May 5, 2016

saw: civil war

Is a Marvel-DC rivalry contrived, boring and zero-sum? Yes. Are comparisons difficult to avoid when Civil War nails so many things that Dawn of Justice lavishly fucked up? Also yes. The Russo brothers ably demonstrate that they can juggle the Bourne Supremacy-esque sleekness they brought to Winter Soldier with the more primary-colored tones that Joss Whedon brought to the first Avengers (and kind of got overwhelmed by in last summer's Age of Ultron). For a movie this packed with set pieces and major character introductions (Black Panther and Spider-Man put in promising appearances) to be this nimble is a noteworthy accomplishment. The franchise is in good hands. Grade: B+

April 25, 2016

saw: the jungle book

The late-sixties animated Jungle Book was the last feature Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death. It's somewhat fitting that, almost half a century later, a state-of-the-art reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's source material is emblematic of the high-tech dream factory Disney always envisioned. Director Jon Favreau demonstrates the same facility for grounded world-building here that he brought to the first Iron Man. The result is a sturdy entertainment for children that strikes just enough adult chords (with particular emphasis by composer John Debney’s equally sturdy score) to exceed its Saturday-matinée underpinnings. The movie also owes what is arguably an unspoken debt to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which laid the technical and aesthetic groundwork for this sort of exercise some years back. Ironically, the production’s weakest link may be its sole live-action star, a little boy whose casting was, I’m sure, the result of one of those massive open calls that Hollywood has been self-mythologizing since the days of David O. Selznick—and whose onscreen presence, while by no means a disaster, comes across as flat and coached in a way that his computer-generated costars do not. Grade: B

April 9, 2016

saw: the boss

For people who think Adam Sandler movies are too Nouvelle Vague, here comes Ben Falcone with another custom-built monster truck for his wife that poses more pointed questions about the offscreen dynamics of their marriage than it does well-constructed jokes. There's also what appears to be some sort of dictum that none of the other actors even remotely upstage McCarthy, to the extent that they chronically underreact to everything she does in a way that almost suggests she was digitally inserted during postproduction. Grade: C-

March 25, 2016

saw: dawn of justice

Perhaps more than other superheroes, Batman tends to serve as a cinematic Rorschach test for filmmakers, bringing out either their best inclinations—Burton, Nolan; or the worst—Schumacher … and, unfortunately, Snyder. For a deadening 150 minutes, introductions are rushed, backstories are belabored, world-building is executed with the same combination of excess and carelessness one traditionally encounters in the instant desert metropolises of the oil-rich emirates, and Snyder once again demonstrates a disturbing fetish for serving up 9/11-style mayhem as popcorn fare. I've never understood the zero-sum mentality of the Marvel versus DC rivalry but at least as far as the rudiments of production and storytelling are concerned, the MCU is a masterclass in logistics and narrative while the DCU (or whatever they're calling it) feels like Trump University. Grade: C-

March 20, 2016

saw: midnight special

Metaphor-heavy arthouse sci-fi tends to shine more often than it necessarily dazzles (cf. Under the Skin). Grade: B

saw: london has fallen

Trash that knows it's trash, albeit in a depressing, mean-spirited Uwe Boll way rather than a fun, nasty Paul Verhoeven way. Grade: D-

saw: 10 cloverfield lane

As watchable as these Bad Robot genre exercises are, they always feel like they're hacked together from off-the-shelf parts of more memorable films. There are certainly worse things to be than an impeccably referenced mash-up or homage; I mean, that's kind of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about too; I just find myself appreciating more than loving whatever this emerging Cloverfield anthology series is supposed to be. Grade: B

March 16, 2016

saw: knight of cups

The eternal tension between the cosmic and the intimate is Malick's poetry, and depending on your inclinations, you either hear it as a song or as a man mumbling to himself under his breath. I happen to hear music in his voice. Grade: B+

March 11, 2016

read: cleopatra

I picked this book up (well, downloaded it to my Kindle) in 2012, quickly read the Cleopatra-Julius Caesar chapters, then didn't look at it again till just this past week, whereupon I finished the remaining Cleopatra-Mark Antony chapters. Historical figures, especially ancient ones veiled in myth, make for tricky subjects. Even the most skillful biographers are forced to survey them as if through a telescope—like storms on distant planets, rendered cool and static across a vacuum of eons.

March 7, 2016

saw: zootopia

A procedural, video-gamey midsection is buoyed by a gleaming, inventive first act and a surprisingly trenchant climax that has some decidedly grownup things to say about racial politics and national security. Grade: B

saw: whiskey tango foxtrot

Plunking Tina Fey's typical Liz Lemon persona into a war zone isn't a bad premise but the awkward tension between the movie's sober geopolitical observations and its broad romantic comedy beats (with Margot Robbie getting particularly short shrift playing a Kate Hudson-esque foil) fails to generate anything beyond an Eat Pray Love retread with land mines. Grade: B-

February 29, 2016

saw: gods of egypt

Alex Proyas' Anglo-Saxon ancient Egypt is so enthusiastically disinterested in verisimilitude on any level that singling out the lack of melanin among its leads seems to overlook the Monty Python-esque tone of the proceedings. (Gerard Butler's wildly misplaced Scottish snarl rivals Arnold Schwarzenegger's depiction of an Ottoman Turk—or whatever—in Around the World in Eighty Days.) I only wish the movie were as ingenious as it is ridiculous. Proyas has obvious affection for the metaphysical material but seems unwilling or unable to take the audience on a proper head-trip. Grade: B-

February 26, 2016

read: 2061

Typical Clarke: Fitfully brilliant, visionary at the edges, but burdened with a sort of avuncular avoirdupois along its midsection.

February 22, 2016

saw: pride, prejudice, zombies

There's no organic reason why Jane Austen's drawing rooms should be overrun with the undead, other than the fetishistic devotion her public domain works and zombie movies both seem to inspire. A premise this algorithmic really ought to have been relegated to a fake trailer in Tropic Thunder or a fake high school musical in some belabored Sundance comedy like Hamlet 2 … or a tweet. A game cast and director do what they can with the premise until the money visibly runs out during the third act. Grade: C+

February 20, 2016

saw: the witch

Painterly arthouse horror is having a good year. Grade: B

February 15, 2016

saw: deadpool

The perfunctory fourth-wall-breaking conceit is amusing for approximately the duration of the opening titles, and then Deadpool is just a dreary low-budget superhero spoof featuring a walking parody of a leading man performing his relentless impression of Jim Carrey circa The Mask. Kick-Ass and even Ant-Man have covered this ground more ably and with less ugliness. Grade: C

saw: hail, caesar!

The first act of The Hudsucker Proxy is probably the finest bit of Old-Hollywood alchemy the Coens have ever pulled off. Hail, Caesar! certainly seems to aspire to that level of period simulacrum, albeit with Burn After Reading's playful lack of storytelling ambition. The result is an engaging trifle that is less than the sum of its polished parts. Grade: B

January 8, 2016

saw: the hateful eight

If Tarantino wants to stage what is essentially a play in glorious CinemaScope, the results will seldom be less than gripping. Grade: B+

December 28, 2015

saw: the big short

Showbizzy and self-satisfied in a way that occupies a Lagrange point somewhere between a Michael Moore documentary and Thank You For Smoking. I still don't fully understand what the subprime mortgage crisis was about, besides accents and wigs. Grade: B

December 26, 2015

saw: the revenant

Impressive and punishing. So much talent, technicality, ambition; so little joy. Grade: B

December 18, 2015

saw: the force awakens

Remember when Alfonso Cuarón breathed atmosphere, life and credibility into The Prisoner of Azkaban and essentially reset the thitherto stilted Harry Potter franchise? That sort of in situ course correction is what J.J. Abrams has accomplished here, with tremendously appealing results. Grade: A-

December 6, 2015

saw: krampus

A reasonably on-pitch homage to the seasonal mischief Chris Columbus used to write in the mid-eighties, with explicit nods to Young Sherlock Holmes and, especially, Gremlins. Grade: B

November 28, 2015

saw: the good dinosaur

A Bug's Life, with its Aesop overtones, is commonly regarded as Pixar's most overtly kids-in-mind production, but it's practically an Aristophanes satire compared to The Good Dinosaur. (We never speak of Cars 2, a film whose only audience is John Lasseter's inner child.) The latter is so kid-minded, in fact, that it could arguably have been rendered without dialog. The widely remarked upon disconnect between its cartoonishly affable character designs and its solemn, photoreal Terence Malick tone-poem backdrops is initially jarring but ultimately unobjectionable. Perhaps the episodic slightness of the story, particularly following the tick-tock psychological genius of Inside Out, is a function of the movie's checkered production, but it seldom gets in the way of its enormous beating heart. Grade: B+

November 15, 2015

saw: by the sea

Angelina Jolie burst onto the scene however many years ago with a kind of dangerous animal ferocity. Her onscreen pairing with Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the rare reflection of an offscreen coupling that actually generated palpable chemistry. Here Pitt is as game as ever but Jolie has hardened into a brittle and mannered performer, posing rigidly through scenes staged with all the vitality and crushing narcissism of a high-end fashion spread. Grade: C+

November 11, 2015

saw: spotlight

A somewhat top-heavy cast winds up drawing attention to itself more frequently than it manages to disappear into the nondescript roles that populate an otherwise understated and cleanly written script. Grade: B

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