(On Cable TV, August 2014) Anyone could be forgiven, after reading a short summary of Whiplash’s plot (“Student Jazz Musician tries to prove himself to demanding teacher”) that this would be a relatively sedate and dull affair, somewhere along the lines of a musical Good Will Hunting. But that would be a terrible mistake, because Whiplash tells a musical coming-of-age drama with the tempo of an action movie. Miles Teller is pretty good as the student willing to sacrifice just about everything in order to become a great musician, but J.K. Simmons is stellar as his nemesis, a teacher who thinks that developing a great musician or worth the worst methods imaginable. His performance is Whiplash’s biggest special effect – a blend of meanness, bad temper, outright machiavelism and unapologetic righteousness. Much of his character’s complexity is reflected elsewhere in the tight script, which delivers a deceptive triumph of an ending with implications that aren’t as triumphant as you may think. Otherwise, the music sounds great even to untrained jazz listeners, the editing is spectacularly good and Damien Chazelle’s direction is effective without being showy. The ending is terrific and caps off a film with very little padding. (In fact, as the mystery of the missing folder suggests, it may even miss a bit of connective narrative.) Whiplash, in other words, is a surprisingly good film, a more-than-worthy Oscar nominee, and a memorable viewing experience. Who knew you could care so much about a drum solo?
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Despite its rather saucy title, How To Make Love Like an Englishman (retitled to the much blander Some Kind of Beautiful in the United States) is a fairly mild-mannered romantic comedy, albeit with some amazingly ill-conceived moments. Featuring Pierce Brosnan in a role that superficially looks like a vanity project (he’s listed as an executive producer), this is a film that asks you to sympathize with an older booze-pickled academic lothario who moves to California to be with his unplanned child’s mom, even after she kicks him out to the pool-house (which is more luxurious than most main dwellings) and takes up with another man. Ludicrous complications ensue, from his falling for his ex-partner’s older sister, being arrested for DUI, being deported and then sneaking back in US soil among Mexican illegals… it’s really hard to figure out why the script does what it does, but the result is both charming and creepy at the same time: Anyone else but Brosnan in the role would have made the film fail loudly. Even as it is, it’s hard to know whether we should be laughing or cringing: How To Make Love Like an Englishman embraces the lovable-alcoholic trope far too long, even after it’s proven to be actively dangerous to other characters. It also seems to live in a genial Neverland of strange human emotions and fairy-tale California sets never to be experienced by us humble viewers. At least Brosnan has a bit of slimy adulterer’s charm, while Salma Hayek gets to play sexy for a while and Malcolm McDowell is the ideal crusty father-figure. (Poor Jessica Alba doesn’t get much to do, though.) There are a few genuinely amusing sequences; others are just puzzling. The result is all over the place, including some genuine head-scratching moments. There may be weirder romantic comedies out there at the moment, but contemplating this one is more than enough.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Wait, what? Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Aloha? The rather competent filmmaker behind such films as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky somehow ended up putting together this grotesque mishmash of disparate story element forced together? Huh. The frustrating thing about Aloha is that it does feature some very strong elements: Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are two highly charming performers and it’s maddening to see them struggle with a script that doesn’t serve any substance. There is a provocative idea in trying to match Hawaiian mythology with the hard-edged world of military space technology, except when neither element seem to play off each other. The film’s lackadaisical lack of plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in keeping with the setting) except when it flips out ten minutes before the end credits and then suddenly try to cram some artificially-urgent conflict with a deeply dumb resolution (“Let’s blast it with sound! IN SPACE!”) with no built-up stakes at all. It doesn’t help that, as adorable as Emma Stone can be, she is profoundly miscast in a role that should have gone to someone both older and more ethnically representative. (I’m thinking of Tia Carrere, but lesser-known actresses would have been just as good) There are some terrific scenes here and them (Specifically, I’m thinking about a pair of hilarious near-wordless scenes with John Krasinski), but the script goes all over the place with no discipline nor focus –I’m actually astonished that no one suggested a further rewrite to take better advantage of its strengths. It amounts to a frustrating mess –not a bad movie to watch on pure undemanding entertainment value, but one that fails to reach even modest success at delivering what it should have been capable of achieving. Cameron Crowe; what happened to you?
(Video on Demand, August 2015) What happened with John Cusak for him to show up in so many this-side-of-straight-to-video thrillers, usually as the ambiguously bad guy? I’m not sure, but Reclaim could have been a bit worse without him. The story of two Americans who travel abroad to pick up their newly-adopted daughter, Reclaim soon turns into a nightmare as the young girl disappears and it becomes clear that the two protagonists have been conned out of their money by unscrupulous organized thieves. Things escalate before long, as they try to bring in police to uncover the plot. Rachelle Lefebvre gets a good role as the woman, while Ryan Phillipe continues his recent comeback with a generic but sympathetic role. Elsewhere, Luis Guzman gets to shine as an honest cop trying to help, while John Cusak lets his charm fool us as to whether he’s truly good or bad. Benefitting from some good location vistas in Puerto Rico, Reclaim does have a nice sense of narrative forward rhythm. While the ending gets a bit long and unlikely while some of the evens are predictable, the film is wrapped up nicely enough not to make us resent the time spent watching it. As for Cusak, I don’t know: vacations, unpaid debt, unexplainable fondness for the theme? All I’m saying is that without his name, I wouldn’t have watched the film.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) I don’t think I have fallen asleep during this film, but on the other hand so little happens through it that I can’t be sure. Adapted from a shorty story by Dennis Lehane, The Drop concerns itself with an unassuming man stuck between warring organized crime lords, trying to rescue a dog and keep his job at the local bar when that bar, used as a money drop, is brazenly robbed. Pay attention to “adapted from a short story”, because The Drop feels like a fifteen-minute segment of a longer story stretched over an entire feature film. The rhythm is maddeningly slow, and Tom Hardy fails to do much more than growl and be underestimated. Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace’s role feels a lot like the one she had in Dead Man Down. There is an overall feeling of empty familiarity about The Drop that makes it feel far longer and duller than it should have ben. There’s a thing about making gritty dramas, but sometime, they end up too gritty and unpalatable as a result.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) I really liked the first Mummy, sort-of-liked the second one but bad reviews had me stay away from this third installment. Now that I’ve had a time to spare in checking it out myself, I can only congratulate the initial reviewers for taking the bullet early on, because there’s no way around it: Thei third Mummy has almost none of the chamr of the first two insatlments. Rachel Weisz, easy one of the best tigs about the first film, bowed out and has been replaced by Maria Bello, who is OK but, well, not the ame. (Even the film acknowledges this in a rare turn of wit.) Otherwise, the film does torture itself to fit into the Mummy mold, which may have been tolerable if the film had more than a mediocre scene-t-scene narrative rhythm. There is, simply put, little reason to keep watching this third Mummy – the action sequences feel rote, the dialogues are ordinary, the actors go through the motions of a dull script. John Hannah is sympathetic but can’t save the film. Neither can the spectacular Michelle Yeoh. Nor can the rather interesting special effects rescue a story that feels familiar from the first narrative beats. No, there really isn’t much to love here even if you happen to go along for an average action-movie ride. There practically nothing left of the magical ingredient (fun? Charm? Self-awareness?) that made the first two films so compelling. What’s left is ennui.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Writer/Director Andrew Nichols has had a checked career with hits and misses, but he’s almost always interesting and Good Kill certainly fits that description. A five-minutes-in-the-past depiction of what feels like a five-minutes-in-the-future anticipation, this is a film preoccupied not just by military drones, but the people flying them. Our protagonist (played intensely by Ethan Hawke) is an ex-fighter pilot struggling with the ease with which the drones allow consequence-free killing –feeling emasculated, worried about the video-game crazy younger drone operators, and increasingly estranged from his wife. It all leads to a definitive break, but not before musings on the nature of this new kind of war, where decisions come too freely to people safely insulated from the consequences of their killing. It’s not an entirely successful film –January Jones is bland as the housewife, some sequences seem out of place, it’s easy to wish that the ending could have been stronger. But Good Kill is very clever, both with its themes and the way it presents its topic, intentionally contrasting the desert landscape of Las Vegas with those of Afghanistan, the plight of housewives in either places and how even push-button killing takes a toll. It still feels like a strange quasi-science-fictional idea even though it’s all real, and increasingly pertinent as the United States invests more and more heavily in drone warfare. For a writer who also penned Gattaca, S1M0NE and Lord of War, I’d say that this latest film is a pretty good addition to his resume.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Viewer! Hey, viewer! Did you know that Sofia Vergara’s persona is a beautiful fiery high-class woman with a shrill Spanish accent? Knowing this, and being able to rely on Reese Witherspoon as the straight-woman of the duo, you can now write about two-third of the jokes in Hot Pursuit, a crime comedy built almost entirely around Vergara’s ability to deliver what she does best. It’s not a bad film, but it’s obviously formula-driven to a distracting point. It’s a good thing that Vergara and Witherspoon have an easy chemistry, otherwise the film would fall flat. But they do, and the film flies highest when both are engaged in physical comedy of some sort, either falling outside windows or vamping it up for unsuspecting supporting characters. There’s a pleasant rhythm to it, and it’s undemanding enough not to be disappointing in the right frame of mind. It probably could have been a bit tighter, a bit funnier and a bit wittier, but the point of the film is to showcase its two lead actresses, and anything that allows this objective to be fulfilled is good enough. I usually find Witherspoon unremarkable and Vergara annoying –so it’s a mark of Hot Pursuit’s success that I actually found both of them likable in their own way. Still, there’s no use denying the domination of the film by its own formula –if you’re looking for something off-beat, then keep going.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) Uh oh… I’ve got a problem. I’ve seen Dracula Untold a few weeks ago, waited a bit too long to write my review and now I’ve got almost no memories of the film. Worse: I’m not sure if what I remember is from this film or from the Underworld series. Yeah, it’s that bad: Generic to a fault, once again obsessed with telling the origin story of a character that frankly doesn’t need any, Dracula Untold is as dull as the modern fantasy film can be. About half a dozen other films have trod the same ground recently and they all fall neatly into the same unremarkable mold. The special effects don’t add anything more to a dull story, and the film has the gall to end on a coda that suggests more installments. (Heck, according to some rumors, this is the film that’s supposed to start an interlocking “Universal Monsters” film universe.) Frankly, the studio is going to be lucky if anyone remembers this film a week after seeing it, let along years later for a sequel. There is little in Luke Evans’ lead performance to create much sympathy for the vampire, or to inspire much in terms of appeal. There’s nothing else in the script either, and the dialogues as the same kind of tripe we’re been hearing in all films of that subgenre lately. I like Dracula, but in Dracula Untold they should have taken inspiration from the Untold part of the title and made another movie instead.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) Bee Movie may be a silly animated comedy more or less aimed at younger viewers, it does feature a few twists and turns that few will see coming. Starting out as the story of rebellious bee who aims to go beyond the strict confine of his society, Bee Movie spends a bit of time laughing at anthropomorphised bees before somehow ending in court as bees sue humanity. Then it’s off to saving the biosphere with pollination. It does feel a bit disconnected at times, and the anthropomorphisation of bees as a comic device often creates more incoherent nonsense than laughs, but Bee Movie at least gives it a fair shot. There are a few good laughs along the way, a few cute cultural references, quite a bit of Seinfeldian humor along the way (considering the Jerry Seinfeld is the star voice actor and a producer/writer of the film) and some of the visuals sequences are pretty good. Nearly ten years later, Bee Movie hasn’t left much of a mark, but it’s not such a bad film –I if anything else, it’s a bit less predictable than most animated comedies of recent vintage.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) It’s funny how time can polish some things. If contemporary accounts are to be believed, Cop Land earned mixed reviews upon initial release, with a lot of people disliking Sylvester Stallone’s turns as a lumbering town sheriff dealing with a community of crooked cops on his watch. But seen nearly twenty years later, the film has somehow accumulated a lot of qualities along the way. For Stallone, his performance here still stands tall as a strong dramatic role, unglamorous and willing to play with the confines of a flawed protagonist. (Meanwhile, isn’t it awesome to see Robert de Niro not playing a parody of himself?) The dramatic heft of the crooked-cop themes is pleasant, as is the sense of morally-compromised characters trying to do the right thing even as they don’t understand who’s with them or not. The premise of a town almost dominated by policemen creates a unique atmosphere, and the film does earn its happy ending along the way. In short, Cop Land plays a lot better now that it seems to have done upon release, and it holds up as a solid police drama. …and keep in mind that I seldom say nice things about Sylvester Stallone.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) While I like director David Fincher’s first movies more than his last few ones (Seven, The Game and Fight Club are classics; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake less so), the world at large seems to disagree, his stature having grown steadily since the beginning of his career. With Gone Girl, though, it looks as if I’m re-joining the critical consensus: It’s a terrific thriller, unsentimental and merciless with a lot of depth along the way. It starts innocently enough, as a man reports the suspicious disappearance of his wife. As the plot unspools, twists appear. Many twists, eventually leaving characters as aghast as viewers. Saying more would be a disservice, except to praise both Ben Affleck and especially Rosamund Pike for performances that play off their existing persona (in Affleck’s case) or their lack of it (in Pike’s case). Fincher directs the film with quasi-alien precision, which feels just about right when Gone Girl reveals itself to be an acid commentary on marriage. A genre-aware script by Gillian Flynn (based on her own novel) makes Gone Girl a terrific thriller, but nearly everyone involved in the film bring their best work: In smaller roles, Tyler Perry delivers a memorable turn as a mesmerizing defense lawyer, while Carrie Coon transforms a small confidante role into something far more interesting. Still, it’s director Fincher who remains the star of the show, effectively presenting his set-pieces with a lot of technical polish. Gone Girl may not be a pleasant film, but it’s almost impossible to stop watching from its intriguing opening to its nightmarish conclusion. It’s just not (really not) a date movie.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Having both James Franco and Jonah Hill headline a film would suggest a comedy, but True Story is far from being lighthearted and, as such, represents a bit of a departure for two actors who, while having demonstrated some dramatic chops in the past, are usually associated with big laughs. Revolving around a tragic multiple murder, a journalist disgraced by accusations of invention and sociopathic manipulation, True Story feels stark and grim, especially when it starts poking at viewer assumptions. Based on indeed, a true story, the film can be a fascinating case study of two actors circling each other like their characters, never trying to betray the harsh source material through ill-placed comic relief. Its last fifteen minutes feel like an extended nightmare, so twisted do the agendas become. If the film has a flaw, it probably that we don’t quite get to feel the betrayal of the protagonist: True Story doesn’t invest much time in trying to make us believe in the initial lies, making some of the revelations feel flat. Still, it’s a troubling film, and as the hero and the villain eventually stat matching wits, the film does get a bit better toward the end. Both Hill and Franco do fine with dramatic roles, to the point where few will assume that their next film will be a comedy
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) The second half of Jim Carrey’s career has been marked by its fair share of easy roles, either riffing off his established persona or taking on a bland everyman role that anyone else could have played. But if I Love You Phillip Morris may not have had the visibility of some of his other projects, it’s a joyously amoral comedy that sees Carrey stretch a bit and take on the kind of role that still feels faintly daring even years later. Playing a gay ex-cop turned con man who falls in love with another inmate (Ewan MacGregor, also quite good and willing to extend his already inclusive persona) and then stops at nothing (big-time embezzlement, wilful convictions, cell-block favors, fake death) to be reunited with his love and live comfortably, Carrey is able to parlay his manic sweetness into a lot of sympathy for an anti-hero capable to lying his way to the top but ultimately brought down to earth by True Love. The script is witty, the direction is energetic and the result is simply a lot of fun despite some rather dark themes brought up along the way. Criminally under-seen but certainly worth a look, I Love You Phillip Morris may do much to improve your perception of Jim Carrey, especially in the latter body of work.