The top 100 film of the 21st Century (so far)

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A story of note in the movie world was the BBC publishing the results of a survey of 177 film critics from dozens of countries about what the best films of the 21st century are to date. They have a detailed not only to the results but all 177 top 10 lists which is arguably more interesting (website is here).

Inevitably the results led to much discussion and debate, so why not do that here?
The top 10 were:
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Suffice to say it certainly has an international flavour as isn’t heavily biased towards American cinema (or English-language cinema) as has often been the case with lists like this in the past.

Personally, I’m not really qualified to comment on them as I’ve seen very few – probably less than 20 – but I do have some observations.

The biggest surprise in the top 100 list was the absence absence of any Alexander Payne films. Notwithstanding that his best film was probably done last century (Election) and I always haven’t been satisifed by his recent films, he’s still a high-class filmmaker who has usually had a high rep amongst critics. To be specific, Sideways was one of the most acclaimed films of its year and I thought would’ve been a certainty to be in the top 100, yet only two out of the 177 critics mentioned it. And About Schmidt (definitely one of my favourite films this century) didn’t even get mentioned once.

I was also a bit disappointed that some of George Clooney’s best work as actor/director was overlooked – both ‘Good Night… And Good Luck’ and ‘Michael Clayton’ got mentioned by just two critics each. Also, I was surprised at the lack of mentions (two) for ‘Ghost World’ – perhaps it just came too early in the century.
I was interested that Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ managed to get as high as 31 on the list. I thought it was a fine film when I saw it but I do wonder whether it would’ve gotten so high if not for being delayed in post-production for years and it became a ’cause celebre’ for some critics.

Looking over the individual submissions, probably the least deserving was such mediocre Hollywood comedies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’ (both voted twice!). And yes, one of the most maligned filmmakers of his era in Michael Bay got a vote from a critic (for ‘Pain And Gain’).

 

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of August 26th, 2016

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The Mechanic: Resurrection: Sequel to The Mechanic, which made 29m on a 40m budget way, way back in January 2011. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either.  Jason Statham returns alongside Tommy Lee Jones (!) and Jessica Alba.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 25%, Metacritic:43%

Personal interest factor: 1

Don’t Breathe: Director Fede Alvarez, Producer Sam Raimi and actress Jane Levy (who brought us the excellent Evil Dead remake a few years back) re-team for this home invasion picture.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 87%, Metacritic: 71%

Personal interest factor: 7

Southside with You: Fictionalized tale of Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson’s (Tika Sumpter) first date.  I feel like this should have been a mid-Summer release (limited, followed by an expansion) rather than a semi-wide August dumping ground title.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 93%, Metacritic: 75%

Personal interest factor: 7

Hands of Stone: Generic boxing biopic starring Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran and Robert DeNiro as his trainer. The Weinsteins are dumping this in a few hundred theaters the last weekend of August so it’s pretty clearly not worth anyone’s time.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 45%, Metacritic: 55%

Personal interest factor: 2

Oscar 2016: #OscarsMaybeNotSoWhite

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Birth of a Nation

When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th, what everyone will be looking for is not necessarily who gets nominated, but what color they are. A third straight year of no people of color being nominated would be a public relations disaster even bigger than last year. Fortunately, there are several films being released later this year that have black themes, and I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that there’s about a 99.9 percent chance that one of the twenty performers nominated will be an African-American.

I’ll get into that further in my posts on the various acting categories, but I’ll start with Best Picture. So far this year the pickings have been slim, and in looking over the slate of films coming out later this year, only a few films jump out at me. Usually I can guess about five out of ten films right (the nominees are anywhere from five to ten films) but I wouldn’t put much hope in that this year. This is the kind of year that could be very kind to small indies or to blockbusters. A nomination for Captain America: Civil War? Not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Here, in alphabetical order, are ten films I’m banking on, as of now. Only one has been released.

American Pastoral, Oct. 21, Ewan MacGregor. Although I am somewhat hesitant because this is the first film directed by MacGregor, it should be remembered that because of the large preponderance of actors in the Academy, actors turned directors are treated very kindly. One of two Philip Roth adaptations this year (the other, Indignation, probably won’t be nominated in this category, though it may be better), American Pastoral is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on a weighty subject: a successful Jewish businessman’s life is turned upside down by the radicalization of his daughter during the 1960s.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Nov. 11, Ang Lee. Lee’s films can’t be ignored. I loved the book, but as I read it and envisioned it as a film I wondered how it would succeed as a film, since much of its comedy comes from description, not from plot or dialogue. It’s about a unit of soldiers who are honored as heroes at a Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game, and the hypocrisy of it all. I will be interested to see Steve Martin as a Jerry Jones-type owner.

Birth of a Nation, Oct. 7, Nate Parker. This film has been a favorite for an Oscar since it wowed them at Sundance and got purchased by Fox Searchlight for 17.5 million. Purposely co-opting the title of D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, Parker writes, directs, and stars in this story of the slave rebellion by Nat Turner. Oddly, the film may have hit some trouble with the relevation that Parker was once charged with rape as a college student, but acquitted. Will that stick until Oscar nominations? Hard to tell. A reminder that no person of color has ever won the Best Director Oscar.

Denial, Sep. 30, Mick Jackson. Haven’t heard a lot about this film, but after seeing the trailer it hits a lot of Academy buttons. It is the true story of a woman who is sued for libel by a holocaust denier. As the stereotype goes, films about the holocaust, however tangential, strike chords with Academy voters, and this at least seems to be a well-done project. Starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall as David Irving, the denier.

Fences, Dec.16, Denzel Washington. Washington’s only other feature as a director, Antwone Fisher, didn’t exactly thrill many, but this adaptation of August Wilson’s play will provide several opportunities for black actors to be nominated, notably Viola Davis and Washington himself, as a former Negro League ballplayer turned trash collector who is dealing with issues in his own life and the world around. If this is any good at all, it should garner several above the line nominations.

Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears, Aug. 12. The only one of these ten that people can now see, it’s a crowd-pleaser about the world’s worst singer. Films about entertainers usually do well with the Academy, but this is a twist given she’s bad. But it could strike a nerve with actors who secretly may feel that they have no talent. It’s a lush period piece, which helps, and while Meryl Streep has not been in as many Best Picture nominees as you might think, (both of her wins for Best Actress were in films not nominated for Best Picture) her performance, as well as the “comeback” of Hugh Grant, should help.

La La Land, Dec. 2, Damien Chazelle. The writer/director of Whiplash is back with another musical film, this time about the relationship between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a waitress (Emma Stone). Hard to know with this one, as an original musical hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture since (and check me if I’m wrong) Doctor Dolittle in 1967.

Loving, Nov. 4, Jeff Nichols. While Birth of a Nation has gotten most of the Oscar buzz for black-themed films, it may be this film that sneaks in, and I’m going to make it my ridiculously early pick as winner. Directed by Jeff Nichols, who has made several fine independent films, it details the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 Supreme Court case that tested Virginia’s miscegenation laws. I know so many mixed-race couples these days that it may come as a shock to people today that interracial marriage was once outlawed. Look for Ruth Negga, who plays the wife, to be a breakout star.

Manchester by the Sea, Nov.18, Kenneth Lonergan. The Academy has been hit or miss with Lonergan, but this film was another Sundance sensation, being bought by Amazon for 10 million. It stars Casey Affleck as a man returning to his home town to assume legal guardianship for his late brother’s son. Said to be almost unrelievedly bleak, maybe too much so to get traction in this category.

Miss Sloane, Dec. 9, John Madden. I’m going with this film, knowing almost nothing about it, as my zeitgeist film. Jessica Chastain is the title character, a lawyer fighting for gun control measures. May not do well in fly-over country, but among the liberals of Hollywood this could strike a nerve–if it’s any good.

Other possibilities: The Light Between Oceans, Sep. 2, Derek Cianfrance; Snowden, Sep. 16, Oliver Stone; Sully, Sep. 9, Clint Eastwood; Hell or High Water, Aug. 12, David Mackenzie; and Silence, Martin Scorsese. This last film, about missionaries in Japan, would seem to be prime Oscar bait, but a release date has not been announced. It will probably be released in award-season, but might be pushed to 2017 as well.

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

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Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, sort of the William Hung of her day. She was a patron of the arts, a society matron who sponsored many musical events. She was also completely delusional about her own talent. Her husband, a failed actor who presumably married her for her money, became devoted to her and did everything he could to help her pursue her dream.

It’s a tricky subject to make a movie about. Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep, is a figure of comedy and pathos–we laugh at her, not with her, and we also feel sorry for her. When Streep first sings, which is a little bit into the film, kind of like the first sighting of the shark in Jaws, one is induced into gales of laughter. But when we see others laugh at her, we kind of get outraged. It’s the skill of Streep, director Stephen Frears, and screenwriter Nicholas Martin that though there are sideshow elements of Florence Foster Jenkins, the emotion that most comes through is simple love and loyalty.

I read the Wikipedia article on Jenkins. She was from Philadelphia but adopts a kind of mid-Atlantic rich-people accent. She’s very reminiscent of all the characters Margaret Dumont played in the Marx Brothers’ movies. Some questioned whether she was in on the gag, but this film firmly takes the stance that she was not, and that she lived in a kind of fantasyland. She had a disease which I won’t reveal here that may have contributed to her delusion, but Streep, who continually gives us great performances, manages to create a character that dares us to mock her, and we can’t do it.

The film is, in certain aspects, a comedy. Frears, probably too much, employs the use of the reaction shot, when people first hear her sing. Nina Arianda, for example, playing the trophy wife of a businessman, has to be dragged out of a concert on her knees, laughing so hard. Much of this is given to Simon Hedberg, playing Streep’s mild-mannered pianist, who is too polite and too poor to say what he really thinks, and quietly endures Streep’s screeching and caterwauling (she at times sounds like a squeaky chew toy in the jaws of a dog). But of course he comes to love her, and though he risks his reputation, he decides he will play for her at Carnegie Hall, the climax of the film.

If Streep is the show, it wouldn’t be the same film without Hugh Grant as her husband. He is like Cerberus in keeping reality away from her. He pays off critics (one, Earl Wilson, he is unable to, which leads to crisis), and makes sure that only friends hear her sing. Her decision to play at Carnegie Hall, giving away tickets to servicemen, taxes his abilities. But Grant also has a girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) stashed in an apartment (this part does not seem to be historically accurate). He tells Hedberg that Streep and he have an understanding, but when she unexpectedly arrives at said apartment, there is some use of closets in hiding places.

Florence Foster Jenkins is also lovely to look at it, with period costumes, cars, and decor, and for the ridiculous opera costumes that Streep wears. I expect some Oscar nominations there, and it’s a slam dunk even now that Streep is nominated. Grant also has an excellent chance. It’s a lovely film with a lovely message.

AGEBOC 2016 (Week Seventeen – FINAL WEEK) August 26th-28th

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SCORES:
Jackrabbit Slim – 57
James – 55
Joe – 44
Juan – 43
Rob – 39
Marco – 23

WEEKEND OF AUGUST 26th, 2016.

QUESTION #1
What will Mechanic: Resurrection gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #2:
What will Don’t Breathe gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #3:
What will Hands of Stone gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

Answers are due on Thursday by 8:00 pm EST (or so). Good luck!

Review: Hell or High Water

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I think I can now proclaim what was the best film of a poor summer: Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. A contemporary Western noir, it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger trying to capture them.

The film is, at its core, a meditation on wealth and poverty. The reason the brothers are robbing banks is that their ranch, which belonged to their late mother, is about to be foreclosed on (in a reverse mortgage–beware those folksy ads by Robert Wagner). But oil has just been discovered on it, so in order to keep it in the family (it was left to Pine’s two teenage sons) the men have decided to rob banks–but only branches of the bank that has threatened to foreclose.

In a way, it’s a bit of Robin Hood and some of the Grapes of Wrath. There are many cutaway shots of billboards advertising debt relief, and Pine gives a speech about how his family has been poor for generations; that it’s like a disease. His brother, Foster, is doing it as much for the fun of it, though. He’s just out of jail, and is the mastermind behind the heists. He does impulsively rob on bank while Pine is eating in a restaurant across the street. Pine asks him, “How did you stay out of jail for a year?” and Foster answers, “It wasn’t easy.”

Bridges, still using his Rooster Cogburn accent, is terrific as a guy nearing retirement. His partner (Gil Birmingham) is half Comanche, half Mexican. Bridges spends most of the film teasing him about his heritage, which sounds worse than it is. The actors convince us that though Birmingham would love the insults to stop, there is a close respect between the two men. Though the film is tragic, Bridges provides a lot of comic relief. A scene in which he and Birmingham order dinner at a diner in small Texas town is hilarious.

Bank robbery, like kidnapping, is a crime that is almost impossible to get away with anymore, at least in the U.S. Someone says to Bridges, “the days when you could rob banks and get away with it are long gone.” So you know this isn’t going to end well, but Sheridan’s script is very clever in how it gets us to root for both sides–we want the brothers to get away with it, but we also want Bridges to catch them. The rule for ending a movie is that in be inevitable but not predictable, and that holds true here.

I should also add that this film could be a favorite of the NRA. At one point the brothers are waylaid during a robbery by a town in which it seems everyone is armed, and then Foster sends patriotic citizens running with an AR-15. If only everyone carried an AR-15!

I have no idea how well this movie will do, but I hope it isn’t forgotten around awards season. Bridges deserves a Best Actor nomination, and the script and direction should be remembered, too. There’s also a great musical score with lots of songs that perfectly describe west Texas.

Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

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wotw (warning: contains spoilers)

I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds when it was first released in 2005. Critical response hadn’t been great and star Tom Cruise’s antics while doing publicity were creating a negative aura around it. But I generally enjoyed it although my only vivid memory of it over the years was a scene of throwing a baseball between Cruise and his son that leads to a broken window.
As the years marched on, it’s reputation seems to be cemented as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a missed opportunity that magnified his weaknesses (especially for the relatively upbeat ending which many critics felt was misguided). Having not seen the film in over a decade, I decided to watch it again the other day and see how it has held up.

This version of WOTW has Cruise playing crane operator Ray Ferrier who is divorced and estranged from his children. While his children are visiting, unusual weather patterns signal something is awry and when an invading alien force arises in the local town, it begins to incinerate most of the nearby humans. Ray and his family escape but with a seemingly unstoppable alien force devastating society, how will they survive?

The startling thing I found watching the film this time is how grim and depressing it is; even in this present day of big-budget films often being cynical and downbeat, WOTW is a particularly harrowing film to take at times.
Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the film is in the first half when the aliens start to attack the general population. Spielberg manages to genuinely convey the horror of an unstoppable superior force wiping out human lives in an instant, especially through random individuals being turned to dust. It makes one think of the endless modern wars humanity has suffered and the countless lives wasted by an unstoppable military power. Later scenes which briefly show humans being harvested by aliens for their blood and matter-of-factly rummaging through personal human belongings further underline that.

When the focus shifts to Cruise and his family in the film’s second half, the film loses a some of its impact (although still reasonably effective) because it feels a bit misguided and redundant. While perhaps inevitable under conventional narrative structure, WOTW would’ve been a powerful if it had a broader scope and focussed on the whole fate of humanity.

And it’s the prime reason for the most criticised aspect of WOTW – namely the final scene where not Ray returns his daughter to her mother (curiously in a part of town unscathed by alien attacks) and his seemingly dead son returns unscathed. The critical consensus seemed to be that the finale was too positive and unlikely considering the devastation that had occurred previously. I think this criticism is valid to an extent but the seeds for it are laid in the decision the film makes to move its focus from society getting attacked by the aliens to primarily Cruise and family being attacked. Once the film chooses that path, the final scene is inevitable.

Another criticism of the film was that Cruise as a working-class parent (albeit a divorced one) was unconvincing. It is true that this is a very atypical role for him (even now he’s still playing individualistic action heroes) and he doesn’t seem a natural fit for such a role. But that sense of awkwardness actually works in the film’s favour because Cruise’s character has clearly been a poor parent (and husband) that even his own kids are reluctant to call him Dad.

And the underlying theme of the story is how Cruise’s character matures in the most heinous situation possible and becomes the strong parent that he would never have been without the alien invasion. When you factor in all the physicality required for the role, Cruise in the role makes sense and he generally does a good job with it.
Apart from Cruise, there isn’t a chance for many other actors to make an impression. One of them is Dakota Fanning as Ray’s daughter who starts off as one of those know-it-all pre-teener who only seem to exist in the movies and then, when the aliens attack, becoming understandably hysterical at the fear and horror that is surrounding her. Perhaps the filmmakers made her character a self-assured preteen to outline how useless this attitude is in real life? In anycase, while there seemed to be criticism of how hysterical her character was that seemed far more believable than the early scenes.

Another performance of note is Tim Robbins who plays a disturbed individual whose residence Ray and his daughter hide out with for a brief period of time. What’s most effective about his character (helped by Robbins’ whose perfectly cast in the role) is that he has that uneasy mix of being seemingly perceptive one minute, then clearly disturbed the next minute. Eventually it becomes clear that he’s someone who can’t be trusted, leading to a grim realisation from Ray about what must be done.

Overall, WOTW holds up as a generally impressive experience. It misses the potential for greatness by not looking at the big picture of how such an alien invasion would impact humanity on a grand scale and instead focussing on the small beer of the fate of one family, but it’s a fine film and an undervalued work in Spielberg’s career.

Opening in Connecticut – Weekend of August 19th, 2016

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Ben-Hur – Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) stars in Paramount/MGM’s remake of the swords and sandals epic. Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch, my favorite unfilmed Moby Dick adaptation) directs.  30% on Rotten Tomatoes and 36% on Metacritic.

The film cost over 100m before marketing costs and should earn under 15m for this weekend.  That is obviously very bad.  Paramount is having a terrible year at the box office and just narrowly avoided a sale of 49% of the studio to Chinese investors.  It’s off the table for now, but probably unavoidable long-term. Amazing how far they’ve fallen from their dominance in the 1980’s.

Personal interest factor: 1

War Dogs – A pair of young arms dealers (Jonah Hill and Miles Teller) successfully land a major contract with the U.S. military during the Iraq war.

Critics are being pretty kind to this Todd Phillips (The Hangover, The Hangover Part II, The Hangover 3, Due Date) picture, singling out Hill’s performance and Phillips’ successful transition into more adult-oriented filmmaking.  I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, but I’ve been burned too many times to see another Todd Phillips picture theatrically.

Personal interest factor: 2

Kubo and the Two Strings – Based on critical notices: this gorgeously animated feature is probably a frontrunner at next year’s Oscars.  I’m not even going to try to summarize the plot, but it involves a magical suit of armor.  Curious to see how the box office performance is with such a low wattage release date.

Personal interest factor: 7

 

AGEBOC 2016 (Week Sixteen) August 19th-21st

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SCORES:
Jackrabbit Slim – 57
James – 51
Juan – 39
Joe – 38
Rob – 33
Marco – 23

WEEKEND OF AUGUST 19th, 2016.

QUESTION #1
What will Ben-Hur gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #2:
What will War Dogs gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #3:
What will Kubo and the Two Strings gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

Answers are due on Thursday by 8:00 pm EST (or so). Good luck!

Review: Indignation

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I read and loved Philip Roth’s Indignation, but never imagined a film could be made out of it. The book is narrated by Marcus Messner, who is, well, indignant but also borderline insane. There isn’t a lot of plot to the book, and it’s almost all talk.

But writer-director James Schamus chucked a lot of the filmmaking “rules” and has made a fine film. Set in 1951, it details Messner’s leaving his family in Newark, where his father has set him crazy with over-protecting him (young men in the neighborhood are coming back in body bags from Korea) and goes to bucolic Winesburg College in Ohio.

Messner is Jewish, and is roomed with two other Jews. He refuses to join a Jewish fraternity, as he just wants to concentrate on his studies. He is attracted to a young blonde woman in his history class, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and one of Roth’s tropes, defined on Seinfeld as “Shiksa-peal” rears its head. They go out on a date, and while it appears to end very well for Messner (he gets an unsolicited blowjob) in fact this act of goodwill will lead to a downward spiral for both characters.

As many critics have pointed out, Indignation is a film that puts character, not plot, first.  Logan Lerman, an actor I guess I have seen in one of the Percy Jackson films, is terrific as a young man who is haunted not so much by demons but by his own notions of superiority. Winesburg (certainly named after Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio) has compulsory chapel, and Lerman, being both Jewish and an atheist, resents having to go. He lays this out in a fantastic scene with the Dean (Tracy Letts) which is very long (some critics note it is eighteen minutes) and brings up Bertrand Russell. If only for this scene, which is an antidote to every lousy summer blockbuster we’ve had this year, Indignation deserves applause.

There is also another great scene with Linda Emond as Lerman’s mother. She has noticed the scar on Gadon’s wrist, and implores her son to give her up. She is not old world–she tells him she would be fine with him marrying a gentile, but doesn’t want that kind of stain to inflict itself on him.

Given it’s release date, I don’t expect Indignation to get any awards love, but Letts, also the author of August: Osage County, who perfectly plays a condescending blowhard, deserves nominations, as does the script by Schamus. It’s thrilling to watch a film that actually assumes intelligence and literacy from its audience.

Opening in Las Vegas, August 12, 2015

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Some films with good reviews opening this week, including the first picture released this year that can be considered as an Oscar Best Picture candidate.

The box office winner for new films this week is Sausage Party (67), from the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg/Jonah Hill gang. It’s animated film about anthropomorphic foodstuffs. Surprisingly, from what I’ve read, it’s also a theological treatise on the existence of God. Jordan Raup: “Sausage Party is a mixed bag of comedy, but when it finally has the gusto to ratchet things up on a visual level, the surrealistic vulgarity is something to be appreciated, even if you may feel assaulted once the lights come up.”

Pete’s Dragon (72) has to be a disappointing opening for Disney, given the reviews. This is a remake of a film that I can’t remember if I saw or not, but this one is not animated and features Robert Redford. Tom Russo: “[David] Lowery’s update turns out to be one of the summer’s best surprises, a gorgeous, magical reworking that deftly strikes that once-elusive balance between contemporary and quaint.”

Oscar talk has started with Florence Foster Jenkins (71), featuring Meryl Streep as the world’s worst singer (sort of the original William Hung) in a heart-warming story that will certainly earn Streep her 20th Oscar nomination and possibly one for Hugh Grant as her husband. Best Picture prospects will depend on what’s coming up, but it will certainly have to have legs beyond it’s 6.5 million opening. David Edelstein: “It’s a wobbly, uneven, ultimately wonderful film — its unevenness befitting its title character, who we come to love despite her loopy lack of awareness of her own deficiencies.”

Also this week is Indignation (80), the first of two adaptations of a Philip Roth novel this fall. I saw the film yesterday and a review will be up tomorrow. It covers usual Roth territory–a young Jewish man goes to college and is undone by a shiksa. Tim Grierson: “The directorial debut of long-time screenwriter and producer James Schamus exudes a tasteful reserve, but actor Logan Lerman cuts through the seeming gentility in a performance that seethes with his character’s burgeoning arrogance and cynicism.”

Review: Suicide Squad

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When you go see a film with terrible reviews, the bar isn’t set that high. As I watched the beginning of Suicide Squad, I thought it wasn’t too bad, better than Batman vs. Superman, at any rate. Then, about halfway through, whatever the film has going for it rapidly evaporates, and it becomes ugly, nasty, and brutish (sorry, Thomas Hobbes).

The premise of the film is that a goverment official (Viola Davis), with Superman being dead and all, wants to collect a group of supervillains as a team to fight crime. We are quickly introduced to them, one by one, and to start with the team isn’t very impressive. There’s a trick-shot hit man (Will Smith); a guy who can throw a boomerang (Jai Courtney), who is of course Australian–talk about cultural stereotypes; a kind of hybrid of a human and a crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who desperately needs skin moisturizer; and a pyschotic former psychiatrist, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who seems to have no other talent than carrying around a baseball bat and a pistol, and has some pretty good martial arts chops.

The only guy I’d want on my team is Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a cholo who can shoot fire like a flamethrower. But he feels guilty about incinerating his wife and children, so he doesn’t want to use his power. For this we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. Later, they add a character called Slipknot, who’s good at…climbing. They immediately kill him off, maybe for his lame ability or bearing the name of a terrible rock band.

The government agrees with Davis’ plan, just in time for a crisis–a 6,000 year old witch has inhabited an archaeologist (Cara Delevignge). Somehow she releases her ancient brother, who inhabits some poor slob on the subway and starts creating havoc. So this motley crew goes in and tries to defeat him.

There’s all sorts of side plots. Batman (Ben Affleck) appears now and then, as he put away most of the criminals. Robbie is the Joker’s (Jared Leto) girlfriend. He sealed the deal by giving her a lobotomy, which is an excellent way to find love. Leto, unlike Jokers of the past, isn’t remotely terrifying, looking instead like some downtown performance artist. Cesar Romero was scarier. Look for Leto to win a Razzie.

Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer, who made a decent World War II film in Fury. But there in the credits, like a boil on a bubonic plague victim, is the name Zack Snyder, as Executive Producer, and Ayer has followed his playbook, with a foul, dark mood and very little of the fun that makes people like comic books.

I will give credit to Smith and Robbie for trying hard, though. Smith, even though his character can only shoot straight, is given some depth by loving his daughther. Robbie brings a certain mania to the part that makes us want to see more of her, and the ending implies that we will. Whether a character that dresses like a streetwalker, wearing a shirt that says “Daddy’s Little Monster,” is a blow for feminism, I’ll leave to academics, but if I had daughter I wouldn’t want her to see this character in action. What was wrong with her harlequin outfit? That might get a kid interested in the Commedia dell’ Arte.

I think the central problem of this film is that the audience is never comfortable rooting for anyone. All of these characters are despicable psychopaths (or sociopaths) and the only redemption they are allowed is to become friends with each other. None of them ever mentions saving humanity as something rewarding. Smith has that daughter, but he also says he is incapable of love, and that he kills people and sleeps like a kitten.

Suicide Squad, like most of the films based on D.C. Comics in this latest universe, is a wasted opportunity.

AGEBOC 2016 (Week Fifteen) August 12th-14th

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SCORES:
James – 51
Jackrabbit Slim – 47
Joe – 38
Juan – 33
Rob – 31
Marco – 21

WEEKEND OF AUGUST 12th, 2016.

QUESTION #1
What will Pete’s Dragon gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #2:
What will Sausage Party gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

QUESTION #3:
What will Florence Foster Jenkins gross this weekend? Closest guess earns 4 points. Second closest earns 2 points. Within 250k earns 2 extra points.

Answers are due on Thursday by 8:00 pm EST (or so). Good luck!

Opening in Las Vegas, August 5, 2016

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James is indisposed this weekend, so I’m filling in. I’m sure he would have had much more to say about the failure of Suicide Squad, but I’ll have to just do my best.

Suicide Squad (40) did set all sorts of box office records, but it also may set records for second-week drop, as no one seems to like it. We’ve already discussed here why the DC films can’t match the success of Marvel. I think I’ll see this just to see how bad it could possibly be, and besides, I can’t miss a Cara Delevingne film (that’s just to get her category tag). Marjorie Baumgarten: “There’s no one to root for in this movie, and no one whose prospects we care about. Several plot points lack coherence, and inserted flashbacks add to a sense of the film having been fused into shape in the editing room. It seems that Suicide Squad was done in by its own hand.”

Believe it or not, Suicide Squad is not the worst-reviewed film of the week. That honor goes to Nine Lives (11), in which Kevin Spacey is transformed into a cat. Someone, somewhere, signed off on that and greenlighted millions of dollars to just such a proposition. Neil Genzlinger: “Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, and Christopher Walken at least chose to be in Nine Lives. The cast member you really feel bad for is the cat. It was presumably forced into the job by its manager, or agent, or whatever. It’s resume may never recover.” And what’s with Jennifer Garner’s on-screen husbands lately? Kevin Costner, and now Spacey. Who’s next, Kirk Douglas?

For the discriminating viewer there’s Life, Animated (75), about an autistic boy who does not communicate until he discovers classic animated Disney films. It might have been more interesting if it was Ralph Bakshi animation that inspired him, but I imagine that this is a good film for those with special needs children or anyone with a heart. Peter Hartlaub: “It wonderfully explains elements of life with autism, offering a primer for the uninitiated, while profiling a family that was rewarded for its willingness to approach an obstacle with patience and love.”

 

Review: Star Trek Beyond

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Star Trek Beyond (beyond what, I don’t know), the 13th Star Trek film and the third under the watchful eye of J.J. Abrams, isn’t so much a feature film as an extended episode of a TV show. The script, by co-star Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, is very thin, creating no new story arcs, except for presumably adding a new crew member. It is fairly entertaining, though, and if you aren’t weary of the now fifty-year-old banter between Spock and McCoy, occasionally funny.

The Enterprise is in a Starbase, I guess a kind of very large artificial planet (called the Yorktown–space is so Earth-centric) when there is a distress signal. A ship has gone down on a planet inside a nebula, and only the Enterprise has the navigational skills to get in.

Of course there’s baddies down there, led by Idris Elba (wearing what looks like fifty pounds of makeup) who is after some doodad that will give him unlimited power. This seems to be the go-to plot nowadays, as it is the MCU and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Anyhoo, the Enterprise gets destroyed by what looks like a murmuration of starlings (just how many times has that happened? Can it really be called the Enterprise anymore when it seems every part has been replaced?) and the crew gets scattered on the planet. Some are captured by Elba, while Spock and McCoy are stuck together for hilarity reasons. A new character, Jaylah (played by dancer Sofia Boutella), who seems to have a face made of marzipan, is introduced (at the end she gets invited to join Starfleet, so I’m sure we’ll see her on the bridge of a brand new Enterprise in the next film).

What bothered me about Beyond is that it takes no real chances and relies on very old ideas. It doesn’t even crib from literature, like First Contact did with Moby Dick. It just kinds of lies there. I appreciate that director Justin Lin gives each of the main characters some screen time, but it doesn’t amount to much. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but Anton Yelchin just screams like a little girl and Pegg and Jung seemed to have given him many words starting with “V” so he could pronounce them as “Ws.”

I’m also confused about something. Early in the film, Spock is told that “Ambassador Spock” (a photo of Leonard Nimoy is used) has died. Now, isn’t that Spock in the future? Since the future hasn’t happened yet, how could they pinpoint his death? There’s a couple ways to react to this news: be bummed that you now know the date of your death, or be happy that whatever you do you’re not going to die for a long time. One of the problems of using time travel.

As I watched the film and realized they’ve really run out of ideas for this series, I thought why not remake the classic old episodes, like “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Shore Leave,” or “Amok Time?” They have better FX now (and better actors) and could make them more developed. Just an idea. They’d be better than this film.