Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Overnight (**)

Written and Directed by Patrick Brice


Earlier this month, Grantland published a piece about new-arriving filmmaker Patrick Brice and his interesting predicament: his first two features were coming out on the same day. His first film, Creep, is a mumblecore thriller starring Brice and Mark Duplass, which got released on June 19th in select theaters, but also on VOD (it will be on Netflix by mid-July). His other film is The Overnight, a ridiculous sex comedy with a formidable cast and a lot of buzz after its successful festival run earlier this year. I mention the Grantland piece because it paints the picture of a young director with cinematic ambitions who meets powerful independent film producer Mark Duplass and is told basically to make a Duplass brothers movie. Brice, a man who sites Wim Wenders' beautiful Wings of Desire as his inspiration for becoming a cinephile, was taught that he should make his films look as uninspiring as possible. The Duplass brothers have an entire pipeline of independent filmmakers that they give voice to, and that they allow these young men (and its almost exclusively men) to find their own voice is admirable, but The Overnight is another example of Duplass as producers conceiving a filmmaker who is basically a copy of Duplass as director. The Duplass model is stooped in the belief that independent film is supposed to look cheap and shabbily thrown together - as if Cinema Verite and DOGME didn't have visual purpose. The Overnight is another film in that model and another indie that succeeds at "looking shitty".

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dope (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Rick Famuyiwa


You watch a film like Dope and it makes it very clear just how uninspiring most mainstream films can be. When a film this fresh comes along, it's hard not to be enthused by its very energy, even if that energy leads you into complicated situations. The film is like John Hughes by way of Spike Lee, a broad high school comedy that still manages to make coherent, thoughtful comments of serious socioeconomic issues. It's a movie that doesn't allow the shallowness of some of its jokes to reflect on the intelligence of its script. It stars Blake Anderson from Workaholics and still comes off looking smart. Films about race are difficult to make in this country, because so many members of the American elite still don't believe in the existence of white privilege or institutional racism. Movies have to be put through a non-threatening filter , and Dope pulls this off brilliantly before hitting you over the head with its real message by the time we see the conclusion. The film's director, Rick Famuyiwa, is a Hollywood veteran with several titles under his belt, including Our Family Wedding and Brown Sugar (neither of which I've seen). Those films were studio-produced stories with bottom-line intentions, while Dope feels grittier, more personal. The film showcases high school on the wrong side of the tracks but does so with an adult's wide perspective - it's details refined and sharp. It's the best comedy that I've seen so far this year.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Inside Out (***)

Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen


The preciousness of Pixar Studios - the wholly brilliant subgroup of Disney Films that's created several classics, including WALL-E and The Incredibles - is nothing new. It's one thing for a single director to possess the talent to produce films that consistently entertain an audience with intelligent filmmaking. To have an entire studio with a seemingly endless supply of talent frequently pumping out material of superior quality is starting to feel rarer by the day. We complain that major studios are no longer interested in smart movies for adults, and that's true, but Pixar is continuously making smart movies for children, and it's often the best thing that adults get to see as well. Inside Out is Pixar's first wholly original movie since 2012's Brave; only Monsters University - the sequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. - stands between the two. The usually prolific studio slowed down a tinge, and were even surpassed for a short moment by their parent company, Walt Disney Animation, when 2013's Frozen ruled the box office and the air waves, to become the film studio's biggest moneymaker in a good while. Other animation studios have upped their game, recognizing that audiences have clung to Pixar's top-notch screenwriting and cinematic ambitions. It's possible that Pixar, the former trailblazing behemoth, has become just one of many animation studios producing quality content. Inside Out shows that they're still up to the challenge.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Jurassic World (***)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow


Before Jurassic World even starts, we know that the logic here is all wrong. If we're meant to believe that all of the Jurassic films exist in the same universe (and there's no reason why we shouldn't) then it's patently ridiculous that at this point - after three separate, horrible incidents involving genetically-engineered dinosaurs killing multiple innocent people - to contemplate that within this same universe, intelligent people would think that it is, in fact, okay to fill a theme park with these same dinosaurs. Is there anyway you can even fathom this happening in our current reality? One of the smartest things that Jurassic World does is acknowledge its franchise's violent past, but only with the original, iconic Jurassic Park from 1993. Jurassic Park is still, in 2015, a fascinating film that still has the capacity for wonder; it's about as logical as it can be, considering its subject matter. It's two subsequent sequels, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, are failures because they exist within that logic - mainly, that we'd still be trying to keep dinosaurs in controlled captivity after the tragedies in the first film. Luckily, Jurassic World, coming out twenty-two years after Park, doesn't hold itself to that same standard. It understands its own ridiculousness, and wears it like a badge of honor. It doesn't aspire toward intelligence, it aspires toward adventure, and the result is probably the best film in the franchise since the original classic.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (**)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon


The first half-hour of Sundance indie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was close to unbearable to me. It's overwhelming supply of indie dramedy snark felt suffocating. Here's Nick Offerman inexplicably cuddling a cat. Here's the inspiring history teacher with forearm and neck tattoos. Here's a voiceover narration that allows you to see just how sardonic and self-deprecating our protagonist can be (hint: very). This is a movie that tries to incorporate aspects of satire and absurdity in what is ultimately a YA melodrama about leukemia. The mix doesn't always feel right. But once Dying Girl gets past its incessant need to impress us (there's a lot of movie posters in the background, close-ups of book spines, classic movies playing randomly on screens in front of a passing camera), it allows us to realize how charming its characters are. This is a film told from the point-of-view of a male high school senior, not exactly unexplored territory, but the film's tale of unorthodox friendship in the face of mortality has moments of poignancy and deliberate frankness that felt refreshing compared to most teenage dramas. The film itself hides behind an austere idea of what this film should be, but that veneer doesn't effect its actors, who give the film its most effective presence.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Spy (***)

Written and Directed by Paul Feig


After I saw Welcome To Me, I was impressed by Kristen Wiig's continued efforts to carve out a filmography within quirky independent films, as opposed to taking advantage of the commercial appeal of her breakout hit Bridesmaids. On this very blog, I mentioned how Wiig could have easily cashed in with more mainstream projects like her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy (both actresses were nominated for Oscars for Bridesmaids - McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress; Wiig for co-writing the screenplay). After seeing McCarthy's latest star turn, Spy, I find myself pleased with the two, differing approaches these comedic performers have chosen. Wiig's appeal goes hand in hand with her self-molded image as an oddity, she likes playing the emotional house of cards. McCarthy has a much broader appeal. She can be funny on screen in so many different ways, it's almost intimidating. She's transformed herself into a legit movie star, and one who has a deft understanding on how to play each scene to her advantage. Almost anyone in a scene with her can come off funny just by her presence, and yet, she's almost always the true star of any scene she happens to be in. Spy allows her to both show off her whirlwind improvisational abilities and perform the physical comedy she's notorious for. It's a true star vehicle and one that might show that America is ready for something new in the movies.