Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation REVIEW

By now, you've seen the ads with Tom Cruise hanging from an airplane. No CGI! He's 53 and still doing his own stunts! They really hammered home this particular scene and you can't blame the marketing team behind this movie, after all, it worked on me. You can sell me on "Tom Cruise is a death-defying psycho" and I will see that movie every time. That's the allure of Tom Cruise. He's impossibly handsome, he still acts like he's 30, he has a highly questionable personal life, yadda yadda Scientology, and he's one of our greatest movie stars. And why is he still doing these "Mission: Impossible" movies, twenty years after making the first one? Because they are the perfect vehicle for him. And five movies in, it honestly feels like this is one of the best movie franchises we have going right now. No bullshit.

What's fun about that "Tom Cruise hanging on the side of an airplane" ad is how it barely touches upon just how entertaining "Rouge Nation" is. That trailer/teaser does exactly what it's supposed to do, it gives you a taste. It's not the money shot of the film, by any means. In fact, that scene takes place in the first five minutes! "Rogue Nation" actually has two (really 2 1/2) more sequences later on in the movie that easily surpass the opening sequence.

The fifth Mission: Impossible really kind of gets to the basics of what this franchise is all about. It's about a team of IMF agents getting themselves into over-the-top situations yet somehow coming out on top. Up until the last half hour, "Rogue Nation" is just that. After the opening, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds out that there is a secret, anti-IMF organization that's been wreaking havoc all over the world. The Syndicate. That's the rogue nation the movie's title alludes to.

Lead by former British intelligence agent Solomon Lane, uncovering The Syndicate and tracking down Lane becomes an obsession of Hunt's. This is to the detriment of his crew. The CIA, headed by Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), eventually decides to shut down the IMF as Hunley feels their behavior has lead to too much destruction around the world. Shutting down the IMF may have forced his friends to work more banal jobs (and cause Luther [Ving Rhames] to "retire"), but Ethan Hunt decides to take on The Syndicate anyway, a covert organization the CIA doesn't even believes exists.

So, Hunley orders agents to track down and take in Ethan Hunt, who's now a man without a country. Meanwhile, Hunt's IMF buds decide they need to track him down first before he gets killed, which of course, means they wind up getting involved in Hunt's operation.

Really, all the plot threads don't really matter for the review's sake. But I will give the film credit for being fairly lucid and simple about the plot mechanics of this movie. There's nothing unnecessarily complicated here, in spite the exposition-laden dialogue (which never drags the movie down). The movie unfolds and leads us to a Hitchcockian-action sequence that takes place at an opera. And then later, a more Bond-ian sequence which can only be described as an underwater heist (and it's fucking awesome). That underwater heist leads to a pretty spectacular motorcycle/car chase sequence. And director Christopher McQuarrie does an excellent job of mining something fresh out of this particular chase.

And while the finale fails to live up to such brilliant sequences, the presence of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust is so welcome that it hardly matters that the finale is kind of a let down. I say "kind of" because the movie's finale does happen to include a knife fight between Faust and an evil Syndicate agent. Yes, a knife fight, people! That's what I'm talking about! I just wish it lasted longer because who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned knife fight?

Everyone seems to legitimately enjoy themselves in this movie. Even the villain, played by Sean Harris, has an ounce of mystery and intrigue about him. For Cruise and Rhames, this is their fifth go-around. Cruise can still find a great balance between being an effective actor during the dramatic dialogue scenes and he shows off some incredible moves during the action scenes (how he lifts himself up that pole while being handcuffed - I just know that's something I'll never be able to do). For Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner this is their third and second (respectively) entries into the franchise. But no, unlike Johnny Depp in the fourth "Pirates" movie, nobody appears to be phoning it in. Everyone's having a blast. And in turn, we the audience wind up having a blast as well. Seriously, "Rogue Nation" rocked. If this is the last great summer blockbuster of the year, I'd be satisfied with that.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ranking the Films of Judd Apatow

 (image courtesy of

Ranking movies can often be a pointless exercise, but I decided to approach Judd Apatow's movies in this manner anyway. Especially since "Trainwreck" just came out and I recently reviewed it, ranking Judd's movies gave me the opportunity to talk about his latest film in the context of his other films. So, without further ado, here's how I rank them...

5. This is 40 (2012)

All great comedies need some sort of rhythm in order to really work. Since "Virgin," Apatow has been threatening to make longer movies that are more and more lighter on plot, in favor of improv-heavy scenes of dialogue. His tendency to let scenes last longer than required really took its toll on "This is 40," whose premise as well as its cast of characters simply aren't interesting enough to warrant a 130+ minute runtime. As a result, "40" ends up feeling like an overindulgent mess. A rhythm-less, aimless trifle of a film that features little insight on the perils of middle age. Apatow's exploration of the marriage between Pete and Debbie (characters previously featured in "Knocked Up") feels too shallow and directionless to gain any real traction.

Pete secretly eats cupcakes when he thinks no one's looking. He uses Viagra to have sex with his wife. He gives too much money to his father and is kinda going broke. Despite turning 40, Debbie wants another baby and she's depressed about how old she's getting. Some of these issues may be interesting on a dramatic level, but Apatow's observations are just too slight. It never seems as if he's prying beyond the surface level of these familial issues and there just aren't enough funny moments to keep the movie from feeling so inert.

Judd, at the time, was around 44/45 when he made this movie. Considering he casts his wife and actual kids to co-star with Paul Rudd, it's clear the film is meant to take a page out of his life. But man, Judd, your personal life just isn't that interesting. Or if it is, you're not showing us the interesting parts. Too often, it feels like he's holding something back.

"This is 40" is just wrongheaded on about every level. Are there a few funny scenes? Sure but I have a hard time remembering any of them. Ultimately this is a movie without much purpose or even a reason to exist. It's just 130 minutes of complaining. It's as if Apatow took all the elements of "Knocked Up" that didn't work and simply expounded on them. If not for the charms of Paul Rudd or the memorable, small performance from Melissa McCarthy, this film would be flat-out unbearable.

Grade: C-

4.  Knocked Up (2007)

"Knocked Up" contains several moments of genuine hilarity and it proved that Seth Rogen can carry a movie. And it turned him into a bankable star. Unfortunately, "Knocked Up" does not live up to its initial positive reputation on subsequent viewings, and I honestly wasn't all that overwhelmed with laughter when I watched it the first time.

Yes, Judd Apatow's most successful and critically acclaimed movie is one that I've never been fully enamored with. It's a fine enough film, particularly when we're with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his loser, stoner friends. But this is a premise that really stretches out beyond its limits. "Knocked Up" was the first example of Judd Apatow not really knowing how to edit himself. It's not that there were too many scenes that dragged, it's just the fighting between Ben Stone and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) lingered on for way too long, which wound up souring the film's funnier moments.

Simply put, Katherine Heigl's never allowed to have any fun in this movie. People kept remarking about how they paired the gorgeous Katherine Heigl with ugly Seth Rogen, and how ridiculous the pairing is. But in the movie, when you find out just how unlikable and cold Alison is, it's really not surprising she has such difficulty getting into a serious relationship with anyone.

The complaints against this movie - that the women are portrayed as hateful and shrill - may have been a bit overstated at the time, but there's definitely some validity those claims. And with subsequent viewings, it becomes harder to watch Leslie Mann and Katherine Heigl suck all the fun and life out of this movie. I don't think Heigl gets to make a single joke the entire time. And Leslie Mann's character, Debbie, is so unjustifiably mean to Pete (Paul Rudd) that it's hard to garner any empathy for either of these sisters.

You have to hand it to Judd Apatow for taking this thin, tired premise and bringing a fresh perspective to it. And the supporting cast is impressive no matter how you slice it (Jonah Hil, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jay Baruchel, Charlyne Yi, the late Harold Ramis, etc.). But if I had to choose between re-watching this or "The 40 Year Old Virgin," I'd go with "Virgin" every time. No question.

Grade: B-

3.  Trainwreck (2015)

I don't want to spend too much time on this since I just wrote a review on it, but as I said in the review, "Trainwreck" really is something of a return to form for the director. Thanks to Amy Schumer penning the script, it allowed Apatow to get out of his own head and do what he does best: wring hilarious performances out of people. As a result, we get to see Colin Quinn make a rare appearance on the big screen - and he nails it. Mike Birbiglia once again showcases what a valuable supporting actor he can be, as he also did in season 3 of "Orange is the New Black."

Most importantly, for her first big role in a movie, Amy Schumer looks very comfortable and right at home here. And what some people don't realize is that this isn't just a re-hashing of her stand-up material or her show "Inside Amy Schumer." Instead, this is Schumer's honest attempt at making a screwball romantic comedy - the only way she knows how. Which means, lots of sex or references to sex. But she adds so much humor, insight, and honesty towards her raunchy take on sex, that you can't help but be won over.

Yes, Apatow still refuses to back down on improv scenes that last way too long. Plus, the story almost doesn't recover after going down very dramatic territory once Amy's father dies. But, with a spirited, fun final sequence, "Trainwreck" more than redeems itself. It's hilarious, it's almost always enjoyable, and it's an incredible showcase for the tremendously talented Amy Schumer.

Grade: B

2.  Funny People (2009)

Whereas the abundance of praise for "Knocked Up" may have been somewhat unfounded, I personally feel that "Funny People" is a movie that doesn't get enough praise. The prospect of watching a 150-minute dramedy can be daunting at first. Judd Apatow's affinity for James L. Brooks movies really came in full force here and it shows in the extended runtime. But that's really one of the only issues with "Funny People," which otherwise contains many funny moments and showcases a real insight into the world of stand-up comedy.

"Funny People" is ambitious in its honest attempt to peel back the curtain behind this world where up-and-comers struggle to make a name for themselves and highly successful comedians struggle to stay hip and relevant. What's also notable is the casting of Adam Sandler as the lead and it's hard not to see through the "meta" aspects of this story.

Of course, Adam Sandler was never diagnosed with cancer in real life, but there are definitely parallels between himself and his character George Simmons's career. Simmons is often taken to task for making lousy comedy films and squandering his talent. Does that ring a bell?

When Simmons gets diagnosed with cancer, it forces him to re-evaluate his life. He decides to get back into stand-up comedy and after bombing at one of his first comeback gigs, he encounters Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira mercilessly makes fun of Simmons for bombing, but instead of the movie star kicking Ira's ass, he asks him (at the parking lot after the show) to help him write jokes. Ira, still very much trying to make a name for himself, says yes without much hesitation.

Ira's sudden success in his career draws the ire of his jealous, but supporting friends (played by Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzmann, and Aziz Ansari). What really worries him, however, is George Simmons's grouchy attitude. And when Ira finds out Simmons has cancer, it makes him realize this situation is much more adult than he was initially hoping it'd be.

The story kinda hinges on this cancer diagnoses and makes the tone a lot darker than we're used to seeing from Apatow. But I really admired Judd Apatow's attempts to make something this ambitious, and honestly? It mostly works. Where it starts to fall apart slightly is during the overlong, poorly paced middle section of the film which finds George trying to rekindle a romance with a now-married former flame (Leslie Mann). While there are moments of genuine heartfelt drama there, it starts to lose its way when Simmons refuses to leave her life. The balance between drama and comedy just tips the scales too far into one direction. By the time the movie gets close to wrapping things up, as an audience member, it's hard not to feel exhausted.

But aside from the slightly faltering middle section, I can't help but feel that Judd Apatow was really onto something substantial here. It may be a tad too long, but the movie at least contains characters interesting enough to warrant such an excessive runtime. It may not be Apatow's funniest film, but it definitely showcase a lot of artistic growth for the filmmaker. Unfortunately, due to the film somewhat bombing in the box office, we may not get to see this thoughtful, somewhat dark side of Apatow anytime soon.

Grade: B+ 

1.  The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Judd Apatow's debut feature still remains his best. Bottom line: it's funny. It's almost always funny. Sometimes it's unrelentingly funny. Apatow may never become an interesting visual director, but with "Virgin," he crafted a near pitch-perfect debut. It was lightning in a bottle, really. What more could you ask for? A stellar star-making lead performance from Steve Carell, and breakout supporting performances from Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Jane Lynch. Jane Lynch! How many careers were solidified after this movie came out? The cast is perfect.

That's excluding Catherine Keener, who was already an established talent. But then you have Kat Dennings, who's had a hit CBS sitcom for the last couple of years. Future two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill is a glorified extra in the film. Seriously, this movie dripped with acting talent and what I loved so much is watching them all interact with each other. What Judd Apatow got so right here - and what he's failed to recapture since - is to have these great comedians/actors improvise with each other while retaining focus on the overall story. The excess dialogue/conversations between characters here brings an added sense of realism to the story and what they talk about is so funny, it hardly matters whether or not the conversation has drifted away from the point (the Mexican donkey show story, for example). Apatow's tendency towards improv may not always work in his subsequent films, but there's hardly a wasted line of dialogue in "Virgin."

This movie has such a wealth of character development, we find out at one point that Seth Rogen's character secretly dreams of being a novelist. It's a detail that's barely even there. It's mentioned in two scenes and they feel like throwaway moments, and yet it adds another layer to his character. Apatow has moments like that throughout. Little character moments that don't seem like much at first, but upon further viewings, it enriches the movie.

Furthermore - and this is a staple of all subsequent Apatow films - this movie has an abundance of heart. It starts off with this silly premise - a 40 year old man deals with being a virgin - and it tries its damndest to take the story and its character seriously. His co-workers, upon learning his situation, want to help him. Everyone is genuinely supportive of helping Andy overcome his loneliness. The movie's not trying to say he should be embarrassed for still being a virgin - as some critics tried to suss out of the film - no, what's more important is Andy's fear of women, romance, and sex. That's what he's trying to overcome.

You watch the movie because it has a no-brainer premise that you can't ignore. But writers Steve Carell and Judd Apatow surprised audiences by giving them something that has a lot more heart and sweetness than they may have expected. And when it's funny, it's really goddamn funny. It makes you wish Carell and Apatow would collaborate again in the future. Honestly, ten years later, why the hell haven't they?

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ANT-MAN review

Let me preface this review by saying this: I am a huge fan of the works of Edgar Wright. I love all four of his movies and was very excited about "Ant-Man" when he was attached to the project. That excitement fell through almost completely when he dropped out, and for good reason. At the time, there had already been rumors of Joss Whedon having difficulties with the 2nd "Avengers" film and it just became increasingly clear that Marvel does not have the best relationship with strong-willed visionary directors. And ultimately, it's Marvel who wins these arguments as these directors either begrudgingly finish the movie vowing never to work with Marvel again, or they walk out before filming starts, leaving their movie in the hands of the studio.

This was also the case with Jon Favreau five years ago during "Iron Man 2" and it's the reason why someone like Ava Duvernay has a tough time saying "yes" to making a Black Panther movie. A degree of compromise must be made in order to successfully helm an MCU film. It all has to fit into the overall, larger Marvel Universe. Edgar Wright and Marvel producer Kevin Feige just could not see eye-to-eye on those types of issues.

Plus, consider how close to production Wright was at before he dropped out. They had a little over a year to make this film and now they needed a new director, a new DP. They found their guy, Peyton Reed, just in time. But then, you had to wonder... Peyton Reed? Could he really pick up where Wright left off? Can he save this from being a disaster?

So yes, there were quite a few barriers for me here, coming into "Ant-Man." With all that in mind, I find great pleasure in admitting that I actually had a wonderful time watching this movie. I thought "Ant-Man" was kind of a blast in its own way. It didn't have big ambitions and it didn't have the highs and overwhelming thrills of, let's say "Iron Man" and "The Avengers," but what it sets out to do - it does well. And as far as the usual "villain" and "third act" problem Marvel's been having for awhile now? Well, this movie is about 50/50 on that. Third act? Actually kinda cool, humorous, enjoyable. The villain? Eh, not as much.

For the most part though, this cast is aces. Paul Rudd fits in like a glove playing Scott Lang. Rudd just has a winning on-screen presence. He may not be your first choice when it comes to an actor playing a superhero, but watching "Ant-Man," it makes perfect sense why he was chosen. He brings a grounded, human, sardonic element to the character that makes him immediately relatable. And if he's really about to join The Avengers, he would easily be the most down-to-earthof all the superheroes.

And Scott Lang probably has the most inauspicious background of all the MCU superheroes yet. Except for maybe Star-Lord in "GOTG." Lang is a criminal, a cat burglar. He gets released from prison at the opening only to find himself back in the world of crime thanks to his friends Luis (Michael Pena) and Dave (T.I.). He winds up breaking through the safe of billionaire Hank Pym, who has secretly been behind this burglary plan all along as he sees Scott Lang as a potential fit for his project.

I don't want to get bogged down in plot here, but basically Pym invented a suit that allows someone to shrink/enlarge almost at will. He took this invention with him when he retired from his own company and now his protege (Corey Stoll) is spending all the resources he can to re-create that invention.

So, ultimately Lang becomes Ant-Man and he helps Pym hatch a scheme to prevent the protege, Darren Cross, from re-creating this invention (which involves dismantling a similar Ant-Man-like suit), as it could lead to mass chaos. Creating an entire army of ant-like soldiers has several implications - none of them good. So it's up to Lang, Pym, and Pym's daughter Hope van Dyne to stop Cross.

Rudd's great. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is solid as usual. When does Douglas ever turn in a bad performance? Evangeline Lily really shines as Hope and her arc is very interesting. She resents Scott Lang's involvement in this heist-like scheme, wanting very much to become the "ant-man" herself. And in a sense, her frustration mirrors that of many fans who wonder why there are so few (really, only two at this point) female superheroes in this universe.

A key aspect towards making this film work are the effects involved with shrinking/enlarging the suit. The initial scene where Scott Lang finds himself shrunk inside a bathtub is quite the mind-bender. His friend Luis turns on the faucet in the bathtub (not knowing Scott is in there) and watching Lang outran the giant, running bathwater was very interesting to see unfold. I really dug all the "shrunken" scenes. That technology/CGI has been around for awhile, but I was still impressed to see how seamless the entire thing was here.

And they especially used that effect in an enjoyable manner during the last third of the film when Lang/Ant-Man has a big fight with the villain, Darren Cross. Without giving too much away, let's just say the movie has a lot of fun mixing in "big" and "explosive" moments that turn out to have very minimally damaging consequences. Really, the big fight scene at the end was one big laugh riot for me, it really subverted all the big climactic finales of other Marvel films and put its own humorous spin on the whole thing. It's been awhile since I've said it, so here goes: Marvel (and director Peyton Reed) really nailed the final act. They actually pulled it off. Kudos.

Unfortunately, Corey Stoll hammed it up a bit too much as the villain and, once again in the MCU, he just wasn't very fun to watch nor was he that threatening. Darren Cross is completely one-note as a character. His only goal is to perfect Hank Pym's invention and  he seems to have nothing else interesting going on with him besides that. And since there are several scenes in the movie that consist of Darren Cross spouting his evil "villain" nonsense, it really started to become a drag. It all leads to a slick heist sequence and a great fight scene between him and Ant-Man, but I'm just tired of one-note villains populating the MCU. Why can't we have a villain that really, legitimately kicks ass and is a real threat in the movie?

Still, that's really the only aspect of the film that keeps it from being a total blast from beginning to end. We're talking about a movie that was in danger of not getting made, or at least, being heavily delayed. Considering the circumstances, you gotta hand it to Peyton Reed, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd (who re-wrote the script), and the cast for keeping this thing from falling apart. But I guess you also have to give some credit to Edgar Wright and his writing partner Joe Cornish for putting the pieces together to make this the entertaining heist/superhero film that it promised to be. They definitely laid down a solid foundation, but I'm even more impressed that it wound up being as well-executed as it was.

"Ant-Man" is definitely one of the better entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the bloatedness of "Age of Ultron" (a movie I still enjoyed, mind you), and before the superhero epic of "Captain America: Civil War" that's to come, you have to appreciate "Ant-Man" for being such an entertaining diversion. And it gives me hope that Marvel can introduce yet another "new" character to its established universe and it's a character (or characters, as I enjoyed both Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne) that I would not mind revisiting down the road. Seriously, just when I start to doubt and maybe turn my back on the MCU franchise, they pull off two largely entertaining films this summer. How long can they keep this up and continue to make things interesting? That will be the key question moving forward.

Grade: B/B+ (somewhere between those grades)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


When you title your movie "Trainwreck," you're opening yourself up to a lot of easy jokes. Luckily, Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow prove to be a mostly winning combo here, with Schumer writing the script and Apatow directing. It centers on a woman, named Amy (and played by Amy), who grows up with a rather skewed perception when it comes to monogamy, dating men, sex, etc. In that, she doesn't believe in monogamy and likes to have sex with lots of different men. During the day, she works as a journalist for a men's magazine and gets assigned to write a piece about a sports doctor named Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Amy finds herself unusually drawn to the doctor and gets to the point where she finds herself reconsidering her long held beliefs against monogamy.

The movie's setup is like the inverse of "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" in many ways. Steve Carell can't get laid to save his life in Apatow's debut feature where as Amy's having sex left and right in "Trainwreck." Both films take a humorous look at the sexual and romantic lives of their lead characters, and while the setups are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they both sort-of come together in similar ways. Steve Carell's Andy finds his soulmate and marries her, Amy hasn't necessarily found her soulmate but she's willing to take a chance on love with the doctor.

So I guess it's not a surprise when I say that "Trainwreck" is Apatow's funniest movie since "Virgin." Both films are extremely perceptive when it comes to sex, love, and romance. "Trainwreck" has an even more personal viewpoint as it features voiceover narration from the main character. "Trainwreck" is often a purely laugh-out-loud comedy, thanks to spirited performances from wrestler Jon Cena, basketball player Lebron James, as well as comedians Colin Quinn and Mike Birbiglia. Brie Larson, who plays Amy's sister, is also strong though she doesn't get to have quite as much fun as the rest. And the movie has a surprising turn from Tilda Swinton who plays Amy's overly-tanned mean boss.

It's nice to see a more focused outing from Apatow after his last two films kind of meandered for well over two hours. That said, and this is just something we'll probably have to live with, "Trainwreck" could've been tightened up considerably. There are a few too many scenes that go on much longer than they need to, long after the central joke stops being funny. In fact, there are a handful of moments that kinda fall flat on their face, and every once in awhile a character will make a side comment/joke/aside at the end of a scene that you wish they'd just cut out. Like in the beginning of a sad funeral scene, a character played by Vanessa Bayer hits on a man sitting in front of her. Moments like that just landed with a thud. Five movies in though, maybe this is just who Judd Apatow is. "The 40 Year Old Virgin" contains several scenes that go on longer than they needed to. Luckily then, the script was so damn good that it hardly mattered. But since then, it seems to be a recurring problem in his work, especially his last three movies. Ah well, what can you do? It's just a shame as I don't think he realizes just how much better these movies could be if he were a little harder on himself.

"Trainwreck" goes down your usual rom-com path with your characters falling in love, then having a fight, then making up. But it takes forever to finally get to those moments. It takes a long while before you finally meet Bill Hader's character, and so much goes by before the leads kiss and make up that the movie really struggles to recapture a momentum that allows the final sequence to really shine. Granted, there are a lot of great and funny moments peppered throughout the film. There's never a moment where it feels like it has lagged to the point where the whole film's completely derailed. Never goes that far.

I've seen and read some people come away from "Trainwreck" not so enthused with how it turns out. Some wanted Amy Schumer's crazy sexual flag to run wild and free for all two hours. But, the way I look at it, this is merely Schumer's take on the modern-day romantic comedy and if Apatow had just tightened a few screws, this could've honestly have been one of the few rom-com classics of our era. Instead, it settles between "pretty good" and "almost great." I'll take it.

Grade: B

Sunday, July 19, 2015

I rent, I watch, I review: IT FOLLOWS

This may not ring true to horror movie buffs, but there really hasn't been much to get excited about when it comes to horror films. There was "The Babadook" last year, which I still haven't seen, but other than that there really doesn't seem to be any serious buzz around the genre lately. As a result, I realized while watching "It Follows" that this is probably the first horror movie I've watched in a couple of years. And it's a movie that's subsequently reaffirmed my faith in how effective a great horror film can be.

The premise is simple enough: a young woman has sex with her boyfriend and some creepy, supernatural thing slowly follows her wherever she goes. If this supernatural monster thing catches her, she's dead. You can stop this "person" from following you, but you can prevent it from killing you by having sex with someone else. In lesser hands, this is a premise that could easily fall flat on its face. But director David Robert Mitchell really crafted something special here. It's taken seriously enough to garner palpable tension, but the characters have a lot of funny asides and quirks. This is going to be one of those movies where the more you watch, the more you find other things about the movie's world that you enjoy.

"It Follows" is so tense and clever that towards the end of the movie you keep looking in the background of the frame, wondering if there's someone slowly walking towards the screen. It's really hard to explain how effective this is if you haven't seen the movie, but the point is, it always keeps you on your toes. It keeps you engaged with the screen even if you want to look away.

The movie filled me with never-ending dread from the beginning. That's way more effective to me than just scares, though the movie didn't disappoint there either. It was visually compelling, and goddamnit, it was fun. My favorite types of horror films are the ones where I feel like I'm in good hands. That was definitely the case here.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 17, 2015

I rent, I watch, I review: SLOW WEST

"Slow West" is a fine enough debut from Scottish writer/director John Maclean. It centers on a teenage Scottish boy named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who, in the late 1800s, travels across the Western United States to search for a girl he loves. Michael Fassbender plays Silas Selleck, a bounty hunter who bumps into Jay and joins him on his quest. Little does Jay know, his girlfriend and her father are both wanted from police and there's a $2,000 bounty on their head. Jay might think he's made a partner, but it's for the wrong reasons.

Shooting in Scotland and New Zealand gives "Slow West" a unique look compared to the Westerns of yore. At an incredibly lean 84-minutes, the film does its best to tell a full story in such a short timespan. But, despite the help of some voice-over narration, you don't really get a chance to soak yourself in this story to really care about Jay or feel any tension between him and Silas. There's just something a little too slight about the entire affair. By the time we reach the climactic ending, there's an overall lack of emotion that prevents total engagement from occurring. The ending features a pretty action-packed shootout, but the end result never felt important.

That said, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender give fine performances. They keep the ball rolling and you can sense there's chemistry and a bond between their characters, just wish there was more time for that bond to grow. It's not that a great Western can't be made in under 90 minutes, but for this particular story---a version of which has been done in dozens of Westerns in the past---it would've been nice to see it unfold and play out in a longer time frame. Allow these characters to grow a little more.

You can't begrudge "Slow West" too much. It's a decent enough film that's definitely worth a rental. It's just a little too slight to make much of a lasting impact. 

Grade: C+

Thursday, July 16, 2015

COURT review

Can be found here:

It's a courtroom drama made in India. Pretty good too, gave it a B+.

Since writing that "Court" review, I've watched "Slow West" and "It Follows" so expect an "I rent, I watch, I review" post for those movies soon.

This is a big weekend for movies. "Trainwreck", "Ant-Man", "Irrational Man"... I expect to see all of them by the middle of next week. Also, "Tangerine" is on my radar as well, I'll probably get to that one the following weekend.

 So, in summation, expect six more movie reviews from me by next weekend!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

LOVE & MERCY review

Here are some things about "Love & Mercy" that are essential to know: if you were a fan of the Beach Boys, you will most likely enjoy this movie. If you really, deeply loved the Beach Boys and are aware of Brian Wilson's story, you will love it. I very much enjoy the Beach Boys and had, at least, read about Brian Wilson being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic on Wikipedia. When "Love & Mercy" was announced, it just seemed to make perfect sense. Brian Wilson's story simply deserves to be told. Luckily, director Bill Pohlad has done Wilson's life story justice and has even managed to avoid making this your typical Hollywood biopic.

What makes "Love & Mercy" a satisfying watch is that it doesn't treat Brian Wilson too preciously. Pohlad takes us through two time periods: the mid-60s, starting right before Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) wrote "Pet Sounds", and the mid/late-80s, when Wilson's (played by John Cusack) just starting to put his life back together. Here's a man who has gone his entire life never being in control. First, it was his father forcing his kids into becoming pop stars in the '60s. As Brian Wilson was the leader, he was ragged on the hardest.

The pressures of fame, stardom, writing new music, along with his father breathing down his neck ultimately leads to Brian Wilson having a psychotic breakdown. Fast forward a couple decades, Brian Wilson's on heavy medication and his life is still under heavy control. This time it's Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a psychotherapist who also acts as Brian's manager, producer, etc. etc. He controls every aspect of Brian's life and Brian accepts it because it's essentially all he knows.

It's not until Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) comes around in his life that Brian is finally able to break free from the controlling doctor. But it's scary to think what could have become of the Beach Boy if his eventual 2nd wife never entered the picture. "Love & Mercy" separates itself from other biopics by being so intensely interested in Brian's psyche.

And the different time periods allows us to see the story from two perspectives: in the '60s, we are intensely viewing Brian's life from his own point of view. In the '80s, it's Melinda's point of view. In the '80s, we share Melinda's shock when we discover that Wilson's life and situation really hasn't improved as much as he claims it has. In the '60s, we come to discover just what made Brian become the person Melinda eventually sees him as. It's an interesting approach, really.

Though intercutting between the time periods kinda shortchanges both stories, director Pohlad and his screenwriters mostly fix this problem by having the time periods directly complement each other. Plus, it's simply wonderful albeit consternating to see young Brian Wilson carefully craft Pet Sounds, "Good Vibrations", and Smile... the latter album was never properly completed until nearly 40 years later. But for those records, we are in the studio with Brian watching him interact with the musicians and later his bandmates. And it's not just a simple recreation of these real-life moments, for each session, we see how Wilson's worsening mental condition begins to affect the way he records his music. It's really fascinating stuff.

At least, that's how I feel. "Love & Mercy" is probably destined to have merely a niche audience, which is a shame. It seems like the Beach Boys never really get the mass respect or acknowledgement that the Beatles or Rolling Stones receive. They had their popularity in the '60s, but there doesn't seem to be a lingering respect for them, at least with the average person. The Beach Boys's best work is right up there with all of their contemporaries and Pet Sounds is one of the greatest pop albums ever made. If not, the best. "Love & Mercy" shows just how painstakingly crafted their very best records are, but it also shows how badly damaging it can be when your whole life revolves around striving for perfection. It also shows just how awful some parents can be, and watching Brian Wilson, I found some eerie similarities between his breakdown and Michael Jackson's.

One last thing to note is the wonderful grainy, "you are there" cinematography that really helps make '60s aspect of the film feel so naturalistic. Doesn't surprise me the film's DP is none other than Bob Yeoman, who has also lensed every single Wes Anderson film up to this point. Furthermore, and this is maybe why I feel the film is ultimately a little too uneven despite me enjoying it overall, Paul Dano gives the performance of his career portraying young Brian Wilson. Dano has always been a weird-looking fella, but the combination of his hair and costuming along with his acting really made it feel as if his character has come to life. I like Paul Dano, but even in his previous great performances, he's never the main standout. In "Love & Mercy," though, he most definitely is, which is kinda to the detriment of the '80s scenes. John Cusack does just fine, but Dano is superb.

Grade: B+


I am not an overly cynical dude. Let's just get that straight. There seems to be this rush, among general movie audiences, to come to the defense of a movie like "Terminator Genisys" or "Jurassic World." Movies that come from franchises that are very much beloved and have been around for several decades. The problem with "Genisys" or "J World" is not the fact that they're the 5th and 4th movie of their respective franchise. The problem is that the well ran dry on these franchises 2-3 films ago. There's a reason why James Cameron put the "Terminator" franchise behind him after he made "Judgment Day." Same for Steven Spielberg with "The Lost World." There's simply not much more to do with these franchises.

Even if there was more to do, with "Jurassic World," and especially "Terminator Genisys," at no point are we given a reason why either of these films should exist. Neither of them exist on their own merit. I tried to find the good in "Jurassic World" and in the end, I was ambivalent on it. So maybe it's not fair that "Genisys" has come out less than a month after "J World." Maybe that affects my view of the fifth Terminator film since both movies attempt to do the same thing: attempt to recreate what originally made "Terminator" or "Jurassic Park" so great. Only problem, like when you make a sequel to a successful comedy, it's just not as fun, exciting, or entertaining the second time around. And with "T5" and "JP4," it's the fourth and fifth time around. Enough's enough at this point.

With "Genisys," we get Arnie back as the T-800. Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor, and John Connor are back though played by different actors this time around. Even the T-1000 is back, at least in the first half. John Connor sends Kyle Reese back to 1984 to save Sarah Connor only for Reese to find out she's well aware of what's going to happen to her by the time Reese finds her. In fact, Sarah's already best buds with the T-800, who was sent back to 1973 to save Sarah Connor when she was just a kid. Skynet sent a T-1000 back to kill her, but in the end, he just wound up killing her parents leaving T-800 to essentially play the role of a surrogate father.

So when she meets up with Kyle Reese, the plan shifts to them going into the future to stop Skynet. from happening... something they already tried in "Terminator 2." And see, that's ultimately my problem with this movie. There's simply no reason for it to exist if it's just going to be a lifeless rehash of the same shit. And I mean this movie really is lifeless. Poor pacing, bad plotting, terrible acting from Jai Courtney, lack of chemistry between him and Emilia Clarke, Arnie completely phoning it in. He only really seems to enjoy repeating his famous lines from the first two films.

Alan Taylor directed the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with "Genisys," he's once again demonstrated his lack of cinematic touch. Both "Thor: The Dark World" and "Genisys" are simply too dull, lack a dramatic backbone, and the action feels perfunctory. I came away from "Genisys" completely hating what I just saw, but I've come to soften my stance just a little bit. Why? Because it's too easy to hate on this movie. I'd rather just pretend it never happened.

Grade: D

EDEN review

A version of the story in "Eden" has been told many times before, but it's a story that still rings true. When you put your whole life into pursuing your dreams, it can come at a cost. Basic things everyone needs like friends, family, love, money... they can be difficult to maintain when you're so focused on your one main obsession. And so what happens when you find yourself getting old? All of a sudden, life all around you has passed you by. That girl/boy you dated 10 years ago is now married with a child on the way. People grow up, grow old, die, have kids, move away---and you missed all of it. And when the life you once you thought you wanted is no longer feasible, you end up having to make some tough choices.

So, in a sense, the story that unfolds in "Eden" has a strong sense of familiarity, but the movie explores the world of French house/garage music with such intensity, attention-to-detail, and a near-journalistic sense of history that it hardly matters whether or not the dramatic arc isn't completely original. It's the minutiae of "Eden," its insistence of living in the moment, that really makes the film come alive. For Mia Hansen-Love, this is the fourth feature-length film she's directed and she handles the proceedings with remarkable sense of craft and confidence. "Eden" is a sprawling film that clocks in at just over 130 minutes and it essentially dissects France's EDM scene dating from back to 1992 and concluding the story in 2013, well after Daft Punk became a household name all over the world. But despite the sprawling nature, the beat never stops, there's always something about the film that hooks you in.

And all this is despite the fact that the film's lead, Paul (Felix de Givry) is not the most charismatic dude in the world. But we start with him as a teenager in 1992 when he forms a DJ duo called Cheers with one his school mates. Their music is greatly inspired by the garage house music scene in Chicago, and for the next couple of years, the duo find a substantial amount of success. Not enough success to take them to the next level, but it's enough to keep Paul from wanting to quit and do something else with his life.

Though he does occasionally have second thoughts. The first girl we see him with (Greta Gerwig) is living in Paris temporarily when they start their affair. When he meets up with her again in her Manhattan home, she's married and pregnant. His manages to have a steadier, more serious relationship with Louise (Pauline Etienne) who accompanies him on a regular basis at the clubs he performs. And she seems to genuinely care for him. Still, something keeps them from fully connecting and she, too, moves on and starts a family without him.

Meanwhile, all of his contemporaries - that aren't in the band Daft Punk. Daft Punk are mentioned almost from the beginning of the film. Paul's story and Daft Punk's rise to the mainstream run parallel. Thomas and Guy-Man, the members of Daft Punk, are never more than side characters in the film, but their success is still felt by Paul. He, along with his friends, always treat Daft Punk's rise as a positive, but when Paul gets to visit Manhattan in 2001 and he's DJ'ing in front of a massive crowd, it's telling that the song they go especially wild for is "One More Time." Daft Punk have become the standard that Paul and his contemporaries cannot live up to.

Love's film is awfully reminiscent of the Coen Brothers's "Inside Llewyn Davis," but this is more of a case of great minds thinking alike. Plus, Love is a lot less sardonic and caustic about her lead character's misfortunes. Paul is just a guy who uses his DJ'ing career as an excuse to never grow up and it's a career choice that comes with consequences. There's the women he left behind, a close friend who passed away, the endless debt he's amounted. At the end, Paul is in his late-30s, taking writing classes. Trying to revive a career path he gave up years ago in order to pursue music. He meets a girl in his class who asks about his life and he tells her about his career. And when he asks her if she knows anything about House or Garage music, her response? "Well, I know Daft Punk..." Knowing how long Paul tried to make it in the business and how little it paid off for him financially,  makes Daft Punk's rise all the more impressive. But after following Paul's life for 20 years, what's remarkable is how much Paul's failures sting you, the audience, more than it stings him. He may have trekked down the beaten path like Llewyn Davis, but something tells me he'll end up just fine. It's a credit to Mia Hansen-Love and her co-writer/brother Sven, that I wound up caring that much about his fate.

Grade: A-

Friday, July 3, 2015

I rent, I watch, I review: FOCUS

It's a real shame about "Focus." In a lot of ways, this is an interesting film. You have Will Smith in his first starring role since the 2013 disaster that is "After Earth." Margot Robbie in her first big role since "Wolf of Wall Street." They play romantic interests in "Focus," which is a little creepy given that Will Smith is 22 years older than Robbie. But, since the movie originally plays out like a mentor/apprentice-type deal, I guess it's ok? At any rate, what I've noticed about Margot Robbie is she seemingly can build chemistry with anyone. It's been awhile since I've seen Will Smith try his hand at romance and you get the sense that even he can't ignore how sexy Margot Robbie is. She's just that radiant.

And this is perhaps Will Smith's most interesting role since, um, "The Pursuit of Happyness"? Man, it's been awhile since done anything really worthwhile. It's been awhile since he's been in an R-rated movie for crying out loud. He plays a professional con man who finds himself showing Margot Robbie's character the ropes. They get romantically involved until Nicky (Will Smith) abruptly puts Jess (Robbie) in a car on the way to an airport with $80,000.

Three years later, Nicky and Jess have been separated and estranged. Until, Nicky bumps into her in Buenos Aires. He's pulling some tricks on an owner of a Argentinian soccer team and the owner happens to be romantically involed with Jess. Or so it seems. Or maybe Jess is playing him. Or playing Nicky. Or maybe Nicky is conning Jess. Or, ahhhhh.... who knows?

Unfortunately, "Focus" loses its sharpness once we're in Buenos Aires. The movie's in a groove for the first hour with Nicky teaching Jess the ropes and bringing her in with his con-men friends. Their partnership culminates in a pretty intense betting duel between Nicky and a rich Chinese man named Liyuan (BD Wong). It had been hinted at that Nicky had a bit of a gambling problem and the scene features Nicky and Liyuan betting on all kinds of shit while watching the Super Bowl. First, they're betting $1,000. Soon, it's $50,000. And shortly after, why not $1.1 million? And what first appears to be a serious gambling problem on Nicky's behalf ultimately turns into a con. The movie cons the viewer, in turn.

But that's where the fun ends. "Focus" comes to a grinding halt in Argentina as it features Nicky performing mostly solo and pining after Jess. Or, so we think. Or, whatever. "Focus" gets too wrapped up in the con that there's really nothing substantial to hold onto with this film. At a certain point, when none of your characters have a genuine, honest moment, there are no longer any stakes. We're no longer invested in Nicky's gambling problem because it turned out not to be a problem. We can't really invest in Nicky/Jess because they might just be conning each other. Ordinarily, watching them con each other would be fun, but writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa cease having fun with any of this.

As a result, "Focus" just winds up feeling dry and flavorless. It just completely loses steam by the end. The twists and turns stop mattering once the movie stops being enjoyable. In other words, "Focus" loses focus at the end, completely derailing anything that made the film seem promising initially. And yes, I feel like a jackass for typing that previous sentence. Oh well!

Grade: C