2014, Jeff Baena

We’ve reached a point in cinema where zombie comedies are as prevalent and worn out a genre as the straight horror incarnations of the creatures that made them famous in the first place. Zombies are everywhere, whether it’s on TV with The Walking Dead and In the Flesh or in films like World War Z and Zombieland. Even the rom-zom-com subgenre that boomed with the endlessly watchable Shaun of the Dead has seen plenty come in its footsteps, most recently being last year’s Warm Bodies. You can’t escape the undead in pop culture these days, so Life After Beth had an uphill battle in trying to make itself stand out. An independent film screened at Sundance and unlikely to gain a lot of traction among the general populace the way that something like Shaun was able to break out with, Life After Beth is the directorial debut of Jeff Baena (who also wrote it, with his only previous writing credit being I Heart Huckabees) which stars Aubrey Plaza as a young woman who returns to life, much to the surprise of her boyfriend played by Dane DeHaan. 

For all of its obstacles, some which it overcomes and some that it doesn’t, Baena’s first movie actually does manage to feel unique among the many other entries in this somewhat stale niche genre. Instead of following the traditional beats of a zombie outbreak or placing us after the fall of humanity, Baena centers everything in a small little community and builds the story from the relationship between Beth (Plaza) and Zach (DeHaan) outward. When Beth returns to life, she initially seems completely normal. There’s no rotting flesh, no hunger for human brains; rather she speaks coherently and is quite confused as to why everyone is acting so weird around her and why her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) won’t let her go outside. Over the course of the movie she begins to devolve into a creature more similar to those we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, but it’s a slow progression that allows Zach an opportunity to try and work out the problems that he wasn’t able to before Beth succumbed to a deadly snake bite. 

You see, the two had recently broken up and Beth’s passing left Zach shattered, wearing her ugly oversized scarf along with his all black clothing in the middle of summer, sitting by his pool wasting life away. Beth’s return gives him new meaning and he doesn’t want to let this time with her go to waste. The same can be said for her parents, who suffocate her with affection, but what no one seems to really grasp is the fact that this young woman just came back from the dead and they do their best to ignore all the signs that the world is falling apart around them. Baena cheekily includes little hints at things that will develop later on in the film, creating an active universe in the background of this more intimate story of a relationship facing a unique rough patch. There are clever jokes throughout Life After Beth and the cast ably delivers the material, with Reilly and Shannon in particular stealing their scenes. As for the leads, DeHaan continues to be one of the few actors of his age group to genuinely excite me and his unique persona is perfect for something this quintessentially odd, while Plaza is convincing through all the stages of her character’s evolution. 

What really sets Life After Beth apart from others of its kind is the way that Baena refuses to play by the rules and seemingly makes up his own as the film goes along. There’s a rambling sensation throughout that makes it feel like it was written on the fly but those little nods allow it to tie itself around nicely in the final act. This niche genre is hard to fully engage in at times (Shaun aside), feeling a bit try-hard and at this point it has grown a little stale, but Baena gives it a new verve that puts it into a tonal area separate from just about anything I’ve ever seen before. That makes it sound more monumental than it actually is, as it’s a very light and inconsequential journey, but it was a tough movie for me to really place, which came with its share of positives and negatives. It took me a while to adjust to Life After Beth's peculiar rhythm but once I did I found it thoroughly enjoyable while at the same time never fully committing to a sincere appreciation for it. Perhaps it leaves things a bit too distant, a bit too removed from a proper structure or anything concrete enough to generate a moving story but at the very least Baena has created a movie that stands out in a crowded market by being substantially more odd.

C+

2014, James Gunn

The last time that we saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe try to launch a new sub-franchise amidst their overlying Avengers arc, Joss Whedon hadn’t yet directed the third highest grossing film of all-time and Steve Rogers was just a scrawny kid living in the ’40s. It’s been three years since Captain America: The First Avenger saw a new series begin, with Marvel resting on their laurels in the wave of post-Avengers success and making note to check in on those in the fold who had already been introduced. We spent some more solo time with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America in the build-up to a new Avengers collaboration and we almost went all the way to next year’s jam-packed behemoth Age of Ultron without seeing a new franchise emerge at all. Not so fast, though, as the final film in Marvel’s “Phase Two” finds writer/director James Gunn taking us across the cosmos into the great interplanetary beyond with a ragtag group of misfits known as the Guardians of the Galaxy. 

We’ve seen bits and pieces of other worlds in the Thor franchise so far (along with a small dose in The Avengers) but Guardians of the Galaxy is a whole new ballgame with everything after the Spielberg-esque opening scene taking place far away from the planet we call home. Opening up the universe on a grander scale is something that Marvel is keen to make happen in terms of their long game, but for the time being Guardians of the Galaxy begins by feeling like a fresh new world for this multi-layered franchise to explore and it’s quite exciting off the bat. I’ve made no secret of my fatigue with the same old routine in these movies lately and I was certainly looking forward to seeing a new cast of characters in a whole new environment, something that Gunn and company didn’t hold back on for one moment. With immersive production design, crisp visual effects and effective character creation,Guardians of the Galaxy has no problem introducing us to a new setting with a sense of familiarity but also a rejuvenated spirit that’s been lacking in the overall franchise for the past few years. 

This fresh feeling could only last so long though, and after the first half of the picture is over Guardians starts to suffer under the weight of the Marvel machine and begins to show signs of the same flaws that pervade the majority of their pictures to date. While this band of motley anti-heroes — including a human, a mutated raccoon and a humanoid talking tree — provide a much-needed spark of creativity for the universe there’s also the saying that your hero is only as strong as your villain and Marvel needs to thank their lucky stars that this isn’t wholly true. Ronan (Lee Pace) is the antagonist of the piece and for as much life as the Guardians bring, he does his best to suck it all out of the room any chance he gets on screen. The script (co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman) saddles him with a bland and underdeveloped world domination/destruction motivation that sets itself in motion around an orb, stolen by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (the aforementioned human), that more or less works as a giant MacGuffin to keep the characters moving. It leaves me without any interest in the fight they’re up against and as a result it’s often difficult to garner much enjoyment out of the actual moving parts of the overall film. 

When progressing the thin, conventional narrative, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it’s grinding to a halt but the real juice here is when the core team is allowed to be in a room together and simply interact. Gunn is an unconventional choice to be at the head of a $100+ million franchise like this, having made his name so far as a cult favorite for quirky, vulgar midnight genre flicks like Slither and Super, and when he’s allowed to bring that gusto spirit to his characters, Guardians is able to blossom as a unique vision. Conversely, when he’s saddled with the dull routine of having to leave things open for franchise continuation or deliver another overlong, muddled and tedious action sequence, he seems as bored behind the wheel as I was watching it unfold but it’s in the smaller moments with these characters that you can see a life light up underneath his seat and it’s one that extends fully to the diverse and equally unconventional cast. 

Leading the way is Pratt, a man on the cusp of superstardom who has without a doubt made his mark as someone deserving of such a place in the Hollywood landscape. For the first time in quite a while, it is unbelievably refreshing to see a leading man in one of these movies actually feel like he’s having a great time and living it up to its fullest potential. Usually we’re on the sour end of an actor so bland they drag the entire product down or, in the day of brands manufacturing one derivative sequel after another, someone so used to the spectacle of it all that they seem like they’re on cruise control for the whole thing with no real energy. Pratt couldn’t be further from either of these things, possessing a genuine spark and charisma that shows an actor obviously grateful for the chance to be in the position he’s in here and not remotely jaded by the idea of being this kind of guy in this kind of movie. It’s a treat to watch and he has the actual talent to back it all up, setting an example for the rest of the team to follow suit. 

Pratt’s Han Solo-esque Quill is a type of hero we’ve seen before (though not often enough lately in this sea of over-serious brooding men) but the rest of the Guardians are quite the rare breed of hero. There’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who enters the movie by attacking Quill on the streets; Dave Bautista’s Drax, a madman on a quest for vengeance against Ronan for the death of his family; Rocket, a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper who was torn apart, experimented on and put back together so many times he has no pity for anyone; and Groot, a massive walking tree whose one repeated line of dialogue, provided by Vin Diesel, is saying his own name. For those used to seeing handsome white men strutting about in tight outfits while saving the world, the Guardians are definitely a unique bunch and Gunn pulls them all together with the kind of chemistry and well-paced banter that resembles the work of Whedon himself. Some of the actors don’t bring a lot to the table, like the former wrestler Bautista, but others just go right ahead and steal the entire show, namely Cooper’s remarkable vocal work that fits in like a glove with the rest of the team despite his process being totally removed from everyone else. All the way leading up to the release of the film, the team behind it were saying that Rocket steals the movie and this is a rare case where they wrote a check that was cashed in full. 

Guardians of the Galaxy is at its best when these characters are bantering back and forth, trading jabs and exchanging hilariously abrasiveness dialogue, but when the plot or action sequences try to get moving is when the cracks in its genesis begin to show. As enjoyable as the characters are, there’s so much going on that when the script tries to add sincere emotion or humanity to them it comes off so brutally on-the-nose and cloying that it momentarily puts me off the characters and pulls me out of the energy that had been building up. Guardians is a mostly fun and incredibly funny experience to behold, but for me it ultimately ended up a touch too forgettable thanks to the detriments of the franchise it exists within, one which is feeling more and more like a ride that’s not going anywhere. The need to progress from one film to the next rips out the stakes from any of these things and it’s incredibly frustrating watching everything build to a third act that is once again anti-climatic due to its position as a placeholder until the next film arrives. This franchise feels too much like TV-series filmmaking, but not the kind of toothy, bloody series you find on cable — at least those have some unpredictable, life-altering moves. These movies are just one middle-of-the-season procedural episode after another and while those can be fun at times they can never leave much of a lasting impression when they’re so disposable. There’s enough different about Guardians of the Galaxy to make it stand out momentarily but at the end of the day there’s also too much of the same.

C

2014, Luc Besson

If there’s one good thing I can say about Luc Besson’s Lucy it’s that in the glut of indistinguishable blockbuster tentpoles, this is the rare summer movie that stands out as being something unique and individual. Unfortunately, that really is the one good thing I can say about Lucy. All those things that make it stand out end up being tallies for the negative column, with Besson’s newest addition to his two-decade-long losing streak being a contender for the worst of his career and certainly one of the worst films I’ve seen so far this year. Simultaneously over-complicated and childishly simplistic with one silly idea that it runs mercilessly into the ground, Lucy only has Besson to blame as the man behind a great movie once upon a time serves as the sole writer and director for this jumbled piece of utter garbage. 

Played by Scarlett Johansson, in the middle of a hot streak which will chalk this up as another win regardless of my personal opinion as it takes the #1 spot at the box-office this weekend, the titular figure (I was tempted to call her a heroine but really there’s no one to root for here) begins the movie as a naive innocent thrown immediately into a situation far beyond her understanding. In case the audience wasn’t aware that the man who handcuffs a locked briefcase to her and tells her to deliver it inside a fancy hotel so that he can be paid $1,000 is leading her into a dangerous situation we are ever-so-subtly given sharply cut images of a mouse edging towards a trap and wild animals stalking prey to make sure that we get the idea. This is just one moment of many like across the film, spattered inconsistently, that awkwardly splices in what seems like makeshift National Geographic footage to get across the dire theme that even as humans evolve we are still at our basest form merely animals. A highlight would no doubt be the montage of many different species of animal humping one another to educate us on the reproductive process. It’s hard to tell if these moments are supposed to be played for laughs but either way the only response they received from me were a cringe and a sigh as I waited for the experience to end. 

Once Lucy becomes ensnared by a criminal organization (led by the deserving-of-much-better Min-sik Choi), she is surgically forced to smuggle a package of drugs but a kick in the gut forces the drugs into her system and they give her the ability to become in control of a greater mental capacity than that which humans have currently evolved to. Now the movie will tell you the age-old myth that humans only use 10% of our brains and Lucy’s new abilities are a result of her being able to harness more of that, increasing periodically all the way to 100%. Scientifically this just isn’t true but Besson makes sure from the start to establish that Lucy is a science-fiction picture and your disbelief needs to be suspended at the door. I had no problem letting go of that niggling leap from the facts, but Besson takes that goodwill and runs far too long with it, constructing an evolution through Lucy’s abilities that makes absolutely no sense and comes off like a kid throwing a bunch of paint at a wall and calling it art. 

Lucy likes to pretend that it’s using some form of science, beginning with a far-too-long lecture from Morgan Freeman’s professor character that I’m still amazed didn’t put me into a deep slumber, when in reality there’s not a moment’s worth of genuine intelligence put into this chaotic mess posing as a thinking man’s action flick. Maybe some can write Lucy off as nothing more than a piece of dumb fun, but I feel a bit bad for people whose idea of fun is sitting through this tortuous endeavor. Even in the most rudimentary terms, Lucy has absolutely no regard for cohesive structure, pacing or form and the lack of any genuine development in the leading character that would get us to root for or be even remotely interested in her as a person is suffered ten fold by the supporting “characters” who felt like they were created as names scribbled on a napkin and established no further than that. Granted, it’s surely not that easy to create meaningful, developed characters when your film is a whopping 80 minutes long but Besson takes lack of depth to a new meaning in his childish, barely-there script that should have gotten thrown out a window several times before anyone thought of turning it into something people would end up watching. 

Worst of all, it’s no more than 15 minutes into those 80 that Lucy starts to evolve from these drugs and the moment that she does she becomes an unstoppable force. When I say unstoppable I mean it in the most sincere sense where there isn’t a single challenge for her in the entire universe, making me unclear what the point even was in having a movie where there’s literally no obstacle or genuine conflict the entire way through, creating a complete void in any stakes, drama or energy. Besson’s newest feature takes that losing streak of his to a new level but the amount of arrogance on display is practically insulting to boot. On the first page of Lucy's script he wrote that in order to understand the film you should be aware that “the beginning is Leon: The Professional, the middle is Inception and the end is 2001: A Space Odyssey”. It’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble understanding that the director was going for this (let alone that they needed a guideline) because the stench of him trying to emulate Kubrick’s breathtaking film reeks off the final act. Amusingly the thing it bears the closest resemblance to is the equally dire Transcendence. And I didn’t even talk about the CGI dinosaur.

F

2014, David Ayer

In just a few months director David Ayer will be releasing Fury, a heavy World War II drama starring Brad Pitt that looks to be an evolution for the filmmaker who has slowly matured through a string of modern-day Los Angeles-set crime dramas. First, however, there was a blip on the radar that began his year that went by the name of Sabotage. Another in the line of generic crime pictures with vague titles (see: Harsh TimesStreet Kings, etc.) and an overdose of testosterone, Sabotage is mainly another attempt at the acting resurrection of Arnold Schwarzenegger. As someone who feels that the former governor never had any business being in cinema in the first place, I have to say I’m pleased that audiences look to be as tired of the man as I am. Sabotage made no impact on the world in its dismal release this March and whether or not Fury lives up to the hope of being a major step forward for Ayer, it will certainly end up being the talking point of his year as opposed to this half-baked disaster. 

The incoherent, insignificant plot puts an elite DEA task force made up of TV actors and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard in the line of fire after some dirty money they were trying to steal is lifted out from under them (always easy to root for people who began the movie as assholes). Soon bodies of the team start dropping in unnecessarily graphic ways and having to witness the sight of a man nailed to his ceiling with his intestines ripped out and dripping to the floor is as apt a metaphor as any for the overall unpleasantness of watching this film. Sabotage is relentlessly unappealing, from the overly complicated and nonsensical plot that throws in twists out of nowhere with no understanding of character motivation to the painfully obtuse dialogue that Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods (he of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard fame) try to force these mostly untalented actors to push out their mouths. The script is loaded with the same kind of vulgar locker room banter and tough guy machismo that tends to stifle even Ayer’s more impressive works so if Christian Bale has a problem convincingly performing it then you aren’t going to get much better out of someone like Joe Manganiello or Sam Worthington. 

Worthington, who is decked out with a shaved head, bleached eyebrows and a Sons of Anarchy goatee that is braided into one long line coming off his chin, is just one of the many examples of why Sabotage is so impossible to take seriously no matter how hard it tries. Schwarzenegger himself is someone I’m never going to be able to buy in a performance, but even talented actors like Howard and Olivia Williams are bogged down by the utter nonsense Ayer has brought to the table. As a director it must sting a bit that after four films in the director’s chair the thing that every marketing team wants to push in order to advertise your work is that it’s from the writer of Training Day, a movie that came out four years before your directorial debut. I don’t think Ayer lacks skill. I have plenty of solid compliments to give Harsh Times and Street Kings and I thought End of Watch was a massive improvement for him, despite the awkward decision to only half-commit to the found-footage aesthetic. Hopefully Fury can mark the maturation that plenty of people, including myself, believe this man is capable of because Sabotage feels like a giant step backwards as it only serves to point out all of his worst qualities as a writer and director. 

D-

2014, James DeMonaco

Given that it’s a sequel to one of the worst movies I’ve seen in the past few years, saying that my expectations were low for The Purge: Anarchy would be a gross understatement. Thankfully, this second effort takes the wacky premise that this now-series was founded on and actually engages with it instead of turning into a generic home invasion thriller. Last year’s Purge introduced us to a near-future where America has devoted one 12-hour night a year towards making all crime, including murder (apparently it’s just murder really), legal but it quickly backed out of any of the messy complications and expansive world-building that you would have expected to see. The result was another in a line of self-serious, recycled and tedious home invasion thrillers but writer/director James DeMonaco made the wise decision to up the ante on this second go round by taking us onto the streets and showing us how the many different classes experience the Purge in their own unique ways. 

Amidst a sea of masked, hooded and arms-bearing killers we set our sights on five individuals whose paths unexpectedly collide while trying to escape the mayhem. Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are a lower-class mother and daughter living in an apartment complex that is raided by a group of armored men who drag them out onto the street, intending to place them in a menacing truck armed to the teeth. The ladies are saved by Leo (Frank Grillo), a police sergeant who got himself suited up and was ready to use this one night of legalized criminality to murder the man who killed his son but saw something in these women that tapped into the basic decency at his heart that couldn’t allow him to keep driving by. At the same time, young couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) hop in the backseat of Leo’s car in order to evade a gang of men hunting them down across the city. Together this group forms a bond under Leo’s protection in the hopes of being able to survive this treacherous night. It won’t be easy. 

When I first heard the concept for The Purge I immediately mocked it for being the most ridiculous premise ever invented, one that would never feasibly happen in a real world, but the beauty of Anarchy is that it accepts the absurdity of this idea and runs with it. The first film took itself so seriously that it was hard to believe they weren’t pretending this could happen in the real world, but Anarchy seems to embrace an understanding of this world as a disturbingly exaggerated reality which allows it to spread its wings and let the rogues gallery out in spades. By taking us away from the intimate setting of the first with its group of unbearably annoying characters, DeMonaco’s second effort allows us to see a wide array of people who are stuck outside on Purge night whether it’s by choice or circumstance. The poor are forced into hiding, unsafe for the night while the wealthy celebrate in their heavily fortified mansions and pay to have victims brought to them so they don’t have to risk being out on the street where the innocent are hunted like animals and all across town we see the chaos that is flooded down in this one-night war against civility. 

Opening up this world the way that Anarchy does allows us such a wider variety of experiences with many different obstacles, villains and setpieces to explore and Leo’s band of endangered innocents is truly put through the wringer over the course of the night. The script constantly keeps the gears shifting, never letting itself get bogged down in one area for too long by shifting the locations and the people that this group are put up against, all under the lead of the magnificently commanding Frank Grillo. Anarchy is by no means a performance-piece (though no one is as bad as practically everyone was in its predecessor) but Grillo, who has been doing standout work in supporting roles for years, really shows his metal as a leading man and makes it easy to root for this guy even when the dialogue paints plenty of familiar beats that you can see coming a mile away. In actuality, just about every big reveal here isn’t too hard to spot coming (it doesn’t help that the trailer gives away one of the biggest that doesn’t come until near the very end) but the great pacing and expanded scale of DeMonaco’s writing and directing helps to maintain Anarchy's engaging appeal over its full duration. 

One of the many frustrating aspects of the first Purge was that it played things so narrow that it never allowed room to explore the more troubling social themes that would accompany such a preposterous idea as this. As with practically everything else in Anarchy, DeMonaco improves upon his past mistakes as he takes time to work these deeper layers into the overlying narrative in a way that makes them believable within the context of the world and also at least mildly thought-provoking. That’s not to say that they aren’t relatively shallow and obvious, nor are they helped by the plethora of unnecessary exposition laying out the themes that any audience looking for them would have readily picked up on, but at least DeMonaco makes the effort this time around instead of sitting back in the laziness of the first. It could have been delivered in a subtler way, but Anarchy doesn’t back away from the fact that the much-advertised decrease in unemployment and crime due to the Purge is really a result of the fact that the poor are unable to protect themselves on this night that ultimately acts as a way for the wealthy to eradicate as much of the lower class as possible. In fact, while the focal point of the film is on our group of five there’s a war building in the background that I would be quite interested in seeing DeMonaco expand upon in further installments. 

The Purge: Anarchy builds itself very well over the course of its 100-minute running time, escalating events appropriately by throwing this group of strangers into many different environments almost as if they’re playing through a video game (which I’m surprised this concept hasn’t been made into yet). Each level offers a new opponent and a new opportunity to figure out how to survive and escape in order to move onto the next one — a new way to keep moving and survive until morning. There’s a deus ex machina in the final act that would have bothered me more but it’s so badass and wildly embraces the absurdity of this universe that I couldn’t help but love it. After the first Purge the idea of a second entry into this series filled me with dread and not in the way it was supposed to, but after seeing this sequel raise the bar in every possible way I would actually be very intrigued in seeing where they would go if they were to expand it into a trilogy. Hopefully they would continue to open up the world and explore the ramifications of the overall narrative that would likely come into play after the events that occur in the final act of this one. The Purge: Anarchy definitely isn’t a complex or dazzling piece of resonant cinema by any means but as far as summer entertainment goes it absolutely fits the bill and that’s more than I can say for the large majority of what we’ve seen so far this season. 

C+

2014, Jake Kasdan

At what point do we have to look at something presenting itself as a comedy and really question if it deserves to be labeled as such? When you realize that the most action your stomach muscles have gotten throughout the film is from the physical pain that the constant, involuntary groans have brought you? When the credits begin to roll and all of the things you could have better spent the past 90 minutes of your life doing flash by your eyes like a wisp of wind? When you get home and can hardly remember anything that actually happened in the movie you just saw? Although perhaps that last one is a trained brain function saving you from the despair of having to relive this experience over again. I’m not sure what I’d try to classify Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape as in the grand scheme of things, but the most fitting label would probably be nothing more than a giant waste of time. 

Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz reunite with their Bad Teacher director for a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Sex Tape feigns at the idea of living up to its title as a raunchy, hard-R comedy with a copious amount of sex, violent dog attacks and Rob Lowe doing cocaine. On the other, Segel and Diaz are forced to try and act out a strained arc of having an unlikely situation lead to an adventure which causes them to address the problems in their marriage and assess the person sleeping next to them. Sex Tape wants it both ways but it falls in some unrelentingly dull middleground where its too tame to work as that lewd comedy and too shallow to really convince in any kind of deeper meaning. What happens instead is a clash of awkwardly flat attempts at comedy up against a hamfisted effort at some thematic relevance. Neither works on their own but together its a recipe for banality. 

The ridiculous premise sets up the idea that Jay (Segel) and Annie (Diaz), married with two kids, try to rejuvenate their sex lives by filming themselves in the act only to have it accidentally uploaded to all of the iPads that they give out (people do this) and therefore have to go on a wild night’s adventure to make sure that no one sees the tape (this makes sense). It’s one of the more embarrassingly dismal concepts in recent years (saying a lot already) and yet somehow it only gets more idiotic and easily solvable the further it goes along. Sex Tape exists in some weird modern world where the technology is all brand new and super dependable (Segel even gets to make the cringe-worthy comment on how indestructible the iPad is after it goes out a window and still works perfectly) but this man who is so up to date on the latest apps and tools has a baffling lack of education on how to fix their problems using the same technology. He knows just enough to get them in this preposterous situation but not so much that he can fix it without them having to go to extremes for no apparent reason. 

This carelessness in the plotting only extends to the narrative which, in its desperation to reach a running time worthy of being called feature-length, has to throw in a myriad of contrivances and every single one sticks out like a sore thumb. The characters are unbelievably stupid for the sake of trying to make the plot work (it doesn’t) and setting up situations for “hilarious” hijinks to ensue (they don’t). By the time Rob Lowe’s character (Diaz’ new boss) is accepting without question the idea that Jay and Annie showed up to his doorstep, with no prior knowledge of where he lived, on happenstance while out trying to get donations for their charity for “kids with oversized kidneys”, the suspension of disbelief has been taken to a level akin to if we were supposed to accept that the Will Smith feature Hancock was a documentary. 

For a film set in the modern world and so focused around technology (buy Apple!) that it feels more like an ad than a legitimate movie, the attempted comedy in Sex Tape is bizarrely antiquated. Every joke feels like it’s pulled out of the ’90s and slightly adjusted with the new brand name to make it relevant to the modern culture. The amount of exposition in the script is overwhelming, whether it’s trying to explain the complications of this frustratingly fixable plot or having Jay and Annie lay down a five minute conversation explaining to themselves (re: the poor audience) why they haven’t had sex in a while even though everyone watching is already well-aware of the tired cliche that your sex life goes out the window once you get married. It’s not the only cliche you’ll find in Sex Tape though, as the film is loaded top to bottom with predictable developments that make you shutter at the idea of millions of dollars being put into something so immeasurably lazy. 

Interestingly, a lot of my problems with Sex Tape could have been applied just as easily to last year’s comedy The Internship, a film which I found to be somewhat underrated and quite enjoyable. The premise is impossible to digest, the product placement is overwhelming and the script tries to work in a life-lesson theme to go along with its too-tame comedy. While I found that tonal balance far better handled in The Internship, I think the most obvious difference between the two films is in the chemistry between their leads. While Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn have developed a rapport that I never managed to tire of, Diaz and Segel seem like they couldn’t be less interested in one another. Diaz tries very hard to be more vulgar and expressive than any of the guys in the film and it comes off mostly as awkward and desperate, whereas Segel looks visibly uncomfortable with his surroundings; it’s as if he was in his home one day and they started shooting the movie without giving him any script or character description. I imagine that’s not too far from the truth, as Sex Tape runs rampant with weak, obvious improvisations to try and make up for the lack of any genuine humor in the script as written. None of it works. 

F

2014, Matt Reeves

The Planet of the Apes franchise was in a lull after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake failed to impress anyone and put the kibosh on any potential of igniting a sequel. Ten years later, director Rupert Wyatt went back further in time to deliver a prequel about the genesis of this new planet controlled by the simian race — a prequel that became one of the biggest surprise hits of the summer by scooping up $176 million at the domestic box-office along with a healthy dose of impressive reviews. I can’t say that I went along with the praise for the feature, finding it a relentlessly dry experience that sacrificed any depth in its supporting/human characters in order to shine a spotlight on the work of motion capture extraordinaire Andy Serkis. Serkis is undoubtedly an impressive artist, a man who has revolutionized this artform and never fails to amaze with the work that he can deliver within it, but a film needs to succeed on more than just that kind of wizardry and Rise of the Planet of the Apes never came near that for me. 

As a result, when the film’s sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was announced I wasn’t particularly interested but as the cast traded out the bland statues of James Franco and Freida Pinto for far more talented actors like Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman I became intrigued and once the marketing began to kick in I really started getting excited for this new entry with the hopes that it can bring me on board the Apes bandwagon. Matt Reeves replaced Wyatt at the helm, the latter being uncomfortable with the firm release date the studio had set for him, and while Dawn avoids some of the faults of its predecessor it can’t escape them all and opens up plenty of new ones on its own. This summer has been beating down on me hard with an over-saturation in franchise fare that has blurred together to a point where I feel as though I’m watching the same predictable money-oriented concoction thrown on screen one after another and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes just felt like another addition to the stack. 

I’m honestly baffled at this point as to how people pick out which of these franchise machinations are the ones worth getting praised and which ones aren’t because so few of them really manage to distinguish themselves yet this year has seen a wealth of sequels and reboots and the like that have received massive acclaim. Dawn at least has a unique hook in its focus on another species and the development of this culture that is co-existing and clashing with our own. I was impressed with the dedication to make the film a good 75% in sign language with subtitles (and it’ll still earn over $200 million domestically, impressively) but walking away from it I can’t help but see this as just another bland, monochromatic, over-serious, overlong and maddeningly telegraphed piece of banality with the only real difference being the apes involved and that again wasn’t nearly enough because aside from the technical mastery accompanying them they felt as weak and played out as the humans. Rise of the Planet of the Apes at least allowed me some sympathy and emotion out of the way that Caesar (played by Serkis) was treated by the caricaturesque humans, but any emotional investment I had in the character was lost here somewhere in the sea of tedium that Reeves and company put me through. 

The converse of that is that thankfully the human element engaged me slightly more, thanks in large part to the raised quality of that cast, with Clarke in particular giving a standout performance on the level of any of the actors donning motion capture suits. The most (perhaps sole) interesting facet of Dawn for me was in how Caesar was paralleled with Clarke’s character Malcolm in their mission to try and find peace in a world too broken down by fear to allow such civility to occur. Aside from these two men at the center of the story, the rest of the cast was loaded with actors doing their best but working from a script that crippled them with one-note characters whose progression could be spotted a mile away (not that Caesar and Malcolm’s arcs weren’t any less obvious). I also have to say that I found myself in disbelief by the lack of attention given to women in this narrative — a cast loaded with characters and yet it only contains two women of any import, one of them Caesar’s wife (a criminally wasted Judy Greer) who spends the majority of the movie in bed feeling ill and the other Russell’s Ellie (Malcolm’s partner because the only women we care about are because they’re in relationships with the leading men) whose only duty in the movie is to sit back and give medical aid. It’s not like the men are given a lot to do as they work their way through repetitive character beats and the dreadfully predictable narrative but surely some of these bland parts could have been given to women instead of every single one that didn’t have to be female being a male. 

There are plenty of problems with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for me the biggest has to be the feeling leaving the theater that I hadn’t seen anything remotely significant for this franchise. Yes, it gives us an idea of how things eventually build to war but yet again this is a movie in this rebooted franchise that ends up being nothing more than a tease. Rise came off as a giant, uninteresting prologue with one all-too-brief scene at the end that signaled something more to come but then they followed it up with basically two hours of filler and a conversation telling us that war is comingDawn tries to follow the popular Empire Strikes Back sequel formula of going darker and more character-driven in absence of much significant plot development, but it backfires completely as the overly somber tone and unappealing visual palette mixes with the yet-again shallow and wooden character work. I can easily admire the CGI work done in bringing these creatures to life and Serkis has guided a group of actors (standouts including Toby Kebbell and Nick Thurston) to shockingly realized work as apes who feel just as real as the humans they’re up against but how much of a compliment can that actually be when the humans are such simple stock characters? Dawn has a few moments of genuine appeal, including a mesmerizing tracking shot atop a tank in the middle of one of the big action sequences, but there’s so little meat here and so much generic mediocrity that drowns out any small moments of admiration. 

D+

2014, John Carney

Two lost souls spurned by life coming together after a chance encounter has been the basic premise of a lot of films over the years, most of them trite and sentimental romantic comedies. In recent years one of the more appealing efforts that could be broadly described this way was Once, a very small musical set in Dublin about a busker and an immigrant who develop a kinship as they write, perform and record songs over the course of the film.Once of course took off in the artistic community, earning an Oscar for one of the songs and eventually being adapted into a stage production which won multiple Tony Awards. Seven years after that film saw its release, writer/director John Carney has returned with a familiar premise on a slightly larger, Americanized scale in Begin Again

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a record producer who reached the top but has been spiraling ever since a rocky break-up with his wife many years ago, leading to almost a decade of not being able to sign a single new artist while his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey) makes their company more commercial and seeks new avenues for profit that are pushing Dan out of the business. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is in a serious relationship with Dave (Adam Levine), a musician whose career is taking off and eventually she realizes that his rise to fame has left her behind. One night in a small, cramped bar in New York, Gretta gets on stage and performs one of her own songs — a tragic, quietly powerful piece that is unfortunately ignored by the crowd who are much more focused on their own conversations to appreciate the artistry right in front of them. Dan, however, is at the bar drowning his sorrows in bourbon but once he hears her begin to play he sees a way to get himself back in the game — finally an artist worth recognizing after all these years. 

Thus brings us into the world of Begin Again, a light and easily appreciable film that takes these two charming actors and lets them win the audience over while they take their show onto the streets. After being rejected by Saul, Dan realizes that everything he needs to record an album for Gretta is right at their fingertips and the two, aided by Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden), enlist the help of a small group of musicians to record every song in a different location around New York. They hit hot spots like Central Park as well as roof tops and subway platforms while putting together this album and rejuvenating the spirit of both characters who were finding themselves wayward in a world that had left them behind. While Once gave us a sort of gritty, homemade interpretation of this kind of story, Begin Again takes on a more traditionally appealing approach that still manages to never stray too far into cliche or sentimentality. 

There are certainly moments throughout Begin Again that begin to tread the line, but every time Carney comes close he makes sure to reel it back in, letting these two characters ground this story in something very natural. One of the film’s most prominent themes is not losing the meaning in something beautiful by worrying about what others think and in turn making it more conventional and “crowd-pleasing” just to suit someone else, which could potentially put an odd flavor in the mouth when you look at this film compared to Once. It’s true that the earlier picture felt as though it had more passion in it with that homegrown quality while this one brings a more readily accessible approach and an A-list cast, but Carney maintains an effective delicacy with Begin Again that rarely lets it stray too far towards feeling like any compromise was made for the sake of commercialism. Admittedly, one area where that may fold a tad is in the appearances of Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green which feels a bit too much like stunt-casting and certainly isn’t helped by their awkward, flat performances. 

Begin Again is a love story, but not in the way that you’d expect or even that Carney’s script teases it becoming from time to time. Dan and Gretta do find themselves thanks to their relationship with one another, but the most refreshing thing is that it’s not about finding themselves within the other person. It’s about finding your own love in whatever that may be, whether it’s riding your bike away from your past on a lovely New York night or sitting on a bench listening to an iPod with someone you cherish. Carney keeps this relationship platonic, while offering up this beautiful idea of Gretta seeing Dan’s passion and individuality and allowing it to help her realize that she didn’t want a life with Dave and his over-produced, generic top forty hits that are more about the financial gain than the purity of the music. As he did in Once, Carney gives us plenty of hits that will get stuck in your head for days after you leave the theater and each one, recorded on the street as purely as they’ve been created by Gretta, speaks to a resounding genuineness in this woman that won’t be compromised by anyone. 

I’ll admit with Once that I found the film impressive but that it paled in comparison to the wonderful soundtrack that accompanied it, one which has lasted in my memory far longer than anything from the film itself. Begin Again certainly has music that I’ll be listening to for years to come, but here the film is equally as strong and a large part of that is thanks to the charming performances of Knightley and Ruffalo. Ruffalo has done this kind of unkempt, shaggy, narcissistic but good-hearted character several times before and he’s as natural and lovable in it as always but Knightley is the one who really helps to elevate this to the next level. As an actress, she’s taken her fair share of lumps from critics who accuse her of only being able to pout in period pieces but here she proves them all wrong with a performance more vibrant and natural than she’s ever been on screen before. It felt like for the first time we were seeing Knightley in a film that allowed her to be something more akin to her own self and boy was it nice to see her smiling so much over the course of the picture. I’ve long been a fan of the actress, but here she has taken things into a new range for her that is so charming and authentic. 

The chemistry between the two leads helps drive this to the pleasant place it achieves and maintains for its entire duration, but Knightley also hits a spark with James Corden, whose scenes with the leading lady have a kind of friendly demeanor and cheery ease that makes it hard not to smile all the way through them. Begin Again opens up by showing us how these characters were brought to their lowest points, but it quickly averts dourness by putting them together and allowing them to find their true happiness thanks to a chance encounter in a cramped little bar. Maybe there’s not enough meat here for it to become something truly significant (and there are occasionally moments where you can feel like something was cut that would have taken things, particularly with Ruffalo’s character, to a darker place) but Carney and his cast have put together an effortlessly charming little crowdpleaser that is perfectly suited for this kind of summer release. Amidst the sea of dull, over-serious $150 million blockbusters on repeat, it’s so refreshing to be able to experience something this genuinely pleasant that isn’t trying so hard. 

B

2014, Jonathan Glazer

Do you ever watch a film where you can appreciate everything it’s doing on paper but in the execution it fails to engage you in a way that can allow you to admire the overall work? That’s the best way I can describe my experience with Under the Skin, the latest from director Jonathan Glazer. Starring Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial being who has doned the guise of a human woman in order to seduce and ensnare men in Scotland, Glazer’s picture is a very tonally proficient and narratively light endeavor. However, as this woman spends more time on earth she begins to take on a form of humanity that she has never experienced before. She finds sympathy in an unexpected place and deviates from her designed path, leading her into a spiral of discovering the true nature of those she works for as well as the spectrum of human emotion. Underneath her human suit she begins to harbor more of a soul as well. 

It’s certainly an interesting take on what it means to be human and stepping back from the picture and dissecting the arc that Johannson’s character goes on I do really admire what Glazer was going for. There’s a beauty and tragedy in the narrative of this woman, discovering her own sense of humanity after bringing so much cruelty and then finding love only to have her inhuman body betray her. I kept feeling as though I should have been having a more emotional response to Under the Skin in its later stages, but the muted tone lost me too early on and as the character’s path reached its own emotional peak I found myself more and more disconnected with the work. Glazer certainly has a control over his tone (he’s come a long way from his messy debut, Sexy Beast) and for plenty of people it seems to have hooked them in from start to finish, but I found myself struggling to remain engaged after about the half-hour mark. Once the mesmerizing, hypnotic opening sequence was over and we got our initial feel for this woman’s existence on earth I quickly began to find things far too monotonous to a point of tedium. It pulled me away from the film which is where I remained until the final scene; one that admittedly jump-started my interest again, only too late for it to make much of a difference. 

In fact, the only scene that did speak to me on a deeper level was ironically an earlier one before Johansson’s character began to evolve. It’s a scene that works tremendously well as a juxtaposition to the one that snaps her into humanity later on. She arrives on a beach and engages her newest prey but before she can lure him away the man sees a family in trouble, caught up in the waters and being pulled out into sea. He goes off to try and rescue them, failing in his mission, collapsing on the shore and ultimately being dragged away by our leading lady. What stings the most is what she leaves behind — the family’s small infant, now orphaned and alone, crying on the beach while its parents drown in the waters so close. Seeing that child left there while Johansson brought this man to his supernatural demise was a chilling sight indeed, one which is contrasted very well when we come around later to a scene that finds her ensnaring a disfigured man, one who is as alone in this world as she is. She finds something to sympathize with in this man and it marks a turning point into something more than alien for her, leading her to let him go and setting her on a course that pushes her on the run from her associates. It’s what propels the final stages of the film’s journey, but unfortunately for me I had already been disassociated by the tedium of Glazer’s directorial choices. 

Sitting back and reflecting on Under the Skin, I do tend to appreciate it more than I did during my viewing. Without being stuck in the middle of struggling to maintain attentiveness, I can better respect the themes and arc that Johansson’s character takes, leading to her tragic conclusion in the stunning final scene. Allowing the film’s title to take on a literal form, we see that the skin the title refers to is less about what’s underneath hers and more about what’s underneath all of mankind. There’s a heart and soul beating within every human that this woman simply can’t possess no matter how much she may want to; an attempt at a genuine sexual encounter devastatingly proves this to her earlier on. On paper, Under the Skin is a tragic and emotional journey but on film it’s one that I found impossible to really engage in. Intriguing at times, sure, but only sporadically and not nearly enough to make me appreciate the work overall. I’m not sure if it was Glazer’s monotonous direction or Johansson’s uninvolving performance, but something was lost on me in the bringing of this journey from the page to screen. It’s a shame because I can certainly see how anyone would find it a compelling, unique work. I just don’t happen to be one of those anyones in this case. 

C-

2014, Jason Bateman

The most frustrating thing about Bad Words is that it has the potential to be much more and yet it settles instead for something so unmemorable. Jason Bateman’s feature directing debut had a great premise; Guy Trilby is a 40 year old man (Bateman) who finds a loophole in the system and enters himself into a national spelling bee set up for contestants who have yet to pass the eighth grade. The dark edge that it advertises is a perfect bit of against-type casting for Bateman, who is often utilized as the straighter, more put-together type for raucous characters to bounce off of (see: Arrested DevelopmentIdentity ThiefHorrible Bosses, etc.) and he always does that well but Bad Words gave him an opportunity to be the one to get down in the mud and make everyone else uncomfortable for a change. Guy wants to be seen as an uncaring, abrasive and vulgar infection rooting its way through the pleasantries that these children and their parents hope to enjoy but almost immediately we’re made aware that Guy is more than just that and it’s a sign of the weakening of this film’s venom that will occur exponentially for the remainder of the movie. 

A lot of Bad Words spends its time with Guy developing a friendship with a young competitor named Chaitanya Chopra, who is played by the wonderful Rohan Chand (seen recently in small but vital roles in Lone Survivor and Homeland). Chand practically walks away with the movie, which is a blessing and a curse because it gives a supporting performance a spotlight and a rare example of a young actor doing great work but it also makes Guy one of the least interesting things happening in the movie. Not that there’s so much going on that actually is interesting because the script by Andrew Hodge basically makes it clear where this is going from the very start. Guy’s arc is telegraphed within the first ten minutes, complete with obvious daddy issues and a love/hate relationship with an online journalist (played by the always welcome Kathryn Hahn) — there’s nothing about Bad Words that deviates from a path we’ve seen far too many times before. Even the color palette is remarkably bland.

This isn’t a bad movie by any means. Bateman proves himself a capable director, if not an exceptional one, and I do always like him as a performer. It’s trim enough to never overstay its welcome and even if the revelation of Trilby’s motives can be seen a mile away, there’s another one before that which genuinely caught me off my feet and added a nice surprise to what could have been an otherwise conventional character. But there’s a gooey sweetness at the center of Bad Words that belies the opportunity to do something different for a change and as much as it wants you to believe its crass and confrontational, ultimately Bateman’s film is as tame as they come. It has all the material to provide something with a genuine edge but the script never has an interest in going as far as it wants you to believe it’s going to go. Obviously no one wants your leading character to be one-dimensional but sometimes the bad guy doesn’t need to have a sob story at his heart to make him more sympathetic. Bad Words is too afraid of being unlikable to allow itself to be anything other than unmemorable. 

C