Sunday, May 31, 2015

Kingsman and Lost River, brief reviews

Kingsman: The Secret Service

You'll have to excuse me for the brevity of this review. I saw "Kingsman" way, way back in October of last year on the Fox Studios lot. Yeah, I got invited to the screening. Why? Because I'm just that cool, I guess. The problem with seeing a new movie super early like that? You have to wait months to properly review it. I wasn't gonna see the film in theaters again as I got everything I needed from that screening. I had planned on writing a review for it right then and sitting on it until February, but... I didn't feel like it.

Fast forward several months... now I just want to review this movie for closure's sake. Only problem, I don't have much to say about it. Matthew Vaughn is kind of a frustrating director for me. You can tell he is obviously talented, but there's a cheekiness to his adaptation of Mark Millar's comic books that I guess I'm just not privy to. I found "Kick-Ass" and parts of "Kingsman" a bit too immature and glib. It makes some obvious riffs on the "James Bond" series, as well as other spy movies cut from similar cloth, but nothing about "Kingsman" made me feel as if it was anything more than just an homage. Colin Firth is fun, Samuel L. Jackson is delightfully strange, but soon after I saw "Kingsman," I just found myself forgetting the entire affair. It's fun, it's likable, but it's a bit too on-the-nose with its references and homages to make it stand out on its own.

Grade: C+

Lost River

"Lost River" is an uneven misfire. There are elements to it that feel very "film school-y" and amateurish. But, I must say, it feels weird to see the way critics are so eager to take this movie down. "Lost River" marks Ryan Gosling's directorial debut and what struck me right away is how unique Gosling's voice is. Oftentimes, when an actor embarks on a directorial debut, it too often winds up feeling like a vanity project. But, Ryan Gosling doesn't even star in this film and he makes no attempts to tell an accessible, easy-to-swallow story. Instead, "Lost River" is just weird. Sometimes it's inspired weirdness, other times its weirdness threatens to derail the entire thing.

But I can't take a movie to task for not pulling off what is a very ambitious undertaking, especially when it comes from a director's debut film. Gosling set this film in Detroit, a city that went bankrupt not too long ago and essentially it feels like its citizens have been "left behind." There are times where I can't tell if Gosling's obsession with Detroit's griminess is something of a perverse nature, or if it's genuine affection. I can see being turned off by a Hollywood celebrity visiting a poor city like Detroit, bringing cameras, and saying "look at how weird and poor this place is!" But I don't think Gosling's really doing that. I think his intentions are genuine, it's just the story that's lacking.

Christina Hendricks stars as Billy. In a town where more and more people are abandoning their homes, Billy seems intent in trying to make it work. She wants to keep her house from being foreclosed and goes through some uneasy lengths in order to make that possible. She has two sons. There's the young, naive Franky. And there's Bones, who spends most of his time entering abandoned homes, stripping out scrap parts, and trying to sell the scraps for cash. But he winds up running into the wrong folks (one of whom is played by Dr. Who's Matt Smith) who are a constant threat to Bones's life.

Lots of strange, interesting elements to "Lost River," but it never really amounts to complete coherency. Then again, "coherency" may not be something Gosling is going for. Instead, he seems more interested in exploring the overall creepy atmosphere of this town. He decided to mix Detroit locals with his Hollywood actors, which sometimes leads to some strong, seemingly improvised moments. But, too often, "Lost River" merely feels like a project, not a movie. Gosling deserves credit for embarking on such a wild experiment, it just never really comes together in the end. Still, I can't help but admire Gosling attempt in creating something so odd. Hopefully, next time he embarks on a project like this, he'll actually have an interesting story to tell.

Grade: C+

Adult Beginners, a brief review

Adult Beginners

Watching the trailer to "Adult Beginners," I could not help but think the story was a little too similar to "Skeleton Twins." Honestly, the novelty of a comedian taking on a dramatic role is starting to wear off on me. It's wearing thin. If these comedic actors were taking actual chances and taking on interesting roles, that's one thing. But like "Skeleton Twins," "Adult Beginners" really just comes off as your typical indie dramedy. It's not easy to pull of this genre mix-up. Not everyone is Alexander Payne. It's hard to find the right balance of drama and comedy, which is why I always try to give major props to films that actually manage to do it right.

Having actually seen "Adult Beginners," though, I must say that it comes pretty close. It doesn't have the dry/dour tone of "Twins" or "St. Vincent." "Adult Beginners" is actually pretty light all the way through and Nick Kroll actually succeeds in incorporating his comedic voice into this material, as well-worn as it is. He plays a young entrepreneur whose latest business venture has failed so he decides to live with his sister for a little while so he can get his life back together.

A version of that plotline can describe half of the dramedies that come out these days, but Nick Kroll, along with his writers, manage to find ways to mine comedy in otherwise mundane settings. His sister and brother-in-law (played by Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale) are eating dinner in the dinner? Make them eat really fast. Kroll's character has to watch his nephew during the day? Make him take a shit in the potty training bowl.

It's the little things that make "Adult Beginners" an enjoyable film to watch, but it doesn't completely save it from entering overly familiar territory. It has a good cast and they have great chemistry together and there are enough funny moments that actually suggests that the movie isn't running on auto-pilot. I like Nick Kroll and I hope he gets bigger movie roles in the future, and it's nice to see him play a character that's more down-to-earth than usual. But he can do better than this.

Grade: C+

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria review

The Olivier Assayas-directed "Clouds of Sils Maria" features a pair of very strong performances in a rather light and contemplative drama that examines the relationship between a popular middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart). Perhaps "light" isn't the best word to describe the drama, but I'll explain myself in a bit.

So Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders. She got her first big break as a teenager starring in the play Maloja Snake, which is a play about a complicated relationship between young woman and an older woman, a relationship that drives the older woman to suicide. Maria played the young woman in the play and is now asked to star in a revival of the play, where she'll now play the part of the older woman. She rehearses the play with her assistant and we discover the relationship between her and her assistant is quite messy as well. (I said "play" a lot in this paragraph, didn't I?)

That's basically the gist of it anyway, barring some details here and there. "Clouds of Sils Maria" explores the perils of aging when looks and age are an essential, albeit unfortunate, part of your job. Maria, now entering (or already in) her 40s, is now forced to play older characters, characters she feels she does not identify with. Like "While We're Young," Maria is forced to come to terms with the fact that she's not the same person she was when she was 25. Only, she has a much harder time making peace with the person she's become and it drives a wedge between her and her assistant.

Binoche and Stewart both give great performances. Kristen Stewart has never been better as the assistant, Valentine, who's more than competent at her job, but there is a lot to suggest that she's got a lot more going on in her life than being Maria Enders's right-hand woman. Much of the film is spent with Binoche and Stewart's characters rehearsing the play and Maria is constantly clashing with the character she's supposed to play. Maria and her assistant have very different opinions about this older woman in Maloja Snake and Maria's constant shutting down of Valentine's perspective really highlights how differently we see life and people, depending on how old we are.

There's all this extra stuff with Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays a young starlet who agrees to play the younger woman in the play. "Clouds of Sils Maria" attempts to be both a character drama and a light satire in its portrayal of the movie business and celebrity culture. On the latter front, it comes up a bit short. But when the movie is about Maria and Valentine, it really shines even if it's a bit light overall.

And by that, I mean it never really goes for the jugular. I don't have a problem with that, I actually appreciate the light touch, but the movie ends with a whimper instead of a bang. If the film was a bit tighter, maybe it would've made the drama between Maria and Valentine more effective, but as it is, "Clouds of Sils Maria" remains a very strong film that just did not hit me in that sweet spot.

Grade: B

Ex Machina review

It can be a tricky thing when a screenwriter finally decides to direct his own script. Think Dustin Lance Black1, Charlie Kaufman, William Monahan2. Now Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" definitely has its champions, but the film largely flopped and we haven't had anything from Kaufman since. Point is, just because you're a compelling screenwriter, it does not necessarily mean you'll be a compelling director. Some can pull it off like Tony and Dan Gilroy or (and this is going further back in time) Paul Schrader. But, overall, you're never quite sure what you're going to get from a screenwriter-turned-director.

What struck me about "Ex Machina" was how director Alex Garland was able it look so visually compelling. Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac, lives completely isolated while he does his work. The film is told through the eyes of Caleb, Domhnall Gleeson, a programmer who wins a contest to visit his boss in this large, isolated home.

There's the big panoramic glass windows, the crisp, white hallways... Nathan's home is as welcoming as it is suffocating. And especially when you find out the only way to navigate your way through Nathan's home is by having a personalized keycard (which only gives you access to certain doors), there's an immediate sense of feeling trapped.

I love how Garland is able to tell a large portion of this story visually and it's a talent that not all screenwriter-turned-directors have, especially for a directorial debut. Before this, Garland was known for penning the screenplays to "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine," but it seems he really saved his best work for himself. "Ex Machina" delivers on all fronts: from its visuals to its characters to the story.

Nathan invited Caleb to his home because he wants Caleb to test his newly-created A.I., Ava. Ava is a humanoid robot and Nathan's goal was to program her to be as human as possible. But Ava is trapped in Nathan's already claustrophobic home. She's not trusting of Nathan and once Caleb enters the picture, she looks to him as, hopefully, a means to escape.

But really, the movie goes far beyond its initial premise to give us something completely captivating and unsettling. While "Ex Machina" has some clear sci-fi elements, this is really a character piece. It's about how Caleb and Nathan view women. It's about the ethics involved in testing a humanoid robot that has all the features and abilities of a human. If you create something that's as close to human as possible, is it wrong to not treat it like a human?

And while Garland has been known for penning scripts with out-of-nowhere left turns in the third act, "Ex Machina" never loses itself when the plot advances. It's relentlessly thrilling from beginning to end and it closes on a note that I'm still unable to shake off even though it's been weeks since I've seen the movie. I keep thinking about what's going to happen to these characters after the movie ends, as if I'm 12 years old all over again. The movie ends on a perfect note, but it leaves you wanting more in the best way. "Ex Machina" is a film that I'll be thinking about for a long time.

Grade: A

1 Dustin Lance Black won the "best original screenplay" Oscar for "Milk," then wrote/directed "Virginia" which was a huge critical flop.
2 William Monahan won "best adapted screenplay" Oscar for "The Departed," then wrote/directed "London Boulevard" to lackluster reviews and little fanfare.

While We're Young review

Noah Baumbach has been on a real tear lately. Ever since he revitalized his directing career in 2005 with "The Squid and the Whale," he's always proved to be an interesting cinematic voice. Really, since then, the only film that resembles a "slip up" would be his immediate follow-up to 'Squid': "Margot at the Wedding." But, starting with "Frances Ha," there just seems to be an added jolt of energy to his work and he's been more prolific than ever as a result. "While We're Young" is the second of three films Baumbach has made in the last three years. And given the positive buzz surrounding his follow-up film "Mistress America" - which premiered at Sundance in January - it looks like he's still going strong.

"While We're Young" is basically a bridging of the gap between "Frances Ha" and Baumbach's 2010 film "Greenberg." In fact, having seen 'Young' now, "Frances Ha" really feels like a complete creative left turn for the director, with 'Young' veering back towards his sensibilities.

"While We're Young" contains more of Baumbach's sardonic tone and worldview and has much less of the playful exuberance that's prevalent in "Ha." And given the fact that Greta Gerwig co-wrote 'Ha' and had nothing to do with "While We're Young," this really shouldn't come as a surprise. Especially considering Baumbach wrote "While We're Young" before he made "Frances Ha."

And yet, "While We're Young" is still very joyful. It contains many laugh-out-loud moments and it's probably Baumbach's most audience-friendly film to date. The characters are likable and more fun, the ending is very hopeful and optimistic. Did the experience of making "Frances Ha" rub off on this movie? That's what I wanna know.

What's amusing about this movie is how Baumbach seems both enamored with and repulsed by twenty-somethings. This seems common amongst people Baumbach's age. I immediately think of Louis CK's rant about 20-year-olds in one of his stand-up acts from a few years ago. There's a specificity to "While We're Young" that keeps it from merely being a CK-style rant (a funny rant, don't get me wrong), and instead we get something that's insightful, perceptive, and often quite funny.

Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentary filmmaker and professor. Naomi Watts plays Josh's wife Cornelia, who produces documentaries and is the daughter of an accomplish doc filmmaker (I got tired of just saying "documentary" just now). Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried play a young married hipster couple who introduce themselves to Josh during his class and invite him and his wife to dinner. What follows is a friendship between the two couples with Josh and Cornelia trying their best to stay in touch with these crazy youngsters.

The film is at its best when the relationship between these two couples are explored. It becomes less compelling when we discover Jamie (Adam Driver) may be using Josh for his own gain. It's not that this plot development is completely unwelcome, but the energy and wit of the first 2/3rds of the film kinda deflates when the friendship between Josh and Jamie has its inevitable downfall.

What keeps the movie afloat and ultimately what makes it a winner is its honesty. Josh and Cornelia want to be friends with these twenty-somethings, but they're each in completely different stages of life. At first, they're intimidated by these kids, then they start feeling paranoid. And in the end, regardless of whether or not Jamie turns out to be a bit of a dick, the movie kinda shrugs instead of pointing the finger. He's an ambitious opportunist. He's young. Josh and Cornelia are in a stage of their life when they realize they have to finally let go of their youth as they enter middle age. The way the film played out did feel right in the end, I just wish it took a cleaner route as it headed towards its conclusion.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 1, 2015


The Marvel hype machine can be exhausting if you actively read movie news or, really, if you have a facebook/twitter account. Every day, a new piece of information regarding an upcoming Marvel film is unleashed and somebody you know is talking about it. It's not even just Marvel anymore, it's Star Wars, it's DC. Unless you shut your computer off and go outside, it's easy to get caught up in all that.

I did my best to ignore all possible news-related items regarding "Avengers: Age of Ultron" before this weekend. When the first trailer was unleashed a few months ago, I shrugged. I try not to judge movies based on trailers, but it's hard not to when you see your friends and peers constantly making such a big deal out of it. Needless to say, I was approaching "Age of Ultron" with a degree of apprehension. After the immense success of 2012's "The Avengers," how could the sequel possibly live up to the hype? For me, the first trailer for "Age of Ultron" suggested that it was going to attempt to outdo the first film in every way imaginable, but none of it seemed all that fun to me. I loved "The Avengers" because of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner's budding friendship, the rivalry between Stark and Steve Rogers. The weird way in which Thor fits in with these guys. And I even got a kick out of how Hawkeye really always seems to be out of his element. You only shoot arrows, dude! C'mon!

Well, I gotta say, I was fairly surprised to find that "Age of Ultron" is not completely devoid of fun. It even had a villain that seemed to genuinely challenge the Avengers this time around, but luckily for them, they had a lot of help. Like, a lot of help. Like, Nick Fury and War Machine, plus Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Plus, more (I don't wanna give away too many spoilers so I'll leave it at that). It seemed that whenever any of these guys really seemed down and outnumbered, and remember there's already six of them, they always had someone to back them up. Don't get me wrong, this still made for some entertaining action sequences, but it also wound up becoming a bit of a mess. There are so many goddamn characters that have to be followed this time around. First we got Iron Man fighting Ultron over here, then you have Black Widow doing her thing over there, then Captain America is running around throwing his shield, and wait, where's the Hulk? Where's the Hulk? No, seriously, where's the fucking Hulk? Oh, there he is.

It's hard to just sit back, relax, and take the action sequences as a whole, especially the big grand finale, because you have all these great superheroes coming together and you want to see each of them in action. I thought Joss Whedon did a phenomenal job with the balancing act in the first film, but when you add five extra characters to the mix, it's nearly impossible to maintain any coherency.

Too many characters is really the fundamental flaw with this movie. Too many characters and a desire to wrap things up as neatly as possible. But let's start with the first point. When you already have six superheroes and you add a couple other fringe characters to the mix, it makes it difficult to get sucked into any of these characters' struggles, thoughts, feelings, etc. This is especially true with the villain, Ultron, who initially comes across as sophisticated and somebody who could really do a lot of damage to the Avengers. But, because we spend so little time with him, once the going gets tough, he just turns into your run-of-the-mill "evil genius." In the end, there's really not much to him. Loki had that goofy "I'm totally the bad guy" smile in the first "Avengers," Ultron has "I'm totally the bad guy"-type quips. I really just wanted the dude to shut up towards the end.

That ties into my second point about the movie wrapping up too neatly. In the beginning of "Age of Ultron," Tony Stark has a vision of the future that seems to suggest destruction on a massive scale, the type of destruction that could change the very fabric of the Avengers.  Largely because of that vision, Stark's creates Ultron in order to maintain peace on their planet. Unfortunately, Ultron has other ideas.

From there, you begin to wonder. This is Stark's creation. Will serious destruction occur thanks to Stark's creation? It would've been really interesting if, because of Stark, the whole fabric and foundation of the Avengers is permanently (or at least partially) damaged. But, of course, because this is Marvel and there are dozens of films to plan out over the next 15 years, none of this winds up mattering. Ultimately, the status quo beats any attempt to make things interesting in the MCU. Sigh.

Whedon does the best job he can juggling these characters, but you can tell it's a struggle for him. First of all, his original cut was over three-and-a-half hours long and you can sense that there's a lot that we're missing here. Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen, has mind control abilities that she unleashes on the Avengers, which kinda fucks them up for a little while. They get flashbacks or visions or fantasies that we can only get a couple glimpses of and it's not enough to get a good sense of how these visions are affecting these characters. In the end, it doesn't really seem to affect them at all.

And there are other examples where you can tell Whedon wants to do a little more with these characters, but it all just feels wedged in. Whether it's Hawkeye's backstory, the relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha, or any of the scenes with Nick Fury---there's a lot to explore here, but when you're required to get to the next action sequence every 20 minutes, this makes it difficult to get a good handle on any of these storylines.

A 210-minute Avengers movie would've been ridiculously overstuffed, but this 144-minute version still feels too jampacked. And this is because we kinda/sorta explore these different little storylines in between the action sequences, but they never really go anywhere. Instead of cutting entire storylines out, it feels like Whedon wanted to leave in as much as he could even if it had nothing to do with the central plot.

The central plot being the Avengers teaming up to stop Ultron from destroying the world. Not exactly complex stuff, but even then, we get all these long-winded explanations as to what Ultron's plans are and none of it feels particularly important.

It seems as if there are supposed to be emotional characters arcs in this film, but because Whedon had to cut the running-time down so heavily, you don't really get a full sense of those arcs. And those arcs seem to be a way to mask what's really a very basic plot, and when they are chipped away in the editing room, that means we're left with this really tired plot that was never supposed to be a focus of the film in the first place.

Because you can have a rote plot and get away with it as long as there's enough things going on that you barely notice it. The problem with "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is that there are plenty of things going on, but none of it is explored with enough depth to make you care.

But hey, I still enjoyed it. It was still more fun than what I feared it would be. There were still fun little moments between the characters that I enjoyed and the action sequences mostly delivered. This is one of those cases where... yes, I had a lot of problems with the film and my criticisms of the movie may not reflect the final grade. When it comes to making a huge blockbuster film that delivers all the basic goods, I would say Joss Whedon definitely delivered. Unfortunately, he was trying to do much, much more with this film and so what we're left with is kind of a huge mess. An enjoyable mess, but a mess nonetheless. That probably explains why Whedon won't be returning to the "Avengers" franchise for the "Infinity Wars."

Then again, did he really expect Marvel to want to release a three-hour film? What was he thinking there? It's nice to be ambitious, but sometimes you have to work with what you've got. You can get an "A" for effort, but what ends up on the big screen is ultimately the only thing that matters. It's a shame because Whedon was really a big part in injecting life into this big Marvel machine. You have to remember that the MCU franchise was initially all leading up to "The Avengers" in 2012. And people really weren't all that interested in "Thor" and "Captain America: First Avenger" when they came out. Those movies did solid BO numbers, but they were not the runaway hits that the "Iron Man" movies were.

Whedon's first "Avengers" film was what really gave everyone a sense as to how fun a Marvel movie could be and I think that should have been his modus operandi for the second film. Instead, he tried stuffing as many ideas into the sequel as he possibly could and the movie (as well as him, in a way, seeing as how he's not returning) wound up suffering, creatively, as a result.

It's going to be interesting to see where it all goes from here as the Russo brothers take over this mega-franchise. Can they find a way to keep the humor and lightness as they enter the "Infinity Wars" or will the Avengers movies start to feel by-the-numbers at a certain point? Especially since the plot to "Age of Ultron" was as by-the-numbers as it gets, it's not a very good sign as to what we can expect moving forward. Because as much as I rag on Whedon for being too ambitious with this movie, I get a nagging feeling that we'll all be missing him in a few years.

Grade: B