Fast and Furious 6 (Justin Lin, 2013) – This past Saturday I sat down for a double bill of Fast Five and Furious 6 only to learn the uncomfortable revelation half way through that franchise star Paul Walker passed away in a car crash. It’s an unfortunate tragedy that casts an uncomfortable shadow over the entire series in hindsight. However, for the purpose of this review, let’s try to push that from our minds and celebrate the glorious stupidity of the latest and largest entry in the most gloriously stupid action franchise on the market.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the Fast & Furious series somehow turned jumping the shark into a franchise jump-start. What began as an idiotic ode to street racing transformed into franchise about international vehicular espionage in Fast Five, and that potentially stupid left turn somehow dramatically improved the series. As the title implies, the Fast & Furious movies were always pretty dumb, but after director Justin Lin took over for Tokyo Drift they became transcendently idiotic. He turned action filmmaking into a $100 million game of Hot Wheels where cars were projectile weapons and physics jumped into the realm of Looney Tunes. Entering the 6th chapter, the Fast & Furious franchise is now something for meatheads and irony lovers alike and even if the latest movie doesn’t quite match the delirious accidental comedy heights of Fast Five, it was the most lovingly ludicrous film of 2013.
Furious 6 (the actual, awesome onscreen title Universal sadly didn’t market) completed Justin Lin’s fantastic reinvention of the franchise from gear head fantasy into self-conscious action movie semi-parody. His action scenes are hysterically over-the-top and feel like they were conceived by 9-year old playing with toy cars while sucking back cans of coke and boxes of pixie sticks. Five cars are chained to a cargo plane to bring it down, the villain designs a metallic low rider that flips cars into Mario Kart-style projectiles, stunt men leap from moving vehicles for spectacular mid-air catches that defy logic and science, and of course, stuff blows up real good. The film is a candy-colored ode to the joys of high-octane mayhem and twisted metal, with action sequences so creatively and ludicrously conceived that you can’t help but giggle with awe. The spectacle alone is worth the price of admission, and the silly screenplay is the icing on the cake. Lin has turned this series into a shaved head and tank top soap opera with cartoon characters whose lives are no more believable than the explosions they create.
Part of the fun of the last two sequels was that it seemed only Lin was aware he was making a comedy, while his cast played the silliness straight for deadpan laughs. This time out, everyone seems to have picked up on how funny Fast Five was and went for laughs with mixed results. While actors like Tyrese and Ludacris know how to make a one-liner sing, Vin Diesel don’t have an ironic bone in his body and sometimes struggles while winking at the audience. The movie loses course briefly in the middle as Lin attempts to tie up some plot threads from the last two sequels and the serious thriller material from this section sits somewhat awkwardly with the cartoon surrounding it. Fortunately the movie flies by so quickly that the stumbling blocks are over fast and stuff still blows up in the process. The real star of the franchise now is Dwayne Johnson, who constructs his performance out of a series of struts and wrestling poses and seems to be starring down/intimidating the audience when he isn’t doing so to a co-star. This no-nonsense super agent is The Rock’s finest onscreen creation and Lin allows him to trash talk and beat up guys to the best of his abilities. He stole the show in Fast Five and is now rightly positioned in the center of a franchise that’s instantly better by having an action star who gets the joke and can shoulder the mix of beat-‘em ups and one-liners with ease.
The flick arrives on Blu-Ray in a pretty package custom-made for Christmas gifting. The transfer and sound mix are absolutely glorious. Colors and explosions pop off the screen and speakers crumble under the intensity of all the explosions on the sound mix. Given that the film is all about going as far over-the-top as possible, the prettier the technical presentation, the better the movie experience, and this disc is a beauty.
The special feature section is fairly robust as well. It all kicks off with an audio commentary Lin, who is clearly a big fan of his work on the franchise and is also happy to let it go. After that comes 20-minutes of footage with the cast discussing specific scenes available in one of those semi-irritating strop n’ start video commentaries or in a single featurette. Next up are about a dozen mini-featurettes edited with the bombastic speed and sounds you’d expect from a documentary designed for a Fast & Furious audience. The material on the cast and storytelling is a bit back-slappy and tedious, but the features on the car chases and actions scenes are spectacular. In particular it’s hilarious/awesome to see that, Lin and his crew initially designed every single car chase with a collection of Hot Wheels in a production office. That priceless footage is worth the cost of the disc alone. There’s also footage from part 7 included which features Paul Walker and the gang getting sad at a funeral, and in light of recent events, it’s strangely surreal to watch and don’t be surprised if the footage is axed from future releases (or if it isn’t already by the time this review runs).
Furious 6 is a half step back from Fast Five, but that’s only because the element of surprise is gone. The movie is a joke and this time everyone involved and sitting in the theater knows it. The only shame is that the man who found the perfect “tongue-in-cheek epic” tone for these movies has decided to make part six his swan song. Lin will be retiring from the franchise after this is entry. That’s a particular tragedy since his post-credits sting is almost too perfect for words. This series deserves a glorious finale, but whether or not that will happen in light of the recent mid-production tragedy is a reasonable question. This could very well be the end for the series, but at least Lin managed to crank out two lovingly ludicrous sequels that were far better than they had any right to be. The summer blockbuster season is a far better, funnier, and stupider place thanks to Fast Five and Furious 6. RIP Paul Walker. You helped give us all something great. (Phil Brown)
Force of Execution (Keoni Waxman, 2013) – I suppose it’s long past the point where we really have to wonder where Steven Seagal’s career went awry. Numerous bad decisions, countless straight to video horror shows, moonlighting as a cop, calling himself a reincarnated God on the news, unlistenable music; there are no shortage of moments one could credibly point to and say “That’s precisely where one of America’s biggest actions stars fell off.” To say that his recent output has been a reflection of his own relative obscurity would also be appropriate, but at least this forgettable, but strangely watchable direct-to-video martial arts crime thriller is cheesy enough to work and gives enough interesting moments for a decent cast to make something fleetingly entertaining.
The real star of the movie isn’t Seagal, but rather Bren Foster, a British actor and martial artist with a hell of a roundhouse kick. Foster plays Hurst, a master hitman that’s never missed a target working under the employ of suave, but brutal crime boss Mr. Alexander (Seagal, once again donning this same terrible N’awlins accent he’s been trotting out a lot lately, but at least for once playing a villain for a change). After an attempt to take out a gang member in prison backfires, Hurst is forced into hiding and retirement with his hands being broken beyond use as penance for his slip up. Hurst gets brought back into the fold when one of the men from the botched prison job, a former Crip leader named Ice Man (Ving Rhames!), decides he wants to take back his old operation and the young man is forced into a fight for his own survival and into working for his former ally one more time.
The movie sucks, but it’s an enjoyable kind of suckyness. Nothing really makes sense, and the whole thing of having a fighting villain who can’t use his hands is the silliest thing to see since Dewey Cox in Walk Hard lamented not having a sense of smell. But at least the cast came to play. Foster is likeable and doing what he can, and he’s certainly up to the physical task of handling his role here. Rhames brings a hard edge and necessary swagger to make his heavy believable. Danny Trejo turns up in a nice supporting role as a kindly restaurant owner and former gangbanger that befriends Hurst (and who also turns out to be a Mexican witch doctor, of all things). And Seagal definitely seems to be having full playing a scenery chewing amoral badass, until the film’s final third where for no good reason other than to make him seem like a good guy, the character becomes a tactical genius in SWAT gear. At least frequent Seagal collaborator Keoni Waxman has created his best movie to date (an insanely low bar), and the cast gets equal chances to run with a ball in a story that shifts nicely between the three mains in the first hour.
No special features on the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack except for an 18 minute behind the scenes look where it becomes apparent that everyone involved except for Foster is taking this film very, very, very seriously. Maybe the fact that they don’t get how silly it is helps in terms of entertainment value. (Andrew Parker)
Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) – Some movies dubbed masterpieces have been so cannibalized and copied that they can be a little disappointing if you get in on them late. Others are so unique that decades later they make the same impact because nothing since has quite managed to equal the ground broken long ago. Robert Altman’s rambling film about 24 characters stumbling around Nashville falls into the latter category. The movie came at the peak of his 70s Hollywood playground freedom and represented the height of his unique filmmaking techniques. There’s no protagonist or plot; just characters and themes. It’s very specific to a time and place, yet still rings true about America as a whole. It’s a grand satire and celebration of everything the country represents, and a masterpiece of democratic collaborative filmmaking. There had never been anything like it before, and short of Altman’s later multi-character epics like Short Cuts, there’s never really been anything like it since. I suppose that’s a shame, but at the same time at least it ensures that Nashville feels every bit as unique and fascinating today as it was in 1975.
Trying to summarize Nashville is a fruitless task, so let’s just not bother. The film follows a few days in Nashville in 1975 and a handful of lives intertwining in the city. There are country music stars arriving for celebration, lost failures learning they’ll never achieve success or celebrity, politicians sleazing it up, good people being taken advantage of, life, death, and Jeff Goldblum performing magic tricks. In short, it’s everything you could possibly want out of an American movie.
More than any other project, Altman organizes it all as party host rather than dictatorial director. His observational camera holds back, rarely pushing in for close-ups. Instead the filmmaker merely watches his tapestry of characters intertwine, interact, and talk over each other, often creating a movie that feels haphazardly tossed together. Yet, there’s a very specific method to his madness. Altman is creating not just a portrait of Nashville, but one of America: a place where broken souls arrive alone desperate for connection and success, bumping up against to each other on their own rambling journey. Politics play like entertainment and vice versa. People destroy each other and find small moments of connection. Violence, of course, inevitably plays a role, pulling everything together and pushing it apart. It’s a film that lives while you’re watching it and offers something fresh with every viewing. It’s about everything and nothing. Heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s almost indescribable short of tossing around words like “opus” and “masterpiece.” It’s one of those movies that any self-respecting film-lover needs to experience and thankfully, one that’s actually incredibly enjoyable in addition to being substantial.
Without much fuss or build up, the good folks at Criterion got their hands on the rights for a Nashville Blu-Ray and delivered possibly the finest disc of the year. The transfer is simply astounding and is officially the only way that anyone could consider watching the movie. Altman tends to shoot in soft focus and dull lighting, so it’s not a disc that pops with color and clarity. However, the way he frames in CinemaScope means there are typically a half dozen characters and details on screen at once competing for attention. Now that it’s in HD, it’s finally possible to see everything Altman intended and impossible not to get lost in the tapestry of the film. It’s a remarkable restoration that needs to be seen to be believed.
The special features section is also appropriately robust for such an important film. Criterion ported over the Altman commentary and interview from the old Paramount DVD, and both a wonderful look back from the director nearing the end of his life/career. There’s also a section of an interview between Altman and David Thompson discussing the film, and a 30-minute television interview with Altman promoting the film’s release that offers a rare glimpse of the director at his hard-partying, sarcastic, egotistical, and creative peak. Some rough behind-the-scenes footage and David Carradine song demos are fantastic for film history snobs, but the star of the supplements is hands down the brand-spanking-new hour and ten minute documentary produced by Criterion. Featuring interviews with Carradine, Altman’s wife, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, and a half dozen other Nashville-collaborators, it’s easily the most detailed, candid, and fascinating documentary about Altman or Nashville ever produced and filled info-nuggets I’d never heard before (trust me…I’ve been digging around for Nashville tales for quite some time). Make no mistake, this is one of the finest discs Criterion has ever produced and no film deserves it more. If you know someone who adores Robert Altman or just movies in general (the two groups tend to overlap), then you just found the perfect Christmas present. (Phil Brown)
Man Of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013) – Like The Beatles, breathing, and sugary soda, everyone has a soft spot for Superman. After all, the guy was the first superhero to grace comics and the big screen. He’s a cultural institution and his iconic “S” symbol will be worn by humans even once we enter the generic jump suit phase of the future promised in so many bad sci-fi movies. The trouble and strength of the “man of steel” is that as the superhero genre evolved and progressed through various mediums, Superman has remained the same. There’s no Marvel neurosis or Batman brooding in Superman. The character is a god and an icon, and these days that’s a tough sell. He’s too perfect for character deconstruction and too powerful to ever face a threat he can’t overcome. Superman is a little boring and in many ways resistant to reinvention. Yet, we’re also talking about a brand that sells, so Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were hired to deliver a grounded Dark Knight styled take on the character and delivered the thrillingly mediocre take on the Man Of Steel this summer.
Things start off fairly well with a blockbuster-iffic take on the Krypton origin story (featuring Michael Shannon and phallic looking spaceships!) and then an intriguing opening that interwines a first person exploration of becoming Superman (Henry Cavill as hobo-Superman) and some myth-making courtesy of Lois Lane (Amy Adams bringing her usual charm and spunk). Then things get silly when Russell Crowe returns as Jor-El’s robot ghost, and from there the shark is officially jumped. Characters appear out of nowhere and make insane decisions just because the plot demands it. Events happen with no correlation between time and space. Lois Lane transforms from a genius journalist into a whiny damsel in distress capable of little more than making goo-goo eyes at Superman. Lame one-liners take over the screenplay like it was written for Nicolas Cage (which it might have been at one point). IHOP gets so much product placement that practically turns into a recurring joke. Things get very, stupid very quickly, but thankfully it’s all mostly redeemed when Shannon’s General Zod returns for the climax. The last 40-minutes of non-stop Metropolis crushing action is simply astounding to let into your eyeballs…well, until it hits you that Snyder turned the greatest Boy Scout in comic books into a neck-breaking weapon of mass destruction. It’s a frustrating reboot to say the least.
That said, there’s so much to love and admire in Man of Steel that it’s just as impossible to hate it or unabashedly love it. Aside from the truly jaw-dropping action, the cast is quite special. Cavill probably could have used a little Christopher Reeve’s winking humor, but he still fills the red boots like the hero they deserve. Adams is enchanting as the witty, whip-smart, and tough-as-nails version of Lois Lane. Shannon brings so much charismatic psychosis to Zod that Terrence Stamp’s version somehow slips away from memory almost instantly. Costner and Lane are the perfect parents a little alien boy needs. Even Crowe manages to redeem himself after his awful, terrible, tragic, and heartbreaking “performance” in Les Miserables. It’s an incredible cast so collectively strong that they almost sell every silly plot twist. Sure, everyone else in the cast are little more than pawns in a creaky screenplay, but the pillars that this franchise has been built on are more than strong enough to sustain a sequel or three.
Snyder even mercifully tones down his excessive/irritating slo-mo/fast-mo aesthetic for something more subdued and simultaneously mythic and gritty. Despite all the problems, it’s probably the best movie he’s done and contained enough to suggest that 12-year-old boy-in-a-man’s-body might be growing up slightly. It’s clear that he, Nolan, and screenwriter David Goyer absolutely love this character and want to provide the movie Supes deserves. The film is littered with references to everything from Superman 2 to Smallville, All-Star Superman, the JLA books, and even Krypto. Thematically, the film treats the character right as a godly figure of good that the world should strive to emulate without any needless humanization or forced compassion. It’s clearly a movie made by people who love Superman for people who love Superman, but those frequent highs only make the lows that much more difficult to take.
The controversial comic book movie hits Blu-Ray in a predictably prestigious package. This was Warner Brothers’ big 2013 money-maker, and they spared no expense to ensure the home video fanatics got a fancy-pants disc. The transfer is gorgeous, with every dollar of the gargantuan budget represented in the massive action scenes and speaker-bursting sound mix. It’s a showpiece disc to be sure and one designed to test the limits of any home theater system.
Beyond that, the special features section isn’t too shabby either. There’s a feature-length making-of doc scattered throughout one of those “second screen” video commentaries, another 30-minute piece of the cast and crew discussing their unique take on each character, a 30-minute doc on the intense preparations necessary for the city-stomping action scenes, a short featurette on the Kryptonian prologue, and the wonderful HD version Bruce Timm’s animated short celebrating Superman’s 75th Anniversary of Superman that made the internet rounds this summer. After that, there’s a featurette on filming The Hobbit in New Zealand that was included for some synergistic corporate reason, and a faux History Channel doc on the history of Krypton that takes a bad joke and stretches it out to insufferable length. Still, overall it’s a pretty great disc for a pretty ok movie.
Man of Steel is far from perfect, but considering that everyone involved had the thankless task of telling the one Superman story everyone has already seen on film, it could and should have been so much worse. There’s enough done right that future movies with tighter scripts and less ambition could genuinely deliver Superman thrills that can compete with an overcrowded superhero movie marketplace. Sure, it would be nice if this guy could be left alone to simply be a comic book hero and American legend, but if Superman movies still need to be made (and apparently they do), this speeding locomotive seems to be headed in the right direction. Man of Steel might not be the big screen Superman masterpiece the fanboys hoped for, but that movie was already made in 1978 and at least this is the best batch of reheated leftovers to come along since. (Phil Brown)
We’re The Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2013) – We’re The Millers falls into a peculiar category that Hollywood seemed to abandon in the 80s: the innocuously offensive comedy. These are flicks that wear their R-rating like a badge of honor, flinging around saucy language (my word!), graphic hints at sexuality (how dare they!), and even dollops of poo (disgusting!), all for the sake of laughs. The only catch is that no one involved in the movie actually has an interest in being transgressive or subversive. Nope, they just want the extra laugh being OUTRAGEOUS provides. So you end up with a comedy that isn’t offensive or shocking as it is…well, R-rated and there’s a market for such things. That doesn’t make the movie bad, just slots it into a category of work that really shouldn’t be treated seriously or given much thought. It’s just a bunch of adults getting together giggling at dirty words and raunchy subjects. Still funny, just only worth a peak if you feel like joining them in the locker room.
It’s one of those movies that has a plot, but that’s really just an excuse to string together extended improv sequences. That was probably the best decision Dodgeball director Rawson Marshall Thurber made when he took on the project. As a piece storytelling or a vehicle for any sort of thematic message, We’re The Millers is a muddled mess and grounds to a halt any time that material comes up (particularly during the almost unwatchably sentimental chunks of the third act). The good news is that Thurber seemed to pick up on the screenplay’s glaring weaknesses and shoved them to the background whenever possible in favor of letting the cast have their way with silliness. The cameos pile up quick with Thomas Lennon providing one of his patented repressed suburban dads, Ken Marino doing a sleazy strip club manager thing, Luis Guzman portraying a south of the border cop with a love for dirty bribes, and best of all Nick Offerman and Katheryn Hahn as a pair of genuine Winnebago loser parents looking to experiment with their sexuality/guns.
Whenever those folks are on screen mucking about with gentle sleaze specialist Jason Sudeikis (whose turning into something of a contemporary Chevy Chase in his post-SNL career) there are laughs to be had. It’s an age old Hollywood comedy formula that Thurber knows well: populate the supporting cast with comedy wringers and the script problems won’t be as easy to hear under the laughter. Roberts and Poulter are game for anything as the goofy kids, while Jennifer Anniston does her usual “irritated straight lady in a comedy” thing and shows off her tight 44-year-old bod as a stripper, if that means anything to you. It still confuses me that the never funny Aniston somehow became a flagship comedy star, but I guess she does angry deadpan decently enough. It just would have been nice for the second lead to be able to toss some laughs around as well.
The film debuts on Blu-Ray with a decent transfer (though that doesn’t really matter much with a character-driven comedy), and an extended edition that adds running time without adding much substance. After that you get about 20 minutes of outtakes/deleted scenes that add less, and a series of five-minute internet promo featurettes dedicated to each member of the cast talking about how “OUTRAGEOUS” the movie is. It’s a pretty sad collection of special features more suited to a YouTube channel than a special edition Blu-Ray, but I suppose something is better than nothing.
We’re The Millers is not a great comedy or even a particularly good one. However, if you like safe R-rated laughs, there are plenty of those thanks to a giddy cast and a director who knows how to work with them and shoot improv cinematically. You’ll probably forget the details of the plot within seconds of leaving the theater, but moments like Sudeikis convincing his 18-year old sort-of friend to blow Luis Guzman or Nick Offerman trying to seduce a man for the first time with a handlebar moustache, a finger, and an ear will certainly offer a couple chuckles of remembrance. The flick is what it is and does what it does, but at least goes through its comedy motions efficiently and effectively. At least that’s something, I suppose. (Phil Brown)
Jayne Mansfield’s Car (Billy Bob Thornton, 2012) – Poor Billy Bob Thornton. As a director this guy can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard he tries. After succeeding critically and commercially with the out of nowhere, career launching Sling Blade in 1996, he’s had a rough road behind the camera. His vision for Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses from 2001 was notoriously cut down by literal hours and dumped by an unloving studio despite the presence of then still hot new talent Matt Damon. The following year he made the road comedy Daddy and Them, which sat unreleased from Miramax for two years before very slowly finding its way to cable TV. And now, over a full year after it very quietly debuted at TIFF, his fourth fictional feature with an all star cast, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, was very briefly released in the States in select cities and goes straight to video here this week. It’s not surprising; not because it’s flat out awful and filled with terrible performances. This is simply a family drama from Thornton’s mind that was too strange to really resonate with anyone except the person who made it.
A culture clash on several levels, Thornton tells the story of two halves of an estranged family coming together for a funeral in small town 1969 Alabama. Against the backdrop of desegregation and Vietnam, local bigot and frequent car wreck lookieloo Jim Caldwell has to deal with the death of his long since ex-wife, whose body is coming home from England to be buried. Not only does Jim have two of his almost 50 year old sons living with him – the more than a little emotionally damaged Skip (Thornton) and the married-with-child-in-tow Jimbo (Robert Patrick) – but his third son (Kevin Bacon) is a damned dirty, drug taking, counter-culture loving, long-haired hippy! As if his own kids weren’t enough reason for his chronic consternation, he’s forced into putting up with the man his wife left him for, the proper British gentleman, Kingsley (John Hurt), along with the man’s son (Ray Stevenson, not playing a heavy for a change) and daughter (Frances O’Connor), the latter of which Skip is sweet on.
It has to be noted just how much Thornton allows his cast to create their own versions of these characters. There’s not a bad performance to be found, and there’s a certain level of trust that the players are giving back to their director. In fact, when the movie stays on the level of a straightforward melodrama, the material largely works. It wouldn’t exactly be memorable, but it would be a fine family drama and well refined character piece if nothing else. Thornton’s problem is that he likes to add off-beat and sometimes off colour moments to flesh out the story. It’s something some writers are good at (just look at playwright Tracy Letts and his upcoming August: Osage County for the better version of what this film wants to be), but as a director Thornton can’t handle his tonal shifts with any degree of conviction. Heartfelt and thoughtful moments (especially a lengthy full family chat during a blackout) will be torn asunder by scenes of Duvall tripping out on acid or visiting car wrecks, a shirtless Thornton walking around shirtless with war medals pinned to his scarred up chest, or the director jerking off on camera to his naked cousin delivering a wartime speech in a British accent (in character, of course).
So while the cast seems up to the task, it’s likely that they signed on because they wanted to work together with Thornton at the helm and they probably assumed what they had been handed was a draft that was going to be honed a bit more tightly before they rolled. Or maybe there was even more there that was weirder that we as an audience aren’t seeing. Whatever the case, there’s something definitely missing from the final product.
Also missing are any special features except for an EPK styled behind-the-scenes look where nothing was said. It’s a movie that almost begs for a commentary track for explanation because there has to be a defense of it or a condemnation of the final product somewhere. Everything about Jayne Mansfield’s Car feels like the result of a compromise at some step of the production. It never falls into sentimentality, but it also never gets in touch with the underlying weirdness and kink it seemingly wants to embrace. Then again, maybe it will also stand nicely as a document to prove the hard luck Thornton has had as a filmmaker since his initial success. (Andrew Parker)
Despicable Me 2 (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2013) – Aside from the usual crop of sequel loving movie execs, it’s hard to imagine that anyone predicted Despicable Me would be successful enough to form a franchise. Yet, the charmingly adorable tale of a super-villain turned good proved to be a massive success for Universal’s animation department, and a sequel was set into motion shortly after the opening weekend of part one. Thankfully, the joke factory concept suited a sequel well and this summer CGI family flick fans were treated to one of those rare sequels that was just as good, if not better than the original. Granted, the bar was never particularly high. Despicable Me was no poetic Pixar masterpiece. It was merely a clever family comedy, and co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud had zero problem repeating that trick for round two. If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll like this one.
Steve Carell’s criminal mastermind Gru is back. These days, his cold heart has been softened by having a couple of impossibly cute children in his life who have taught him about joy and happiness. Taking over the world is no longer his primary concern. In fact, he’s a bit more interested in dating, both in a love interest who has been provided for him (Kristin Wiig, who knows a thing or two about funny) and one who is threatening to push his pre-pubescent daughter into the world of hand-holding and lip-locking. To make matters worse, there’s a new supervillain on the block in Benjamin Bratt’s possibly racist Mexican wrestler baddie El Macho. That mask-wearing is determined to take over the world and now Gru might have to switch his evil allegiances to stop the new bad guy on the block. What?! Good is evil! Up is down! Black is white! Etc! Plus the minions are back in an increased roll and who doesn’t like them?!
There’s not really much content or subtext to comment on when it comes to Despicable Me 2. The movie is good old fashioned cutesy family entertainment. The good news is that it’s pretty solid good old fashioned cutesy family entertainment. Co-directors Coffin and Renaud fill their stories and frames with as many jokes as humanly possible. There’s slapstick for kiddies and slightly more upscale gags for adults. More importantly, almost all of them hit the mark. In particular, the unexpected popularity of the Oompa-Loompa-esque minions was noted by the filmmakers and their role was increased exponentially alone with the addition of new super evil minion-style creatures to add even more silent comedy gags. The animation is slick and massive, feeling like a major blockbuster hiding behind the veil of a cartoon. On top of that, the voice acting is stellar with Carell reprising his role with ease, Russell Brand once again hiding his beloved voice and comedy style behind the enjoyably arcane Dr. Nefario, and Kristin Wiig bringing her usual bag of tricks to the table. In the end, the flick certainly isn’t a masterpiece or new kiddie classic, but it is a great deal of fun with charm that’s impossible to ignore. Given the massive success at the box office, a Despicable Me 3 is all but guaranteed and thankfully, it doesn’t look like that’s a bad thing.
Despicable Me 2 debuts on Blu-Ray in a stunning technical presentation. The disc will make your fancy pants HD TV shine and take your home entertainment system on a work out. The special features section is also stacked and unsurprisingly comes with a child-friendly minion focus. There are 20 minutes worth of animated shorts following the minions that are about as funny as any of the side gags that made it into the feature. If you’re looking for in depth making-of info, you sadly won’t get much of that since the disc is catered to a family audience and not hardcore cinephiles. So you’re looking at another 20 minutes worth of talking head featurettes with the cast and crew that feel like promotional material (and fair enough, who needs an in-depth analysis of Despicable Me 2?). The disc is rounded out by an audio commentary with the co-directors for a little more in depth technical info. Overall, it’s as strong a disc as the massive hit deserves and should please the pint-sized fans first, which is as it should be. It’s a nice disc for a nice family film released just in time for the holiday shopping season. In other words, it’s exactly what we could and should have expected. (Phil Brown)
Clear History (Greg Mottola, 2013) – Despite being a massive TV success and a beloved icon for comedy fans and industry insiders the world over, Larry David somehow still finds it within himself to deliver the finest misanthropic comedy around. This past summer some were hoping that David would pull another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm out of his hat, but instead he made a movie for HBO that essentially delivers the same awkward pleasures. It’s a weird movie for David because it represents the comedy/baldness guru finally fulfilling on a movie concept he’s been toying with for 15 years: something about a jealous dispute between friends tickled David so much that he couldn’t let it go. He first tried to it with his underappreciated 1998 feature Sour Grapes (about a someone who loans his friend money that is used to win a Casino jackpot, leading to a never-ending argument about shared winnings), and then he took his name off of the Barry Levinson film Envy that toyed with a similar idea (this time Ben Stiller refused to invest in his friend Jack Black’s invention, leading to jealousy when profits arrive). Both films were made in the Larry David limbo between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, when the man didn’t command the creative control he has now. All of which brings us to Clear History, which feels like a movie David had to make to move on from his jealousy comedy fantasy. The good news is that this time he nailed it.
The film opens with Larry jarringly driving a convertible with shoulder length hair and a beard (probably the single biggest laugh in the film). He plays an advertising executive and business partner to John Hamm’s electric car inventor. Then Hamm decides to call the car The Howard, a name David is so irritated by that he quits the company and gives up his stock options. Unfortunately, The Howard becomes the highest selling car since the Model T and David loses a billion dollars. Flash forward a few years and now David is the bald, loveable loser we all know. He lives in Martha’s Vineyard working as a caretaker for an angry old lady, drinking his nights away with Danny McBride, and generally being happy pretending that The Howard shenanigans never happened (well, at least as happy as Larry David can be). Then David learns that Hamm is planning on building a massive mansion on the island, ruining David’s little private paradise. Given that he looks nothing he used to, David could theoretically keep his head down and continue living a lie. However, he is Larry David, so that just ain’t going to happen. After teaming up with a local nutjob (the great Michael Keaton) David decides to seduce Hamm’s wife (Kate Hudson) and blow up his mansion. However, as I said before this is still Larry David, so clearly it’s not going to end well.
Clear History is directed by Greg Mottola, a filmmaker who over the last decade has been alternating between writing/directing his own work (The Daytrippers, Adventureland) and stepping in as director-for-hire for strong writer/stars (Seth Rogen/Superbad, Simon Pegg/Paul). That makes him ideally suited for Clear History, a movie which Larry David is the primary author of. Mottola is clearly good at being a close-collaborator with these strong voices and guides their films along without getting in the way. Clear History works as a film, but is more than anything else a collection of Curb ideas wrapped around a jealousy plot. Every sequence was obviously improvised and side plots involving David’s ex-girlfriend blowing Chicago or David feuding with a restaurant owner about proper utensil care could have easily been Curb. All of which would be a problem if Clear History had been released theatrically, but as an HBO movie, David delivering his usual schtick in a standalone story just feels like a Curb substitute and given how funny it is, there’s nothing wrong with that.
As usual, David carefully weaves together completing plot threads for a climax that pulls everything together in one epic blast of awkward comeuppance. The formula would feel cruel if David weren’t so good at writing and playing a character who deserves every bit of punishment he deserves while still remaining empathetic. Surrounding David is one hell of a cast, the kind only someone like David could assembled. There are some frequent collaborators like the impossibly funny JB Smoove and class act Phillip Baker Hall, as well comedy demigods like Michael Keaton, Bill Hader, and McBride working with David for the first time. Regardless, they all fall into standard Curb format. He’s given them all a key cog in the plot and their screen time beyond that was dictated by whatever hilarity spilled out of their mouths in improv sessions that David couldn’t ignore. The laugh count is high, although David’s gradually building comedic formula isn’t quite as relentless when expanded from 90 minutes to 30. Still, if you like David’s bitter little comedy pill, there’s absolutely no way that you won’t find yourself curled up in a ball convulsing with hilarity by the time this thing is done.
In the end, Clear History is a side project for David, and one that’ll never be as fondly remembered as his iconic TV series. Still, as far as side doodles go, it’s pretty great. All of David’s dark humor and distain for sentimentality remain and the flick works like clockwork comedy. If you enjoy what the man does, it’s a wonderful way to be tided over until the next inevitable season of Curb arrives and it’s nice that David finally got this “jealousy comedy” monkey off his back so that he can possibly focus on delivering another movie with a different concept in the future.
As far as the Blu-Ray goes, the transfer has a nice HD shine, but that’s all you’ll get out of the disc. David’s anti-social nature and delightful laziness negates the possibility of any special features, which is a real shame. Would a commentary from Mottola or some deleted scenes/outtakes have been nice? Of course! But you can’t expect such things from Larry David, so the movie is all you’ll get and thankfully it’s worth it. Larry David is a comedy genius after all, so if you’re looking for funny, the man delivers every time. Definitely worth picking up for anyone who missed it on TV in the summer or anyone who enjoys laughter. (Phil Brown)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) – Enlivened by the awkward charm of its star and grounded by the cynical wit of its director, Frances Ha is a small movie that makes a big impact. To call it a masterpiece feels like a guaranteed way of setting expectations so high that the delicate achievements it delivers will feel disappointing. However, there’s no denying that the flick is something special, tapping into universal pains and experiences with the humor and insight that used to define Woody Allen at his best. Co-creators Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach emerge as a duo that bring so much of the best out in each other that you’ll hope it’s the beginning of a long collaboration. Even if they never deliver something so spot on again, they could at least be relied upon for an interesting flick every time based on the results here. This is the perfect movie to cuddle up and fall in love with, especially now that it’s on a sparkly new Criterion Blu-Ray.
Gerwig stars rather perfectly as the titular Frances. At 27 she’s an aspiring dancer hitting an age where “aspiring” means “failed” and still lives in a post-college bubble of immaturity that’s about to pop. Early on, she dumps an inconsequential boyfriend to spend more time with her best friend/roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who she claims to be the same person with different hair. The only trouble is that Sophie has a real job and soon decides to move out to Tribeca and get serious about her boyfriend. That throws Frances into a bit of an existential funk, moving into a series of awkwardly impermanent living situations as she struggles to put off growing up as long as possible. Of course, life has a way of forcing that to happen, no matter how many impromptu trips to Paris or failed decisions that Frances throws in its way.
Frances Ha deftly deals with that “quarter life crisis” thing that’s become a bit of a buzz word. Fortunately, it’s also a genuine experience everyone goes through and Gerwig/Baumbach know it all too well. Noah Baumbach has a way with creating characters whose perception of themselves is completely different than how others see them and there are plenty of laughs and harsh truths to be mined from theme here. Frances might be lost, but not without reason and Gerwig/Baumbach are able to present her somewhat trivial troubles with enough poignancy to make it hurt and enough distance to make it funny. Gerwig’s gloriously goofy personality and unerringly naturalistic performance style gently curb Baumbach’s comic misanthrope just enough to keep the movie from being as alienating as Greenberg or Margot at the Wedding. While at the same time, the director’s acidic wit keeps the movie from becoming an obnoxious cornball indie quirk fest. There’s something real about these characters and world that needs a soft touch. At the same time, presenting them as triumphant heroes would be thoroughly inappropriate. The jabs of harsh comedy keep things from ever getting sentimental. Even the happy ending comes with a sting of defeat and failure that might not be noticeable on the initial viewing, but is very much there.
Gerwig commands the screen in a leading role developed for and around her unique talents. It might be too obvious of a comparison, but there’s a little bit of a Diane Keaton/Annie Hall ideal casting here. Frances embodies all of Gerwig natural charms, while still offering enough foibles and failures to be an interesting character for her to dig into as an actress. This is not the vanity piece it easily could have been, but a movie that can stand on its own that just happens to be tailored to its star. The co-writer, actor/star duo also indulge in recreating some of their favorite films without slipping into navel-gazing. The New-York in romantic/candid black and white strikes a perfect balance between the expressive classicism of Manhattan and the run n’ gun vibrancy of a French New Wave flick. It’s an ideal aesthetic for a character piece, transforming a series of scenes of people talking into something vibrantly cinematic and composed for big screen consumption.
That aesthetic comes home beautifully rendered in the new Criterion Blu-Ray. It was shot on Cannon 5D cameras, which means the look is low-fi, yet gorgeously detailed. Baumbach was searching for a contemporary French New Wave aesthetic and found it, which Criterion has beautifully transferred over here.
Special features are brief, yet fascinating. It kicks off with a 16-minute interview between Peter Bogdonovich and Baumbach that is pretty nuts n’ bolts stuff, but is classed up a notch by Bogdonovich and his ascot. Sarah Polley interviews Greta Gerwig in the second feature, which actually gets a little more in depth than the filmmaker interview, but I suppose that’s appropriate given that it’s a more personal project for writer/star Gerwig. Finally there’s a 20-minute feature with Baumbach his DOP, and colorist discussing the visual of the film along with all the test footage that they shot. It’s a nice technical-driven piece about the look of the film that’s should be fascinating for film snobs. Other than a trailer and a nice essay, that’s really it. Fortunately, it’s all that you really need. Though it’s an insightful and surprisingly dark little film, it is a deliberately small and even slight work as well. Over talking would kill it, so as usual Criterion has given Frances Ha the exact treatment it needs and deserves. Something special happened when Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig got together to make a little movie for themselves without worrying about whether or not anyone would see it. Hopefully it’s not the last time they have a private party and invite us to see the results. (Phil Brown)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) – When sitting down to rank the works of that lovable little millionaire tramp that is Charlie Chaplin, The Gold Rush feels like his most fully formed feature, Modern Times is certainly his most audacious, but City Lights remains his most affecting. If you needed to sway someone into loving the silent comedian’s pioneering work with only a single film, City Lights is the most obvious and best choice. Of all the things that Chaplin accomplished over his career as a filmmaker, it was the mixture of burlesque comedy with affecting emotion that remains his most enduring contribution to filmmaking. His silent slapstick contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd created films that feel funnier and more technically impressive when viewed through contemporary eyes. Yet Chaplin’s work endures not simply because of his comedic skill, but also his ability to connect with his audience emotionally. And out of everything that Chaplin accomplished in his features, no single scene encapsulates that skill quite like the closing moments of City Lights. Even though the film is 82 years old, if the final scene doesn’t make you well up, then chances are you don’t have a soul or perhaps suffer from some sort of biological condition that prevents your tear ducts from working properly. Either way, you might want to give the film one more shot now that it’s been ported over to Blu-Ray by Criterion, if only to see if your emotions still exist.
As always, Chaplain’s tale is tinged with class commentary. There are essentially two intertwined narratives for the little man with the littler mustache in this flick. The first involves his ongoing adventures with a drunken millionaire who only recognizes Chaplin when plastered and constantly insists that they party. There’s some vague satire of roaring 20s excess in there, but mostly it’s an opportunity for the comedic legend to string together a collection of stunning slapstick set pieces. The second plot involves Chaplin’s charming relationship with a blind flower girl. She’s down on her luck like the little Tramp, and Chaplin uses his on again off again relationship with the millionaire to court her and help her with her financial problems. It’s an incredibly sweet story told through such specifically choreographed silent dramedy that the sequences almost feel like dances. As writer/director, Chaplin nimbly combines the stories and one-off sketches (Chaplin is a street sweeper? That can’t go well!). The film feels like straight slapstick for the most part, but carefully builds up an emotional punch that comes through in the finale like few films ever have. In a way, you could argue that Chaplin’s mix of pathos and comedy set the tone that most indie comedies still use to these days. Of course, it comes through an antiquated silent style, but there’s no denying the incredible influence that the filmmaker/comedian had on all films to follow and the remarkable way in which they somehow still hold up today. City Lights in particular stands as a testament to everything that the filmmaker did well and deserves every single accolade it has received in previous decades and all the love that will continue to come it’s way in the future.
Right off the bat, it has to be stated that Criterion’s presentation of City Lights is absolutely astounding. The company is of course the best in the biz at restoring classic cinema, but seeing City Lights in such depth and clarity is practically miraculous. Granted, Chaplin’s work has such historical importance that it was inevitably archived with additional care than most films of its era, but nonetheless Criterion’s HD transfer has to be one of the most impressive silent film restorations ever achieved and can stand proudly next to the equally extraordinary work that they did on The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator.
The special feature section is also shockingly robust for such an old film. It kicks off with a dry, yet info packed commentary from Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance that puts the film in historical context nicely (in particular his exploration of the score and sound design Chaplin created for his first film of the sound era is rather nice). Next up comes a wonderful 30-minute documentary about Chaplin and City Lights from 2003 that includes amusing comments from Aardman claymation guru Peter Lord on the influence of Chaplin on his work. Next up is an intriguing featurette from visual effects expert Craig Barron on the on the often overlooked effects work that Chaplin used in all of his films including City Lights. Criterion also included footage from a couple of Chaplain shorts, but of most interest for film buffs are the inclusion of behind-the-scenes footage from the set (it’s incredible this material even exists) and original trailers (which provide an amusing look back at early film marketing). Overall, it’s amazing that this much supplementary material was compiled for such an old film and the transfer is above and beyond what should have been possible. In other words, it’s another remarkable release from Criterion. At this point it’s practically a cliché to praise Criterion as the best home video company on the market, but a release like City Lights proves that if anything you can’t praise them enough. If you’ve never sampled Charlie Chaplin before, this disc is a perfect place to start as it provides not only the comedian’s greatest film, but a wealth of background material about his career. If you’re very familiar with Chaplin, then you really should drop everything you’re doing right now and go buy the disc. Either way, you won’t regret adding this little silent treasure to your collection. (Phil Brown)
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970) – It all starts out innocently enough, to the tune of one of Ennio Morricone’s most jaunty scores: a man spots his lover in the window of her apartment and she invites him upstairs for a good time. Then she opens the door and says, “How are you going to kill me today?” At that point, forgotten Italian master Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion turns into anything but a sweet movie. The man is a detective, the woman his secret lover. He’s a sadist, she’s a masochist. They play a game where he describes the latest murder he’s investigating and then they act it out in a good old fashioned sex game. Only this time he follows through and slits her throat. He then meticulously leaves clues around the crime scene linking him to the murder. Now, why the hell would he do such a thing? Well, because he’s about to be promoted out of homicide into the political arena, and he’s convinced he’s now above being arrested for crime. Here’s the thing: he’s right. Between giving speeches about power and finding new and exciting ways to abuse it, the cop goes so far as to confess the murder to strangers and help those investigating the crime. All essentially for fun. So yeah, it’s a strange little movie. It’s also a great one; winner of a top prize at Cannes and the Best Foreign Film Oscar, if you care about such things.
In many ways, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is the original Bad Lieutenant. It’s a study of the ever corrupting nature of power and the illicit joys that comes from behaving that way and seeing it acted out on screen. Schooled by neo-realists before forging a career halfway between the Italian genre movie scene and the art house auteur cult, Petri was one of the most fascinating directors of his time and this flick might be his masterpiece. It nimbly jumps between political commentary, complex character study, dark comedy, and suspense, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful film with serious intentions, as sleazily enjoyable as it is intriguingly intellectual. The cinematography offers a restless rush of moving images, while one of Morricone’s most playful scores turns it all into joyous dance of cinema. It offers that magical balance of high art and low entertainment that the 70s Italian film industry tended to spit out in extremes and rarely so effectively combined into a single package. In other words, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is one of the greatest films you’ve never seen and the time has come to right that wrong courtesy of the good folks at Criterion.
Petri’s film underwent a gorgeous restoration in Italy last year, prompting a limited theatrical release with plenty of critical drooling. With Sony owning the North American distribution rights, a Blu-Ray was inevitable and thankfully the company handed off those duties to Criterion to do it right. On a technical level, the disc is a stunner, serving up every bit of the film’s show off cinematography with stunning depth, clarity, and explosions of color like few 70s movies have seen on Blu-Ray. The audio mix is limited to the mono recording ways of the time, but presented in such crisp clarity that it hardly matters (especially when it comes to one of Morricone’s finest and most underrated scores).
However, where the disc will really make film snobs drool is in the special features section. First up, an amazing feature length documentary on Elio Petri from 2005 filled with interviews with contemporaries and collaborators like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle Of Algiers) or Bernardo Bertolucci as well as with famous fans like Robert Altman. It’s an extraordinary doc and would be enough to fill out the special feature section, but that’s only the start. Next up comes an hour long documentary on star Gian Maria Volonte, a 20-minute interview with Morricone about his collaborations with Petri, a vintage interview with the director about the film for French television, a 25-minute interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni about the movie, and a collection of trailers. Whew! That’s a stacked disc and thankfully in support of a film that deserves it. (Phil Brown)
Touchy Feely (Lynn Shelton, 2013) – When you think of an independent film, the mind usually turns to cutting edge alternatives full of depth, interesting and unique storylines, rich and quirky characters rather than the usual multiplex cinema fare. Touchy Feely, starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Ellen Page, directed by Lynn Shelton, falls short on several levels in her attempt to achieve her own past film festival darling selections. Her work isn’t exceptional; just independent middle of the road filmmaking that feels artificial and predictable at this point in the current cycle of “independent” cinema.
In this Seattle based dramedy, free spirited massage therapist Abby (DeWitt) seems to have her life on track with a good job, loving boyfriend, supportive family and great friends. Suddenly, she’s incapacitated by a touching phobia, leaving her repulsed at the mere sight of skin. Meanwhile, her withdrawn and waning brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist, just as suddenly develops a reputation for having healing hands. Word spreads quickly throughout the community giving him that financial life raft he so desperately needs. Now feeling recharged and validated, his confidence and zest for life returns.
Shelton continues to branch out from the mumblecore scene with her follow up to last year’s critically acclaimed Your Sister’s Sister. This one, however, regrettably feels like it’s an extended pilot for an HBO series exploring the lives of two slightly quirky siblings. Their two story lines never really feel quite parallel enough to each other. The initial set up struggles so much that interest in the film is lost way too early, and never fully recovers. Despite looking more polished than her previous films, Shelton fails to hook the audience. You keep waiting for something to pull you into the story but sadly nothing unique or interesting ever develops.
DeWitt reunites with Shelton, but this time around she doesn’t quite seem to bring anything interesting or specific to the lead role of Abby. Her performance is decent, but indistinct, much of that attributed to the underdeveloped character. Alternatively, co-lead Pais manages to work with the material into a showcase for his excellent comedic timing in a bigger role than he normally gets. In one scene learning the art of Reike, an ancient Japanese spiritual practice of palm healing, his uptight and reserved demeanor slowly peels away revealing a more relaxed individual. Pais definitely has a talent for delivering deadpan comedy that should be explored again in the future. Supporting actors Ellen Page and Alison Janney do not appear in enough scenes to make any kind of impact, which is truly a wasted opportunity.
It’s not awful, but it’s underwhelming at best. Maybe because Shelton is currently preoccupied with long form television at the moment, Touchy Feely simply doesn’t succeed in either the comedy or drama genre. It has a few redeeming moments but overall it’s a disappointment.
DVD special features are numerous, including a commentary track from Shelton, DeWitt, and Pais, interviews with Shelton, Pais, Janney, and actor Scoot McNairy (who appears as Abby’s ex), outtakes, deleted scenes, and a behind the scenes featurette. (Eric Marchen)