Archive for April, 2016


College is a time of transition. It’s when people finally move out of their childhood homes and attempt to tackle the world without any adult supervision. College students are in that grey area between childhood and adulthood and this is often the time that people discover who they really are. So it makes sense that Richard Linklater’s follow-up to the ambitious and affecting Boyhood is Everybody Wants Some!!, a lighthearted look at a college baseball team on the weekend before classes begin. A spiritual successor to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, this is another great “hanging out” movie. We don’t need plot or conflict; all we need is great characters, good conversations and a fun time.

We’re introduced to Jake (Blake Jenner) as he’s driving towards his first year of college in late summer of 1980. His car is loaded up with his belongings and he’s confidently cruising down the road while blasting The Knack’s “My Sharona”. Jake is a young pitcher who was the star of his high school baseball team. But now he’s moving onto college, where everybody on the team was the best player at their high school. He moves into a house with his fellow teammates and gets to know them on the weekend before classes begin. Along with the team’s leader Finnegan (Glen Powell) Jake and his buddies spend their days goofing around and their nights partying and picking up women. Jake develops a crush on a fellow coed named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), all the while trying to figure out his place on the team and in the world.

More than any other director, Linklater has mastered the art of the plotless movie. While most filmmakers feel the need to inject some sort of conflict in their stories, Linklater knows that this isn’t always true of real life. We don’t spend every waking minute trying to solve some sort of drama or developing a solution to an ever increasing problem. A lot of life is just spending time with other people and Linklater seems to understand that these can be the moments that have the most profound impact on us. Everybody Wants Some!! is essentially this idea boiled down to an entire weekend. We watch as Jake and his buddies play Ping-Pong, go to parties, drink beer, smoke weed and just have a good time. It’s essentially a nonstop party for the film’s two-hour runtime with enough interesting conversations that elevate it above most modern comedies.

The ensemble cast is filled of mostly unknowns, so it’s pretty surprising just how stellar everyone is. Blake Jenner is likable and reserved in a way that perfectly suits his character. He’s certainly not the most interesting person on the team, but he’s definitely the most relatable. The relationship that develops between himself and Zoey Deutch’s character is nothing short of adorable. Speaking of, Deutch is an absolute delight, managing to stand out amongst the guys and developing a character that is easy to fall in love with. Don’t be surprised when she turns into a big star. But the best character has to be Glen Powell’s Finnegan, a jock who manages to break every stereotype that’s usually associated with athletes. In a way, he becomes a father figure to Jake, helping him through the first few days of college before finally turning him loose. The cast is filled with so many characters who you would want to hangout with in real life, but none so more than Finnegan.

It’s noted by Jake that the guys on the baseball team seem to conform their personalities to whatever situation is around them. At one point the dress up in their best disco attire, the next night they’re trying to be cowboys at a honky-tonk and eventually their rocking out at a punk show. These guys are still trying to figure out who they are and they’re using these parties to find their place in the world. We go into college thinking we’re one type of person, but often come out the other side with a totally different perspective. Aside from a degree, college is about two things: self-discovery and parties. Everybody Wants Some!! effortlessly captures the feeling of both.

Everybody Wants Some!! receives 4/4

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The latest Disney animated classic to receive the live-action remake treatment, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a fun, light-hearted adventure full of beautiful visuals and mostly spectacular effects. It seems strange to call this film live-action considering all of the animals and environments were generated in a computer, but the fact that they seem to fit together mostly seamlessly shows how much care was put into this adaptation. It’s certainly not perfect, but it does a fine job at keeping the spirit of the original while still updating it with more adventure and thrills for modern audiences.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young boy who has been raised by wolves in the jungles of India. He’s the only human in a world of animals, but he’s been fully accepted as a wolf cub and part of their pack. But not every animal in the jungle is fine with letting a human into their midst. The deadly Tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) holds an animosity toward humans and vows to kill the young boy. With the help of his wise mentor – a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) – Mowgli leaves his home in search of a human village for safety. But the journey through the jungle is not an easy one and Mowgli will have to deal with the deadly snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a lazy bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) and King Louie (Christopher Walken), one of the largest beasts in the jungle.

The Jungle Book truly is a visual feast, combining great art direction with stellar visual effects that bring all of the animals to life. There are a few moments where the real life Mowgli seems to stand out amongst all of the CGI around him, but moments like these only distract on a few occasions. For the most part, the environments and all of the animals are so realistic that audiences might believe them to be real if they only kept their mouths shut. It’s these great visuals that pull viewers into the story, even if the first fifteen minutes of the film aren’t particularly compelling. It isn’t until Mowgli begins his journey that the feeling of adventure really kicks in and, thankfully, that feeling carries throughout the rest of its runtime.

Once the journey really begins, viewers are treated to several great sequences one after another. The scene with Kaa is dark and eerie, while the scenes with Baloo are light and fun. King Louie is portrayed as a Vito Corleone –esque gangster, but the decision to have him sing may have been misguided. The voice cast for the film is stacked, so it’s no surprise that they give their animals true character and personality. The decision to have Murray voice Baloo may have been obvious, but the decision to have Johansson voice Kaa was an off-the-wall choice. Either way, the casting pays off and the film ends up being pretty delightful. You’ve taken this trip to the jungle before, but you’ve never seen it quite like this.

The Jungle Book receives 3/4

There’s just something naturally odd about a dinner party. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that they’re often a great setup for horror films, but they can also genuinely feel forced and uncomfortable. That feeling of receiving an invite to something that you don’t really want to attend is captured in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. A slow burn horror/thriller that portrays one of the most uncomfortable dinner parties in recent memories, it’s also an interesting look at grief and the loss of a child. It’s a genuinely suspenseful film that’s only hampered by an ending that fails to deliver on the promise of its first 80 minutes.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has received an invitation to attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Will reluctantly agrees to attend, bringing his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) along with them. The pair of them arrive at Will’s former home and are reunited with a group of friends that they haven’t seen in years. Eden and David have also invited two individuals whom no one else knows: the free-spirited Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and the mysterious Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). Will doesn’t feel comfortable at the party and his suspicions that something sinister is happening are only elevated when David and Eden begin discussing the new religious movement that they joined in Mexico. Are Will’s suspicions valid or has the return to his ex-wife and old home caused his mind to slip?

Not much happens in the first two-thirds of The Invitation, but Kusama will keep viewers enraptured with the sheer amount of tension present at the dinner party. This is a truly unsettling film and the viewer can fully feel the paranoia that’s circling through Will’s head. The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi does a fine job at dolling out the clues and placing our protagonist in uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations. Why does David lock the front door? Why does Eden have a bottle of pills hidden in her dresser drawer? And why do the hosts interrupt the party to show their guests a disturbing video of a woman dying? Trying to decide if Eden and David have ulterior motives or if they’re simply the worst dinner party hosts in Los Angeles is what keeps the audience engaged in the proceedings.

But then the ending arrives in the form of a giant wet noodle. What started as a taut mystery where it feels like anything can happen ends in the most predictable way possible. Once Eden and David reveal what happened on their trip to Mexico, most discernible viewers will be able to easily predict the outcome of this party. Since the majority of the film was so effective, it seemed like the film’s ending would try to do something bold and different, but it wraps things up exactly how you would expect. The strong direction, eerie concept and ominous score made this seem like it would be a truly great genre film, but the ending demotes it to nothing more than a good one.

The Invitation receives 3/4

There have been a number of video game adaptations over the years, but no film has truly embraced the first-person gaming experience quite like Hardcore Henry. This may technically be classified as a film, but this is essentially a video game through and through, with the only difference being that you don’t need a controller to experience it. Shot entirely in the first-person perspective using mounted GoPro cameras, the audience sees everything through the eyes of our protagonist Henry. It’s a unique way to shoot an entire action movie and director Ilya Naishuller is sporadically successful with his gimmicky premise. It may have its problems, but this is ultimately a rollercoaster ride that you can experience at your local multiplex.

The film begins with Henry waking up inside a high-tech laboratory, having survived a terrible accident. His wife (Haley Bennett) is a scientist who brought him back from the brink of death, giving Henry a robotic arm and leg. But shortly after Henry awakens, the laboratory is attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a villain with telekinetic powers who hopes to create an army of mercenaries similar to Henry. Henry is able to escape from Akan’s clutches, but his wife is taken prisoner. With the help of a mysterious individual named Jmmy (Sharlto Copley), Henry is on a mission to find his wife and he’ll destroy anything and anyone who gets in his way.

Similar to last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Hardcore Henry is essentially nonstop action from start to finish. Its first-person perspective creates a unique twist on the genre and it’s often interesting to see how it’s used. It works best when Henry is engaging in gunfights, particularly in one sequence where Henry is attempting to sneak through a building. These moments where Henry is utilizing firearms truly feel like a first-person shooter videogame and it’s fun to see how these elements translate to a motion picture. A parkour chase scene is also pretty well done, as is an awesome sequence involving Henry jumping from a motorcycle onto a mercenary’s van. But it’s the hand-to-hand combat where the first-person perspective falls apart. The camera moves around way too hectically, making the action difficult to follow and giving viewers a headache in the process.

This might be a nonstop action thrill ride, but don’t for a second think that I’m putting this on the same level as Mad Max: Fury Road. While that film had characters and a story that worked well alongside the action, the characters and story here are pretty terrible. Henry’s wife works as plot motivation and nothing more, while Akan is a lame villain with telekinetic powers which are used so sparingly that it’s a wonder why they were included at all. The only character that stands out is Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy, who is both funny and intriguing. Copley’s performance is actually pretty good and it’s a joy whenever Jimmy appears on screen. The story is pretty barebones as well, but all of these problems do seem to match the videogame aesthetic that the film is trying to achieve.

If Hardcore Henry wanted to be really ambitious, it could have tried to appear to play out in real time, with all of its cuts hidden from the audience. This would have made sense considering how the normal person doesn’t experience lapses in time throughout their day. It probably would have been nearly impossible to achieve this with the amount of action in the film, but the film could have been a new action classic if they somehow managed to pull it off. As it stands, Naishuller does an adequate job turning this premise into a feature, although perhaps a short film would have been more effective. But even though it might feel a little too long, this is still a crazy ride, filled with ridiculous action and over-the-top levels of violence. Buckle up.

Hardcore Henry receives 2.5/4

One thing I love about the magic of movies is that the possibilities are endless. You can make a film about dinosaurs terrorizing a theme park, a group of scientists who hunt ghosts, or a special boy in a magical wizarding world. The limits are only as far as the imagination of the filmmakers, so it’s strange that so many films feel completely ordinary. But every once in a while, a film like Midnight Special comes along that truly captures the wonder of cinema. It’s a heartwarming, Spielbergian sci-fi tale that has no shortage of unique ideas. These ideas are firmly handled by writer/director Jeff Nichols, who continues to establish himself as a reliable up-and-coming filmmaker. Its concepts may seem otherworldly, but the father/son relationship at the film’s center couldn’t feel more human.

While most movies deliver exposition and set things up before kicking the plot into high gear, Midnight Special drops you right into the action. It’s a very refreshing change of pace from a director who never spoon feeds his audience information. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the police with his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton has some form of special abilities that were being exploited by a cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Having stolen his son away from this cult, Roy is on the run from the cult and the FBI, who are interested in Alton’s unique abilities. Along the way, they pick up Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and hurry towards a secret location that could hold the answers to Alton’s special gifts.

Nichols is able to capture a real sense of wonder as we get wrapped up in this tale of a family on the run. The movie is both large in its ideas and small in its scope and execution. It’s a sci-fi film that doesn’t need hundreds of millions of dollars poured into it. The most important thing here is the relationship between a father and a son, which is executed beautifully. Michael Shannon, usually known for playing villains or off-putting characters, gives one of the best performances of his career as a man willing to sacrifice anything in service of his son. And Jaeden Lieberher is half of this relationship and he nails it as well. There’s definitely something alien about his character, but their relationship feels more real than what most movies are able to achieve.

It’s the film’s final moments where things feel like they really come together, balancing emotions and action with sci-fi ideas and visuals. It’s very reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it’s hard not get choked up watching Roy risk everything for the sake of his son. There are a few hiccups along the way, most notably the subplot involving the cult that seems to go nowhere, but it’s all worth it to get to the memorable conclusion. The sci-fi and adventure elements might be what attract viewers to Midnight Special, but it’s ultimately the personal relationships between the characters that stay with you the most.

Midnight Special receives 3.5/4

Terrence Malick has to be the most divisive filmmaker working today.  His projects don’t cater to anyone and he offers viewers a unique, singular vision. General audiences tend to criticize his films for being slow and pretentious, while his most ardent supporters seem to worship the ground that he walks upon. In my opinion, Malick can deliver some truly rewarding viewing experiences, most notably with 2011’s brilliant The Tree of Life. But his experiments can also go too far and I think that’s the case with Knight of Cups, which is probably his least accessible film to date and that’s really saying something. Its strange structure and striking imagery will please Malick’s hardcore fans, but it also lacks any true emotional connection, something that’s an important piece of his best films.

Plot isn’t usually an important part of Malick’s films, but Knight of Cups abandons plot altogether and focuses solely on feelings and images. We’re introduced to Rick (Christian Bale), a successful Hollywood screenwriter whose life has grown empty and joyless. His marriage with a physician (Cate Blanchett) has crumbled and he now spends most of his time with beautiful models. From the women to the cars to the extravagant parties, it seems like he’s living the dream, but he’s become numb to the luxury. Malick highlights Rick’s struggle through his interaction with other people including a womanizing playboy (Antonio Banderas), his unstable brother (Wes Bentley) and a beautiful woman (Natalie Portman).

Malick has become known for his visuals and in his seventh film, he definitely does not disappoint. Aided by three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick creates some truly memorable images. A sequence involving dogs jumping into a pool after tennis balls is a delight and a scene in a nightclub is stunning in its use of lighting and editing. Hardly any dialogue is exchanged between characters within a scene, so the film is absolutely dependent on these unique visuals and the whispery narration from characters. It’s all intriguing to watch, but it does come across as kind of pretentious, especially since Malick’s theme of loneliness in Hollywood isn’t exactly revelatory.

But it’s the lack of a character from Christian Bale that makes the film the most frustrating. He hardly ever speaks or acts like a normal person, walking through each scene like a zombie. It’s impossible to connect with him on an emotional level when he shows about as much character as a department store mannequin. This is certainly not Bale’s fault, with the entirety of the blame falling at the feet of the director. It’s fine if Malick doesn’t want to make his films easily accessible, but this one is so inaccessible that it loses its effectiveness.

And yet, there’s still something special about it. Malick’s been an inspiration for many filmmakers, but no one can create these unique, experimental projects quite like him. The presentation is admirable, even if it’s not entirely successful. His films do tend to improve on a rewatch, so there’s always a chance that Knight of Cups could be looked at as a masterpiece in a decade or so. I think that might be pushing things a bit, but there’s something here that makes me want to give this another shot. It might not be great, but it’s undeniably an experience.

Knight of Cups receives 2.5/4