I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Isle of Dogs

 

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There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.

I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.

I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.

Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.

But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.

Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).

The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.

So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.

So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.

I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.

When We First Met is a Charmingly Odd Piece of Cinema

 

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When We First Met is a true testament to the sheer force of nature that Adam Devine brings. For a movie that should be, at its best, “passably enjoyable while it’s on in the background,” Devine works 110% to bring it up to “passably enjoyable while you actually watch it.” It’s almost remarkable how hard he works to try to bring this movie up from mediocrity; his relentless effort is more interesting to watch than the actual movie around him is. He didn’t have to try so hard; he easily could have phoned it in and taken his Netflix paycheck and been on his merry way, but he doesn’t… he genuinely wanted to raise the bar for this movie and because of that, I have an incredible respect for him.

The movie functions as a rom-com Groundhog Day, in which Noah (Devine) needs to re-live the same night he meets Avery (Alexandra Daddario), the love of his life who friend-zones him because he waited too long to make a move. Of course, hilarity and hijinks ensue, or at least that’s what the movie attempts. Each time Noah goes back in time, he has a new method of flirtation he’s trying which leads to various different futures for him and Avery with equally varying amounts of amusement for the viewer.

Other than Devine, what helps sell the movie is how damn earnest it is. Its naïve charm works to its favor which is almost refreshing. In another world, there is a gross-out, hard R-rated version of this movie that would be an absolute slog to sit through. A version with constant F-bombs and genital references to cover up the lack of anything interesting. It was nice to watch something that was so unabashedly PG-13. Having said that, just because you’re PG-13, doesn’t mean you can’t take any risks. The movie’s biggest flaw is how squeaky clean it is even when it tries to deal with adult themes like sex, one-night stands, hookup buddies and drinking. In one timeline where Noah becomes hookup buddies with Avery after trying out a “douche” persona to woo her, he asks her what her favorite sexual position is, but the movie is afraid of anything beyond a parental, focus-group approved impurity. “Yes, they can briefly talk about sex existing, as long the nice girl doesn’t admit to anything salacious.” You can be 100% PG-13 and still try to have fun with it. The movie is essentially for high schoolers and everyone knows how much high schoolers love content that their parents approve of.

Ultimately, the movie continues to ride along on the charm of Devine alone. The rest of the cast just tries to anchor the world around him with varying success. Though she’s basically given nothing to do, Daddario is a pretty perfect choice as the girl Noah just can’t seem to get it right with but her fiancé, played by Robbie Amell, is about as interesting as a wooden plank. Why not make some of the other characters slightly interesting? Give them a personality of something more than just “person for Devine to bounce off of.” There is a good cast in here: use it! At the very least, Shelly Hennig gets to play a few more notes than the rest.

This movie accomplishes what it sets out to be: something that is on and offends no one. The problem is with that is it’s such a dreadful goal to have, let alone achieve. Of course, I don’t want the R-rated version but it would be nice to see this movie maintain its romantic earnesty while still showing us something even slightly exciting. I can see the executives trying their hardest to make this something pleasant to watch for everyone (maybe slightly skewering towards teens) but when you make something for everyone, you end up making it for no one. That’s why you have to hire Devine to lift the entire thing up on his shoulders and carry you. If we don’t get scenes where he thinks he knows the piano but doesn’t or him drunkenly exclaiming he has a “play-doh” face, or anything else he throws himself into, then there would really be nothing worth even mentioning about this movie. At the very least, we can say, “damn, Adam Devine really wants me to like this movie.”

It really is a testament to Devine: you can replace any actor with someone else and it wouldn’t make a difference but if you lose him, you should really just shut down production.

Netflix: The Savior & Destroyer of Mid-Budget Movies

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While it may be doing damage to the classical theatrical experience, Netflix investing in mid-budget movies is unfortunately a net positive. As we’ve come to find in recent years, studios seem to mostly be making two kinds of movies: giant tentpole blockbusters, like “The Avengers” and the teeny tiny indie that they hope will be the next “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Why gamble on a movie that costs $50 or $65 million that may only end up grossing $98 million back? It makes much more sense to dump truckloads on something that will make billions or spend as little as possible on something that might turn out to the charming little hit of the season? It’s a reliable business model; I get it.

But mid budget movies are something we desperately need. It’s nice to see a few A-listers in a dramedy, courtroom drama or cop movie. Unfortunately, much like romantic comedies, they have become few and far between. Yes, you’ll see them from time to time when the right kind of money and star power come together: a movie like The Judge (an overlooked gem) doesn’t get made unless it has the undeniable box office gravity of Robert Downey Jr, and the 2010 remake of True Grit doesn’t get made unless it has the Coen Brothers directing with an all-star cast. The problem is, these used to be the movies that dominated most of the movie calendar and there would only be blockbusters in the summer and Christmastime; now we have movies like Deadpool and Black Panther, that come out in February and Logan come out in March. This year we’ll get a Venom movie in October. Even Avengers: Infinity War was changed to the last weekend in April for maxim box office receipts.

So where can a mid-budget movie thrive if no studio will pay for them? Netflix. For a few years now, Netflix has been testing the waters in terms of original movies. They’ve made some attempts at Oscar bait (Mudbound, Beasts of No Nation & First They Killed My Father) and they’ve even thrown their hand into blockbuster territory (Bright), but now they’re starting to realize where they can really thrive: mid-budget movies that studios are too scared to make. In 2018 they’ve already dropped, Mute, The Cloverfield Paradox, Game Over Man and When We First Met. All of those would have had a hard time finding a home at a major, theatrical studio.

So why is it unfortunate that Netflix is carrying the mid-budget torch when no one else will? It’s simple: all movies are meant to be seen in theaters. That’s it. There is no counter argument. You should see art in the medium it was created for. I have plenty of friends that tell me “I just saw (insert movie title here) and it thought it was shitty.” Oh really? Did you see it in theaters? “No.” Did you watch it on a phone/computer/TV/airplane? “Yes.” Then you did not see the movie, you watched it. Seeing a movie implies that you went to a movie theater to literally see that movie. I re-watched Interstellar a few weeks ago… but I didn’t see it.

Movies are meant to be seen in a theater. You cannot have distractions. I don’t care how fucking sick your home theater setup is at home, it is not as good as a movie theater. In a movie theater, you have no control over anything and that is how it should be. At home, you can talk to the person next to you, you can check your phone, you can get distracted by literally any outside visual stimulation. Film is a long-form version is visual art. If you break the tension with anything, then the moment is lost. I know lots of you may think that just seeing something in your room won’t distract you, but it will; it’s how the human brain works. We see things and then we think about them.

I have friends that have told me “I won’t see a movie in theaters unless it’s some Avatar-level of visual effects” (you know who you are). That is an awful way to see movies. All cinematic stories deserve to be seen without being interrupted, without being paused to take a crap, without your roommate coming in and loudly cooking in the kitchen.

That’s why Netflix is a necessary evil. I’m grateful that The Meyerowitz Stories is able to exist because of Netflix but I also wish I could have seen it in a theater. As time goes on this will only get worse. There is one simple cure to this: go to the movies. See things that look interesting to you; I love blockbusters too but if we aren’t careful, eventually a movie like “The Nice Guys” won’t even have the power to grant a theatrical release and eventually, we’ll all just end up going to the movies to see which new superhero is fighting which new supervillain.

I’m Sorry I Didn’t Like _____ as Much as You?

I thought Inside Out was good. I didn’t love it to the same degree that it seemed the rest of the world did. People seemed to think it was the cleverest thing ever put on screen. The movie was fine; it had a few laughs along the way but I didn’t love the concept and I felt like it tried too hard to get you to cry. If I want to cry, have your movie build up to a reason to cry within the story, don’t just have a bunch of scenes that exist solely to try to get me to cry; have a reason for it. All that being said, I think it’s a good movie. One day, someone at work was raving about it for about 5 minutes and then asked me what I thought about it. I told them I thought it was good and they gave me a perplexed look.

“Just good? You didn’t love it.”

“No but I thought it was fine.”

“Why are you so cynical? How could you not like that movie?”

And from that moment, I was labeled as an Inside Out hater. I was confused. I said I liked it. Some movies, I’ve come to find, are just like that. Even though we live in an age where everyone thinks they have the most singularly individual taste, some cultural phenomenona come along that dictate we all universally adore something or universally damn it. Any deviation from this, even a slight one, is wrong.

I liked Black Panther but when I told someone I thought some of the story was a little dull they were thrown damn near into a fury about how wrong I was. Again… I said I liked it; I just don’t fully subscribe to the zeitgeist that demands I love every aspect of it.

Some people think Call Me By Your Name is absolutely brilliant. I thought it was pretty good but it was also a lot of Euro-glamorizing and a little short-sighted to try to tell the audience that a kid’s first romance at 17 will be the absolute most special connection he’ll ever make in his life especially when the two actors didn’t really have the greatest chemistry. Of course, when I told a friend that, I was informed that I had no idea what I was talking about and that I didn’t understand it at all.

This perplexes me. Why does it bother someone if I don’t love something to the exact same degree that they do? It goes the other way too: I know that The Accountant is a pretty crappy movie but there are a few things I like about it. Upon telling that to a friend who hated it, I was branded as someone who loved it. What are you talking about? I said I liked a few small things; now here I am defending a movie that I didn’t even really like.

Maybe since I’ve never been a complete fanboy of any particular genre or franchise, I don’t get quite as swept up in the unrelenting hype around certain movies? I’ve listened to friends lecture me about Star Wars and the deep, very serious nature of these movies to me that are decent enough but I didn’t grow up with, so I don’t have the metamorphic pressure of decades of nostalgia fueling my hype. Can’t I just think Star Wars is pretty good? It doesn’t seem much better than most other blockbuster franchises.

What about Harry Potter? It was never really my thing; those movies were never particularly great nor particularly horrible either, but when I say that, I’m met with rage. I told a friend that I thought Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was passable enough and they ranted to me about how wrong I was: the world of Harry Potter is not cute and it does not center around imaginative creatures; it is a very dark story about pain and suffering and making it into a movie that isn’t rated R does a complete disservice to the source material. Oh? I didn’t realize. I thought they were kid’s books about a magical orphan boy.

Look, of course anyone is allowed to feel strongly about a movie. I feel strongly about lots of movies, but for some reason they often tend to be ones that few people care about (I’ll always fight for you, Everybody Wants Some!!), but can’t we accept that someone who partially agrees with us is at the very least on our side? Wouldn’t you rather have a spirited debate with someone who feels differently about the art you love, rather than sit around giving it unending praise together?

Oh, and now that I think about it, Inside Out actually isn’t that good.

Let’s Look Back at Knocked Up (11 Years Later)

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I always loved Knocked Up. I don’t watch it very often (this is the first time I’ve revisited it since probably 2009), but it has a soft spot in my heart. It’s weird looking back on this movie from 2007 and remembering that Seth Rogen hadn’t really been in movies before. Yes, he had a supporting role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, but his screen time in that movie is probably equivalent to what Martin Starr gets in this movie. Rogen really owes a lot to this movie (as well as Superbad which came out a month later, but we aren’t here to talk about that). This is the movie that put him on the escalator to stardom.

Knocked Up had a pretty famously… complicated publicity tour when it was coming out. Katherine Heigl, who also owed this movie almost as much as Rogen did, famously… criticized (?) it for portraying men as lovable slobs and women as “shrews” because they actually took life and the responsibilities that come with it seriously. This was unfortunately one of the first reasons she was later stamped with the most damning of all Hollywood labels: DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH. This movie did launch her into stardom, much like it did Rogen, but she had that stamp on her forever after that and she couldn’t seem to scrub it off until she virtually ceased to exist in Hollywood. It’s a shame: she’s really good in Knocked Up! This movie doesn’t work without her; she is the solid spine that everyone else gets to swing around.

I found her remarks interesting on my latest re-watch. Is that true? Is this movie a little harsh on women and a little too easy on the guys?

The answer is: yes. It’s not a resounding “yes,” but there is validity to what she said. The most on-the-nose example is the scene about midway through the movie where Pete (Paul Rudd) is cautiously apathetic to the reality that there are multiple sex offenders in his neighborhood where he lives with his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and his children.

 

Debbie: So I’m the bad guy because I’m trying to keep our children safe from child molesters and mercury and you’re cool ‘cause you don’t give a shit?

Pete: Yeah.

Debbie: Yeah? Is that it?

Pete: Pretty much.

Debbie: God you’re an asshole.

 

Now that scenario is never really explored again and that’s why it seems unfair to the female character… because she’s 100% right: Pete is an asshole. There is no moment where Pete has to roll back and admit he’s wrong and should have taken it more seriously. On the other hand, and I don’t know this to be true, I would bet my girlfriend would find that scene incredibly cathartic on its own, because it sheds light on how goddamn frustrating men are. And I think that may be the core dispute with this movie, more so than many others: your gender can have a gigantic effect on how you perceive character motivations.

The real question I have about this movie and its motivation is this: how are we supposed to feel about Ben (Seth Rogen)? Are we supposed to feel anything at all or just see how things play out for him? As Heigl noted, he is lovably oafish in this movie, so do we want him to stay that way and for Alison (Heigl) to lighten up or do we want him to rise to the occasion and become the responsible parent he needs to be? If they want you to feel the latter, then they really make you hold out for it because his growth to maturity happens in a 2-minute montage right before the end of the movie.

I think Knocked Up wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants you to relish in all the dopey shenanigans the male characters enjoy for about 100 minutes and then asks you to grow up and see that the men were immature and the women were right all along in the last few minutes of the movie. So I can see why Apatow would argue that it is a pro-female movie but because the bulk of it lingers on a “boys will be boys” sentiment, Heigl has a fair point in saying it feels unfair to women.

Independent of all that, the movie is still hilarious and is easily the best rom-com in recent memory (sorry, Forgetting Sarah Marshall).

When you watch it, you start to realize that the camera hardly moves, and obviously there’s reason for that: with the actors improvising so much, it would be hard to edit the best comedy together if the shots kept changing so the motion is pretty static but it doesn’t matter; it is more than worth the comedy we get.

Leslie Mann and Seth Rogen have never been funnier than they are in this movie (Paul Rudd is great too but he’s still best in Anchorman). Katherine Heigl is not just charming but also quite funny too.

 

Alison: I do NOT want you to fuck me like a dog.

Ben: It’s not like a dog… it’s doggy-style.

 

At the end of the day, this movie is insanely charming. It has some issues but it is well intentioned. Keep in mind, it also features Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Alan Tudyk. This is one of those movies that could only exist in the year it was created; if it was made now, everyone would be way too expensive (except, unfortunately for Heigl). Be thankful that we have Knocked Up, warts and all.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Pretty Frustrating Movie

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Don’t get me wrong, I walked out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier pretty satisfied back in April, 2014. Really cool choreography for the hand-to-hand combat sequences, a pretty fun story and a cool performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I got my money’s worth for sure.

But I’ve never had the urge to go back and watch it again. Any urge I’ve had was satisfied by watching some of the fight scenes on the internet and that’s about it. I once tried watching it again, not out of a strong desire to do so, but just to see why I never wanted to. And now I know why: for a movie that’s touted as one of the absolute best MCU films… it’s kind of dull. Like I said before, the action is spot on and the overall story is a fun adventure but this movie is pretty devoid of anything human or interesting.

Captain America is a pretty dull superhero, and frankly, I find all his solo outings to be pretty dull. Each one is better than the one before it but Civil War is only better because he has to share the screen with some Avengers with more interesting motivations and personalities; other than that, it falls victim to the same bland issues that The Winter Soldier does. I always hear about how this movie finally “challenges” Captain America’s morality. Did I watch a different movie? This movie is about a dude who is morally unshakable, believes one thing to be true and in the end is proven completely right and everyone who tried to steer him away was wrong. Very captivating.

I don’t necessarily need a hardened anti-hero, but it would be nice to have your protagonist… learn? Grow? Change? Homer’s Odyssey is interesting because even though Odysseus is undoubtedly a hero, he is also marred by his hubris, but over time, learns from his mistakes. Captain America is perfect at the beginning and equally perfect at the end.

Look, this movie is light years ahead of the first one, which was legitimately just boring. At least here, we do get some thrills. It’s just a shame that a pair like the Russo Brothers, who are known for directing irreverent comedy television, were relegated to such a soulless script.

“But it does have a soul! What about Cap’s conflicting relationship with Bucky?!”

Who’s Bucky? Oh, the character from the first movie that had no personality or charisma? The character that we barely spent any time with and had no real chemistry with Chris Evans?

I genuinely dislike it when people claim MCU movies are too interconnected and they can’t remember who is who or what happened in previous films; these are movies that are built for mass audiences that really exist to sell toys… the connections between them are really surface-level and can mostly be made without even having seen previous films, based on context alone (I didn’t see Ant Man but I wasn’t thrown in a tizzy when he showed up in Civil War). Having said that, the reveal that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes from the first movie had no effect on me because I genuinely forgot who he was. Now, I understand, some of that is on me. I would argue that Captain America: The First Avenger is maybe not the worst, but definitely the dullest movie in the MCU and I have not revisited it or thought much about it since I saw it. So, the scene where his identity is revealed, is supposed to have a lot of emotional heft and make both Cap and the audience stop dead in their tracks. All I could think was “who cares? Kill him… he’s killing everyone else.”

Bucky Barnes was a slightly duller character in the first movie but now because he’s brainwashed, he is completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever. So now I’m in the middle of a movie where the big emotional pull comes between the world’s dullest superhero and is even duller friend. Thankfully the movie is smart enough to know not to linger on this wasted attempt at emotion and just have them go into a brilliantly-executed hand-to-hand fight.

What really sucks is that all of this supposed “emotion” bleeds over into Civil War, where the film wants us to root for Bucky to get better and reunite with Cap. Once again: I have spent no meaningful time with this character; you are asking me to root heavily for a friendship that I saw a few scattered moments of, that didn’t really even work that well, in a boring movie from five years earlier. If you want me to care, then show me why I should care, but having Cap say “he’s my friend,” over and over doesn’t convince me.

Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years

Most people like to discuss their top ten favorite or least favorite movies of the year and that’s fine; I’ll fall for that clickbait every single time. But the real reason we click on those is because we know we’re gonna be pissed off by it and work ourselves into a fury about how stupid the writer is and that they have no taste. It’s great. It’s the journalistic version of Chipotle: you have a great, delicious experience but by the end, you’re burning out of your ass.

While I like to read those pieces, I find it more interesting to look at movies that maybe weren’t that great or no one really saw but had an undeniable charm or personality to them. Those are the ones I find myself reflecting on more often than others. I’m not going to confine these next examples to a particular year… these are just movies that came out in the last few years that you may want to take a second look at.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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This movie is legitimately great. There hasn’t been a funnier movie since it came out. I honestly do believe if this movie had a little more of a marketing push, word of mouth would have carried it to the finish line. It is literally built for millennials and not just because it essentially works as “The Lonely Island Movie” but it is so representative of the popular music scene right now. The music industry is and always has been a bloated, self-aggrandizing world, so satirizing it is as easy as doing a slam dunk with the hoop on the lowest height. For some reason, audiences do not turn out to see comedies about the music industry; if you want an audience for your music movie, it needs to be as straightforward and unflinchingly self-serious like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.”

Popstar isn’t just a string of new music videos from The Lonely Island, it does have a legitimate story to tell about friendship and success. Of course, beyond all of this… it’s insanely hilarious and its true feat is that it isn’t just one kind of comedy. When you watch a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen movie, you get the exact same tone and style of comedy all throughout. Popstar looks for comedy down all sorts of different avenues. It manages to make excessive cameos funny. 99 times out of 100, when a movie relies heavily on cameos (Zoolander 2), it means the script sucks. In Popstar, the cameos help build the reality of the movie; it helps to have A$AP Rocky, Carrie Underwood, Ringo and many more discuss the fictional band in the movie… it feels real.

Out of the Furnace

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I get why this one never permeated the culture. Out of the Furnace is bleak. It meanders quite a bit in the first half and even when it sets the final plot in motion, it is still very patient to move. Having said all that, this movie is great. I don’t always love Christian Bale, especially when he uses his monotone American accent; everything he says sounds like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But here it seems like he’s comfortable enough to get a little rangey with his accent; he puts on more of a small-town twinge to it and somehow that allows him to emote a bit more.

The rest of the cast is great as well –it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen Forest Whitaker do in years. What really sells the movie though, is the non-stop rising of tension. It’s remarkable how tense it gets despite how quiet the whole thing is. It lets you agonize over every crunch, bullet and punch you see as it all crescendos to the finale.

A friend of mine said a few weeks ago that director Scott Cooper is a master “at taking scripts with lots of potential and making them as mediocre as possible.” I would agree with that for films like Crazy Heart and Black Mass but I believe he’s tapped into some kind of beautiful, soaring brutality with Out of the Furnace. This movie doesn’t care if you think it’s slow; if you tried to cut it down then you’d all complain that it was too rushed. Take some time with this one; it’s worth the wait.

The Judge

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I imagine I’m really the only big fan of this movie (I’m well aware it isn’t that great) but I seriously love it and I know exactly why. This movie came out right around the time when I was moving out of my parents’ house in suburbia, where I had lived my whole life (other than my college years), to New York City. Of course, on some level, I was proud of myself; many people from my life were staying in the area we grew up in, but I was moving on to BIG things down in the city and one day I could come back as a big city hotshot and look down on everyone still living their quaint little lives… that’s the fantasy anyway.

The Judge has some key elements of that plot: Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) moves away from his little town as soon as he can and becomes a bigshot lawyer in Chicago. He’s forced to return to his hometown for his mother’s funeral but it takes a huge turn when a legal issue regarding his estranged father arises, and he is forced to spend weeks back home to defend him in court, oh and his dad is the TOWN’S JUDGE! While he stays there, he is forced to reconcile with his own past in the fictional town of Carlinville, Indiana, as well as make amends with those he’s left behind, all while desperately trying to get back to his old life in Chicago. “You’re just a boy from Indiana, trying to do whatever it takes to pretend that’s not true,” his old high school girlfriend tells him in a very on-the-nose sequence.

I get it. This one plays into my own personal fantasy more so than it does for others. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of worth here. We get legitimately great performances out of Robert Duvall (who was nominated for an Oscar) and Robert Downey Jr. Watching them go back and forth throughout the movie is an absolute delight to see. There’s even a solid Vincent D’Onofrio performance in there, along with delightful offerings from Dax Shepard and Vera Farmiga. This movie is long and it probably doesn’t earn its runtime but I love spending time in this fictional town; it feels very real. Robert Downey Jr. aside, the people look like normal people rather than a town of gorgeous movie stars. The setting feels authentic and it overall is just a nice place to live for the entire run of the movie. I’m always down to go back.