Sunday, September 28, 2014

Film Reviews: September 21 and 28

Here is a summary of film reviews from the past two weeks:

The Maze Runner is not a great movie but it is better than the average adaptation of a young adult dystopian novel. The movie does not inspire excitement over its potential sequels the way the original Hunger Games did and any follow up is going to have to be much better than this. 

Like most of Terry Gilliam’s work, The Zero Theorem is going to appeal to a very specific group of viewers. General audiences are probably going to be baffled by it but those who get Gilliam’s work are in for a treat. It’s a flawed picture but it’s also an ambitious and smart sendup of contemporary life.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an interesting piece of neo-noir filmmaking. The picture is equally part hardboiled detective story and part torture film but it succeeds less at the former and more at the latter. It’s a flawed movie but despite the violence there is humanity and intelligence at its center.

This is Where I Leave You features an excellent cast chewing the scenery amid a script that doesn’t quite utilize their talents. Viewers who are fans of any or all of these actors will want to check out the picture but its storytelling suffers from too many basic mistakes.

Dom Hemingway is an audacious movie anchored by a terrific performance by Jude Law. The film is a credible tale of redemption that takes down a stupid formulation of masculinity while also having a laugh.

Life Itself is a fitting tribute to one of the great champions of movie criticism but the filmmakers craftily sneak up on the audience and give us much more than that. This movie offers a portrait of a man and of the process of dying with an unvarnished honesty that is rare in contemporary movies. 

No Good Deed wastes a pair of talented actors on a lazy script executed with sloppy filmmaking. This is a movie that alternately offers clich├ęs and contrivances and very little of it is exciting, believable, or competently made.

The Drop is a very well made crime thriller. The filmmakers combine violence and grit with an underlying sense of honor and good heartedness that mostly fits together and the picture features notable performances by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini.

Locke is a terrific film, albeit an unusual one. This movie is extremely well made and features a terrific performance by Tom Hardy. It also ought to be an inspiring film for up and coming filmmakers, at it shows how much can be done with so little.

You can find the full text of each review in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Great Movies of 1994

Every year the major Hollywood studios produce about 500 movies. The vast majority of those pictures are released, reviewed, and forgotten. A few films standout, either for their greatness or their awfulness, and by the year’s end there are typically one or two titles that will stand the test of time.

Once in a great while there is a year that sees the release of a plethora of great and important movies that define their time and become classics. Think of 1968, which saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Planet of the Apes, Bullit, Oliver!, The Swimmer, Once Upon a Time in the West, Yellow Submarine, Night of the Living Dead, and Romeo and Juliet. The year 1982 included the release of several classic sci-fi and fantasy films including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, TRON, The Thing, and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. More recently, the year 2007 featured titles such as 300, Alpha Dog, Knocked Up, Juno, The Bourne Ultimatum, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, Into the Wild, and There Will Be Blood. These extraordinary cinematic crops come roughly once a decade although their greatness usually isn’t evident at the time.

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at one of these great years in cinema: 1994. Below you’ll find a look at the films discussed on the show as well as a few other titles.

Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert – This comedy of errors featured Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce, and Terrance Stamp as drag queens and a transsexual on a road trip.

Clear and Present Danger – The best of the Jack Ryan movies and the second to star Harrison Ford. Based on the novel by Tom Clancy, the story channels the South American military operations of the Reagan administration but it is quite relevant to the present day. 

Clerks – Kevin Smith’s debut feature is one of the essential titles of the cinema of Generation X. Clerks may not be pretty but it is very funny and one of the most important pictures in the recent history of American film.

The CrowThe Crow is a great comic book film and it brought maturity to the genre.

Dumb and Dumber – Comedies don’t usually stand the test of time so when they do it’s an impressive feat. This is one of the best comedies of the 1990s and one of the best buddy comedies of all time.

Ed Wood – This biography of the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of Tim Burton’s great works.

Forrest Gump – It’s unhip to like this movie but Forrest Gump is very entertaining and it succeeds in sending viewers on a nostalgia tour of the 1960s and 70s.

Four Weddings and a Funeral – Four Weddings and a Funeral made actor Hugh Grant a fixture of the romantic comedy genre. The film tells the story of a committed bachelor reconsidering his life.

Fresh – A tale of a young man who is a low level player in a drug ring.

Heavenly Creatures – Before he directed The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson helmed this story of two girls whose mutual obsession with each other leads to murder.

The Hudsucker Proxy – One of the Coen Brothers best movies. Channeling Meet John Doe, the film captures the Coen’s sense of irony while providing characters that strike a balance of realism and cartoonishness.

In the Mouth of Madness – Director John Carpenter has had an uneven career. In the Mouth of Madness was one of the horror filmmaker’s last great movies but it’s gone underappreciated.

Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice’s vampire stories were hot in the 1990s but the novelist famously and publicly bashed the casting Tom Cruise in the role of Lestat. When she finally saw the movie, Rice issued a retraction and praised the movie.

Legends of the Fall – A sweeping romantic tale of a family living through times of change in the early 20th century.

Leon: The Professional – This story of an assassin who takes a young girl under his wing was a breakout hit for actors Jean Reno and Natalie Portman and writer/director Luc Besson.

Muriel’s Wedding – A directionless and unmarried woman makes impulsive choices in order to change her life.

Natural Born Killers – The most controversial title of the 1990s, Natural Born Killers is a superbly crafted but philosophically flawed piece of filmmaking.

New Nightmare – Wes Craven returned to A Nightmare on Elm Street with the best sequel in the series. This film was a scary and cerebral dry run for Craven’s next feature, 1996’s much more commercial Scream.

Nobody’s Fool – The film featured one of Paul Newman’s last great performances.

The Lion KingThe Lion King remains one of the standard bearers among Walt Disney Animation Studio’s feature films.

The Mask – One of Jim Carrey’s three blockbusters of 1994, this adaptation of the comic book featured groundbreaking special effects and was perfect or Carrey’s cartoonish comedy.

The Paper – Michael Keaton plays the editor of a newspaper facing a crisis.

Pulp Fiction – Another defining film of Generation X, Pulp Fiction made Quentin Tarantino into a star director. This film is essential viewing for film enthusiasts.

Quiz Show – This Robert Redford directed drama, based on a true story of the television quiz show scandal of the 1950s, has gone underappreciated.

The Ref – A comedy vehicle for Denis Leary, the film also stars Kevin Spacy and Judy Davis as an unhappily married couple.

The Shawshank Redemption – This film was a box office disappointment in 1994 but The Shawshank Redemption is now one of the best regarded films of all time.

Speed – This story of a city bus armed with explosives made movie stars out of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

Stargate – An early effort by Roland Emmerich. The director never lived up to the promise of this feature but it did inspire a well-liked television series.

Swimming with Sharks – Kevin Spacey regularly stars as cruel businessman types and much of that is due to his role in this film.

True Lies – Mixing comedy with action, this James Cameron directed feature was supposed to put Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career back on track after the disaster of Last Action Hero. Instead it ended up being one of Schwarzenegger’s last great movies.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Summer 2014 in Review

Labor Day has come and gone, bringing the summer movie season to a close. This season has been rather strange. The story dominating entertainment news sources has been the downturn in ticket sales. According to Rentrak, the box office of 2014 is down fifteen percent from the previous year. However, entertainment journalists and others should be wary of declaring, as the Huffington Post’s Andrew Hart did, that “Nobody has seen a good movie lately.” The lack of ticket sales does not mean that there weren’t any good movies. There were certainly plenty of mediocre and bad titles, as there are every summer, but there were several outstanding films as well.
Possible explanations for the downturn are many. Piracy has taken its toll and Hollywood’s response to it—rushing films in and out of theaters and debuting them on VOD and home video just months after their theatrical premieres—may actually dissuade consumers from spending their money on ever costlier tickets. It could be that in this summer of sequels audiences had franchise fatigue and it didn’t matter that these new installments were some of the best entries in their respective series. It could also be that the marketing campaigns for some of these films failed to capture the audience’s interest. Or it could be that the barrage of violent news stories from Ferguson to Iraq soured viewers on Hollywood spectacles.

Whatever the case, this summer provided some good and bad titles. Here’s a review of some of the highlights of films released between May and August:
The Good
Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s ambitious eleven year production is one of the most unique and interesting movies of the summer and one of the best films so far this year.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – The follow up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the best sequels ever made and features incredible performances by the CGI apes.

The Fault in Our Stars – Based on the popular book, this film told a smart and sensitive story about confronting mortality. Actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort were terrific together.

Godzilla – The latest incarnation the Japanese monster brought the giant lizard to America and had some gorgeous production values even if the script was weak.

Guardians of the Galaxy – The biggest hit of the summer was also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies of the year and the best film from Marvel since the original Iron Man.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Another impressive sequel, this film improved on its predecessor and told a darker and more complicated story.

Lucy – This movie had a silly premise and a flawed story but it was so bat shit crazy that it earns points for audacity.

Neighbors – A middle aged couple faces off against a college fraternity and the result was one of the funniest movies of the summer.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Bryan Singer returned to the X-Men franchise and produced one of the best entries in the series.

The Bad
22 Jump Street – Yes it was a box office success and yes the critics generally liked it. But this movie was a lazy retread of its predecessor and being self-conscious about laziness is no excuse.
America: Imagine a World Without Her – Maybe the worst political documentary ever made, America consists of political hack Dinesh D’Souza hiding behind the American flag to justify his criminal behavior.

And So It Goes – Director Rob Reiner continues his descent into irrelevance with this schmaltzy story of a rich asshole who is redeemed by lowering himself to caring for his granddaughter.

The Giver – A well-loved book was turned into a mediocre film that looked less like a futuristic dystopia and more like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.

The Expendables 3 – This movie wasn’t required to be anything but fun but somehow Sylvester Stallone and company managed to fail even at that with this lazy and incompetently made final entry in the series.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For –Somewhere in the nine years since the original Sin City Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller lost their mojo.

Tammy – One of the loudest cinematic train wrecks of the summer.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Everything wrong with Michael Bay’s Transformers series was imported to the Ninja Turtles.

Transformers: Age of Extinction – The latest entry in the robot-fu franchise was actually one of the best installments in the series but it still wasn’t very good.

Films You Probably Missed (But Should Seek Out)
Belle – This costume drama set against the history of the slave trade in England featured notable performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, and Emily Watson

Chef – The summer season is known for popcorn action titles but this road trip tale of a professional chef and his son was some of the most fun to be had at the movies this year.

The Double - Based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this grimy tale of a man and his twin was all sorts of crazy.

Edge of Tomorrow – A film that got missed by audiences, Edge of Tomorrow was a smart and fun sci-fi actioner that was much better than movies that made a lot more money (e.g., Transformers: Age of Extinction).

Let’s Be Cops – After what happened in Ferguson this summer no one wanted to see a buddy cop movie and most critics hated it. Too bad, because Let’s Be Cops is surprisingly entertaining and unexpectedly subversive.

A Most Wanted Man – This film showcases Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last completed performance and it was a fitting final project for one of the great actors of our day.

Snowpiercer – The film didn’t get a wide release but it was one of the better movies of the summer, mixing a high concept story with action movie thrills and smart social commentary.

What If – Admittedly this was a fairly routine walk though of the romantic comedy boiler plate but it’s also quirky and adorable.