Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Last 12 Movies I Watched

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA, 2014, 112 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The follow up to 2012’s surprisingly popular 21 Jump Street reboot gets a lot of energy from its “anything for a laugh” sensibility, though it also overstays its welcome a bit.  Stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have good comedic chemistry, and the latter’s charm in this role is actually a bit of a shock (at least for those of us who missed the first film).  B-

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 2014, 142 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The second film in the popular yet wildly inessential Spider-Man reboot is kids’ stuff, for better and for worse.  It’s refreshing to see a modern comic book movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also a little disconcerting to see an excellent supporting cast (including Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, and Paul Giamatti) wasting their talents on a glorified Saturday morning cartoon.  The lighthearted tone does set the film apart from many recent blockbusters, but the overabundance of characters and subplots are all too familiar.  C+

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA, 2014, 113 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Tom Cruise plays a smug military PR man who is forced to relive the same disastrous battle over and over again until he gets it right, in this unexpectedly clever and well-organized sci-fi action film.  It’s basically Groundhog Day (1993) as a special effects heavy blockbuster, but the filmmakers mercifully spare us boring exposition and simply throw us into the premise, allowing us to be just as disoriented in the early goings as the protagonist.  The puzzle narrative is impressively fluid, and the filmmakers continually find smart and surprising ways to offer variations on the premise.  Perhaps inevitably, the film does lose a little steam when the heroes finally figure out exactly what needs to be done, but the quality of the storytelling makes this the nicest surprise of this year’s summer blockbuster season.  B

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Warner Brothers deserve some credit for putting this blockbuster in the hands of young director Gareth Edwards (previously best known for 2010’s micro-budgeted Monsters), who intelligently films and edits the footage of the creatures in ways the put the audience in the shoes of the human characters.  Edwards’ skill for creating kinetic action sequences should make the film gripping, but there is an odd lack of danger to the major disaster sequences, and the lack of blood and human casualties in the city-destroying setpieces suggests that the film was constrained by pressure to turn in a PG-13 edit.  The talented ensemble cast is largely wasted as well.  Bryan Cranston has room to give his stock character some genuinely intense pathos, but Ken Watanbe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and David Straithern are just here to deliver exposition.  C+

Hercules (Ron Clements & John Musker, USA, 1997, 93 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
This smarmy take on the legend of Hercules may be the nadir of Disney animated films.  The charm and wonder of the studio’s classics is replaced here with a jumbled mix of corny vaudeville humor and cynical pop culture referencing.  The R&B Greek chorus would be an interesting eccentric touch if it was stylistically integrated into the film’s aesthetic in any logical way, but in context it’s just another random element.  C

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, UK, 1949, 106 min.)
Viewed on Itunes             Second Viewing
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Ealing Studio’s dark comic masterpiece is angry and class conscious in a way that only a British film can be.  After his mother is disowned by the wealthy D’Ascoyne family, a young man (Dennis Price) devotes his life to systematically murdering the eight family members who stand in the way of the inheritance that he believes is his birthright.  Each of the D’Ascoyne’s is played by Alec Guinness, and viewers who are primarily familiar with his stoic work as Obi-Wan Kenobi will be blown away by the comedic range he displays here.  The film is lavished with production values befitting the aristocratic family at its center, and the script and the performances are absolutely top notch.  A

The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1929, 107 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Though it’s most notable for being the first Hollywood musical to transcend the revue format (meaning that it’s the first where characters break spontaneously into song rather than in the context of musical performances for an onscreen audience), Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie is more than just a historical footnote.  It’s yet another fine demonstration of the famous “Lubitsch touch,” as the director flaunts a mastery of early sound technology that nearly equals his already well-developed visual sense.  The material being recorded doesn’t always feel worthy of the director’s efforts – the story (about the marriage between a womanizing Count and a shrewish Queen) is uninteresting, and the musical numbers largely feel dated and unmemorable (aside from “Let’s Be Common,” which features some insanely athletic physical comedy from supporting players Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth).  Still, there is ample charm in both the production values and in the chemistry between stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.  B

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2013, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to find a fresh take on the overcrowded vampire subgenre.  The writer-director is less interested in creating scares or wallowing in doomed romanticism than in using his undead main characters to take stock of his own obsessions (classic literature, underground music, the work of Nikola Tesla, the cityscapes of Detroit and Tangier) as they become increasingly ignored by the modern world.  The film is often hilariously deapan, but its sincere reverence for art from all eras is genuinely touching.  Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are ideally cast as the world’s oldest, most undead hipsters, and they are ably supported by fine supporting players such as Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, and Anton Yelchin.  As usual, Jarmusch supervises an outstanding and eclectic soundtrack, with music provided by minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem and noise rockers SQURL as well as others.  B+

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France, 2013, 130 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi followed his masterpiece A Separation (2011) with another morally complicated and emotionally charged drama revolving around the damage caused by the collapse of a relationship.  Though the action has been transported to France, The Past does feel at times a little too similar to Farhadi’s previous triumph, as if the writer-director is as unable to move on from his own recent history as his characters are.  Yet it’s hard to fault the film too much for its slight feeling of déjà vu when the results are this assured.  The level of verisimilitude in both the performances and the script is spellbinding, and no filmmaker working today rivals Farhadi’s skill when it comes to story structure.  B+

Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg, USA, 1995, 81 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Disney’s take on the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith is about as whitewashed as you’d expect, though the streamlined narrative and the high quality animation do give the film a certain charm.  Though far less graceful than the classic Disney animated films, and not remotely as spellbinding as The New World (Terrence Malick’s 2005 take on the same legend), this is still a reasonably entertaining time passer.  C+

Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1997, 134 min.)
Viewed on YouTube        Second Viewing
Understanding Auteurs Review
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
In scale and scope, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy epic rivals such masterpieces of live-action cinema as Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1966).  This is one of the most beautifully animated films in history - every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail.  Unfortunately the script doesn’t always match the grace of the imagery, as Miyazaki overburdens the compelling central narrative (in which a hunter inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a conflict surrounding control of a forest) with too many unevenly developed factions and ancillary characters.  Still, it’s hard to begrudge the film a few excesses when it otherwise manages such an impressive fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty.  B+

X-Men:  Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA, 2014, 131 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise makes an ambitious attempt to simultaneously follow up on the little-loved X-Men:  The Last Stand (2006) and the enjoyable prequel X-Men:  First Class (2011) by uniting both films’ casts through a convoluted time travel narrative.  The novelty of the premise is appreciated, but stylistically the film does little to stand out from the endless wave of superhero movies.  There is one memorable scene involving a mutant manipulating time during a frantic shootout, but for the most part this feels like the typical modern blockbuster despite its unique storyline.  C+

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