Australian actor Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with the slow-burn, psychological thriller The Gift, a film that builds up quite a case for itself until its clumsy climax manages to tarnish the memory of its well-devised setup. The script, also penned by Edgerton, does include an appealing level of ambiguity not often showcased in modern American movies but it also doesn’t do much to sidestep genre clichés that crop up periodically in the story. In some ways, it is a mature film with worthy themes but it also feels like it’s trying very hard to be a movie “for adults”, often delving into oppressive levels of self-seriousness just to keep a straight face.
We meet LA newcomers Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they move into their luxurious new home with the intention of starting a new life and with hope, a new family as well. While out running errands, a man named Gordo (Edgerton, again) introduces himself to Simon as an old classmate from his high school years ago and the two awkwardly exchange contact information. What started as an “accidental” run-in develops quickly into a one-sided relationship when Gordo continually drops by for unannounced visits and sneaks unexpected gifts onto their doorstep. Eventually put off by the “friendly” displays, Simon insists on Gordo vacating their personal lives but it becomes clear that the two have unresolved issues that Gordo intends to rectify by any means necessary.
The story and the film’s marketing hinge on this central mystery, the event(s) in the buried past of these two men that will ultimately lead to a climatic showdown. Edgerton does an admirable job in pacing the first half that leads to this moment and although the reveal is thankfully not done through blurry flashbacks or overwrought voiceover, its delivery is instead so underwhelming that I initially thought I missed out on all of the key information. It turns out that I didn’t; I was just expecting a revelation that matched the impact of its build up.
Despite struggles with the story, the performances by the three leads are excellently rendered and contribute to the near-success of this movie. Bateman turns in his finest dramatic work here, oddly enough by using similar notes from his type-A, straight man persona in comedic works to reveal depths of desperation and disrepair hidden right under the surface. Edgerton creates a character who is steeped in creeping menace but is still not beyond fleeting moments of pity, while the always reliable Hall lends a conflicted sense of emotional intelligence that raises the dramatic stakes early on.
It’s a shame that the second half and specifically the final 15-20 minutes are mishandled because there’s a strong foundation present here. If only Edgerton had stayed true to the characters instead of trying to contrive an ending intended to be shocking rather than haunting. I look forward to seeing what he does next but a few rookie mistakes kept me from graciously receiving The Gift.
For almost 20 years now, the Mission: Impossible series has distinguished itself by involving various high-profile directors for each entry, all of whom bring their own unique set of sensibilities to the table. From the non-stop cliffhanger approach of JJ Abrams to the cartoon-inspired setpieces of Brad Bird, each film feels like a director’s self-contained argument on how to create the perfect action movie. Christopher McQuarrie, of Usual Suspects fame, steps up for the fifth entry in the franchise and makes the strongest case yet by creating the most outrageously entertaining and consistently enjoyable M:I movie in the series.
We rejoin IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself at odds with the Syndicate, a shadow organization comprised of ex-operatives from intelligence divisions across the world. One of its members, Ilsa Faust (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson), is a perpetually elusive femme fatale type who forms a makeshift alliance with Hunt based on mutual interests. Along with returning IMF recruits Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), Hunt must stay one step ahead of the Syndicate’s head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as he attempts to create a new world order, one violent act at a time.
As is typical, the plot is an elaborate excuse on which to hang extended action setpieces that move the story along at a reasonable pace. While there’s nothing in this movie that quite equals the masterful, series-best Burj Khalifa sequence of its predecessor, it does contain about 4 or 5 exquisitely well-crafted action scenes that come very close to besting it. Advertising of the film has focused on the opening sequence, which literally has its star Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane mid-flight, but the most pleasant surprise is that none of the other sequences feel like a letdown by comparison.
It should go without saying at this point that Tom Cruise gives everything that he has to these movies. At 53, he’s pulling off stunt work that actors half of his age would be proud to accomplish. His dedication and commitment to the increasingly ludicrous demands of the M:I movies is not only admirable but it also goes a long way in selling his performances each time out. When we know that it’s truly Cruise holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time or careening through highway traffic helmet-less at top speeds on a motorcycle, it creates a thrilling sense of peril that just can’t be matched.
I should note that I also saw this film in both digital IMAX and “true” 70 mm IMAX formats and I would highly encourage readers to seek it out in either form. Not only is the visual experience vastly expanded but the sonic quality is much more sophisticated and powerful than what the common movie theater offers. No matter which way you choose to see it, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is top-notch entertainment, proof that an action movie made at the highest level can be a true work of art.
In an early scene in the well-crafted music documentary Amy, we see home video footage of its subject Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” as a teenager among friends and family. Her raw talent is undeniable but more revealing than her sultry voice is the charm and vibrancy that she exudes during her singing. It serves as a stark contrast to the Amy Winehouse that we all saw when the cameras of the world were rolling, whose public persona would come to be one synonymous with drug addiction and alcoholism. Her early death at the young age of 27 was not wholly unexpected but it doesn’t make her tragic story any less worthy of thoughtful examination.
Director Asif Kapadia has crafted a fitting eulogy that neither absolves Amy of her personal vices nor points obvious fingers as to who is to blame for her untimely demise. There were a litany of bad influences, some larger than others, that could have contributed to her death but the film doesn’t take sides in trying to single one aspect out as the main cause. She’s portrayed not as a saint or a sinner but rather as a human being, a young vulnerable girl who was fully unequipped to deal with the rising demands associated with pop stardom.
Though she was most notable for her stylized jazz vocals, this movie does a fantastic job at highlighting other sides of her artistic and musical talents as well. Her handwritten lyrics, offered up as subtitles during scenes in which she’s performing, are given new layers of poignancy when accompanied with corresponding accounts from her personal life. She is also shown to be a very competent guitarist too, performing some of her earlier songs on either acoustic or electric guitar while also singing in her trademark tone.
Perhaps most saddening, we also get visceral glimpses as to what could have been had she continued to live on and keep making music. Accounts from rapper Mos Def and Roots drummer ?uestlove detail the artistic thrust and ambition that Amy had, as evidenced by proposed projects and unfinished song ideas that could have launched the singer into newfound artistic territory. We will never know what else Amy had in store but the fact that her spirit is still well represented in today’s pop music (Adele and Lady Gaga, among others, cite her as a major influence) is a reminder that some talents are truly timeless.
The second of three Marvel movies to be released this year, Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a tech savvy thief newly released from a prison stint, who gets pulled back into the crime business despite previously vowing to clean up his act for the sake of his young daughter. After confiscating what appears to be an old motorcycle suit during a late-night raid, he learns firsthand that it has the ability to shrink the wearer to the size of an insect. Impressed by his skills, the owner of the suit Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) recruit him to take down an evil businessman who’s intent on using the suit’s technology for nefarious purposes.
This may sound like typical superhero movie fare but Ant-Man does its best to distinguish itself from its predecessors by incorporating fleet-footed computer generated action and a playful brand of self-referential humor into the mix. The story cleverly compiles a cast of various species of ants, like bullet ants and electric ants, to aid Lang in his micro conquests, which gives the action scenes a more credible sense of scale than if it was just one man inching along the floor by himself. Most of the film’s biggest laughs come from the sheer silliness of seeing high-stakes setpieces taken place on such a physically small stage, as when Ant-Man does battle inside of a free falling briefcase while “Disintegration” by The Cure scores the scene brilliantly.
Despite these advancements, director Peyton Reed can’t seem to circumnavigate the same obstacles that have plagued the most recent Marvel movies. The most obvious is the absence of a worthy villain, with Darren Cross competing for the most perfunctory and shallow nemesis in the MCU so far. His lack of character development actually goes on to affect the thrust of the story and sets up a third act that feels unmotivated and tedious. On the hero side of things, I didn’t find much believable chemistry between the three leads and the forced flirtation between Rudd and Lilly seemed equally dubious. I give credit for Ant-Man being the “little Marvel movie that could” but I know I could have enjoyed it more if some of the bugs had been worked out.
Comedienne Amy Schumer looks to capitalize on the recent breakout success of her Comedy Central series with Trainwreck, a new Judd Apatow directed romantic comedy that features a screenplay written by Schumer. She also stars in the film as Amy, a promiscuous, hard-drinking party girl who keeps herself emotionally distanced from the multitude of men with whom she engages sexually. On assignment from the magazine company where she works, she meets successful sports doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) and the two ease their way into a romantic relationship. This proves to be more challenging for Amy, who has been taught by her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age that monogamy is unrealistic, and the story follows the ups and downs of their courtship.
Although she doesn’t really try to avoid typical rom-com tropes and conventions, Schumer has done a fine job adapting her sketch comedy writing skills for the big screen. Naturally, it features plenty of laugh out loud moments and funny exchanges but also includes a poignant subplot involving her complicated relationship with her younger sister that helps give the movie a better sense of direction and groundedness. There’s a naked honesty to those family scenes that seems deeply personal to Schumer, which may make some audiences uncomfortable and eager to get back to the comedy but I appreciate her effort to add a more resonant dynamic to the story.
Elsewhere, Apatow sticks to his signature brand of implementing celebrity cameos (this time, sports figures are the main focus) and largely improvised one-liners into the existing script. We know Schumer and Hader are deft comedic performers but the real surprises come from the hilarious performances of WWE wrestler John Cena as one of Amy’s flings and LeBron James as Aaron’s protective and unexpectedly stingy best friend. Both do a commendable job of holding their own against their veteran counterparts and I’d love to see either of them do comedy again in the future.
The new animated children’s movie Minions, a spinoff of the Despicable Me series, is the cinematic equivalent of a large bowl of Trix cereal: a colorful and sugar-filled offering that may have kids bouncing off the walls with excitement but will likely leave parents hungry for something more substantial. The antics of the small, yellow pill-shaped creatures work well in the confines of the previous films but when amplified to feature level, their charm begins to diminish considerably during the 90 minute runtime. It’s cute but seldom clever; innocuous but also not worthwhile enough to justify its existence.
The film’s high note comes during the opening montage, in which chipper voiceover narration introduces us to the Minions as creatures who have roamed the planet since the dawn of time in an attempt to serve the most maniacal evildoer that they can find. After candidates like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Dracula meet their untimely ends, the Minion clan grows discouraged and exiles itself to Antarctica. After many years pass, one of the Minions named Kevin recruits other Minions Stuart and Bob to begin their search anew in 1960s New York.
For those unfamiliar, Minions do not speak English but rather Minionese, a made-up mishmash of a language that consists of silly sounding words from various languages (cucaracha, papaya, etc.) This is the crux of the movie’s humor, which can be good fun starting out (I still chuckle at their inflexions of “banana”) but following characters that essentially speak gibberish does present a very basic problem: none of their dialogue can advance the story. Instead, we have to rely on human characters to relay plot points very bluntly so that everyone can get on the same page.
This process creates an experience of being dragged through an already flimsy story that feels like bits and pieces left over from both of the Despicable Me movies. The directing comes off of purely arbitrary, as there’s never much of a good reason why anything is happening at any point in the movie. Jon Hamm and Sandra Bullock (both woefully miscast) try to bring some life to their villain characters but they clearly just don’t have enough material to work with here.
I get it: this is a kid’s movie and perhaps I shouldn’t have such high expectations. The fact is, any film genre can be done well and animated movies do not have to dumb themselves down this much to still appeal to their target audience. I understand that this movie has a slightly different demographic from something like Inside Out but it’s not terribly far off and that movie managed to be more poignant, memorable and much funnier than Minions. It may be impossible to deter kids from this franchise cash grab but it may not be too late to warn their parents.
Terminator Genisys plays out like a crash course on how not to reboot an ailing franchise, as if the writers compiled a checklist of losing ideas and then proceed to sullenly tick off each box during its two-hour runtime. It is stunning the degree to which this film chooses to alienate both allegiant fans of the series, who will no doubt feel betrayed by the pandering attempts to “upgrade” storylines from the original movies, and attentive newcomers, who will no doubt be baffled by the ludicrously convoluted plotting. The persistent thought in my head while watching was “who is this movie for?” and I’m still not sure I have a good answer.
We start in Los Angeles 2029, with Human Resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) and sergeant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) squaring off against the evil AI force Skynet. In events that mirror those of the first Terminator film, Skynet sends a Terminator back to 1984 to kill John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) to effectively negate his existence. To combat this, the Resistance sends Reese back to protect her but when he arrives in the past, he finds the circumstances to be radically altered as Sarah is far from helpless and has instead acquired another Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as an ally and confidant.
Bare in mind, I’ve only covered about the first twenty minutes there and if you’ve seen onslaught of marketing over the past few weeks, you’ll know that there are at least two or three other big plot reveals that I’ve chosen not to spoil here. Over the past few years or so, Hollywood has developed a worsening habit of giving away too much in trailers or TV spots in order to sell their movies and the promotion for Terminator Genisys may be the worst that I’ve seen so far. I accept that trailers are essential to selling a film and I even think they can be effective forms of mini-storytelling but it can’t be at the expense of ruining major plot points for potential moviegoers.
Despite this, I can’t say that I fully fault the poor saps at Paramount who were saddled with the insurmountable task of making this mess of a film look approachable. Of course the myriad callbacks to the original film are derivative and lazy but even the action sequences play out like rewarmed leftovers from better films, as when a school bus flips over front first à la the Joker’s 18-wheeler in The Dark Knight. At least there’s an attempt at a practical effect there, as the rest of the setpieces rely more on distractingly subpar CG effects that look much less convincing than those in the now 24-year old predecessor Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
That’s just one reason why that film works so much better than Terminator Genisys but Terminator 2 had another important aspect: it kept it simple. Once the characters and their motivations are established, the story progresses organically and at a reasonable pace. I gave up counting the number of times that characters in Genisys needed to stop and explain what was happening and even at that, plot holes and logical lapses crept up at a daunting rate. Even the best efforts of the charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t save this cumbersome and overcooked retread.
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.