“The Spectacular Now” – A Strong Film About Life After the Party

Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013)

James Ponsoldt has a thing about alcohol. In both of his previous features, Off the Black and Smashed, he explored the dangers and ravages of alcoholism. Now, in his new film, the surprising and (mostly) charming The Spectacular Now, he takes on teen addiction while ostensibly making a coming-of-age love story. It is this ability to make a film that deftly tells two stories at once, in spite of its occasional missteps, that makes James Ponsoldt a director to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is the title, taken directly from the book on which it is based, by Tim Tharp. I didn’t like it when I read the book, and I don’t like it when it’s attached to this film. Although it speaks to the mindset of the protagonist, high-school party boy Sutter Keely, who lives only in and for the present, it also just . . . lies there, promising very little. Perhaps The Great Keely – or Sutter Rides Again – could have similarly spoken to how our hero sees himself, and engaged us from the start. This may seem extremely superficial, but I dwell on it because I can’t seem to shake off my visceral dislike of it.

That said, the film is well worth seeing. It tells the story of Sutter (a very strong Miles Teller), a popular, if underachieving, high school senior. Life is one big party to him, and he keeps the buzz going throughout the day with a flask full of whisky. He’s dating the perfect girl, Cassidy (Brie Larson), until one miscommunication too many leads her to dump him. Adrift, Sutter goes off on a “spectacular” bender, after which he is found on a suburban lawn by Aimee (a luminous Shailene Woodley, who last wowed audiences in The Descendants), a classmate of his whom he has no memory of ever having met. Aimee is Sutter’s polar opposite: shy, studious, a wallflower. Indeed, Woodley is almost too lovely to pull off such a character, but we quickly fall under the spell of her easy rapport with Teller. For underneath Sutter’s boisterous cheer, he is an extremely nice (and insecure) guy, always willing to do something for a friend (even if he’s too drunk to reason properly). And so he takes on Aimee as a project. He lets her tutor him if she’ll let him take her out. When he starts to actually fall for her, it catches him completely unprepared.

And so this could have been a cute story about how love conquers all, and how Sutter’s not-so-budding alcoholism is cured by the ministrations of a good woman. Instead, thanks to a fine script adaptation by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) and the strong direction of Ponsoldt, what we get is a lot more complicated and realistic than that (though the movie does offer a much more hopeful ending than does the book). It’s not so easy to change, and the rush of young love between Aimee and Sutter does not lead the latter to an immediately better self. But it does bring Aimee out of her shell, and watching her blossom into a full-fledged human being is one of the delights of the film.

Along the way, we get terrific supporting performances from Kyle Chandler (as Sutter’s alcoholic father), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Sutter’s mom), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Sutter’s sister), Bob Odenkirk (Sutter’s boss), and Andre Royo (Bubbles, from “The Wire“), as well as from most of the rest of the cast. It’s a strong ensemble piece, filmed in Ponsoldt’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. My hats off to the director who, like me, is also a college professor, and has managed to make three interesting films while also teaching. I’m jealous. Good work. There are a few missteps – such as a car accident that is filmed from an unnecessarily confusing angle, and an ending that doesn’t quite work – but  overall this anti-John Hughes teen film works on most levels. I recommend.

One Drink Too Many: “The World’s End” Is Fun Until It Isn’t

Worlds End

The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Five guys walk into a pub, meet malevolent robots, and in the ensuing battle reconnect with their lost youth. Sound crazy? Such is the basic plot summary of this final installment of British director Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy. If you liked the first two entries – Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – in this makeshift series, then there’s a very good chance that you’ll enjoy at least part of this new film, as well. Unlike the previous movies, however, The World’s End loses control of its final act, taking what had been a fun ride and crashing it into a ditch. One drink too many, I guess . . .

It all starts off very promisingly. Simon Pegg plays the King – Gary King, that is – a middle-aged man stuck in 1990, the year in which he experienced the best night of his life on an epic pub crawl in his hometown. Though he and his mates didn’t quite make it to the final pub (out of 12), along the way much drunken merriment was had. Now, 23 years later, Gary King has yet to ever top that moment – which makes him a very sad, yet funny, main character – and is on a quest to bring the old gang back together to finish the crawl. The only obstacle is that his friends – Cornetto mainstay Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine – have all moved on with their lives, with jobs and families (for the most part). Why would they ever want to go back home with such a loser? Well, he’s a charming loser, in no small part because Simon Pegg imbues him with a sad-sack grace that transcends his obvious failings. And so the friends find themselves back in Newton Haven, in spite of their many reservations, for another go at the Golden Mile (as the pub crawl is known).

For a while, then, this is what the movie is about: friends reconnecting and reminiscing. As such, it is a mildly enjoyable story, with chuckles and the occasional guffaw, that takes its time and becomes somewhat of a meditation on adulthood and conformity. Until the robots show up. These stand-ins for the dangers of absolute subservience to a conformist ideology suddenly turn the movie into a delightful parody of end-of-world flicks, much as was This Is the End at the start of the summer (with the same lack of women, though Rosamund Pike – better here than in Jack Reacher – shows up to add some needed estrogen to the mix). Watching our heroes get drunker and drunker as they try to stave off the end of the world is delightful, and very funny, and my guffaws turned into full belly laughs.

But all good things must come to an end, particularly when there’s alcohol involved, and the fun ends, abruptly, in the same way that so many other summer films do, with too many explosions. Although writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg try to make sense of the apocalypse with some voiceover rhetoric about organic farming and its benefits, what happens in the third act is simply not supported by what has come before. Perhaps it was the hangover kicking in as they finished the script. Or that one extra drink.

[One final fun note – as in Hot Fuzz, we have the treat of a cameo by a former James Bond. In the earlier film, it was Timothy Dalton, and now it is Pierce Brosnan. Here are Edgar Wright’s thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!]

“Elysium.” Is. Matt. Damon.

Bourne Identity

A man on the run, alone against the system (with maybe a little help from some friends) . . . With his emergence as a leading-man action star in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon proved (and continued to prove in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) his ability to carry a movie on the strength of his charisma, intense physicality, and powerful acting skills. This is what makes someone, in fact, an A-list movie star (and though acting chops are not always necessary, they certainly don’t hurt). Instead of continuing solely in the action genre, however, Damon has used his industry box-office standing to make less commercial fare, in which he is not always the lead, such as SyrianaThe Brothers Grimm, The Departed (which won an Oscar for Best Picture), The Good Shepherd, The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone, True Grit and Contagion, not to mention The Adjustment Bureau, which didn’t do great business, perhaps, but which still benefitted from Matt Damon’s (and Emily Blunt’s) star power and charm to do what business it did (the problems lay with the script). And now comes Elysium, the second feature film from South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9), in which Damon plays a man on a determined mission, on the run from the forces of authority, not quite alone, perhaps, but forced to rely on his own reserves of strength to triumph over evil. And he does it well.

Elysium

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

The best thing, in fact, that can be said about Elysium, is that Matt Damon carries the film. Unfortunately, the worst thing about Elysium is also the fact that Matt Damon carries the film. The script and story both, sadly, verge on the inane and obvious. It’s 2154, and the elite of this planet, apparently great fans of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, have fled to a gated community in the sky, which floats like a second moon in near orbit (and which can be reached surprisingly quickly via a nifty shuttle system – my how technology will have improved in 140 years!).  There, these rich and evil bastards (the worst one of whom – played by Jodie Foster – speaks, mais bien sûr, the language of pure evil . . . French!) deny the  hoi polloi the finer things in life, including a health care system that would make Dr. McCoy green with envy.

One day, at work in a warehouse owned by malefic corporate titan John Carlyle (William Fichtner, good as always), Max (Damon) receives a lethal dose of radiation, and is given only days to live. Having spurned the violent life that once landed him in prison, Max is now forced to re-team up with the members of a cartel who can ferry him illegally up to Elysium for a cure. He just needs to do one more job for them, and that will pay his way. Not surprisingly, that job doesn’t go well, people die, and Max and those he cares for suffer. If you didn’t see that coming, then you haven’t seen very many action thrillers.

That said, the action sequences, themselves, are fairly well staged . . . until we get to Elysium, where Blomkamp’s fascination with close-up shots of extreme violence takes over. Before that, though, there’s plenty else that goes wrong with the movie, including plot and scientific inconsistencies that are jarring even with the suspension of disbelief we normally bring to sci-fi films. The worst mistake of all, however, is the casting of Sharlto Copley as Kruger, the film’s baddie. Though he was adequate to the task in the far superior District 9, here he almost ruins the film, as his (lack of) star power and impenetrable South African accent create a void where there should be an equal presence to match Damon’s.

Too bad. I wanted to like this.

See it if you like Matt Damon. Or go back and re-watch The Bourne Identity, instead.

“The Butler” Provides Uneven, but Moving, Service

Butler

The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)

Make no mistake: The Butler (sorry, that’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler“) is kind of a mess, but it’s an effective mess. And though it lacks the wonderfully gritty texture of Mr. Daniels’ last feature – The Paperboy – or the narrative coherence of his film before that – Precious – it still manages to move its audience and serve its story. It’s quite a sweeping story, as well; one that starts in the 1920s cotton fields of the Jim-Crow South and ends with the election of our 44th President, Barack Obama.

Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, The Butler recounts the tale of Cecil Gaines (a fine Forest Whitaker), butler to 7 presidents (Allen served 8), from Eisenhower to Reagan. Born into rural poverty and servitude, Gaines manages, through diligent work and an ingratiating manner towards white folk, to move from a small-town inn to a high-class hotel in Washington, DC, where he comes to the notice of a White House staff recruiter. After a brief interview, where he demonstrates his hard-earned tact and knowledge of expensive alcohol, Gaines is given the job he will hold for the next 30 years.

At first, I was worried that we were being given a 2013 version of Driving Miss Daisy. The overbearing music by Rodrigo Leão – although I like his “Cinema” album – didn’t help. Was Whitaker’s Gaines just going to be a device whereby we bore witness to the actions and evolving consciousness of whites? If so, then I might as well have have stayed home and watched The Help (otherwise known as “Thank You, White People”). Instead, however, Daniels and his screenwriter, Danny Strong, have crafted a tale that trains its focus primarily on the experiences of African-Americans at this time, by showing us the life behind the scenes at the White House and, even more importantly, back home, where Gaines lives with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, also fine), and their two sons. It is, in fact, the eldest son, Louis (a great David Oyelowo) – a rebel who refuses to accept his father’s acquiescence to white power and becomes a Freedom Rider and, later, a Black Panther – who drives the story forward through his battles against racism and subsequent tension with Cecil. In a series of smart and chilling montages – the best part of the movie – Daniels juxtaposes  beatings, fire bombings and hose-downs with fancy White House functions. This device constantly reminds us of the great divide between the well-intentioned, but clueless, white presidents whom Cecil serves, and the masses of oppressed people fighting for their right to live free. It’s a great thing to see a movie that both recognizes the importance of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and gives credit to the African-Americans on the ground who pushed the freedom agenda forward. Could this film – and others, like Fruitvale Station – signal a shift in how Hollywood tells the stories of Blacks on film? Do we no longer require a white protagonist (see The Help, and almost every other movie ever made about racism) to bring us in? Is this the dawn of a new era? We’ll see.

So that’s what makes the film work. What makes it messy are the distracting cameos – the presidents – by actors who don’t entirely disappear into their roles. From Robin Williams (Eisenhower!), to James Marsden (too healthy-looking to be JFK), to Liev Schreiber (LBJ – fun, but still Liev Schreiber), to John Cusack (Nixon!) to Alan Rickman (Reagan!) – not to mention Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan! – the list of stars hamming it up is long (though Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Lenny Kravitz shine as Cecil’s fellow butlers). And on the one hand, it’s a good thing that there are laughs to be had, since stories that are ceaselessly serious usually fail to reach us, but so many of these laughs are not there by intent. Still, in spite of this failing, and in spite of a certain looseness of structure, the film is, overall, successful in its goals, and a must-see for anyone who knows little of the Civil Rights era. It also functions as entertainment, which is no small feat, either. Enjoy!

 

“Kick-Ass 2,” Rape Jokes and All, Is Just Dreadful

Kickass 2

Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013)

What’s funny about rape? I’ll tell you. The rapist can’t get it up. Ha, ha! I knew that would win you over. But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? Is it . . . omg . . . a moment when our man turns away to quickly masturbate, but still can’t quite make it? Now that’s comedy!

I must confess that I enjoyed – up to a point – the first film in this series. As violent as Kick-Ass was, It somehow seemed (for me) to get the balance of violence and humor just right, and to keep the violence cartoonish enough to allow one to laugh at it without feeling like a psychopath. In this movie, if you laughed, I seriously think you need help and I will do all I can to avoid you when you walk by. Since you’l be wearing a silly costume and a mask, I’ll know you from afar.

The sequel, however, lacks whatever finesse its predecessor had (and lacks a delightfully hammy Nicolas Cage, whose presence enlivened Kick-Ass). Its young stars – Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace-Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse – all have demonstrated a certain appeal in other work – including Kick-Ass, but here seem to have been directed by an angry twelve-year-old.

Wait – what’s funnier than rape? Killing your mother by kicking her tanning machine until it explodes. Or getting your father killed because you let him take the rap for you.

Actually – there was something hilarious in this otherwise dreadful excuse of a movie. At one point, there is a shootout in an obvious Los Angeles suburb, yet all the cars have NYPD emblazoned on their sides. Ha!

And that’s all the ink I’ll waste on this monstrosity.

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” Irritates Even As It Fascinates

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

I don’t know about you, but it has been a long time since I have found a Woody Allen film anything other than an amusing trifle. Which is too bad, since back in his artistic heyday, Allen made such (to me) masterpieces as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to AskAnnie HallManhattanZelig, and, especially, Hannah and Her Sisters (my favorite of his entire œuvre). Even such less-perfect films like Love and DeathThe Purple Rose of CairoCrimes and MisdemeanorsHusbands and WivesBullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, still managed to rise above the mundane fare offered at the average multiplex. But then, whether it was just creative fatigue, domestic bliss (after he – ahem – married his lover Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter), or something else, Woody Allen stopped making interesting films. Even such relatively well-reviewed efforts as Match Point and Midnight in Paris were just re-treads of a lot of similar whimsical and/or bittersweet themes of his past. He ceased to be a filmmaker of any great consequence, and seemed to be living off of his past reputation.

But now comes Blue Jasmine. It is unlike anything Woody Allen has made in quite some time, and evokes the contemplative mood of such earlier films as InteriorsStardust Memories, and Alice. I did not much like it, to be honest, but I was gratified to see Mr. Allen trying to do something more ambitious than the light fare of the recent past.

Blue Jasmine follows the story of a spoiled Manhattan housewife, the Jasmine (not her real name) of the title, played with total commitment by Cate Blanchett. She is in a downward spiral after the arrest and subsequent in-prison suicide of her Bernie Madoff-like husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Destitute and homeless, Jasmine flies out to San Francisco to live with her adoptive sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, sweet but unable to completely lose her British accent). The two sisters are nothing alike: Jasmine is all faux-aristocrat, while Ginger is proudly working class. Nevertheless, and in spite of Jasmine’s brittle disdain for everything and everyone in Ginger’s life, the siblings try to make a go at co-habitation. Some additional complicating factors include Ginger’s two kids from her first marriage to Augie (a spot-on Andrew Dice Clay) and her new blue-collar beau, Chili (a delightful – as always – Bobby Cannavale). Soon, however, Jasmine has a new suitor of her own: an aspiring politician, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who knows nothing of her past and finds her captivating. Will Jasmine be able to use him to rise above the squalor (as she sees it) into which she has fallen, and to return to her dearly-missed patrician lifestyle? Well, if I told you, then that would truly be a plot spoiler . . .

Gee, writing out that plot summary just now made me think more highly of the movie. It sounds intriguing, right? Well, for me, the problem is that the central character is profoundly irritating, and since she is in every scene, so, therefore, is the movie. While the script takes a hard look at the sins of the financial titans of our modern world, it does not delve much beyond the surface of what makes them tick. And while at one point – early in the film – it seems as if Allen might have fun with the culture clash between Jasmine’s and Ginger’s worlds (ahhh – how the film would benefit from more Bobby Cannavale!), he instead elects to focus almost entirely on Jasmine’s journey from mistake to mistake. In spite of Blanchett’s powerful performance, the film never develops into much more than a two-dimensional portrayal of her character.

Nevertheless, I recommend the film to all Woody Allen fans who have now long despaired of any return to substance from the master. This is a deeply flawed work, but it is at least interesting, if – like its protagonist – simultaneously very annoying.

WWII: Denzel and Mark Are the 2 Reasons to See “2 Guns”

2 Guns

2 Guns (Baltasar Kormákur, 2013)

I must admit that what most impressed me about this film was the decision, in a season of sequels, to put the 2 at the front of the title . . .

What impressed me the least was the slew of terrible trailers at the start. Finally, however, in the midst of the tedium, there were two films that looked kind of interesting: American Hustle and The Counselor, both due later this year. Stay tuned.

2 Guns is not a great, or even good, film, by any means, but it is fairly watchable through most of it, until the end, when the shootouts become annoyingly generic, and someone dies who didn’t need to (which left a really bad taste in my mouth). It seems as if big budget filmmakers frequently cannot resist the allure of mindless mayhem, even in otherwise decent fare. Such was the case, for instance, in Man of Steel.

Denzel Washington, as Bobby, and Mark Wahlberg, as Stig – two guys who may or may not be hoods, cops, or crooked cops – are the two real reasons to see the film. They have great chemistry – even more than do Denzel and Paula Patton (who is so lovely that it almost hurts just to look at her). This is truly a bro-mance for the ages. Its mantra? “You fight for the guy who’s fighting next to you.”

Edward James Olmos also isn’t bad, but there isn’t enough of him. Bill Paxton is miscast and not that interesting. Paula Patton, as previously mentioned, is heart-stopping (I hope you treat her well, Robin Thicke!).

The plot, such as it is, is fairly ridiculous. Let’s let Manohla Dargis (positive) and Mick LaSalle (negative) do the heavy lifting on the summary. I, for one, am still a bit confused (and for the record, I’m halfway between Dargis and LaSalle in terms of where I stand). When the film worked, it was a fun ride; when it didn’t, it was still no worse than most action flicks.  If you like the two leads, you’ll probably enjoy 2 Guns.

“The Gatekeepers,” Like “The Fog of War,” Takes a Hard Look at Violence and Its Consequences

Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh, 2012)

I must apologize for two things:

  1. Not watching this film earlier (it was the only 2012 Oscar-nominated film I hadn’t yet seen).
  2. Not writing a longer review (I make up for it by being – hopefully – concise and precise).

Here is my review:

Like Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers is a documentary that takes a hard and critical look at military/intelligence actions and their consequences. In that earlier film, the thoughtful subject was former US. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In this new film (one of the 5 Oscar-nominated documentaries from last year), the subjects are the 6 living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency in charge of terrorism prevention, and they are all just as thoughtful and reflective as was McNamara. Agree or disagree with them or their actions – and they don’t all agree with each other – it is hard to accuse them of not being experts in their field. What emerges from their collective voice is a complicated (and depressing) portrait of modern Israel. And while their mood may be dour and their outlook grim, perhaps the single biggest silver lining in their cloud of dread may be that such men – men who understand that actions have consequences – exist and are given this great responsibility. A must-see movie.

If Cars Could Fly: A Review of “Cars 3,” I mean, “Planes”

Planes

Planes (Klay Hall, 2013)

Dusty Crophopper (the voice of Dane Cook) is an overly ambitious crop duster airplane whose mantra – “I want to do more than what I was built for”  – leads him to enter an around-the-world racing competition. A doping scandal offers him a way in to the field, and he’s off. Along the way, he must conquer demons internal (a fear of heights) and external (sore-loser competitors, weather), relying as much on his wits and good nature as on his physical skills. Lessons are learned, friendships are made and unmade, and good triumphs over evil. What more could you ask for? I’d certainly recommend you take your kids to this over Pacific Rim. However, I’d also recommend that you stay at home and watch (or re-watch) The Muppets, or go to the Cineplex and watch Monsters University, both of which were also released by Disney and offer far greater (and more original) pleasures.

The film opens with a “World of Cars” graphic, and so we know right away what we’re in for. If you liked Cars 2 (for my money, the worst Pixar film ever made), chances are you’ll like this. Did you know that there was an online virtual environment based on the movie Cars (for my money, the second worst Pixar film ever made)? You can also check out this wiki if you’re truly interested. Why not move there, in fact?

To be fair, Planes is not without its pleasures. I liked the tractors as stand-ins for cows. They drive around freely in India because, of course, tractors are sacred in India . . . I also laughed out loud one or two times, but the problem is that I can’t remember when, where or why. It’s just all such a been-there-done-that kind of affair. I yawn just thinking about it.

One other nice thing about the film is that many of the voices are NOT top celebrities. An actor friend of mine once lamented how animation had finally been overrun with celebrity, so that hard-working character actors were now unable to find work in a medium that had previously been open to people with good voices and unknown faces. For example, who the hell is Dane Cook? True, John Cleese and Brad Garrett (I hyperlink his name because you may not actually know who he is – some kind of celebrity, huh?) are recognizable, but I mistook one of the other guys (if you watch the film, guess who!) for Antonio Banderas, and I was wrong.

There are lots of problems I had with the film, beyond its blandness, such as the awful ethnic stereotypes and the completely loopy geography, but I would have forgiven much of that if I’d been having a better time. Amazingly, the 3D added nothing. Can you believe it? Meh.

Almost Never Too Late: 3 Summer Movies I Had No Need to See, Yet Did, Anyway

Last week, I was in California for the annual UFVA conference, which was, as always, a tremendously worthwhile experience, and a great opportunity to meet and speak with my peers in the field. Before the conference began, I managed to see three summer films that I had previously missed. Seeing, below, which films they were, you may wonder why I bothered. Or you may be the kind of person who completely understands why I would choose to subject myself to more blockbuster fare. Wherever you stand, here we go. I didn’t take notes during the screenings, so these are just reactions to what I remember.

In order of best to worst:

Wolverine

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

As with all of the other films featuring Marvel Comics’s Wolverine character, the best part of this movie is Hugh Jackman, himself. An extremely personable and charismatic actor, even in mediocre films (such as Australia), Jackman has the gift of the true movie star: he fills the screen with his presence. I enjoyed the comparatively weak X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in spite of its numerous flaws, largely on the strength of Jackman’s (and Liev Schreiber’s) charm. He was also one of the main reasons to see the first X-Men film. When his character’s role was downplayed in subsequent films in that series, I began to lose interest.

One does wonder, however, how long the owners of the X-Men and Wolverine copyrights hope to keep the story going. As a virtually immortal mutant, is Wolverine ever in any actual danger (other than from his own, internal demons)? That’s a question that this new film does, to its credit, try (somewhat) to answer. But it’s not a great, or even a particularly good, movie. It’s entertaining enough, but only in a I-just-hiked-9.2-miles-in-Joshua-Tree-National-Park-and-I-really-want-to-be-in-an-air-conditioned-theater-right-now kind of way.

The story is too convoluted to recount here, and if you are unfamiliar with the Marvel universe, it won’t make sense, anyway. To those who do know something of Wolverine, here’s a short synopsis: Having unwillingly killed the woman (also a mutant) he loved (in a previous X-Men film), Logan (Wolverine) lives like a recluse, adrift in a world he no longer wishes to inhabit, yet cannot leave, since his body always heals itself. When an old friend sends an emissary to him, offering a chance to rid himself of the burden of immortality, Logan is tempted. Will he accept death, or will he live to fight another day?

The bulk of the movie is set in Japan, which neither helps nor hurts the story, but does allow Twentieth Century Fox to court the lucrative Asian market. It has fine – if often ridiculous – action sequences, and decent supporting performances. The funniest character – and most unbelievable screen doctor ever, complete with unbuttoned revealing white lab coat – is Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper. If you buy into her, you’ll love the movie. I saw it in 2D, and am pretty sure that I missed nothing by it, so I’d recommend this as a good home rental. But unless you’ve just gone for a hike in the dessert and need some cool-down time, I wouldn’t say you need to go see it now.

Conjuring

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)

When the summer began, there was much consternation about the lack of visible or substantive roles for women in this year’s crop of films. But then along came The Heat, which I didn’t like all that much but which did pretty good box office, and suddenly the summer looked a little less bleak for women. As of this writing, that film is at #10 on the 2013 box office chart (though, depending on when you read this blog, its position may have changed). And then came The Conjuring, which did quite good box office, as well, and the critics started to see the summer in a very different light. Reading some of the positive reviews, I decided to go see it at the Hollywood Arclight (what a great theater!). I didn’t love it, but nor did I hate it. It’s like a mix of The Exorcist, The Amityville HorrorPoltergeist and Child’s Play, and less than the sum of its parts. The best thing about it is the excellent cast, and the best members of the cast are the two central women, Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor. Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston each do a credible job as the respective spouses.

The Conjuring tells the “true story” (ha!) of the Warrens, lay Catholic demon hunters, who protect our world from evil spirits. As the on-screen title card tells us, the movie recounts the “most terrifying case they ever dealt with.” Believe it or not (I choose not to), but it’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels to the plots of the films I listed, above. Directed by James Wan, who gave us Saw, among other disgusting horrors, The Conjuring thankfully avoids any of the grossness of the gore-no genre, and instead focuses on the usual mix of spooky sound effects, chiaroscuro lighting, and its very own “the power of Christ compels you” moment to sell its chills (a moment spoofed so beautifully in This Is the End). It sort of works, but it also feels incredibly derivative. See it for the actors, if you must, but at home.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

There are three ways to describe this film:

  1. Transformers meets Godzilla meets Independence Day.
  2. What would happen if a 10-year-old boy wrote a script and was then given $200,000,000 to direct it.
  3. ?

Any of those sound appealing? Then go see it. Nice knowing you.

Hungry for monster movies, however? Then perhaps we should just wait for Monsters director Gareth Edwards’s own upcoming Godzilla . . .