Thursday, December 27, 2012
"Now life has killed the dream I dreamed."
Tom Hooper was no stranger to the world of directing when his last film The King's Speech exploded onto screens at the tail end of 2010, reaping the lion's share of awards including an Oscar for Best Director. Like so many directors that go from relative obscurity to unanimous acclaim, his next film was going to be bigger & showier in an attempt to show that his excellent work on The King's Speech was no fluke.
For his follow-up, he chose the biggest and showiest project imaginable, the epic of all epic musicals, Les Miserables. Did the gamble pay off? Read on to find out...
The musical Les Miserables is one of my favorite musicals of all time. It was the first Broadway show I ever saw back when I was in middle school, and it had a huge impact on me, turning me on to the world of theatre and, more specifically, musical theatre. One of the things that I love about Les Mis is how unabashedly theatrical it is. It is the kind of musical that works best with a huge ensemble cast, large sets, huge production numbers & rafter-shaking singers.
The most baffling thing about Tom Hooper's film of Les Miserables is how schizophrenic it is in this specific regard. At times the film has a huge scope, at other times it's small, tight & intimate, and at other times it's downright frenetic in its editing and pacing. This was more or less my overarching problem with the entire film. It could never settle down and decide what it wanted to be. Even the small, intimate solo numbers (all done in close-up, framed almost exclusively on the right side of the screen) all end with a sweeping crane shot that takes us up to the heavens to view the characters from afar.
The film's sole identity seems to be that it couldn't settle on one. It opens with a huge production number, with prisoners pulling a large battleship into port & seems as if it's going to be huge in scope. Moments later, Jean Valjean is soliloquizing in close-up, and the film seems to be settling in to a smaller, more intimate feel. The very next number "At the End of the Day," looks like it was cut in the middle of a grand mal epileptic seizure, cutting to another grimy extra every few seconds. And the film progresses much like this for the duration of its interminable 160 minute running time.
Anyone unfamiliar with the story, Les Miserables is set in the aftermath of the French Revolution & tells multiple stories that revolve around a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his attempts to lead a virtuous life after being released from prison. Along the way he is pursued by a relentless police office, Javert (Russell Crowe), who is convinced that Valjean will return to a life of crime.
The story takes a number of diversions into subplots involving a woman who works at Valjean's factory named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is fired and turns to prostitution to care for her young daughter Cosette. After Fantine's death, Valjean swears to look after Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried), and they find themselves living in a section of Paris that is home to revolutionaries, seeking to start a new revolution against the current king.
There are literally ten or more subplots in the film, and to go into detail would be exhausting and a bit redundant for people familiar with the show. Needless to say, they all work together to weave a beautiful tapestry of life in Post-Revolution France, and an epic story of good vs. evil, and the power of righteousness & devotion to God. Les Miserables is one of the most overtly religious musicals ever written, but speaking as a devout agnostic, I can say that this will not hinder your enjoyment of it in any way.
Hooper's direction is so woefully misguided, it will make your head spin. As I said before, it bounces between subtle, forced intimacy and frenetic group numbers, but it also varies wildly in tone. Take, for example, the handful of scenes involving the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter), the innkeepers that have been watching Cosette while Fantine was working to provide for her. Their scenes are so hugely theatrical, to the point of being nonsensical. Cohen & Carter mug their way through every scene they're in, and feel as if they've wandered in from another movie. Their performances derail any sense of grounded naturalism that Hooper may have been going for, and only further illustrate why those moments of intimacy seem more out of place.
If I were to say that the film is worth seeing for one reason, it would be Anne Hathaway's performance. Her vulnerability and frailty are devastating, and her performance is almost certain to garner her an Academy Award. I'm honestly surprised that Hugh Jackman didn't just come out in a tuxedo right after her song and present it to her then. It would have saved us all a lot of time. The closest comparison I can think of is Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. All I can remember thinking was, I wish everyone else was in the same movie she's in. That's how it felt with Hathaway, and the moment her character dies, the film does right along with her.
Jackman is perfectly serviceable as Valjean. His soliloquy after the Bishop gives him a reprieve is his emotional high point in the film. He mostly flounders when required to sing in a high register, and his rendition of "Bring Him Home" was particularly over-wrought. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't as fantastic as I wanted him to be. If he's getting any praise, it likely has more to do with the power of the role and less to do with his performance.
Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras are the other highlights in the cast, and that likely has to do with the fact that they are both veterans of the stage production of this show. Seyfried does the most she can with an entirely thankless role. Eddie Redmayne was okay as Marius, but in his upper register (which Marius spends a lot of time in), he sounded a bit like Kermit the Frog. Russell Crowe as Javert was just awful. I like Crowe as an actor, but he looked thoroughly uncomfortable. He wore one expression through the entire film and his two solo numbers are so boring and one-note, they'll have you checking your phone for missed calls. To be fair, Javert is a one-note character, but the best actors that have played this role have never let it show so brazenly before.
I suppose the power of Les Miserables is that it can survive a thoroughly mediocre production, which I can comfortably call this. I think the fact that I love the musical so much kept me from dismissing the movie outright. There's a reason the show has an intermission when it's presented on stage, and it's the fact that it's long and emotional and the audience needs a refresher. Pushing through the whole show just ends up exhausting the audience & severely diminishes the emotional impact of the finale.
If nothing else, Les Miserables proves that Hooper is not the great director we all thought he was. In small, intimate character studies, he knows his way around, but he flounders so often and in such spectacular fashion with this film that I almost feel like he's not that good of a director at all. The musical will survive in spite of this adaptation, and that is a testament to the power of the music & characters. I hope another director takes a crack at this musical in ten years and gives it the film it truly deserves.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Saturday, December 22, 2012
"Scotch doesn't expire, it gets better with age."
With his first two feature films, The 40-Year Old Virgin & Knocked Up, Judd Apatow went from perpetually cursed comedic genius, to one of the most reliable comedy filmmakers in Hollywood. His third film, 2009's Funny People, was greeted with apathy by audiences, much of it having to do with it's lengthy running time and audiences' general avoidance of Adam Sandler films in which he doesn't wear a funny wig or rely solely on bodily functions for humor.
For his fourth feature, This is 40, he piggybacks off of Knocked Up by taking two of that film's supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) & Debbie (Leslie Mann), and making them the focus. So is it a return to form, or more of the same? Read on to find out.
Your enjoyment of This is 40 will directly correlate to your appreciation for Judd Apatow as an artist. If you're a fan of his work, you will find a lot to like here. If you're not, this is hardly the film that will change your mind about him. Apatow's consistently good work throughout his career has built up a ton of goodwill with me, and I am generally a fan of his style of humor, so I enjoyed this film quite a bit. It also speaks to me in a very personal way as it deals with a married couple getting older and raising two girls, two subjects I am knee-deep in myself at the moment.
The days of Apatow making a film like The 40-Year Old Virgin are behind him. Much like James L. Brooks in the 80s and 90s, Apatow has parlayed his success behind the camera into making comedies that deal with subjects near and dear to his heart. There will always be sophomoric humor and immature characters within the world of his films, but they're starting to move to the fringes as Apatow narrows his focus on subject matter he cares more about. It's pretty safe to say that he'll likely never abandon his roots, but he's also not about to change horses this far across the stream.
The film centers on Pete & Debbie's birthday week. They're both turning 40 in the same week and Debbie is dealing with it by avoiding any thought of it altogether, and Pete is dealing with it by having multiple crises at work and at home. Their daughters, played once again by Mann & Apatow's daughters Maude & Iris, are also navigating issues of their own that put their own needs in direct conflict with those of their parents. Both children are wonderful young actresses and very realistically and comfortably portray a myriad of emotions in their scenes in the film.
Like all of Apatow's films, there are multiple subplots. Debbie is dealing with reconnecting with her birth father (John Lithgow) and trying to figure out which of her two employees (Megan Fox & Charlyne Yi) might have been stealing from her business. Pete's issues run the gamut from his mooching father (a fantastic Albert Brooks) to his deadbeat employees (Chris O'Dowd & Lena Dunham) at his record label. Also very good in supporting roles as the couple's best friends are Robert Smigel & Annie Mumolo.
The biggest issue with the film is the pacing. It's downright lethargic at times with absolutely no forward momentum. When a big reveal happens at the one hour mark, I honestly thought it was closer to the second act climax, but checking my phone I discovered it was far too early to be the climax of the film. When the film's climax does arrive at Pete's 40th birthday party, the film finally gains a sense of true momentum, and the final half hour is the film's finest, by far. It just takes far too long to get to this scene with most of the scenes in the film lacking any sort of momentum or propulsion. It gets bogged down in its multiple subplots, most of which provide some very funny moments, but almost none of them relevant to the plot of the film.
I suppose it's a double-edged sword because many of these scenes are very enjoyable and funny, with Chris O'Dowd being the stand-out for me, getting most of the best lines. It's just that with them, the film feels formless and unwieldy, but without them, the film would lack most of its best moments. There are a ton of characters for the audience to relate to and everyone will likely connect with at least one of the characters, but it's almost at the expense of forming any connection with Pete & Debbie. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship, marriage, or is a parent, will instantly relate to their plight, but more likely than not, your average, younger audience member will find their scenes to be the least interesting.
This is 40 is the kind of film that you almost have to decide, before you even see it, whether or not you like it. Apatow fans will find lots to love here, and living through a lot of the same arguments & joys that Pete & Debbie have experienced gave me an instant connection to their story. But by that same token, I can see audience members shutting down and not finding anything to relate to in their lives. It's certainly the most divisive film he's made and even though I liked a lot about it, there was far too much filler for me to love it as much as I wanted to.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
"What's the plan?"
"Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em."
You bet! It's no big secret that I hated The Expendables. I called it the worst film of 2010 and an early front-runner for worst film of the decade. Just about the best thing I can say about The Expendables 2 is that it's not as bad as the first one. That's about as high praise as I can muster. The main issue is that these films aim too low. Rather than actually trying to make a good movie or even one that's over-the-top ridiculously, knowingly bad, they're just rehashing stupid plot elements from the movies that made them famous in the first place. These weren't good movies, so haphazardly ripping them off just compounds how bad it all is.
Even worse than the mindless action scenes are the handful of scenes where these meatheads just sit around shooting the shit. The only thing worse than over-the-hill lugs running around killing people indiscriminately, is watching the same dolts try and convincingly establish their characters through rapport. Things also just seem to happen with no explanation whatsoever. I'm not asking for big, long explanations for things like how they manage to land their plane and instantly find trucks to ride around in, but a passing explanation or line of dialogue could go a long way toward making everything about this movie less asinine.
The "plot" concerns Stallone's group of mercenaries for hire being sent by Bruce Willis to retrieve some sort of device from Russia that reveals the underground location of plutonium stores. A wrench is thrown into their plan when Jean Claude Van Damme shows up, steals it, and kills one of their own. Now their mission is to retrieve the device, and get their revenge. Chuck Norris even shows up to dish out some exposition and tell one of those hilarious Chuck Norris jokes that were all the rage in the time between his relevance and this movie.
I could spend time dissecting the major issues with the film like the thoroughly misguided soundtrack choices like "Crystal Blue Persuasion" & "Groovin," but it's more fun to nitpick all the stupid little shit that piled up faster than the plot holes. Let's start with Stallone's mustache. It is, unquestionably, the most unflattering piece of facial hair ever out on film. He had a Van Dyke in the first film, not sure why he didn't keep that. The mustache makes him look simultaneously ridiculous and his own age. There's also a scene where Stallone puts on a helmet before he gets on his chopper. I'm only willing to suspend my disbelief so far in movies like this.
The biggest issue I had by far, is that any time they go for a laugh, it falls short. There are tons of unintentionally funny things like VanDamme kicking a knife into the Kid's chest or Stallone reading the Kid's love letter to his girlfriend at the funeral rather than saying anything meaningful about him. Referring to the characters by other characters that they've played (i.e. Terminator or Rambo) is not funny. It muddles things up too much by creating a world where those movies exist within this world, and it becomes so mind-boggling that I don't know what's clever about it. It's lazy. Last Action Hero did this joke so much better when they superimposed Stallone's head on Schwarzennegar's body on the T2 poster. That's a joke that makes sense. None of these jokes in this movie made any sense.
Am I reading into all of this too much? Probably. Shouldn't I have just sat back and had fun? Yeah, sure, I guess, but the problem is that the movie doesn't establish a tone that lets me comfortably know that these guys are in on the joke. It bounces from deadpan "jokes" to dead serious action scenes to ridiculously over-the-top action scenes to meatheads monologuing about how tough life can be. It's all over the god damned map. VanDamme is, sadly, the only one that comes close to acquitting himself. Ever since his fantastically self-aware performance in JCVD a few years ago, I've gained a newfound respect for him, and he's the only one in this movie that seems to be striking the right balance between how ridiculous it all is and how much he's enjoying all the nonsense.
Because lowest common denominator entertainment like this continues to be highly lucrative, there's no hope that the films will get better with further sequels. Even the promise of adding Nicolas Cage to the series for the next installment fills me with dread because he'll likely be the only one having any real fun. Everyone else just needs to drop the self-serious bullshit and lighten up. These movies could be a lot of fun if they were consistent in tone. As they stand now, they're nothing but two hours of aging lunkheads proving why they faded from relevance in the first place. I shouldn't have to continue paying to watch these guys die.
Friday, December 14, 2012
"You were born to the rolling hills and little rivers of the Shire, but home is behind you now. The world is ahead."
Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Andrew brought you his review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. If my opinion didn't vary so vastly from his, I wouldn't burden you with it, but I feel it only fair to give you, my dear and faithful readers, a second opinion on what I feel is one of the absolute worst movies I have ever laid eyes on.
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has taken on mythic status in the worlds of film & pop-culture, and rightfully so. As a bold experiment, they were worthy of your time and attention. They artfully condensed three dense fantasy novels into three action-packed films with tons of characters to relate to. The fact that they haven't aged well in the decade since their release does not preclude them from consideration as major milestones in the serious advancement of fantasy filmmaking.
The most significant trend that those films birthed, however, was the notion that any filmmaker could bloat any adaptation of any book up to interminable lengths. Even trifles such as Eragon & The Twilight novels were turned into two-hour plus unwieldy monstrosities. Now the man that started the whole trend returns to the scene of the crime. Peter Jackson took the directing reigns away from Guillermo DelToro & gives us his film version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit. Where he previously gave us a book to film ratio of 1:1, he has inexplicably decided now to increase that ratio to 1:3. Now, I understand very clearly what he has said in regards to this decision, I just don't accept his reasoning as sound logic. Cramming in superfluous & ancillary material from appendices and minor works by the same author does not give you license to bloat an otherwise jaunty little novel.
The other fundamental problem is that he's working in reverse. By having already given us the main course (LOTR) with stakes that went as high as the destruction of Middle-Earth, to now go back and try and give what amounts to an appetizer the same sense of import is just nonsense. The stakes involved in the novel and story of The Hobbit couldn't be lower in the grand scheme of things, but since ravenous audiences are demanding of more, bigger, faster, louder, crazier... the follow-up films need to deliver. It's a chicken and egg situation, but ultimately I fault Jackson for his need to turn The Hobbit into something it isn't.
The film opens with another flashback sequence designed to get audiences up to speed on the plight of the once proud race of Dwarves that dwelled in the Lonely Mountain of Erebor, until their home was usurped by a dragon named Smaug. That's all well and good, but the film then gives us the equivalent of a 1970s Christmas Variety show scene where old Bilbo (Ian Holm) & Frodo (Elijah Wood) give us a new perspective on the events of the day leading up to Bilbo's 111th Birthday from The Fellowship of the Ring. Setting up this thoroughly unnecessary and absurd framing device was the first sign that I had that something was afoul in Hobbiton.
Soon, we're flashing back to see young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his first meeting with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Gandalf has selected Bilbo to be the fourteenth member of a party of dwarves that will be following their pre-ordained leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim their home. The fact that this sentence more or less encapsulates the entire plot of not just this film, but all three, can give you some indication as to how much filler we're going to be dealing with. It's never a good sign when I can sum up the plot of three films in one sentence.
Such dalliances away from the main plot include several prolonged sequences involving one of Gandalf's fellow wizards Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) that do nothing to further the plot. In fact, his only purpose is to alert Gandalf to the fact that an ancient evil has come back to Middle Earth, but since we already know how that all shakes out thanks to the LOTR trilogy, the stakes couldn't be lower. I understand that in the future, watching it all in sequence may make these scenes but important, but as a counter argument I present this thoroughly unnecessary sequence involving a meeting at Rivendell between Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). The scene exists only to get nerd boners pumped up because there's no proper introduction to any of them. We already know who they are because of the previous trilogy, so what exactly is happening here? I just want to know what the intended order should be for these two trilogies.
Those of you jonesing for a bland but messianic leader will get your rocks off on Thorin. He's got all the nobility and bluster built up that Aragon has in the previous trilogy, with a healthy dose of heavy-handed backstory to ensure that you root for him. The most egregious issue that this film has, though, is its never-ending series of climaxes. If you thought Return of the King had too many endings, it seems downright full of restraint in regards to the number of climaxes in this film, all of which, I might add, are resolved through increasingly ridiculous Deus ex Machina. Not one predicament that these characters get in can't be solved by someone or something literally coming out of the blue to rescue them.
The dwarves of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth are a bunch of over-the-top, helpless, comic relief hounds that serve no other purpose than to get themselves into predicaments where they either require rescuing or end with a "fatty make a funny" punchline. This contempt for the dwarves is nothing new, it was prominent in the original trilogy, but it's just getting egregious now. Shoehorning in burps and cutaways to fat dwarves falling down seems to be the only thing amusing Jackson in the editing room.
I got to see the film in the highly touted 48 frames per second projection and I cannot stress enough how much you should avoid this. It was quite the curiosity for me as a film fan, but it caused everything to look like a Discovery Channel documentary. It didn't look like a film at all. It looked like the most expensive documentary on Larping ever made. On top of that, people moved with a sped-up eeriness that recalls old footage of Babe Ruth running the bases after hitting a home run. It serves only to distract and made the cgi characters look like video games. The evil Pale Orc ended up looking like Kratos from God of War, and I don't mean that as a compliment.
While the film is not a total debacle on par with the Star Wars prequels, it reeks of being inessential. Had he devoted one film to The Hobbit and then another to Gandalf's stupid side quests and elf lineage, there might have been a reason for all the bloat. As it stands now, I cannot fathom what they're going to do with another six hours of film time to go. The final shot of the film puts Erebor at such a distance, in spite of how far they've already traveled, that it made me roll my eyes at how much they're desperately trying to keep this thing going.
There's a great film that can be made from The Hobbit and the assorted other stories from the Tolkien ephemera, but Peter Jackson is not the man to make those films. Handing him back the reigns was the worst decision anyone involved with these films made. He is not the genius everyone makes him out to be, and he doesn't have enough perspective on the material to know what should stay and what should go. His love for the source material makes him the worst possible choice to turn it into a film. The fact that this film runs the exact same length as Cloud Atlas which managed to condense a much denser novel into one film, lets you know what my gripes are pretty clearly.
I'll end up seeing the other films in this series, I know I will, but the bar may as well be buried at this point. I don't hold out any hope that things will get better, but as far as I'm concerned, I really dread them getting any worse.
GO Rating: 1/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Monday, December 10, 2012
"It can still be a date, even if you order Raisin Bran."
In spite of his (well-earned) reputation as one of the most difficult directors in Hollywood, David O. Russell still manages to get big stars to line up for his films. The main reason for that is likely his impeccable record. With just six features to his name, I honestly can't think of a bad, or even mediocre, one among them. Which makes it all the more astonishing that his latest, Silver Linings Playbook, may actually be his best film yet.
The film opens with Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after eight months in a mental hospital. The Philadelphia native attacked a man that was sleeping with his wife, and was sent to a hospital in Baltimore in lieu of jail time. Now that he's back in town, he's looking to get his life back together and win back his wife. He's living with his parents (Robert DeNiro & Jacki Weaver) and his refusal to take medication is making their efforts to help his recovery all the more difficult.
After reuniting with his old buddy Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), Pat meets Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is a mutual friend of Pat's wife, and she agrees to help him correspond with his wife, circumventing the restraining order she has on him, if he'll agree to be her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Tiffany is recently widowed and has been using dance as a form of therapy, and hopes that it will yield similar results for Pat. But of course, things just end up getting complicated.
That's the essential through line of the film, but like most of Russell's films, there are multiple subplots, my favorite of which involved Danny (Chris Tucker), another patient that Pat was in the hospital with, and his many bouts with being released from and dragged back to the hospital. The film manages to be such an effective romantic comedy by shirking all of the traditional tropes of the genre. Pat establishes early on that he's not interested in Tiffany because his main goal is to get back together with his wife, and the film is much more concerned with showing Pat putting the pieces of his life back together, rather than on ridiculous romantic flourishes that can bury a movie like this.
Anyone that has ever dealt with mental health problems, anger, depression, loss, or any combination of those, will be able to immediately and fully connect with these characters. The film is based on a novel by Matthew Quick, and these characters all come to the screen fully realized and incredibly well nuanced. These are real people, and you will find yourself empathizing with and laughing along as they wrestle with the same problems that plague so many of us. The world of the film is so well lived-in and whole, it's easy to just jump right in and find yourself at home in it.
The film could be equally off-putting to anyone who has not dealt with a lot of these problems. I could very easily see your average person, looking for a standard, above the line romantic comedy, being repulsed by this film. If you don't like your characters with three full dimensions that include flaws and ugly truths, this is probably not the film for you. If you found yourself wrapped up in the romantic whimsy of a film like Punch- Drunk Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, however, you'll find a lot of to love here.
I cannot say enough good things about Bradley Cooper in the leading role. He is fantastic in a way I've never seen him be before. He brings a ton of emotional depth to his role, and he's not afraid to let his wounds show on screen. His performance is revelatory and I sincerely hope that he is not ignored in the end of the year awards season. Jennifer Lawrence is every ounce his equal in a role that shows maturity eons beyond her age. She's a true old soul, and her performance is wonderfully nuanced. She bears the mark of a truly great actress in that she gets better with every film she does.
A sincere, heartfelt welcome back must be given to Robert DeNiro for his performance here as well. This is the Robert DeNiro that I loved and admired for so long, and he has two scenes here that show he hasn't lost his way entirely in the dreck he's been wallowing in for the better part of the last decade. He's every bit as good as you've heard, and has a resonant quality that will stay with anyone that grew up with a father similar to his character. Chris Tucker is also great in his small role. It's nice to see him in something other than a Brett Ratner movie for a change.
The only sad thing I have to report is on Jacki Weaver. She is great in her scenes, but her part was so woefully underwritten that she is just given next to nothing to do on screen. She makes the most of her scenes, but I wish there was more meat to her character. She's just not given anything interesting to do, and I found her presence distracting since she always did next to nothing. This is 100% the fault of the writing, whether it be Quick's novel or Russell's screenplay, I can just imagine what she could have done with the character had it been fleshed out.
As I said earlier, this is not a film for everyone, but the people who connect with it will connect with it deeply. It's not often that characters can have such deep flaws & terrible qualities and still retain likability and give you a reason to root for them. Silver Linings Playbook is a true gem of a film that will likely get better with multiple viewings. It's a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies, so gauge your expectations accordingly. I, for one, am over the moon for this film.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Friday, December 7, 2012
"You must be careful for a man is always capable of murder."
It's strange to think that in the thirty odd years since his passing, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock had never had a movie made about his life; Yet in 2012, we have been greeted with two films. The first was the HBO Original film The Girl with Toby Jones & now we have the big screen treatment, Hitchcock, featuring Anthony Hopkins as the man himself. So, does the film that bears his name do him any justice?
The answer is a resounding and stultifying no. Hitchcock may be the most misguided, reductive, nonsensical attempt to boil down the essence of so great a figure in the history of film as has ever been made. The film focuses on Hitchcock's attempt to make a film out of Robert Bloch's novella Psycho, a film widely and rightly regarded as one of the best suspense thrillers/horror movies of all time (by no less a source than yours truly). There's probably an interesting film that could have been made out his working life and an equally interesting film made about his personal life, but the way the two are so absurdly thrown together in this film makes both sides of the man's life seem as ridiculous as anything that's ever been put on film.
By seeking to find parallels to both the struggles that Hitchcock faced at home and at work, the film ends up pandering to and insulting the audience's intelligence. You could almost call out what was going to happen ahead of time when a scene began because it had been projected five minutes earlier. The most stupefying decision of all, however, was the choice to have Hitchcock periodically communicate with serial killer Ed Gein (who was the main inspiration for the character of Norman Bates) in a series of dream sequences/therapy sessions that reduced the director's tumultuous inner life down to a bout of paranoid schizophrenia.
In seeking to continuously & nonsensically draw parallels between Hitch's life & his trouble getting Psycho made, the film goes to increasingly absurd lengths to keep both sides of the story ever present in your mind. The dialogue is so reductive and pithy that it can't help but feel like the Cliffs Notes version of the real events. In fact, it's hard to believe that the script was written by John McLaughlin who wrote one of my favorite movies of the last decade Black Swan. This feels like a giant step backward, toward the more obvious & the more mundane rather than retaining that experimental edge that he had on that earlier film.
Director Sacha Gervasi directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and for his feature fiction debut, to call it anything but pedestrian would be to pay it too much of a compliment. I can understand avoiding comparisons to Hitchcock's work, but to steer clear of any of the cinematic tropes that he defined is mind-numbing to me. If this film had a better script and been directed by a true Hitchcock disciple like Brian DePalma, I can only imagine how great it could have been. And yes, I do realize that I essentially just said that with a different director and a different script this could have been a good movie.
You can never be entirely sure which Anthony Hopkins is going to show up in a film nowadays. Sometimes his over-zealousness is used to great effect (Thor) and other times to unintentionally comedic effect (The Wolfman). Thankfully he's very reserved and doesn't show-off much in the role of one of the icons of cinema. He underplays virtually everything, and reigned himself in nicely, although he's never fully successful at disappearing into the role. You're always aware that you're watching Anthony Hopkins.
The rest of the cast is reduced to more or less caricature, only on screen to serve a purpose that drives the story forward. The wonderful Helen Mirren is most sadly underused as Hitch's wife Alma. She's given too much of an air of mystery that the audience can't fully connect to and relate with her. I truly wanted to see her side of the various arguments she has with her husband, but the film kept her increasingly distant. James D'Arcy was good in the one or two scenes he had as Anthony Perkins, and Scarlett Johannson & Jessica Biel were thoroughly interchangable as Janet Leigh & Vera Miles respectively. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a cameo from Danny Larusso himself, Ralph Macchio.
Just a few weeks ago, Steven Spielberg boiled down the essence of Abraham Lincoln's life into a period of a few months to show us his life in microcosm. It worked to some extent, but it certainly worked a hell of a lot better than the filmmakers here who tried to do the same thing. Hitchcock fans will get a kick out of some of the references to his films and the macabre humor that's fused into the first forty-five minutes of the movie, but by the time you're watching Anthony Hopkins standing in a theater lobby slashing madly at the air while an audience is watching Psycho for the first time, you'll wonder what in god's name anyone involved with this film was thinking. I only wish I had an answer.
GO Rating: 1/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Saturday, December 1, 2012
"Do you stop believing in the moon just because the sun comes up?"
Marvel spent the better part of the last five years building up to this past summer's The Avengers, a film whose runaway success won't help but have you comparing it to Dreamworks' latest animated effort Rise of the Guardians. The film is the holiday/fairy tale version of Marvel's superhero super team, bringing together the heroes and legends of various ancient tales and giving them a bad ass spin. But is that a good thing? Read on to find out...
Rise of the Guardians opens with the birth of Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the pixie-ish boy who becomes the lord of all things snow & ice. He is unaware of the presence of other "Guardians," or protectors of children's innocence. These include a Santa Claus variant named North (Alec Baldwin), The Easter Bunny surrogate Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), The Tooth Fairy, Tooth (Isla Fisher) & The Sandman, Sandy. An evil warrior named Pitch (Jude Law) is using the Guardians abilities against them, stealing the children's teeth & harnessing Sandy's sleep dust, in order to destroy the Guardians' power over children & their innocence.
The Guardians hope to persuade Jack Frost to join with them in their fight against Pitch, but being an outsider is part of Jack's nature, and he seems to have more in common with the villainous Pitch than he does the benevolent Guardians. The film very quickly becomes a race against time to try and combine forces for good to destroy Pitch & protect the children of the world from evil.
There's something strangely quixotic at work in Rise of the Guardians, a film that has a wonderfully rich mythology and back story. It's the sort of film that seeks to rectify the worlds of fantasy, holidays & religion, even giving The Guardians their own "god" of sorts in The Man in the Moon. What makes the film such a conundrum to me, however, is the fact that these heady and lofty ambitions are jettisoned at the drop of a hat in favor of frenetic, mind-boggling action sequences. It's a beautiful film with a ton of ideals, yet it also seeks to be a crowd-pleasing action movie for everyone.
None of this is to say that there isn't tremendous power in a film that's reach sometimes exceeds its grasp. I'd go so far as to say that the biggest virtue of this year's Cloud Atlas was its refusal to compromise, but that film had three hours to play out both its philosophical and visceral urges in equal measure. This film tries to cram it all into ninety minutes and can't help but feel underdeveloped as a result. No child is going to sit through a three hour film, but much like 2009's fantastic Where the Wild Things Are, this is a film that is almost more about children than it is a film for children.
Ultimately the biggest detriment of Rise of the Guardians is its insistence on being "safe" for children. The addition of a group of mischievous elves (which seem to have been ripped off wholesale from Despicable Me's minions) are the most egregious example of this. While my daughter loved their antics, and was thoroughly entertained by them, they felt like a studio head's attempt to make the film for children rather than about them. The film would have been a million times better had it not succumbed to such base pandering.
The voice work is solid, top to bottom. Baldwin & Law are the stand-outs, using their natural abilities to their advantage. The only fault I could find in the voice cast is that Pine's voice is perhaps a bit too mature for such a mischievous character as Jack Frost. Someone with a bit more malevolence in their voice would have been a better fit, but that's a bit nit-picky of me. The animation is fantastic, and the 3D is also phenomenal, although sometimes the action moves so fast that it's a bit of a blur. In spite of that, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you see it in 3D for the fantastic flying effects alone.
Rise of the Guardians is not the rousing success it could have been, but it's got so much going for it that it's impossible for me to write it off. If a film's biggest crime is that it tries to do too much, it's hard for me to dislike it. However, any film that fails to live up to its full potential can't help but feel like a disappointment. Children ages 5-10 will love every minute of it and eat it up, but any older than that, and I can't help but feel that they'll be just a tad let down by a film that could have, and should have, been so much more than it ended up being.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]
Friday, November 30, 2012
"They're not happy." "Well I'm sorry to hear that, we aim to please."
One of the ten best films of the last decade was 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film was gorgeous & elegiac all at the same time, and had me instantly on board for anything director Andrew Dominik did in the future. His latest film has him re-teaming with that film's star Brad Pitt for the crime drama Killing Them Softly based on the book "Cogan's Trade," and apart from a healthy obsession with masculinity & violence, the film's couldn't be more dissimilar.
Two low-level thugs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) & Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are given a seemingly fool proof opportunity by Johnny Squirrel (Vincent Curatola, best known as Johnny Sack from The Sopranos) to knock over a high stakes underground card game. The game is being run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, wonderfully low key) who has a sad history of robbing his own card games, making him the perfect fall guy for these would-be criminals.
When the mobsters that got ripped off want vengeance, they call in Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to dole out justice. Cogan runs into a bit of a conundrum though when he realizes that he knows Squirrel, and therefore refuses to kill him himself. He asks the mobsters, represented by Richard Jenkins in a nameless role, to call in an old partner of Cogan's named Mickey (James Gandolfini) to make the hit. Problems arise when Mickey proves to be unreliable, and Cogan's plan seems like it's going to unravel.
If you didn't know that Jesse James & this film were directed by the same man, you'd never be able to guess it. Where the former film was methodically paced and elegantly shot, this film is brisk, gritty & dirty. That's not to say that it's an ugly film, quite the contrary, it's just a brilliant study in contrast. The violence that pervades both films is much more brutal here, but it's used just as sparingly. The film that most immediately jumped to mind when comparing this film to a recent release is last year's brilliant Drive, but where that film saved up all its violence for the third act, here it's spread throughout, yet no less graphic.
The film is very much akin to the crime films of the early to mid-70s, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Charlie Varrick, or Get Carter, full of wonderful character actors & long takes. The film's structure is unique in that it is sparingly edited. It's revelatory in many ways, since virtually every scene plays out beginning to end before cutting another scene. The inter-cutting and cross-cutting that has taken hold in the post-MTV era is nowhere to be found here, and it's a breath of fresh air.
The film also owes a huge debt to the films of John Cassavettes, in particular The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It's a much breezier affair than any of Cassavettes' films (clocking in at just over 90 minutes) but it feels like a kindred spirit to his films that focused on the seamy underbelly of life. There are very few characters worth rooting for in this film, yet you manage to find yourself sympathizing with multiple character at various times. In other words, it's a totally unique film to come out in 2012.
The performances are as good as can be expected from actors of this caliber. Pitt is the perfect actor for a role like this, making his character both stoic, funny, and somehow a decent guy in spite of his profession. Gandolfini & Liotta are two actors who have made their name playing heavies, and seeing them as broken down shells of the characters that made them famous is great. They both do solid work in just a handful of scenes. McNairy & Mendelsohn are also very good at playing the lowest of low lives, while also infusing their characters with tremendous empathy.
The script written by Dominik is spare and full of snappy dialogue, managing to make every line count. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is also outstanding, providing a wonderful contrast to the beautifully classic cinematography by Roger Deakins on Jesse James.
The only other thing worth mentioning as a potential roadblock for some audience members is the absolute dearth of female characters in the film. As far as I could tell there was only one female character with any dialogue, and that was a hooker (Linara Washington) who has a very brief scene with Pitt & Gandolfini. Anyone looking for strong female characters is not likely to find them here, but if that and the violence are not an obstacle to your enjoyment of the film, you'll find lots of other stuff here to enjoy.
The film is a meditation on masculinity and framing it in the context of the run up to the 2008 election will ground it firmly in that time frame, particularly in the years to come. Setting the film at a time when the country was falling apart and looking for hope & change gives the film an even more cynical edge to it, grounding the film in a time and place when everything and nothing seemed possible all at once. Killing Them Softly is one of the finest films of the year, and will likely stand the test of time as one of the great crime dramas of the decade.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]