Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Shallows — 7/10

THE SHALLOWS (Jaume Collet-Serra)

There’s a great sequence early in the otherwise problematic WORLD WAR Z when Brad Pitt figures out infected people turn to zombies within ten seconds, by counting up from 1 when he sees someone get bit. When he gets some blood on him shortly thereafter, he goes to the ledge of a rooftop and counts to ten, ready to jump off if he starts turning. Once he gets to ten, he realizes he isn’t infected, and continues.

That took me 64 words to say, but in the film it’s all communicated visually, the only dialogue being “one, two, three…” and it takes less than a minute of screen time. Of course, WORLD WAR Z had Christopher McQuarrie and other talented writers to do stuff like that, whereas THE SHALLOWS has Anthony Jaswinski (I bet the crew called him “Jaws-inski”). And unfortunately for Collet-Serra’s film, a similar sequence has Blake Lively looking at her watch to determine how long it will take for a shark to swim from the whale carcass upon which it’s feeding to the rock where Lively is stranded. The watch gets to 32, and the audience knows the situation. But then Jaswinski has Lively say to herself “Okay, 32 seconds to get from the whale to the rock.” Needless dialogue like that makes THE SHALLOWS a little more pedestrian than it needs to be. Not that I expected it to be ALL IS LOST, but I could have used an even more stripped-down narrative.

All that aside, THE SHALLOWS works. It’s quick, dirty, lean, and gorgeous to look at. Collet-Serra embraces digital photography, as he and his fairly regular DP Flavio Labiano use drones, Go-Pros, and underwater camerawork to plunge you into the visceral experience of this girl vs. shark thriller. The CG is a little more troublesome, especially in one laughable surfing shot where Lively’s face is so scotch-taped onto the stunt double that it looks worse than Adobe Photoshop when DCP’d onto the big screen. But Collet-Serra also must have brought along the effects team that created the best ever use of on-screen text messaging for his NON-STOP, because the use of not only texting but cell phone photo-sharing and Skype-calling is similarly impressive.

Thematically, THE SHALLOWS isn’t breaking much ground — it provides a dead-mom backstory and a quitters-never-win character arc that squeaks with age. However, its girl-power overtones (early on, Lively isn’t so sure what’s scarier: the ocean or strange dudes) are refreshing and it avoids any descent into a lame romance plot or something equally condescending. It’s just a 90-minute B-movie, terrifying for shark-o-phobes, and agreeably tense. Enough, at least, to overlook some absurd action in the climax.

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The Conjuring 2 — 3/10

THE CONJURING 2 (2016, James Wan)

What a weird and antithetical genre piece to expand into a big-budget blockbuster. This is what happens when cynical producers, motivated by insurmountable greed, let their bony fingers squeeze a talented director dry. THE CONJURING was a small-budget (relatively) haunted house movie that was unbelievably scary and single-mindedly earnest, even if it was hamstrung by an over-reliance on religious clichés. But whatever Wan learned on FURIOUS SEVEN (the best entry in its franchise), he ill-advisedly brought it to this mind-numbing sequel. It’s bigger, louder, longer, shriekier, and nearly a disaster.

Patrick Wilson gets one good, charming scene (serenading the family to Elvis), but Farmiga is stranded by awful dialogue and a mix of self-serious preaching with corny warm-hearted yearning. Frances O’Connor is there to wander into every scene horrified, shouting “I sore it wiv me own oiz!” The story is more insipid than it has any right to be, especially the Rumpelstiltskin bullshit (planted by some of the most obvious foreshadowing ever – Wan basically directing your eye to the clues for 30 minutes straight in the first act) but also the best argument for just leave the house if it’s haunted in this tired genre. You’ll spend most of the movie rolling your eyes at its smug idiocy when you’re not drifting off to sleep from a sluggish pace and failure to provide any surprises. A couple jump scares work (and The Crooked Man is inspired in a BABADOOK-ish way), because Wan hasn’t totally lost his touch — but once he’s been seduced by mega-budget special effects titans, he shouldn’t bring those touches to what needs to be a modest, chilling creeper.

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De Palma — 7/10

DE PALMA (2016, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

Martin Amis once wrote that Brian De Palma fashioned “an art that appeals to the purist, the hooligan, and nobody else.” (Granted, he also thought De Palma movies “make no sense,” but what can you do). I’ve thought about that quote since I first heard it around the time of FEMME FATALE, and, unlike De Palma movies (in Amis’s opinion), it makes a lot of sense. The plots are often trashy, the subject matter lurid, and the filmmaking perfectly jaw-dropping. Middlebrow tastes, both critical and popular, have tended to dismiss or cringe at the likes of CASUALTIES OF WAR, BODY DOUBLE, and BLOW OUT.

But if there’s a drawback to Baumbach and Paltrow’s propulsive, nonstop chronological barreling through De Palma’s stunning oeuvre, it’s that the documentary feels aimed at appealing only to those in between. It doesn’t (perhaps wisely) analyze De Palma’s films on a theoretical level, nor does it film-nerd out on technical wizardry. Nor does it giggle at sex and violence or provide jolts for the cheap seats. It sits warmly in the middle, letting the master director (who, for my money, is among the greatest living American filmmakers along with Scorsese, Spike Lee, and the Coens) explore the business side of how he gets movies made, amusing stories of on-set scrambling (many of which involve Al Pacino either burning his hand or stealing a subway train), and an elder statesman’s hindsight about what his career has amounted to.

As an on-camera subject, De Palma is a joy. He’s funny, confident but not with an overblown ego, perceptive, idiosyncratic, and self-aware. He’s sharp enough to point out that even his idol Alfred Hitchcock turned a corner after PSYCHO, having made his best work (like everyone does, he claims) in his 30s, 40s, and 50s. For De Palma, that means his peak was between SISTERS and FEMME FATALE, more or less — ammunition for critics (and I’m one of them) who think everything after FEMME FATALE has been downhill. The comment almost reads like a retirement letter, though he’s reportedly prepping for a new feature next year. Baumbach and Paltrow’s decision to let only the director speak, to strip away all context and just show medium and close shots of De Palma interspersed with clips from all his movies, is admirable and focused. It may not uncover anything too new for diehard fans (though either I never knew or more likely keep forgetting that he directed Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video with Courteney Cox), and can come across like merely solid audio commentary on a Blu-ray, but still — you get to watch a bunch of clips from CARLITO’S WAY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DRESSED TO KILL, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and everything else. Pretty tough not to like that.

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The Nice Guys — 6/10

THE NICE GUYS (2016, Shane Black)

Shane Black is one of those artists you just always picture as young, no matter what. He made his stamp on Hollywood 30 years ago, in his 20s, and throughout the decades you still picture Black as that rebellious rapscallion cracking jokes in PREDATOR and spitting out juvenile scripts like THE LAST BOY SCOUT. But time marches on, and Black is 54 now. Over the hill and mellowed out, his films are starting to sag just a bit. The pace here is a little slacking, the wit a little lacking.

Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, is an actor in his prime. Having kicked off his career with a blistering performance in THE BELIEVER, Gosling has gotten even better: now he may be the second early contender (along with Colin Farrell) for Best Actor on many year-end lists. Even if his sense of humor is anachronistic for a 1970s-set crime comedy, his physical acumen and razor-sharp timing are exhilarating to watch.

Crowe wisely plays it straighter, so Black leans on their chemistry to get through some of the weaker plot points. Supporting roles come up short save for March’s daughter. Amelia is little more than a MacGuffin with a heartbeat. Basinger gasps at references to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL when Crowe is in the room with her, while YaYa DaCosta seemingly has no  idea what kind of movie she’s in — did she wander off the set of SCOOBY DOO? There’s some nice bleakness to the story twists, and plenty of individual moments sizzle. But it’s hard not to think the Black of KISS KISS BANG BANG would have given the entire movie the zip it needed.

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Finding Dory — 7/10

FINDING DORY (2016, Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane)

A seismic improvement in animation from NEMO, which shouldn’t be a surprise — Pixar was already great 13 years ago but the leaps from UP to BRAVE to INSIDE OUT have been tremendous. The textures and layers here are intricate, creative, and aesthetically pleasing — a joy to watch. As a sequel, this is perfectly fine. It’s funny, fast, and should please NEMO fans and kids new to the franchise. But just like its predecessor, it isn’t really very substantial in its message and doesn’t have the adult appeal that top Pixars like WALL*E and TOY STORY 3 have had. Even NEMO had more of an emotional pull than this, which doesn’t really get any points docked for failing to choke you up — but Pixar has set such high standards that a movie that’s merely entertaining and well-put-together doesn’t rank among its best.

DeGeneres and Brooks continue to find a groove with their voice performances, though this time their characters are rarely on screen together. Brooks’s Marlon is reduced to sidekick role in a movie that could really be titled DORY FINDING DORY’S PARENTS. When Ed O’Neill and Ty Burrell are talking to each other (as an octopus and baluga whale, respectively) you’ll think you’re watching an episode of Modern Family in some sort of Disney-ABC corporate synergy marketing assault, but they’re pretty funny nonetheless. And a car chase at the end — while absurd and unbelievable even in a fish-can-talk world like this — is still quite well directed and as good an action scene as Pixar has ever done. It’s just that after a heart-wrenching movie like INSIDE OUT, which explored the depths of sadness and the complexities of growing up, something that just amounts to “Just keep swimming” and “family is important” won’t make much of a dent.

Note: I saw this in 3-D, which I tend to dislike, but with animation it usually isn’t too much of a detriment. It’s fine here but doesn’t seem to add a whole lot. The pre-film short “Piper,” however, uses 3-D in glorious fashion. It’s seductive, graceful, and even finds a way to blend the form with its content. Not only that, but it says as much in six minutes about facing the scary world outside as FINDING NEMO (not to mention DORY) does in 100.

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping — 5/10

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016, Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone)

A common complaint I seem to have about comedies is that they have good ideas or funny concepts, but the execution is lacking. For the first time I can remember in a while, the exact opposite is true with this movie. Mediocre or broad & obvious ideas, but with fantastic execution. The visual, editorial, and musical satire is pitched perfectly, using a lot of amusing music-doc clichés to razor-sharp effect. The problem is, they’re just in service of some ideas that aren’t very interesting.

You could make the case that Justin Bieber touring docs, Macklemore videos, and Grammy and VMA performances are already so ridiculous and self-parodying that making a movie satire is beating a dead horse. And that’s a solid case. But there’s still room for laughter here, such as the expertly crafted “Equal Rights” video, or the marriage proposal sequence that turns violent when wolves maul Seal. These guys know how to make a joke work on film.

It’s just that when padded out to 80+ minutes, they have to resort to thinly sketched narrative to keep the engine going, and everything starts to feel pretty blunt and shruggish. There’s a somewhat interesting subtext in the autobiographical nature of Lonely Island in the Style Boyz (Schaffer and Taccone play the less famous members, Samberg the breakout star), but it never threatens to feel real or revelatory. There’s hardly even a reson for this to be a movie at all. You’ll find yourself laughing occasionally, but then thinking “yeah that’s what’s funny about this specific thing, but overall I kinda got the joke already and it isn’t very clever.” For Andy Samberg comedy, I’ll take 7 DAYS IN HELL any day over this, so maybe Conner 4Real solo is better than they think.

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