Articles by

<Jesse Hassenger>

07/10/15 6:50am


Directed by Dito Montiel
Opens July 10

When a busy working actor dies unexpectedly, an extended wake continues onscreen. James Gandolfini died in the summer of 2013, but his final work in The Drop didn’t surface until over a year later. Three Philip Seymour Hoffman movies came out after his January 2014 passing, and his final one, the last Hunger Games movie, won’t debut until the fall. And here now is Robin Williams, gone just under a year, in Boulevard his final onscreen performance after two posthumous releases in 2014 (one more, his voice-only work in Absolutely Anything, will follow this year in Europe, and probably next year in the U.S.).

It finds Williams in understated, dramatic mode, rather than the pseudo-edgy bluster he played up in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and Merry Friggin’ Christmas; though of course it doesn’t really matter in that his legacy is assured, I’m glad this one went last.


07/03/15 8:45am
My saddle's waiting; come and jump on it.

Late in Magic Mike XXL, new in theaters, our reunited stripper—excuse me; male entertainer heroes are waiting backstage to perform at the 2015 stripper convention, or as it’s professionally known, “2015 Stripper Convention.” Though the purpose and possible reward for a performance slot at this convention are even vaguer than the rules at a Step Up dance off, the boys want to do their best, and one of them observes their competition performing a hilariously ludicrous stripper re-enactment of Twilight, to delighted shrieks from the crowd. Annoyed and dejected, he reports the vampire routine to his fellow entertainers. They grumble, but one of them concedes: it’s a smart business move. The rest are forced to agree.

I got where they were coming from as a viewer of Magic Mike XXL. To be clear, this movie is not Twilight-style pandering. It is, in fact, a well-assembled, sometimes smart, extremely likable, and oddly respectful good time. But Magic Mike XXL is also an unmistakable case study in giving the audience exactly what they want. Specifically, it gives to whatever audience went into Magic Mike expecting a bawdy stripper revue and disappointed by Steven Soderbergh’s funny and humane but still slightly chilly and more-than-slightly economics-conscious drama. Here is their reward for showing up: a sequel that more or less is the movie that Magic Mike advertised.


06/26/15 9:00am


I know how I feel about the comedy of Seth MacFarlane. Even without watching Family Guy in over a decade, his foulmouthed teddy-bear movie Ted pretty much got me up to speed, and it was only my indifference to that movie that allowed me to like his follow-up perhaps just a tiny bit more than some people (though still not very much). So: MacFarlane and me, we’re pretty much sorted, far as the likelihood of me getting more than a few laughs out of his feature films. What I found myself wondering during Ted 2, which opens today, was how MacFarlane feels about that same work.

Just last year, I would’ve said he must feel great; smugness radiates from the MacFarlane oeuvre (not least when he’s casting himself as an on-screen romantic lead, even when he’s kinda-sorta making himself the butt of a joke). But two things happen during the opening minutes of Ted 2: first, the opening sequence drops us into the wedding of Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and his beloved Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), which includes a reception, which includes a velvet-voiced wedding singer… who is somehow not played by MacFarlane himself, which must have taken near superhuman strength considering that the man has fashioned a side career for himself as a crooner (and, due credit: despite the recycled Boston accent he provides for Ted, the man has an impressive vocal range as a voiceover artist). Second, the opening leads into an opening-credits musical number, which not only doesn’t feature MacFarlane either (Ted is silent and uncharacteristically merry-looking through the whole thing), but doesn’t feature any jokes at all.


06/19/15 9:00am
photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter
Opens June 19

Not every great Pixar movie is about parenting. In fact, several of the movies in their most astonishing run (that would be 2007-2010, though it has some competition) aren’t about parenting at all: Wall-E is about environmental adaptation, Ratatouille is about the nurturing of creativity, and Up is basically about how to live your life. But Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Brave, and the Toy Story trilogy all have parenting allegories of one sort or another, so it’s not surprising that Pixar’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback Inside Out would return to that thematic ground. But it gets there from a wonderfully inventive and literally internal point of view: much of the movie takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl.


06/12/15 8:00am
image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Opens June 12

As novel-turned-movie The Fault in Our Stars sought to sensitively tweak the cancer narrative by lacing tragedy with irreverent dialogue, so novel-turned-film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl must sensitively tweak The Fault in Our Stars. This teenage romance with a cancer patient boasts Werner Herzog jokes, subs Brian Eno music in for Charlie XCX and Ed Sheeran, and doesn’t even have romance in it; in other words, you’ve been out-hipstered, John Green. It’s not a fair comparison in the sense that the two novels were released nearly simultaneously, not in reaction to each other; it’s sort of a fair comparison in that the film version of Me and Earl is coming out close to exactly one year after the film of Fault, and both movies were filmed in Pittsburgh, which might develop a complex if filmmakers don’t stop shooting their cancer stories there.

As adapted from the Jesse Andrews novel by Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Me and Earl certainly wins on style points. Greg (Thomas Mann), in a framing device you may hope against hope does not turn out to be a college application essay, lays out his high school philosophy—be friendly with everyone, friends with no one—as Gomez-Rejon swoops through lunchrooms and into elaborate overhead shots of hallways. When Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) hears that Rachel (Olivia Cooke), one of his many acquaintances, has been diagnosed with leukemia, she insists that he spend time with her, and his initial phonecall (and his mom’s ensuing badgering) is shot in a bravura single take that weaves through the rooms of Greg’s home. He acquiesces to his mom’s demands, and Greg’s early scenes with Rachel are shot with camera tricks to make Rachel’s bedroom—and, specifically, the gulf between the two characters—look massive. As their friendship becomes real (and “doomed,” as subtitles refer to it), they get closer in the frame.

In general, Gomez-Rejon’s careful compositions and camera swivels recall Wes Anderson, while Greg’s hobby of producing low-budget, handmade imitations of Criterion-grade movies with his “coworker” Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler) is very Michel Gondry (there’s even some stop-motion footage). Gomez-Rejon’s style is ostentatious in ways those directors aren’t; Anderson and Gondry create worlds around their style, while Gomez-Rejon sometimes feels like he’s imposing his (or other filmmakers’) style on, well, Pittsburgh. Sometimes he searches so hard for the most interesting, striking camera angle that the cutting between those angles disrupts his own scenes—an effect strangely not so different than the restless coverage-cutting that undermined the film of Fault. For the most part, though, it’s refreshing to watch a movie about teenagers that has visual energy that’s more clever music video than generic hyperactive MTV. It’s not all tricks, either: A crucial late-movie disagreement between Greg and Rachel plays out in tense stationary shot; the style stands still, unwilling to release us into whimsy. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who shot the similarly showy and stylistically ambitious Stoker, gives the visuals a bravura confidence. If it’s all a bit blatant and readable, well, maybe check out Amour, I guess.

Because the movie’s style is noticeable, I can already hear the grumbles about Me and Earl: twee, precious, hipster, too much style. A lot of this amounts to: who do they think they are, liking what I like and thinking that I like it too? Maybe I’m an easy mark, but I liked the Herzog jokes and offhand reference to Pussy Riot and, moreover, the movie’s believably precocious sense of humor; the Andrews screenplay doesn’t limit itself to references, or even to his own prose. This is a funny, affectionate movie, especially when Mann and Cyler are paired as a comic duo. It’s Cooke’s Dying Girl who gets the short shrift—or at least the medium shrift, after Cooke’s performance enlivens her reaction shots. Who is Rachel, besides sweet, smart, and decent? (Not small qualities, but they can get lost when the sweet, smart, decent person must spend much of the movie sick and bedridden.) Some of her inner life remains intentionally hidden for well-rendered thematic reasons, but there’s no reason not to give poor Cooke a few more laugh lines.

Though realistic, the focus of Me and Earl threatens to the story into self-actualization for a sorta-teenager (his melty-looking sadface does its best to disguise Mann’s twentysomething status) who learns a lot from his friend having cancer. If a slightly solipsistic bent keeps the movie from unleashing the full Fault-level flood of tears, Gomez-Rejon also gets at smart, sometimes complex ideas about how grief fits into life without too much wallowing. It will probably appeal to plenty of smart, awkward, and/or precocious teenagers. Some people really hate that.

06/05/15 9:00am


I am not the target audience for the movie of Entourage, now in theaters: in part because I have never seen an episode of the TV show Entourage, which this movie follows, and moreover because I have seen other movies, which I am not convinced is something I share with Doug Ellin, the writer/director/producer/creator of Entourage. But I am also a movie critic, and some people who go to the movies don’t have HBO, so I went to a screening of Entourage with some questions and came out with some answers and some different questions. Spoilers ahoy, in no particular order:

Entourage is not a dude Sex and the City.

Because the show was about four best friends, aired on HBO, and I never watched it, I long assumed Entourage was the west-coast dude to Sex and the City‘s east-coast lady. They both talk about fucking a lot and seem like crazy fantasies of their respective cities, so that tracks. But I no longer think this is the case. Despite only having seen a handful of Sex and the City episodes, the movie made basic sense to me. It was mostly terrible, but I understood it—and more importantly, I understood who Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha were at basic levels. Again, I don’t particularly like those characters, but I get what their archetypes are, and understand why those archetypes resonated. With Entourage, ok, I get that Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier) is a handsome movie star who brought his buddies along for the ride, and I get that his half-brother Johnny (Kevin Dillon) is the crude jackass of the bunch, but that’s about it. Who are the rest of these guys? What are their relationships to each other beyond generic bros-before-some-hos-but-after-particularly-hot-hos? I saw that there’s an internet quiz going around that determines which Entourage character are you. How does that even work? Does it just ask you how many times per day you talk about jerking off, and if you say the maximum, you’re Johnny Drama, and if not they just pick one at random?

Seriously, though: What’s the difference between E and Turtle?

I think, after watching this 105-minute movie, which includes a long scene where Piers Morgan re-introduces the premise of Entourage while the characters sit and make wan wisecracks, I could more or less tell the difference between Kevin Connolly, who plays Vince’s lifelong friend Eric, and Jerry Ferrara, who plays Vince’s… other lifelong friend?… Turtle (although Entourage sure doesn’t help by casting two actors named Kevin, one named Jeremy, and another named Jerry in the same central clique). But I’m not sure what the difference between their characters is supposed to be. Neither of them are funny. Neither of them has a distinct way of speaking, or even really behaving. They’re both just vaguely hapless. Was the eight-season run of the show about the slow, brutal process of stripping away their identities, breaking them down into members of the Vinnie Chase cult? That would be such a boring cult to be in, you guys. I mean, you get into it thinking, ok, girls will have sex with me for no reason, but all of the time-killing in between! And all of the terrible Vinnie Chase movies you presumably have to watch and help make! Because E produces movies now; does that tidbit make sense if you watched the show?

E is the main character.

That’s something I learned watching the credits (which are neat and easily the most inventive part of the movie, embedding all the names and titles in Hollywood signage), because Kevin Connolly is first-billed, and also from the parts in the movie where his love interest Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) seems like a character from the TV series. It is not something I learned from E’s narrative in the movie, which is mostly passive, or from Connolly’s screen presence, which is minimal. Somehow, though, Connolly is not overshadowed by Adrian Grenier, playing a handsome, charismatic, and world-famous movie star, because—and this is something I really did not know going in—Vince is a total cipher. He has virtually no characteristics; he barely has more than one facial expression. Entourage expects its audience to believe that money, power, and artistic electricity emanate from a guy who isn’t even charismatic enough to power Entourage. If anything, the mostly-repulsive Johnny Drama would make the most sense as a main character: a D-list hanger-on forever scraping for one good role. That’s a human being. Dillon’s performance isn’t exactly endearing—his amped-up voice sounds like he’s doing an impression of some mook he met at a party—but he does manage a couple of laughs, at least. If a Johnny Drama spinoff sounds like a nightmare, well, nightmares are better than comas, right?

So anyway, Turtle used to be fat?

I don’t remember there being a fat one when I used to see ads for the TV show Entourage, but one of the big running gags in the movie is that people comment on Turtle’s weight loss and wonder how he could have done it. I guess maybe Jerry Ferrara looks a little slimmer than he did in the last movie I saw him in (which I think was Last Vegas, in which he played gopher to Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, etc.), but mostly I was left wondering if this was a Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels-style instance of characters calling one guy fat and me being legitimately puzzled about what they mean. I always thought that was a weird British thing but it turns out maybe it’s a weird bro thing, which I guess makes sense. It’s also entirely possible that the running gag is less a result of Ferrara losing much weight and more a result of Doug Ellin having no idea how to write dialogue. There are sentences in this movie that are so rote, robotic-sounding, and/or clumsy that I couldn’t believe these were characters Ellin supposedly helped shape for eight seasons. The movie’s rhythmless patter is such that Ronda Rousey, an MMA fighter with a handful of movies under her belt, walks into the movie (playing herself as a Turtle love interest) and does about as well with the dialogue as anyone else. She also engenders goodwill by administering a much-deserved beating to one of the cast members and immediately engenders some ill will by not working her way through the rest of the ensemble.

These guys like to fuck but don’t show much interest in women as people, or even in fucking really well.

This probably goes without saying, huh?

Does Doug Ellin know anything about Hollywood, the setting for his TV series and film?

I ask because Entourage centers on the making of a movie in the most listless, tone-deaf, and uninteresting way possible. Vince decides he wants to do something important, so he gets himself a gig directing himself in Hyde, a big-budget sci-fi reimagining of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, financed by the studio where his ex-agent Ari (Jeremy Piven) now works, and, as such, funded by a Texas zillionaire (Billy Bob Thronton). When Vince and his producer E need some more money to actually finish the budget-busting film, there’s some suspense, in the early going, over whether Vince has laid an enormous egg, and lord knows there’s plenty of comedy in the making of a major Hollywood boondoggle. So the nervous and always angry Ari sits down to watch Vince’s unfinished cut, and Entourage lets us in on the first few minutes. It turns out that Ellin’s idea of a cutting-edge sci-fi blockbuster looks like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones crossed with an EDM music video. It further turns out that he’s not kidding (see below). Also, Ellin seems to think that an unfinished film that needs $15 million to become releaseable would nonetheless be outfitted with opening credits (in fact, what, exactly, is missing from the version Ari watches is never addressed; that’s how uncritical the movie is of Vince’s process).

Entourage has amazing contempt for people who aren’t in Entourage.

After teasing out the possibility that Vince might have done something stupid, Entourage, amazingly, reveals that Ari loves this horseshit. Even this briefly seems like it might be a satire of Hollywood insularity and lack of self-examination, because we only hear about the movie’s high quality from “our” guys (Vince, E, Ari) until the zillionaire financer’s son (Haley Joel Osment) raises some major issues he had with the film. But instead of confronting this situation as actual drama, the movie eventually adapts the point of view that Vince’s movie is amazing and Osment’s character—portly, awkward, sleazy—is really just jealous that Vince fucked Emily Ratajkowski. So yes, Entourage is actually a movie about how people only say no to vacuous empty-headed Hollywood folks out of pure animal jealousy, and how everything this fictional character does works out for him. Does this sound like an interesting story to anyone? I guess it would be an effective recruitment video for handsomeness, if that was something people needed to be convinced to want.

Did the TV show consist of a lot of scenes where Jeremy Piven and/or other characters walk by celebrities playing themselves?

That seems to be a major part of the appeal here, which does make sense, as I was much happier watching a few fleeting seconds of Liam Neeson or Jessica Alba than I was watching anyone not playing him or herself.

Entourage is basically porn.

I should mention: there are a couple of ways that regular movies are usually compared to porn. One is, obviously, by the movie having lots of explicit sex and/or nudity. The movie of Entourage certainly has gratuitous moments of both, but it’s relatively tame even by HBO standards. Another is wallowing in a particular aesthetic or milieu that a few will find blissful and most will find distastefully indulgent: the torture porn of Saw, the architecture porn of Nancy Meyers, and so on. Entourage will certainly be accused of that, for the way the camera lingers on bikini-clad bodies that orbit Vince and his buddies as part of a fantastical L.A. lifestyle more than a thin excuse to look at those bodies. But that’s not exactly I mean, either. I mean that beyond the actual depictions of sex, Entourage has the general attitude of a pornographic film: sex is constantly available with virtually no effort yet vaguely jokey (but never funny), and the story is thin to nonexistent, all in service of the heroes more or less getting everything they want with only minimal complications. Variations on the same scene repeat and repeat and then the movie ends. I couldn’t see much filmmaking in Entourage, the same way I imagine it would be difficult to evaluate the filmmaking in pornography; as long as everything is lit reasonably well, what’s happening onscreen is too distracting to think of it as a real movie—whether you’re delighted or disgusted.

05/29/15 9:00am
"No Aloha (press screenings)"

Cameron Crowe has a new movie out this weekend, and given his career over the past decade, what happened to Cameron Crowe? is not an unreasonable question. It’s not quite what happened to Rob Reiner? or what happened to M. Night Shyamalan?, though, and I do wonder how fair it is to Crowe’s gifts as a filmmaker and, moreover, the simple facts of his filmography. In the past fifteen years, Crowe made his dream project and won a screenplay Oscar for it (Almost Famous); notched his second and third-highest grossing movies ever (Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo); and suffered one unequivocal critical and commercial flop in the form of Elizabethtown. Nonetheless, the Crowe brand (if we can label Crowe’s films as things that can, in fact, be sold, bought, and processed) is obviously in disrepair as Aloha cruises into theaters with limited press screenings and heavy embargos on anyone who managed to catch one.

I haven’t seen Aloha—I couldn’t make it to that one screening they had—but I will see it this weekend, because twice Crowe has made one of my favorite movies ever. Besides the aforementioned Almost Famous, there’s Say Anything, or as I frequently refer to it, a better John Hughes movie than anything John Hughes ever made. In between accessible masterpieces, Crowe used to make good movies like Singles and Jerry Maguire (which I recognize as the Crowe movie that probably means the most to “them,” the nebulous moviegoing public); now, after his last couple of in-betweeners without a great movie to chase them, anything as good as Singles would be greeted rapturously. Early word suggests that Aloha suggests it will not be greeted rapturously. Still, I hold out hope for the Crowe of old, even if it’s in minor form.


05/22/15 8:45am

Disney's TOMORROWLAND Casey (Britt Robertson)  Ph: Film Frame ©Disney 2015

Brad Bird’s trademark as a filmmaker is movement. This might not seem unusual for a director of filmed entertainment, especially one who specializes in animation, but Bird’s movies really move, regardless of medium. The Incredibles zips along with such dexterity that it manages to pay full attention to a family of five, character management well outside the skill set of many decent superhero team movies. Ratatouille takes place largely in a kitchen but feels downright athletic and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol found Bird making career-revitalizing sense of Tom Cruise’s indefatigable forward momentum (Doug Liman got some mojo back on Edge of Tomorrow in part by managing a pretty decent Bird impression).

Watching Tomorrrowland speed in circles, then, holds a sort of peculiar fascination. (The film opens today; Keith Uhlich reviewed in the current issue of The L.) Bird’s second live-action feature is too well-designed and, in parts, entertaining to be considered a total loss. But it spends a lot of time revving its engine: in a direct-address prologue featuring plucky sorta-teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and her reluctant mentor Frank Walker (George Clooney), leading into another prologue about Frank’s childhood, finally leading into the beginning of Casey’s story as she investigates the properties of a mysterious pin that seems to transport her to a retro-futuristic world whenever it touches her skin. It’s a neat effect, Robertson staying in place while her environment seamlessly cuts into (yes) Tomorrowland, the utopia we (and by “we” I mostly mean “baby boomers and a handful of less cynical Gen-Xers”) were promised by the ’64 World’s Fair, or the opening of Disneyland (where Tomorrowland has gone from futuristic to retro over the course of half a century), or whatever other mid-century pseudo-event of your (and by “your” I mean “baby boomers'”) choice. Tomorrowland, you learn (from either the movie or even the mostly secretive trailers) is a secret society in a parallel universe where the Earth’s best and brightest have convened to create that bright future—for everyone, though initially, Tomorrowland is invitation-only. And you know Bird knows he’d be invited.


05/15/15 9:00am


Was Elizabeth Banks an It Girl? (Also, is It Girl a sexist thing to be called?) I ask because being one-time It Girls (and there are very few multi-time It Girls) often find themselves in precarious positions, career-wise, whereas It Dudes can usually either find a superhero to play or gain some weight and become character actors. Banks has been kicking around Hollywood long enough that she featured in the first Spider-Man movie and its sequels, playing the perpetually (cinematically) underappreciated Betty Brant, and has done her time as love interests (Role Models; Definitely, Maybe; Invincible) as well as some all-out comedy (Wet Hot American Summer; Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and more genre-y fare (Slither; The Uninvited). Funny, versatile, and game, she’s nonetheless only appeared in big hit movies in supporting or bit parts. Unequivocal leads for her are rare, and her most recent vehicle, last summer’s Walk of Shame, got dumped into a minimal-wide release.

In the process of not becoming a major movie star, though, Banks has proven herself a savvy scout of material, fighting hard for the smallish but crucial role of Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games movies and producing the a capella comedy Pitch Perfect in 2012, with a small comic role for herself. Pitch became a surprise hit in 2012 and, as was obviously hoped from at least the screenplay stage, became an even bigger deal on video and cable, where it has played approximately twice a day, every day, since summer 2013. It is probably playing on cable right now. Now the film has spawned a sequel, opening today, and Banks has stepped up to direct it—her first feature in that chair, after a couple of shorts and a segment of Movie 43 (never forget!).


05/08/15 8:00am


Hot Pursuit
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Opens May 8

Anne Fletcher is partially responsible for some of my favorite moments in popular culture over the past couple of decades. She helped choreograph the musical sequence in the underrated Danny Boyle flop A Life Less Ordinary; she worked on the sterling Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode,  “Once More with Feeling”; she also contributed to the retro stylings of Catch Me If You Can and Down with Love and (presumably) the dancier moments of Walk Hard and 40-Year-Old Virgin. So much joy in a single career!

As a director, though: yeesh. It’s not necessarily that Hot Pursuit is any worse than 27 Dresses, The Proposal, or The Guilt Trip. It might even be a little better, with Reese Witherspoon getting a few laughs as a diminutive, uptight cop in over her head escorting a hostile witness (Sofia Vergara), the wife of an executed drug dealer, to possible safety (as they’re mistakenly tagged as fugitives, news reports keep underestimating Witherspoon’s height and overestimating Vergara’s age). It’s certainly easy to like, or at least easy to want to like: here is a female buddy comedy also directed by a woman, in that sense one-upping the last big female buddy comedy, 2013’s The Heat. That’s the only place it manages that feat; for a choreographer, Fletcher has real trouble rooting her movie in physical space.