Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Two teenage boys are coming to grips with growing up and trying to find out just how they fit into this world in Microbe and Gasoline (opening today). It's a surprisingly touching, coming-of-age comedy from Michel Gondry, who brought us the cerebral hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Daniel, or "Microbe" (Ange Dargent) as he's called by his classmates due to his small size, does not fit in. Theo, nicknamed "Gasoline"
(Theophile Baquet) since that's what he often smells like, is a new kid at school who is self-confident and clearly educated beyond his 14 years. Both of them teased and ostracized from the other kids at school, they form a connection and a real friendship that culminates in them running away together, or more accurately, driving away together, in a makeshift "house on wheels" that they build. They aim to get away from their crappy existences at home.
Microbe has a hard crush on fellow student, Laura (Diane Besnier), who doesn't seem interested. He is a gifted artist, but he's also a teenager, and spends a lot of his time drawing nude photos that he then hides under his bed. He has problems that any intellectual mind can relate to, and even at such a young age, he contemplates death and dying and seems to over-analyze every situation. Microbe also has very low self-esteem, which doesn't help given the fact that several people often seem to mistake him for a little girl. Gasoline on the other hand, has an extensive vocabulary and is cocksure, but he lacks empathy or real emotion. They're a match made in heaven complimenting each other perfectly, they make each other feel wanted, and they're the best of buds.
The film succeeds on the chemistry between its two leads, and due to the realistic, natural vibe the film gives off. This is one of those movies that just feels like a real slice of life. Gondry touches on universal themes of self-exploration, pubescent curiosity and the foreboding doom associated with growing up. He crafts two real people who are multi-faceted, and because of this, we care. Their plan for escaping reality is one that only could be dreamt up by a couple of young boys, but the deeper themes the movie tackles are worthy of any adult's attention. With Gasoline literally changing schools and getting uprooted over and over again, as the film implies, I'm sure he feels as if his home is on wheels already.
I waited until the last paragraph to share with you that this is a French film, fully sub-titled, because too often us Americans will discount a foreign film before even giving it a chance. I strongly urge you to give that chance to Microbe and Gasoline. It may change your mind about sub-titled movies, if you are one of the many that discount any film not of the English language. This film is foreign in other ways too, because both Microbe and Gasoline have no need or use for smart phones or digital technology. They spend their time doing chores to raise enough money to buy scraps, which they in turn transformed into a vehicle that came from the depths of their imagination. Microbe literally takes a crap on his iPhone, an action that I don't believe was included as a coincidence.
Microbe and Gasoline was a lot of fun, and both young actors, Dargent and Baquet, deserve accolades. This film, like its subjects, may not fit into the mainstream, but that doesn't mean that it has nothing to offer.
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Ange Dargent, Theophile Baquet, Diane Besnier, Audrey Tautou
Written & Directed by Michel Gondry (Moon Indigo, The Green Hornet, Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
If flashy, busy montages are your thing, you just may find the new film Genius (opening today) to your fancy.
Set in the late 1920s/early 1930s New York City, Genius tells the story of famous Scribner editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), who was the editor for legendary literary figures such as Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce). Not a bad resume of writers. The main focus of the film is on Perkins' relationship with Wolfe, the brash, loud and immensely talented young scribe, whose first novel Look Homeward, Angel, was a massive success. Wolfe is now known as one of the most influential writers in American history, but anyone who has ever written knows the importance of a good editor. Perkins is shown molding and fine-tuning Wolfe's work, in collaboration, and helping Wolfe find his voice, despite the pain it causes Wolfe, who sometimes would turn in manuscripts containing thousands of pages.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald are kept somewhat out of the spotlight here, but both showcase different sides of Perkins's skill. Like any great manager of talent, you won't have any success working broadly, and you must find what works in each individual in order to bring their strengths to the forefront.
Laura Linney plays Perkins gentle wife and Nicole Kidman is Wolfe's brazen, over-bearing girlfriend, seemingly included just to fill out more backstory. A good editor may have helped out the film itself, as none of its subjects seem nearly as fascinating as they probably should.
The film contains one too many montage sequences, where Wolfe and Perkins are shown working up a frenzy, with pages flying and pencils flaring. Editing is an important job and Perkins was the master, but this isn't the easiest skill to portray cinematically. The result is a film about geniuses that rarely feels smart, with characters that we know are brilliant but that we gain little insight about. For all of the men who are shown in Genius that have inspired hundreds and thousands in future generations, the film seems incapable of capturing any their same spirit...ironic in that a film about a great editor, there seems to be something worthwhile buried in it somewhere. There is a potential just waiting to be found, refined and simplified.
Genre: Biography, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West
Directed by Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
If you're a fan of the "World of Warcraft" massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), then you might love Warcraft (opening Friday), the franchise's first foray onto the big-screen. If you are not a fan or have never played, then you might find yourself searching for an inter-dimensional portal that will allow you to transport yourself far from the movie theater.
Full disclosure: As a huge fan of role-playing games (including Dungeons & Dragons), video games and the fantasy genre in general, I have never once played a Warcraft game. Its meteoric rise to the top of the online-gaming world came in 2004, a few years after my (arguable) nerdish gaming prime had come to a close. What I do know about Warcraft, the game, is that it is incredibly immersive and addicting as it allows you to exist in a massive online world where your character(s) can interact with millions of others in a virtual realm full of dragons, monsters, swords and invading orcs. The movie version, by its very nature, is void of this interactive synergy, because the audience is merely an on-looker, despite it's efforts to put us in the middle of its far-fetched chaos.
The result is a film that feels like a less-than amalgam of every fantasy and comic book movie we've seen over the past 15 years. It is as sprawling as The Lord of the Rings but not nearly as epic or fleshed-out. It is as loud and colorful as any Marvel movie but possesses none of the same charm. Sadly, Warcraft is only a smidge better than the disastrous film version of Dungeons & Dragons (2000), one of the most awfully concocted fantasy movies of all-time. And in the era of Game of Thrones, we simply expect more from our fantasy sagas than ever before.
The convoluted plot has us warming up to a level-headed Orc warrior named Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin). They are part of an orc army led by the powerful, mystical Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), who has the ability to suck the life force out of any living creature. Having decimated his current dimension, Gul'dan opens a portal and invades the lush green world of Azeroth, a realm of peace. Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) must try to stop the hordes of intruders, so he enlists the help of an all- powerful mage known as The Guardian (Ben Foster), and a rag-tag mage-in-training, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). With the help of an orc runt named Garona (Paula Patton), they band together to try to repel the invading forces from their ancestral lands. All the while from the inside, Durotan grows weary of his leader and looks out for the best interests of his family.
I was eagerly awaiting the next film from director Duncan Jones, who put out a rare and unexpected sci-fi gem with his 2011 film Source Code. But while he impressively wastes what looks like hundreds of millions of dollars in special-effects, there is no substance whatsoever in Warcraft. The plot has holes large enough to fit Gul'dan's entire army, and the main characters are tired fantasy cliches (the apprentice, the warrior, yawn). It's also disappointing to watch Travis Fimmel - so compelling as Ragnar Lothbrook on the History Channel's Vikings TV series - basically reprising his role, minus any characterization. He seems like a gifted actor, and it's clear why they chose him for this role, but is Fimmel destined to play blood-thirsty barbarians forever?
Warcraft is a massive clusterf-orc of epic proportions, a movie that feels familiar because we've seen it before several times, only done better. But this is no one-and-done: You can expect several more installments to come, and like a Marvel movie, it made sure to cue things up for the next one. But for Warcraft to be a winning franchise, it will need to focus less on the dimensions of Azeroth, and more on the missing dimensions of its thin characters.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu, Anna Galvin
Co-Written & Directed by Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Anthony Weiner is already a punch-line based on his last name. He was a rare political figure, having served as a US Congressman from 1999 to 2011, in that he took forceful stands against his Republican counter-parts and was not afraid of anybody, or anything. He was an up-and-coming leader of the Democratic Party and was on the fast track to bigger and better things. All of this, and he was popular to boot, never having received less than 59% of the vote in any of his seven bids for re-election to Congress. But the higher the rise the harder the fall. In 2011, a "sex-ting" scandal forced his resignation from office. For comedians, the idea that a married Congressman named Weiner would be caught up in a scandal that involved him sending photos of his...weiner...to several other women online, was heaven-sent comedic gold. But Weiner was not done with politics. In the fascinating documentary, Weiner (opening today), a behind-the-scenes camera crew follows Anthony Weiner through his unsuccessful bid to become the Mayor of New York City, a bid that - you guessed it - ended in even more scandal.
Not only is Weiner's story compelling, its tragic...but not for the reasons you might be thinking. Sure, he was a political figure who fell from grace, and his moralistic judgment led to a severe lack of trust from his voters. But more interesting is how his actions - while admittedly wrong - were not illegal in any way. He did not engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, he did nothing to break the law. And if his wife - political insider and aide to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin - forgave him for what he did, so why not the public? This documentary not only gives us an inside glimpse of a political campaign in action, it showcases just how little substance the masses care or know about. Did Weiner's political stances on policy lead to him receiving less than 5% of the vote in the Mayoral election? The hard truth is that Weiner the political leader was never able to get out of the shadow of Weiner the easy comedic target.
But while most documentaries would be criticized for not really showing us more than what we already know about its subject, this one makes this quandary part of the story. Here is a guy who is trying desperately to be an open-book (why else would he allow any of this to be filmed for a documentary?), but the closer we get to Anthony Weiner, the less we really learn about what makes him tick. He doesn't quite address what was going on his mind...is he a sexual deviant? A man trapped in an unhappy marriage? He just moves forward with business as usual, and he has a real desire - an obsession - about making a difference on the socio-political landscape. He just can't quite believe that sending a "dick pic" would erase all of the good that he had done in the past, or all of the good that he still might have done in the future.
In the documentary, Weiner even admits that this documentary will probably get sucked into the "vortex" of the media, where the headlines and the punch-lines are more important than what lies beneath. He may be right. But the more films like Weiner that shed a light on the distracted populace that makes up this country - and the hype-machine that is the American media - the better the chance that we may one day have an awakening. With the danger facing this upcoming US election, a movie based on "Carlos Danger" (Weiner's online alias) couldn't have come at a better time.
Run Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes, Rated R
Directed by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg (Alps, Dogtooth, Kinetta, My Best Friend)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
You might be familiar with the work of the comedy troupe "The Lonely Island" even if you think you may not be: The threesome, made up of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer were all writers at Saturday Night Live - with Samberg also being a featured player of course - and are responsible for the popular "SNL Digital Shorts" series. Some of their hilarious music videos, like "Lazy Sunday," "Dick in a Box," "I'm on a Boat" and "YOLO" have become viral sensations and have led to several popular comedy albums over the past decade. And forget about their first feature-film, the 2007 misfire Hot Rod, which tanked at the box office, because their second-film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (opening today), definitely feels like a more worthy marking of their arrival on the big- screen. And while it doesn't quite match the satirical bite of other mockumentaries that have come before it, Popstar is an oft hilarious, semi-biographical romp worthy of their viral videos and a good introduction to their comedy for those who have never been exposed to their lunacy.
Andy Samberg has always been the more visible "front-man" of the troupe, and in Popstar he dials up this fact to the nth degree. He plays pop icon "Conner4Real," who was the front-man for an incredibly successful, influential rap group known as The Style Boyz. The Boyz were hot, with Conner on lead vocals, Owen (Jorma Taccone) as the DJ and the man responsible for all of the dope beats, and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer) as the writer behind most of the group's lyrics. The movie immediately legitimizes this group's importance in music history, with documentary-style interviews with legends like Ringo Starr, Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood, DJ Khaled, Questlove and even Simon Cowell commenting on their social and musical impact and legacy.
The story is nothing new, and in fact heavily borrows from This Is Spinal Tap and Fear of a Black Hat, perhaps the two best music mockumentaries ever made (the first film is a classic of course, but the under-rated and under-seen Fear of a Black Hat, chronicling the rise and fall of the faux early 90s rap group NWH "N***as with Hats," is so similar in tone and style that it feels more like a prequel to Popstar than anything else). Conner4Real gets so big he overshadows his cohorts, they all go their separate ways, only to find out that they are better and stronger together.
Much of this premise feels stale, but the fun comes in the sheer amount of unexpected cameos, from not only music legends, but from the myriad of comedians who also appear briefly throughout. In addition to the names mentioned above, you have the likes of Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Silverman, Martin Sheen, Jimmy Fallon that make appearances...I won't totally ruin the surprises, so I'll stop there.
What holds Popstar down is that as much as it wants to be Spinal Tap for the YouTube Generation, it too often succumbs to low-brow dick-and-fart jokes. It is what The Lonely Island is known for, I mean, "Dick in a Box" didn't rise to popularity because of its political messages. But for all of the sharp satire, you leave feeling that Popstar could have been a bit more focused. There are some amazing scenes, like a TMZ-mock-up featuring Will Arnett, Chelsea Peretti and Mike Birbiglia that spoofs the weird energy of that paparazzi-fest TV show, and some great stuff that lampoons our Justin Beiber-obsessed culture. But there are too many scenes that go more for gross-out humor - like when a dude flashes his package up against Conner4Real's car window - that emulate a dumber vibe overall. So I guess it's good that there is something for audiences operating on every intellectual level in Popstar.
It's definitely full of laughs, and I'll follow The Lonely Island anywhere. But Popstar never stops being more than just a low-brow comedy, despite containing real moments of high-brow satire.
Genre: Comedy, Mockumentary
Run Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Imogen Poots, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Chris Redd Written by Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
Directed by Akiva Schaffer (The Watch, Hot Rod), Jorma Taccone (MacGruber)
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