Thursday, July 23, 2015


**** out of ****

My willful ignorance of popular music can lead to shame at times. When Amy Winehouse would appear on the covers of magazines with that sexy figure covered in tattoos with a loud dress, heavy makeup and big hair, my instinct was to ignore her. When she made the tabloid covers at the grocery store for her substance abuse issues, I definitely continued ignoring. Like so many others, my response to her death was cynical as well.

I never really understood that among all the circus attractions who make it to the top of the billboard charts, Winehouse was a uniquely gifted singer/songwriter. Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Amy, explores the short life of this artist, whose self-destructive behavior was exploited by tabloid journalism, tainting the memory of someone who really had a lot to give.

Kapadia’s stylistic choices are noteworthy. This is great documentary filmmaking, which thrives on restrictions. The entire movie is made up of photos and footage from home videos, camera-phones, professional concert filming, and television appearances – all broken up by weightless drone cinematography of the locations for which the story of Winehouse’s life focuses. What it doesn’t show, are its interview subjects. All the testimonials from family, friends, and colleagues, are audio-only - overlapping the constant flow of imagery showing Amy as they provide unreserved commentary of their relationship to her troubled existence.

The constant in the film is the face of Winehouse as it fluctuates between inspired joy and lifeless despair. I didn’t walk away from this documentary, convinced that Winehouse was a great person. Like so many talented artists she was a tortured soul letting down those who cared for her, but this was matched by the amount of people responsible for her well-being and failed (some more miserably than others), enabling her eventual demise. This is a devastating film, but once you start watching, it’s impossible to ignore.


*** out of ****

It’s funny that Judd Apatow's Trainwreck opened last weekend against a superhero movie starring Paul Rudd, an actor whose fame was escalated by Apatow. Rudd has made the bold leap into potential superstardom by joining the ranks of actors on the Marvel payroll. It helps that Ant-Man is a pretty fun movie too.

How is this Ant-Man guy different from the others? Well, he’s a burglar with Robin Hood-like intentions, whose skills caught the interest of an aging industrial scientist (Michael Douglas) with a secret identity he wished to pass on. That identity is that of a man who wears a suit that can instantly make one the size of an insect, provide super-strength and the ability to control ants –when in need of assistance. These abilities come together, making the ultimate infiltrator.

Like all ideas, no matter how silly, it’s really a question of execution. This movie’s special effects action is constantly engaging and whimsically imaginative. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, this movie is another Marvel entry that leans more toward comedy. Knowing that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was behind its development until he left due to creative differences with Marvel frustrates me. However, the underrated director, Peyton Reed (Down with Love) makes a good replacement –even if he lacks the over-the-top ambitions of Wright.

The movie suffers a little. It’s an example of what I don’t like about the PG-13 rating, but I’ll get into that another time. The film’s main troubles stem from a weak story and character drama that comes off as cheap. However, Rudd, Douglas and the supporting players such as Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Peña all manage to make something out of their characters. The movie ultimately works because of its very fun spectacle, which outdoes most of the previous Marvel films.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Inside Out

**** out of ****

A movie that is sure to delight most parents, if not their children, is the wonderful, Inside Out, Pixar’s grand return after the two-year hiatus that followed some of their less impressive films.

The story follows the life of a little girl’s mind as her emotions, who manage her brain like an office atop a large factory, scramble to cope with the malfunctions resulting in the jarring experience of the kid adjusting to a new life after moving across the country with her parents.

As I watched the movie, Joy was dominant, accompanied by the Sadness of the childhood memories the film evoked, while a little bit of Fear that the baby for whom I felt Disgust that an idiot brought into theater, would make me feel Anger when it caused a disruption. It did, but overall the film’s Joy persevered.

As is often the case with Pixar, the casting is very inspired. Amy Poehler is Joy, Phyllis Smith is Sadness, Bill Hader is Fear, Mindy Kaling is Disgust, and Lewis Black is Anger (Yes!!). The film focuses on the idea that Joy is a control freak and self-appointed leader who sees Sadness' role in their department as counter-productive. Ever since the little girl's move, Sadness has been compelled to meddle with operations. 

Eventually, Joy and Sadness get lost in the girl's mind, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust in charge, causing the eleven-year old to start making some bad decisions. With the help of a forgotten imaginary friend from the girl's infancy, played by Richard Kind, Joy and Sadness make their way back to the control room -or "Head-Quarters" as it's called. 

The movie quite intelligently creates an imaginative analogy for the workings of the mind, taking into consideration psychological findings regarding human emotions and their functions.

I feel that Pixar's visuals peaked with 2008's Wall-E, but they still show an amazing amount of insight when it comes to making a story work, while limiting themselves to a simpler kind of animation. The movie is funny, beautiful, and it's an emotional movie about emotions. I love it.  

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

***1/2 out of ****

Up-and-coming director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s new film, Meand Earl and the Dying Girl made a great impression at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature. It has also been playing in theaters for a while now. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time.

To describe its plot might be a turnoff for some or have misleading allure for others. It’s about a high school senior (Thomas Mann) whose goal it is to survive his senior year by keeping a good reputation with all varieties of the teenagers who surround him while avoiding any emotional attachments. One day, he is pressured by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend a girl (Olivia Cooke) from his school who has just been diagnosed with Leukemia. With great resistance, the two eventually click.

That’s what the movie is about. However, Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, based on his novel of the same, takes us on a fist-person narrative passage that embraces the main character’s emotional detachment, subverting our expectations for the typical bittersweet drama we might expect. It’s a caring story, but an emotionally honest one about friendship, even if the film’s characters and environment seem exaggerated for quirky effects. “Quirky” can be a red-flag for myself and other film-snobs, but I think it works here.

It may be a shameless ploy with critics that the main character and his so-called “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) are amateur filmmakers, parodying pieces of classic international cinema that would normally be found in the Criterion Collection. It’s not a realistic depiction of a high school movie fan’s ambitions, but the imposition by the writer and director is clearly about their love of movies. I can’t fault them there.

The mentors and parental figures in the supporting cast also include Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, and Molly Shannon as eccentric people in the lives of these unusual kids.

The Pittsburg setting provides a different environment than your average movie with its old buildings, bridges and urban decay surrounded by heavy foliage. Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (the original Oldboy) also lends his lighting and compositional skills to the characters and offbeat locations, while Nico Muhly and Brian Eno contribute music. This movie is a tad preoccupied with style in its set decoration and stop-motion segues, but it’s unique, it had my attention, and it got me emotional.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

1/2* out of ****

Most folks I know think that this movie looks bad simply based on its trailers. I'm here to tell you that it's worse. I'm not a big Terminator fan, but I am certain that this fifth entry in the series will be the most insulting of the needless sequels to follow the first two quality productions by James Cameron.

I've never been able to get behind these movies due to their bad time travel logic, but Terminator: Genisys takes the concept of time alteration to a new nonsensical level where someone or something at every story turn is one step ahead because of another time alteration, essentially taking away any sense of tension. Without any rules, people can be saved or destroyed at the liberty of the incompetent writers with convoluted explanations intended to justify an impending action scene.

The plot mainly revolves around the concept that the events of the original 1984 film have been altered, which puts the movie's most engaging parts at the beginning. We finally get to see the futuristic events leading up to what led John Conner (this time Jason Clarke) to send Kyle Reese (this time Jai Courtney) back in time, thus revealing what a time machine that allows a naked man to arrive in a glowing electrical sphere actually looks like on the other side. You might be able to see the same thing more explicitly in Magic Mike XXL, but that's your choice.

Then Sarah Connor shows up, now played by Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, in perhaps the least intense version of the role ever played. In this timeline, a reprogrammed Terminator (always Schwarzenegger) rescued her when she was a little girl and has raised her since, to be prepared for the cyborgs and the arrival of Kyle Reese.

I'd write more about Jason Clarke as John Connor and the major plot twist spoiled in the trailer, but I won't give it away here, even though I can't stress enough that you should not even bother seeing the movie. There's no point in continuing to pay attention once this plot element comes into play.

It's a terrible story, and that's not the worst of it. Along with the last two sequels, it tramples on a revered sci-fi classic, getting the tone all wrong, except this time we've entered the age of CGI dominance, where unrestrained levels of computer generated imagery rob us of the sense that anything we're seeing is real. It's not even that the effects are objectively low-quality. Once again citing the brilliant article, so many movies today utilize and display CGI in a way that diminishes its impact and usefulness. 

This movie's effects artists have infinitely better tools at their disposal compared to what it took to make 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day groundbreaking, but when CGI is used to substitute for vehicles, stunts, environments, and cinematography, what sort of wonder are we supposed to feel when we see a man who can break down his molecular structure? All that does is give us the impression that the movie's artificial environment is having some sort of glitch (There's a Matrix joke in there somewhere).

If there is an amazing special effect in this film, it's in seeing a digital recreation of young Schwarzenegger (We got a cool glimpse of him in Terminator: Salvation) take part in remade shots from the original film to fit in with the modern cinematography. However, once he starts fighting in what is supposed to be a major set piece, nothing about him seems real anymore. 

The film's dialogue by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier is rather insufferable, as is the idiotic comic relief that tries to lighten the tone of a franchise that has always been steeped in militaristic survivalism. Sorry, but when I see people in black leather with big guns, you might be able to convince me that they're heroes, but you'll never convince me that they're emotionally relatable. I'm not even going to get into how much I despise big studios irresponsible tendency to make PG-13 movies filled with HEAVY gunplay and no bloody consequences.  

The film is directed by Alan Taylor, whose TV career is quite respectable, but so far this film and Thor: The Dark World, show an ineptitude in giving big budget spectacle a sense of weight.

Following Jurassic World, this is the second movie of the summer to seem satisfied in working with some meta subtext to affirm itself. Jurassic World had Bryce Dallas Howard talking about how dinosaurs aren't enough to impress people anymore, motivating the new park to create a hybrid monstrosity - which was the filmmakers' way of saying that the promise of lifelike dinosaurs in a movie isn't a big deal anymore, but come see this movie because we promise it to be an unrestrained beast of mayhem.

So what does Terminator: Genisys do? It has the aged Schwarzenegger Terminator, known us "Pops," constantly remind the characters, that as his mechanical abilities begin to ail, he is "..old but not obsolete." Good one Arnie. So this movie simply exists for you to take us on a PG-13, CGI-filled nostalgia ride?

Look, it's cute when a movie is self-aware, but that's not nearly enough to make it a good movie. For all we know, it's an artificial being gearing up to lead an all-out purge of movie projects intended to produce REAL feelings.