Category Archives: Reviews

La-La Land (2016) (Review)

I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle.  The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar.  After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land.  But why?

La-La Land is a good movie.  It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one.  The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things.  Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?”  The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”

La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie.  That isn’t nothing.  Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics.  The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?

One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down.  The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it.  Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors.  Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type.  The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly.  The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.

In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film.  It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either.  It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all.  It just missed the mark a bit.

You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.

You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Bridget Jones’s Baby (Review)

Directed by Sharon Maguire, UK, 2016

Sequels with large time gaps between them have not fared well recently.  Sure, reboots are all the rage these days, but a sequel to films that came out fifteen and twelve years ago respectively (Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004))?  This seems like a particularly risky proposition, especially when one of the lead actors has been absent from the scene for the better part of a decade.

Like the title character of the series, despite all of these obvious problems with the history of long hiatus sequels and actors, Bridget Jones’s Baby actually works out pretty well.  In some respects, it’s a better movie than the first Bridget Jones movie. Don’t get me wrong, Bridget Jones’s Diary is still the funnier movie, but it sometimes over-relied on funny set pieces to develop its stories and characters.

The first movie takes place over the course of a year and a half and jumps around between several different sub plots with no central narrative thrust.  The hilarious set pieces keep the movie together, and its humor, along with the performances of Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth (who plays Mark Darcy), are the reasons why it remains a modern classic.

The third movie has its share of humor, it also has a condensed timeline that works in its favor.  While there is a subplot focused on Bridget’s career, it is exists mainly to support the main narrative thrust of the story.  Otherwise, the script focuses the audience’s attention on Bridget and Mark, whose relationship is the central one in the film series, and on Bridget and Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), whose relationship represents a potential new path for Bridget.

Overall, if you liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ll like Bridget Jones’s Baby.  If not, well, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out just around the corner.

You might like Bridget Jones’s Baby if: You enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary and are looking for a well written, funny romantic comedy that continues the story in a satisfying manner.

You might not like Bridget Jones’s Baby if: You’re kind of over Bridget at this point.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Captain America: Civil War (Review)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, US, 2016

First thing’s first, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best two or three Marvel Studios films.  It avoids the excesses of the comic book storyline of the same name.  Instead it intensely focuses on questions that should be inherent in the superhero genre.  What happens to the people in those buildings that get smashed?  Or, to blatantly steal a line from a classic graphic novel, who watches the watchmen?

When superheroes fight super-villains, buildings collapse and things blow up.  What is rarely addressed is the human cost of that destruction.  The concept of superhero collateral damage has been addressed before on film a couple of times, both successfully (The Incredibles (2004)) and unsuccessfully (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)).  In Captain America: Civil War, the response to this issue sets up the central conflict in the story.   The world is grateful, really, but has decided that the Avengers need UN oversight so that the destructive consequences of their operations can be more effectively contained.

That seems reasonable, right?  Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) certainly thinks so.  The problem is, what if the powers that be can’t be trusted?  What if they are infiltrated, by I don’t know, Hydra?  What if they are so bureaucratic that they send what could be their greatest fighting asset on a tour to raise money for war bonds instead of asking him to actually fight?  You can see why Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees with Stark.

Somehow, between setting up who’s on what side and actually having a plot, the movie takes the time to effectively introduce not one, but two key Marvel superheroes.  The first is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who just happens to be a warrior called the Black Panther.  He’s also a king.  And a genius.  If that’s not enough fun, your friendly neighborhood Spiderman (Tom Holland) joins in on the action too.

Overall, Captain America: Civil War is a great action movie that asks important questions about the cost of security, the need for oversight, and the destructive power of vengeance.  If you haven’t already, and the box office receipts tell me that most of you have, go check it out.

You might like Captain America: Civil War if: You are interested in a well executed, smart action film that effectively deconstructs some of the recent blockbuster superhero movies.

You might not like Captain America: Civil War if: You can’t stand watching another superhero movie no matter how good it is.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Purple Rain (Classic Film)

Directed by Albert Magnoli, US, 1984

Yesterday, I attended an outdoor showing of Purple Rain (1984)  in downtown Minneapolis with about ten thousand other people.  Towards of end of the title track, during one of Prince’s guitar solos, I heard the familiar “woah-oh-oh-oh” refrain, but it was out of sync with the movie.  I quickly realized that it was coming from the crowd, which made it all the more powerful when the refrain from the soundtrack joined in.

In his introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), the great Dziga Vertov asks us to imagine film as an art-form with a language entirely separate from the languages of theater and literature.  This is a critical concept to understanding why Purple Rain is so popular.  When judged against the standards set forth in theatrical or literary criticism – yikes.  However, when the conventions of page and stage are disregarded, what remains is a masterpiece of post-modern art.

The rather thin, melodramatic plot only exists to call the audience’s attention to concepts that are embodied within Prince’s music.  When he wrote the songs on the classic album that shares the movie’s title, he was certainly thinking about domestic violence, sexism, and despair.  But he was also thinking about the feeling of the wind flowing through your hair during a motorcycle ride and the pure catharsis of hearing a great musical performance.  Purple Rain shows us these ideas through images, but the images exist only to emphasize how the ideas are embodied in the music.

Film is a story told through images and, with due respect to Vertov, usually contains many of the same elements that exist in theatrical and literary storytelling.  Even the very best movie music tends to play a secondary, supporting role in that, storytelling.  Purple Rain flips that paradigm – the music is central and everything else exists to support the music.  The result is a powerful work of art, which, last night, moved a grieving crowd to joy and tears and back again.

You might like Purple Rain if: You love music, and would like to see a film where music is the primary narrative force rather than playing the usual supporting role.

You might not like Purple Rain if: You view it through the lens of a traditional understanding of what makes a good narrative film.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Eye in the Sky (Review)

Directed by Gavin Hood, UK, 2016

Eye in the Sky is opening to a wide release this weekend, but I was fortunate enough to see a preview a couple of weekends ago.  The conflict in Eye in the Sky can be summarized as, “What the F do we do now?”

The British Army, with assists from the United States and Kenya, has a drone targeting a wanted terrorist.  Except it’s three wanted terrorists.  Oh and two other guys are trying on suicide bomb vests.  Fire and forget, right?  Wrong.  The problem is that there’s a little girl  selling bread outside the compound.

What follows is an intense, well-acted film about the consequences of waging a certain kind of war in the modern era.  The drone pilots are safe in Las Vegas (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox), and the officers calling the shots are safe in England (in separate locations, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren).  The guy who’s in the most danger is a Somali-Kenyan operative (Barkhad Abdi).  Well the guy on the team anyway, the little girl is the most danger obviously.

The question the movie asks is a tough one to answer.  Do you let one innocent person die in order to potentially save dozens?  During previous eras of warfare, the answer seemed obvious.  When you’re flying a B-17 miles above the war, this isn’t something you think about.  In this instance, however, everyone involved can see the face of the girl in the crossfire.

Paul, Fox, Abdi, and Mirren are all great, as is the rest of the cast.  Of special note, this film is Alan Rickman’s last, as he passed away a couple of months back.  It’s good to see him go out on top.

You might like Eye in the Sky if: You are in the mood for an intense, morally ambiguous thriller.

You might not like Eye in the Sky if: You’re in the mood for something a bit lighter.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Review)

Directed by Zack Snyder, US, 2016

Part of me can’t believe I’m writing this, but I didn’t hate this movie.  Given the number of characters introduced, the hot mess that was Man of Steel (2013), and the amount of negative press the film has gotten thus far, I expected it to be horrible.  Legendarily horrible.  Sean Connery in Zardoz (1974) horrible.  Instead it wasn’t awful.

Ben Affleck makes a fine Batman, and Gal Gadot makes a fine Wonder Woman.  Gadot is underused, but she makes the most of her limited screen-time.  Affleck nails the “older Batman” role with a fine balance of weariness and general Batman-ness.  Even the final battle sequence avoids the indulgences of Snyder’s previous action movies.

That being said, it’s not a great movie.  Henry Cavill is still soulless and dull as Superman.  Jesse Eisenberg is a bit off-putting as “all of a sudden Lex Luthor is Marc Zuckerberg.”  I liked the “Lex Luthor is more of a Nelson Rockefeller type” that the comic books had in the 1990’s.

Overall, the Superman characters are fine.  Not perfect but fine.  This is, after all, mostly a Batman movie.  The real issue with the film, why it’s merely okay but not great, is that there are long stretches of boredom.  Case in point, I actually left the theater for about ten minutes during the first act and missed absolutely nothing.  It was almost like Snyder was overcorrecting for the non-stop “boomfest” that was Man of Steel.

Overall, Batman v Superman isn’t a bad comic book movie.  It’s better than probably a third of the comic book movies out there.  If you just need a decent diversion this weekend and an excuse to go to the movies, you can do much worse.

You might like Batman v Superman if: You just feel like seeing a comic book movie and you’re fine if it’s mediocre.

You might not like Batman v Superman if: You are expecting it to be great in any way, shape, or form.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview Week – Best Picture Reviews

It’s that time of year again – Oscar Preview Week!  I realize it’s already Thursday, but to make up for it I’m putting three posts in one today.

I’ve already reviewed five of the Best Picture Nominees, but I’ve seen all eight.  Here are the links to my previous reviews:

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

All set?  Good.  Here are the other three in alphabetical order:

The Big Short

Directed by Adam McKay, US, 2015

Up in the Air (2009) may be a more visceral “this is how it feels right now” reaction to the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown, but The Big Short is far more cerebral.  It is less of a narrative film and more of a docudrama.  It is complete with humorous asides to help the audience grasp some of the meatier financial concepts required to understand what is in essence a disaster movie.

The crisis is established as an unstoppable force, foreseen by only a handful of investors.  Its worst excesses are made clear to the viewer, from the smug mortgage bros (one of which is New Girl’s Max Greenfield at his most bro-ish), to regulators asleep at the switch, to greedy bankers laughing behind a wall of money and lies.  And like the forces of nature in films like the Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), the perpetrators of the disaster are left unpunished.

Who does Director Adam McKay get to help him tell this story?  A parade of Hollywood’s finest actors giving fantastic performances.  Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei lead a fine cast.  McKay remains the real creative star here, however, using the same tools that he used to make comedy classics like Anchorman (2004) to tell one of the most important stories of our time.

You might like The Big Short if: You have an interest in what the hell happened in 2008.

You might not like The Big Short if: You are one of the perpetrators of what the hell happened in 2008.

The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott, US, 2015

Two of this year’s Best Picture nominees are man versus nature tales.  With all due respect to getting partially eaten by a bear, The Martian is the more impressive victory over the elements.  Say what you want about a frozen forest in North America, the Earth is teeming with life, water, and air.  Mars is hostile to all three.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war.  The ancients named her that due to her red hue, but for astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon at his most Matt Damon-y), it is a fitting name for more personal reasons.  Left for dead by his crew members, every day is a fight for survival against a world that has no use for organisms of any kind, much less human beings.

Fortunately for Watney, he is blessed with some resources, the gift of a brilliant mind, and a great sense of humor.  While he could despair, he instead takes the opposite attitude and finds the whole situation a bit of a joke.  Those who are trying to rescue him, from mission control to his shipmates (led by Jessica Chastain’s Captain Lewis), are less amused, but no less competent.

Overall, The Martian is probably the most uplifting of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture (Brooklyn is a close second).  It’s a triumph of scientific competence and good humor.

You might like The Martian if: You want to see a movie that will restore your faith in science and humanity.

You might not like The Martian if: You saw Gravity (2013) and you never want to see another “marooned in space” movie ever again.

Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Canada/Ireland, 2015

Room presents to us a situation of monstrous horror, humanity at its very worst.  A young girl is kidnapped, raped, and locked in a shed for seven years.  Her tormentor leaves her with a child to care for, and neither is allowed to leave the shed.  The horror and evil isn’t the focal point of our story, however, instead it is the perspective of the little boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Jack isn’t traumatized by “Room.”  He was born there, and that’s all he’s ever known.  His mother, Joy (Brie Larson) creates a fiction for him that allows him to process his situation in a manner that keeps him not only sane, but happy.  His mother is tormented night and day, but she makes sure that her son is not.

The trailers and promotional materials make it clear that they get away from their tormentor, so I’m not spoiling anything by saying that, I hope.  Indeed, they are only in “Room” for the first twenty minutes or so of the movie.  Once they escape, we continue the story through Jack’s perspective.  We see a well-adjusted, happy child, but we also see that seven years of captivity and torture have driven his mother into insanity.

Brie Larson deserves the awards she’s been getting for her role here.  The perspective of the film is from her happy and creative child, and she does her best to keep him well-adjusted by hiding her growing anxiety, anger, and depression.  We only see glimpses of it through most of the film, so Larson has to be subtle.  It’s a difficult task, but one that’s well executed.

If Room were told from Joy’s perspective, it would be a horror movie.  From Jack’s perspective it’s a coming of age film, albeit a traumatic and difficult one for the audience to process.  As strong as Larson and Tremblay’s performances are, this is the most interesting aspect of the film.

You might like Room if: You are interested in how shifting perspectives can change the nature of a story.

You might not like Room if: You are expecting a more conventional horror movie.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe