Archive for the ‘Now See This’ Category

Part 2 of My 100 Movies of Summer 2014

The faces of two men wearing colorful sunglasses, and holding guns up beside their faces. Above them the number '22' in red.

22 Jump Street (d. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

Laurel & Hardy.  Abbott & Costello.  Hope & Crosby.  Pryor & Wilder.  Hill & Tatum?

There’s a new comedic duo primed to join the greats.  And that duo is Magic Mike and the tubby kid from Superbad.

Whodathunkit?

I saw 21 Jump Street in the theater and rather liked it.  I thought it was funny and found it to be a good time.  I went on living my life.  Recently, I was visiting a friend who had never seen it.  He rented it VOD and I laughed my ass off.  I had forgotten just how funny it was.  I was primed and ready for the sequel.

If you’ve seen the first film, you understand just how genius the pairing of these two actors is.  Tatum, not known for being the best of actors, plays the ridiculously sculpted athlete who’s a bit of lunk.  Hill, who was previously known for his teen comedies, is the insecure, clumsy and book smart guy.  They put aside their differences to help each other get through the police academy and are partnered up.  Hilarity ensues.

The interplay between the two is perfect.  It’s not something that can be directed or coaxed out of an actor.  It’s the kind of chemistry that very few actors have together and it’s absolutely the best reason to see these movies.

You may have noticed that I haven’t really talked about the plot of the sequel.  Well honestly, that’s because it’s not really necessary.  The movie itself merely serves as a device to allow these two to do their thing (this time in a collegiate setting) with some great supporting turns from the likes of a dry Nick Offerman, an ever angry Ice Cube and others including character actress Jillian Bell who almost steals the movie in her few minutes of screen time.  The film is self-aware without being cute about it.  The filmmakers and actors knew they didn’t have to break new ground and yet manage to do so while serving up a story that is almost directly lifted from the first film.

But it doesn’t matter.  They even use that to great comedic effect.

The plot resolves, the greatest bromance in movie history survives another test and, as the end credits roll, the viewer is gifted with a tease of further potential sequels.  I’d probably watch every last one of them.

If you enjoyed 21 Jump Street, you will enjoy this one.  It’s that simple.  And if you didn’t enjoy 21 Jump Street, what the hell is wrong with you?

If you are interested in seeing what other films I watched this week you can always check out of my profile at Letterboxd.

Previous Entries in My 100 Movies of Summer 2014 series:

The best thing I saw LAST week!

 

 

 

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Part 1 of My 100 Movies of Summer 2014

Every summer, as May flips over to June, I make a silent vow to watch 100 movies by August 31.  I’ve been successful in this endeavor the last 2 years so I’m hoping to keep it going.

This year, instead of a dry list summarizing what films I’ve watched, I’ve decided that every week I will highlight an individual movie that stood out from the pack and deserves special recognition.

A man and a woman, wearing battle exosuits and looking battle-worn, stand against an urban background devastated by war.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, d. Doug Liman)

The film starts with a news montage detailing the landing of an asteroid on Earth, bringing with it an unstoppable alien race that is steadily taking over Europe.  The combined force of the world’s armies have little success in stopping the onslaught until one brave soldier in a battle suit, Rita Vrataski (played wonderfully by Emily Blunt), destroys hundreds of the aliens in a crucial battle.  Emboldened by this victory, the united armies plan a massive attack to wipe out the invading force on the beaches of France.

Enter Tom Cruise playing Cage, a former ad man drawn into military service, whose job it is to drum up support for the war and to encourage recruitment.  He is rather unceremoniously and unwillingly thrown into duty where he will be on the front line of the attack. The combat mission begins and the enemy forces are wholly prepared for Earth’s defenders.  Thousands of soldiers are dying.  Cage spies Vrataski fighting bravely on the field of battle only to be killed.  Moments later, he himself is attacked but he manages to set off an explosive device that kills the alien.  Consumed by the fire and covered in the alien’s blood, he dies.  And wakes up, right back where he started on the military base where the previous day began.  After a couple of iterations, he comes to the inevitable conclusion that he’s stuck in a nightmarish loop that will always lead to his painful demise.

He quickly realizes that he needs to learn how to fight.  Fortunately, there is a known fighter on base.  Someone who has proven them self in combat.  He approaches Vrataski and tells his tale.  She believes him.  Because the same thing has happened to her.

And this is where the movie starts getting really fun.

If the film sounds a bit like Duncan Jones’ Source Code, that’s because it is.  That’s not really a problem though.  This kind of time mechanic has been used dozens of times in movies. What matters is how the conceit is used.  And here, it’s used to perfection.  The movie plays like a video game where the main character has infinite lives to reach their goal.  The goal is initially survival but the more Cage learns from Vrataski about fighting, the more he learns about his condition.  The end game becomes infinitely more challenging.  It’s no longer just about getting off that beach alive.  It’s about saving the human race.

Cruise is frankly great in the role.  He could sleepwalk through a part like this but he doesn’t.  He starts as a coward and has to learn to become the character we’re used to seeing from him.  The movie never explicitly states how many times he repeats the same day.  But it is clear that it’s quite a few.  The burden begins to show in his eyes.  It’s enough to test a man’s soul, enough to break him.  And at times, it does.

Blunt though, in sheer defiance of the mega-star and his mega-watt smile, is the real standout.  She’s brassy and confident and entirely capable of saving the human race.  She can’t be bothered to be a love interest for Cage.  She’s too damn busy and too hardened from the experience of her own loop.  She does convey an empathy for the man but at times it’s clear she sees him as a tool, a means to an end.

The beauty of their relationship is that every single day she’s meeting him for the first time.  He’s had countless days to know her, to respect her, to admire her, and maybe to even love her.  And every day, he has to watch her die.  That’s almost Shakespearean.

The movie falters a bit in the third act as the consequences become a bit more final and the ending has a bit of a paradox that might drive a viewer a bit batty if they let it.  But this is pure popcorn entertainment done well and intelligently.  It’s by turns funny, thrilling and sad.  And ultimately completely satisfying.

Summer 2014 has a film to beat.

If you are interested in seeing what other films I watched this week, you can always check out my profile at Letterboxd.

 

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Cheap Thrills

Grade:  A

Some movies are funny.  Some scary.  Others are thrilling and filled with action.  Then there’s the type of film that holds a mirror up to its audience and dares those watching to see themselves in the characters and in their actions.  It asks the viewer “What would you do?”

How far would you go to provide for your family?  What would you do to better your life?  Would you debase yourself?  Would you hurt someone?  Would you kill?  What would you do?  These are the questions asked by the new horror/thriller starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, and Sara Paxton.  And the answers are quite frankly shocking.

Healy is Craig, a husband and father with an eviction notice on his door.  He’s killing time in a bar to avoid going home to tell his wife he just got fired.  There, he runs into Ethan Embry’s Vince.  They’re old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while.  Vince is working as an enforcer, an arm-breaker collecting debts.  He’s good at it.  But he’s not exactly happy with his station in life.

While they are drinking away their woes as men are wont to do, they meet an odd couple, husband and wife, played by Koechner and Paxton.  Colin and Violet are crazy rich.  It’s her birthday and he wants to show her a good time.  To that end he has provided cocaine and an open tab to Vince and Craig, companions purchased for what is sure to be a fun and eventful evening.  Some spur of the moment bar bets cause cash to be exchanged as Vince downs a shot faster than his friend  and slaps a waitress’ butt.  Craig wants in on the cash so when Colin suggests, with the promise of bigger prizes on the line, that they move the party to their mansion in the hills, he’s more than willing and able.

And that…is when the shit hits the fan.  The stakes rise.  The cash prizes become life changing.  Blood is spilled.

The plot is nothing that is especially original.  There are elements here that feel like they could have been lifted out of the cautionary tales that were often told in The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  But it is very well executed.  The script is darkly comic and sharp as a razor.  Most importantly, this is an actor’s showcase.  The four main characters occupy about 98% of the film’s running time so they’re going to have to carry the film.  They are more than up to the task.

Koechner is simultaneously smarmy and ingratiating.  His Colin is disturbingly pragmatic about the whole sordid affair.  He’s got cash to burn and willing fools at the ready who are prepared to do anything for it.  Embry brings a frightening physicality to his performance.  The man is far removed from his teen comedy days.  There’s no evidence of Rusty Griswold here.  Healey is perfect as the hard luck working class schlub.  His dreams of being a writer have long since faded.  He’s living the American Dream and it’s a fucking nightmare.

But the shining star here, in a night sky filled with them, is Sara Paxton in the quietest role of the film.  Violet is passive and bored during most of the proceedings barely taking the time to look up from her cell phone as the willing dupes jump through hoops to earn their pay.  But as the dares become darker, she grows more curious, her eyes betraying a perverse, almost sexual, interest in what’s happening.  Every twisted thing that being done is for her benefit, her pleasure.  And she loves it.

The climax feels inevitable.  To the victor goes the spoils.  And as he stands, surrounded by his winnings, his body a twisted wreck, the film ends leaving the audience with a final image that is impossible to shake.

Cheap Thrills received a VERY limited theatrical release playing only in Austin & Los Angeles.  It’s expanding into about 20 cities in the next week so it might just be popping up somewhere near you.  If you get the chance, catch it in a theater.  But it’s pretty much available on every Video On Demand format there is.  If it’s not available from your local cable provider, try iTunes or Amazon Instant.

See it now.  See it in a week.  See it when Drafthouse Films releases the Blu-ray or DVD in a few weeks.

Just see it.

File:Gravity Poster.jpg

Gravity (d. Alfonso Cuaron, w. Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron)

Grade:  A+

You’ve seen the commercials.  You couldn’t avoid them.  They were everywhere leading up to the release of the film.  You know the stars, they’re only two of the biggest names in Hollywood.  Maybe you’re familiar with the director.  Alfonso Cuaron is the man who directed the most enjoyable of the Harry Potter films, The Prisoner of Azkaban.  He also directed one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years, Children of Men.

But with his latest, and almost certainly his greatest, Cuaron has cemented his reputation as one of the best filmmakers of his era.

Two astronauts, veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are on a routine spacewalk to install new hardware on the Hubble telescope.  A missile strike by the Russians on one of their own satellites starts a chain reaction with devastating effect.  They soon find themselves in an impossible situation with no clear course for escape.  Their only certainty is that another wave of destruction will be speeding its way through orbit at catastrophic speed.

In a brief 90 minutes (a refreshing change from the overwrought, overdone blockbusters of the summer,) Cuaron delivers what is basically a two person stage production set in space.  It features some of, if not THE, most impressive visual effects I’ve ever seen.  The films opens with what appears to be a seamless 15-20 minute shot of the shuttle crew as they complete their mission, blissfully unaware of what is to come.  They exchange in small talk and banter with mission control (voiced by Ed Harris in what is perhaps a nod to the similar role he played in Apollo 13.)  It is here where we first see the steely, professional swagger of Clooney’s Kowalski on his last mission before retirement.  Bullock’s Stone is nervous and overwhelmed when faced with the infinite void of all of creation.  The two really carry the film and provide the emotional depth beyond the visual splendor.  Beyond the visuals and the acting, the subject matter  resonates with the viewer because we know something like this could happen.  I’m old to remember the Challenger disaster.  And I certainly remember the Colombia disaster of 2003.  I recall seeing the footage of the shuttle breaking up as it entered our atmosphere.  That imagery is reflected in shots in this film and it is sobering.

This is a movie worth seeing as big and loud as you possibly can.  Of course there is no sound in space (a fact the film reasserts in a brief written intro) but here there is a propulsive score by Steven Price that heightens the ever-increasing jeopardy of the astronauts.  Hell, I’ve already bought the soundtrack.  It’s wonderful.  On the presentation side of things, It’s rare for me to recommend 3D or Imax but this is a film one should see in its intended format.  The larger screen conveys the vastness of space and shows just how small we are in the grand scope of things.

Big, bold and beautiful, Cuaron reaffirms the power of cinema.  He reminds us that movies can still be magical.  The least anyone can do is take an hour and a half to appreciate what he’s done.  I highly recommend you do.

File:Mud poster.jpg

Mud (written & directed by Jeff Nichols)

Grade:  A

Matthew McConaughey is on quite a roll.  He’s been delivering one killer performance after another with The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe.  And in this, his latest starring vehicle, as directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), he once more shines as an earthy man fueled  by hidden demons and an obsessive love.

As the titular character, McConaughey has set camp on an island off the Arkansas coast in a boat stuck in a tree during a flood.  Two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, stumble upon the boat and lay claim to it only to discover its current occupant.  Mud is hiding out on the island waiting for word from his girlfriend, Juniper, a mercurial woman played by Reese Witherspoon.  The trio strike a bargain and an odd friendship is formed.

Ellis is intrigued and inspired by Mud and Juniper’s story.  While trying to reconnect the lovers, he falls in love himself with an older girl from his school.  Neck looks up to Ellis but is much more cautious in his dealings with the strange man on the island who surrounds himself with lucky totems.  He just wants Mud to honor his end of the bargain to give Neck his pistol once they get the boat running.  But as it all to often happens in life, no one is really going to get what they want.  Mud and his mission may drive the plot but the film is just as much about his young friends, especially Ellis.  His views on love and relationships are consistently challenged by the dichotomy of Mud’s idealized love for Juniper and his own parent’s deteriorating marriage.

Nichols envisioned his movie as a coming-of-age tale, a modern take on Tom Sawyer.  It’s a bit daring to strive for the lofty greatness of Twain’s classic but the filmmaker comes damn close with genuinely great storytelling and with the help of a stellar cast.

Highest recommendation.

Because some things demand your immediate attention

Warm Bodies (w & d Jonathan Levine)

Grade:  A-

Zombie movies are a dime a dozen.  It’s a rare treat to find one that offers something original to the genre.  And while ‘zombie romances’ are not necessarily a new thing, Levine (who previously directed the cancer comedy, 50/50, and the criminally under seen and domestically unavailable, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) adeptly brings a fresh eye to this tale of the walking dead.

Star Nicholas Hoult is on the cusp of superstardom.  He’s set to appear once more as Hank ‘The Beast’ McCoy in next year’s sequel to X-Men:  First Class.  He’s going to be in the Mad Max reboot.  He’s come a long way from his breakout role as a 13-year old kid in the wonderful About A Boy.  His leading lady here is Teresa Palmer, a very lovely Australian actress who has been mainly playing supporting characters in a variety of projects.  I think this film qualifies as her real first leading role and I hope to see here in such a capacity again.

Hoult plays zombie ‘R’ and his narration drives the plot, giving us insight to the inner thoughts of a dead man who can only communicate through grunts and the occasional random word.  He lives in the airport with others of his kind, never sleeping.  Palmer plays Julie, a human survivor of the zombie plague.  She lives behind a giant wall in the city with others led by her father, played by a grumpy John Malkovich.  The two ‘meet cute’ when her group of the living, searching for supplies beyond the wall, runs into his group of the dead who is searching for some fresh food outside their normal friendly confines. 

In the fray, he kills her boyfriend but upon seeing her is immediately attracted.  He saves her from the carnage and spirits her away to safety in his own private airplane.  Julie is horrified at the situation but is somewhat relieved after ‘R’ clumsily articulates his intentions to protect her from his fellow zombies.  Her relief slowly evolves into fascination towards the ‘man’ who saved her life.  The two grow closer as he tries to help her get home and both of them experience fundamental changes that will affect not just them but all of the living and the dead.

If it all sound a little Twilighty, that’s because it is.  But if that’s what you want, you should probably steer clear.  This film is more clever, witty, and at times genuinely scary than any single one of those fang-banger flicks could ever hope to be.  I would be very surprised if this treat of a movie, perfect for the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday, doesn’t end up in my year-end top 10.

Highly recommended!

Because some things demand your immediate attention

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Compliance (w & d by Craig Zobel)

**** of 5 stars

A crew of fast-food restaurant employees show up for their shift. They spend their first moments at work catching up with each other & gossiping about their co-workers and significant others. Things get busy as the lunch crowd shows up. The manager steps into her office to take a phone call. It’s the police. They are with a woman who claims a cashier on duty stole money from her purse and there is surveillance footage to corroborate her story. The officer asks the supervisor to detain the employee until he can arrive on the scene. The confused young girl is taken to the office and is told of the charges against her. She professes innocence. And that’s when things get really interesting.

Writer/Director Craig Zobel creates in these first few scenes a sense of everyday mundanity that cleverly hides the dark and disturbing places the film, based on a true story, will ultimately go. He works with a stellar cast led by Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker (far removed from her role in ABC’s occasionally amusing Don’t Trust the B*tch in Apt 23) who play respectively the manager, Sarah, and the accused, Becky.

Sarah is harried. Officer Daniels has kept her on the phone while he performs a search of the cashier’s home. Pulled between the drama unfolding with Becky and her need to be on the restaurant floor, she is having difficulty finding anyone who is willing to acquiesce to Daniels’ (voiced and portrayed with icy cold condescension and confidence by Pat Healy) increasingly odd requests in interrogating the young woman and locating the missing money.

Sarah calls her fiancé Van (Bill Camp) to watch over the girl and to follow the lawman’s orders over the phone until he can get there. Van takes to this duty with great ease and it is in his actions in response to Daniels’ requests that the movie takes a nightmarish turn.

I knew that the film was based on a true story and was even slightly familiar with the incident that inspired it. However, as I watched, I kept telling myself that surely these events had been exaggerated for dramatic effect. I was shocked when I read the Wikipedia entry and discovered that Zobel had taken no such liberties.

The movie is disturbing and true. There’s nothing exploitative about it. Any violence is only suggested and nudity is used sparingly for effect. The director shows the viewer what happened in all it’s unvarnished ugliness. And like a knuckle punch to the arm that leaves a deep bruise, that ugly truth will linger with you long after you’ve seen it.

Compliance is playing in limited engagements around the country. Hopefully, it will open wider near you. If it does, I highly recommend you check it out.

[Editor’s Note: Please wait to read the Wiki entry until you’ve seen the movie. After that, check out the entry on something called The Milgram Experiment. It goes a long way to perhaps explaining how so may people could make the many poor decisions that allowed this situation to get so out of hand]