Another Review Round-Up (High-Rise, Love & Friendship, The Nice Guys)

the nice guys

highriseposterAt the end, it clicked together. The easiest (and surprisingly effective) way to describe Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is as Snowpiercer in an apartment building. Turns out the movies have more in common with each other than their premise. Thematically, they’re fairly similar. Although Snowpiercer was very proactively revolutionary in suggesting that the only way to find equality is to destroy our inherently oppressive system altogether, while High-Rise isn’t interested in providing any answers to the problems it presents. And it provides a problem similar to Snowpiercer‘s. When the residents of a hierarchical apartment building decide to start the revolution, they grow as comfortable with the violence and chaos of their new order as they once were with the casual oppression of the previous system.

The movie is based on the work of science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, and from what I hear, it’s considerably different from its source material. The movie is a marvel of design. The building of the title is characteristic of the horrible block-of-cement architecture of the seventies, while the costumes are similarly representative of an idea of the seventies more than they resemble realistic clothing (many characters wear the same clothes throughout the whole movie). There are disturbing and gory parts as the whole building goes to chaos, and Wheatley has a lot of fun constructing beautiful images out of decadence and chaos, including a fantastic montage set to ABBA’s “S.O.S.” In the end, though, too many montages numb the mind. By the time the movie’s themes clicked together in its last couple scenes, I started to wonder if I needed all of the middle to get what it was saying.

Grade: 6 out of 10

love&friendshipsoterI would never claim to be a Jane Austen expert. Although I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, I’ve read very little of her work. I do think, however, that even the very best big screen adaptation of her work don’t fully capture the depth of irony, cynicism, and social critique that can be found in her humor. Now, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, which was adapted not from a famous Austen novel but from one of an unfinished manuscript titled Lady Susan, may not capture many of the aspects that make Austen such a beloved aspect, but it definitely captures her wit.

The big key here, and the reason why this manuscript is such a great fit for Stillman, is that the lead character, Lady Susan herself, is not your typical Austen heroine. She is not a smart and sensible young woman like Elizabeth Bennett, but a cunning seductress who will not stop until she secures her future by marrying off her daughter, and herself. Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan in what is very clearly the role of her career. She provides a blend of wit and frivolity that makes her an irresistible character. In a just world, Beckinsale would be a front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

What’s even more exciting is Lady Susan, by being incredibly selfish and searching only her own gain, becomes one of the great feminist heroes of cinema. Susan might not always be the smartest person in the room, but there is no room that she is the cleverest. Her plans are intricate, and the people around her mere puppets. Some people might perceive her as despicable, but I can only watch in admiration at a woman who will do anything in her power to gain a system rigged against her.

If there is a weakness to Love & Friendship, it’s the plot, which doesn’t quite measure up to Austen’s best, those wonderful stories that are full of complicated characters and emotions but are simultaneously very easy to follow. However, what Stillman lacks in structure he makes up for in amazing dialogue and funny touches, which are served with gusto by a fantastic ensemble, including Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, and Tom Bennett, who steals the show as a most incompetent suitor who insists we must follow Our Lord’s twelve commandments.

Grade: 8 out of 10

niceguysposterShane Black came into the scene as the screenwriter of Lethal Weaponand throughout his career, defined and perfected the buddy-cop formula to the point that he became the highest payed writer in Hollywood. Then, his star faded, and he had to reinvent himself by getting on the director chair and subverting the narratives that had given him fame and fortune with his debut feature Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Now that he’s been reaccepted into Hollywood (and directed his own Marvel movie), he seems to be more than happy to go back to his beloved formula of old.

Back in the mid-nineties, The Nice Guys might have seemed like yet another tired entry in a tired genre. Today, however, it comes as a breath of fresh air set to liberate us from the exploding buildings and super-powered warriors of the early days of summer movie season. The movie is set in the seventies, perhaps a smart way for Black to make his admittedly now passé style feel appropriate. It stars Russell Crowe as a tough enforcer with a heart of gold, and Ryan Gosling as a sleazy grief-stricken p.i. who team up to solve the case of a disappeared young girl and a series of murders connected to the porn industry.

Let’s be upfront and recognize that The Nice Guys doesn’t have anything particularly pressing or deep to say about humanity, or the state of the world or anything like that. It is a well-enough crafted movie (the plot, character motivations, themes are all merely serviceable) that is designed to be fun. And it is a lot of fun. The editing is a little too loose at points, and the filmmaking a little pedestrian, but if you want a good ol’ action comedy with lots of laughs and solid performances, you could do much, much worse than this. These days, The Nice Guys is as welcome an addition to my moviegoing year as it gets. And while we’re here, let me tell you Ryan Gosling is outstanding in this, one of the best performances of his career.

Grade: 8 out of 10

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Short Review Round-Up (A Bigger Splash and The Lobster)

a bigger splash

abiggersplashposterA Bigger Splash is a movie about the relationship between pleasure and cruelty. But while it does, particularly in its last third, make an effort to point a finger at the sort of privileged ambivalence that enables many of our world’s tragedies, I didn’t come out of the theater shaken, but delighted. How could I not, when director Luca Guadagnino – that luscious Italian who gifted us with I Am Love– has assembled the most magnificent cast of actors.

Leading the charge is Guadagnino’s frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton, who plays a world-famous rock diva (this would be the closest Swinton gets to playing David Bowie except for that video in which she kinda does). The rockstar is on vacation in a paradisiac Italian island with her hot boyfriend, a documentarian played by Belgian hunk Matthias Schoenaerts. Their vacation is interrupted, however, by the arrival of a histrionic old collaborator, and ex-lover, played by the magnificent Ralph Fiennes, and his flirty 22 year-old daughter, played with wonderful bad girl attitude by Dakota Johnson.

As you can see, pleasures abound in this movie. I am a moderate fan of Schoenaerts’s work, but the other three actors I absolutely love. I could see them interacting for hours, particularly when they’re lounging by a beautiful beach, wearing Dior, being touched by the most delicate golden sunlight. The movie makes its shift from naturalistic comedy to tragic melodrama rather seamlessly, partly because Guadagnino’s visuals are so playful from the start. I remain uncertain whether the director was attempting social commentary with the movie’s last act, but it remains a carefully observed and engaging experience throughout. The movie reaches its peak when Fiennes lets loose and dances to The Rolling Stones’s “Emotional Rescue”, but the rest remains a delight.

Grade: 8 out of 10

lobsterposterYou go around life thinking there are some movies that you like, some movies you don’t like, and some movies that you love. Then along comes a movie that so perfectly captures not only your cinematic aesthetic, but your sense of humor, and the sort of questions that plague your daily life and color your philosophical outlook on the world. Then, you can’t really think of it in relationship to other movies that you’ve seen, because this movie has been tailor-made for you, how can you not love it? Even if there is a moment that you aren’t in love with, how could you possibly complain about it when the movie around it is pretty a present from the universe.

That is how I feel about Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, and I mention my feelings about it because I would find it impossible to review it, for I have seen it twice, and already love it so profoundly. What I can do is recommend everybody see it, and give a little context. The movie’s a dark romantic comedy, set in a dystopian world inhabited exclusively by couples. If someone finds themselves to be single, they are sent to a purgatorial retreat, and they are given 45 days to find a mate. Should they fail to find a partner, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. And if you try to escape, you’ll be hunted down and killed.

Don’t be fooled. As cool as that premise sounds, The Lobster is much more than “Tinder meets The Most Dangerous Game”. Particularly in its second half, the movie opens up to a wider and more complex world than anticipated, and transcends into true greatness. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux, and Olivia Colman lead a flawless ensemble. ‘The Lobster’ is my favorite movie of the year so far, and I would be shocked if it doesn’t remain in that spot by the end of the year.

Grade: 10 out of 10

Captain America vs. Iron Man: Justice At High Noon

civilwar

Before we get into it, I want to credit my friend Gamal with the title of this review, so if you think it’s dumb, direct all complaints to him. 

So you mean to tell me that Marvel, one of the most profitable entertainment brands, which is owned by Disney, which is not only even more profitable, but super protective when it comes to making money, made a movie in which its two biggest heroes face off in what is essentially an ideological battle? In an election year? Shit’s about to get real.

Hold your thinkpieces! Before we go off on why Iron Man is clearly Hillary Clinton, and debate whether Captain America’s politics lie closer to Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, consider the following: This is a story in which the heroes disagree so hard on a issue they decide the best way to settle the thing is to punch each other silly. And these are the good guys! Meanwhile, real politics have grown so intolerant an unapologetic racist is the Republican nominee, while movements like #BernieOrBust show people on the other side unwilling to compromise within their own political party. Dialogue is dying in American politics, and it’s giving way to dogmatic ideology. Civil War, a movie about superheroes unable to talk through their problems, had to be the most fascinating and daring blockbuster in a long, long time… right?

Sadly -very sadly- Civil War is not that movie. The movie does, indeed, begin with the introduction of the Sokovia Accord, which demands The Avengers sign off to be a United Nations-controlled group, and stop acting out with impunity, you know, so that government can get a say on when and where cities get destroyed by these world-saving heroes. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks this is a good idea, especially after being confronted by a grieving mother (played by the great Alfre Woodard, whom I hope got a big fat check for her one scene) who lost her son during the last Avengers movie’s climax. Captain America (Chris Evans), doesn’t trust the agendas of shady politicians, so he refuses to sign the deal.

This conflict essentially puts one form of fascism against another. Either you let super-powered people do whatever they want, or you let the state decide when and how those people get to use their powers. It’s tricky ground, and so the movie decides to abandon it pretty quickly and give over to a melodramatic plot about mistaken identities. You see, on the day these Sokovia Accords are to be signed, a bomb goes off killing a bunch of high-ranking officials -including the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The government think Captain America’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) a.k.a. The Winter Soldier is the guy behind the bombing. The Captain thinks he knows better. Bucky couldn’t have done such a thing.

Unlike the political ramifications of guaranteeing both liberty and safety in a world full of super-powered creatures, the question of whether some guy bombed a place seems incredibly simple. Either he did or he didn’t. And because Captain America is on his side and the movie bares his name, we know the guy’s innocent. Complexity and ambition give way to lame effectiveness. It’s hard to blame the filmmakers for this shift. After all, it’s far easier (and safer) to write a movie about two sides trying to find a guy before the other than it is to somehow integrate explosions in a story about complicated legislation, but wouldn’t it have been awesome if it this HAD been a movie about that?

A lot of critics have compared Civil War favorably to Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, pointing out that it’s a far tighter and coherent movie. I can’t argue with that. But those movies, imperfect as they were, not only set their sight considerably higher than Civil War, but offer pleasures this movie seems incapable of grasping.

Age of Ultron is an overstuffed philosophical treatise on the nature of super-heroes and the consequences of their actions, and explores this subject more thoroughly in one conversation between evil robot Ultron and the benevolent Vision, than Civil War does in its two-hour-plus running time. Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman is a horrible mess, yes, that nonetheless indulges in all kinds of iconic imagery, turning popular culture into religious myth. It doesn’t quite succeed, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t shoot for the stars.

What pleasures does Civil War offer? A bunch of cool action beats that are drowned out by the incompetent, chaotic direction of Anthony and Joe Russo, and a couple of amusing scenes, particularly those involving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who are adorably excited to be part of this movie, and who are very tellingly not a big part of the main narrative. Beyond that, the movie’s big plot about whether or not Bucky is innocent is a big dud, and the action -beyond the annoying shaking camera- is hurt by a supreme lack of stakes.

The movie’s biggest set piece -the much publicized face-of between the two superheroic factions at the Leipzig airport- comes without any stakes whatsoever. When we all know that Marvel is not going to have Captain America bash in Iron Man’s face. Money-making superheroes are not actually going to kill each other, so why pretend? It’s all one big joke, with lots of wisecracking and admittedly funny, but profoundly inconsequential fights. When someone finally gets hurt, the moment lands with a thud, since it’s soon revealed that, don’t worry, the guy will be fine.

So, if this is clearly not a movie about political ideologies in conflict, then what is it actually about? The villain is one Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), and he is basically just a guy with a grudge. There is something along the lines of a mere “dude” being able to get the heroes to destroy themselves from within, which is fine, if all you want is an acceptably plotted movie and a bunch of jokes about Superheroes having to ride a VW Beetle (the guy riding in the back needs more legroom!). I know one is supposed to review the movie one has seen, and not the movie one wishes one had seen. All I’m saying is, I think my idea was cooler.

Grade: 5 out of 10

Heroes vs. Heroes vs. Villains: 2016 Summer Box Office Predictions

Screen shot 2016-04-30 at 7.41.43 p.m.

It’s become a tradition on this blog for me to try (and fail) to predict what will be the most commercially successful movies of the summer. Case in point, last year, I was one of the many suckers who failed to see the Jurassic World juggernaut coming, thinking the Age of Ultron would be too big to be stopped by 90s nostalgia. Because I never learn from my mistakes, I’m predicting similar results this year. Although, in my defense, nostalgia for Independence Day cannot possibly be as rampant as nostalgia for Jurassic Park, can it?

So, how did I do with my predictions last year? I got seven of the ten movies in the top ten right. Like many a Hollywood producer, I underestimated the power of female and black audiences, failing to see Pitch Perfect 2 and Straight Outta Compton as the massive successes that they ended up being. And while I got the top four grossers right, I didn’t have them in the correct order. I actually didn’t have any of the movies in their correct position. A mess. But let’s stop beating ourselves about the past and look to the (inevitably inaccurate) future.

But before we do, a disclaimer: I’ve been horribly busy the last couple months and there’s been virtually no posting on the blog. Ideally, I would’ve finished this piece before Captain America: Civil War opened, so I’ve decided to not take into account its actual performance, but stick to the predictions I had made before the movie opened. Here are those predictions…

1. Captain America: Civil War
Release Date: May 6
Studio: Disney/Marvel
Predicted Box Office: 450 Million
I know I bit the bullet last year thinking Age of Ultron would obviously -obviously!- be the highest movie of the summer, but how can you bet against this beast? Especially when the movie has gotten glowing reviews (I personally didn’t care for it, but more on that in a different post). I think this very easily clears the 400 million mark, whether it can climb to 500 or 600 is a different question. That’s what makes it number one.

2. Finding Dory
Release Date: June 17
Studio: Disney/Marvel
Predicted Box Office: 400 Million
The only true contender to steal the summer crown from Captain America is a long-awaited Pixar sequel. Based on strictly anecdotal evidence that I believe to be very reliable, I’m inclined to believe Dory will perform closer to Toy Story 3 than to Monsters University, which would get it to the 400 million mark pretty easily. The only problem facing this movie are the rather bland trailers, but then again, I though Inside Out looked bad based on its trailer and we all know how that turned out.

3. Suicide Squad
Release Date: August 5
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 300 Million
Warner Bros. must be desperate to find some superhero power after the massive yet disappointing box office performance of Batman v. Superman. In almost any other circumstance, I would write off Suicide Squad –a comic book movie in which the villains become heroes and fight the Joker or something- as a horrible idea, except that the trailer makes it look very similar to Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, both of which ended up north of 300 million. Apparently, audiences can’t get enough rowdy, profane, supposedly comedic superheroes.

4. Alice Through the Looking Glass
Release Date: May 27
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 240 Million
Believe me, nobody will take the fact that this movie is going to be a hit more personally than I will. Tim Burton’s horrendous Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the worst movie I’ve seen this decade. I cannot believe it is getting a sequel, and I will be crushed when it becomes one of the summer’s most massive hits. Because, who are we kidding? Alice in Wonderland was a gigantic success, and there are probably enough teens who shop at Hot Topic and unsuspecting families to also make this one a hit.

5. X-Men: Apocalypse
Release Date: May 27
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Predicted Box Office: 230 Million
The X-Men franchise has been all over the place, but the last entry, Days of Future Past, seemed to right the ship and build some some genuine excitement for what is coming next. I personally don’t think the movie looks that good -and I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since I was a child- but hey, superhero movies make money, and people seem to be at least a little bit excited about this one. People will probably be ready to move on from Captain America and check out a different set of heroes by May’s end, right?

6. Ghostbusters
Release Date: July 15
Studio: Sony/Columbia
Predicted Box Office: 200 Million
This is where the prediction game gets really hard, if you ask me. Beyond those top five spots, I can see the rest of the movies on this list be either huge hits, or massive flops. I really want Paul Feig’s female Ghostbusters to be a huge hit. Mostly because I like the cast, but if nothing else, to stick it to the chauvinistic pigs who complained about the gender bending cast. The problem is the trailer looks kind of really lame, if you ask me. But then again, I have no emotional connection to the original Ghostbusters, so who cares what I think.

7. Star Trek Beyond
Release Date: July 22
Studio: Paramount
Predicted Box Office: 195 Million
Star Trek Into Darkness left a pretty horrible taste in everybody’s mouth, so we’ll see if the franchise can recover. The trailers make this look much funnier and exciting than Into Darkness, which should be a good sign. Still, this seems like this movie’s goal is to regenerate excitement for the franchise more than to be a massive hit. I don’t think it’ll do as good as either of its predecessors.

8. Jason Bourne
Release Date: July 29
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 190 Million
Bourne is back! And he’s played by Matt Damon! Does anyone care, though? I don’t know. The guy who cuts my hair is really excited about it, so I guess that counts for something, right? Also, The Martian was a big hit.

9. Independence Day: Resurgence
Release Date: June 24
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Predicted Box Office: 180 Million
If you follow last year’s logic, and assume that 90s nostalgia is the strongest force in making a movie a hit, then you better put all your chips on Independence Day. If you think the way I do, however, you’ll say that Jurassic Park is a much better movie, and a bigger staple of the nineties than Independence Day ever was. I’ve heard some people on the internet be excited about this movie. No one I interact with in real life is. I don’t know how to turn that into math.

10. The Secret Life of Pets
Release Date: July 8
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 175 Million
Because we all love pets, and the trailer plays pretty well whenever it plays at my local AMC, and because parents will have to take their kids somewhere during the scorching months of summer. Animated movies with talking animals marketed at families tend to make at least 160 million, so there’s that. I guess this can be a hit, even if it is so blatantly a “Toy Story but about pets” ripoff.

Question Marks:
What other movies could be big hits this summer? Angry Birds looks dumb and terrible, and I thought our culture had moves past the Angry Birds, but maybe I’m wrong? Meanwhile, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 could do a similar trick and convince unsuspecting children into buying tickets.  Neighbors 2 could build on the goodwill of its predecessor and be an even bigger hit. The same goes for The Conjuring 2. And finally, I could see Steven Spielberg’s The BFG making anywhere from 200 to 20 million dollars.

Turkeys:
Sometimes, it’s more fun to predict what will fail than what will make money. This summer’s most likely flops are obviously Warcraft and The Legend of Tarzan. 

What Am I Most Excited About?
The Nice Guysof course.