Movie Review: “Irrational Man”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
Director
Woody Allen

Woody Allen is the ballplayer of filmmakers. He probably takes more swings than any other writer-director working today, so when he misses, even badly, they often go unnoticed. That was certainly the case with his 2014 film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” a lifeless romantic comedy that wasted the talent of its two stars. Allen’s latest movie, “Irrational Man,” is all about life and the pain that comes with it, and though it isn’t quite a homerun, it’s a solid double down the line that ranks as one of the director’s funnier and more engaging character studies.

Everyone likes Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) except Abe Lucas. His students and peers consider the philosophy professor to be mysterious, intriguing and sexy, but he has nothing going for himself since his wife left him and his best friend passed away. One of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), takes an interest in Abe and all his misery, as does a lonely professor named Rita (Parker Posey), but despite being romantically pursued by a young girl and a gorgeous woman, Abe remains a Debbie Downer. One day, though, his whole attitude and outlook on life changes when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation at a diner. Without spoiling it, the conversation gives him a reason to stop talking about making a change in the world and actually make one, and convinced of his newfound sense of purpose, Abe only becomes more lost than he already was.

Abe Lucas is one of Allen’s more unlikable protagonists. He drinks and drives, sleeps with a married woman, and his mission ultimately makes him something of a monster, although a very real and human monster. Abe’s lesson to his students is to accept your flaws and embrace your selfish desire; at the expense of others, he’ll do whatever it takes to survive. This all sounds very vague, but like “Midnight in Paris,” the turn in Abe Lucas’ journey is surprising, and it’s best to experience it blind.

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Movie Review: “Ant-Man”

Starring
Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Wood Harris
Director
Peyton Reed

Believe it or not, a big-screen adaptation of “Ant-Man” has been in development since the so-called MCU was just a twinkle in Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s eye. It’s been a decade in the making, and a majority of that time was spent under the guidance of director Edgar Wright. Many people didn’t think it would ever get made, and when Wright left the project only weeks before production was scheduled to begin, citing creative differences, it nearly broke the internet. You have to respect Wright for maintaining his integrity by refusing to kowtow to the bigwigs at Marvel, but Feige deserves credit for holding his ground as well, because considering its troubled production, “Ant-Man” could (and probably should) have been a disaster. Instead, it’s a funny and fast-paced superhero film that serves as a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the typical end-of-the-world summer blockbusters.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a gifted thief and ex-convict who’s trying to put his life back together for the sake of his young daughter. And he gets that second chance when he’s recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) – a genius inventor who’s hidden his groundbreaking particle technology, which can shrink a human down to the size of an ant, from the rest of the world – to break into his company’s research facility and thwart his power-hungry protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from replicating the technology. Cross plans to militarize his version of the Pym particles, which he’s dubbed Yellowjacket, and sell it to the highest bidder for the purpose of creating the ultimate super-soldier. Sound familiar? In order to protect the weapon from falling into the wrong hands, Scott must assume the mantle of Ant-Man using a suit that grants its wearer increased strength while microscopic and the ability to telepathically control an army of ants.

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Blu Tuesday: Ex Machina, It Follows and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Ex Machina”

WHAT: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at an Internet search engine, thinks that he’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. But Nathan has other plans for him – namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human.

WHY: Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland excels at putting a fresh spin on familiar material, and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina,” which draws inspiration from other genre classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Frankenstein.” Garland’s film is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite being years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending via Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.

EXTRAS: There’s a five-part making-of featurette, as well as eight additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and a Q&A with the cast and crew from SXSW.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“It Follows”

WHAT: Teenage suburbanite Jay (Maika Monroe) has just learned she’s been infected with a curse where the victim is ruthlessly stalked by a slow-walking entity that can assume the form of anyone. Nobody else can see it, but if it catches you, it’ll kill you, and the only way to get rid of it is by having sex with someone else and passing it on – at least until it kills that person and works its way back down the chain. Trapped in a constant state of fear, Jay must rely on the help of her friends to stop the monster from claiming any more lives.

WHY: Considering the role that sex has played in the horror genre throughout the years, it’s surprising that the supernatural STD angle hasn’t been done before, because it’s a really clever idea. Though the “sex equals death” rule isn’t as prominent in modern horror movies that defy those decades-old tropes, “It Follows” is very much a retro homage to ‘70s and ‘80s genre classics, from the “Halloween”-esque synth score, to the striking similarities to “Nightmare on Elm Street,” both in Jay’s perpetual helplessness and the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. But while “It Follows” has its merits as an innovative piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t without its problems, beginning with writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s complete disinterest in digging any further into the mythology and logistics of the curse. Additionally, the acting is amateurish and the pacing could be a lot tighter. The characters spend too much time just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and although it’s initially effective in creating an ominous mood, it gets to the point where you wish they’d be a bit more proactive. The same goes for the movie itself, because despite its terrifying premise, “It Follows” is much scarier in concept than execution.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with film critics Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi and Eric Vespe that’s hosted by Scott Weinberg, as well as an interview with film composer Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Gallows”

Starring
Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford
Directors
Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing

“Here lies the found footage genre. It had a good run.” That might as well be the tagline for the new horror movie, “The Gallows,” because if the countless other found footage films suffocating the market didn’t already kill the genre, then surely this is the final nail in the coffin. Though the movie was bankrolled by Blumhouse Productions, which has made millions from micro-budgeted horror flicks like the “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity” series, “The Gallows” is just the latest in a long line of amateurish junk that the studio has been cranking out for years. The benefit of making films on a small budget is that you only need a few hits to offset the losses on your many flops, and sadly, “The Gallows” is destined to fall into the latter category – yet another footnote in Blumhouse’s cinematic game of Russian roulette.

In 1993, Beatrice High School student Charlie Grimille was horrifically killed due to a prop malfunction during the theater department’s production of “The Gallows.” 20 years later, the school’s students have mounted a revival of the failed stage play (and the fact that the school board didn’t have a problem with this highlights the level of stupidity on display in the film), with football jock Reese (Reese Mishler) landing the coveted lead role despite his complete lack of experience or talent. Reese is noticeably nervous about making his acting debut, so when his friend Ryan (Ryan Shoos) suggests that they break into the school at night and destroy the set so that the play gets cancelled, he reluctantly agrees to tag along. (And of course they record the whole thing, because why wouldn’t they want evidence tying them to the crime?) But after the two guys – along with gal pal Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) and drama queen Pfiefer (Pfiefer Brown) – mysteriously get locked inside and begin to experience creepy occurrences, they learn that the vengeful spirit of Charlie still haunts the school.

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Movie Review: “Self/less”

Starring
Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Natalie Martinez, Michelle Dockery, Derek Luke, Victor Garber
Director
Tarsem Singh

Nobody makes movies like Tarsem Singh. The polarizing visionary always brings his colorful personality to all of his projects, whether it’s a thriller (“The Cell”), a swords-and-sandals action pic (“Immortals”), or his adult fantasy masterpiece, “The Fall.” Tarsem tells stories through images, not only through dialogue. His latest film, “Self/less,” is his most story-heavy picture to date, but once again, he energizes a familiar tale with his bold eye.

The man responsible for some of New York’s most beautiful buildings, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), is dying. The billionaire industrialist is filled with regrets; he once thought his checkbook was sufficient enough to take care of his daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery). Hale wants a second chance at life, and he receives it in the form of “shedding,” a procedure that transfers one’s consciousness to a young, healthy body. The company responsible for the technology is led by Albright (Matthew Goode), and his dream is to give the most important and influential figures – or failing that, the richest – more time on Earth. Hesitantly, Damian accepts Albright’s very pricey offer, and after the procedure, he’s no longer himself, but Edward (Ryan Reynolds), a young, handsome and retired millionaire. Damian is meant to start a new life in New Orleans where he can’t contact anyone from his past, but when he starts seeing Edward’s memories, Damian begins to ask questions about who he is and whose body he’s taken over.

“Self/less” is more of a thriller than a summer action movie; it’s a high-concept detective tale. Screenwriters David and Alex Pastor manage to tell a personal story, and like all good detective stories, they follow a detective haunted by his past. Damian Hale’s journey is as engaging as the film’s ideas. Ryan Reynolds hasn’t always had the best luck with studio films, especially in the summer, but he’s given more to work with this time around. There’s an actual arc for him to communicate.

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