Update for July 24, 2016

You may have noticed that I personally didn’t have any posts this week, even though I did have a guest review (Dark Passage).

I am out of the country for the next few weeks, and not in places with easily accessible cinemas. I am arranging to have the biggest current releases rated by guest reviewers, and I may find time to review some catalog films.

While I’m gone, please enjoy your summer. If you’re not satisfied with what’s playing, there’s no shame in sitting down with your favorite movies on DVD.

Dark Passage (1947)

Dark Passage is a movie in which perfectly exemplifies the Film Noir era in which it was created.

To sum up, the film follows an escaped convict, Vincent Perry (played by the famous Humphrey Bogart), from a few moments after he escapes prison, to the uneasy film conclusion. Vincent Perry was convicted and sentenced to prison for killing his wife. However, soon after he escapes, he is picked up by a sympathizer, Irene Jansen (played by Lauren Bacall) and is smuggled into San Francisco. His purpose in coming was to clear his name, but there are many obstacles and enemies in his way of doing so. One of his biggest obstacle? His own face.

The first half of the movie is actually filmed from Perry’s perspective, preventing us from seeing his face. This unusual way of filming was pretty striking to me, as this film style is pretty familiar to me now, but was relatively unheard of in late 1940s cinema. This perspective lasted for at least 45 minutes, which was equally building suspense, curiosity, and even frustration at the fact of why we couldn’t see his face. But why? I don’t want to spoil it too much, but after what happens… happens, it makes the rest of the film’s timeline so much more gratifying. I’m sure there were also logistical reasons as to why the first half of the movie was from Perry’s point of view (or had Perry’s face in the shadows), but their choice in doing a POV was pretty great.

The main problem? It’s the problem I always tend to have with many older, “made-to-be-blockbuster” movies: romance. Sure, there can be some in a film noir movie, and I definitely don’t mind it (An Affair To Remember is a great 1950s romance movie, if you have some time). But I have a problem when it’s just plopped in there “just because.” I know that Bogart and Bacall were married in real life, but forcing the storyline to add some romance because of that is uncalled for. The romance between Jansen and Perry seems sudden to me, and the drastic love she feels for him by the film’s end seems unjustified.

Overall? Definitely go watch it. It’s an under-appreciated film that didn’t get much buzz because of a political controversy at the time, but I feel it’s a film which shines well in a night sky full of dimly lit film noirs. For cinematographers, you’ll have a blast. For everyone else? The plot will draw you in and the ending will keep you both oddly gratified and shocked at the same time.

3.5

Dark Passage is available on Amazon Prime Video.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Pretty sure this is New Zealand’s version of Moonrise Kingdom.

Directed by Taika Watiti (What We Do in the Shadows), this film is as off-kilter and impossibly charming as his other work. It stars Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) and Julian Dennison as illiterate Hector and spunky Ricky Baker. Ricky has been shuffled between foster homes, due to his rebellious behavior, and he finally lands with Hector and Bella.

When Bella dies unexpectedly, a New Zealand welfare agent plans to fetch Ricky and send him to a boys home. Ricky runs away, Hector comes to find him, and soon they’re runaway fugitives. It starts with their attempts at survival and culminates in a genuinely massive manhunt. I’m not even kidding. There are tanks and helicopters chasing these people by the end.

From this description, you might expect the movie to be all over the place, and it is. There is comedy and action and drama, sometimes all at once. It’s a juggling act, and Waititi handles it masterfully.

The film is peppered with stunning natural landscapes, with few signs of true civilization in sight. It’s also grounded in our modern reality, as one man begs for a selfie with Ricky and the boy makes a reference to The Lord of the Rings. And yet, when I said it was like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t kidding.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is gloriously off-kilter, as you might expect from the title. It’s like its star, Ricky: eccentric, surprising, and much deeper than you’d expect.

I’m excited to see what Taika Waititi brings to Thor: Ragnarok, which he is filming now.

3

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in theaters now.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

There have been many love letters to Paris written in film. Many, many—more than I can count.

Midnight in Paris is one of the very best. It centers around Gil (Owen Wilson), a writer who is vacationing with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). One night, he’s wandering the streets of Paris, and a car pulls up. It’s a car that takes him to the 1920s, a golden period where such icons as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso are all in close proximity.

Gil uses this to his great advantage, having Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) read his work and falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard). As charming as this concept is, that’s not even the real point. Writer-director Woody Allen has injected a profound theme into the heart of this film, the idea that we’re never satisfied with the present.

That’s the magical heft of this seemingly featherweight film. We may romanticize the 20s, but people in that period thought of the 1880s as the best time, and those people looked further back and so on. The fact that he weaves that into such a charming love story is a minor miracle. Allen makes these sorts of pictures routinely, which is even more impressive.

I have always liked Paris, but this really kicked me into infatuation with it, a feeling that has not subsided. The film opens with a montage of the city, individual shots scored by a wistful tune, and it sets the blissful mood for the rest of the film.

I had to scour the Internet to find the one spot where the car picks Gil up. It wasn’t readily shown, but I found it. It should be a landmark.

Since I found that spot, I’ve never forgotten it. It is, like the film tied to it, unforgettable.

3.5

Midnight in Paris is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

What If (2013)

What an effective use of formula.

Originally titled The F Word—”friend,” just as damaging in this case—this film stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). They meet at a party and hit it off, even though she’s got a boyfriend. They both have feelings for each other, and she might not really connect to her boyfriend like she thinks, but they proceed as friends. You know they’re going to get together, but boy, this film makes you doubt that.

Adding to the complication are Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, playing the couple that is everything Wallace and Chantry (Radcliffe and Kazan) want to be. They’re passionate and open to each other, and most importantly, they’re not afraid to speak up. There is a certain type of longing in this film, the kind that cannot really be spoken—we never know how to speak it ourselves. The story progresses in the direction you’re hoping, and then surprises you, and then repeats that as many times as it can. Like it should.

The film, directed by Michael Dowse from an adapted script by Elan Mastai, is a modern delight. Well, it is when it’s not killing you and making you wait. There isn’t very much that’s innovative about it, but it’s quirky and most everything works. Can I fault it for that?

Romantic comedies are just not supposed to end a certain way. There’s a saying that all tragedies are finished by a death, and all comedies are ended by a marriage, and we know that by now.

The trick is to make us believe otherwise. If these characters are supposed to get married, it’s your job as a filmmaker to lie to us effectively for as long as you possibly can. What If is a beautiful liar.

3

What If is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Ghostbusters (2016)

I wish this were better. Really, I do.

I don’t know if there’s ever been more hatred spewed towards an innocent film. Hordes of people were spitting venom at this film from their mothers’ basements, and it’s been like that since the film was announced. Come on, humanity; this isn’t a film that supports the KKK. It’s a film that’s trying to empower half the human race!

Does it do a good job of it? (Sigh) Unfortunately not.

We all know the story by now. A few scientists (and an MTA employee) band together to fight all sorts of apparitions. You have four of the top comediennes (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones) in the main roles, and they really are a dream team. Their chemistry is undeniable and electric. Chris Hemsworth plays the dumb, objectified secretary, and it’s beyond perfect.

But then the story shows up and ruins it. A man named Rowan is behind all the ghostly carnage, planting traps that summon menacing apparitions. And honestly, I was having a great time until he showed up. Like, smiling continuously. He’s not a great villain, or even a good one. He is, like the bitter misogynists hating on this film, a loser. The world has wronged him, sure, but he’s just unforgivably pathetic. Without him, there would be no conflict, but it would still be a better film.

Some comedies are just not made to have stories, and this should have been one of them. But the stakes were too high for that, which is already sad enough.

There was something really good about this film, though: the 3D. If you get a chance, I would absolutely suggest paying the upcharge. Director Paul Feig went to great creative lengths to make the experience worth it, making no sacrifices in the pursuit of depth, color, and definition. Black bars are added to the top and bottom of this presentation, allowing the “streams” and ghouls to pass over them, and it’s a really nice effect. I haven’t seen a third dimension done this well since Avatar and Life of Pi.

The sad thing is that it can’t save the film, even it it does enhance it. I added half a star because the 3D was so good.

This film itself is a bit of a mess, and I frankly had little interest by the end. A few people walked out early. It’s kind of like milk: it’s really delicious for a little while, but it spoils. And when it spoils, there’s really no going back.

The world needed this film to be great, and it really could have been. It’s just not. All I have to say is I hope the studios remember that, in times of crisis, it’s okay to call women.

2.5

Ghostbusters is in theaters now.

Man Up (2015)

Leave it to Lake Bell and Simon Pegg to make a marvelous romantic comedy.

The former, known for being emotionally challenged in films like In A World…, matches perfectly with Pegg, who has made being a geek the coolest thing ever. And it doesn’t seem like it would work since you don’t think of them together. Plus, Bell isn’t actually English, which does matter.

Here’s the concept. Nancy meets a girl who is supposed to meet a guy (Pegg). Only, Nancy gets mistaken for the girl, and she goes along with it. She’s had a rubbish love life recently, but then she meets the guy, and they really hit it off.

When is she planning to tell the truth, and how is he going to react? The answer to one may surprise you.

The guy, Jack, finds out much earlier than you’d think, and he does stop talking to Nancy for a little bit. I won’t reveal much else, but it is a romantic comedy, after all—you know it’ll end a certain way. The thing is, all the standard bits don’t feel so hackneyed. There is a tender heart behind all of this, and pretty much everything sticks. Sometimes, those who have been hurt the most have the most room in their hearts for love.

Side note: Rory Kinnear has an odd little guest role in this, and if you’ve seen his other work—The Creature in Penny Dreadful and a magnificent theatrical turn as Iago—you’ll appreciate it. The guy has serious range, but if you don’t recognize him, you might be put off.

For me, this movie seemed almost too good to be true. Lake Bell and Simon Pegg in a British romantic comedy? Piss off. But Man Up takes a great concept and somehow does it justice. If you think that love may never come your way—if that sort of thing matters to you, like it does to me—this movie will give you hope. And sometimes, a little hope does go a long way.

3

Man Up is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

In some ways, this film is a perfect cinematic experience.

It’s not long at all, clocking in at 85 minutes, and it has an entirely singular sense of humor. Well, its creators do—they made Flight of the Conchords for HBO. The world is realized surprisingly effectively, and there are moments of pure brilliance.

Simply, it’s great and short, so you can watch it almost anytime.

The idea is that there’s this thing called the Unholy Masquerade in New Zealand, where all the undead come together to celebrate, and a documentary crew has been given permission to film a house full of vampires. You have Viago (Taika Waititi), Vlad (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonny Brugh), and others, and their personalities have all grown more eccentric over the years. The mockumentary film centers around their time leading up to the masquerade.

If “You haven’t cleaned the dishes in five years!” makes you chuckle, then you’re going to love this film.

What makes it so brilliant is that it seems true to life. There are plenty of special effects in this film ranging from flight to transfiguration into bats, and I swear to you it looks real. Not only that, but it’s all used for comedic effect. The filmmakers must’ve taken great pains to create an atmosphere as convincing as this—though assuredly fictional—and make the work seem effortless.

Co-writer and director Taika Waititi has a new film coming out called Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and this film has made me excited for it. It’s like this one is so good, I have an automatic confidence that the next will be too, and an enthusiasm to see it.

What We Do in the Shadows is quirky and distinct and hilarious, and I suggest you find a way to see it as soon as possible. I just saw it for the first time in March, and this is my second time since. I love it so much. Who knows how many more times I’ll see it before the year is out.

3.5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Boldly going where they’d already gone before.

Before you spout hatred at me for that, please know that I wanted to adore this film. You only have but so many science fiction franchises that have survived this long—Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who—come to mind, and time has a way of deeming certain entries “the best.” Perhaps, if the circumstances were different, so would have been the result.

I had expectations for this film that were greater than the Enterprise, and that kind of ruined it. Certain lines and actions have made their way into the vernacular, and so there was nothing really surprising about this film. I hadn’t seen it, but I knew how it ended.

I knew that Spock was going to die, and I knew that Kirk would shout “KHANNN” loud enough to echo miles and miles. And I have to say, that kind of ruined it for me.

For those of you who don’t know, this film is about a device called the Genesis. It’s capable of destroying a barren planet, only to rebirth it as one capable of sustaining life. Chekov and Terrell investigate a potential planet, only to discover the marooned psychopath, Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), who vows revenge. He blames Kirk (William Shatner) for his wife’s death, and he won’t rest until the Admiral(/Captain) is dead.

Kirk resumes command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and he must find a way to stop Khan before the man can activate the Genesis machine. By the end, Spock does die trying to save the crew, and it’s genuinely touching.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m still a bit sour from Star Trek Into Darkness, even though I’m excited for BeyondInto Darkness borrowed extensively from Wrath of Khan, in what became less an homage than a plagiarism.

This film is perfectly adequate. It feels like an extended episode of the Original Series, but that’s kind of a compliment. There’s nothing wrong with it; I think I just expected too much going in.

I’m disappointed in myself, if that helps.

3

 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Aliens (1986)

Bigger. Badder. Still the same beast.

There is so much familiar about Aliens, compared to Ridley Scott’s original. This one was written and directed by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), and it’s the action sequel to the terrifying original.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been discovered and woken from her hypersleep. It’s been 57 years, and her daughter has grown, lived, and died. And LV-426, the site of the alien ship, is now a space colony. (Do they never learn?) Suddenly, all contact is lost with the colonists, and a group of marines are sent to investigate. Little do they know that the entire settlement has been infested by xenomorphs…

Aliens ramps up the stakes of the original in every possible way. The location is larger, the enemies are everywhere, and even the big bad is bigger and badder. This time, Ripley isn’t going to win until she takes out the alien queen. It’s pure setup and explosive payoff, the Godfather Part II of sci-fi sequels, and it’s even got a dose of heart to it. Ripley, no longer a mother, become a mother figure to a surviving colonist.

Make no mistake, the bullets fly in this film like rain in a summer storm. There are literally shots where you watch a screen counting down from hundreds of bullets. The colonial marines are all entertaining before they die horribly.

This film is days away from turning 30, and like the original, it hasn’t really aged a day. It might suffer from a bit of oversaturation, packing a little too much into a slightly bigger package, but it’s still thrilling. Jonesy the cat might be a better actor than young Newt, but they’re both effective.

James Cameron understood that a sequel doesn’t just need to be more, it needs to be its own thing. Because of that understanding, this is one of the greatest sequels of all time.

3.5

Aliens is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.