Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Jack Reacher (2012)

* * *

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike

I have a volatile relationship with Netflix's recommendations. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Netflix seems to have no idea what the word "recommends" means, given that it sometimes recommends films to me that have no connection to anything that I've already watched and indicated liking, and/or films that it believes I would give a rating of 1 or 2 stars if I did watch it. For whatever reason, when it does this I usually can't resist watching whatever it comes up with; it's like a challenge that I can't bring myself to walk away from. So, when Netflix recommended Jack Reacher, a film which I recall reading scathing things about when it came out in theaters, I figured that it was, once again, screwing with me, though it did claim that the recommendation was based on my having liked Drive and Hanna. Those two films are vastly superior to this one in myriad ways, but I actually did not hate Jack Reacher. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it (though I am told that this is only possible because I never read the book). So congratulations Netflix, you've won this round in the game we're playing with rules I'll probably never quite understand.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Life Itself (2014)

* * * *

Director: Steve James

More often than not, critics are characterized as being the bane of a filmmaker's existence, the potential obstacle between a film and its audience. For that reason alone, Life Itself is a somewhat extraordinary film, celebrating as it does the life of film critic Roger Ebert. But Ebert wasn't just any film critic, nor was he really "just" a film critic. He was a wonderful writer and a champion of movies he felt deserved a bigger audience but were perhaps too small and/or obscure to find it on their own (one of the more famous examples is his embrace of Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams), and he was knowledgeable with respect to film history and insightful when it came to breaking a film down. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he wasn't even someone who grew up dreaming of becoming a film critic, but rather came into the occupation somewhat by chance as a result of joining the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times just as their regular film critic was leaving. That he would build his career up from those circumstances to become, arguably, the most famous film critic in North America and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot is only a small measure of his extraordinary talent, and but a small reason why he's deserving of such an affectionate and compelling tribute.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The A-Team (2010)

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel
Domestic Gross: $77,222,099

With the exception of Cowboys and Aliens, this week's "not-buster" earned significantly more than all the previous entries (more, even, than a few of the entries put together) in this series. $77 million is no small amount of money when considered on its own, but when considered in the context of a film with a reported $110 million budget, it starts to look woefully inadequate. But even if "profit" wasn't an issue, The A-Team would still qualify as a failure for its lack of cultural impact. The A-Team was very clearly designed to be the opening salvo in a franchise, yet plans for a sequel were scrapped sometime in 2011. Do you know how unsuccessful a film like this has to be to not get a sequel? Hollywood loves sequels so much that it sometimes seems to forget that there's any other kind of movie. But there will be no The A-Team 2 and, to be perfectly honest, I'd actually forgotten that The A-Team movie was even a thing until I went looking for summer box office bombs and was reminded that this was something that happened. Now that I've seen it, I believe I shall promptly forget.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Movies Based in Greek Mythology

#5: Electra (1962)

The first installment of Michael Cacoyannis' "Greek tragedy" trilogy (the other two parts, 1971's Trojan Women and 1977's Iphigenia, are also well worth seeing) is a spare, striking, and powerful film and stars the great Irene Papas in the title role.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Wadjda (2013)

* * * *

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed

What the title character of Wadjda wants seems very simple. She wants a bicycle so that she and her friend can race. But as a girl in Saudi Arabia, reminded constantly that she should cover her face or go indoors so that she's not seen and that she should keep her voice down so that she's not heard, she might as well wish for a pet unicorn. Then again, there's a first time for everything - just ask director Haiffa al-Mansour who, in bringing Wadjda to the screen, became the first Saudi woman to direct a feature length film, the first person to shoot an entire feature in Saudi Arabia, and the maker of the first film ever submitted by Saudi Arabia for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. But even if Wadjda didn't have the distinction of being part of so many firsts, it would still be a film notable for the strength of its storytelling and the craft of its execution.