by Philip Price
Everything about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” screams artsy film festival fodder. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact a decade ago that description would have suggested anything but a bad thing, and yet there is such a stigma around films molded on the tendencies of Wes Anderson now that they've become ripe for criticism. What also doesn't help “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's” case is the level of self-reference it operates within. At one point, how can we expect any person or movie to exist without a certain level of self-awareness when the environment we live in is a heightened social media one where each of us are called out for the clichés of our life and yet, on the other end, there is still the viable option of embracing one's self or one's story wholeheartedly to the point the audience is enveloped in the earnestness. It's a tough choice to make and just because “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” decides to go way in one direction doesn't immediately make it a recycled, overused picture that lacks real meaning or effect because the techniques it uses to convey it's story may no longer be as fresh or meaningful as they once were. This is the area where some seem to have accused the film of being trite or even irritating, but beneath all of the style that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has smothered upon Jesse Andrews quip-heavy screenplay adapted from his own novel I find it hard to believe anyone could justly deny the emotion and straight-up craft the film also packs into its running time. This brings us to the beginning of the film where our protagonist and narrator, Greg (Thomas Mann), can't decide how best to begin his story and thus debates between a trope such as, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." or simply remaining in his head so as to guide us through his thought process. As the latter wins out we are given examples of what Greg might consider the best of times and what might qualify for the worst. Before springing into the title credits Greg looks to his left to see what would indicate that what he's recently experienced, what he's going to tell us about, were indeed the best of times even if he didn't realize it in the moment.
Greg is a high school senior who has done his best throughout the years to stay low-key and integrate himself only partially into every group the school has to offer so as to be known and noticed by all without ever placing himself in the position of being pigeon-holed into one particular clique. His mother (Connie Britton) is overbearing in a way that sees her strangely forcing her son into awkward social situations while pushing him to think of his future in the most grating of ways. On the other hand, his father (Nick Offerman) is a laid-back sociology professor who mostly lumps around the house watching old foreign films and making weird seafood snacks. If Greg has one legitimate friend in the world it is Earl (a breakout performance from RJ Cyler) who he lives in the same neighborhood with, but on the nicer side of things (the film photographs Pittsburgh as a charming town occupied mainly by a lovely little neighborhood). Since they were little, Greg and Earl have apparently been fascinated with those old foreign films Greg's dad is always watching and, as they've grown up, have developed a sincere love for the Criterion Collection which they now make their own, (very) low-budget versions of. Couple this with the main storyline that deals with Greg's mom forcing him to hang out with her friends daughter Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia and you have the perfect recipe for a whimsical take on the current generation that has so graciously been deemed completely narcissistic while also indulging the droves of cinephiles who will be the main (and probably only) audience for such a film. In essence, if one were to combine last years “The Fault in our Stars” with 2008's “Be Kind Rewind” you would have “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” While I enjoyed both of those films well enough based on what they were trying to be I always felt as if the reality of Michel Gondry's film never lived up to its possibilities and I somewhat feel the same way about what Gomez-Rejon has crafted here. In short, it is efficiently paced with a large attention to detail (especially in the set decoration), but has one too many endings that are necessary despite feeling tacked on. I will say with how the culmination is executed I received legitimate chills and that ultimately the good largely outweighs the bad.
"In short" is putting this films ideas and accomplishments in too trivial a category though. The aforementioned and supposed inherent narcissism of the generation within which these characters and today's young people exist both fuels and detracts from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” It becomes evident early on that the script would seemingly sacrifice genuine emotional investment (no matter how cliché-ridden) to simply go the opposite route of what we expect (which is to say, to avoid clichés). Do you avoid emotion just to avoid cliché though? This is the conundrum the film runs into and doesn't have an answer to other than to continue subverting expectations in order to keep up the hip facade it will eventually have to succumb to if it wants to be honest rather than acting as if it knows all the answers. That the film doesn't know what to do when it comes to the fork in the road of how to make dying from cancer unique is what ultimately redeems it though. It is inescapable. It doesn't make sense. And unfortunately, there's no way to make any sense out of it no matter how hard one might try. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” tries, make no doubt about it, but about halfway through the film when Greg's crush, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), convinces him and Earl it would be a good idea to make a movie for Rachel we begin to see the wheels turning in the writers head as his story seemed to evolve as he wrote it. How nice it might have been to think they (meaning Andrews, Gomez-Rejon, Greg and Earl) could come up with a grand finale of sorts, a statement that perfectly encapsulates all the emotion and substance that life has to offer in a hand-crafted short film that would neatly tie a bow on top of a life, but instead come to the conclusion there is no amount of words or images that can give a sense of closure to a mentality otherwise ready to finally take on the world. This brings us back around to the characters and the film itself being narcissistic by nature when in reality this is a story from a specific point of view, a view that is admittedly not as worldly as Greg would like to admit (watching so many foreign films has to count for something though, right?) and therefore only makes sense that it thinks it knows everything to begin with, but is given a reality-check when the world slaps it across the face with a concept it can't quite handle much less explain.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about teenagers first and foremost and their attempts at dealing with mortality — a subject not many people even consider at that age, but rather accept simply as part of the circle of life rather than a chance encounter if your chosen body chooses not to function properly. Within this exploration it is vital to remember it is Greg's and not that of Rachel's who we naturally come to like more than our self-involved, self-loathing narrator who actually exudes a strong sense of superiority. As Greg, Mann is quite effortless in conveying this sense of ideals rather than an actual human being. Whether it be in his attempts to not get too close to anyone (referring to Earl as a co-worker rather than a friend) or in lampooning his favorite films he's never forced to make any kind of commitment or anything wholly his own thus allowing him to get away with never coming to terms with who all these influences have created in human form. This makes for perfect reasoning when thinking of how, despite Greg's world fully revolving around him, he finds it both difficult to make an original piece for Rachel as well as write a letter to the college admissions office that is used as the framing device. There is also a terrific scene between Mann and Cooke (captured in a single take I might add) that addresses this glaring issue of Greg making Rachel's illness about him rather than consulting how she might be inept at dealing with the hand she's been dealt. This scene alone addresses the fact that this is Greg's story and how Rachel's circumstances will affect his life more immediately rather than her own.
Outside of the strong themes that aren't only discussed but actively demonstrated surrounding the essence of this transition from being in a state of adolescence to that of actual maturity there are several strong performances that perfectly balance that sense of narcissism and perspective that Greg can't yet attain. Whether it be that of the minor contributions from Jon Bernthal or Molly Shannon (who is truly moving in a scene where she discusses how there are some things you can't protect your children from) to that of the tonally uneven, but revelatory showing from Cyler that adds the perfect counter medicine the film needed to not come off too pretentious. Greg doesn't realize he's in the good ole days as they're happening and that's perfectly fine because he'll come to that realization at the appropriate time, but we as an audience would be just as naive if we looked over this film as little more than another coming of age tale told in hipster fashion rather than the touching and ultimately soulful film that it is.
by Philip Price
What do you say when everything you've just witnessed is as down the middle as you could imagine? There was an undercurrent of suspicion, hope and possibility given the sheltered release date that strive to place “Self/less” as alternative programming. It seemed, if nothing else, like a safe action bet in the vein of “Safe House” to mainstream movie-goers with added credentials of Ben Kingsley and director Tarsem Singh for those more invested in current cinema. Singh is known for insane and typically crazily creative visuals, but all of those touches are for the most part absent here as Ryan Reynolds tries once again to prove that he can be good in a dramatic role. Ultimately, we are taken through a few action beats and little more. When the most unique aspect of a Singh picture is some of its editing choices, one has to wonder what brought him to the project and what made him choose this traditional and standard approach to the material rather than adding his own flourishes. Whatever the reasoning might have been, what the director delivers with the final product is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that operates in the sci-fi/action genre but does little to expound on its rather interesting premise. It eventually devolves into a series of chase scenes. The first hour or so of the film had me going along with it as we are given the outline for the somewhat complicated main idea. What would you do if we were able to manufacture immortality? The question is posed up front and in our main character falling victim to the possibilities of such promises Singh expertly paces (again, thanks to some nice editing choices) the first half of the film to methodically execute the questions that would naturally arise around such power. Singh then sets up the possible avenues for where the remainder of the film might go. It is the choice of writers David and Alex Pastor to go the route of the bad guys hunting down their rogue experiment that damns the film from becoming more than just that middle of the road movie. “Self/less” certainly had potential but out of nothing more than laziness and wanting to avoid more complicated, thought-provoking territory that potential was squandered on a film that will be easily forgotten.
Beginning in the pent house suite of a high rise building in New York City that looks as if it has been decorated by King Tut, we are introduced to industrialist Damian Hale (Kingsley). Hale is extremely wealthy and renowned for being the man who built NYC into what it is today but is secretly dying from cancer. In one of the early scenes that displays Damian's knack for doing business and keeping his company more than afloat we are also introduced to his associate Martin (Victor Garber). Martin is something of a confidant and friend to Damian as being the wealthiest man in the city. This hasn't exactly made him the most popular. Damian's daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery) runs a non-profit and doesn't speak to him and also doesn't care to patch things up through Damian's pocketbook. For a man such as Damian, a man who feels superior to all those around him, it is hard to admit to being like everyone else, to dying like we all do. Thus, Damian is suspiciously contacted by an organization led by Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) that specializes in transferring the consciousness of some of the greatest minds of their day into the lab-grown bodies of younger people so that they might continue to innovate. Once Damian agrees to the operation and stages his death appropriately, his consciousness is transferred to the body of a young man that just so happens to look like Mr. Reynolds. At first, all seems to be going well for the newly minted "Edward" granted he takes the little red pill Dr. Albright has prescribed once a day. Naturally, all is not as it appears though for as soon as Damian misses one dose of his medicine he begins to uncover the mystery of the body's true origin and the bigger organization that will kill to protect its secrets.
Once Damian becomes thirty-five-year-old Edward and has completed the necessary rehabilitation the film finds something of a stride in its New Orleans setting. Reveling in his youthfulness Damian/Edward takes to the local basketball courts where he has an immediate connection with Anton (Derek Luke). Anton introduces him to the nightlife around the city and helps the revitalized Damian enjoy a period of complete self-indulgence. The utilization of the New Orleans music scene paired with the intercut editing of actions plastered over dialogue help the montages stick out and the film feel vibrant, at least for the moment. Being in this constant state of pleasure-seeking though, Damian begins to feel it is nothing more than routine. As Albright can see the pebbles of resistance during their weekly meetings he decides to give Damian a change of scenery as well as up his dosage. Through a series of events Damian comes to realize the body he's now occupying is not that of a synthetic one but an actual human body with a past life. Damian discovers the body actually belonged to a man named Mark who was once an Army veteran from Missouri. Mark's since been presumed dead by his wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and their young daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). Once the now Damian/Mark learns these truths and decides to investigate, the movie takes a slight left turn into predictability. Rather than further exploring the reasoning behind Mark's decision to submit himself to Dr. Albright or even how Albright goes about choosing these candidates the movie gives us Reynolds, Martinez and their girl on the run. Never mind the throughline concerning legacy and what one creates in their lifetime serving as that legacy thus making you feel immortal, but Singh doesn't even take advantage of the transferring of the minds to give us an interesting visual representation. Instead, we're given what we expect, what they feel we can handle and nothing else.
The most interesting thing left to discuss is of course the performance of Reynolds. His performance is key to buying the idea that Kingsley's mind has actually transferred into his body, but even more is the need to convey the strain of two psyches fighting for control of one mind. It's clear Reynolds is all in for capturing this internal conflict and does well to keep the reality of the situation present. Still, there is something about the performance that exhibits the actor doesn't seem to fully grasp the implication of such a possibility, but hell, I'm not sure I do either. On the other side of things, Goode carries such an old-fashioned swagger to his persona that he naturally exudes the more mature manner that Reynolds has to actively reach for when subtly mimicking Kingsley's body language and vocal patterns. Goode also integrates a level of evil genius into his performance despite the character clearly thinking of himself as more of a savior. Kingsley, though only present for the first fifteen minutes or so, may actually give the worst performance in the film based solely on his attempt to do something of a (I guess) New York accent that sounds strained and awkward. Kingsley's scene with Garber is fun to watch though, and Garber serves as a more vital character than expected. With the bigger ideas of the script being sacrificed around him so as to put on something of a twist in the third act though, it's all a little disappointing. Martinez, who has been strong in the likes of “End of Watch” and “Broken City,” does what she can with what she's given here, but is mainly resigned to the crying and confused wife. The positive things I can say about “Self/less” once it does hit its formulaic second half is that at least it never wastes time on lagging intervals, but rather cuts right to the chase that becomes its essence. The film always feels as if it's moving forward though, which is good considering if we stayed on one scene too long it would become all the more obvious how quickly the movie is to abandon the overriding dilemma our protagonists journey hinges on.
by Philip Price
“Minions,” while inherently funny is wholly insignificant and unnecessary. For parents, “Minions” will be ol’ reliable, for children who enjoyed the “Despicable Me” films it will be what they've been waiting for, but in terms of the actual quality of the product it couldn't be more vanilla sans for the ridiculous amounts of innuendo and subtext these guys are able to get away with due to literally half of the dialogue in the film being unintelligible. At the very least, I guess this flick might open up the idea to children that watching foreign films can't be all that bad as with those you are at least given subtitles whereas with “Minions” one has to count on interpretation of tone and inflection to elicit the intended comedy. The thing is though, and this became apparent in the “Despicable Me sequel,” is that it seems the folks behind these colorful fun fests are forgetting the minions are not only inherently funny, but inherently sidekicks despite the fact this film, their own feature, is about them seeking out a boss to serve. If the minions only goal in life is to function purely as sidekicks it only seems fitting they would remain in that role in any movie they might appear in, but when a movie only happens because the first was a surprise hit and the multiple sequels and spin-offs are concocted more because the iron is hot rather than there being any actual ideas of value you're going to run into such dilemmas. When the small Illumination Entertainment company scored a $540 million hit with the original film and its sequel notched nearly a billion worldwide three years later, you better believe they were going to milk this now-franchise for all it's worth. The minions instantly became cultural mainstays and so I understand why a feature of their own was ultimately inevitable, but it doesn't mean it makes any more sense. Get what I'm saying? They are sidekicks, they are good in small portions, but a little bit of these little yellow creatures goes a long way and in giving them a feature length film things have simply gone overboard as the weight of an entire narrative on the back of a character created purely for comic relief is too much for them to carry.
Starting as single-celled yellow organisms, the opening credits sequence of Minions show how the creatures evolve through the ages, serving a never-ending string of the most evil masters including the T-Rex, Dracula and Napoleon himself. The trouble comes when they are consistently unsuccessful at keeping these masters alive. These untimely demises for each of their would-be leaders are due, of course, to the incompetency of the minions and yet they continue on, a herd unto themselves until there is no one left to serve. The minions end up building a small community in the caverns of a snow-covered tundra before eventually falling into something of a deep depression out of a need for a villain to call their own. However, there is one minion who goes by the name Kevin and he has a plan, a plan to revitalize the minion community and find them a new master to work for. Alongside fellow minions Stuart, who has the mentality of a young rebel, and the lovable little Bob the three of them set out into the unknown to find their next evil villain. Taking the audience from New York to Orlando then all the way to England, the trio embark on a journey that ultimately leads them to Villain-Con where they are introduced to Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first-ever female super-villain, in Hall H of course. After being enlisted by Overkill to be her new henchmen she reveals the minions true purpose by using them to carry out her plan to steal Queen Elizabeth's crown. With the help of her husband’s (John Hamm) weapons the minions infiltrate Buckingham palace and clumsily accomplish Overkill's mission much to her chagrin which leads to all-out war and the introduction of someone truly despicable.
I've said it before and this will no doubt be the last time, but I've always felt the spin-off is little more than a cheap way to over-extend something that worked unexpectedly and is now being mined to death (though “Creed” will hopefully prove me wrong later this year). With the third “Despicable Me” film not coming out until 2017 though, what was Illumination to do in the interim other than give the money-making minions their own movie? The truth though, is that I (like many others, apparently) enjoy the minions and their shenanigans and there are definitely parts in this flick that I laughed at more than a little bit, but by the last act of this rather brief 80-minute movie I was already worn out and ready to move on. The film suffers from not really having a strong protagonist and the absence of Steve Carell as Gru and the dynamic he has with his adopted daughters is surely felt, but this is meant to serve as an origin story for the minions and in that regard one could say it does the best with what it has to work with. Directors Kyle Balda (“The Lorax”) and Pierre Coffin (‘Despicable Me 1 & 2’ and the voice of all the minions) have taken us back to 1968 (which is something of an inspired choice as the films soundtrack doesn't try to repeat the Pharrell formula) where they have chosen to explore the lore of these Igor-inspired characters on a more basic level. It is credited to natural instinct that they must live in the service of villainy, but as our three main minions make their way through the big cities in search of someone worthy of their assumed talent it's interesting to note their passion and intended loyalty — even if much of those qualities are misconstrued thanks to their dialect. What might have been more interesting is a movie about the linguistics of the minions, which may have produced just as many laughs, but given the target audience is kids and not adults looking for the suggestive overtones present in these guys language I see no harm in what has been delivered here.
Like I said, I've always been cautious to the idea of spin-offs or any piece of entertainment that feels specifically manufactured for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit, but despite “Minions” feeling little more than average and even grating in parts as we near its conclusion, it is what it is. It will more than please its target audience who've already had their fill of stimulation through entertainment this summer with “Inside Out” and are looking for little more than a pleasant distraction. The minions brand will only expand with this rather hollow picture, but the laughs are frequent and random enough to keep both their reputation and popularity in check; at least until Gru comes around to finish his trilogy.
by Philip Price
There was always going to be a cloud of doubt, suspicion, or sense of "what if" hanging over “Ant-Man” after director Edgar Wright exited the project. Wright, an auteur in his own right, was the man who convinced Marvel that the pioneering Avenger was plausible on the big screen in the first place. Wright and screenwriter Joe Cornish completed the final draft of the script that serves as the basis for what will now forever play on DVD's and Blu-Rays. Wright was the one who cast the majority of the actors here. He was so close, in fact, to being at the helm of this project they had to delay the shooting schedule in order to find his replacement. All of this is to say that despite Edgar Wright not technically being the director of “Ant-Man,” one can still very much feel his fingerprints all over the film. That isn't to say this is an Edgar Wright film though, let that be clear, as I still believe Wright would have made a much different picture than what's been delivered. Given what we have though and that actual director Peyton Reed came into the fold so late it would be wrong to not give the guy credit where credit it is due as he adds a competent and fun if not exactly enthralling piece to the Marvel cinematic puzzle. Along with this cloud of doubt there was always the question of how far was too far? Sure, Marvel pulled off “Thor” (a mythological Norse deity who wields an enchanted hammer) and they successfully made a talking raccoon and sentient tree cool with last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but was a shrinking man who communicates with ants just a little too much to ask for? Whether it be the way Wright originally wrote the story that weaved in the many advantages of being small with a large army behind you or the rather exceptional special effects that make these sequences and these capabilities more sophisticated, the film works. There is no doubt leading man Paul Rudd's humble turn is due much credit for this as well. Regardless, while “Ant-Man” may be minor when compared to his companions, this is a film that feels fresh and as much its own thing as we've seen from the earth-based MCU in a long time.
Beginning at Pym Tech in the late ‘80s, we are introduced to Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as a man who has created what has been deemed the "Pym Particle" that allows one to shrink in scale but increase in strength. Given his history with the technology and his fear of what it might be used for if ending up in the wrong hands, Pym refuses to sell it to or team-up with Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). One thing of note considering the de-aging of Douglas in this opening scene: we've come a long way since “Tron: Legacy.” Fast-forward to modern day and Pym has retired while his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily), still works at his company under the clearly evil Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross has been itching for years to uncover the secret of Pym's Ant-Man suit, not knowing if the technology was real or just a legend around Pym's escapades. With Cross coming closer than ever to cracking Pym's code, Hope reluctantly returns to her father's side to warn him of Cross's advancements and of his intentions once he accomplishes his goal with the "Yellowjacket" suit. Enter Scott Lang (Rudd) a con man who has just been released from prison and is contacted by Pym in order to help him protect the secret behind his Ant-Man suit and the Pym Particle. With the help of Lang's posse of burglars that includes right hand man Luis (Michael Peña), driver Dave (T.I. Harris) and hacker Kurt (David Dastmalchian) the group sets out to plan the biggest heist of their careers. As the group not only has to break into Pym Tech headquarters and steal the Yellowjacket technology, but destroy all of the research and data that tells one how to create such technology they more than have their work cut out for them. Add to this the subplot of Lang attempting to prove himself to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), as well as her doubting mother (Judy Greer) and new cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and you have all the elements for a redemption as well as an origin story.
The big question that will surround “Ant-Man,” though, will be if Marvel has become too big and too broad to take as big a step back as this. Not in quality, but in scope. Given the stakes of every movie in phase two having dealt with the near end of the world, it was surprising to see a Marvel film be as self-contained as “Ant-Man” is. More than anything, this is a heist movie that has our titular hero being trained to use a specific technology in order for him to break into a place and steal some stuff. Coming along with this very basic premise is the fact of how brisk it feels. The film is never weighed down by heady themes or overly complicated emotion, but is rather a straightforward story about a big bad bald guy who sits in his office at his evil technology company and has to be stopped by the (literal) little guy who everyone has doubted up to this point and is looking to prove them wrong. With that, the script (which still is credited to Wright and Cornish with punch-ups from Rudd and writer/director Adam McKay) adds in the caveats of Lang's crew providing some of the real highlights of the film in Peña and his comedic timing. In a running gag that has Peña's Luis recounting stories to Rudd's Lang concerning where their next job might come from one can feel the influence of Wright looming. What is strange is that Reed and his team of editors have chosen to shoot and cut together these scenes in very much the way I imagine Wright would have done. As Luis tells the stories and touches on one person after another the camera shifts with his voice to play out these scenarios with other characters speaking through Peña's speedy delivery and humorous inflections. It is a technique that not only creatively conveys information and adds to Peña's character, but it is a filmmaking touch that feels very distinct to Wright and thus only a glimpse of what might have been. In between these flourishes Reed keeps things fairly straightforward as much of our time is spent with Scott, Hank and Hope as they train and prepare their new Ant-Man for the mission ahead.
And so, what is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the previous paragraph? While this is certainly a contained narrative that keeps things within its own world, Marvel is a machine and you can easily catch the obvious additions prescribed by Kevin Feige. Whether it be the already spoiled cameo from Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the acknowledgment of The Avengers in general or even that aforementioned opening scene these additions feel somewhat wedged into the narrative and make the contrast of “Ant-Man” to something like ‘Winter Soldier’ all the more glaring. To be clear, I'm a big fan of the connected universe as it is something I've desired to see on this scale since I was a little kid, but it is also important to understand there is a time and place for everything. With that in mind, “Ant-Man” is different because it feels like something wholly of its own being, on a level where The Avengers would not yet have any reason to interfere. While I enjoyed the nods to the outside world they weren't exactly essential to having audiences believe this is in fact a part of that larger universe. This argument may very well be due to my preferred version of reality where Wright and Marvel came to an agreement and allowed Wright to make a Marvel film, but it also feels like the one aspect that holds “Ant-Man” up from flowing as smoothly as it could have.
What does work in the film’s favor though is the superb cast. I enjoy the idea that Douglas' Hank Pym was conducting his own missions between the time of Captain America and Iron Man while now passing the torch on to a new hero in the day and age of costumed heroes. This dynamic between a mentor and apprentice is something new to the MCU given no other hero has been subject to a "pass the torch" scenario. As Pym, Douglas is a severe presence that has allowed a single event in his past to define the trajectory of the second half of his life. The actor plays the character with a look of constant regret and a weariness that sees him wanting to continue to make a difference, but more happy to be passing on the suit. By the end, there is a rejuvenated sense of spirit in the character that will no doubt drive his future involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. As for our star, Rudd was nothing short of an inspired choice and his unusual amounts of charisma are felt in spades here. Rudd is a presence that makes the laughable premise feel legit allowing the film to laugh at itself without making fun of itself. It's a shame he and Lily have next to no chemistry as she's pissed off at something in every scene, but the necessary love story is not the one being told between them, but more the one between Lang and his daughter (another new idea to the MCU). With these new, refreshing aspects and a devious if not world-changing villain in Stoll (hamming it up to great effect) “Ant-Man” is a swift, fun super-hero movie that may not be as substantial in the larger sense of the universe it exists within, but is as fulfilling as it could hope to be when taken on its own terms.
by Philip Price
In the latest from Pixar they delve deep into the limbic system and develop the group of forebrain structures into something of an imagination land of their own completely powered by personified emotions that manage our most treasured possessions – our memories. While the limbic system includes a number of sections of the brain including the hypothalamus, the amygdala and the hippocampus what is more important is that these hard to pronounce names are what allow the human brain to develop and exercise such abilities as motivation, emotion, learning and again, memory. That Pixar, including director Pete Docter and his team of writers and animators, have been able to create a world out of this cerebral cortex (that actually grows thicker as you learn to use it) is the first of many accomplishments with “Inside Out,” but that they are able to somehow use this platform as a way to dissect and discuss the passage of time, the stages of life and the love of a child for life and the parents love for that child is pretty incredible and puts them in a prime position to explore the type of territory for which they are best known. Eliciting emotion is a difficult task for any piece of celluloid, but especially when the characters and situations intended to elicit those emotions are created from scratch – physical being and all. So, what makes the studio as a whole so capable of doing this time and time again? The answer seems to be in that it's very keen on how these thoughts are presented. Yes, the characters are of an extremely cute quality with their variety of bright colors and their distinctive voices provided by a talented voice cast, but that these characters hold the power of the mind so precious to their imaginary hearts we take the most minor of events that affect them as tragedies as such in our own hearts as well. This, combined with the fact the film deals (again) with the inevitable changes of life that come with growing up and how hard those changes can be to accept and adapt to allow for “Inside Out” to settle firmly into the ranks of Pixar's most celebrated, even if it's not it's best.
Like what the “Toy Story” films came to represent, “Inside Out” is a parable of how we retain our child-like qualities while also evolving and the difficulty in accepting and dealing with the natural change that comes as we grow older and (sometimes) wiser. We are introduced immediately to Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as an infant and inside her newborn brain (that is almost the same size as an adult brain and contains most of the brain cells for her whole life) is where Joy (Amy Poehler) first springs into existence. These personified emotions continue to pop up as Riley develops further. At her first cry we are introduced to Sadness (Phyllis Smith), her first instance of being scared gives us Fear (Bill Hader), with her first try at broccoli bringing on little more than Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and her first bit of attitude being the product of Anger (Lewis Black). These five core emotions orchestrate an elaborate system of memories and manage the day to day dealings by appropriately engaging with Riley's conscious to react to whatever might come across their human's path. These reactions are based on a set of core memories and the pillars of Riley's personality that currently include such cornerstones as family, hockey, friendship and, of course, goofiness. High in the headquarters above the rest of her brain these emotions sit to experience the highs and lows of a pre-teen girl. It is when Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life after her father (Kyle MacLachlan) starts a new job in San Francisco that things begin to take a turn for the resistant. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to their new life Joy and Sadness find themselves separated from the other emotions who must continue to guide Riley at headquarters. Through their adventures in trying to get back to headquarters both Joy and Sadness learn a few life lessons and discover more about Riley than they might have thought possible were a new city, house and school (or change) never introduced.
“Inside Out” purposefully takes place during this transitional phase in Riley's life and so we have a reason for the core, imaginary characters to discover exactly how complex they themselves can be. As mentioned before, it is the imagination used in bringing a concrete reality to the thought process and how such feelings come to be expressed that allows Docter and the rest of his crew to really go the distance here. A certain sequence where three of our characters go through a part of Riley's brain that processes abstract thought is a visual treat where the imagery perfectly embodies a word that literally means it has no concrete existence. As Joy, Poehler perfectly balances her witty and manic persona to provide the right amount of liveliness and fluff to make her titular emotion ooze out of every syllable. Smith's voice absolutely embodies what one might expect a constant state of sadness to sound like while Kailing, Hader and Black are each somewhat obvious choices for the given emotions with Hader being the dark horse that we can expect to be able to pull off anything and he indeed does just fine with what he has to work with. At first it seems Smith's Sadness will leave the biggest impression given one can glimpse fairly early that her arc will be significant and in fact while the culminating realization that there can be no appreciation of the good without the bad, that there can be no joy without sadness, is sincerely moving it is another character altogether that takes the cake as the easy fan favorite and the one that will tug hardest at the heart strings (plus, we all know we were pretty annoyed with Sadness about twenty minutes in). Forgotten, but not completely disregarded and now living within the caverns of Riley's brain is her imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Part dolphin, part elephant, but mostly made up of cotton candy, Bing Bong is a pure representation of innocence and that the film ultimately touches on a transition in life where a level of innocence is shed makes his involvement all the more meaningful and heartbreaking. Yes, a hybrid elephant and dolphin with a body of cotton candy who sheds tears of candy will bring tears to your eyes.
To be frank though, “Inside Out” comes along at a critical point in my own life, one where it means more to me than it might have had I seen it prior to having my own child. At the time of its theatrical release my own daughter (who is all I saw as I watched Riley mature) is a young seven and a half months old and so to see this representation of time passing, the necessary appreciation of moments present and the inescapable fact we can't control time and we can't make any more of it for ourselves is both greatly depressing yet ultimately eye-opening. This is heavy stuff, no doubt, but it's what Pixar is accustomed to working with and here, in making the overall goal of the film to ensure the happiness of one child, both parents and children alike can understand and really feel the precious nature of the situation. In a world where super hero and dinosaur movies dominate the well-being of one little girls happiness may not sound like the biggest stakes you can imagine, but when the idea of Riley losing her goofiness, losing a part of what made Riley "Riley" there is something truly sad about what this could mean for her questionable future. To root against this is completely logical, we want to attach ourselves to as much of what makes us "us" in our childhoods no matter how old we get and to see that slipping away not only hits home for every parent in the audience, but as the personified emotions feel a parental sense of responsibility for Riley's well-being we see the disappointment in their faces as well. There are detractors from the film, mainly the feeling that the writers had to come up with one too many extra obstacles that keep Joy and Sadness from returning to headquarters too soon so as to lengthen the movie to an appropriate feature length, but while “Inside Out” may not be the masterpiece I'd hoped it to be it still flexes its imagination muscle as far as the eye can see and is affecting in a way no other animation studio can dare touch. Tears of joy, indeed.
by Philip Price
It has been something of a strange year so far as much of what has garnered the most attention has been fine enough in my humble opinion, but more often than not just that and little more. Much of what I'm referring to here are the massively successful critical hits that are “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Inside Out.” I enjoyed both of the aforementioned films and both would make my current top 10 were this the actual end of the year, but considering we are just closing out the sixth month there is much more to see. The thing is, I've only seen ‘Max’ and “Inside Out” once and have a sneaking suspicion that I will enjoy them more and more with each repeated viewing that will certainly happen before the end of the year and so there is plenty of time for things to change as well. I have also missed a few of the smaller films that have garnered critical praise that either didn't open in my comparatively smaller market or were only available to catch for a limited time that I wasn't able to see. I have yet to see Sundance winner “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl,” but hope to catch it this week when it opens in my area as well as catching up on the likes of “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” “Faults,” “The Duke of Burgundy and What We Do In the Shadows” each of which have all been recently released on home video or are coming out soon. It is uncertain if any of these will leave an impression as big as some of their reviews would suggest, but I'm hopeful. Some of my choices are rather obvious as they will no doubt appear on 90 percent of year-end top 10 lists, but others I hope might not be and I've added a few close calls so as to round out a top 10 for this point in the year. With so many highly anticipated releases coming this fall and winter none of these films are safe, but I'll be surprised if at least two or three of these films don't also end up on my year-end top 10, especially considering I'll have seen many of them more than once at that point.
5. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
Unfortunately, it seems in the shuffle of ‘Mad Max,’ “Jurassic World” and “Inside Out” Joss Whedon's sequel to 2012's “The Avengers” that puts a cap on MCU's phase two will not be the king of summer as many had predicted it to be. The unfortunate part is not that it won't be the biggest money-maker, but that it will be labeled as something of a misstep. Just because it won't be the biggest film of the summer financially and just because it didn't receive as many kind reviews as its predecessor (mainly because the freshness of the spectacle had worn out) doesn't mean its legacy should be tarnished. ‘Ultron’ still holds a solid 74 percent tomatometer rating and for me, it was a great way to kick off the summer movie season and as a fan of the connected universe I enjoyed seeing everything I wanted movies to be as a kid finally up on the big screen in a way where I felt fully immersed, something the first ‘Avengers’ lacked with repeat viewings. While Whedon has publicly acknowledged the hell it was to put this film together the final product is a huge, bombastic piece of mainstream pop entertainment that plays into everything any jaded cinephile will tell you is wrong with the movie industry today while, for me, being wholly satisfying on an interconnected level that no other film can match even if they tried.
4. “It Follows”
It must be understood that director David Robert Mitchell's “It Follows” could have come off really dumb had he not executed it as precisely and with as much style as he was able to. I typically view horror films as something of a lesser art form than any other genre of movies simply for the fact they are made for a simple if not substantial purpose. When directed with such artistic instincts though, a film rooted in this genre can break free of its barriers and deliver something excitedly unique that manages to pull together all the right elements, tone being at the top of that list, and balancing them in a way that produces a final product that works effortlessly together. “It Follows” is a prime example of all the pieces falling in line perfectly to create something fresh out of old tropes. The horror elements aren't so much in the forefront as they are caveats to help convey the creepiness of the plot. “It Follows” feels like a film that might live or die on this list based on repeat viewings given I had a few issues with its third act and having only seen it once I really can't wait to watch it again and share it with friends, but here's to hoping it only improves with time.
3. “While We’re Young”
As I anxiously await director Noah Baumbach's second film of the year, “Mistress America,” it is his first release of 2015 (that actually premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival) that sits in the middle of my top five right now. Starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-aged couple who begin to get lost in the shuffle of their generation and are blindsided by a disarming young couple that puts a fresh spin on how they look at their lives. As the young couple, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried are Baumbach's pawns to prove a point about the intentions each of us carry and how much we let those show through in the everyday facades we keep up. What really stands out and makes this an exceptional film though is the magnificent writing. While the dialogue is quick and forms full characters who have specific and individual mindsets I can't imagine the hours poured over the page by Baumbach in order to create this natural ease with which each of his characters speak. In a word, the characters and the dialogue are more than archetypes or composites of several other people, but they are authentic and authenticity is essentially what “While We're Young” is all about.
2. “Ex Machina”
“Ex Machina” is undoubtedly the film that will end up on the majority of critics year-end top 10 lists as it not only received almost universal critical acclaim, but made a tidy little profit for A24 and boosted the visibility of stars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in the science fiction genre just as both prepare to be in ‘Star Wars’ later this year. I can already see the opening lines of many year-end recaps regardless of how good ‘The Force Awakens’ turns out to be, "If you thought Isaac was great as Poe Dameron you should check out his turn as Nathan in a much smaller sci-fi film from earlier this year." However good the latest ‘Star Wars’ film turns out to be, the sentiment of this sentence will remain intact though because Alex Garland's feature directorial debut is both stunning in its visuals and more in its ability to present a set of complex ideas in a rather simple way. “Ex Machina” is a film of ideas and, as we've somewhat failed to fully learn, it is the human mind and the countless contemplations we can come up with when given an interesting topic that fuel how fascinating such a simple set-up can be. There is no need for explosions, action or even a convoluted plot when instead all of the adrenaline those things strive to rouse in an audience are done through the power of conversation.
1. "Love & Mercy”
I can't help myself. Whether it be due to the fact this was the last film I saw in theaters or because I truly am a sucker for music biopics, “Love & Mercy” is easily the most affecting film of the year for me and therefore my favorite as of this writing. Besides the fact director Bill Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman tell the co-founder of The Beach Boys story as a parallel narrative from two different points in his life, one in his twenties where he is descending into a kind of madness and the other in his late-forties as he is pulling himself out of it, and that it features two solid performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older versions of Brian Wilson, “Love & Mercy” is exciting because it bends to no rules and rather explores the more interesting aspects of why these kinds of stories exist. Like Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, James Brown and many others before him, Wilson was pushed to his talent limit because of a parental struggle or need to please that would never let up and so we have this human mind seeking an unattainable approval that drives them mad. It is this environment that produces their acclaimed genius though and so the question becomes one of what is more valuable? Is the abusive childhood worth the prosperous adult career or would one trade it all for a life of normalcy? It is fascinating territory and to top it all off Elizabeth Banks gives an absolutely charming performance that solidifies this is her summer to own.
by Philip Price
In the summer of 2012 the idea of “Magic Mike” seemed little more than a way for the studio and Channing Tatum himself to push his celebrity and sex appeal even further than “The Vow” and “21 Jump Street” already had that year. When the film ended up having a $40 million opening weekend with only a budget of $7m it was clear Tatum was no longer just an added-value element, but something of a movie star in his own generation’s right. This was a film with no previous film in the franchise, no brand recognition, no book or memoir it was based off of, but instead was solely the product of Tatum sitting down with writer Reid Carolin and hashing out a story around his early days as a male stripper. Billed as a film for the ladies, “Magic Mike” actually turned out to be something of a heavy handed dramatic piece as directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh that wasn't exactly what the target audience expected. There was still plenty of dancing and grinding and a whole bunch of humping, but beyond this the film examined the social stigmas of such a career choice and the difficult task of leaving that kind of a life behind despite someone only being able to last in that lifestyle for a small window of time in their life. This latter part is where the sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” picks up and more or less runs with the idea of knowing this won't last forever so let's give it one last hurrah. There aren't as many deeper themes going on here, in fact there isn't really much going on at all other than the goal of having a good time and in that regard, the Kings of Tampa succeed. “Magic Mike XXL” is not the same kind of film its predecessor was, but this sequel doesn't attempt to be that kind of film either. Instead, ‘XXL’ is its own beast entirely and while that may, on the surface, make it less of an artistic success than the first this exclusively fun, road trip movie turns out be just as good and just as insanely stylistic because it never loses sight of what makes these movies tick: the characters.
Picking up in real-time three years after Mike (Tatum) has bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game, he is now CEO of his own furniture business and running out of time and helping hands to keep his business afloat. It seems he is retaining a steady flow of work, but is still unable to afford an insurance policy for his single employee, Salvador (Juan Piedrahita). It also doesn't help that after setting everything up for a seemingly perfect suburban lifestyle and popping the question to long-time girlfriend Brooke (Cody Horn) she left him. To put it kindly, Mike is in something of a rut and so it is fitting that just as he is in desperate need of a break he gets a call from Tarzan (Kevin Nash). Given Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) has apparently split and taken The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) with him to a business opportunity in China, Mike decides to reunite with the remaining Kings of Tampa as they hit the road to Myrtle Beach to put on one last blow-out show at the annual Male Stripper Convention. Naturally, they make several interesting pit-stops along the way that allow for the film to build both momentum and new supporting characters that will make this final performance all the more worthy of its hype. The first of these stops includes a drag show where Tatum and co. strut their inner-Beyonce's and their MC Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) really steals the show. The crew ends up hanging out on the beach for the night where we are given each of their personal arcs they will spend the rest of the movie trying to conquer. Ken (Matt Bomer) is still mad at Mike for leaving and is trying to figure out how to get his acting and singing career off the ground. Big Rich (Joe Manganiello) isn't sure what he wants to do after the convention, but he knows he'd like to find a woman to love him and embrace his rather large issue when it comes to fornicating while Tito (Adam Rodriguez) has the opposite problem of drowning in women, but being unsure of his stage presence. Running across the free-spirited Zoe (Amber Heard) on the beach a spark is set between she and Mike while plenty of other encounters allow for Mike to further open his eyes to what he's been missing.
There is a strange bit of self-awareness to the film that doesn't necessarily protrude in a way that the film winks at the audience, but more in the way that every conversation and event that takes place throughout the central road trip feels extremely genuine and authentic. Whether it be in the off-handed comments made during conversations or the fact the movie doesn't seem to care it isn't constructed in the typical vein movies are expected to operate under there is something wholly endearing about this tone. There are literally no stakes in the film and honestly, I'm not really sure what the overall goal of the movie is other than to ensure the core group has a good time and put on a solid show come the third act. No need to fear, as this is done in a fashion that was missing from the original finale in that Tatum and new addition Malik (Stephen Boss) are really the only good dancers in the mix and put on a show-stopping number that kills it. The others, while not being particularly skilled in the dancing arena, deliver on their showmanship and up the comedy aspect of this already funny movie. This brings me back around to the strange undercurrent of self-awareness I mentioned at the top of the paragraph in that the real magic that the title refers to is not necessarily within the character himself, but more in the movie around him to be able to purport itself as this strictly for females flick that is primed for girls nights out across America this weekend, but in reality (and minus the two major scenes that feature dancing and stripping) is largely a movie about a group of guys hanging out, making jokes and bonding in a way that male audiences would likely better relate to than the women who will flock to this because the actors portraying these guys happen to be uber-attractive and strippers. It's interesting as guys will no doubt largely stray from the movie even if they admit to liking Tatum in the ‘Jump Street’ movies, but given the stripping scenes are filled with a fair amount of sight gags and comedic elements combined with some legitimately impressive dance routines from Tatum and Boss (think an R-rated version of “Step-Up”) if dudes were to give this a shot, my guess is it would be hard for most to deny the appeal of the characters and the relatability of the male dynamics depicted.
Taking over directing duties from Soderbergh this time around is long-time collaborator Gregory Jacobs (though Soderbergh still served as director of photography) and while he largely stays in line with the same aesthetic that Soderbergh established the first time around there is a distinct visual tone to ‘XXL’ that stands out in its lack of cutting and static shots. Jacobs keeps his camera focused on the main players in each scene, many of which have the edges just slightly out of focus to the point you can't help but stay in tune with what Jacobs wants to draw your eye to. There is some truly beautiful photography on display with lots of interesting angles (and no, that's not meant to be some kind of innuendo) in that much of the conversation pieces are shot from a low angle and framed to make these characters appear to be as larger than life as they would like to believe they are. The sun-drenched, orange and yellow hues that infuse the scenery of the majority of the film until we get to the crisp blues of Myrtle Beach offer an inherently hip appearance that doesn't allow us to dwell on the sadness of what these guys might do once winter rolls around.
It is in these larger than life characters that the hook for the audience remains intact. In ‘XXL,’ Manganiello steals almost every scene he takes part in as he's simply so enthusiastic and happy to be a part of this ensemble of attitudes that he can't help but give his all and be as energetic as all get out when he does. A scene where he charms a gas station attendant is especially great. Bomer, who I thought was rather awkward and uncomfortable in the first film remains so for the first half of the film here as well until the boys reach a southern mansion in Savannah where he performs a rendition of Bryan Adams "Heaven," and proves to have more swag than I initially gave him credit for. This particular scene including Andie MacDowell is a true highlight, but more than this the middle section of the film where we are introduced to Jada Pinkett Smith's Rome is oddly eye-opening in that Rome and one of her employees, Andre (Donald Glover), glimpse something of a theme for the film. What are women looking for? It could be something as simple as a man asking them what they want or, to go one step further, to really listen when they tell them the answer. And so, where do strippers find their purpose? By assuring themselves they give these neglected women what they truly crave; personifying their fantasies and healing their wounded psyches. It may only be hinted at and quickly forgotten once the grinding starts back up, but there are ideas to go along with this party and Jacobs, Tatum and Carolin are sure to make sure we catch on to them.
by Philip Price
After the one-two punch of ‘Rise of the Machines’ and ‘Salvation’ it's unclear who exactly was clamoring for more ‘Terminator’ films, but Arnold Schwarzenegger's career clearly called for a boost and so here we are. It is easy to be cynical, but it's difficult to let go and embrace an entity for what it might be regardless of the strings attached and the fifth film in the ‘Terminator’ franchise certainly had some heavy strings attached to it. From the moment the title was revealed with its misspelled subheading there has been something of a backlash towards the film, an inherent feeling that whatever this could be it would really only be little more than a cash grab and excuse to reinvigorate its stars’ dwindling career. The trailers, posters and overall spoiler-heavy promotional campaign did little to booster any kind of confidence in the final product and only added to the complete lack of interest on my part as the expectations really couldn't have been much lower. Given that environment I came away from “Terminator Genisys” rather surprised at how much I enjoyed myself. This brings us to the question of if a movie can be entertaining without necessarily being what we might typically consider "good"? As far as director Alan Taylor is concerned, it seems he thinks he has again crafted a cookie-cutter studio film that follows the template of any other action film and, if nothing else, creates an entertaining film that I was able to consistently have fun with as it continued to defy my expectations of not actually being horrible. The real tragedy of the project is that there might have actually been more to tap into here. With the two listed screenwriters being Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier the expectations are again leveraged due to the somewhat bad quality of many of their credentials, but it's clear a lot of thought and planning was put into re-tooling the storylines of the first two films so that Arnold's T-800 might have a more substantial role and so Paramount might launch another trilogy of films. The problem is, the film never utilizes the social commentary or ideas around mortality that it touches on sporadically to be anything more interesting than a two-hour sizzle reel of action scenes.
To try and explain the plot of ‘Genisys’ is an exercise in accessing a higher brain function that I'm not willing to rise to for this review and so it is easiest to explain the film as opening with a heavily narrated bit of reminders that actually outline the future we've constantly heard discussed in prior films come to a sort of fruition. There is a more widely illustrated canvas with which Taylor presents the war against the machines and SkyNet that John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the human resistance, and Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) wage as they infiltrate the SkyNet headquarters to shut down the machines once and for all and destroy the time machine they use to send Schwarzenegger's Terminator back to 1984. As this critical event has already occurred by the time they make it inside John Connor is forced to once again send Reese back to protect his mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), and safeguard the future. When Reese arrives in 1984 though things are not as they were in the original “Terminator” as Sarah Connor is more in line with the Sarah Connor we know from ‘Judgement Day’ than the meek waitress we met in the 1984 original. Reese immediately comes face to face with a liquid metal T-1000 Terminator (this time portrayed by Byung-hun Lee) who has been sent back previously to ensure Reese doesn't meet Sarah and become the father of John Connor, but given someone also sent back a T-800 to Sarah when she was a young girl she has been training and preparing for this moment almost her entire life. And so, Connor and her T-800 model which she affectionately refers to as "Pops" swoop in to save Reese and open up an entire new world of fractured timelines. These new developments add a layer of extreme confusion to the proceedings as now, with this change in events, the future has been reset from judgement day occurring in 1997 to twenty years later in 2017 where Sarah and Reese must travel next in order to again try to reset the future while coming face to face with a familiar, but unexpected obstacle.
This overly complicated storyline is clearly present for the sole reason of implementing Schwarzenegger's character into the fold in a more critical way so that both he and the studios financing these films have reason to invest their time and money in them in the future. Granted, if you are a huge fan of the first two films (and even the third, which I don't actually remember being all that awful, but more a retread of the second film with a lady terminator instead of Robert Patrick) there might be some anger to be conjured up at this fifth installment as it essentially wipes them off the map and starts fresh so as to be able to have a new trilogy. That said, this new timeline is ripe with possibilities for what could happen, though the lingering question of who sent Pops back in the first place is an unanswered aspect I only hope Kalogridis and Lussier already know the answer to as the mid-credit tease we get doesn't really imply the best of paths they might take, but rather hints at the obvious road we'll travel if this one does indeed make enough money. Enough about the future though, let us speak to the film at hand as it is a film I will undoubtedly be made to feel bad for liking and so I must defend what I found appealing about it. The first thing that springs to mind a day after my screening is the certain energy and momentum the film has to it. From the opening moments the film dives in both to its action sequences and its story it has to continually talk about in order to make sure the audience is up to date in order for it to both make sense and continue moving forward. It is no doubt a challenge to keep up with all the logistics of the time traveling and I'm not sure one could keep up had they not seen any of the previous films, but Taylor employs a kinetic style that, along with the editing, keeps things brisk. Admittedly, what Taylor doesn't care to do is add any depth to the proceedings, but instead keeps things moving so fast that we don't get caught up in any of the bigger questions and instead move on to the next action sequence so quickly that the action scenes, much less the film itself, don't differentiate themselves from anything we haven't seen before.
The other nagging aspect of “Terminator Genisys” is that of the casting. Mainly, that of the generic Jai Courtney in what is essentially the lead role. As much as ‘Genisys’ is engineered to make Schwarzenegger a box office star again, this is a movie about the plight of Kyle Reese. Emilia Clarke, who I've not seen in “Game of Thrones” and looks strikingly like a younger Helena Bonham Carter, is equally as wooden in the role of Sarah Connor as Courtney is as Reese. The two have something of a chemistry I guess and they aren't actively bad, they're just fine and nothing more. Neither of them bring anything vital or innovative to the roles and to a degree Clarke is at something of a disadvantage given prior interpretations, but Courtney has room to create a side of this protagonist we haven't seen before and just … doesn't. Schwarzenegger is supposed to be the stilted cyborg, but his performance is infused with more charisma than the two leads combined. It is the other Clarke, Jason, that luckily adds some bite to his role as he, while clearly having the most scenery to chew, takes advantage of his character's circumstances and delivers an interpretation of a villain that is worthy of rooting against even if the heroes feel slightly uninspired. It should be noted that J.K. Simmons shows up in a small supporting role that seems might be more important if we do in fact see a few sequels while the appearance of Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) is purely for the sake of future installments. I hate to say that “Terminator Genisys” is putting the cart before the horse as it really does have some redeeming qualities that make this a fine summer/action blockbuster that above all, does consistently entertain, but like many films in our cinematic landscape today it is too focused on what comes next rather than the here and now. The one thing ‘Genisys’ does do well that I assumed it would fail miserably at was that it doesn't feel tired. Whether it be the low expectations or the relentless forward momentum the film takes a note from Arnold's mantra and acknowledges that it may be an older property, but isn't out of juice just yet rendering it not as obsolete as everyone would like to think.
by Philip Price
It may have been pre-ordained that I was going to somewhat adore “Love & Mercy” given my track record with music biopics, but it should be stated up front that this is not a Beach Boys film, but more a pure character study of the man considered the brainchild of that iconic band. The Beach Boys were never a group I paid especially close attention to given the height of their fame was in the mid-‘60s when my parents were barely learning to walk, but their music is not necessarily so much timeless as it is lasting and somehow always integrates itself into your conscious at some point in your childhood. After all, you only need to hear their songs once and with the melodies being as catchy as they are you'll be repeating them days later even if you didn't realize you were listening to them. The summer and sun phase of The Beach Boys is what they're best known for, but if “Love & Mercy” has anything to say about this it's that these songs were hardly the best examples of what type of symphonies were taking place in Brian Wilson's head at the time. In the truest sense of the words this is a character study that takes a character at two vastly different points in his life and finds the correlation in how they are connected by the same being. Like the subject at the center of it, there is something inherently soulful about the film. It never plays into the trappings of a musical biopic because, if nothing else, Wilson's quest was to try and figure out how to participate in the music business without having to deal with all the extra responsibility that comes along with it outside of simply creating the music. Wilson wanted nothing to do with the aspects of the business that were simply existent to fuel ones ego or for instant gratification. Instead, Wilson simply made music in order to get it out of his mind and onto the vinyl so that he might have a record of his creations. More than this even, the music was an expression of his feelings and most of the time, was the only way he was able to accurately express them at all. It is in this realm of thinking that writer Oren Moverman and director Bill Pohlad zero in on Wilson's state of mind and how it influenced this style of a generation and where that mind went once everyone else stopped paying attention.
Beginning with a solitary shot of a young Wilson (Paul Dano) sitting at his piano we see the beginnings of what would come to be labeled as schizophrenia as Wilson responds to the voices he claimed to hear in his head. Pohlad then cuts to a silhouette of a much larger figure laying still in a rather elaborate bed. This glimpse shines a brief light on the stage between the two time frames being documented in the film for as Wilson was plagued by alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and LSD abuse he grew obese and spent the better part of three years in bed, and much of the decades following the ‘60s in relative seclusion. When we meet Wilson in what we are led to believe are the early ‘90s where he is played by John Cusack he's doing little more than considering purchasing a Cadillac. He seems to hit it off surprisingly well with the saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) with whom he has a short, but honest conversation with inside the car Wilson eventually decides to buy. From here, Pohlad takes us back and forth between the struggles of Wilson fighting to make the kind of music he feels he needs to produce despite the resistance of his family and bandmates Mike Love (Jake Abel) and brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern). As Dano's version of Wilson wrestles with the best avenues to create his music while seeking both the perfect environment to create such masterpieces as well as the approval of his abusive father, Cusack's Wilson is simply trying to get Melinda to go out on a date with him and regain some normalcy in his life. It is this ever evading approval from his father that drives Wilson to a mental breakdown while the recovering Wilson of the early ‘90s is still attempting to put himself back together from this fallout. Unfortunately, a psychologist by the name of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) has been assigned to help Wilson get better and while the drug addiction has been kicked and the weight lost it's clear to Melinda that Landy is doing little more than crippling Wilson further in favor of his own personal gain.
There seem so many avenues in which to take the discussion of “Love & Mercy” as I genuinely have a soft spot in my heart for any film based around the process of making music and one that takes the particulars of this process into account, but what is almost more intriguing here is how Wilson came to feel so motivated to make the music he did-the music that has garnered him critical acclaim and credits as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. It is made clear Wilson and his brothers didn't have the smoothest of childhoods and that in fact Wilson was 96 percent deaf in one of his ears because his father hit him across it so often when he was younger. In one of the many quietly moving scenes with Dano's version of Wilson though we come to see that he recognizes the value in his nurturing. While admitting his father, Murry (Bill Camp), was nothing short of a competitive man he recognizes that he likely scared him into making good music and that while much of his childhood might be considered rough there was always music playing and that he would turn to this music to escape the pain of his every day. This inherently damaged state of mind almost inevitably leads to an alternative way of thinking and approaching things that in turn produces what will allow him to prosper. The question is would Wilson have traded his abusive childhood for normalcy in exchange for the success he would experience later on in life? Selfishly, would he rob the world of the motivated mind that created his art for what could easily be described as a simple life? It's the question the Cusack portions of the film strive to answer: can Brian Wilson have his cake and eat it too? Naturally, we root for the guy to be able to come back from whatever it might be that's making him wail in the aisle of airplanes, play his grand piano in a sandbox or, again, claim to hear voices in his head, but we also understand it is in this state of mind that some of his genius nests soundly and so how does the balancing act work? This discussion of course raises more questions than answers, but that is the magic of Pohlad's film as it doesn't so much deliver on the mystery of what connects its two timelines, but rather thrives on the cause and effect that is ultimately responsible for our subjects greatest creations and achievements.
It is difficult for me to believe people are unable to be self-aware to some degree and so when Dano's performance begins to send Wilson off the deep end there is a moment where I have to roll my eyes and know that deep down somewhere this guy had to realize the reasons he was feeling the way he was and how he might come around to correct that behavior before taking it too far in one direction. Part of you wants to tell him to get another hobby because he clearly has so much time on his hands that that his thoughts are consuming him, but of course, if you know the story of Brian Wilson beforehand you know his stature doesn't exactly put him in a position to simply get better, but instead invites something of a legal guardian in Landy to handle his affairs while at the same time feeding him so much medicine that he can barely function. The logic of it, while initially hard to take seriously as it seems more showy (as in, "look at me, I'm a genius because I'm weird!") than genuine in its depiction of mental illness, comes full circle thanks to the complimentary performances of Dano and Cusack, but just as importantly is the completely charming turn from Banks that makes us believe without ever second guessing that Melinda is there to protect Brian and that taking advantage of him never crossed her mind. As Landy, Giamatti has almost as much scenery to chew as Dano and he turns on his typically intimidating vernacular and presents the kind of overbearing and crippling attitude that gives Melinda the motivation to do what she cannot avoid in a compelling fashion. The dueling narratives, the fantastic performances, the obviously stellar soundtrack and the subdued tone are all in service to the understanding of the psychology of Brian Wilson's songs though and figuring out if we, as an audience, have enough depth to wander into the deep end with Wilson or if we are too shallow to understand. Granted, soaking in his layered and textured compositions can do nothing but make you appreciate the authentic genius that wrestles beneath the surface. “Love & Mercy” isn't a great film because it hits monumental highs that solidify it as such, but it is great because it is fascinating throughout due to the fact it really understands its subject and therefore makes us feel we do too.
by Preston Tolliver
We didn't get to see much of Chris Farley. And I don't mean that in the "he was taken too soon" sense. Sure, anytime a person dies at the age of 33, it's fair to say we didn't see enough of that person. But I'm talking about Chris Farley.
The real Chris Farley.
Not Chris Farley, the comedian.
In the trailer for “I Am Chris Farley,” Farley's former co-stars, friends and admirers offer the most telling glimpse into what brought about the destruction of who was supposed to be the next John Candy; the next John Belushi. It's impossible to say how high Farley's ceiling really raised, but if there's a common theme in the comments of Bob Odenkirk, Christina Applegate, Bob Saget a slew of ‘SNL’ alumni, it's that he sped too fast to reach it, refusing to stop on the way to catch his breath. The roles he played on ‘SNL,’ “Tommy Boy,” “Black Sheep,” “Beverly Hills Ninja” and so on quickly became who he was off the camera. Odenkirk's comments about halfway through the trailer: “You can't walk around being funny all the time. You have to be yourself sometimes, and you have to be alone sometimes,” prove the lengths to which Farley consumed his fame, giving up who he is off the screen for who his fans wanted to be. And in the end, that same fame would consume him.
Of course, this isn't some new development in the mystery that is Chris Farley's short-lived life. His last few months, especially, were more than telling of the spiral he'd found himself trapped in. The sweaty, worn out look that contradicted the agile and lighthearted Tommy Callahans and Mike Donnellys that bought him the fancy suits and sunglasses.
The documentary will recognize a lot of Farley's best traits that have yet to be matched: his kindness, his energy, his agility and his God-given comedic talent, but it'll also show us that dark side that we've wondered about since December of 1997.
Finally, we'll get to see the real Chris Farley.
“I Am Chris Farley” will release in theaters on July 31.