Monday, July 25, 2016

10 for 10: let's see how it goes edition

10 for 10... that's 10 movies which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie or TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of scattershot thoughts? Surely that's doable?

In this edition:
What Happened, Miss Simone (Netflix) - 2015, Liz Garbus
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (Netflix) - 2015, Christopher McQuarrie
Cooties (TMN on demand) - 2014, Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Saint Vincent (TMN on demand) - 2014, Theodore Melfi
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (TMN on demand) - 2015, Colin Hanks
Pitch Perfect 2 (TMN) - 2015, Elizabeth Banks
The Night Before (TMN) - 2015, Jonathan Levin
Everest (TMN on demand) - 2015, d. Baltasar Kormákur
Macbeth (2015 TMN on demand) - 2015, Justin Kurzel
Midnight Run (Shomi) - 1986, d. Martin Brest


aaaand...go

What Happened, Miss Simone is the Oscar award-nominated (won? I don't have the time to research things) documentary on the life on Nina Simone.  She was a superstar in the music industry in the 1960s and yet by the time the 1980's hit she was almost unheard of.  I personally hadn't heard of her until the early 2000's when an ex introduced me to her.  She led a very tumultuous life, and had a difficult career, especially at the hands of her husband/manager who was very jealous and controlling.  Her career took a drastic shift when she started aligning herself with the Black Panthers, a move that proved divisive and alienating for not just her crossover audience but even friends and family.  The movie features a tremendous amount of archival performance material and interviews from all stages of her life.  She is a fascinating persona who led a difficult life, in part because of race and in part because of her relationships, but also because of pressures of society to conform to standard norms of servitude, beauty and behavior.  Her past would haunt her up until her death, the scars of abuse and the wear of performance pressure broke her in a way she never really could mend.  She wound up living a fairly reclusive life in her later years, performing in small establishments to appreciative crowds.  Powerful.  (9:55)

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I think David and I have both spoken in the past about the disposability of the Mission Impossible series, and the latest on, Rogue Nation (as per David's review) is no exception.  What I remember most about this film was the feeling that it was probably going to be the best of the series, the one that I will want to go back to, the one that will stick with me.  Turns out, five or six weeks later, I once again really don't remember it at all.  Rebecca Ferguson is obviously the big highlight of the film.  She's a badass British secret agent who teams up with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt to...well, do whatever it is they need to do.  There's some stuff about shutting down the Impossible Mission task force, but Ethan managing to finagle Simon Pegg's Benji into being his right hand man.  Pegg gets a bigger spotlight here than any in the series before it, and yet despite the great turns from Ferguson and Pegg (and great support from Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, and Jeremy Renner) this still feels 100% like the Tom Cruise show, and because of the series' inability to make a true team out of the IMF, I think that's why it suffers from such forgetability.  Ethan Hunt has never been Bond-like in charisma or distinctive charm...he's a "master of disguise" which means he's supposed to be able to blend in and be unseen, which honestly makes for a bland character in the end.  Give Ferguson's character her own movie (with the same support cast) and you're laughing.  It would be fantastic.  This one looked good, sounded good, had great action, a decent bad guy in Sean Harris and is probably worth watching again.  (19:49)

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Horror was being taken over by zombies a decade ago.  Zombies are still a dominant force but horror has recouped to include ghosts and demonic possessions and witches and mystical creatures and slashers and body modders and cannibals and all sorts of grim gruesomeness.  The difference between now and, say, 15 years ago is so much horror used to wind up in the direct-to-video market, where as now, in surprising numbers, horror winds up in first run cinemas, if only for the shortest of stints.  Horror is bankable.  It's cheap to produce since all the devotees really care about is the gags, the plot and acting are secondary.  It's only those that wish to cross over into larger box office terrain that hire bigger names for their casts.  But hiring name actors is hit an miss in terms of getting that crossover.  Far too often bigger does not equal better for horror movies.  Cooties has an impressive roster of known faces (Rainn Wilson, Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Jorge Garcia, Nasim Pedrad) as teachers in a public school where an experimental chicken-turned-chicken nugget has caused a "cooties" infection (which, basically, means another zombie outbreak).  This is of the horror-lite variety.  The focus isn't so much on the gags, or even the apocalypse... it's character-centric, even if the characters aren't exactly the most appealing (they're not bad people, just not all that lovable). (29:30)

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I didn't manage to see a trailer for Saint Vincent until long after its release on video, which means it kind of came and went from theatres without much attention, at least from me.  The trailer highlighted Bill Murray's curmudgeonly neighbour to Melissa McCarthy's newly divorced mother and her pre-teen son.  Murray, as the titular Vincent of the film, has had a hard time adjusting since he's started living alone, and is taking his frustrations out on everyone, including himself, drinking excessively and getting into deep debt gambling.  McCarthy's suddenly single and moves in next door finds a reluctant willingness from Vincent to look after Oliver (as Oliver takes a curious interest in Vincent).  Of course, Vincent isn't a great role model, except when he is.  He cares in his own way, and he has a curious cast of loved ones whom he supports or who support him.  The supporting cast is rounded out by Chris O'Dowd as Oliver's Catholic School teacher (Oliver's Jewish), Naomi Watts as the pregnant hooker/stripper that Vincent's sleeping with (but it's not his kid), and Terrence Howard as the bookie Vincent's in debt to (he's nice to a point).  The film is actually very funny while being very solemn and touching in points.  The climax is just shy of being corny and manipulative, but is nonetheless satisfying.  It's sweet and rewarding. (38:40)

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When I moved to Toronto there was a Tower Records on the corner of Queen and Yonge.  It was three stories of music and videos, and I could lose hours in there browsing...but before I could really settle into any routine going there, it was gone.  Tower Records was a major force in music retail for the better part of 30 years, and then they disappeared almost overnight.  This documentary from Colin Hanks, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, is surprisingly interesting investigation into how Tower changed the face of music retail and distribution, and made being a snobby record store clerk a thing for the masses to aspire to.  It starts with its origins as a side offering in a pharmacy and how it grew into a multi-national chain.  Its distinctive yellow and red logo and unique displays, its warehouse feel, at once unassuming and cool, were all selling points.  It was a permissive work environment which seemed to encourage partying and maintaining an aura of cool and tastemaking.  Its business model was unconventional, dubious even, but it was working.  It was really expansion into foreign markets, without enough research into those markets, that overextended to company's resources and took it down.  Even if you're unfamiliar with Tower Records, if you're a music nerd, this is a fascinating doc that shows the awkward and forced transition between music format and provides a unique slice of music history. (47:44)

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Indeed I liked Pitch Perfect, far more that I probably or logically should.  But we have to allow ourselves these somewhat guilty pleasures.  Pitch Perfect 2 eliminated the most detestable element of the previous film (not entirely, but mostly), the aggravating Skylar Astin, but then doubled down on its use of Workaholics' most unlikable member Adam Devine and introduced Ben Platt (like Skylar Astin-lite) as the love interest of new Barden Belle Hailee Steinfeld.  The focus of the movie is on the Barden Belle's and their pursuit of the World Championship (or ruin) but these romantic side stories with thoroughly unlikable actors (or, at least, characters) as romantic leading men just bog the film down.  This feels like an 1980's style sequel, one that tries to repeat the format of the first but going bigger, and offering diminishing returns in the process.  It's still funny, in parts, but the jokes are more 60/40 this time around, with more than one sequence built around a leaden joke.  It's decently directed by Elizabeth Banks, not too flashy, (though sometimes it's very underwhelming, such as the big finale) it's a solid chick-flick-that-isn't-a-chick-flick that has broad appeal.  The songs aren't quite as good this time around either, though. (58:50)

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The Night Before reteams Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen with Jonathan Levin, their director from 50/50, add in The Avengers' Anthony Mackie as the third in a trio of best friends who are putting their last traditional pre-Christmas outing to rest with one big blowout.  Rogen has a baby on the way, and Mackie is a football star riding a career peak, but Levitt, a struggling musician is feeling left behind as the wounds of his last relationship refuse to heal and he refuses to really take ownership of his life.  The film wisely finds a heart to the hedonistic journey of these guys, but thankfully the stakes aren't all that high (no pun intended)...really only the fate of their friendship lies in the balance.  Jillian Bell is awesome as Rogen's all-too understanding wife, diffusing that conventional one-dimensional-female-character-in-a-comedy trope very, very nicely.  Mindy Kaling (who should be Rogen's next costar in a buddy comedy) also puts in a terrific supporting character performance.  It's surprisingly Michael Shannon who steals the show as the all to sage pot dealer, Mr. Green, but that would be forgetting Rogen's brilliant trip-out sequence, a fun cameo from Broad City's Ilana Glazer, and an unforgettable James Franco cameo.  There are some huge laughs here (perhaps the best texting/sexting joke put to film) and it works great as a seasonal comedy or a summer comedy. (1:09:29)

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At the start of Everest the climbing guides explain to the tourists they're escorting up Mount Everest all the various dangers that could occur when they go up the mountain.  As if you couldn't guess, every worst case scenario occurs, and then some.  Everest could have been very cleverly staged as a horror film, but instead it's a strictly matter of fact account of a real-life ill-fated trip three tour groups took up the mountain in 1996.  There seemed to be, on the part of the filmmakers, a strong desire to try and portray events as true to how they happened, which is something people complain most docu-dramas don't do enough of.  The reason for that, though, is clear... it's kind of boring.  There were countless possible ways to ratchet up the tension in this film, but it never is as pulse-pounding as it could have been.  The filmmakers are way too focussed on the human drama.  Unfortunately there's too many players to fully invest in the human drama.  It's sad to see people die, and to know they're true-to-life analogs makes it even more so, but there's not much investment in most of these people as characters.  A focus is put on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) in that we jump back to their families, but the story on the mountain doesn't focus on them as jump between them and everyone else.  It's a good looking film, but given the subject matter it should have been far more engaging. (1:19:20)

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Macbeth is that Shakespeare play I always think is Hamlet, until 10 minutes into it when I realize it's not Hamlet and I don't exactly remember what it's all about.  I find enjoyment of Shakespeare comes from familiarity.  It takes countless reads or views of the plays to really, truly feel comfortable, and even study may be required to actually get the most out of them.  I find modern adaptations, where they take the general plot structure and character outlines and apply them to modern situations with modern dialogue to be generally more appealing.  Shakespeare knew how to craft a story, for sure.  His olde English puts me to sleep.  This Michael Fassbender-led rendition of Macbeth wasn't much different.  It's a lavish look at the Scottish countryside, for sure, but it's droning, ambiant score, and the director's penchant for slow motion, and everyone's utter lack of emoting throughout the bulk of the picture make for pretty dire entertainment.  My wife's the English major and Shakespeare buff, and she said this wasn't a very good rendition.  I would say you can take her word for it.  Skip. (1:25:59)

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There are classics of cinema, and then there are just great movies.  They can be mutually exclusive or one and the same.  Classics are movies that are important for their time, and great movies are those that hold up regardless of when they were made or when they are being watched.  Midnight Run may not be a classic, but it is a great movie.  Given how many comedians I've heard on countless podcasts talk of their love for this movie, I was expecting a comedy classic.  I was surprised that it wasn't really that funny, but it had me rapt.  It's not a drama, by any means, it's sort of a crossroads between action, comedy and drama, just a light, romp-y, unconventional buddy road movie, a straighter counterpart to Planes, Trains, and AutomobilesRobert DeNiro is a bounty hunter who's given the task of bringing a high-profile mob accountant (Charles Grodin) back from LA to New York, with other bounty hunters, the FBI and the mob hot on their tails.  The film lives and dies by its characters.  It's a story that serves them, not action or comedy like most of today's movies.  It's about digging into DeNiro's troubled history, solving the mystery of what happened to him when he was a cop in Chicago.  Likewise it's about understanding who Grodin's accountant is.  Is he just a crook, or is he a nice guy who go into a bad situation and tried to make it better (at least on his conscience).  It's their interplay, which leads to a tense partnership, and even an almost friendship, that's totally worth the journey.  The late, great Denis Farina is at his best here, perhaps the funniest aspect of the film.  Yaphet Kotto is the lead FBI agent, and likewise shows some pretty fantastic comedic chops. Then there's the always fun Joey Pants (Pantoliano) as the bail bondsman desperate for the return of the accountant or he's in ruin.  Just a 100% solid cast, a fully engaging chase/road movie, and a fantastic character study.  Yeah, a great movie, if not a classic. (1:38:53)