Thursday, July 28, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Coming to America' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In the latest episode of the podcast, we talk about the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America, with our goof friend Milly Tamarez. Travel with us to Zamunda, and then to Queens, NY, and then to Scott's apartment which is where we recorded this. Easier still, just listen to this episode where we discuss Coming to America's influence on black culture and comedy, as well as Milly's impromptu trashing of recent Best Picture winner Spotlight. It's a goodie!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cafe Society (*)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Woody Allen has finally achieved a complete separation between his films and reality, and his films now only exist in that ulterior universe. To the degree that Woody Allen movies are bad, they're usually bad in relation to his other films. And even his few critical and commercial hits this century, like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, only work in that same relative way. His entire catalogue is a mirror onto itself. The New Yorker's elite prolific filmmaking style (essentially a movie every year since 1969) has left many of his fans weary since his last great films from the 90's. Themes are long past being reused, the stories he's telling have been chewed and digested by him so many times, what's left is a bland paste, too familiar and too lifeless to spell any entertainment. It's possible that Woody has made a worse film than Cafe Society. There are so many of them, and it's easy to forget the more pointless ones. But I can't recall a Woody Allen film that gave me more scene-by-scene aggravation. Not a single scene in this film goes anywhere exciting, and even when it tries to, it gets bogged down in the same conversation pieces all his films get bogged down in. The actors are so locked into Woody-esque performance art, the cadence of the dialogue dictating their movements and emotions. Everything was too staged, too comfortably moving where the screenplay's themes wanted it to go. Woody's films used to have these kinds of performances and the characters still managed to feel like real people. At the very least, they used to feel like people we wanted to be. Today's Woody Allen is still sidelined by the ideas of romance, the tempestuous nature of human relationships, but he has no new avenues with which to explore these ideas.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters (***)

Directed by Paul Feig


Grounded in the shockingly politicized release of Paul Feig's remake of Ghostbusters is this cold truth: we didn't need a remake of Ghostbusters. That said, we also didn't need a remake of Point Break, Annie and we CERTAINLY didn't need a third iteration of the character Spider-Man in less than a decade. Studios have spent most of this millennium going all-in on remakes and sequels, putting little trust in original content, so to the degree to which we do want to see a remake of an old, beloved film, why not mix it up? Why not take the all-male cast and make it all-female? Of all the remakes in all the world that we have sat through for over a decade now, why is Paul Feig's Ghostbusters the one that has brought on the most ire from gate-keeping superfans who wish to keep their favorite movie pure? Now is the time that they decide to become righteous about commercial regurgitation? The year-long campaign against this film has puzzled me from the beginning, not only because the gender dynamics behind it are nauseating, but mostly because the concept of a comedy about chasing ghosts being sacred is incredibly silly. Any prestige that the 1984 Ghostbusters film had was undone by Ghostbusters II five years later, not by this remake over twenty years later. So, with that out of the way, we are now allowed to talk about the film itself, which is funny in a very broad, inclusive way and still manages to be clever with its humor. It's self-awareness is used as a crutch at times, but with the talent of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, whether or not the film is funny should not be up for debate. Especially considering that Paul Feig is behind the camera, a director who has excelled in allowing women to be funny entirely on their own terms.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Captain Fantastic (***)

Written and Directed by Matt Ross


The most foolish aspect of the early-decade McConaissance (which inexplicably ended with the Academy giving him an Oscar for the vapid, polarizing Dallas Buyers Club), was that everything we were drooling over - the earthy carnality, the steely piercing eyes, the unapologetic manliness - was present in Viggo Mortenson all along. Only Mortenson was a better version; more handsome, more manly, and a more unique actor. Mortenson's run through the Aughts was a brilliantly selective and varied display of a wonderful screen actor testing the limits of his capabilities, and rising to the challenge nearly every time. The stoic heroism of his Lord of the Rings performances, contrasted by his work with Cronenberg in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, was a range unseen from most of the big-name actors at the time. We haven't seen too much of Mortenson this decade, which makes his lead role in Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic that much more exciting. Here he plays Ben Cash, a severe survivalist raising six children off-the-grid in the American wilderness. Ben is a brilliant critical thinker, in peak physical condition, who lives a demanding lifestyle with near-impossible moral standards, and he holds his children - who range in age from the teenaged Bodevan (George MacKay) to the pre-school age Nai (Charlie Shotwell) - to those same standards. Every day they have boot camp-level endurance training, and they only eat what they themselves can catch, kill and collect. Their home in the depths of the woods is secluded from civilization, but Ben still makes sure his children are educated, taking the burden of teaching them himself. They're fed a syllabus of Marx, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Jared Diamond (*shrugs*). They're bred to believe in their anti-capitalist utopia in the woods, in their intellectual superiority and their physical supremacy. Their unorthodox life is an extraordinary experiment, a testament to the effects of active parenting, with all its graces and warts on display.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (***)

Directed by Susanna White


The literature of John le Carré has long been a favorite of film studios. His stories of espionage and betrayal are always ripe with character and complex plotlines that weave together brilliantly, almost too conveniently, for cinema. 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was perhaps the best of the bunch, though 2014's A Most Wanted Man (starring a Philip Seymour Hoffman just before his tragic death) is no slouch either. Those two films elevated the work of le Carré from Hollywood pulp to rarified drama. Susanna White's Our Kind of Traitor is much closer to the earlier adaptations of the crime novelist, more populist less intellectual. It has the aide of a screenplay by Hossein Amini, a master screenwriter who specializes in these kind of thriller novel adaptations. Traitor's screenplay simply doesn't have the scope and complexity of Tinker Tailor, nor does it carry the topical gravitas of A Most Wanted Man, but what Amini and White construct here is still much more interesting than most Hollywood suspense films. Its story is traditional but detailed, and while its thematic heft is slight, it still carries with it a true understanding of the situations and institutions that it displays. It's story is a bit of a Hitchcockian construct: a random act of fate slates an innocent man into a web of dangerous men, where he must cooperate within a ethically mercurial world in order to survive. The results are a bit more sophisticated than you might initially think.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Neon Demon (*1/2)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The first thirty minutes of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, The Neon Demon, really is marvelous. It presents a haunting but colorful universe, filled with beautiful but sinister people. Even the manager at the run down hotel is played by Keanu Reeves! This is the Danish filmmaker's first film since his 2013 debacle Only God Forgives, and these two films seem to suggest that he no longer has the stamina to follow through on a complete story. The plot in The Neon Demon is already incredibly slight, so how on Earth does Refn allow it to spiral out of control the way he does? And how long before we all get tired of it? The film begins with a truly glorious opening credits sequences that sets it up to be a kind of diabolical Douglas Sirk reincarnation, but like most things it alludes to, The Neon Demon doesn't seem very interested in committing to any one allusion, any one theme, even at times, any one character. Is this a overly gory psychological drama or a boring thriller? The movie's so confused, it's hard to even tell how it's failing. For Demon, Refn is returning to the winding roads of Los Angeles, for the first time since his masterpiece Drive. In Drive, LA was just dressing, a city-wide set piece where he moved all his pieces, but Demon seems to actually be about LA, its sadistic subcultures and grotesque figures - particularly in the world of female modeling. Demon doesn't give you much in the way of commentary on this seedy underbelly, and how can it? Refn cannot allow his film to become satire on an image-conscious culture when Refn is the most image-conscious filmmaker working right now. To comment on unfair beauty standards would be a self-sacrifice, it'd be adding condemnation to a surface-level society that Refn himself loves so much to perpetuate. So instead, Refn's camera floats through its action, attempting some form of objectivity which he probably achieves but to what end? With all the deplorable behavior in this film, is objectivity really the tone that Refn should be striking?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Taika Waititi

Movies as delightful and unique as Hunt for the Wilderpeople are rarer than you might think. It may seem so simple: a young man comes of age while surviving in the woods with a crotchety old man. We've seen this story before, but it takes two talented actors and an equally spirited filmmaker to make it really work. New Zealand director Taika Waititi is up to the challenge. His feature films have all came out in this decade and this is already his third. In his native country, he's already directed the nation's highest grossing films, with his uncanny ability to blend off-the-wall humor and true poignancy. His previous film, What We Do In The Shadows (starring Waititi with Jemaine Clement), was a mockumentary about vampires, a quirky comedy that became a surprise modest hit in the US. Wilderpeople is his follow-up (and, I must admit, the first of his that I've actually seen), and it is a continuation of his gift for oddball comedy. The buddy film stares an unlikely pair: veteran actor Sam Neill and pre-teen New Zealander Julian Dennison, as an odd couple roughing it out in the woods after being sent on the run first by child services and then by the New Zealand government at large. If the premise feels absurd, it kind of is, but Waititi uses this to his advantage, infusing the film with the kind of energy it needs to keep up with the zany plot. But the film's biggest surprise perhaps is the uncanny chemisty between Neill and Dennison, a terrific pairing of grizzled experience and blunt naiveté, the two play off each other in such a funny, sweet way, it turns the film from run-of-the-mill to shockingly endearing. It really is the best comedy pairing I've seen so far this year, and likely to be for the rest of 2016.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Weiner-Dog (**)

Written and Directed by Todd Solondz


This is the Todd Solondz we know so well. Where the return of Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener would come packaged haphazardly within an aimless anthology film titled Wiener-Dog. The film is four stories, connected by a nameless dachshund who patters throughout the lives of various depressed people, and what we're left with is another Solondz meditation on white upper-class ennui. After his two-film punch in the 90's of Dollhouse and his 1998 masterwork Happiness, it's seemed like Solondz is struggling to keep the train moving. These diabolical comedies where innocents are taken advantage of and where humanity is displayed as one life-long regret can grow stale, even if Solondz is still able to cobble together solid performances from his ensembles. The various homes that this dachshund resides in includes the aforementioned Dawn Wiener (played now by Greta Gerwig), a veterinary assistant who snatches the dog before its put down; a jaded rich couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) who get the dog for their son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who is in cancer remission; a failed screenwriter turned curmudgeonly college film professor (Danny DeVito); and a recalcitrant grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) receiving visits from her wayward granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). Solondz tries to weave these tales into something coherent, and each story has a moment where it seems like something substantial is being translated, but overall Wiener-Dog ends up feeling shabby and without much purpose. There are cheaper ways to tell an audience that life is meaningless and sad. The laughs we get (and we do get legitimate laughs) often come at the expense of the mentally handicapped, racial stereotypes and more than anything else the dog itself. Not a single race or person ever comes off looking particularly good in Solondz's films, but at least the white people get full lines and something close to a character arc. The performances from DeVito, Delpy and Burstyn are all fantastic, but they feel like they're from completely different films, conveying completely different feelings, and the sum ends up feeling hollow. Gerwig gives one of those indie performances she's known to give where she seems to think that getting dressed in wardrobe is all she has to do. A charming "intermission" gets some laughs, but to what end?  The Solondz of Happiness is a thing of the past, and there are newer, better directors who understand how to put forth that somber reality of existence that he used to be so expert at. If life is so cruel, why are we made to keep looking at this adorable dog?

Monday, July 4, 2016

New Podcast: Is 'Independence Day' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Celebrate the holiday with a new Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? episode. We're talking about the 1996 Independence Day! What's the dumbest part? Is President Whitmore a good president? We discuss ALL this and more! But most importantly, we decide if ID4 is better than Jurassic Park. It has to happen eventually, right?

Independence Day: Resurgence (*)

Directed by Roland Emmerich


Roland Emmerich has destroyed the world on so many occasions, and in such a wide scope of ways, that it's hard to remember just how groundbreaking his 1996 film Independence Day really was. Hollywood had been pumping out disaster films for decades, but it was Roland Emmerich who taught us just what a true Hollywood disaster was. No landmark too sacred, no skyscraper too high; Independence Day took actual aim and blew it all to smithereens. Twenty years later, we're getting a sequel we never needed. The very concept of continuing these storylines runs against the spirit of the original film, which made it quite clear that there was no real way that humans could handle the threat of the alien invaders on their own. Independence Day took on that scrappy American enthusiasm of the mid-90's and spun it into an international mantra of us against them, and had the gaul to think that humans would defeat these incredibly advanced beings with their cunning. Its all completely preposterous, and the film probably balances that line between stupidity and sincerity better than any large-scale action movie ever made. Resurgence, the bloated sequel we've been saddled with, has all the stupidity and none of the sincerity, nearly all of the preposterousness and none of the charisma. One thing the script to the first Independence Day knew was that characters had to be strong. Nearly all the major characters from the first film have returned, all twenty years older, all seeming to do karaoke versions of the people they'd once played. And Resurgence supplies us with a crop of new, younger characters, all of which are resolutely terrible, unable to even cobble a glimpse of the charm of Will Smith (who's noticeably absent this time around) or Jeff Goldblum or Bill Pullman, let alone match it. What we're left with is a mess of a film, that takes its audience's intelligence for a sack of beans when characters use phrases like "fusion drive" and "moon milk". And yet, is it still possible that I had fun?