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The inspiration behind Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed, this Hong Kong original contains the core fabric of that story but few of its offshoots. It's strictly the tale of two double-agents, working both sides of the law in a desperate race to be the last man discovered, as the stakes climb steep and swift. Rapid and concise, it speeds impressively through some very tricky waters, effectively ratcheting the tension to an almost-unbearable level through both plot and cinematography. As a non-Mandarin speaker, it's often tough to keep pace with the lightning-quick subtitles, but strong performances from the two yin-and-yang leads saves the day on more than one occasion. Ballsy and cold-hearted, I wish the American adaptation hadn't spoiled so many of the twists for me. I have a hunch the ending would've been twice as jolting if it hadn't.
For my money, Wes Anderson just doesn't get any better than this. The Royal Tenenbaums is where he strikes that perfect blend of heartstring and humor, spontaneous weirdness and obsessive attention to detail. The family itself has enough history to carry an entire franchise, but the film doesn't bother to wallow in it for long; there's just too much going on in the foreground to spend more than a few savory moments on back story. Loaded with talent, it pulls everything from its cast. Whether it's Gene Hackman as the conniving, two-faced patriarch with a sudden need for intimacy, Anjelica Huston as his long-sacrificing ex-wife, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow as their never-had-a-childhood offspring, or the vast array of eccentric, colorful supporting characters, it's tough not to appreciate each as a leading-caliber performance. The Royals' tale is vivid and real, emotive and wounded but also spirited and playful. It resonates in a modern setting, especially, when so many of our friends' and family members' tightest circles are similarly dysfunctional. Layered and complex without feeling superficial or overstretched, it's a whole bundle of emotions, flavors, sights and senses smashed into a single, rich, evergreen portrait. I feel this one in my heart's private pantry and my stomach's deepest pit. Wonderful.
A confused, overstuffed follow-up effort that's strangely empty, given
the classic stories inside. *ASM2* plays like a very good,
well-intentioned script that was watered down and padded by too many
cooks in the producers' kitchen. That leads to a rough, inconsistent
tone, which often parades directly from one plucky bit of light banter
straight into a dark, brooding, heavy plot development, then back
again. Imagine if Adam West's Batman had rounded a corner in the 1960s
and stumbled into Jack Nicholson's Joker parade from the first Tim
It's a wasted effort from Andrew Garfield, who's as close as we've had to a perfect rendition of the wisecracking Spidey everyone knows from the comics. His rendition of Peter Parker could still use some work, feeling a bit too "bro" for me, but a strong, essential bond with Emma Stone - his Gwen Stacy - smooths over most of those ruffles. Jamie Foxx is a puzzling choice as his main foil, too, in a limp-wristed role that's more pitiable than fearsome. Still, they march him out to a climactic fight scene, which rings as hollow and meaningless as the rest of his arc. More wasted acting chops.
The film can be a visual treat, especially when we're sailing through the skies on a zipline and Spidey's contorting his body into all manner of inhuman poses, ripped straight from the glossy covers. During the heat of battle, though, heavy doses of strobe, shakycam and jump-cuts can make it downright painful to keep up. I wanted to like this much more than I actually did. In all sorts of ways, it feels so much more authentic and grounded than the four efforts that came before, but it tries to do too much, drastically changing speeds and moods far too often. Let's start over again, I guess.
The least godly of all the Marvel heroes, Ant-Man is just a mildly intelligent, crafty guy, down on his luck but pure of heart, who catches the eye of a reclusive genius and becomes heir to his technological throne. It's not intergalactic like Guardians, it boasts no billionaire playboys like Iron Man, no political intrigue or mythological hijinx like Cap or Thor, and while all of those absences do make it feel like less of a heavyweight, they also give it a unique sense of relatable identity. This is the little guy (womp womp), one of the unwashed throngs, who dares to climb Olympus and greet the immortals. I can get behind that. It's also a great showcase of the merry Marvel mojo, casually blending well-timed wisecracks with steep ideas, loud action sets and a heavy dose of worldbuilding. That constant sense of a shared landscape, long a cornerstone of the comic book's universe, has begun to bear ripened fruit recently, and Ant-Man profits from the mere association. Truly, it's his interactions with the characters we already know, no matter how secondary they may be, that makes this seem like more than just another origin story. Paul Rudd does a nice job of pulling off the leading role, not too wacky nor too straight-laced, and his essential chemistry with Michael Douglas (the aforementioned genius) carries the picture a nice, long distance. Great effects work gets us the rest of the way, with a whole armload of inventive, fascinating, smirk-inducingly cool expositionary scenes leading the charge. Think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with more balls and a much bigger budget. It's not the best of the Marvel lot, but it's among them, and I can't wait to see where the character goes from here.
Kudos to Pixar for this one, because they really took a swing with an ambitious, risky, leftfield concept that I honestly didn't think could work when I first laid eyes on the teaser trailer. It does work, and it's often quite clever in touching a broad range of delicate subjects in a way that can be appreciated by audiences young and old alike; no small balancing act. It's uproarious and cute and heady, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that we were just barely scratching the surface here, even as things began wrapping up. There's plenty brewing under the table, but it still feels superficial, and the big developments in the third act don't totally feel like they've been earned when the credits begin to roll. Granted, it's got a bushel of heavy messages to share, much more than many of its peers in the CG animation field, but when it's a delivery from the studio that brought us Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E, there's a certain unspoken standard to meet. Inside Out represents a rebound for Pixar, certainly the best (and most creative) of their recent efforts, but it's not as sweeping, engulfing, or rewarding as the classic pedestals of their back catalog.
It's part Robocop and part Short Circuit, as a malfunction-prone police android attains consciousness and sets about learning how to live. Along the way, his lessons grow decidedly human, as he falls in with a small gang of criminals and inherits their speech, style, and sense of political outrage. I'd file it right alongside Neil Blomkamp's first two efforts, District 9 and Elysium, in that it's a technically stunning dose of conceptual wonder, grounded with a strong topical message, that just so happens to fall into the framework of a terribly simple, overplayed basic storyline. It's easy to see the promise in this work, the intense seed of morality that Blomkamp has tried so desperately to inject into a pop sci-fi shell, but for all those lofty aspirations it feels astonishingly mundane. He doesn't squeeze much from his cast - Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are both unusually flat - and the constant stream of Die Antwoord propaganda is a bit befuddling. On one hand, the musical duo has legit street cred that makes the picture come across as more authentic and unusual, but on the other it's a great big reach to spotlight them as serious leading actors. As far as technical showcases go, this is top-notch. It really feels like the mechanical creatures are right there on the set, living, breathing and performing alongside their human counterparts. It looks like nothing else on the market, too, with fascinating art direction (and universally absurd hairstyling) that outright demands attention. A shame there's really so little to it, though, beyond a predictable set of general developments and a hollow, silly grand finale.
As straightforward as spinoffs can get, really. Kids love talking cars, and kids love toy airplanes, so kids will love talking airplanes too, right? And they do, or at least mine do, even if none of this cast has half the sparkle or charisma of a Lightning McQueen or a Tow Mater. Which should speak volumes, since both are pretty much the bottom of the barrel in Pixar's repertoire. As competition-focused racing movies go, it's middle of the pack - energetic and often lovely, but flat as a board and thoroughly predictable. Younger audiences will thrill to the frequent chase scenes, with a good mix of terrain thrown in as appreciable spice, but their chaperones won't find much material hiding beneath the surface. Cars had a timely message about the loss of the great American highway lurking under there, and at least Cars 2 had some buck to its script, but there's really nothing more to this one than a simple played-out underdog sporting saga. And hey, that's perfectly okay. There's plenty of room on the screen for bright, shiny, cookie-cutter kids' fare, and it certainly doesn't offend. It's just no comparison to the Pixar-branded forerunners that paved these lanes. Good enough for a quiet evening, no more, no less, and it gave my three-year-old boys a good dose of imagination fuel.
Far more fun than the concept really had any right to be, braving new horizons while still remaining loyal to the beating heart of the product and its passionate generations of fans. Simply enough, this is a perfect encapsulation of the kind of imagination, enthusiasm, adaptation and sheer randomness that runs like lifeblood through the spirit of a happy childhood. It jabs in delightfully unexpected directions. It bends physics without an explanation (nor a need for one). It casually hops from one licensed fantasy to another, mashing Green Lantern with Gandalf, and doesn't even slow down to consider the repercussions. At the best of times, I felt like I was a kid again myself, lost in nostalgia and the infinite potential locked away within every new block. And while the last act overreaches in an effort to really hammer the morals home, otherwise this is pretty much a direct hit. Crafty, funny writing, a dazzling array of vocal talent and a playful, distinct visual style - this is the kind of family film I can always make room for.
A group of five middle-aged guys share the only keys to a private, secret condo expressly for their extramarital affairs. One morning, a bloodied dead woman is found in the bedroom and the arguing and finger-pointing begins. This seemingly has all the ingredients for a great small-scale tension cranker, but ambition gets the best of it, it tries to go large, and the whole thing blows to bits on the launchpad. It's terribly acted, for one, which is something of a surprise given the healthy careers enjoyed by its stars. Karl Urban and James Marsden are well-seasoned, even if they aren't exactly leading men, and Eric Stonestreet - while miscast in a very adult role - should at least know how to carry himself on the screen. Instead it's amateur hour, where limp first-takes abound, and the finished product is something I would expect from a bit of Cinemax softcore, not a polished big-budget production. I don't care about, or even remotely like, a single one of the characters, the writing goes around in circles seeking every possible twist, and the ending really doesn't even make any sense. Points for the concept, and for a few scanty bits of eye candy, but otherwise this is a major whiff.
An uncomfortably close look at the private life of Kurt Cobain, short-term rock superstar and unwilling voice of a disgruntled generation. In the decades since his untimely suicide, Cobain's become an almost mythical figure, which isn't to say he was anything less at the height of his mid-90s popularity. To that end, it can be useful to ground his legacy in this way: intimate home video footage shows him unguarded behind closed doors, but also captures his steady state of mental decay. Where there's a gap in his video history between childhood (and it's heartbreaking to watch this happy little boy, knowing what tragedies his life held in store) and early adulthood, journal entries, artwork and beautiful animated segments keep the narrative moving. Clearly he was hanging on by a thread for longer than most could manage, pushed into a pit of despair by a bleak combination of abandonment, physical frailty, intense media scrutiny and constant, desperate drug abuse. It's not the Cobain many of us might want to see, or to believe in, but it feels so close to the truth that I could almost feel his breath on me. As an extreme close-up on one of my era's biggest names it's significant, with a killer soundtrack of course, and unexpectedly real. It frequently feels invasive, though, especially in the interviews with his parents (his stepmother's continuous, awkward smile is particularly unnerving) and I'm not sure I'm totally okay with the way it made me feel. Powerful in many good, and many bad, ways.
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