In 2009 my parents visited me in Los Angeles for the first time and I needed to show them a movie as the Arclight chain of theaters because I wouldn’t shut up about how great they were. There wasn’t anything out that we were dying to see so we saw the latest movie from Jason Statham more because we liked him than because we thought we would see a fantastic movie. That was the first time I saw Crank: High Voltageand it changed what I wanted from an action movie: pace above all other things. I want a movie to move as fast and damn the audience if they can’t keep up. Mad Max: Fury Road is the first movie since that feels like it is genuinely pushing at the limits of the genre and it makes for a truly impactful filmgoing experience.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a 120-minute movie that has well over 110 minutes of action. Fast action at that, breakneck paced, innovative fire-belching action that constantly threatens to overwhelm the senses of the audience. Chase sequences so far above and beyond the norm that it feels like the cinematic equivalent of the invention of the steam engine and it’s like we skipped a thousand steps and went from farming to factories in no time at all. That they could do these choreographed ballets of explosions, high speeds, and flying bodies almost exclusively with practical effects defies belief. It all simultaneously looks like it would take a million takes to get right but would only really ever accommodate one. (more…)
It was easy to deduce that no one involved believed that Hot Pursuit was a good movie. Reese Witherspoon is fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Wild, Sofia Vergara stars in a TV show widely credited, however accurately, as reviving the sitcom, and, if internet coverage is any indication, people are clamoring for comedies with predominately female leads. If Hot Pursuit were any good at all it would get a big release at a time where it could do big business, not thrown in the wake of Avengers: Age of Ultron where it will sink anonymously. You can know before you see it that Hot Pursuit is a bad movie, but even that might not prepare you for just how drab and boring it truly is.
Basically every joke in Hot Pursuit is based on the Odd Couple-esque relationship between Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara and it just fails over and over again. Witherspoon plays the regulation-obsessed police officer with all the believability of a bad improv performer, she talks less like a police office and more like an alien from another planet who has never heard of colloquialisms or compound words. They also keep referencing a faint mustache that makeup apparently couldn’t be bothered to give her. Vergara is more or less playing the only character I’ve ever seen her play, the beautiful snobby diva with a surprise twist to make her relatable in the third act. There’s no difference in her here than in any plot she drives on an episode of Modern Family. Neither character feels like a real person to me so the jokes feel very abstract and they, for the most part, don’t hit. The most successful joke in the whole movie comes from the two women grossing men out about their periods, and while it isn’t the most original joke I’ve ever heard it’s at least coming from a relatable place.
The plot is thin, which is honestly an accomplishment for an 87-minute movie. The heroes make what appear to be clean escapes from the bad guys chasing them and go to some out of the way places only to have to escape at a moment’s notice again. There are character turns that come out of nowhere and that they seem to expect to have impact, but the characters they come from only had expository lines up until now so it’s hard to care about them being evil. They also expect me to believe that the main characters bond not over the stressful circumstance they’re in but that they’ve both had family members die. I hardly think there’s a secret fraternity of people who have had relatives die or it would include just about every person on earth.
The most damning criticism I can make of Hot Pursuit is that it feels like three episodes of a sitcom run back-to-back. With the exception of one slumming A-list actor there’s nothing here that couldn’t be found on a night watching CBS. The material isn’t funnier, the scope isn’t larger, the production values aren’t better, and it’s just a bland collection of elements I could get for free and don’t even want then. Hot Pursuit is what happens when a cash grab comedy goes off the rails and becomes a festering pit where comedy goes to die. It’s like an Adam Sandler movie with marginally better gender politics.
It’s almost impossible for me to be too positive about Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a movie that would have been the movie of my dreams when I was 10 years old, when I was 20 I would have told you there was no chance it would ever happen, even at 25 I would have thought it was far too optimistic. It is as good as superhero movies get and as a life long fan of superheroes I loved it to pieces. I love how the fight sequences feel like playing with a big box of action figures but with a quarter billion dollar budget. I love Joss Whedon’s banter and the performances he gets from his actors each of whom feels perfectly cast. I even love it for the flaws, that it’s a little too packed with winks and teases, that there’s a pervasive refusal to call people by their code names, the dawning realization that I don’t care about Iron Man at all. I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to see comic book movies get to where they are right now that when the standard bearer for the genre comes back I can only stand back in awe.
James Spader is so unbelievably good as Ultron. I thought Ultron was a mistake as a villain, I just didn’t believe he was interesting enough to pull an entire movie when I never cared for his comics, but Spader is so good I literally couldn’t remember Tom Hiddleston’s name when it was over. Spader turns a character I frequently thought had no personality (and I’ve read very few Ultron stories so it might not be a fair assessment) and turned him in to a character that had a sense of humor, and more importantly a real point of view. There’s a moment early in the film where Ultron accuses Tony Stark of not wanting peace but quiet and after the events of this week in Baltimore that hit particularly hard. While Spader is the glittering jewel of the new cast Elizabeth Olsen is also a treasure, she provides some human emotion to moments that would otherwise feel too large and fantastical to connect with and I’m quite thrilled to have her in the Don Cheadle level of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Much like the slow moving menace that stalks its protagonists, It Follows had a slow, steady walk to being a cult horror hit. The kind of movie, if recent surprise successes in the genre are any indication, could lead to a rush of imitators looking to get a piece of quick horror cash. It Follows is refreshing in how different it is than the mainstream of the genre these days but it is also so arrestingly scary that it easily ranks among the least comfortable movie going experiences I’ve ever had. It’s also maddeningly opaque with how it dispenses exposition or even meaning to the events of the film.
Horror films in recent years have fallen in to a predictable pattern and I don’t just mean they’re overwhelmingly about demonic possession hitting young families. The way they choose to scare you always feels like the same jump scare. The music shifts to a faster tempo and the camera movements get slower and then something comes out of nowhere and is accompanied by a big string hit on the soundtrack. It’s effective but it’s boring and worse than that it’s obvious. I know nothing of consequence will happen in a movie like Annabelle until the last 10 minutes. It Follows has a different, more of a throwback, style of generating tension. They still kick the score in to high gear, they might even do it more but the tension comes from static shots, from first person perspectives of some flowers or the morning sky. Most of the time nothing happens and it doesn’t matter; I’m still zipping up my hoodie and looking at the ground. It gives all of the effect with none of the cheapness that comes with a cheap thrill for a child’s toy falling out of a closet. It feels more earned even if it might not actually be.
I hate when movies hold my hand too much, when they keep telling me things that would be so easy to show me. It Follows certainly doesn’t tell when it could show but also doesn’t tell when it refuses to show. There’s a very brief explanation of the rules for the monster in this film and then we never get any more information. We never get any why or any how. We’re just given a menace that slowly walks toward its victim and then kills them in a nondescript way that leaves a terribly mangled corpse. Then at the climax that stops and we get a suddenly much more clever whatever it is capable of evading the trap that our heroes have set with no indication that the trap would be successful. When the film ends, as all horror movies do, by teasing us with the possibility that the danger is still out there it isn’t the least bit surprising because I had no sense that this thing could be defeated as easily as they dispatch it in the previous scene. I was plenty scared in the moment but it’s the kind of movie that unravels as you pull at the threads in the hours and days that follow.
I want more horror movies to be like It Follows but I know that even by wishing that I am destroying the chances it will ever happen. Horror is so reactive I’m sure there have been dozens of conversations in Hollywood over the past month or so about how to capture this lightning in a bottle and get three movies just like it out by this time next year. None of them will get it right though, they’ll take the wrong things. Maybe one studio will think the secret is teenagers, or the speed of the ghost, or the techno-throwback music. The way studios saw Paranormal Activity and thought everyone wanted a bunch of found footage movies. What I want more of is the earnestness and the experimentation and even the flailing attempts at finding an underlying philosophy that give It Follows its charms. Oh well, see you all back here next year for a harsh review of Stuff Will Eventually Get You.
I didn’t expect too much from Ex Machina walking in to the film. I had seen the trailer every week for what feels like months, a perk of patronizing one of the few theaters that participated in the limited engagement I suppose, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. It looked like a competent but pedestrian sci-fi thriller with a second act twist I was reasonably sure I had figured out in advance. I was wrong about all of those things. I was wrong about the twist, I was wrong about the film being pedestrian, and the film is so far beyond pedestrian I’m ashamed at the thought. Ex Machina is one of the most compelling, gripping, transfixing movie I have seen in quite some time. It’s such a fascinating movie to talk about that I’m crestfallen that it is in such a limited release that I will likely have to wait weeks to talk about it with anyone. I want to stand on street corners and bully passersby to go buy tickets, more people need to see this movie.
Ex Machina is the first directorial effort from veteran screenwriter Alex Garland and it’s almost unbelievable how skilled he is as a novice. While he is working with a small cast the performances he gets from his actors are uniformly excellent. Oscar Isaac has been fantastic in every film I’ve seen him in but he’s on another level here as Nathan. Nathan is a character that needs to have a quiet menace about him and Isaac oozes it from every pore. He commands all attention when he’s on screen in much the way I imagine it would be to share a room with a predatory cat. Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander make for a fascinating on-screen duo as the software engineer Caleb and the artificial intelligence (Ava) he has come to test and I suspect that their performances will feel even more special on repeat viewings once the viewer understands the whole story.
Justin Lin was the architect of the most dramatic film franchise turnarounds in my lifetime. When he signed on to make a third Fast & Furious movie the franchise was a laughing stock (I heard more jokes about the name 2 Fast 2 Furious than any movie before or since). He would, over the course of four films, turn the franchise in to the best original action movie franchise of the modern era. Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 are the best action films of this decade and it isn’t particularly close. The mid-credits scene of Fast & Furious 6 revealing Jason Statham as the villain for the next installment was one of the happiest moments I’ve ever had in a movie theater. If I knew anything in the world of cinema I knew Furious 7 would be a fantastic movie and that I needed to wait on the edge of my seat for it to come and deliver another transcendent action movie experience.
There’s a murkiness to The Divergent Series that is utterly baffling. Does it want to be The Hunger Games? While the obvious answer to that question would be “yes” I’m growing less and less sure by the moment. It feels like there was a meeting at some point during the production process where it was decided that they probably couldn’t reach the popularity or, frankly, the quality of The Hunger Games but that they could probably make a great deal of money by making a comparable product. Divergent is the result of that cynical take on filmmaking. Where Catching Fire brought in a new director and turned that franchise from a quick cash-in to a legitimate statement piece of media, Insurgent seems content to collapse under the weight of its own narrative and slouch toward the end of the series confident that it won’t be abandoned by an audience that craves this material.
It seems like Insurgent is trying to live and die on the performance of Shailene Woodley and, honestly, that wasn’t a bad bet to make. Woodley’s performance as Tris is easily the best in the film. Her personal struggles are captivating and her chemistry with co-star Theo James (playing Four) is the only believable relationship depicted in the entire film. While Woodley’s performance is a credit to the film it simply isn’t enough to hide what often seems like a lack of effort. I can’t understand why the second entry in a franchise that will make so much money has such lackluster sets, there’s a trial scene that appears to just be on a soundstage painted black with a metal frame set up. Most of the scenes leading up to the climax take place in a slightly fancier white box. It lacks so much in terms of effort and ambition from a design perspective and often from a directing perspective as the other performances in this film did not get nearly the attention they seemingly gave when coaxing such a transfixing job from Woodley.
I’m heading in to spoiler territory from here on so if you’ve gotten this far but prefer to remain pure it’s time to browse away.
When exactly did we decide Liam Neeson is the new paragon of action movies? I’m not even sure I can name the second biggest star in action movies right now in terms of output or cultural cachet. If someone anywhere in the world right now is making a joke about a hypothetical action movie I bet it stars Neeson. Run All Night is Neeson’s second collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra after last year’s Non-Stop, which was widely derided as “Taken on a plane”. They’re back this time hopefully not in an attempt to prove their incredible creative range as Run All Night is essentially Taken but if the child was a boy instead of a girl; it is not a lot of fun.
It has been suggested to me recently that the reason I don’t connect well with the Taken films is because they’re primarily aimed at women. That Bryan Mills is supposed to be a troubled but infallible sexualized fatherly hero saving a woman facing the oversized version of everyday fears. Run All Night is a clear attempt to bring this formula to a male audience. Gone are the imperiled female characters, in fact gone are almost any women with speaking parts, replaced with a son (played by Joel Kinnaman) who is marked for death after a mafia misunderstanding. Where Taken is violent and abrupt it is a PG-13 style of violence where people crumple quickly and the camera never lingers too long, conversely Run All Night is a gleeful R with all of the blood and the long strangling scenes that rating allows for. One strong advantage Run All Night has is a strong antagonist in Ed Harris. His version of the aging gangster kingpin is not the most original but Harris is much too good for this material and consistently knocks it out of the park. His scenes are the best in the movie and it speaks to his ability of an actor that he can be such a compelling character but I never felt drawn to root for him, that can be a fine line.
Chappie is an amazingly frustrating movie, perhaps singular in its ability to vex me. I enjoyed so much of it while I was watching it, director Neill Blomkamp is quite good at evoking an emotional response, but in the days since I’ve seen Chappie I have grown steadily angrier at it. It’s a movie that’s so tone deaf to the world around it and so unnecessarily. All of the pieces of this movie I enjoyed could have been contained in a framework that was not so brashly ignorant of the important issues it brings up only to causally discard.
[[[Rosewater]]] is a movie that Jon Stewart basically had to make after The Daily Show played a major role in the imprisonments of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. It works really well as an apology and as an effort to further Bahari’s mission to increase the visibility of journalists who have become political prisoners. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good piece of filmmaking.
Stewart is quite green and it shows in almost every facet of the movie. The performances he gets from his actors aren’t quite up to the level of the material he’s trying to create. The movie lumbers along at times where they should move faster and speeds through moments I would love to see breathe more. It doesn’t feel like a student effort, that would be a bridge way too far, but it does feel like a movie by a director that’s learning as he goes.