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Movie Breakdown: The Transporter Refueled (Noah)

September 4, 2015

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The Impression:

The Transporter series has, somehow, survived through four films and television series. The story of a, ahem, “transporter” who will deliver anything to anywhere as long as you “follow some rules” has potential, but none of the four films or the television series ever really made much with it. Instead, these films were an opportunity to watch shirtless Statham manhandle some other men. A new film, not-starring Statham, doesn’t bode well.

The Reality:

The Transporter Refueled is like a Lifetime movie. Not only in the fact that it has the film (and shot) quality of a low-end cable network drama, but that any hint of story that might’ve been interesting (and there’s nips here and there) is buried underneath such atrocious acting (aside from Ray Stevenson’s turn as a recently retired spy) you’re never able to really make a judgement call on what could of been. I’ll try anyways. The Transporter (Ed Skrein, a human being I’ve never seen before, but is like a taller, skinnier, less good Statham) is, you know, transporting some ladies, but the ladies turn out to have other plans (involving his Ray Stevenson Dad) and even though he complains, a lot, he gets pulled into helping the ladies (sort of). That’s it. Whole story. There’s Russian super-pimps with business cards (’cause nothing says “secret gang” like “secret gang business cards”) and a few more or less entertaining action heist sequences, but even if there was a brilliant script (which there is not) you’d never know as the film seems to be cast entirely based on mumbly foreign accents and an ability to shake your ass (the film is rife with ass-shaking). But where a good old fashioned shitty action picture might elevate the fight scenes so the startling lack of character and story would at least have something to hang on to, this one instead strips the majority of the action scenes down to generic shoot-outs and, again, lady ass-shaking, and rests its laurels on the acting (see above) and a slow, drudging b-story about relationships between assassins, hookers and their father figures. It actually ends with a woman screaming up into the sky. It is a series of a scenes pulled from other, better spy movies, forced through the Europa Corp. grinder and then pieced together with a blank-faced lead as the sticky tape. Hollywood, World, please, leave this sort of shit on the small screen where it can fester in the ratings and then disappear.

The Lesson:

Ray Stevenson should be given his own Old Guy Spy Movie. I’d watch that.

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Movie Breakdown: A Walk In The Woods (Noah)

September 2, 2015

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The Impression:

Bill Bryson’s original non-fiction book, A Walk In The Woods, is truly a fantastic read. Bryson manages to explore the entire history of the Appalachian Trail while reminiscing on his own life, his relationship with the drunken lout Katz, and he does so with wit and grace. The casting of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte (or some sort of red-faced walrus creature they’re calling Nick Nolte) is promising, but the trailers feel like some sort of mix between The Lion King and The Bucket List. I don’t even know why I try to reason this shit out – I’m clearly going to hate this movie.

The Reality:

I don’t know who the audience for this film is. Ostensibly, you’d think, due to its previous incarnation as a piece of memoir like non-fiction (a great one at that), you’d think there’d be some nod towards those who might enjoy Bryson’s work (the tone, the characters, etc.). But the film, the story of author Bill Bryson’s (Robert Redford, playing it old and bad) spontaneous trek with his drunken childhood friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, looking like he might die onscreen), barely acknowledges that Bryson is a writer, or that his two-month journey along the Appalachian Trail (a 2,000 mile stretch of trail that spans from Georgia to New Hampshire) was one of not only self-discovery but deeply interesting historical research. Yet the film isn’t exactly dumb either. There’s a little heart, and a tinge of intelligence hiding shamefully on the edges of the screen, just enough to pull it out of fart joke and weepie territory and make it overly artsy for the, well, fart-joke-weepie crowd. It’s an entirely middle-of-the-ground, old-person, buddy comedy that is for almost its entire running time painfully unfunny. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen Robert Redford, looking his age finally, perform so poorly. You can almost see him reading cue cards off camera, just waiting to board his private jet to some ski mountain somewhere. Nick Nolte on the other hand is pretty great as Stephen Katz, but in a scary accidentally-method acting type way, as in, clearly Nick Nolte has been chasing his meat patty dinners with a few rounds of beer-bonging Jack Daniels and man-oh-man is it apparent. Literally, there are moments in the film when his voice is so ravaged by whatever smoke product he’s inhaling into them that I couldn’t understand his dialogue. By the end of the film I wanted to watch 48 Hours again just so I could remember what this legend used to sound like. I guess it works for his character, but if your body kicked the bucket on screen in service to this definition of mediocrity, you’d be pissed. Nick Nolte would be pissed. Regardless, the film wants to be a folksy, but crass, comedy, a touching story about age and friendship and a semi-educational piece about the majestic world of nature, but it turns out, it’s just a PBS nature film with a couple of cardboard leading actors. I might just tip my hat to both Nolte and Redford’s career after this one.

The Lesson:

The film does a fine job of capturing the startling beauty, if not the horrible endurance test, of the Appalachian Trail. It made me want to walk it before I died. With near-dead, half-drunk, cig-throated Nick Nolte. Let me just hit “Add” on my BucketList app …

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Movie Breakdown: Two Step (Noah)

August 31, 2015

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The Impression:

The pull quote on the poster the nice PR person sent me is from the New York Times and it reads, “Two Step is a nasty, flawlessly acted little gem.” I like good acting and nasty things, so I guess, well, I’m down.

The Reality:

Two Step is a film about the shitty, shitty coincidences that pull our lives apart. The moments that lead to the other moments that eventually end up with dead bodies and beaten faces and all the other bad stuff you imagine happening when the proverbial poo-poo hits the fan. Two Step, the directorial debut of Alex R. Johnson (someone most certainly to keep an eye out for), starts with three stories – James (Skyy Moore) a college dropout dealing with the death of his parents and grandma, Dot (the amazing Beth Broderick – kind of like Patricia Clarkson and Dolly Parton slammed together), a ballet teacher with more than few notches on her bedpost, and Webb (James Landry Hebert), a violent con-artist with a sizable debt on his fucked-up head. Johnson slowly weaves the lives of the three characters together, giving each one a solid chunk of time on their own, before slamming them together with sometimes awful, sometimes sweet consequences. Moore’s James is a lost kid, suddenly wealthy (relatively so), who finds some sort of solace in the maternal affections of Dot. A film just about these two characters would’ve been amazing, but the chaotic addition of Webb (who’s given a subtle character twist halfway through the film that made me love this movie all the more) as a sort of destructive element that drags the characters out of their predictable narrative arcs, makes the film crackle. You cringe every time Webb’s on screen, because Hebert instills him with just enough anger and unpredictability to ensure that at some point in this film, Webb is going to do something awful. And, he does. The film doesn’t rush anything, it meanders from character to character and even when they come together, or not, Johnson never pushes the pace. Instead he lets the coincidences of three lives tossed together slowly build, until, when the ending crashes down on top of you, it feels as if there was no other way it could’ve gone.

The Lesson:

If you want to know how to make a film that, from my limited experience, feels like Texas, this is the one to watch. The characters just seem to embody a certain desperado-type quality that I imagine only exists in the Lone Star State.

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Movie Breakdown: Digging For Fire (Noah)

August 28, 2015

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The Impression:

I’ve never watched a Joe Swanberg flick before but, because Joe Swanberg is a prolific man who makes movies like other people use the bathroom, there’s a lot written about his films. The pros, the cons, the impressive amount of – it’s all there. So I feel like I’ve seen a Joe Swanberg picture before, but, you know, I haven’t.

The Reality:

Digging For Fire doesn’t really feel like a movie. It feels like an extension of a series of conversations. As if Joe Swanberg was sitting around his house at a party or at someone else’s house at someone else’s party and heard people talking and saw interactions and thought, “I could apply a little story here, bring a few cameras, you know, make a movie.” And that is, well, pretty much what you get. The film follows two parents (Jake Goldberg and the criminally underused Rosemarie DeWitt) who spend a weekend apart from each other. Not for any dramatic reason (the film doesn’t really play in the drama sandbox), just because, well, they want/need to do some other things. And separate from each other and their child, other things happen – bones are found, digging occurs, there’s near extra-marital affairs – but there isn’t a lot of momentum behind it. The film just sort of moseys along with its characters, listening to them talk about life, fucking things up, stumbling through this one semi-arbitrary moment of their life. It could be boring, and to be honest it is a little, but somehow Swanberg, without ever saying it out loud, makes the fact that this is just another arbitrary moment in this couples life. It isn’t dramatic, and it doesn’t throw its emotions in your face, but for a 33-year old reviewer with a long-time spouse and a child (okay, dog) something about the slow, ambling way the film progresses made it stick even harder. At the end, when the arguments have been resolved (or not) Swanberg suddenly tightens the knot of the film just a bit, pulls the threads so they come together in a moment of more traditional cinematic narrative and somehow, well, the rest of the film seems entirely intentional. That this almost Altman-like progression of scenes and characters and moments all tie together, maybe loosely, maybe a little disjointedly, but in the final seconds, with Dan Romer’s beautiful score swelling in the background, it feels like Swanberg knew what he was doing all along.

The Lesson:

I’ll watch more Swanberg. Especially if Dan Romer is manning the music.

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Movie Breakdown: No Escape (Noah)

August 27, 2015

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The Impression:

I’m always wary of films that star famous people (here Owen Wilson and Lake Bell) but have had absolutely zero hype on the interwebs. Not that every film needs or benefits from hype, just that it’s strange that you spend all this money to get pretty faces in your movies and then you don’t do a thing to broadcast to the world that they, or the movie they’re populating, exist.

The Reality:

I think I’m losing what snobs refer to as “taste.” I can’t figure out if it’s because the summer offerings have been particularly weak this year and the movies I’m enjoying are just a little bit better than the bag-fulls of hobo poo that I usually find myself sleeping through; or, if after a lifetime of watching films, my brain has finally hit a point where all of the important pathways have collapsed under the weight of content digestion, and all I’m left with is a vague, blobbish hole where only the most underformed of content can happily live. So understand, that when I say what I’m about to say, I realize that it may be coming from a context of salvation from absolute mediocrity and/or slight brain damage: I liked No Escape. Yes, I fully understand that a film about four white people in a small Southeast Asian country fleeing from an army of brown-skinned savages hellbent on raping and killing them grapples with a perhaps undiscussed idea of American xenophobia. And yes, I understand that Owen Wilson, crooked nose and rugged blonde good looks on full display, might not be the best casting for a film that sells itself as an action movie. And with all that knowledge bubbling around inside my enormous head, I still liked No Escape. Director John Erick Dowdle (a pillar of the found-footage horror industry up to this point) manages, intentionally or not, to make No Escape feel like some sort of reflection of the simpler days of 80s action films, where there didn’t have to be fussy high concepts, but rather just a protagonist, a threat, and some reason for the protagonist to have to jump into action. In No Escape, our protagonist, bland water engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), and his family are moved into a generic Southeastern Asian country to help bring water back to the people. Turns out that on the day after they arrive, a violent coup occurs and the rest of the movie is spent following the Dwyers as they try to avoid being hacked to death by violent locals. Somewhere Pierce Brosnan (playing a sort of Ricky Gervais take on a bad-ass) appears to kick some ass, probably take some names. It’s a simple film. A lot of running, a lot of shooting, and a lot of hiding. But, what I liked was that Dowdle uses the Dwyer Family as a unit. This isn’t Owen Wilson trying to hunt down those who did his family wrong, and using a plethora of karate chops and machine guns to do so, this is Owen Wilson leading his family away from killers who will, if they catch them, kill them all. And Dowdle makes that both an advantage, an inspiration, a burden (at one point one of the kids asks to go to the bathroom in the middle of a firefight, and it’s pretty scary) and a terrifying prospect (Wilson throwing his daughter off a roof made me cover my mouth). It elevates the fear factor of the movie, lets every corner seem terrifying, every person possibly a threat. The film scoots along for the first two-thirds as The Dwyer’s fight there way through a series of coup-forced obstacles and though it slows down to a sodden crawl by the end, it still works. It isn’t really an action film, it’s a family film with a lot of exploding helicopters and decapitations and a mild amount of American xenophobia. Which, you know, aside from the xenophobia, works for me. It’s nothing special, you aren’t going to go home and tell your children that this film changed your life, but it has that warmth, that texture and believability of a good old fashioned 80s movie and in a world of CG, well, everything, it was at least a little refreshing.

The Lesson:

I’m an easy lay these days. Give me some decent actors and some explosions and I’m sold.

The Lesson #2:

Lake Bell is the real deal. She hits a whole spectrum of emotional notes here and they’re all entirely believable. Cast her more Hollywood.

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Movie Breakdown: Mistress America

August 26, 2015

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The Impression:

Noah Baumbach’s latest stars Greta Gerwrig and seems to be about what all of his movies are about – people trying to find their way in this crazy world.  I’m good to go as long as it’s more While We’re Young than Frances Ha.

The Reality:

Recently I saw The End Of The Tour and really liked the way that it was mostly conversation pieces and not much else.  Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is sort of the same.  The film follows a freshman college student named Tracy (Lola Kirke) as she bounces around New York City with Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her soon-to-be stepsister, and talks and thinks about a lot different things.  Naturally, the topics aren’t nearly as heady as what’s discussed in The End Of The Tour, but they are done in an equally manic style and come off just as charming and interesting.  Sure, you may not get any closer to figuring out what watching too much TV may one day do to society, but you’ll laugh a lot and gain some insight on that loud person you know who recklessly/obnoxiously/sincerely attempts to talk their way out of every situation presented to them (Brooke) and/or anyone you may be acquainted who just can’t quite figure out how to fit in or find their own voice (Tracy).  That’s a solid trade, I think.

If you’ve been hanging around and calling out for Baumbach and Gerwig to reunite, then I don’t think I need to convince you to see Mistress America.  In fact, you probably already bought tickets.  As for the rest of you, see it if you feel as though a clever, dialogue-heavy film is something you want to get behind.

The Lesson:

One of these days I’m going to actually decide whether or not I truly like Greta Gerwig.

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Movie Breakdown: We Are Your Friends

August 26, 2015

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The Impression:

We Are Your Friends features Zac Efron as a young fella doing his best to make it as a DJ.  It looks ridiculous.

The Reality:

If you’re a fan of movies that aren’t really about anything, then We Are Your Friends is going to impress the hell out of you.  Cole Carter (Zac Efron just existing) wants to be a DJ (you know this because he always has headphones on) but he’s stuck in his dinky hometown with no real opportunities.  Since it’s a movie though and there has to be some glorious stroke of luck, a mega-DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley – the only thing about the film worth remembering) arrives in his life, they become pals and then KAPOW, Cole now has a chance to do what he’s always wanted to do – push buttons on his laptop in front of a large crowd of people.  Along the way there’s some relationship stuff, talk about what it means to be DJ, info on how to be a good DJ, a few things on growing up, conflicting opinions on drugs and alcohol, a variety of useless moments with Cole’s friends, and somewhere around a million other random tidbits that keep you steadily wondering exactly what the movie is actually about.  Frankly, We Are Your Friends really just needed to be about music and what it takes to make it as an artist, but it’s a film so unsure of itself that it only hints at that and instead sloppily flops all over the place and ultimately says nothing about everything.  Only see it if you’re in the mood to challenge yourself to some kind of weird patience contest.

One last note, through at least the first half of We Are Your Friends I kept thinking it might actually turn out to be a modern Flashdance, Footloose or something similar, but its convoluted, meandering story proved to be unbeatable, and that kind of bummed me out.  The world could use another wave of silly but enjoyable “music” flicks.

The Lesson:

Why the hell is it called We Are Your Friends?  I’m going to be wondering this for hours!

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Movie Breakdown: Hitman: Agent 47

August 20, 2015

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The Impression:

Xavier Gens and Timothy Olyphant failed at making a good Hitman movie in 2007, but Aleksander Bach and Rupert Friend are going to get it right in 2015.  Or probably not.  Nothing about this reboot looks good.

The Reality:

Let’s just get down to it, Hitman: Agent 47 is an awful film.  The plot is muddled and boring, Rupert Friend looks like he’s upset with his actual agent in every scene and the only half shining moment in regards to Aleksander Bach’s direction is somewhere in the middle of the movie where there’s what can only be described as an extended Audi commercial.  “Why does this movie exist?”  This is all I could think while watching it.  I get that Hitman is a popular video game, but how much money is expected to be made off such a blatantly lazy attempt to makeup for the last blatantly lazy adaptation of the series?  My guess is just enough, otherwise there’s just no good reason for the existence of such a poorly conceived and executed film.

You should not even sort of consider seeing Hitman: Agent 47.  Save your money and your time and go do anything else with it.  Anything else.

The Lesson:

If your “action” movie nearly puts me to sleep, you’re doing it all wrong.

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Movie Breakdown: American Ultra (Noah)

August 20, 2015

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The Impression:

I don’t really know where this film came from. One day I’m just surfing the ‘net and there’s this trailer for an action film starring Facebook Guy and Bella where stoners kill people. And if you know me, I love a stoner-turns-awakened-government-assassin film. I mean, honestly, it’s like watching The Bourne Identity if Jason Bourne took bong rips instead of hunting those who’d done him wrong.

The Reality:

When you cast Jesse Eisenberg in a film, you don’t do so because you want his natural confidence to bleed on to the screen. You want that low-level distrust and peripheral uncomfortableness to bleed into the character, the script, the very notion of the film you’re making. You want someone on the screen that might at anytime fuck things up with social awkwardness or, if his turn as Lex Luthor has anything to say about it, just plain evil. Or, if you’re Nima Nourizadeh (director of Superbad-meets-Blair-Witch-Project film, Project X) you cast him as a lovable stoner, trapped within the confines of a tiny town, who, well, is actually a super-secret government agent separated from his memories for “his own safety”. And, wow, it works. American Ultra is exactly the kind of action movie I’m glad to see storming the box offices these days, films that are happy to blow shit up, and knock out teeth, and throw people through windows and so on and so forth, but they do so with the full support of well-defined, interesting characters. Heck, there might even be a good story in there. American Ultra finds Jesse Eisenberg’s Will Howell, a forgetful, panic attack afflicted stoner, living with his equally stoned girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, showing off some real warmth here). Things go bad quickly, when an FBI agent (Connie Briton) whispers a few secret words and Stoner Will Howell is turned into Stoner-Assassin Will Howell. What works so well here is that Howell’s character is a stoner before he ever enters a secret assassin training program, so the Will Howell we see battling against a gaggle of other secret assassins has all the trademarks of your classic pothead. Sure, he kicks ass (and Eisenberg represents the mixture of pothead and martial artist well, using a sort of loose-limbed flapping technique to attack his opponents) but he also lacks ambition and common sense and leans heavily on his lady for support, in all things. And that’s where I think the film really shines: Phoebe and Will’s relationship. Without the very sweet chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, this film doesn’t work – it’s just an overstylized action movie. And sure, at times the relationship grows a little cloying, but Nourizadeh actually, and I only say actually because Project X didn’t seem to be exactly imbued with subtlety, manages to balance out the more cloying moments with humor and action. Nourizadeh is still finding his feet as an action director, and at times the action seems muddled, without the strategic pops that make really good fight scenes work, but they’re interesting and unique and absolutely brutal. In general, as a second outing from a fairly untested director, this is a strong film, one that plays on a time-honored theme in an interesting way, pushing the limits of Stewart and Eisenberg’s acceptable roles in the process.

The Lesson:

Jesse Eisenberg, still uncomfortable smoking a cigarette. It’s as if he never smoked Basic Lights in an alleyway behind his mom’s house.

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Movie Breakdown: People Places Things (Noah)

August 17, 2015

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The Impression:

Though the moniker doesn’t really elevate my perceptions of this past standard indie New York romance, the presence of Jemaine Clement and Stephanie Allynne peaks my interest. Slightly.

The Reality:

People Places Things, James C. Strouse’s new film, is, well, a pretty low-key affair. Which, I suppose, isn’t exactly a bad thing when you’re telling the story of two parents (Jemaine Clement and Stephanie Allynne) and the mild aftermath of their split-up. You know, life happens, usually without dramatic fireworks or clearly marked transitions, and, knowingly or not, Strouse manages to impress that slow transitional feeling on his film. Clement’s Will Henry is a struggling comic book artist and his former lover/”baby’s mama” is an independently wealthy stay-at-home mom who kicks Will to the door when she realizes her life isn’t what she thought of it. A year later, where the film picks up, Will is trying to figure out how to be a single dad, a responsible human being, and a comic book creator. And that’s about it. Sprouse, again purposefully or not, seems to be reflecting the general mundanity of human life and love – we meet, we like each other, we possibly procreate, feelings change, we split up, stop, start, repeat. And sure, this sort of reflection is a truer reflection, but does it make for a good film? Kind of. Though it is nice to see a romantic comedy not push into the “meet cute” tropes, and instead focus on a transitional period (post-love to pre-love), the film doesn’t have much an engine. Will sort of stumbles around in his life, a sort of hipster Mrs. Doubtfire (without the old lady makeup) half-assedly fucking things up while equally half-assedly being schooled by a little thing called life. Without the benefit of standard, well, narrative points (and they are there, just buried beneath modest filmmaking), Sprouse’s film lulls, pretty much constantly, and when the lulling has become too much, he sort of awkwardly stuffs in a bit of plot to shamble the story along. It makes for an undefined feeling piece of cinema, never really touching down on what it wants to be – comedy, drama, family film – instead, just sort of floating above the concept of definition. Jemaine Clement continues to impress as a Will Henry, bringing a sort of sharp-edged stoner-like delivery to every scene. Clearly, he’s a talent, but films like this always make me pine for a Hollywood where a textured human being like Clement could be a leading man. He leads a solid team of actors though, and even if Sprouse struggles to find his film’s place, it never veers from the path of fairly enjoyable. We live in a world where Indie Films aren’t based on budgetary concerns, they’re an aesthetic we strive to fill. And as much as this film falls into that category, it never finds its place within it.

The Lesson:

Jemaine Clement, all day every day. Ooh baby.

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Movie Breakdown: The End Of The Tour

August 14, 2015

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The Impression:

I’ve never read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but I’m still all in for The End Of The Tour since it looks like the kind of heartfelt, conversation-heavy film that I tend to have a soft spot for.

The Reality:

The End Of The Tour is one of those films that will either fill you with delight or make you want to roll your eyes right out of your head.  It consists of a series of conversations between two writers – David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and David Lipsky (Jessie Eisenberg) – and that’s about it.  There’s no sweeping climactic moment or anything like that.  It’s really just two guys who are hanging around, eating bad food and doing their best to figure the other person out in the short time they’ve been allotted together.  I loved it.  It’s easily the best thing Jason Segel has ever done (Jessie Eisenberg is good too, but like always, he’s just portraying Jessie Eisenberg), James Ponsoldt’s direction is nearly flawless and I found every single conversation in the film to be interesting and worth paying attention to.  I, however, can totally see how someone could find The End Of The Tour to be a pretentious wad of doom.  There’s a lot of talk about fame, what a means to be a writer and so on, and it’s not a stretch to think that some folks will just find it to be entirely snobby.

My recommendation for you in regards to The End Of The Tour is to see it as soon as you can.  Unless, of course, you’re not really into artsy, talky films.  Then you shouldn’t see it.  Because it will probably make you want to run out of the theater.

The Lesson:

I should read Infinite Jest.  But I won’t.  That thing just seems like an enormous undertaking.

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Movie Breakdown: Straight Outta Compton (Noah)

August 13, 2015

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The Impression:

I’m horribly opposed to “entire career/life” biographical films, but, I love rap music. Thus, a film following the entire career of a rap band is a bit of moral quandary for me.

The Reality:

Biographical films, as a whole, don’t work for me. Too often, directors attempt to funnel the wild complexities of a human life into a story shaped mold, highlighting big, Hollywood-ready moments between an arbitrary start and stop point (usually a death). They turn the peaks and valleys of human emotion and experience into a flat, palatable film – more a chronicle of events, then an actual representation of the person on screen. F. Gary Gray falls into this trap in his two and half hour film about the rise, fall and general importance of Compton rap group, N.W.A. Though it starts strong, with a beautifully tense and violent scene featuring Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and a drug deal gone horribly wrong, with at times, graphic depictions of the struggles of growing up in Compton in the 1980s, the film quickly falls into the rote routines of films of this ilk. We watch Dre (Kevin Durant lookalike Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (Cube’s own son, and eerie likeness, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and MC Ren (the wide-eyed Aldis Hodges) slowly come together, slowly produce music we all know will be revolutionarily inspirational and then, with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in full phone-in “I’m the only person ever cast as a manager” mode) behind them, become, gasp, a rap group with the power to change the world. Parties are had, big houses and cars are purchased, and then, gasp again, success changes them, and we watch the group’s decline, and then, third gasp, their inevitable attempts at a reunion. It is, quite frankly, every music biography ever, but with a hip-hop soundtrack. It isn’t bad, F. Gary Gray manages to imbue it with a sort of raw energy that reflects the spirit of the group and the actors, though saddled with cliches and platitudes seemingly pulled from the biographical music film bible, ably bring, with some dalliances into imitation, their own takes on these rap legends. It hums along for a while, skating on the thin ice of nostalgic remembrance, but after a bit, once it becomes clear that this will be a film firmly playing in the sandbox of other films just like it, it sort of becomes a sodden trudge towards the inevitable, historical conclusion. It’s hard to say if this is the film’s fault or the film’s lackluster intention to chronicle instead of comment, but whatever it is, it relegates what could be great to merely fair.

The Lesson #1:

Aside from a bevy of boobs and sex (in a slice of scenes) this film is surprisingly un-gritty. I expected every scene to be filled with blunts and babes, but Gray seemed to check off a few boxes for “40s”, “blowjobs” and “weed” and then expected the rest of the film to maintain the texture of this notoriously hard-partying group. Let’s not stereotype our rap celebrities, but let’s at least show the reality of the situation.

The Lesson #2:

Gray balances a fine line here of chronicling the gratuitous spending, drug use and misogyny and glorifying it. Are we supposed to cringe when Ice Cube pushes a half-naked woman (just moments earlier giving head to Eazy-E) into a hallway and telling her to get the fuck out or cheer? My audience thought cheer. That’s a problem.

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Movie Breakdown: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Noah)

August 13, 2015

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The Impression:

Guy Ritchie, post-crime-flicks and post-Swept-Away has actually developed into a consistently entertaining, stylish director. I look forward to his films. And with this one starring Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) and two slabs of rock chiseled into the shape of men, I’m borderline excited.

The Reality:

If you’re looking for subtext and strong character development and a plot that’s full of twists and turns – go watch one of Mendes’ Bond flicks. But, if you want a bunch of very attractive people playing some solid spy archetypes over a fantastically stylish pastiche of a whole bunch of the best of the 60s spy films? Well then my anonymous friends, this is the film for you. Over his last three movies Guy Ritchie has ably managed to tweak his filmic style away from, at times, unwatchable and hyperkinetic, down to something more akin to his early work. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t shy away from style – in all honesty, it’s pretty much a very well done exercise in visual aesthetics – but also allows Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, and Alicia Vikander to revel in the uber-cool silliness of their stock spy characters. Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a former thief and now, super-American spy who’s tasked with partnering up with K.G.B. behemoth Illya (Mr. Hammer) to find and protect Gabby Heller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a nuclear physicist. In short, things happen, bad guys appear, so on and so forth – but mostly, the three leads get to embody the very essence of bad-ass 60s spy. Hammer, though saddled with a Russian accent, plays a giant of a man with a pained interior with gusto though I wished we could’ve actually seen the violent rage that they merely hinted at. Cavill’s Solo is the very best kind of one note, pearly-smiled cardboard cutout that Ritchie bounces scenario after scenario against, slowly revealing the edges of his character. I’ve been curious about Cavill since Man of Steel, and after seeing his edgy charm in this film, I’m curious to see what’s next. Vikander is the best of the lot, the sort of girl next door character (if the girl next door was an extremely attractive Hollywood actress) that fits right in with the statues she calls male co-leads. Aside from acting though, this is Ritchie’s film, a beautifully slammed together mish-mash of style that feels like Tarantino-lite. No stylistic device is unused – split scenes, tracking shots, huge over-the-top crane shots, etc. – and somehow, it never feels oversaturated. What Ritchie does best though is music, gracefully soundtracking the film with a barrage of obscure, and not so obscure, 60s hits that create the backbone and the rhythm for which it moves. Songs start and stop as the action progresses, and more than once I felt the need to pump my fist as a song roared back to life. This isn’t Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, hell, it isn’t even Mission Impossible, but it’s fun, and after a summer of stupid blockbusters that hit my brain like a napkin full of wet bird shit, dumb fun done well, was just what I needed.

The Lesson:

I’m giving Ritchie some serious credit here for turning his shit around, but don’t get me wrong, all of this credit will come crashing to the ground post-King Arthur.

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Movie Breakdown: Straight Outta Compton

August 12, 2015

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The Impression:

The story behind the beloved/infamous hip hop group NWA is now a film directed by F. Gary Gray (his last quality effort was 2003′s Italian Job).  If anything, the music will be good.

The Reality:

Straight Outta Compton turned out to be a lot different than I was expecting it to be.  I figured it would detail the rise and fall of NWA, slap some “and here’s what happened later” bits of info on the screen and then call it a day.  Nope.  While it definitely chronicles the rise and fall of NWA, there’s also Ice Cube’s solo debut, the later dealings of Ruthless Records, the creation of Death Row Records, Dr. Dre’s solo debut and on and on until you get an update on what the former members of the group are doing right at this very moment (seriously, like, right now).  This, as you can imagine, makes for a long film (the runtime is just under two and a half hours) that features a whole lot for your brain to follow.  Thankfully, most of what you get to see is either entertaining or interesting, and if you’re a fan of NWA (or just hip hop in general) then I think you’ll appreciate all the extra details.  Where the film stumbles though – and what ultimately makes it feel long – is with its quieter moments, which just aren’t handled particularly well by director F. Gary Gray.  They’re all fairly cliche and too melodramatic, and when the film is constantly ping ponging around between that stuff and engaging, lively showcases of NWA’s cultural impact, Straight Outta Compton becomes a grind by the time you get to the final act.  So in other words, the movie is good and totally worth your time, but don’t be surprised if at some point you start shuffling in your seat and wondering when it’ll end.

The Lesson:

O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks so much like his dad that I’m just going to assume he’s actually a clone.

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Movie Breakdown: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

August 12, 2015

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The Impression:

Guy Ritchie’s first non-Sherlock Holmes film in six years is a big screen version of a 60s TV show.  I guess I’m excited?  The trailers have mostly just shown off the movie’s roster of pretty faces – Henry Cavill, Arnie Hammer, Alicia Vikander – and not a lot else.

The Reality:

2015 has already delivered two great spy flicks – Kingsmen: The Secret Service and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  The former is a stylish, edgy film and the latter is a big, fun summer blockbuster.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seems to want to be a mix of both Kingsmen and Rogue Nation, but it doesn’t quite get the formula right.  On one hand it looks and sounds fantastic because Guy Ritchie knows how to stimulate the senses (and the main cast is made up only of really beautiful people), but on the flip side there’s just not much else worth noting.  There aren’t any big, memorable action scenes, most of the characters aren’t given much to do outside of simply quipping at one another, and the story itself just isn’t all that interesting (something something the bad guys have a nuclear device).  It is, as a wise man once said, all style and no substance.

By the way, I will totally acknowledge that I’ve never seen a single moment of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV show, so it’s entirely possible that the movie is just like it and will make those of you who are fans all super giddy and whatnot.  If you’re not a hardcore lover of the show though and you just want to see a good spy movie, I think you could do a whole lot better than the big shoulder shrug that is The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Wait for this one to hit the small screen before bothering with it.

The Lesson:

Henry Cavill is a really chiseled one trick pony, isn’t he?

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