Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Day 335: The Babadook

"You can't get rid of the Babadook!"
Horror is by far the most disposable of all film genres, if for no other reason than the fact that so much of it is disposable nonsense. You could count on one hand the number of truly good horror films that have been released this decade, and another hand would just about get you all of the good horror films this century. Bearing that in mind, when a legitimately good horror film comes along, the world needs to stop and take notice, and the new Australian horror film The Babadook is one that is absolutely worth stopping, noticing, and celebrating. First time feature film director Jennifer Kent's film is an absolute masterstroke of psychological terror with a subtle undercurrent of legitimate fear of something that is truly more terrifying than any monster could ever hope to be.
All of the best horror films have one thing in common. They are allegories for a real, concrete issue facing humanity, but they never let the allegory outweigh the scares. The fact that this balance is so difficult to achieve has led to the severe lack of great horror films, and The Babadook achieves it so effortlessly, it's almost scarier than anything in the film itself. The film borrows liberally from two of the great horror films, The Exorcist and The Shining, while also managing to be an entirely new and different kind of horror film. In fact, it borrows from those films so successfully that the comparisons only help to bolster its status as something truly great. 
In a performance that is simply stunning, Essie Davis plays Amelia, a woman struggling to hold a job and raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) on her own. Her husband was killed in a car accident en route to the hospital, but Amelia survived, delivered Samuel, and must now face the world as a single parent. The film marvelously stacks the deck against Amelia, giving her a litany of truly un-winnable situations from a son with behavioral problems, to an uncaring boss, and friends and family that are at their wits end with her. The real trouble for her and Samuel starts, however, when they find a mysterious pop-up book on the shelf one night titled "Mister Babadook." Though she quickly realizes that the book is not age appropriate for her six year old, the boy latches on to the name Babadook and begins to use it as a catch-all phrase for some sort of malevolent spirit that compels both him and his mother to act in strange and violent ways.
Complicating matters even further are hallucinations suffered by Amelia of a physical representation of The Babadook that haunts her wherever she goes, lurking in the shadows, and waiting to overtake her. Hiding the book does no good, nor does destroying it, as it continues to turn up again on her doorstep, foretelling of a gruesome fate for both her and her son. Most of the delight in watching The Babadook comes in seeing how meticulously it's laying out a brilliant display of dominos, only to give them the slightest nudge toward a simply breathtaking finale that is certain to turn off the more casual viewers in the audience. The film is absolutely bonkers, particularly in its final twenty minutes, and those not willing to give themselves over to a crazy experience are going to throw their hands up in disbelief. 
What really and truly sells The Babadook, however, is that allegory constantly bubbling beneath the surface of the film, and giving a very extreme, but very effective, vision of what co-dependency can do to a relationship. There are likely other ways to read the film's overarching theme, but for me, the film was a powerful metaphor for the absolutely destructive nature of co-dependency, particularly between a parent and a child. Samuel relies on his mother for protection, but also thrusts himself into the "man of the house" role, telling his mother pointedly that he'll protect her from any monsters that come after her, even the dreaded Babadook himself.
The film is fraught with tension almost from the very beginning, and Kent uses relatively low-fi methods to convey this creeping dread. Through the use of sharp editing and imagery borrowed from classic films and television shows, she creates a world that is both familiar and unsettling, keeping the audience in an almost constant state of unease. This is as white-knuckle a thriller as I've seen in some time, and Kent deserves the lion's share of praise that she's sure to get for her incredibly assured filmmaking. To watch The Babadook is to watch a film that understands the language of horror, but has enough tricks and sparks of inspiration as to feel wholly new and original. 
As I mentioned earlier, Essie Davis is absolutely sensational in the lead role, being forced to run the gamut of demonstrable emotions and then some. Though she's a familiar face to Australian audiences, she's still something of an unknown commodity to Americans, making us feel like we've been missing out on a truly incredible actress for all these years. Her work here is amazing and worthy of every single ounce of praise she can be given. Kent also asks a lot of young Noah Wiseman, and he delivers in spades, giving a revelatory performance that matches Davis is intensity and brilliance. He holds his own remarkably well, and spends the bulk of the film playing off of Davis like a pro. Kent must once more be lauded for her truly inspired casting.
Casual horror fans, and those who have come to accept just about anything with a ghost, goblin, or zombie at the center of a film, are going to be hard-pressed to enjoy The Babadook, if for no other reason than it exploits their familiarity with the genre while simultaneously giving them something new. Those willing to give themselves over to the film, and follow it down its many twisted and gnarly paths will find themselves rewarded with one of the best genre pictures in years. If you're looking for something unique, original, and yet unsettlingly familiar, The Babadook will have you jumping for joy by the time the credits roll. While the waiting is often the hardest part when it comes to finding a film and a filmmaker that have something interesting to say, the reward is films like this one that value and appreciate their audience, and show their appreciation for that patience with something truly amazing. Give yourself over to The Babadook, you won't regret it.
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via Coming Soon]

Friday, December 26, 2014

Day 334: Into the Woods

"I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
With the notable exception of his work with Warren Beatty, Stephen Sondheim does not have a great track record on film. Through no fault of his own, other than some questionable sign-offs on various elements that have gone into films with his music and songs in them, Sondheim has more or less proven that the theatre is truly the only place for his work. It was with this apprehension that I approached Rob Marshall's adaptation of one of Sondheim's most beloved musicals, Into the Woods, with the sting of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd still spreading across my cheek. I am happy to say that at least half of this film is actually very good—the first half—and that it's not the complete disaster that I thought it might be. 
Into the Woods is a melding of several different fairy tales together, and several factors beyond Sondheim's shoddy treatment on film contributed to my apprehension. Since Disney has a corner on that whole fairy tale market, their involvement was understandable, but still a bit uneasy. When the film's rating was announced as PG, I knew that cuts had to have been made to secure such a family friendly rating. Finally the rumors that were flying this past summer about certain integral numbers being cut only fueled that agitation for me. I'm happy to report that the rumors proved false, though it seems as though in the filmmakers' rush to make sure that the songs "Any Moment" and "Moments in the Woods" remained in the film, some other crucial stuff was cut. 
The story centers around a number of fairy tale characters who all live in close proximity to one another, and whose paths all converge in their quest for happily ever after. A childless Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) seek to have the curse that has left them without a child lifted by the Witch (Meryl Streep) who placed it on them. This brings them into conflict with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), whose cloak they need, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) whose cow they need, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) whose slipper they need, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) whose golden hair they need. They all converge in the woods over a period of three nights, and because this is a fairy tale, they all get what they need to live happily ever after.
This is where Sondheim and the show's book writer—and the film's screenwriter–James Lapine's show gets really interesting. Act 2 is set some time after they've all presumably gotten what they've wanted and a malaise sets in. The notion of what happens after "happily ever after" is an interesting one, and the show deals with this beautifully. The film's attempt to turn a neatly divided two act musical into a film, however, really falls apart at this point. The filmmakers seem to have opted to make the most family friendly musical, and so they've jettisoned much of the really tough stuff. It's all still sort of there in some form or another, but certain cuts really detract from the film's second half, and it's a weaker film as a result. 
I have to say that in terms of working overall as a film, the cuts weren't as bad as they could have been, and the film itself doesn't necessarily suffer from the condensed second act. As a fan of the show, though, I am disappointed in what they chose to cut and what they chose to keep. Certain characters were given really short shrift as a result of the cuts, and while they're not major characters—Rapunzel and The Steward (Richard Glover) leap immediately to mind—the world of the film feels a little less realized than it could have. In fact, to go back to Rapunzel for a moment, she literally hops onto a horse and rides right the hell out of the film at one point, causing another major character's grand freakout number to have far less resonance than it should. 
It's always hard to criticize a film adaptation of a work in another medium for the cuts they make, particularly when the screenplay was written by one of the original creators, but I do question why they took such a broad knife to the second act. Perhaps it's because when the show first premiered, the second act was weaker than it has subsequently become through rewrites. The temptation to toy and tinker with something has got to be strong, but it feels as if this tinkering was for the worse. With the transition between the acts completely lifted, the characters have no time to develop the dissatisfaction which drives all of their decision making in the second act. While these are likely issues that someone with no knowledge of the stage version would take issue with or even notice, I wonder how jarring that shift is for those audience members, because for me, it caused the film to stumble and never regain its footing.  
Thankfully Marshall's cast is top notch, and make up for all of his and the script's shortcomings. It's no surprise at this point to say that Meryl Streep is outstanding, but there is truly nothing the woman cannot do. Her two big showstopping numbers are as gorgeously realized as a fan of the show could hope, and she infuses her character with the right amount of ethos as to keep her from being a total monster. Emily Blunt is also terrific as The Baker's Wife, and sells all of her character's many twists and turns with genuine emotion. The two child actors, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, are also incredibly good, and I didn't miss for a moment the fact that their roles are almost always played by adults onstage. 
Johnny Depp, however, is so horrifically out of place in this film as to be laughably bad. His transition from one of the most respected actors of his generation into the guy whose entire character is based around what kind of hat he wears has been sad to watch. Here, he cranks to somewhat subdued sexual undertones of his number "Hello Little Girl" up to 11, making the fact that Red Riding Hood is played by a child all the more disturbing. I find myself coming back to the scene from Stripes where Bill Murray's girlfriend tells him "It's just not that cute anymore." I am truly beginning to wonder if he'll ever rebound. 
My biggest criticism with Marshall's direction is that the film fails to strike a solid tone. Some moments are played incredibly grounded and honest and real and most of those involve Streep or Blunt. Other moments, such as the very funny but very out of place staging of "Agony," are so wildly theatrical and artificial that they feel wholly out of place. The whole film bounces back and forth between these two tones, and it only gets worse in the second half. The film becomes literally very dark, as in you can't really see what's happening, and I began to wonder if Marshall understands the difference between tonally dark and physically dark. This is a problem that has long haunted Marshall as a director, and one that you're either on board for or fed up with. 
Overall, Into the Woods is a solidly enjoyable film that retains much of the charm of its source material without being a total mockery of it. Had it been PG-13, twenty minutes longer, and more even in tone, it could have really been something. Instead it feels like yet another opportunity to turn an acquired taste like Sondheim into a universally acceptable product that everyone can get behind. That's sort of Disney's stock in trade, though, so it's ultimately unsurprising. Thankfully there are enough really good moments and really good performances to make the whole thing just that much better than it could have been, but it can't even begin to hold a candle to the original. Having come out on the other side of it, I keep going back to a moment when you can hear a tune from another Sondheim musical playing faintly in the background, which made me happy because I'm a geek, but made me scared that they may continue making film adaptations of his work that are nothing more than passable. 
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Day 333: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

"If more of us valued food, and cheer, and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

The most glaring issue with Peter Jackson's entire Hobbit trilogy is perfectly illustrated in the first ten minutes of its conclusion, The Battle of the Five Armies. He, and the films themselves as a result, has no concept of how long something should last. When last we left the dwarves and their hobbit companion little more than a year ago, they had just unleashed a terrible scourge on the denizens of Lake Town, inadvertently letting loose a vengeance driven dragon on them. The opening moments of this third and final film are nothing more than the conclusion of the last film, as Lake Town is destroyed and Smaug smote.

Had this been two films as originally planned, this wouldn't be quite as glaring an issue as it is, but because Jackson chose to make this a trilogy, he must quickly do away with his third act antagonist from the previous film and sweep him under the rug so he can get on with this titular battle. Imagine for a moment that The Empire Strikes Back ended just before Luke and Vader had their duel on Cloud City and then that battle opened Return of the Jedi. The former film would have been lambasted for being incomplete, and the latter for quickly concluding an unfinished storyline to get down to the business at hand. Yet somehow, Tolkien fanboys are willing to give Jackson a pass for making an equally asinine choice because it gives them two and a half more hours in their favorite fantasy world.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies isn't a terrible film, it's just a wholly unnecessary one. Despite an epic battle sequence which eats up the bulk of the film's running time, it's nothing but a 145-minute loose end tie-up session. I know that's reductionist of me to say, but it's the truth. It doesn't feel like the culmination of all the themes of the entire saga rolled into one film, the way the final Lord of the Rings film did. It feels instead like a man with a checklist ensuring that all of his boxes get ticked before we can mercifully go home and get on with our lives.

As a bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it's perfectly serviceable, but as entertainment, it's lacking in nearly every way. Are the battle sequences exciting? Not really. They're just a lot of fantastical beasts, nameless armies clashing, heads being lopped off at an alarming rate, and plain old noise. Jackson is also constantly shifting focus between his numerous characters, none of whom are true protagonists outside of the titular guy from the Shire who we'll get to in a moment. Attempting to make an audience care about multiple people at the same time, and often within the same breath, can work if done well, but it's frankly not done very well here.

Such shifting was Jackson's strong suit in The Lord of the Rings, constantly checking in with the main characters while also giving you a scope of what's happening in the overall battle. Here, he focuses so intensely on single moments that the audience loses sight of the big picture and becomes hopelessly lost in the shuffle. Hey look, that fairly major character just got killed, and here come an onslaught of orcs to deal with these other two characters, and this character is angry and wants revenge, and this other character is leaping up falling rocks, and it ultimately just makes me want to throw up my hands, crack open the book, and suss it all out for myself.

An audience needs to feel something other than overwhelmed to connect with a film, and Jackson has truly lost sight of that. He thinks that simply showing us characters crying or dying in slow motion will elicit a response, but he does nothing to get us invested in anyone. Everyone's motivations are so muddied, and often change at the drop of a hat, making it impossible to keep pace with the various reversals borne out of such poor motivations. By the end of this thing, I couldn't tell you who gained what or why, which is a real failure on Jackson's part. He didn't keep a strong through line in this trilogy, choosing to send us off on so many side quests and missions that by the time Gandalf finally gets around to saying why it's so important for the dwarves to reclaim their home, I forgot that was what this whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place.

Jackson also loves to throw so many things at you at once that oftentimes the coolest things get the least amount of attention. There's an entire scene of set-up for these giant creatures referred to as "earth eaters" which end up looking not unlike the sandworms from Dune. When they finally do show up several scenes later, we mostly get reaction shots of our heroes gazing at them in fear, and then they're out of the picture entirely. We're already here, dude. You've got our money, give us the god damned sandworms already! Instead Jackson chooses to give us yet another scene where some dwarf I could care less about lectures Thorin in how he's lost sight of what it was they were doing in the first place. I think he's just following his director's lead at that point, fellas. No need to get so down on him.

The other truly careless thing about this final film is a curious focus on the Master of Lake Town's henchman Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage. His broad antics, which basically consist of him doing the exact same dereliction of duty routine every time, had no place in this film, and felt like an attempt by Jackson to put some humor into his otherwise totally dour film. These scenes are glaringly out of place and grow weary instantaneously. It also doesn't help that Gage has pitched his performance to such unbelievably theatrical heights that he seems to be angling to reprise his role in the inevitable parody of this film. It's stuff like this that really makes me think that Jackson has lost his mind.

Thank goodness for Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins for giving this film, and frankly this entire trilogy, some sort of grounding. Though Bilbo was often relegated to the sidelines in his own story, he managed to score the most affecting scenes in each of the first two films, and does an admirable job of carrying this film despite the constant Sturm und Drang happening all around him. It might be the best piece of casting in this entire Middle Earth saga, making his treatment as an afterthought throughout all the more distressing.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. These films are not a total debacle on a par with George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy. They feel wholly of a piece with the world that Jackson set up in his first trip to Middle Earth. They're just so leaden, so dull, and so full of unnecessary garbage, that they reek of the putrid stench of being cash grabs. There was simply no reason to expand a 300-page novel into nearly 500-minutes of screen time, particularly when they're so full of filler and feet-dragging. At this point in time, Peter Jackson has proven, fairly conclusively, that he's a one-trick pony. The most scathing indictment of all, however, is the fact that he's just not that good at pulling the trick off anymore.

GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day 332: Annie (2014)

1111746 Ð ANNIE
"It's okay, I'm good at this part. I've had a lot of practice getting kicked out of places."
The modern updating/remake of the community theatre stalwart Annie is a bit of a conundrum for my generation. Most of the people around my age grew up with John Huston's 1982 film version of the show, and many of those same kids who grew up loving that film now have children of their own ripe for introduction to its numerous charms. Then along comes this reimagining of the musical for the 21st century, and while it's admittedly a much more diverse and far less offensive version of the story (Punjab, anyone?), it also begs the question, do the kids of today really need everything tailor made for their sensibilities?
Quvenzhane Wallis;Jamie Foxx
Believe me when I tell you that such a question is far headier than the makers of this movie could have ever intended. However, from the minute this project was announced, it seemed like it was simply being made to be as different as possible from the original while still maintaining enough elements of the original to guarantee a built-in audience. Leaving the theater after sitting through two mind-numbing hours of auto-tuned versions of songs I've known since I was a child, I was left wondering why they really felt the need to even remake Annie. Why not take the elements of Annie and make something that's not overtly beholden to such familiar source material? 
Had this film simply been titled some other girl's name, I wouldn't have to sit here and lament to you over the loss of much of Charles Strouse & Martin Charnin's clever wordplay from the original. They could have used wholly original songs or repurposed popular music for their own ends. Because they chose not to, though, we're now forced to hear an impeccably crafted lyric like, "No one cares for you a smidge/When you're in an orphanage," replaced with "No one cares for you a bit/When you're a foster kid." Moves like that, and there are a lot of them in this film, are only going to make people wonder why these filmmakers didn't just start from scratch. 
1111746 Ð ANNIE
The answer to that question basically gets to the heart of the problem with modern studio filmmaking in general, which is that there are no risks being taken at all anymore. A property has to have a built-in recognition with audiences, otherwise the studios fear that no one will turn out to see them. It's what leads to phrases like "From the creators of..." getting more prominent placement than the name of a project. Annie has just sort of turned into the scapegoat for all of my issues with the state of film in 2014, but it's a worthy scapegoat, because it represents all of the myriad issues I have in microcosm. 
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of Annie, it follows the converging lives of an orphan girl named Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) and a lonely billionaire (Jamie Foxx), who are brought together by fate at a time when they need each other the most. In this film's case, Annie needs a family and—sigh—Will Stacks needs an image boost to help his flagging mayoral run against Harold Gray, a nod to the original creator of Little Orphan Annie, and one of the film's only legitimately clever conceits. Following an encounter on the streets that boosts Stacks' public opinion, he sends his assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) to retrieve Annie from the foster home run by Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) and come live in Stacks' home for the duration of his campaign, mainly because nothing says to voters "I give a damn" quite like taking in a needy kid. 
1111746 Ð ANNIE
Over time, the two grow to love one another, but circumstances drive them apart only to reunite them in the end, so that everyone can live happily ever after. Because the film softens the antagonism of Ms. Hannigan, presumably because the studio was afraid to incur the wrath of foster parents everywhere, they instead invent an antagonist for this film in the guise of Stacks' campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale). With his generic name and devious political dealings, he's the perfect 21st century antagonist: A weaselly white guy trying to take the easy road to success. The tenuous partnership between him and Ms. Hannigan makes sense, but giving her a redemptive arc that makes him the fall guy for all of the trouble to come doesn't, but again, Sony's got enough problems without foster moms beating down their doors. 
There are a handful of positive things I can say about this film. Rose Byrne and Jamie Foxx are both very good, and thankfully spend a lot of time on screen. They're also probably the only two performers not using auto-tune, which plagues this film's soundtrack, making it almost unbearable to listen to by the end. It's competently directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) who is the second odd directorial choice this Fall for a family flick, following Miguel Arteta's direction of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I'm also glad that we didn't have to suffer through the pain of seeing Will Smith's daughter Willow in the title role, as originally planned. 
1111746 Ð ANNIE
Other than that, there's not much to say other than the painfully obvious fact that I am not the target audience for this film. If you have kids, especially daughters, under the age of ten, they're going to eat this movie up. It's a delightful fantasy to them, and they'll walk around singing the songs for months. It does beg the question I originally posed to be brought up again, which is, do the children of this generation really need everything tailor made for them and their sensibilities? The problem with so many parents these days is that they want to fix the problems they had to deal with growing up, and it's making their children into entitled brats. Why shouldn't Annie be set in 2014 and not during the Depression? Why shouldn't Annie fly around in a helicopter and go see movies with Ashton Kutcher in them? That's what my kids do, so that's what the kids in these movies should do. 
I understand why this film was made, and it makes sense from a business perspective, but from an artistic perspective, it's completely baffling. I admire the intentions behind this film's creation, but the execution leaves lots to be desired. The moment the first lyric was altered to fit the modern age, they should have stopped and just gone and done their own thing. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a facelift. The familiar elements are there, but something's off, and it's disturbing to look at. It's not a bad movie, but there was really no reason to call it Annie. You want to make this movie, that's fine, make it. Just call it something else. The saddest thing of all is that I don't even really like the original musical this is based on. I can only imagine how incensed I would feel if this were a beloved property from my childhood.
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Day 331: Wild

"You like my shoes?"
There are two ways to make a film based on a true story. The first is to blur the facts into a fictional narrative that ends up serving the truth by making it more dramatic. The second is to do a straightforward recreation of the facts in an attempt to shuck dramatic convention in favor of verisimilitude. The first way is almost always the most successful, and nearly every great film based on a true story has hewn to this formula. It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that Wild is an overly earnest attempt to be that second kind of film, but features so many absurdly fantastical sequences and characters that speak mostly in platitudes, that any desire to be truthful is rendered patently nonsensical.
Based on the true story of pretty blonde girl Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) and her attempt to find herself by hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is Oprah's book club pablum meant to sate the appetites of similarly pretty American women who have eaten, prayed, loved, and had their fill of chicken soup for the soul. As someone who has an enormous amount of respect for women, and is doing his best to raise two of them into fine, outstanding young members of society, I have to wonder why women continue to line up to be pandered to at the bookstore and the box office. Not only does Wild promote bad decision making, it downright romanticizes it. 
Now look, I'm not trying to say that there's not value in the message of Wild, but it's a film tailor made for people who prefer to let others make mistakes and then attempt to live better lives by osmosis. It's the kind of sickening tripe that was so prominent in the "Stop the Insanity" mid-90s in which it is set, and is the perfect story to read on your Kindle Fire XD while you sit by your electric fireplace and sip a pumpkin spice latte. It's the most bullshit kind of feminism that exists in the world, as it gently massages the shoulders of women everywhere who've made countless mistakes in their lives only to realize that those mistakes make you who you are. 
Cheryl Strayed has a tale to tell that's perfect for a twelve-step testimony, which is about as deep as this film gets. It's then gussied up in the makeup-free glamour of Hollywood, where poverty looks like it just stumbled away from the craft service table toward a director who can shake a camera in front of its face to convey how gritty it looks. The film doesn't have an ounce of truth in it, and dishes out Robert Fulghum-esque life lessons like it's reinventing the wheel. It's a cheat to dish out wisdom that sounds like it came from a pamphlet as if you're reciting Shakespeare.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée emptied out his bag of tricks with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, but there he at least had two knockout lead performers who were able to elevate the marginal material with which they were working. Here he shows his limitations by making a nearly identical film in virtually every regard. The film's structure is a nightmarish labyrinth of memories that arise at a moment's notice, flashbacks, and sometimes even flashbacks within flashbacks. Cheryl's memories are often triggered by music, and while the soundtrack is aces, featuring everything from Portishead to Simon & Garfunkel—clearly the influence of screenwriter and musicophile Nick Hornby—it's a trick that overstays its welcome almost instantaneously. 
The film's other achilles heel is a trend that began with 2006's The Queen, which is the human/wild animal staredown. This moment is supposed to convey a profound sense of character by recognizing and empathizing with that which can't be tamed, but it's so overplayed at this point in time as to be laughable. Cheryl Strayed is a regular Doctor Doolittle, conversing with horses, foxes, crickets, and even an alpaca—or a llama, I'm not entirely sure. If only a great wizard could show up in Hollywood and send this trope back to the fiery chasm from whence it came.
This brings us, inevitably, to Reese Witherspoon. Ms. Witherspoon seems like a nice enough person, but her limitations are nearly as great as the wide variety of roles she continues to play. She never fully divorces herself from any of her characters, which is the ultimate movie star trait, but it's also terribly distracting. The one time she ever really and truly pushed herself away from her instincts was in Election, and she is sublimely good in that film. She's now a movie star, however, and that means that she doesn't have to really try anymore, her talents will shine through no matter what. Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to believe her in any role, let alone one in which she's showing the audience how much work she's doing rather than just actually doing it. Thank goodness none of us had to suffer the indignities of seeing her play Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, it might have derailed that entire film. 
As Wild moves from one "learning experience" to the next, Cheryl encounters all manner of people from scary, rapey hillbillies, to a bunch of damn, dirty hippies comforting one another in the wake of Jerry Garcia's death. It feels simultaneously honest and fake as the digital film it was shot on, as this film foolishly attempts to be both types of true story films I mentioned earlier. I think the "hiking to find yourself" film is as played out as just about every other ridiculously ham handed cliché this film revels in. Audiences deserve better than this, and until they come to that realization on their own, we're going to continue to suffer through these awful films that think they have something new to offer to the discussion. To paraphrase several quotes at once, if an actor shits in the woods, will anyone be left who wants to watch?
GO Rating: 0.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]

Friday, November 28, 2014

Day 330: Penguins of Madagascar

"I don't think I like your attitude, vending machine... Or your prices."
Dreamworks' Madagascar franchise is its longest running next to the Shrek franchise, so it's only fitting that they would execute a spin-off involving a beloved side character, in much the same way they did with Puss in Boots three years ago. The quartet of super resourceful penguins from the films already have their own television show on Nickelodeon, so giving them their own film has a lot of advantages, namely a built in brand and following. The only real problem with Penguins of Madagascar the film, however, is that there's really no reason for it to exist. Apart from some funny jokes and inspired casting choices, the film feels like an unnecessarily protracted episode of the television series.
It's a good thing that the penguins themselves are entertaining enough to spend ninety minutes of your time with, but a meandering plot coupled with a ridiculously bloated climax truly makes you feel every one of those ninety minutes. Like so many bit characters who have taken the spotlight before them, the penguins' antics are amusing enough in small doses, but with no foil for their shenanigans, the film doesn't have a strong center—making the prospect of that Minions film they advertised before this movie even more daunting. Sure, there are worse ways to spend your time, and kids will eat it up with delight, but to turn any side character into the focal point of an entire film requires the kind of discipline Dreamworks has never really had in any substantial quantity. 
The film's best bits come early, including an all-too-brief origin story for the quartet narrated by every child's favorite documentarian, Werner Herzog. I'm obviously joking as Herzog is clearly there for the amusement of the film literate parents in the audience, but when he utters the line "chubby bun-buns," it becomes apparent that this is the extent of the filmmakers knowledge of what to do with Herzog. The film as a whole would have been infinitely better had Herzog maintained his narration throughout the film, but after five minutes, he's gone, never to be heard from again.
His portion of the film covers the formation of the group we already know from their countless other adventures, but by the time the title is flashed on screen, we've jumped ahead to the middle of Madgascar 3, to pick up their side quest from that film. For those of you unfamiliar with the penguins, there's Skipper (Tom McGrath), the boneheaded leader, Kowalski (Chris Miller), the bluntly honest brains of the group, Rico (Conrad Vernon), the non verbal loose cannon, and Private (Christopher Knights), the timidly cute one. It's established early on in the film that Private wants to prove himself a valuable member of the team, and so the rest of the film is completely in service of that plot.
During a mission to procure Private's favorite cheesy snacks from a vending machine deep within Fort Knox, the penguins run afoul of Dave (John Malkovich), aka Dr. Octavius Brine, an octopus who has a convoluted history with the penguins. Dave's plan isn't so much world domination as it is getting everyone in the world to turn against all penguins, the way they turned against him, by transforming the penguins into ugly monsters that no one could love. In pursuit of Dave, for reasons that are never really explained in any satisfactory manner, is the North Wind, a group of cold climate animals that possess technological resources beyond anyone's imagination. Led by a wolf mistakenly named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), they're trying to stop Dave as well, but view the penguins as more hindrance than help.
The only ace up the film's sleeve is uncovering Dave's real plan and then figuring out how exactly Private is going to prove himself to the others, which makes the numerous action sequences somewhat dull in retrospect. They're enjoyable enough, but every one of them goes on for so long, mainly because there's just not enough of a story here to which any time can be devoted. This is ultimately the film's biggest missed opportunity when you consider that nearly all of Dreamworks' output of late from the aforementioned Madagascar 3 to How to Train Your Dragon 2, and even this year's Mr. Peabody & Sherman, have all favored story over spectacle. In fact, the film that this shares the most DNA with isn't Puss in Boots, but The Croods: A simple premise with a clear endgame in sight loaded down with sight gags and drawn out action sequences that make the film just barely reach feature length.
The other shame is that there's some great voice work happening here, despite the actors not being given much to work with. All of the penguins' voice actors have been doing this for the better part of a decade, so they nail their characters, but Malkovich and Cumberbatch are forced to do the most they can with very little, including an interminable bit involving Malkovich giving orders that mimic the names of celebrities—i.e. "Nicolas, cage them!" It should also be noted that Cumberbatch has yet to learn the proper way to pronounce the word "penguin," still referring to them as "pengwings," though I'm not sure if it's intentional at this point or not. The jokes come fast and furious, however they only land about 40% of the time, making the film more cute than funny. Again, this is a perfectly fine goal for a film that goes direct to video, but cute doesn't really cut it on the big screen.
If you have little ones, they're going to love the film, but I also suspect they won't give it much thought after it's over. There's nothing unique, original, or terribly interesting that happens, and they'll notice that much of the film's climax is borrowed from Despicable Me 2. Their parents, on the other hand, will likely be less enchanted by it and its incredibly disposable nature. It's not a bad film, but it feels like a gigantic step backward for an animation studio that's really been doing its best work in the last few years, even within this very franchise. About the best thing I can say is that its homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is light years better than the one that Star Trek Into Darkness tried to pull off last year, and that's just about the strangest thing I've ever thought when leaving a kids movie.

GO Rating 2.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Day 329: The Theory of Everything

"Look what we made."
Bear with me as I suss something out momentarily. I recently watched Howard Stern's Private Parts again and one of the things that really struck me about watching the film in 2014—17 years after it came out and 14 years after Stern and his first wife divorced—is how utterly meaningless the love story aspect of the film is now. Granted as a time capsule of their relationship and the things they went through together and how they relied on one another is still powerful, but his final summation and thesis statement for the film is now completely diminished. It was with similar apprehension that I approached the new film The Theory of Everything, based on a book by physicist Stephen Hawking's first wife Jane. 
Would this film similarly falter when the audience knows the outcome? Thankfully the answer is no, but perhaps more regrettably, the film is an utter failure as a love story, and that's the angle with which the film is clearly being sold to the general public. To weigh it against another film that's perhaps a more fitting comparison, consider another award baiting romance from several years ago, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. That is a film which shifts its love story halfway through the film, and shows Benigni's character Guido goes from learning about love by wooing his future wife in the first half, to demonstrating unconditional love to his child in the second. This film tries to pull off a similar feat, but stumbles in a big way and never recovers.
When we're introduced to Stephen (Eddie Redmayne), he is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge in 1963, and has an appropriately awkward meet cute with graduate student Jane (Felicity Jones). Their courtship is the stuff of classic movie romances, but not long after they begin to fall for one another, Stephen is diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease that the doctor tells him will claim his ability to move and eventually breathe on his own, and that he will be dead within two years. Despite Stephen's best efforts to shut Jane out, she has fallen in love with him and refuses to give up on him. They marry, and not long after Stephen is awarded his doctorate for his revolutionary theory about the formation of our universe.
So far, so good, but then the film begins to, pardon the expression, degenerate, and in a move that I would consider bold were it not so unintentional, explodes in on itself much like Hawking's initial theory about black holes and the big bang. Stephen and Jane don't necessarily fall out of love, but it's clear that neither can give the other what they truly need, despite their clear affection for one another.  When Jane's mother (Emily Watson) suggests that she join the church choir, she meets hunky choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan is no stranger to tragedy, having recently lost his wife to leukemia, and he begins spending more time with the family, and inevitably forms a pearl clutching chaste bond with Jane. 
In the film's most egregiously manipulative scene, Stephen travels to Bordeaux, France where he suffers an attack at a concert and slips into a coma. This is juxtaposed with a camping trip Jonathan takes with Jane and her children in which we're all but shown that they finally consummate their very British attraction to one another. For a film that has spent a good deal of time arguing science versus faith, the scene is staged like something out of a misguided Christian abstinence film, showing teens that if they stray from their committed relationship, bad things will befall their significant other. It's out of place in a good film, but in a film seemingly bred in a test tube to win awards, it feels right at home. 
Once Stephen loses the ability to speak, Jane brings on Elaine (Maxine Peake), a new caretaker designed to help Stephen get back in touch with the world. Pardon the expression, but Elaine basically wants to fuck Stephen's brains out the moment she lays eyes on him, and Jane is now racked with suspicion, and the film begins to resemble something that wouldn't seem out of place on Lifetime. It becomes horribly reductive, and expects us to just be okay with Stephen and Jane still loving one another, but also loving others. Were this a film about a non-monogamous relationship, that would be one thing, but the filmmakers spend the better part of an hour setting this up as a love for the ages only to pull the rug out from under the audience.
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Would it have been better to ignore all of this and just show their love for one another and throw the rest of these developments into a post-film scrawl? I'm not entirely sure, but in its current state, the film is trying to have it both ways. The emotion of the film's ending will land with even the most cynical audience members, but in retrospect it feels like a cheap ploy to get you reaching for a kleenex rather than reflecting on what it actually all means. Director James Marsh is a manipulative son of a bitch, who has no shame in bombarding the more susceptible audience members into crying every five minutes or so, and his heavy hand makes the film feel like the cheap awards grab it really is at its core. 
Thankfully the two leads are tremendous in the film, and their performances end up curing a multitude of sins. Redmayne is outstanding in a role that could have very easily reached I Am Sam levels of gunpoint forced empathy, but he sells the pain and anguish of Hawking's reality beautifully. Jones may not have the more physically demanding role, but she's got a tougher time with a more nuanced shift from doting to loving to suffering to frustrated, and she pulls it off with aplomb. The supporting cast from Cox and Watson to David Thewlis and Simon McBurney as Hawking's father is also top notch, with very few false notes to be found. 
It's a shame that Marsh's direction and the overbearing strings of Jóhann Jóhannson's score make the film feel like an attempt to recreate A Beautiful Mind whole cloth. In fact, I jokingly referred to the film as A Beautiful Mind 2: Hawking Boogaloo, mainly because that's the exact spot in the awards season lineup this film is hoping to fill. Many will be suckered by this film's charms, and they are many, but I hope that the rest of us can see when we're being so brashly manipulated, and not succumb to the temptation to fall in love with this film. It's got some good performances, but it's also got the stench of a film that thinks it's a whole lot more Important—with a capital I—than it actually is. 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Day 328: Foxcatcher

"What do you hope to achieve, Mark?"
Very, very few directors make a career out of working exclusively in the realm of the "based on a true story" genre, but Bennett Miller has proven to be quite comfortable in this realm. His third and latest film, Foxcatcher, sets its sights on chemical heir John DuPont (Steve Carell) and his bizarre, often contentious relationship with Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). It's a story of a lot of things gone awry from misplaced patriotism to the sheltered world of the extremely wealthy, and there are a lot of ideas flowing through it, but these ideas never really gel into a cohesive story about any one thing, which ultimately works against the film. 
The film's biggest issue is that it doesn't necessarily have a point of view; There's no one character that the film is really about. It's about all three of these men, but really only gets inside the head of Mark Schultz, mainly because he's a bit of a dolt and an open book, making him the easiest of the three to psychoanalyze. DuPont is a total enigma, and Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman knew they couldn't really hang their hat on him as the protagonist, so they sort of split the difference between the Schultzes, and end up with a curiously unfocused story. 
The first half and a hair beyond that focus intensely on Mark, who forever lives in the shadow of his much more well-known brother. When he receives a call from Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) to come and meet with the wealthy but somewhat reclusive DuPont, Mark jumps at the chance to meet with someone who seems interested in him. DuPont offers Mark the chance to come and live at his estate and train at his newly built facilities, dubbed Foxcatcher, in preparation for the upcoming World Championships and 1988 Olympics in Seoul. DuPont pitches himself as a patriot, and someone who is fed up with the way America treats its Olympians, and offers Mark this chance to finally distance himself from his brother.
At first, Mark and DuPont form a bond based on their mutual failure to live up to their family name. DuPont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a world class horse breeder, and he sees wrestling as his way to get the acclaim from people that seems to only be lavished upon his mother. It's a powerful bond, and one which the film wisely focuses its attention on, without ever really spelling it out for the audience. Unfortunately after winning the World Championship, DuPont begins to treat Mark as something of a conduit through which he can reach his much more successful brother Dave, and their once touching yet undeniably bizarre relationship begins to feel strained. Things really take a turn for Mark once Dave accepts DuPont's offer and moves his wife (Sienna Miller) and children onto the estate to begin working for Foxcatcher. 
At this point in the film, things start to really lose focus. DuPont was adamant about bringing Dave to work with the team, yet knows that he can't control him the way he controlled his brother. Mark slowly but surely fades into the background, until he just sort of disappears from the film altogether. All of the work the audience has invested in caring about Mark must now go into still caring about Dave and DuPont, and it's a big risk that doesn't quite pay off for the script or the film. The timeline also starts to get a little hazy, and the passage of time becomes almost impossible to keep track of once the '88 Olympics come and go. I hate to constantly harp on films where the third act fails to live up to the promise of the first two, but this is another film in which that's sadly the case.
More so than that, however, is the fact that the film feels like a damn good one hour episode of Dateline, or some other true crime show, stretched out to an almost unbearable 134 minutes. The film does build a good amount of tension, but much like Michael Haneke at his worst, building tension for over an hour doesn't make a film compelling in and of itself. In fact, this film feels like it could have been made by Haneke, as it will likely work incredibly well for some in the audience, but ultimately left me feeling cold. 
Thank goodness Miller is still an ace when it comes to casting his films, as the core trio of actors here is spectacular. Carell transforms himself wholly into DuPont, even cutting a profile that looks downright birdlike, nicely complimenting his insistence on being called "Eagle," as well as his general infatuation with birds and ornithology—another subplot that ultimately goes nowhere. Nevertheless, Carell nails his performance and sells it in a way that will more than likely silence anyone who's looked at him as nothing more than a buffoonish funny man. He's got an edge to him that Miller exploits to great ends.
Tatum is another surprising revelation, proving yet again that he's the real deal. He makes Mark a pitiable character without ever really appealing for pity. It's a terrific balancing act, and one which he pulls off with aplomb. It's perhaps least surprising that Ruffalo is great, only because anyone who's followed his career knows what a terrific actor and chameleon he is, but he once again delivers a solid performance here. The film is handsomely shot by Zero Dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the score by Rob Simonsen is both spare and haunting, nicely complimenting the similar imagery.
The real shame is that this was probably a crack ninety minute film stretched beyond its means to well over two hours. I'm not sure if it could have used more editing in the writing process or in post-production, but either way it just feels downright interminable by the time the climax rolls around. It's a good movie, with some terrific performances and a handful of great scenes, but it feels truly less than the sum of its parts. One should never leave a film based on a true story feeling that an already enigmatic human being has become even more so. The film purports to offer a character study about DuPont, yet manages to put such a fascinating person even further out of reach for the audience, which is ultimately its fatal flaw.
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]