1977, the film follows a private investigator (Ryan Gosling) and a bully-for-hire (Russel Crowe) as they try to solve a mystery involving a senator, a missing girl, environmentalism, the auto industry and “experimental porn.” Yes, it is as silly as it sounds and quite deliberately so. The film hinges on the chemistry between these two actors and their ability to make high-octane buffoonery engaging/endearing rather than affected/annoying. Fortunately, both men are willing to go all in, though most of the pure slapstick silliness belongs to Gosling. With scenes that, at times, reminded me of Abbott & Costello routines, the film can feel very retro, even beyond its 70s scenery. However, there’s something self-aware and referential that feels very modern, as well. Credit is also due to Angourie Rice, the young girl who plays Gosling’s 13 year old daughter; she held up amiably alongside these two stars. Most of the other actors and their characters were incidental, existing mostly as avenues to further absurdity. Though I have to give a nod to the understated use of Gil Gerard as an auto industry villain. For those who don’t know, Gerard was at the height of his fame in the late 70s playing Buck Rogers on the stunningly campy TV series, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” That was a nice touch in a fun, silly movie that was absolutely full of them.

Sing Street

May 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Director John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) has a gift for making a musical non-musical. As he did with the brilliant “Once,” he has again managed to incorporate singing into the fiber of a film while still making it feel utterly realistic. Set in 1980s Dublin, this is your standard boy meets girl story. It is filled with all the tropes of first teen love and angst that we have seen so many times before. So then, why does it feel so fresh and vital? Carney, who was himself a boy of the 80s, is so clearly in love with that era: the music, fashion and the kids that he and his friends were. That love imbues this film with such nostalgia and earnestness that it is impossible to not be touched. Carney, who wrote the script, also co-wrote the 7 original songs with Bono from U2. Each song cleverly mirrors the influences of the band the boys had just discovered. They are all lovely, genuine 80s pop ballads full of love and yearning and hope and fear and indignation. Each song, like the film as a whole, speaks the language of the decade. For anyone who fell in love during those 10 years, this movie will sweep you up and remind you of what it was to be in high school all over again. For everyone else, this film will still be fun, funny and touching.

Captain America: Civil War

May 7, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Watching this film, I kept being reminded of what Marvel has figured out that DC hasn’t: a superhero movie should be fun. It is too easy to compare this film with it’s DC counterpart, “Batman V. Superman.” They both attempt to explore the vigilante aspect of superhero characters and what their responsibility is to societal mores. And they both pit classic heroes against each other as they find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide. Beyond that, though, they share little in common. “Batman V. Superman” took itself deeply seriously but was, otherwise, not at all deep. The arguments for both sides were presented in passing as they served only as a flimsy (and improbable) excuse to bring the two lead characters to blows. And, when that finally happened, it lasted only a few minutes.  In “Civil War,” by contrast, the two sides were explored much more deeply and the characters’ rationales for standing where they did made much more sense. That gave the battle more depth and more weight because the conflict seemed so deeply personal and costly. And, unlike “B v S” (where the fight was a tiny part of the film), the battle between the heroes in “Civil War” continued on and off throughout most of the film. This was a fun and dramatic ride, full of great action scenes, typical Marvel humor and real character development. Plus, the introduction of 2 cool new heroes: the Black Panther and the best Spider-Man we have seen to date. If Marvel continues to make films like this one, they’ll be making them for a long time.

Green Room

May 1, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Jeremy Saulnier is a relatively young director who began his transition from cinematography to director and writer with his 2007 film, “Murder Party.” That title tells you something of his interests and he has been true to them in the 3 films he has written and directed thus far. After his first film, he returned to cinematography for another 6 years, before releasing the 2nd feature film, “Blue Ruin.” “Green Room” is now his third. I think I smell a trilogy here. I mean you can’t name one movie “Blue Ruin” and the next one “Green Room” without having some sort of sequence in mind. Perhaps we have a “Red Rum” or “Purple Rain” to look forward to. Here, Saulnier shows his cinematographer’s roots, as he has created the perfect visual set for the tension he intends to build. Four band mates, looking to make quick cash so that they can get home after a disastrous tour, agree to perform at a skinhead gathering. Let’s just say things go wrong, and they end up trapped in a green room. The group of young actors are mostly unknowns, with the exception of Anton Yelchin (who plays Chekov in the current spate of “Star Trek” films) and Alia Shawkat (who we all know as Maybe on “Arrested Development”). They all do reasonably well at playing terrified or terrifying, as need be, and there is plenty of opportunity for both. Once the ball gets rolling (maybe 20 minutes into the film), the anxiety ratchets up quickly and doesn’t abate. The story unfolds with a gruesome cadence: sudden bursts of horrific violence followed by retreat, reassess and more anxiety. This is the dance the film does for the remainder of its 90 minute run time. And, I should note that those bursts of violence are very graphic, often involving things like machetes and vicious dogs. Oh, and one more thing worth mentioning: Patrick Stewart plays the leader of the white supremacists. He brings a cool-headed malevolence that is much needed. He serves to slow down the impending violence, while also increasing our anticipation for it. All of that said, this was a film that worked very well at being what it was, which was a horror thriller. However, it had nothing more below its surface. None of these characters had any depth or any reason for us to care for them. As a result, the deaths may have made you look away but they were unlikely to make you care. The action unfolded in a steady stream and I was on the edge of my seat for much of the movie. I was never bored but I was never fully engaged, either. I get a sense that Saulnier wants to do something more than just make b-movies. He has an aesthetic to his work that suggests he wants to say more. He just hasn’t quite figured out how to say it yet.

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