This Week in Geek (5-11/09/16)


At the movies: As a thriller, Don't Breathe has a nifty premise - burglars get into a blind veteran's house to steal the money he got from a settlement when his daughter was killed in a wrongful accident, and he turns out to be more than they can handle - but I think it's one of those movies whose logic, once you get out into the sunlight, starts to dissolve. While you're along for the ride, it seems pretty air-tight, give or take, but there are some sizable plot holes for anyone who dares ask questions (about the ending especially). Part of the magic is the sound design, which makes everything more prominent, somewhat putting us in the blind man's head, and ramps up the tension. The film might have been more interesting if the victim were sympathetic, but it fails to pull that switcheroo, with the blind man having a dark and lurid secret that's meant to make the burglary acceptable to the audience. I liked it, but the plot needed a few tweaks.

Kubo and the Two Strings is without a doubt Laika stop motion studios best film to date, though I expect Box Trolls will still have more fans. Taking its inspiration from Chinese and Japanese fantasy films, Kubo tells the heartbreaking tale of a young boy whose mother, a banished moon spirit, secrets away before her evil family can get their claws into him. He's inherited some of her powers, including animating origami and destructing spell-music. The film is lush and beautiful and more than a little mysterious as to how Kubo's journey should be interpreted. It is at once real and a fantastical dream, a boy's imagination made manifest, bringing his lost parents into a fairy tale that is really about connecting to one's roots. But none of that is particularly spelled out. It weaves a strange spell that only has its effect later, perhaps, because I had the same slightly mystified reaction some of my fellow movie goers did (talk of perhaps being too tired to properly see the film, or feeling the need to see it again). Melancholy in a way most animated films aren't, and that makes it special.

DVDs: Hadn't seen Four Weddings and a Funeral since it came out, and while it put scriptwriter Richard Curtis on the romcom map, it somewhat pales compared to later films like Notting Hill and Love Actually. And I think it comes down to the character played by Andie MacDowell. As Hugh Grant's love interest, the fact that she only crosses paths with him at the five events in the title turns her into a bit of a cipher. Who is this woman and why does he fall for her (except for the romantic notion of "thunderbolts")? It's an interesting experiment, to run a romantic comedy plot without developing the heroine, but it ultimately fails. Where the film shines is in its presentation of a broad cast, whose romantic fortunes go up and down (but mostly up) over the course of the story. Like Grant himself, the characters have a great deal of charm, and unlike MacDowell, are usually immediate winners you can't wait to get a glimpse of at the next friend/family event.

Netflix: 22 Jump Street has such immense fun with the fact that it is a cash-in sequel, exactly in the way 21 Jump Street picked at the fourth wall with the fact it was a television remake, that it can't help but be a success even as it pulls all the old tropes out of the bag. This time, the boys go to college to track a new drug supply, and once again, the split off into different cliques before realizing they're bros (with all the relationship innuendo these kinds of scenes demand). The script manages to come off as knowing and pulls some nice twists on the first film's formula. And then there's the crazy end credits sequence that imagines the next batch of sequels, which is just hilarious. The best thing about a flick that was already a pretty fun action comedy.

I saw the second Neighbors before I saw the first and liked it. Didn't stop me from liking the first one as well. It's just very hard to dislike Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne's hapless parents who hope they're still young and cool, but need to accept their new lives. So whatever juvenalia Rogan films invariably seem to offer, something I'm really not into, they somehow pass the test because of his innate sweetness. In Byrne, he's found a great match. Zack Efron makes a good fraternity villain (a trope that used to be bigger, am I right?), at once magnetic and unknowingly pathetic. The Neighbors franchise is really about the difficulties of growing up and moving on, and though this is a revenge comedy about leaving used condoms on your neighbor's lawn, it has that pleasant thematic level that works for both sides of the fence.

Life of Crime is a minor Elmore Leonard adaptation set in the 1970s about kidnapping a rich man's wife and finding out he would really rather not pay the ransom and have her back. It never quite goes where you think it will, with many reversals and, as is common in Leonard's world, stupid mistakes, making for a fun crime comedy with a perfect sense of time and place. I found myself liking Jennifer Aniston in this more than anything I've seen her in since Friends, and there are strong turns for Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, Isla Fisher and Mos Def as well. My one caveat is the subplot about Will Forte's affections for Anniston's character, which should be pleasantly complexifying the crime story, but kind of fizzles out. I see how it creates confusion initially, but I don't think it was resolved satisfyingly. Elmore Leonard fans should still check it out.

The trailers did a disservice to Now You See Me by making it seem like super-science was behind the characters' magic act, and any instance of slight SF technology in the film does the same. It's just not the kind of tradecraft you want to see from this kind of film, which is otherwise a silly heist/con movie, a genre I have a lot of affection for. So this movie IS fun, and has a fun cast, and the audience gets to play the game of trying to figure out what the ultimate con will be. Of course, the solution to that puzzle, while not impossible to guess, is something I don't think would hold up on a second run through. It's a cheat in the sense that you could have had completely different reveals, with similar explanations, and still made it the work of a different person. But it's fun thinking about it while you watch.

The sweetness I like to praise in most Seth Rogen movies isn't really present in The Interview where he gets to play straight(ish) man to James Franco's over-the-top moron/diva, a character too infuriating to really ever become sympathetic, even once he "arcs" and learns his important lessons. But while I endorse the audacious premise of sending up Big Bad North Korea, the country's reaction was much more amusing than the film actually ends up being. At its best, it almost approaches being a kind of a Spies Like Us for the new Millennium. Most of the time, it badly straddles several tones, awkwardly marrying dick jokes with violent blood spatter. In the end, I enjoyed the stupid spy story, but did I laugh? No. And that should be recorded as a failure for this kind of movie.

Feeling more like 28 Days Later than The Omega Man, I Am Legend may use the original story's title, but it's not any closer to it. But I'm not judging it as an adaptation. The film is at its best showing Will Smith surviving in an empty New York with his dog, his mind teetering on the edge of insanity as he tries to cure the virus that has mostly wiped out the city's population. The visuals are strong, the acting effective, the survival techniques well thought-out. It's at its weakest when the plague zombies come out, as I truly feel it was a mistake to render them as CGI. They look fake and silly, and you can't really believe they used to be people. The white make-up in The Omega Man was cheap and simple, sure, but is still better than what we get here. So not a bad flick, but I kept getting pulled out whenever the monsters showed up.

The female version of The Expendables, Mercenaries, stars Zoë Bell, Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3), Vivica A. Fox, Nicole Bilderback and Cynthia Rothrock as all-woman Dirty Dozen, and the monstrous Brigitte Nielsen as a Khazakstan warlord whose kidnapped the president's daughter. It may not have the Expendables' budget, but as far as overtly comic-booky shlock action goes, I liked it more than that film. The action isn't particularly strong (though it has its moments), and the effects are terrible, but it's a fun entry in the genre by virtue of its badass attitudes. Rothrock, Nielsen and Fox are quite a arch, truth be told, but Bell and Loken are strong onscreen presences without having to mug the camera. A bit of fluff and mayhem that doesn't manage to wear on the nerves, which for this sort of thing, is a victory all by itself.

Starring the eminently watchable trio of  Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey, Woody Allen's Irrational Man is about something taught early on in Phoenix's philosophy class - that human beings are ready to chuck philosophical arguments aside when the going gets tough, especially in cases of morality. So while his character finds renewed vigor in following a philosophy to its logical end, suddenly angling this May-October romance into murder comedy territory, self-preservation soon takes over, as it must. All the characters, in fact, betray the values they profess to espouse, in one way or another. It's less a film about morality than it is about hypocrisy. We all talk a good game, but how much of it is our trying to convince ourselves of who we are? It's a fun little film, with quick pacing in the beginning and a somewhat abrupt ending. More care could have gone into its structure, but that's a minor point.

Crackle: Manhattan Murder Mystery features Woody Allen and Diane Keaton as a couple trying to solve the possible murder of a neighbor, completely hapless armchair detectives whose main skill is thinking things seem suspicious. In the background are flirtations between the couple and would-be lovers, a situation that exacerbates the frantic mood of the film. As we navigate the complicated murder plot (if indeed it is such), the characters talk all over each other, arguing and joking all the way, and the camera is as frantic as they are. It can get a bit overwhelming. But the movie deserves its franticness. It's essentially a midlife crisis story, where the mystery to be solved is a stand-in for the excitement missing in a marriage, where Sherlock must reconnect with his proper Watson, so to speak. Woody Allen's directorial energy is at once nervous and vivacious in that respect, but the film nevertheless felt a little long because of it.

Another midlife crisis film from Woody Allen, Husbands and Wives follows two marriages in trouble (one of them imperiled simply by the other falling apart) almost as if it were a documentary, an impressed helped along by personal interviews which are, in reality, therapy sessions. Unsurprisingly, Allen's assembled a good cast, and he balances amusing banter with dark, raw moments. There's also a bit of a metatextual layer to the film, criticism leveled at the novel written by Allen's own character a stand-in for his output during the 90s, and this film in particular. Whether the self-awareness is good for the picture, I haven't decided, nor if it answers my questions about his habitual tropes (or whether it should at all). These kinds of films are never going to be my favorites from his canon, but it's nevertheless a good character study.

Old college friends come together for the funeral of our of their own in the wake of his inexplicable suicide in The Big Chill, which may be the standard for "old friends getting together" movies, but I'd somehow never seen it. It's hard to divorce from the era it was made in, and for which it is nostalgic for, but your own nostalgia can certainly be transposed. It's just that the characters' present is so 80s - corporatization, making money, Magnum P.I., fear of v.d. - and the past they actively relive late 60s-early 70s - drug use, sex between friends, college talk, the movie's catchy soundtrack - really do speak to the death of a specific era, for which "Alex" is merely a stand-in. Beyond the subtext, we get a smart, realistic character study that doesn't feel the need to explain everything, merely infers what has gone before with the familiarity of old friends.



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