Self/less (2015)

Selfless

Eventually, I will completely trash a movie with a one-leaf rating. But Self/less barely managed to stay above my personal hate threshold. It starts out as a promising-enough, Twilight Zone-y science fiction flick, but then it quickly devolves into a gimmicky and predictable action flick — complete with multiple gun fights, chase scenes, flamethrowers, etc.

Actually, I can’t stand to spend much time thinking about this movie anymore: Self/less is a complete waste of… millions of dollars. Sir Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds were both fine in (albeit it yawning through) their respective roles. But this one’s such a throwaway script, it shouldn’t even be blogged about. (My bad!) The movie has a decent-enough premise and, like I said, I can’t say that it offends the senses completely. But do rest assured that it’s a predictable, paint-by-numbers exercise, and you can totally skip it without losing any sleep.

The director responsible, Tarsem Singh, has overseen some pretty visually stimulating movies in the past, including Immortals, Mirror Mirror, The Fall, and — my personal favorite — The Cell (with freakin’ Vince Vaughn and J-Lo)! But Self/less fails to engage on any emotional level, and I’m afraid to say that it’s also incredibly stupid. (Not that any of Singh’s other flicks are real genius pieces either…)

Anyway, I’m not going to pan it completely because it didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. It is, in fact, a “production.” But I’m a serious science fiction fan, and Self/less is severely disappointing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Self/less (2015)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar

Let me just start by saying that I adore the Brothers Coen. Nobody does dark comedy better than they do. (Even their lightest fare tends to include a bit of murder, mayhem, or — at the very least — accidental suicide.) But Hail, Caesar! is a different story. For filmmakers who have spent the past 32 years defying convention, it still seems like a curve ball: It’s not hilarious. There’s no action. It has a full, homoerotic song-and-dance number involving a bar full of sailors. Nobody dies.

But if you’ve been paying really close attention to the writer/directors’ themes over the past 32 years — morality, mortality, etc. — you might be able to enjoy this excessively talky, but ultimately uplifting religious/political satire as well. Just don’t expect another Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Think more along the lines of Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, or A Serious Man.

Hail, Caesar! opens with a somber shot of Jesus on the cross, followed by a scene in which Josh Brolin’s character — the PR manager of a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s — confesses his trivial sins to a rather bored priest. Shortly after that, the Hollywood PR manager assembles a priest, a rabbi, and an imam around a table to discuss the studio’s latest effort to portray the “Godhead,” or divine images of the “Christ.” A brilliant, rapid-fire “Who’s on First?”-type conversation ensues, and this kind of toying with religious orthodoxy more-or-less sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately, Hail, Caesar! was billed as a straight-up comedy — with images of George Clooney making funny faces, etc. But the truth is that it’s more of a light drama with a few chuckles included. At it’s core, I suspect that the movie is about the choices we make as humans, how they shape who we are, and how who we are, in turn, affects society. How do we know if we’re doing the right thing? the filmmakers seem to be asking. It’s the “lightest” flick that the Coens have ever made (e.g., what the viewer thinks are silenced gunshots turn out to be flashbulbs in a camera just a moment later). Hail, Caesar! also appears to serve as a sort of half-veiled vindication of what the Coen brothers have been doing for the past several decades: making movies for the masses.

I’m quite happy to disagree with most critics on this one. Hail, Caesar! is a strangely refreshing, offbeat gem.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Uncanny (aka Android) [2015]

Uncanny

I absolutely loved this movie, as I did Ex Machina and, less enthusiastically, The Machine. I think anyone who enjoys films of the AI genre should check out all three of these flicks. While Ex Machina has a much higher budget, Uncanny nonetheless delivers with a subtle charm that is fully backed up by a heady and intellectual script. Unfortunately, for me, the female lead seemed to be a bit plastered in at times. I didn’t care for — or identify with — her character, which may have been partly by design.

I should specify that the genre of these movies is not just “AI,” but also the genre of “theater as film.” Uncanny has a small, four-person cast, so the bulk of its content is in the script and the characters’ relationships, rather than special effects, action, or set design. And the movie made me think! The acting was sharp, focused, appropriately rational, and intellectually robotic. There was a very ominous undercurrent throughout the entire film, hinting at high-level conspiracy and the world-behind-the-world that we are only somewhat aware of in our daily lives. What captivated my attention most was how the film continually went back and forth between concepts of “machine as capable of consciousness” and “designer as illusionist.” It made me question my own neural programming as a human, and then juxtaposed that with the data-programming of a computer.

Some of the epiphanies I had while watching were actually nullified and confused by the end of the movie, which makes me think that I need to go back and watch it again. (I love movies that taunt me into watching them again in order to uncover what was really going on.) The most interesting question I had while watching Uncanny was, “If a computer that learns from humans calculates that a human has made a choice based on passion rather than logic, could that computer then learn programming based on chaos rather than order?” In a sense, computers, like children, learn early on that emotions, moods, and hidden agendas are used to manipulate and react to the environment. That’s my first impression, at least… But I really can’t wait to see this one again!

After watching Uncanny last night, I decided to watch Ex Machina again — and I loved it the second time around as well. I’m truly impressed with the ability of two different directors to take the same basic story and make two completely different, enjoyable presentations that stimulated my intellect in different ways.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Uncanny (aka Android) [2015]

Southpaw (2015)

southpaw

This film represents everything I love and hate about Hollywood. I’ll give it a fair rating. But let me be clear about one thing: The script is hot, soggy garbage. Calling Southpaw “trite” would be a serious understatement. It was definitely the most cliché, cookie-cutter production that I’ve sat through in a while. (I mean, the name of our protagonist — a light heavyweight boxing champ played by Jake Gyllenhaal — is Hope, for shit’s sake.) And the movie goes through all the typical motions we’ve grown to expect without unveiling a single unique quality.

But now that you know it’s traI did actually enjoy Southpaw. I never once wanted to turn it off. It’s bright and it’s shiny and it’s strangely well-acted (assuming you can overlook 50 Cent’s wooden role). It’s ultimately an uplifting flick — complete with angry/inspirational Eminem soundtrack — but the story puts a hurtin’ on the viewer during the first two acts. Rachel McAdams’ character is a breath of fresh air among the otherwise stereotypical cast, but she’s removed from the equation early on in what must be one of the saddest, most tragic death scenes in any movie. (And by lazily glossing over her murder, Southpaw inadvertently makes a rather searing statement regarding the pervasiveness of handgun violence in America.) Subsequently, Gyllenhaal’s tragic boxer loses custody of his daughter — a truly sympathetic role filled immaculately by young Oona Laurence — and he must do battle with his crippling anger management issues in order to get her back. Over the course of his inevitable redemption, he trains with a drunk, washed-up ex-boxer (Forest Whitaker) and mounts his comeback against the movie’s “villain,” a Columbian boxer played by Danny Henriquez.

For better or worse, this kind of shallow-but-engaging movie is what Antoine Fuqua is good at. The director takes terribly vapid scripts and turns them into halfway decent movies. Sometimes I fall for them (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur) and sometimes I don’t (Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer). Southpaw is technically just another turd. But it’s also one of the most well-polished turds to come out all year — and it wrings a surprising amount of emotion out of its viewers. (Spoiler ahead.) It would have gotten an extra pot leaf if Hope had lost the big title fight at the end. I would have welcomed an unexpected sucker punch like that at the end of this ridiculously predictable flick.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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Southpaw (2015)

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

peggy sue got married

Francis Ford Coppola has directed some of my favorite films of all time — The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Dracula, Youth Without Youth — so I decided that, at some point, I should sit down and watch all of his movies. (Call me a Coppola completest if you want.) With 17 under my belt so far, it’s obvious to me that the man is a masterful storyteller. I just don’t always like the stories he chooses to tell.

But that’s not really my problem with Peggy Sue Got Married. Actually, I thought the script was extremely heartfelt; the direction, engaging; and Kathleen Turner, absolutely adorable. It’s just that the production is riddled with so many strange and sporadic weak points that the whole thing comes across flat, overall: The young and recognizable cast relies on rather distracting makeup to appear 25 years older in certain scenes, Nicolas Cage gives birth to one of the most obnoxious characters ever committed to film, and the whole third act of the movie somehow manages to be both bizarre and deflating. The end result is one of my least favorite “time travel” movies to date — and I’m afraid that, in this case, there’s a real need for those quotation marks.

But I won’t trash Peggy Sue Got Married completely. After all, it does achieve a certain degree of charm and mysticism. The women of the cast — Catherine Hicks, Joan Allen, Barbara Harris, Helen Hunt, and a young Sofia Coppola (not to mention Ms. Turner again) — carry the plot a good distance, and it’s quite fun to see a young, scene-stealing Jim Carrey (two years before Earth Girls Are Easy). Plus, Kathleen Turner evokes some really powerful emotions during the scenes in which she finds herself transported back to her childhood home. The sense of nostalgia is almost overwhelming, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the bittersweet journeys I’ve made back to my parents’ house — the place where I weathered such life-molding storms as puberty and high school. There are also a couple of interesting “mirror” shots worth noting, in which Coppola hides the camera by employing two different groups of actors to play the subjects and their reflections. (They’re not always exactly in sync, but it’s a pretty neat trick nonetheless.)

Still… Nicolas Cage’s role in this one is ultimately unforgivable.

Two pot leafs out of five:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Monsters vs Aliens

If you’re going to read this blog, I suppose there’s something you should know about me right off the bat: I fucking love animation. I’ve been obsessed with the medium — especially the pure, hand-drawn and stop-motion stuff — ever since I discovered He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Voltron: Defender of the Universe as a child. (I actually broke my wrist, swinging a plastic sword around and shouting, “I have the power!” when I was two years old.)

That said, I continue to watch a lot of animated features as an “adult,” and I recently took a chance on the 2009 Dreamworks release known as Monsters vs. Aliens — a 90-minute CGI romp that blends references from all the major science fiction films of the past 50 years into a silly and colorful adventure. Overall, I found it to be extremely decent. It never attempted to get deep or pull on any heartstrings, but it maintained its light and breezy tone from beginning to end, evoking a few genuine chuckles along the way. It also benefited from some really great voice acting by well-known artists such as Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.

The computer animation was adequate enough to propel the story at a steady pace and dazzle the senses every once in a while. And, even though the characters’ mugs were — for the most part — ugly as sin, the animators managed to create some really brilliant facial expressions that added a little more depth to the already punchy dialogue. They also gave us the wonderfully behemoth and dead-eyed mutated bug, known affectionately as Insectosaurus, whom I will never forget. The movie would have gotten an extra pot leaf if it had been filmed one cel at a time. But it maintains a certain charm of its own, and it is in no way offensive to even the most sophisticated sensibilities.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Uncle

This movie, based on the popular 1960’s television series starring a young Robert Vaughn, is a perfect example of Style over Substance — and I don’t usually go for that. Yet, somehow, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was able to win me over with its charm, and I must admit that it’s a pretty solid flick. Despite essentially glossing over its plot, which involves a nuclear warhead, international espionage, and some very earnest attempts to save the world, the movie manages to be a ton of fun. Guy Ritchie’s super-slick direction and a few fantastic performances by the young cast — Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander — keep the boat upright for an entire 116 minutes.

While Ritchie is responsible for a few of my favorite flicks, including Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, he’s also capable of making some real stinkers. (Swept Away, for example, was one of the most atrocious flicks I’ve ever sat through.) And ever since Revolver and RocknRolla, which were both unique and interesting, the talented director has been more reliant on the works (and scripts) of others, borrowing Sir Conan Doyle’s detective for a couple movies and then rebooting an old TV show. (Next, he’s taking on a Knights of the Round Table movie, which seems a bit too ambitious. But I’ll watch anything that attempts Arthurian legend.) Anyway, my expectations were not exceptionally high when I popped The Man from U.N.C.L.E. into my DVD player, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised. Although Ritchie seems to be pulling his little non-linear pranks for no good reason these days (showing us part of a scene and then going back to it a few minutes later to fill us in on what we missed), he still hasn’t dropped the ball completely, like I keep half-expecting him to do.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gets points for including a strong and sympathetic Russian protagonist — the type of character that has been largely absent from Western cinema for the past few decades. (American audiences, at least, got used to seeing Russians as “bad guys” in the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s refreshing to see that trend changing 15 years later. Another recent British film to do this well was Last Passenger, IMHO.) But the best thing about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was it’s subtle but acerbic humor, which was present throughout. (A scene that involves accidental electrocution, in particular, had me rolling!) I’ll give it a fair rating because it’s so terribly fluffy — but also lots of fun.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)