Monday, July 27, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


If you enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I have good news for you.  The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel offers another ninety minutes with the first film’s delightful cast.  These ninety minutes are warm, they’re cozy, and they offer more than a few opportunities to wipe your eyes.

The story picks up perhaps a year after the close of the first film.  Your favorite regulars remain at the hotel, and Sonny & Sunaina are preparing for their impending marriage.  There’s a primary story involving a hoped-for acquisition of a second property and the threat of a rival for Sunaina’s affections, but the magic of The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel happens around the periphery of that story, as the hotel’s pensioners and assorted guest stars live their own small dramas.

So, the question to ask yourself is simple:  Did you enjoy spending time with Judy Dench & Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith & Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup & Diana Hardcastle, and assorted other stars familiar to those who spend a lot of time watching PBS and BBCA during The Exotic Marigold Hotel?  I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending another ninety minutes with them.  I look forward to The Third Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Minions

We’re 2/3 of the way through Minions.  Nobody’s laughing.  Families have walked out.  My 8-year-old is reading his popcorn box.  My wife leans over and whispers, “Will this movie never end?”  I whisper back, “Two words: catastrophic failure.”

The film begins with a short history of minions, little yellow thumb-like creatures who live to serve villains.  It shows them serving a cute T-Rex, then accidentally tipping it over into boiling lava.  This is played for laughs, but nobody laughs because there’s nothing funny about falling into a pit of molten lava.  Later, it shows them serving an Egyptian pharaoh, then accidentally tipping over a carefully balanced inverted pyramid and crushing their master and his party underneath.  Again, this is played for laughs.  Nobody laughs because there’s nothing funny about being crushed to death.  Later in the film, there’s a long sequence involving hijinks in a torture chamber.  Again, nobody laughs.  With the notable exception of The Princess Bride, there’s nothing funny about torture chambers.

The whole film is filled with missteps such as these.  The bulk of the action’s set in late ‘60s / early ‘70s London, a time as alien to the average 8-year-old as medieval China.    There’s gag after gag taking the wind out of hippie culture.  There’s a Jimi Hendrix joke, complete with guitar lick, and even an “Abbey Road” cover photo joke with a complete setup, payoff, and denouement.   All this must have seemed wonderfully amusing to whatever 67-year-old executive greenlit the film, but it was lost on the young families in my theater.  I just sat there wondering who this movie was actually supposed to be for.


And yet, when the credits rolled, my 8-year-old and his friends declared that they loved it; so what do I know?  All I can say is the Minions is the worst film I, personally, have seen so far this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

John Wick

I like Keanu Reeves.  He makes fun movies like 47 Ronin, he seems like a decent fellow, and he’s nice to Alex Winter

I think that Reeves’ greatest appeal as an older movie star (as opposed to his goofy early-20s persona) is his aura of detached, zen-like cool.  He seems like the embodiment of all those platitudes that show up on Facebook about being centered, and mindful, and in the moment.  Thus, it’s absolutely wonderful when, in the emotional climax of John Wick, he completely loses his cool and releases a howl of pain, rage, and vengefulness that shocks the complacent action-movie fan right out of his seat.

Here’s the setup: John Wick is the kind of unstoppable, nigh-invincible former hit man we’ve come to know and love as fans of the action genre.  Since all such characters must be either about to retire or actually in retirement, we meet him as he grieves for his recently-deceased wife and consoles himself by caring for an adorable puppy.  Then bad men come to steal his car and do mean things to his dog.  Vengeance must be had, so away we go for ninety or so minutes of fast cars, fisticuffs, and shooting people in the face.

There are lots of movies like this, but there are three things that make John Wick special.  First, there’s the aforementioned Mr. Reeves.  He’s perfect for this role, and his background in martial arts serves him well as he navigates the film’s hand-to-hand combat sequences.  Second, there’s the supporting cast, from primary antagonist Michael Nyqvist (of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to assorted members of John Wick’s stylized underworld including the nearly-always wonderful Willem Dafoe (whom I’m willing to forgive for The Grand Budapest Hotel), The Wire’s Lance Reddick, Deadwood’s Ian McShane, Games of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, and Chef’s John Leguizamo (and really, you must see Chef).  They prove, once again, that there are no small roles.  Each of them is note-perfect, and they add a sense of seriousness to what could be a very silly film.  

The hard work behind the camera really shows, as well.  Seasoned second-unit directors and stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch know how to set up and frame action so the viewer never loses track of who’s doing what to whom, where, and why.  As photographed by Jonathan Sela and edited by Elisabet Ronalds, John Wick does something almost unheard of: it eschews the jump-cut aesthetic of so much modern action filmmaking, and instead offers us longer takes that showcase the hard work of fight choreographer Jonathan Eusebio, the principle performers, and the stunt doubles who practice and practice and practice to make every fight look real, and visceral, and exciting.


As you can tell, I enjoyed the heck out of this movie.  John Wick is a great time at the movies and the start of what should be a lucrative franchise for Keanu Reeves.  Good for all involved, and good for him.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Her

Her is the kind of movie that makes me love movies.  It’s a challenging piece of science fiction, a moving drama, and a piece that illuminates the human condition.  It’s brilliant.

The film, set in a washed out, near-future Los Angeles, follows an emotionally damaged man, one reeling from divorce, as he tries to reconstruct his life.  He downloads a new, artificially intelligent, operating system on his computer.  It cares about him.  It understands him.  It sounds like Scarlett Johansson.  Of course, he falls in love.

The AI, self-named Samantha seems real.  In some ways, she is real.  But she isn’t corporeally there.  She isn’t human.  What kind of a life has this man, brilliantly portrayed by Joachim Phoenix, bought into?  What kind of connection can he sustain with a glowing screen and a voice in an earpiece?

We could see this film simply as a wry commentary on the smartphone generation, but I think it has more to say.  I think it’s a commentary on all the things that draw us from human connection: our obsessions, our hobbies, our games - whatever it is that beckons us away from those who do, or those who would, love us. 

Her, however, isn’t just vehicle for late-night navel-gazing.  It’s also a finely crafted, beautifully performed and scored drama that quietly, subtly draws us in and invests us not only in the emotional life of Mister Phoenix, but in that of Johansson’s disembodied voice.  You could plug Her into your device of choice, plug that device into your car stereo, and just listen to it on a long drive – I suspect you may have an even more moving an experience than did I, watching it on a laptop in an airport lounge.

In short, Her is a thing of beauty, not to be missed.  I want to watch it again – this time, with people.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Terminator 2: Judgment Day


Because I’m a good father, I sat down with my 8-year-old and showed him Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
 
Revisiting it for the first time in well over a decade, I’ve come to the conclusion that while it’s a great movie, it isn’t a particularly good movie.

It’s great in the sense of, “Having a long-term influence and presence in the public consciousness.”  Nevertheless, it has some serious problems.  There’s a voiceover which distracts us and pulls us out of the movie.  There’s an uneven performance from Edward Furlong, the preadolescent actor playing the young John Connor.  The dialogue seems functional, at best, and everything moves at such a stately pace that my young’n lost focus for much of the second act.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful things about this film.  Robert Patrick, as the next generation Terminator sent to provide this story with an antagonist, is marvelously deadpan.  The special effects hold up today and keep us in the story.  And Arnold, well, he’s Arnold.  The guy’s a movie star for a reason, and that reason is that his magnetic screen presence raises anything he’s in.

Still, I’m glad I saw it again and I’m glad I shared it with my boy.  I wonder when he’ll be old enough for The French Connection.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street



Given:  Martin Scorsese ranks among the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Given:  Leonardo DiCaprio ranks among his generation’s finest actors.  Question: together, can they make The Wolf of Wall Street worth watching?

“What?” you may be asking.  “Why is this even a question?”


It’s a question because The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of absolutely terrible human beings.  The film knows they’re terrible.  They characters know they’re terrible.  How does one invest in the stories of a bunch of people who, if they were all incinerated in a nuclear inferno at the end of the second act, would leave the viewer thinking, “Serves ‘em right?”

One invests because Martin Scorsese is an undisputed master of the art form of motion picture creation, and Leonardo DiCaprio is an absolutely brilliant actor and movie star who can find something compelling in even the most loathsome of characters.

The film traces the rise and fall of DiCaprio’s salesman, stockbroker, and felon as he learns to the keys to amassing enormous amounts of wealth through means illegal, unethical, and, well, just plain evil.  It’s a cry of rage against an industry that crashed the American economy in 2008, costing untold numbers of people their jobs, their savings, and their homes while its executives reaped ever-larger bonuses.  The film doesn’t go into the specifics of 2008 – in fact, it ties DiCaprio and his cohort into other shenanigans.  But the rage is the same.

So why watch two+ hours of rage?  Because Scorsese knows who to frame a scene, how to build tension, how to craft a narrative in such a way as to keep us on the hook.  And DiCaprio, man, this guy is amazing.  He gives a charismatic, snakelike, evil performance that is absolutely riveting.  Even when he’s at his most evil, duping some unsuspecting schmuck out of his money and, quite possibly, jeopardizing the guy’s marriage, you can’t help but watch him.  This is an actor at the height of his powers, and you must respect the craft.

Does all this mean that you have to see The Wolf of Wall Street?  I don’t know – I’m not here to sell you anything.  All I know is that this film brings together serious talents and presents a compelling narrative.  If that’s your thing, and you don’t mind a little rage, have at it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Croods; Rush; A Most Wanted Man


The Croods

The Croods is fine.  It’s pretty, it tells a nice story, and its voice cast includes personal favorites Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, and Cloris Leachman.





That’s about all I can say for it, however.  I didn’t laugh.  I didn’t cry.  I just sorta rocked along pleasantly for an hour and half.  That ain’t bad.  It ain’t great, either.  It’s fine.  No, really.  It’s fine.


Rush

I spent the first hour or so of Rush not enjoying the movie.  Like Amadeus, the film sets up a conflict between a natural talent (Chris Hemsworth, a British Formula One driver) and a grinder (Daniel Brühl, his Austrian nemesis (the actor also appears in A Most Wanted Man, discussed below)).   Thing is, I identified with the grinder. Hemsworth’s character put my teeth on edge.

Then the movie took an unexpected turn, went in an entirely different direction than I’d expected, and made me hold my breath, tense in sympathy to the action onscreen, and hang on every twist and turn of the competitors’ races.

I feel like I started out with Days of Thunder and finished with something wonderful.  Rush is the most surprising movie I’ve seen this year. 

A Most Wanted Man

Some deaths get to you, even if you never really knew the person in question.  I still miss Phil Hartman.  I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman plays the Hamburg chief of a small German intelligence organization occupied with hunting terrorists.  The film, based on a John le Carré novel, occupies itself not with fast cars and gadgets, but with the nondescript, dedicated, and frequently exhausted people who actually make the intelligence community go.  Hoffman, overweight, disheveled, and brilliant, is a perfect match for this world.  His character belongs in dimly lit bars, crafting plans and making deals, and I believed in him every step of the way.

The plot?  Well, it’s a le Carré story, so it features twists and surprises and a kind of mundane weariness that feels all the more immediate because we can imagine it happening right in the next booth over.

The effect?  Well, mostly sadness.  Sadness for the characters in the story, but particular sadness for the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of our generation’s great actors and a talent that I’m sure to miss for a long time to come.