As a film genre, the world of music biopics can be one of the trickiest terrains to traverse. The potential for cliché and over-sentimentality feels more heightened, which is probably due to the myriad movies that have gotten it so wrong in the past. Fortunately, the new Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy is one of the good ones, a film that truly seems to capture the soul and spirit of its subject. There’s an undeniable magic in the music of the Beach Boys and director Bill Pohlad is able to reveal it with both commendable historical accuracy and artistic expressivity.
The film takes place during two crucial chapters in Brian Wilson’s life, the first taking place during the mid-1960s at the height of the Beach Boys’ success and the second taking place during the mid-1980s at a low point of his personal and professional life. Paul Dano plays a young Wilson, who hit a creative apex that resulted in the recording of the album Pet Sounds while the rest of the Boys were touring in Japan. John Cusack plays Wilson as an older man, whose life is spontaneously altered forever when he meets his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in a Cadillac dealership.
All three of these central performances are career-bests for the respective actors. Dano has been known to play creepy or generally off-putting types in the past but his ebullient turn here as a young man reaching unparalleled creative heights is a true joy to watch. Likewise, Cusack digs deeper into his “sad sack” persona and in turn, culls a gentle grace from an older and wiser Wilson. But it may be Banks, known mainly for her comedic roles, who delivers the strongest performance as a woman who has many opportunities to leave Wilson amid his dilemmas but chooses to fight from pure devotion on his behalf.
As the two timelines are interwoven throughout the narrative, the tone also alternates congruently with the emotions of the characters in each time period. To accentuate this, there are also impressionistic scenes that detail the kind of sonic hallucinations that Wilson encountered while struggling with mental health issues (in fact, the film opens on a black screen while one of these sound collages plays underneath). Editor Dino Jonsäter does a superb job of tying these story elements together to make a cohesive and consistent narrative that is easy to follow throughout.
The film does occasionally slide into convention, mainly during times where it feels like characters are reading excerpts from Brian Wilson’s Wikipedia page. Another issue is the early lip syncing, which is generally unconvincing and did take me out of the experience for brief moments. I much preferred the portions that Dano performed himself, as he replicates Wilson’s unique timbre beautifully. Genuine touches like that make Love & Mercy an inspiring and heartfelt tribute to one of pop music’s greatest legacies.
It’s been 20 years since Pixar released Toy Story, the first computer-generated feature film which single-handedly changed the face of the modern animated movie, and it’s no secret that they’ve had an incredibly successful track record since that first breakthrough effort. After seeing their newest feature Inside Out, I can say with confidence that it stands among with very best that the studio has produced thus far and with time and repeated viewings, it may even usurp the top spot from WALL-E as my all-time favorite from Pixar. This movie is pure magic: endless imaginative, exceedingly clever and profoundly thoughtful on a universal level.
The story, which takes place primarily inside the brain of an eleven-year old girl named Riley, introduces us early on to personified figures of her deepest emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Together, their job is to manage Riley’s impulses properly and make sure that she leads a happy and balanced life. The team is also in charge of creating and storing memories for Riley and when the core memories are thrust into jeopardy after an accident, it takes an entire group effort to ensure that every part is re-assembled perfectly to keep her personality and well-being fully in tact.
Voice work is often overlooked and under appreciated in animated movies, so I’d like to bring attention to the tremendous job that this entire ensemble does in the film. Every part is exceptionally well cast and tailored especially well for the performers, most notably in the case of Lewis Black as his seething, acerbic comedic persona forms a perfect marriage with the Anger character. For me, the main standout performance belongs to Amy Poehler, who takes the potentially one-dimensional character of Joy and imbues her a believable depth of understanding.
Pete Docter, who also directed Pixar high-water marks like Monsters Inc. and Up, once again demonstrates his mastery of visual style with vivid setpieces that contour perfectly to the setting of a child’s imagination. New characters and concepts are introduced with an organic fluidity that appropriately make it seem as though the story is inventing itself as it goes along. I don’t want to give too many details, as this is a movie that’s best to be discovered fresh the first time around, but one sequence which involves multiple characters getting caught in a chasm of abstract thought had me gazing at the screen slack-jawed due to its sheer audacity.
Like almost all the other Pixar movies before it, Inside Out has a wonderfully original setup but the execution here is more precise than it’s ever been before. It clocks in just over an hour and a half and not a second feels wasted, a testament to Docter’s abilities as a storyteller. Most importantly, its final message is remarkably poignant and one that should resonate equally for both parents and kids in the audience. Bursting at the seams with all kinds of wit and wisdom, this movie has all of the hallmarks of an instant classic.
The park has reopened and the dinosaurs are yet loose again in Jurassic World, which is technically the fourth film in the Jurassic Park franchise but serves as more of a reboot than a direct sequel to 2001’s Jurassic Park III. The implicit question that lingers is “can dinosaur movies still be good fun?” and fortunately the answer is yes, they absolutely can. It’s safe to say that movies like this have a way of making one feel like a kid again and despite quibbles with plotting and character development, I had a blast with this movie.
We pick up years after the disastrous opening of Jurassic Park where a company called InGen has created a safe and profitable dinosaur theme park called Jurassic World. Despite their success, the park’s operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) feels the pressure to up the ante and oversees a project to create a new genetically modified hybrid called Indominus rex. As is typical for this series, the dinosaur escapes and Claire enlists the help of dinosaur trainer Owen Grady (a smartly cast Chris Pratt) and his loyal quartet of velociraptors to track down the predator before it kills everything on Isla Nublar.
Director Colin Treverrow, who also directed the independent gem Safety Not Guarenteed, is working here with a budget roughly 200 times larger than that of his previous film and he handles the transition admirably. The action scenes have a great sense of pacing to them and are shot with focus and clarity (I should note that I attended a 2D screening), while the character moments range from funny to touching. It’s only when he gets bogged down in juggling unnecessary subplots that he comes across as potentially overmatched, although this is more a fault of the screenwriting than anything.
This kind of issue is one typical of blockbusters that are written by committee and Jurassic World is no exception. With four credited screenwriters and a likely host of other uncredited writers, it’s not surprising that certain scenes and bits of dialogue feel disjointed from the main emphasis of the film. This would also explain a few of the meandering subplots that arise, the most ponderous and preposterous involving a plan by InGen’s head of security to enlist dinosaurs in the US military. Instead of being relegated to a few lines of dialogue, it’s raised into an arbitrary point of conflict that inexplicably shares screen time with dinosaurs brawling with one other.
While the dinosaur setpieces obviously steal the show, the humans do contribute their fair share as well. Coming off of his Guardians of the Galaxy success from last summer, Chris Pratt proves once again that he has everything it takes and more to be a premier action star. I haven’t been the biggest Bryce Dallas Howard fan in the past but here, she has a chance to play a character that starts off in clichéd territory but grows into something more emphatic as the film progresses. Most importantly, this movie doesn’t forget how to have a good time down the stretch and delivers a final battle sequence that will likely have you roaring out of the theater (even if you’re the only one, it’s okay).
After a surprisingly successful eight season run on HBO, Entourage has finally hit the big screen for the first time. For the uninitiated, the series follows movie superstar Vinnie Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his closest friends as they navigate through the ups and downs of a hyper-stylized, alternate version of Hollywood. In addition to the main players, the film also includes Billy Bob Thornton and Haley Joel Osment as co-financiers for the newest Vinnie Chase vehicle titled Hyde, which he chooses to direct and star in. Beyond the production of his movie, Entourage also features various other subplots of little consequence and an overwhelming menagerie of underwhelming celebrity cameos.
I suspect director Doug Ellin’s intention was to make this feel like a “super-stuffed” version of a typical episode, which it does, but the results are largely disappointing. The show was a breezy and enjoyable enterprise in its first few years but it’s no secret that the quality dropped drastically in subsequent seasons. I had a difficult time overcoming the simple fact that these characters are getting too old and played out at this point to make a new outing with them feel fresh or fun. Those unfamiliar with the series may find enough new in Entourage to merit a watch but there’s not enough here to recommend for existing fans like myself.
Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig team up for a third time in the wildly uneven but often amusing espionage spoof Spy. McCarthy plays Susan Baker, a CIA analyst who is promoted from her desk job at Langley to become a full-time secret agent after a field mission goes wrong. Her primary target is Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and the rogue nuclear weapon that is in her possession, as she also receives help (perhaps “help” is more accurate) from another spy in the field (a hilariously self-aware Jason Statham). Together, they doggedly pursue Boyanov across Paris and Budapest as Baker proves to be more resourceful than expected by her colleagues.
It’s clear that McCarthy is giving it her all here and she does a great job of selling the movie’s funniest moments. My biggest obstacle was that her character became very muddled for me as the movie progressed. She’s characterized very well in the opening scene with Jude Law but this foundation seems to be forgotten around the halfway point when it turns into a contest of improv one-liners and insult humor. It still works on a certain level but it’s not as effective as it could have been if McCarthy had played a consistent character throughout. Factor in some ridiculously dubious action sequences, particularly one involving auto-pilot on a private jet, and Spy unfortunately comes up just short of hitting the mark.
Actor/director Leigh Whannell takes over the Insidious franchise with Chapter 3, which actually serves as a prequel to the original Insidious film. Newcomer Stefanie Scott stars as Quinn, a teenager who recently lost her mother to cancer and reaches out to a psychic named Elise (Lin Shaye) in an attempt to reconnect. After her meeting, she begins to see visions of a decrepit man waving at her, one such occurrence leading to her to be accidentally run over by a car in the middle of the street. With both of her legs broken, Quinn’s hallucinations grow more severe as she discovers that the man seems to be a demon that has somehow attached itself to her.
While this initially seems to be a new approach for this series, everything that follows is remarkably similar to events seen in the previous two movies, though not done with as much enthusiasm or creativity. The “Further” sequences here are particularly derivative, offering little to no scares in what should be the climax of the film. Of course, horror movies like this live or die on jump-scare factor and Whannell does his best to subvert expectations even within the rigid guidelines of the genre. Despite his efforts, Chapter 3 doesn’t offer enough new material for even die-hard fans to get excited about.
In the middle of a particularly rushed sequence of Tomorrowland, the new live-action Disney film by Brad Bird, George Clooney’s character asks “do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” A line like this undoubtedly hints at a self-awareness on the part of the screenwriters, as it accurately sums of the spirit of this movie’s pace and passion. Though it does have some jumbled storytelling and a stout run time, Tomorrowland overcomes its flaws with a sophisticated and original narrative backed with top-rate visuals and an infectious sense of imagination and wonder.
The movie follows peppy teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer who is arrested for disabling explosives at a shuttle demolition site. When she collects her personal items after being bailed out of jail, she finds a pin with a “T” insignia that transports her to a futuristic world upon contact. This leads her on an adventure to uncover the mystery of this new found universe with the help of inventor and previous resident of Tomorrowland Frank Walker (George Clooney), who is also looking for a way back to the high-tech, seemingly utopian city.
The first glimpses of the cutting edge metropolis that is Tomorrowland are the most rewarding, with a crisp retro-future style and a dazzling attention to detail. Jetpacks are a common point of reference for the effects sequences, which is a clever way of bringing together old ideas of what the future might look like with modern ideas of the practicality of such a device. But this movie also offers up its own fun concepts of possible future development, including a multi-level take on the current “infinity pool” and free floating automations that erect skyscapers in minutes.
These fresh ideas coincide with the central message of the film, which encourages the dreamers and thinkers of the world to shun the world’s pervading notions of pessimism and continue on the path of progress instead. Especially for a Disney film, this is a genuinely uplifting and surprisingly old-fashioned conceit that deserves praise for being about as wholesome as a summer blockbuster will allow for these days. Even though the movie’s points do get heavy-handed down the stretch, especially in a third act monologue by Hugh Laurie’s character, I appreciated the fact that it didn’t dumb down its content just to appeal to the typical “family adventure” crowd.
Even on a more surface level, there’s also plenty to enjoy beyond the story as well. Both Clooney and Robertson give heartfelt and inspired performances, while also showcasing a playful chemistry that thankfully steers clear of creepiness. Bird favorite Michael Giacchino conjures up another winning musical score that gives the jetpack flying scenes an extra zing. All within the package of a modern family entertainment, Tomorrowland takes the futuristic ideas of the past and the hopes for the future and puts them all on display with an original sense of reverence and wonder.
There is a moment in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth George Miller-directed installment in the franchise, that encapsulates the entire experience of viewing the film very succinctly. Two cars rip along a desert wasteland: one with our hero Max and the other with the primary antagonists. Desperate for more power, members of each car crawl along their respective hoods and take turns literally spitting gasoline into their growling engine blocks as flames shoot vigorously from either side. This movie isn’t a matter of loud and louder; it’s a matter of loudest and louderest.
We are re-introduced to Mad Max (Tom Hardy), still inhabiting the post-apocalyptic setting of the previous films, as he is captured by pale creatures called the War Boys and strung up like a human IV to be used as a universal blood donor. When a gasoline collecting cavalcade led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) veers off course, the War Boys are instructed by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to pursue the convoy at all costs. With Max in tow, the War Boys and Furiosa engage in long stretches of highway warfare filled with insane antics and limitless explosions.
My chief critique of Mad Max: Fury Road is an admittedly simple one: it’s too much. Good action movies will typically have one or two climactic setpieces that put the main characters in peril for an appropriate amount of time. The extended car chase from last year’s Nightcrawler is a great example: it’s grounded, it’s thrilling and it has a real sense of unpredictability to it. Alternately, Mad Max feels like a ten-minute chase sequence that has been blown out to a two-hour feature. It’s an exhausting proposition, one that eventually lead me to ask myself “do I really need to watch another car crash and explode?”
Thankfully, bits of respite are interspersed throughout the film in the form of moderately interesting backstories and bouts of character development. Even in these moments, the overdone score is pumped up louder than necessary but at least the actors have a chance to show off their chops. The most notable among them is Charlize Theron, who has always been a very reliable actress and she brings forth a unique sense of loss and resiliency to her character. Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson in the Mad Max role, doesn’t have very much dialogue but provides yet another credible performance of commanding physicality and ferocity.
Indeed, the fight scenes that include Hardy stand as the most well choreographed portions of the movie. From a visual perspective, there’s plenty to admire about the universe that George Miller has created here and I certainly respect his proclivity towards practical stunts over computer generated effects. There are even unexpected moments of dark slapstick humor that crop up from time to time. Unfortunately, Miller has crafted a movie that I found to be bombastic beyond belief and one that left my ears ringing as opposed to my adrenaline pumping.
Screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) takes over for the first time as director in the science fiction thriller Ex Machina, an atmospheric and engaging take on the future of artificial intelligence and man’s place in the ongoing advancement of technology. It tells an intimate story, mainly involving three characters, that appropriately finds a chilling balance between humanity and inhumanity. The film also breaches heavy concepts like mortality and collective consciousness without getting too heavy-handed or over-explaining, instead trusting the audience to think for themselves and dwell on the themes at hand.
We begin at fictional search engine company Bluebook, a dual homage to both Google and Facebook, where a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to meet with the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) for a week-long research project. When Caleb arrives, he is shocked to find that Nathan has developed a near-fully functioning form of artificial intelligence that is being carried out through a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). For the next seven days, Caleb puts Ava through an intense psychological Turing test in order to push the technology further and create the most sophisticated AI in history.
Thematically, the film’s most innovative material comes from its view of gender and the misogynistic undertones that permeate Caleb and Nathan’s relationship with Ava. Though they are both clearly brilliant men, they seem to both possess a weakening ability to deal with women or more specifically, their own manifestation of a woman. From Nathan’s seemingly casual abuse of the female-like robots to Caleb’s initial patronizing treatment of Ava during their interactions, it’s ironic that Ava seems to display a higher degree of emotional intelligence than either of the men with whom she interacts.
More than anything, Ex Machina does a stunning job of reminding us what is means to truly be a human being. We learn late in the film that Ava’s brain is actually a composite of the billions of search queries submitted through Bluebook, along with other illegally obtained personal data like text messages and cell phone videos. This creates surprisingly effective results and is a fresh approach to building an AI but even with all of this stimuli of human interaction and experience, there is still a component of humanity that Ava struggles to recreate.
All of this is carried out with a crisp production design and seamless computer generated effects that are integrated with careful detail and nuance. The chilly score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury also adds an extra layer of depth without drawing too much attention to itself. The performances, especially from Vikander, are well-realized and full of believability, although I still don’t fully find myself on the Domhnall Gleeson bandwagon as of yet. Ex Machina intelligently handles the typical themes found in science fiction films and has enough new ideas to make it a worthy addition.
From Marvel Studios, a production company who in seven years time has transformed from a middling presence to a unstoppable behemoth, comes the follow-up to their 2012 mega-hit The Avengers. In true sequel fashion, Marvel ups the ante this time with more superheroes, more action, more subplots…more of just about everything. Avengers: Age of Ultron does suffer in comparison to its predecessor, mainly due to the lack of surprise factor that comes along with seeing these characters together for the first time, but it also brings enough of the original film’s frenetic energy and self-aware humor to make it worth recommending.
The story hinges on Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) discovery of a new form of artificial intelligence within one of the coveted Infinity Stones, which he secretly utilizes to advance his Ultron defense program. Because he has apparently never seen a science fiction movie, he is surprised when the newly born technology becomes sentient and threatens to eliminate the human race from the planet. The Avengers must once again overcome their personal differences to defeat Ultron’s massive robot army along with the new mutant villains Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
Inevitably, this conflict leads up to a gigantic setpiece that overtakes the final 45 minutes of the movie in similar fashion to the first film but in total, the action comes across as more frenzied and sometimes confused in Age of Ultron. Both clearly make ample use of computer generated effects but something about this outing feels a bit more artificial. Still, there’s no lack of crowd pleasing fight scenes here, the most memorable including an extended showdown between a mind-altered Hulk and a heavily armored Iron Man that should prove to be immensely satisfying for comic book fans and casual fans alike.
The Evil Plot is not terribly original here but as the primary villain, James Spader does bring a great deal of gleeful menace to Ultron. Most specifically, I was especially impressed with the facial detail that was implemented for his character. Hallmarks of Spader’s past performances, like the intimidating stare and even the pursing of the lips, are somehow translated on the face of this hulking automaton. While it might not make much logical sense that Ultron would have such a killer sense of humor, it does stay consistent with the witty atmosphere that director Joss Whedon has established in his Avengers universe.
The humor and personality that Whedon has brought to these movies remain their most worthy attributes. We can watch cars explode and civilians scream in just about any superhero movie but the interplay between these legendary characters is bracingly unique to this series. Whether its a running joke about Captain America’s distaste for profanity or Robert Downey Jr.’s hilarious line reading during the discovery of a secret passageway, Age of Ultron has no shortage of unexpected laughs. Here’s hoping that the Russo Brothers can stay on the right track when they take over the Avengers series in 2018.
The remarkably consistent Noah Baumbach returns with While We’re Young, a sharply well-observed and thoughtful comedy filled to the brim with life-affirming wit and wisdom. It feels like his most empathetic and personal film to date, which draws on the themes of adulthood and nostalgia with a sort of infectious vigor that kept me charmed the entire time. While its depiction of generational division is inherently timeless, the movie also has an uncanny sense of time and place that constantly keeps things relevant and relatable to adults of any age.
The story centers around middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who feel increasingly alienated from friends who insist that having a baby will change their lives for the better. Fortunately, their social anxieties about aging and impending irrelevance begin to subside when they strike up a friendship with hipster (yes, I said it) twentysomething couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Their carefree attitude and effortless zeal begin to rub off on Josh and Cornelia, until Jamie’s work on a new documentary feature begins to call the motives of the young couple into question.
Authenticity then becomes a more prevalent theme throughout the film, as Josh and Cornelia begin to strip away the layers of ironic detachment that cover their new young friends. There’s an element of presentation with Jamie and Darby that is immediately attractive to the older couple; Josh borrows an affinity for pork pie hats while Cornelia even attends a hip-hop dance class with Darby. But the question always lingers: how much of this is a show? What are Jamie and Darby getting out of this? The movie does a very good job of providing open-ended answers to those questions, leaving us with enough to go on but also enough to speculate on their true nature.
Of all of the film’s brilliant cross-generational examinations, the most rewarding is its depiction of the relationship that the two groups have with technology. Most movies would take the easy route, having the youngsters doing technological laps around the old folks for laughs, but it’s the twentysomethings here that have a more old-fashioned way of living. A mid-way montage highlights this juxtaposition beautifully, cutting together shots of Ben and Cornelia clutching their iPhones and Kindles with Jamie and Darby loading up a VHS copy of The Howling or selecting from a vast collection of vinyl records. Cornelia even remarks “It’s like their apartment is filled with things we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it!”
That quote also implies a type of bittersweet resentment that almost seems inevitable as one ages. No matter how old you are, there is always someone younger that you can choose to begrudge. What While We’re Young demonstrates in its closing line is a type of acceptance of this, followed by a final moment of levity that nicely ties all of the film’s themes together. Whether you’re old, not yet old or somewhere in between, this movie is well worthy of your time.
The wonderfully weird but not entirely successful Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter begins with the title character, played by Rinko Kikuchi, finding an abandoned VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo buried in the sand on a beach. Curious, she takes the tape back to her apartment and studies the film with quiet intensity, taking scrupulous notes and even taking sketch paper to the screen to complete a drawing. Kumiko takes the “true story” disclaimer at the beginning of the film seriously and treats it like a documentary, although the entirety of Fargo is completely fictional and the note was intended as a small bit of stylistic satire from the Coens.
This is lost on the troubled and lonesome Kumiko, who increasingly grows weary of her meaningless desk job and the impending pangs of adulthood. When she sees Steve Buscemi’s character bury a satchel of money in the middle of a snowy Fargo field, she almost can’t believe her good fortune. After relinquishing her adorable bunny companion Bunzo, Kumiko journeys from Tokyo to Minnesota with only a stolen company credit card and a hand stitched map that she believes will lead her to the unclaimed treasure.
To make matters more confusing, Kumiko is itself based partially on the real events surrounding Takako Konishi, whose story is told in depth in the film This Is a True Story. What director David Zellner and his brother Nathan have done is taken the elements of truth and fiction from all of these idiosyncratic narrative strands and created a sort of off-kilter urban legend of their own. Fittingly, they create an unusual tone throughout the story, with a mix of introspective character studyand fish-out-of-water comedy that’s sure to throw audiences off.
Despite this, the film’s most obvious flaw is that the Zellners really have no idea how we should perceive Kumiko. She’s our heroine and we want to see her succeed but ultimately, we know that she’s running a fool’s errand. How hard can we root for someone who travels across the world expecting a stolen credit card to provide ample funding for her trip? Even the gracious strangers that she meets on the way who try to aid her in her quest are eventually jettisoned by Kumiko. By the end, my sympathy and patience was running thin for her, which is a problem for a movie that focuses so solely on its main character.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather the Zellners go this route instead of trying to make Kumiko a “quirky” and “lovable” stereotype who is set up to be the butt of the movie’s jokes. Despite the main character’s struggles, Kumiko is never a mean-spirited work but instead, it is a much more thoughtful film with a peculiar edge and a memorably bizarre setup. Unfortunately, the journey ultimately does not pay off.