Jupiter Ascending (2015)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jupiter Ascending</strong> (2015)

(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually try to write my capsule reviews without references to whatever elusive “critical consensus” exists about a film.  With Jupiter Ascending, though, it’s difficult to avoid noticing that the film has earned a surprising number of scathing reviews.  I think I understand why, but even that understanding can’t take away my annoyance at what I’m seeing as an unfair critical drubbing.  To put it simply: Jupiter Ascending is a big quirky space opera and that’s such a specialized sub-genre that I’m not surprised that a lot of people would simply bounce off of it.  Not that I’m overly pleased with an umpteenth “chosen one” rags-to-riches story –even less so from the Wachowskis, who pretty much did that storyline to quasi-perfection in The Matrix.  Also not terribly cool: how wanton destruction is waved away, the caricatured characters, the brain-dead way a supposedly advanced alien society behaves, and other assorted shortcuts from reality.  (The mad-bureaucracy sequence also feels out-of-place with the rest of the film, but seeing Brazil’s Terry Gilliam at the middle of it is almost an acceptable excuse)  Strangely, it’s the weird wackiness of Jupiter Ascending that’s the best thing about it: bees domesticated by the queen of the universe, real-estate deals powering the entire plot; a dog-hybrid warrior with a gun that goes “woof!”; immortals back-stabbing each other for profit.  That’s pure far-future Science Fiction stuff, too rarely seen on the big screen.  If nothing else, I have a soft spot for such flights of fancy.  Here, the Chicago nighttime action sequence works pretty well (although I feel that it’s been over-edited, runs too long and is almost instantly trivialized come morning), and the visuals once the action moves to space are nothing short of spectacular: The Wachowksis may have trouble with plot, but their eye for spectacle remains just as effective.  Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are unspectacular in the lead roles, but Sean Bean gets a nice turn as a character who (spoilers!) survives until the end of the film, and Eddie Redmayne gets a chance to ham it up as a spoiled aristocrat.  While Jupiter Ascending has significant holes and annoyances, it’s also a film with the advantage of its eccentricities.  I’d like to see more movies like that take chances and fall flat on their face rather that play it safe like most blockbusters today.

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">He’s Just Not That Into You</strong> (2009)

(On TV, June 2015)  In-between this and What to Expect When you’re Expecting, there may be enough of a corpus to realize that ensemble comedies based on best-selling non-fiction advice books are a mixed bag of good and less-good things.  He’s Just Not That Into You means to be a look at modern relationships, and particularly how some people delude themselves into romantic delusions.  As such, it follows a linked group of people at various stages of their relationships.  The biggest draw of the film is the mostly-stars casting, giving small and not-so-small roles to actors such as Jennifer Connelly, Bradley Cooper, Justin Long, Drew Barrymore, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson… and yet, even alongside those names, it’s relatively less-known Ginnifer Goodwin who makes the strongest impression as a lost-struck single girl trying to navigate the shoals of modern dating.  As you’d expect, not every single story works, but what’s worse is that not every story tries for the same tone: Some couples are destined for eternal love, while others clearly aren’t… and other couplings are just messy.  And while the film does eventually try to get out of that mechanistic “rules of dating” mentality, it does spend a lot of time perpetuating them… and ends up in a tangle of romantic-comedy clichés along the way.  It sort-of-works in bits and pieces if you’re willing to give it a chance but otherwise He’s Just Not That Into You is a grab bag of short stories, some of them more enjoyable than others.

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Purge: Anarchy</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, June 2015) Even after two movies in which to explain themselves, I still think that the very premise of The Purge series is nonsensical, perhaps even moronic.  Twenty-hours of unpunishable violence?  Yeah, I’m sure that’s going to solve problems.  Still, even the least impressed reviewers will admit that The Purge: Anarchy goes much farther in fulfilling its ambitions than its prequel: Writer/Director James DeMonaco at least has the guts to try something more challenging.  While the first film was a glorified home-invasion horror movie, the sequel is a pure thriller, much of it spent running in order to avoid the violence of The Purge.  Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul make for a compelling mother-daughter pair of protagonists stuck in a bad situation.  Still, they can’t do much to raise the level of a film content in hitting the same targets with unsubtle bluntness.  Its attempts at social conscience (in acknowledging the The Purge weeds out the weak to the benefit of the powerful) don’t seem particularly well-developed, once again mistreating a high-possibilities premise into nothing much more than a pretext for ludicrous suspense.  While The Purge: Anarchy works on a basic thrill-machine level, it quickly becomes frustrating as soon as we have time to start asking questions.

Fury (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fury</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, June 2015) It’s difficult to watch Fury without thinking that war movies always glorify combat even when they firmly take the position that “War is Hell”: Truffault’s assertion that there are no anti-war movies suggests that even the least heroic war films still portray the adrenaline of combat in ways that could be construed as exciting.  Fury certainly tries to straddle the line: As a warts-and-all examination of the life of an American tank crew in the closing days of World War 2, it’s alternately merciless, heroic, brutal, exhilarating, miserable and mesmerizing.  The Americans aren’t portrayed in a flattering light (the film’s most uncomfortable sequence is a simple conversation around a dinner table, as we are not sure that Something Terrible will happen to the German mother-and-daughter pair hosting the conquering soldiers.) Only a handful of combat sequences pepper the film, and I suppose that I’m showing my colors as a war-mongering moviegoer when I complain that I would have liked to see a few more.  Much of the film is spent with the small band of soldiers fighting inside their tank “Fury”, and their interactions as a new soldier replaces one killed in battle.  Brad Pitt is nothing short of mesmerizing as a hardened veteran, leading his team through terrible experiences, sometimes pushing their faces into the ensuing ugliness.  Much like his previous End of Watch, writer/director David Ayer aims for realism, and the result is often hard to stomach.  Still, Fury doesn’t really want to be an anti-war film: The action sequences are thrilling, many of the usual war movie clichés are presented again (albeit with a grimy patina) and the actions of the soldiers, reprehensible as they may be, are presented with a weird homage to the veteran experience.  (as in; “had you been there, you would have done the same”)  It may this tension between how to portray war that limits Fury from being as fully realized as it could be, either as a war action thriller or as a definitive statement on war’s toll.  It’s too terrible to be fully entertaining, and too entertaining to be fully terrible.  Still, Fury works well in five-minute increments, and some of the scenes and images are memorable.  The subject matter is unusual enough to be fascinating on its own, but the execution on a strictly visual level is incredible.  As for the muddled theme, well –sometimes, a film is worth seeing for its contradictions.

The Bone Collector (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Bone Collector</strong> (1999)

(In French, On TV, June 2015) In some ways, The Bone Collector plays like a collection of crime clichés that drive me insane: The evil serial killer setting up extensive traps and clues, the disabled detective figuring everything from the comfort of his apartment, the standard-issue plot structure in which one-two-three murders set up the final confrontation between hero and villain.  There are few surprises here, and yet I was surprised to find myself enjoying the film’s slickness, Denzel Washington’s performance as the quadriplegic detective, Angelina Jolie’s turn as the action-heroine policewoman, New York as a backdrop and, frankly, the unapologetic crime-thriller energy of the entire film.  Director Phillip Noyce has done his job: The Bone Collector may be filled with clichés, but they happen to be clichés I hadn’t seen in a while and may have been missing just a little bit.  Part of me was annoyed at the film’s far-fetched plot mechanics, while a larger part sort-of-enjoyed the same ride again.  There may be some truth to the old saw that “they don’t make them like that anymore” given how big-budget nineties-style crime thriller (without fantastic elements) seem to have vanished from the modern Cineplex: If that’s the case, then there are still older examples of the form to fall back up, and fifteen years later, even The Bone Collector can start to look good.

The Hurricane (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hurricane</strong> (1999)

(In French, On TV, June 2015) What annoys me the most about earnest, well-made, socially-conscious films is the lousy feeling I get when I’m less than entirely positive about them.  There’s little actually wrong about The Hurricane, the story of a black boxer, Rubin Carter, imprisoned for a triple murder he is said not to have committed.  (The historical record, outside the film, is considerably less affirmative.)  That story picks up decades later when a young black man decides to take up the cause of the imprisoned Carter, eventually becoming a lawyer and freeing him.  It’s a technically accomplished film, with veteran Canadian director Norman Jewison at the helm (it’s a bit of a nationalistic thrill seeing the Toronto waterfront being presented as-is) and it couldn’t wish for a better performance from Denzel Washington as Carter.  And yet, as I watched the film, I just couldn’t get into it –the emotional beats seemed not only blatant, but overused; the do-gooders a bit too saintly; the narrative a bit too neat and predictable.  It’s also interminable, especially if you don’t entirely commit to the subject matter.  I’m not dismissing the film –I’m simply reporting on my reaction.  The Hurricane is successful at what it attempts, but as far as I’m concerned it falls flat.  I hope your own reaction differs.

Survivor (2015)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Survivor</strong> (2015)

(Video on Demand, June 2015)  This hero-on-the-run thriller may not be particularly original, but it’s often on-point when it comes to execution.  Largely set in London, Survivor follows an intelligence analyst (Milla Jovovich, ably playing her usual action heroine persona) as she finds herself framed for a terrorist plot.  A great use of London locations helps sell the film, along with a decent number of recognizable actors including Pierce Brosnan unusually playing a straight-up villain.  The best thing about James McTeigue’s direction is that it generally remains within the realm of the plausible despite the often logic-defying leaps in the plot.  This helps explain why the film’s third act, when it abruptly shifts its action to New York, is a let-down: Not only does it break unity-of-setting, but it cranks the tension up to an artificial degree and does so artlessly.  After a conventional but well-handled rising of suspense, the last minutes of the film are just conventional.  Survivor is still not a bad film, but it could have been handled quite a bit better.

The Expendables 3 (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Expendables 3</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, June 2015)  Given my less-than-favorable reactions to the first two films of The Expendables series, I’m not overly surprised to find out that the third installment isn’t any better.  It’s different in that the directing duties are handled in an unexceptional fashion by Patrick Hughes, that it thankfully abandons the R-rated CGI gore for a PG-13 rating that doesn’t change much and that it features even more veteran actors in small roles.  Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer both seem to have fun, but Mel Gibson steals the spotlight as the film’s antagonist –although it would have been more impressive had he not done almost exactly the same villain shtick in an even more grandiose fashion in Machete Kills.  Sylvester Stallone is his usual smarmy self-indulgent self in the lead role, although he has the decency to play father-figure rather than romantic partner to women thirty years younger.  There are plenty of meta-textual winks and nods (Wesley Snipes’ “tax evasion”, “out of the picture”, etc.), which is fortunate given how the only thing The Expendables series has going for it is the constant fan-service.  The plot is dull, the action sequences are average (none more so than the final exasperating hand-to-hand showdown) and the actors are usually past their prime.  There will be a sequel, but I don’t expect it to be any better either.

Focus (2015)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Focus</strong> (2015)

(Video on Demand, June 2015)  Con-man romantic comedies (con-rom-coms?) are, by now, such an established sub-genre (The Thomas Crown Affair(s), Duplicity, Confidence… and that’s from memory alone) that they can work on recognition rather than surprises, even if surprises are the point of the film.  We already know that such con-rom-coms will end with the romantic leads driving off into the sunset, that we’ll witness elaborate triple-cross confidence tricks, that the entire thematic structure of the film will be the tension between greed and love, and the trust issues in all human relationships, whether they be romantic or criminal.  So, when Focus comes along, it feels as if we already know how it’s going to play out, and a proper appreciation of the film can be boiled down to basic questions: Are the lead actors sympathetic?  Is there some romantic chemistry between the leads?  Are the confidence tricks interesting?  Does the film hold our attention from one moment to the next?  Fortunately, Focus succeeds even when it’s not being particularly original.  The showcase sequence of the film, a high-stakes gambling sequence in a stadium luxury box, may not be original, but it clicks perfectly.  The film’s two biggest assets are Will Smith, playing his usual brand of charismatic confidence (his best such role since Hitch, and a substantial return to form after the After Earth debacle), and Margot Robbie, making another serious case (after The Wolf of Wall Street) as to why she’s more than Today’s It Girl: her role is a tricky mix of deception, sexiness, vulnerability and mixed agendas, and she hits all of the right notes.  With both of them playing off each other, Focus feels like an old-fashioned movie-star vehicle, far more worthwhile for its slick execution than any conceptual boldness.  And it works.  Sometimes, behind the analytical façade and the numerous references to trends and industry terms, the critic abides and simply repeats the obvious: it works.