The Big Sick

August 26, 2017 at 10:38 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Sometimes the most cliché of genres can offer the sweetest surprise. It is a difficult thing to convince me to see a romantic comedy, any more. I feel like I have seen it all and disliked most of it. They are cloying, predictable and only blandly humorous. Yet, “The Big Sick” manages to be something I almost never expect from a romantic comedy; it is deeply touching. Written by real-life spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the film tells us the story of how they met. In what is definitely an unexpected twist for a romantic comedy, the main focus of the movie is on Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), rather than with her, as they struggle to deal with her unexpected illness. This vehicle allowed the audience to get to know his character outside of the standard rom com clichés. The film’s humor is fairly gentle. There are no belly laughs and it won’t have you in tears, but it did keep me genuinely chuckling throughout. At times, scenes could feel like they were veering toward stereotype (particularly where Kumail’s family was concerned) but it always felt more like a gentle ribbing than anything else. Because this was so autobiographical, the film felt very loving and respectful toward its characters. There is nothing biting here. If you are looking for a side-splitting good time, this may not be the movie for you. But you will genuinely feel good throughout. You will find it hard not to like everyone and you will find it hard not to be moved. You probably won’t shed any tears from laughing but you might still shed a tear or two or other reasons.

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Logan Lucky

August 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film could serve as a good lesson on how to use Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in conjunction with each other. It got a sterling 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a middling 78% on Metacritic. Given that the former is a straight up-or-down vote, whereas the latter is a graded score, the takeaway is that virtually every single critic liked “Logan Lucky,” but only moderately. And guess what? I liked “Logan Lucky.” I really did. But only moderately. Steven Soderbergh has always had a penchant for odd little films (“The Limey,” “Bubble,” “The Informant!”) that he mixes in with his massive successes (“Erin Brockovich,” all the “Ocean’s” movies). Here we get a blend of the “Ocean’s” type heist film mixed with the sort of mockery of its lead characters that you saw in “The Informant!” This is a heist movie for the current era, where NASCAR-loving, blue collar workers replace the slick cultural elites of the “Ocean’s” films. But Soderbergh doesn’t quite love these characters like he loved the originals. The “Ocean’s” films were all slick gloss and romanticism. This film is asking us to laugh at these characters, rather than with them. The humor is never cruel but it is poking fun, none-the-less. The caper they set about to commit is as ridiculous and unrealistic as one might expect, but that’s okay. A heist movie requires a suspension of disbelief. Though this film does talk out of both sides of its mouth; we are expected to believe these characters are both brilliant enough to come up with their plan and dumb enough for us to laugh at. The story starts very slowly and I found the begining dragged a lot. Channing Tatum did a passable job as the lead character, though he has never been a standout actor for me. Adam Driver, who I normally like, was odd here. I could not figure out where he was trying to go with his character; some of his acting and speech choices just felt a bit confusing for me. And we had to suffer through a painfully miscast Seth MacFarlane. The film really lit up when Daniel Craig’s character arrived. Whenever he was on screen, the film had energy and direction and had moments of genuine humor. In fact, the film could be very funny in parts. At other times, the film was clearly trying so hard to make us laugh that it fell flat. Overall, this was a fun, lighthearted ride. But it felt like there could have been more there. If the characters had just been a bit more developed, there might have been a real opportunity for some understanding, instead of just parody. And, frankly, we could all use a bit more understanding these days.

Lost in Paris (Paris Pieds Nus)

July 17, 2017 at 11:27 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“And now,” as Monty Python would say, “for something completely different.” So much of what I watch and love is dark, cynical, disturbing that I am delighted to say how much I loved this goofy little charmer. This comedic love story is so essentially French and a lovely nod to the slapstick comedies of a different era. It was written and directed by husband and wife, Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordan, who apparently met through the circus in the 1980s and have been together ever since. They have made multiple movies together, in which they always play characters named “Dom” and “Fiona.” Here, Fiona is a Canadian woman who goes off to Paris for the first time after getting a letter from her aunt, played by Emmanuelle Riva, who looks almost unrecognizable from her Best Actress Oscar-nominated role in “Amour” (my favorite film of 2012). In Paris, Fiona encounters Dom and lots of misadventure. Both Gordan and Abel are terrific physical actors, who look and act half their age (I found it shocking to discover that both are 60). They bring such a joy to their roles that it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. This is a bright, playful movie that whisks its audience along from scene to scene atop a froth of giddy energy. Everyone on screen is having so much fun, it’s almost impossible for the audience not to. In fact, the restaurant scene is a sheer joy from start to finish. In some ways, the film plays like a cartoon with wildly exaggerated facial expressions, ridiculous coincidences, beautifully staged sight gags and a palette rich in primary colors; Fiona is all in green and red, Dom wears various shades of yellow. In fact, bright red is a recurring color that often dominates the screen, reminding us of how cartoonish and larger-than-life this whole caper is. The unfortunate thing about slapstick is that it can wear a bit thin and the latter third of the film drags a bit. But, at only 1:20 long, the film never manages to overstay its welcome. Just at the time I was really about done, it was also. This was a good, fun, light-hearted joyride of a movie. I don’t see enough of them and I suspect most people don’t, either. See this one; it’s worth your time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 9, 2017 at 10:53 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The Spider-Man franchise, in its various incarnations, has been the gold standard for superhero franchises, having brought in just over $4 billion in its 15 year run. Not bad for a kid in tights. So, expectations have been high for this reboot, especially after the Andrew Garfield one failed to take off. Right from the start, they were off to a good start because Marvel was back in control of the franchise and they have shown a deft hand at translating even the goofiest of characters to the screen (think “The Guardians of the Galaxy), where others have failed, even with hugely popular characters (think “The Fantastic Four”). Marvel chose to bring Spider-Man right back to his roots. What made him unique when he debuted in 1963 was that he was an awkward teenager, so unlike the cool and supremely talented heroes we had seen in comics to date. I think this is part of why Garfield’s Spidey never worked; he was too cocksure and smirky. Nothing about him read awkward teen. This time, Marvel hired the youngest actor yet to play Peter Parker, 21 year old British actor Tom Holland (“The Impossible,” “In the Heart of the Sea”). Unlike previous actors, Holland is able to believably play a 15 year old. In fact, the real contribution of this film to the genre is in just how different its hero is. This Spider-Man is every bit the nerdy, self-conscious, angst-ridden teen. He is impulsive, eager to please, clumsy and incredibly endearing. Holland’s charm as the character is what makes the film work. The storyline is not particularly better or worse than any of the other films. Again, the writers have dragged out a couple of classic Spider-Man villains. This time it is The Shocker and The Vulture. Robert Downey Jr’s cameo as Iron Man adds some humor and deeper context, but only if you are a fan who has watched all the other Marvel movies. Otherwise, he looks like a confusing add-on. Far funnier were Chris Evans’s cameos as Captain America. They were brilliantly clever (make sure you wait until after the final credits to see the last one). But the real star to watch was Michael Keaton as The Vulture. Keaton is having a well deserved revival after “Birdman” reminded everyone of how brilliant he is. He imbues this villain with just the right balance of menace, cynicism and blasé attitude. He is the perfect foil for Spider-Man’s goofy energy, wide-eyed wonder and perkiness. I found their in-costume battle scenes to be a bit dull, but when they were face-to-face, sparring verbally, that was just a joy. Keaton commanded every one of those scenes, but that’s okay because he should have. This geeky boy, despite his super powers, was no intellectual match for his enemy. I love that Marvel was willing to give us such an incomplete hero here. Usually, super heroes are all so automatically super and heroic. Even previous Spider-Men (Men? Mans? What’s the right grammar here?), had a “learning my powers montage” or two and then were remarkably proficient. I loved that this film chose to tackle the character so differently. As an action movie, this was about par with the most of them and not nearly as good as the likes of last month’s “Wonder Woman.” But, as a character study, this is really one of the best superhero films we have had to date.

Baby Driver

July 2, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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It was impossible to not think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant “Drive” throughout this film. Both tell the story of a getaway driver who tries to leave the life after falling in love. And Refn’s film was so vital and bold that it feels like I saw it yesterday, even though it was almost 5 years ago. This was hardly a fair thing to do to “Baby Driver,” which can only suffer by comparison. That film was brilliant; this one was merely very very entertaining. But worth the price of admission, none-the-less. Beyond the similarities in story, these films could not be more different. The tone, temper, pacing, acting, and visual palettes were virtually opposite each other. Refn’s “Drive” was a sort of minimalist masterpiece. The pace was deliberately slow and brooding and all of the acting was appropriately understated. Scenes seethed with unstated tension. And the lighting was dark, long night scenes, and lots of orange/red hues. But “Baby Driver” goes in the opposite direction. Director Edgar Wright (“Sean of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”) loves excess and draws over-the-top performances from his actors. From the first moments of the first scene, “Baby Driver” takes off and keeps going at an almost unrelenting pace for its entire 113 minutes. Every single performance is bursting with energy. Where Ryan Gosling’s driver was all coiled potential energy, Ansel Elgort’s Baby cannot stop moving. He is endless kinetic energy. The villains are equally as manic. Jon Bernthal’s Griff made his “Punisher” from the “Daredevil” t.v. series seem realistic by comparison. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it adds to the fun of a film that is clearly just meant to be fun. Jon Hamm appears to be having the time of his life as the absurdly one-dimensional Buddy. This film is all flash and buzz and hi-octane energy. It’s a cotton-candy thrill ride that knows how to be that, exactly that, and nothing more. Go, settle into your seat with a big bag of popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

 

Okja

July 2, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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You could possibly accuse me of cheating with this review, as the film has been released on Netflix and will not ever get a wide-release in the U.S. That said, Bong is a major director, this film has had wide-release in other countries and was shown at Cannes. So, I decided to treat it like any new release. Plus, it is one of my favorite films of the year, to date. Bong Joon-ho is responsible for some of my favorite Korean films, including “The Host” and the beautifully creepy “Mother.” He has an eye for the bizarre and loves a fantastic parable, as in the less successful “Snowpiercer.” Here, he takes on factory farming, evil corporations and mass consumption, in general. At times his message is as poignant as it is pointed. And at other times it feels a bit one-dimensional; his depiction of The Animal Liberation Front seems like propaganda, better suited for one of their flyers. But, look beyond that and what you’ll find is a remarkably funny, heart-wrenching and provocative story. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is CEO of a company that has secretly bred genetically modified pigs and now wants to send them all to mass slaughter. But 13 year old Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has fallen in love with one of them. When the evil corporation takes Okja away, Mija goes on an epic journey to get her back. Swinton loves playing extreme characters and does a brilliant job of it, she was the best part of “Snowpiercer,” and she does not disappoint here. Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a full on, over-the-top performance as the far less than stable Johnny Wilcox. But the real credit goes to the young Ahn and the CGI team that created Okja. The creature was genuinely beautiful and expressive. The love between the two felt completely believable. In Ahn’s hands, Mija is an incredibly strong and unrelenting hero, and you can’t help but root for her every step of the way. This film was equal parts social commentary, laugh-out-loud comedy and non-stop action film. Every scene was a joy to watch. It will surprise and amuse and maybe annoy you, but it is unlikely to ever bore you.

Your Name

May 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Makoto Shinkai directed this lavish anime movie based on his novel of the same name. Visually, it is everything you would expect from anime; as far as traditional (non-CGI) animation, this is some of the best I have seen in a long time. Each scene was rich with color and small details: reflections on glass, the movement of clouds, the closing of sliding doors. I was often so taken by the visuals, I stopped reading the subtitles, just so that I wouldn’t miss anything. The subtitles were actually somewhat of a problem and I would have preferred this film to be have been dubbed. The subtitles moved by sometimes very quickly and were often combined with supertitles, so that you had to read the bottom and top of the screen and it became a bit confusing. And this could be a confusing story. Steeped in magical realism, it tells the story of a boy in Tokyo and a girl in rural Japan who find that they swap bodies randomly from time-to-time. In the process, they learn about each other’s lives and figure out a way to communicate to each other and then it just stops. So, the boy goes on a journey to find her. The film’s mood is one of sentiment and pathos, punctuated by moments of slapstick humor. This is ultimately a romantic movie and reminded me of the old Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves film, “The Lake House.” Love made possible through magic. If you like that sort of thing, you will undoubtedly like this, and you may even find yourself shedding a tear or two. If that is just not your thing, then perhaps the beautiful visuals will be enough for you. They certainly were for me.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

Colossal

May 1, 2017 at 9:00 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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After a month of just not been particularly inspired by anything out there (I did try to watch “After the Storm” but slept through so much of it, I wasn’t able to write a review), I thought I would give the quirky new movie, “Colossal,” a shot. This is by far the largest film from Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (“Open Windows,” “The ABCs of Death”) and I have not seen any of this other work. So, I don’t know if this one is typical of him but it’s certainly not typical of anything else. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, as the real joy I had with this film was in trying to figure it out. Basically, a giant monster appears over Seoul and it is apparently being unconsciously controlled by Anne Hathaway. Strangeness ensues from there. The cast for the film is incredibly small. With the exception of some minor background characters, there is only Anne’s character, her boyfriend (played by Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” fame), the bar owner she grew up with (Jason Sudeikis from SNL, “We’re the Millers” and the “Horrible Bosses” movies), and two of his friends, played by Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and Austin Stowell (“Bridge of Spies”). And even that felt like a bit too much. I can’t see the value the two friends brought to the film at all, other than to distress the audience with their utter inaction. But, perhaps that was the point. This whole, odd production felt like it was playing at being a giant (excuse the pun) metaphor, even if I wasn’t sure what the metaphor was. Hathaway’s character is clearly an alcoholic and, for much of the film, I thought the monster was a metaphor for the destruction alcohol can cause in a person’s life; it can lay waste to your soul (get it? Soul/Seoul?). But, then the film suddenly took a much, much darker turn. Then the metaphor seemed to be playing at something much more disturbing and less clear. In the end, I couldn’t figure out what Vigalondo was trying to say and how the pieces were supposed to fit together. In particular, the ending just didn’t seem to fit. As satisfying as it was for the audience, it belied the whole metaphor because it bore no resemblance to real life and felt to me like it minimized the problem it seemed to be exploring. Hathaway does a good job of being the same charming, slightly goofy character we have seen before but the real strength of the film is in Sudeikis’s performance. He has real acting chops, beyond just comedy, and he gives a powerful performance in this genre defying film. The trailers make it look like a comedy/sci-fi film but it’s really a drama, and one grimly determined to get its message across. Vigalondo is trying to take on a colossal topic and I give him real credit for telling his story in a unique way. There are things that do really work here. It’s just not enough for me to recommend the movie. That isn’t to say I wish I had skipped it. I am actually glad I saw it; I just wouldn’t see it again.

T2 Trainspotting

April 2, 2017 at 4:53 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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So, in my last review (which I just wrote earlier today), I stated that there was a “general dearth” of good films in theaters right now. Well, that me can fuck off because I could not have been more wrong. From the first moments of T2, I knew I was in for a treat. As you may recall, 1996’s “Trainspotting” started with Ewan McGregor’s running feet as he evaded the police. This time, we also start with his running feet, only now they are on a treadmill. And, thus, we are told instantly what the tone, drive and humor of this film will be. Again and again, we are reminded of that earlier movie in more and less subtle ways. So often, in fact, that I cannot begin to list them all. But here are some of my favorites: that opening sequence; Spud exploding fluids out of a different orifice; Renton’s amazing “Choose Life” rant; a dirty toilet; Renton slamming his hand on the hood of a car with a shitting eating grin; and the music. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) teases us with the faintest sounds of the original. We get an acoustic, instrumental version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” over the opening credits. Another, ever-so-faint acoustic version of Pulp’s “Mile End” plays for just a minute. And, back in his childhood room, Renton puts needle to vinyl and we are treated to just 3 beats of “Lust for Life.” It’s too much for Renton but it’s also too late because we are all going down the nostalgia rabbit hole together. And that is the true brilliance of this film. It is ostensibly the story of all these men 20 years later, trapped in middle-aged regret and uncertainty. But this isn’t really a film about Mark Renton’s nostalgia or Begbie’s or Simon’s. This is really about Danny Boyle’s nostalgia and Ewan McGregor’s and mine and yours. Sitting in that theater, watching these characters remember and retell their youth against the backdrop of the slum towers they grew up in (now marked for “Safe Demolition”), I realized that Boyle is actually telling another, more vital story. In the modern world of meta-narratives, this film is really about us, the viewers. It is designed to pull us back again and again to when we first saw the film. Image after image, reference after reference, was designed to take us down that rabbit hole of nostalgia with them. These men, who were in their 20s the last time around, now grapple with middle age and confusion about who they are and what their lives mean. Boyle taps into that and I was as drawn back to my youthful self, just as those characters were. “Trainspotting” was all frenetic energy, wild abandon and impotent rage. T2 is so much more introspective and replaces rage with wistfulness and a self-aware acceptance. We all grew up in the intervening years and became a little wiser and less sure of ourselves. That these characters aged with us feels exactly right to me.

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