Sunday, June 29, 2014

Snowpiercer (**1/2)

Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

Films with inherent nihilism, like Snowpiercer, usually fight an uphill battle with American audiences. The film is made by famed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, whose Mother and The Host showcased his incredible talent with tension and stylistic violence. Snowpiercer is his first English language film, and while it's made with the kind of budgetary ambition of an American blockbuster, its sensibilities are much closer to that of Korean and other East Asian film markets. The violence is stark and unsanitized, and it's story arc has little interest in providing us with the hero that the movie seems to be begging for. It's not like there is some kind of subversion of the American hero so popular in the Summer Action Movie, Snowpiercer just doesn't seem to have much interest in that part of the American cinematic mythos. To be sure, the film is a grand achievement in varied cinematography and production design, and it's certainly a more refreshing vision of the dystopia that all movies seem to be obsessed with lately. But it's earnest spirit doesn't hold a whole lot of water outside of its blood soaked battle scenes which please the eye, but provide very little else in the way of stimulation.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Dean DeBlois


The How To Train Your Dragon series has very quietly become the best that DreamWorks Animation has to offer. The original film and its new sequel are funny in a sweet kind of way and market themselves toward children without insulting their intelligence. They have the sincerity of Pixar films, but they don't have to carry the weight of expectation that comes with that studio. They're mature, well-made and well-told stories that still carry an innocence that makes them feel fresh. The films are based on a series of children's books by the English writer Cressida Cowell, but the films themselves are the brainchild of veteran filmmaker Dean DuBlois, who's written and directed both films. DeBlois' work beforehand was mostly as a screenwriter, penning the scripts to Mulan and Lilo & Stitch. His commitment to good writing is shown off well here. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, DeBlois discovers the true stakes behind these wonderful characters. He shows an understanding of how these characters can lead toward a moment of real tragedy before rising to triumph. It sits up with The LEGO Movie amongst the best animated films of the year, but this film is most definitely more dense, a true family film in the most flattering sense of the phrase.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Obvious Child (***)

Written and Directed by Gillian Robespierre


There have been many films that strive to be the kind of subversive romantic comedy that Obvious Child is. The film is the brain child of filmmaker Gillian Robespierre, who made the film as a short back in 2009 and now makes her feature film debut with this new, shiny rebuffed version. It's a film within that fast growing genre that are about New York in such an insulating way, that it's hard to imagine someone from outside the Big Apple really having any full appreciation. A lot of scenes are in a Williamsburg dive bar or a relic of a used book store. Characters speak while books by Tom Wolfe and John Kennedy Toole are prominently displayed in the background, and watch Gone With The Wind without irony (which is, in itself, a bit ironic). Before two major characters culminate a one-night-stand, they dance in their apartment to Paul Simon's second most popular record. It's a Hipster Hater's nightmare. And so, the film feels very much like a feature film debut, the movie's most ambitious shots are usually just the ones that look straight down from the ceiling. Luckily, Obvious Child has Jenny Slate as its star. Slate, a former SNL cast member, doesn't need to prove that she's funny here, instead delivering such a heartbreaking, lived-in performance that upgrades the whole film as a result.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

22 Jump Street (***)

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller


Comedies like 22 Jump Street are always one step ahead of you. It's seemingly perfect contrast of absurdity and subversive realism makes it impossible to make judgments - you can't nitpick because it's already nitpicked itself. 2012's 21 Jump Street was very sneakily the funniest comedy of that year, and this year's sequel comes prepared for all concerns one may have about fading mojo. The filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller already directed one megahit from earlier this year, The Lego Movie, and they seem primed to become the kings of broad Hollywood comedy. Their success is simple and earned. Comedy films changed after Judd Apatow made The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Suddenly, they were allowed to be raunchy and heartfelt, improvised and tight. Of all of Apatow's official and unofficial descendants, Lord and Miller are the only ones who seem to have succeeded both comedically and commercially. And while Apatow seems to have a perpetual obsession with obtaining some form of victorian vindication for his art, Lord and Miller's primary focus seems set on laughs. And 22 Jump Street certainly has plenty of those.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (***1/2)

Directed by Doug Liman


When I initially saw the image of Tom Cruise running around in a metallic exoskeleton from the first production still of Edge of Tomorrow I was overcome with disappointment. Cruise has spent the better part of a decade trying to recover from an image fiasco in which his relationship with the Church of Scientology, and his manic defensiveness regarding that relationship, rubbed the American public the wrong way and he's become something closer to a joke than the actual talent that he is. Cruise is the greatest movie star of his era - better than Clooney, better than Pitt - but his obsession with fighting big monsters and aliens and famously doing a lot of his own stunts seems wearying. He was good in the last Mission Impossible film, but how much do people really wanna watch a man in his fifties fight the bad guys? An actor as much overwhelming talent as Cruise should be trying to win our hearts at this point with his attributes as a thespian, not as an action star. Even Will Smith is readying plans to make his son the heir to his action star fortune. So when I heard about Edge of Tomorrow I instinctively sighed and wondered if Cruise would ever be great again. But Edge of Tomorrow is different from Oblivian and Knight and Day and even his good performance in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It's a brilliant sci-fi action picture that knows the power of its stars, especially Cruise, producing the actor's single best performance in a decade.

Monday, June 9, 2014

We Are The Best! (****)

Vi ar Bast!
Written for the Screen and Directed by Lukas Moodysson


We see We Are The Best! through the eyes of adolescents seeking attention and adoration during a time in their lives where they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. It showcases a time where all can seem lost, where your first twelve years can seem like an eternity confirming a future life filled with loneliness and alienation. And yet, this new Swedish film isn't all that bleak about it. That's funny coming from the country of the legendary Ingmar Berman who produced dozens of film about the absence of God and the cold brutality of the world. In today's culture, we have Game of Thrones repeatedly teaching us the same lesson: the world is a horrible, violent place where justice is only around if you have the money to pay for it. Just turn on the evening news and you'll start to feel like you're living in World War Z. A film like We Are The Best! can remind audiences that there are certain aspects of life that are indeed affirming, that happiness is tucked away in certain corners of life that just need to be snuffed out. The film is just as needy as its pre-teen protagonists, but it earns our affection properly and doesn't need to plot contrivance or manipulation to convince us. It is, simply, a crowd pleaser that wins over the audience without even trying to.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maleficent (**)

Directed by Robert Stromberg


If classic Disney fans were as rabid as comic book fans, I think there may be some flames and pitchforks coming after the revisionist history within Maleficent. The character, so popular as the antagonist from 1959's Sleeping Beauty, is truly one of the most terrifying movie villains that I have ever seen. As a child, Sleeping Beauty was always my favorite of the classical Disney tales, but not because of its heroes or Aurora, it's wistful main character. It's darkness, filled with so many haunting, creepy shots of doomed hyponisis, was so different from anything else, no doubt influenced by the angular set design of German Expressionism Cinema of the 20's. Even Snow White's evil queen seemed like no match compared to the seemingly endless evil powers that Maleficent kept at her disposal to rid herself of the unknowing princess. It's a brave transformation that this 2014 film makes, to disregard the pure evil of that original character and make her the protagonist here. To give us a narrator who insists that we've always had the story all wrong. Maleficent is much closer to a torn down origin story than it is a rehashing of old material. This new product has quite a few ups and downs.

The Immigrant (**)

Directed by James Gray


James Gray makes movies suited for a bygone era. His best film (Two Lovers) has several calling cards of the more personal dramatic films of the 1970's. He doesn't seem to have much an appreciation for this generation's aesthetic. More than any other contemporary filmmaker, he owes a great deal of his style to Francis Ford Coppola - the stuffy but smooth cinematography, a preoccupation with the dimmer aspects of life in America, and when you get a happy ending, it's never the kind of happy ending that you expect. The Immigrant is his first movie since Two Lovers in 2008. It was originally meant to be seen around the fall of last year but ended being pushed back. It's easy to see why. His latest film has what may be his best cast; it's look is lush and committed - from it's opening frames, it's hard not to get the memory of The Godfather Part II out of your head. And yet, it seems sapped of all of its drama. The narrative is so controlled and intentionally paced, it seems to take away from very dedicated performances.

Chef (***)

Written and Directed by Jon Favreau


Say what you will about Jon Favreau the filmmaker, he's always had a knack for finding what most audiences want. His taste is just the kind of broad competency that a major Hollywood studio can trust with something like the first two Iron Man films. Of course, he started with Swingers (for which he wrote the screenplay but didn't direct) and has always kept one hand in the filmmaking branch while making most of his money as a dependable supporting actor. Swingers is still a cult hit and speaks to a wide but specific group of young men in the 90's who felt gripped with the need for performance yet were handicapped by insecurity. In Favreau's latest film, Chef, it's easy to think of the protagonist, Carl Casper (played by Favreau), as a former member of that Swingers crew so enthusiastically mythologized, defeating the struggle of facing the future and substituting it with tackling the sludge of middle-aged schlubbery. The two films are Favreau at his seemingly most autobiographical, purely character driven pieces, but they're separated by eighteen years. We can see that Chef is a passion project after over a decade of working within the commercial moviemaking machine, rooting for the kind of 'return to form' praises that usually comes when a big time director slums it with an indie.

Belle (***1/2)

Directed by Amma Asante


If we weren't living in a world in which 12 Years a Slave was released just a year ago, Belle's release may have been considered more important. Belle's approach is almost completely inverted from Steve McQueen's film. It sees triumph where 12 Years saw despair. 12 Years a Slave saw a distinguished free man displaced into harrowing slavery. Belle sees a young girl freed from a life in slavery because her father is a white English gentleman. Both are based upon factual accounts. These stories are so totally different (and told in such obviously different ways), and yet the separation between Solomon Northup and Belle's Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is not as vast as it seems. Circumstances are different, sure, but the fight is still the same. Both movies prove that there are still large parts of history that need to be learned (The Atlantic's recent cover story, 'The Case for Reparations' by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a vast, epically told piece filled with flooring details about America's twisted history with the African people). The story of Dido Lindsay is not as bruising as Northup's but, I'd argue, it's just as important. And how quaint that cinema would tell their stories so soon after one another.