Thursday, July 30, 2015

Minions / ** (2015)

“I would wager a movie entirely about their antics would be welcomed immediately by moviegoers… They are simply too amusing to ignore.” – Taken from the review for “Despicable Me 2”

When one forecasts an idea without thinking about possible repercussions, he gets exactly what he deserves. Though it might have been contrary to the tone I was going for, I initially spoke highly of the Minions in the “Despicable Me” films as a way of finding silver linings in the clouds of mediocrity; never did it dawn on me, especially after the above proclamation, that a film about said ensemble would legitimately come to fruition, especially so soon after their most recent theatrical appearance. But while our youthful imaginations gravitate towards comic relief in feature cartoons because of how natural it all seems to worlds full of energy and color, could an idea like this have really amounted to something passable in a stand-alone fashion? These quirky, strange yellow underlings amuse us as consistently as Saturday morning cartoons, but never for much more. They occupy the screen with demeanors that suggest momentary distraction, reminding us how much quirk can go on in the peripheral of a whimsical animated adventure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pixels / *1/2 (2015)

Though it ought to have inspired something tremendously amusing, “Pixels” functions like a rally of egos down at the story conference workshop.  A hypothetical image begins to formulate in our heads very early on, in which a gathering of middle-aged comedians come together, wax nostalgia over the forgotten innocence of ‘80s boy culture, and then share in a moment where their love of old arcade games bonds them. In a moment that must have transpired like most spastic nerd fantasia of its kind, you can predict the ensuing dialogue: “What if characters in a movie sent a time capsule of those games up into space, and it was discovered by aliens who perceived it as a threat instead of a gift? Surely there’s an idea for a movie here somewhere!” Roughly one out of ten people in a focus group would respond to that premise with some level of colorful enthusiasm, while the rest of us would, I’m sure, solve the problem entirely by asking one rebuttal question: “why don’t we just go play the old video games again instead of subjecting them to something completely absurd?”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Spy / *** (2015)

The biggest risk in film comedy comes down to a principle in writing: with the right personality carrying the material, a screenplay may not always have to embellish the essential platforms. Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig have tried their luck with this prospect over the course of several movies in the recent years, but at long last they have struck gold in “Spy,” a film that celebrates their union in an ambitious display of excitement and cheeriness that fuel a healthy arsenal of very funny wisecracks. Most of them do not originate from basic written composition either; if one were to read them directly from a script page, they would scarcely register as anything beyond half-amused scowls (or worse yet, a few muddled guffaws). But Feig, probably sensing that his work would once again wind up in certain hands, does something almost prophetic by staging them in a way to tap right into his lead star’s charismatic chutzpah; not only does she use his setups as effective outlets for wit or physicality, but in many ways sees them as a tipping point in liberating herself from the conventions of basic comedic principles. This isn’t one of those run-of-the-mill sitcoms stretched to an unendurable length, but a very sharp and pointed espionage romp that frames everything precisely, and then allows its dynamic ensemble of actors to deliver the material with a fresh sense of gusto.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Romancing the Stone / ***1/2 (1984)

There is an observation in the last five minutes of “Romancing the Stone” that provides a great framework for the material that comes before: in it, romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is staring out of a window in the building of her publisher, who has just finished reading her new manuscript and offers a brief glimpse into her client’s silent desires. “You are now officially a hopeless romantic,” she says. “Not hopeless,” Joan corrects: “hopeful.” And with that remark comes the realization that her preceding adventures – be they about love or dangerous encounters with treasure-hungry foreign rebels – do not always have to end with the damsel being lost in the shuffle of less optimistic realities. Even when her romantic interest, the brave but mysterious Jack (Michael Douglas), leaves her standing at the site of her near demise, she isn’t resigned to a morose perspective. She believes, rightfully, that one day it will all come to a happy ending, and one that is authentic to the context of what the movie has built us up to.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Beasts of the Southern Wild / **** (2012)

The earliest of many discoveries occurs during the first set of establishing shots, which utilize handheld camerawork and are coarse, soiled and un-romanticized depictions of a ransacked social climate. They suggest the bleakest of realities, a life of paralyzing limitations. And then we meet the heroine, a plucky and adventurous young girl who contradicts those possibilities with more singular outlooks. She lives with her dad on a plateau in a Louisiana bayou that is separated from the mainland by levees, where houses are made out of the remnants of damaged structures, and belongings scattered across the high grasses act as reminders of memories lost to the unforgiving elements. They, like the lowly neighbors they keep company with in a world they call “the Bathtub,” are the forgotten faces of poverty. And yet none of that ever seems to phase the worldly imagination of this inquisitive child, who passes her time by watching on with earnest enthusiasm as her elders celebrate their fortune rather than mourn it (“Up in the dry world,” she says, “they got none of what we got”). It is a value clearly instilled by her father, but even his guidance is no match for a mind that runs so wild, and with such unrestrained purity.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Inglourious Basterds / **** (2009)

For most filmmakers, the first 20 minutes of “Inglourious Basterds” would have been a revelatory accomplishment; for Quentin Tarantino, they are just another demonstration of a transcending artistic philosophy. It all begins with the ominous arrival of a caravan of Nazis at the farm of a noble Frenchman and his daughters, each of whom look upon their sudden fate with the sorts of morose gazes that seem to hint at an ongoing custom of exchange. One of the Germans, a Colonel who has been branded the “Jew Hunter,” has come to investigate the unanswered disappearance of a Jewish family living nearby; they have not yet been accounted for, and in the thick of world war, an unclaimed enemy of the state – especially for the Germans – suggests an imperfect military operation. The setup is framed in a context that recalls the most pointed of western stand-offs: the key characters banter uncomfortably, exchange digressed platitudes, and then engage in a polite showdown of wits that concludes in a stretch of tragic implications, all of them executed under the weight of precise stylistic tension. But because the screenplay refuses to treat the scenario from a conventional war perspective, that also takes the material into a realm far removed from our initial expectations. It only serves to provide a modest point of interest, too; as a prologue to something more sweeping, these minutes are a precise marriage of skill and delivery, a display of flawless filmmaking to effectively arrange all the fearless impulses that will follow.

Friday, July 3, 2015

54: The Director's Cut / *** (2015)

A modest act of vision can instigate hard-fought wars within the film industry, and such battles are seldom resolved in the favor of directors. One of the more legendary discussion points in that scenario is Mark Christopher, whose “54” – a long-forgotten relic from the summer of 1998 – arrived on screen in a flurry of hype, and then left with scarcely a notice beyond faded party-goers. It had been pushed by the Miramax promotion machine as the definitive expose on the controversial legend of Studio 54, but what wound up showing in theaters was actually a watered down rendition of Christopher’s original picture, which had been butchered significantly and then refilled with a variety of reshot footage (reportedly, up to 30 minutes of alternate scenes). The reason? According to the film’s distraught creator, the studio wanted less drug use and homoeroticism than what they were given, and demanded more visual excess (not to mention a much more conclusive ending). Only years later did the tribulations of it all come to our full awareness, further perplexing the matter: if the released product was such a financial and critical failure, what was the harm in releasing the original version in some other format after the fact?