Friday, October 26, 2012

Day 163: Cloud Atlas

"A half finished book is, after all, a half finished love affair."

After a four year hiatus from the big screen, Andy & Lana Wachowski return to the director's chair, this time joined by a rather unlikely kindred spirit, German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). To say that their latest film is a one of a kind epic of unbelievable spectacle and overwhelming ambition, would be the understatement of the year. Their collaboration, an adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, is nothing short of one of the finest films I've ever seen.

The Wachowskis grabbed everyone's attention back in 1996 with their neo-noir film debut, Bound, one of the best heist films of the 90s, but it was their follow-up film, 1999's The Matrix, that set the world on fire and re-defined action & sci-fi filmmaking. They fell from grace almost immediately, however, when that film's 2003 sequels were, let's say less than well-received. Their last film, Speed Racer, was greeted with an equally cold reception, but like The Matrix sequels before it, have rightfully gained a cult following in the interim.Tykwer had a very similar trajectory, though his star never rose to the heights of The Wachowskis, at least here in The US. He's been doing director for hire work lately with films like 2009's The International, and seemed just as unlikely to take us by surprise.

Cloud Atlas is a film that virtually defies description. It's six tales, set over several hundred years, that are all inter-connected through various people and events. Nearly every actor in the film pulls sextette-duty with a role in every timeline: An 1830s high seas journey, a 1930s composer's odyssey, a 1970s journalistic conspiracy tale, a 2012 farcical comedy, a 2140s science fiction escape adventure, and a far future dystopian quest. It sounds so much more confusing than it actually is, and the ease with which the filmmakers weave these six tales together is mind-boggling.

The actors are all top-notch, pulling from some of the biggest stars in the world (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant) to journeymen character actors (Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David) to British heartthrobs (Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy) and stunning newcomers (Doona Bae, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi). Everyone is given at least one showcase role, and they all get a chance to shine. Bae is particularly dazzling in her scenes set in 2144 Neo Seoul & Hanks is fantastic as always in virtually every role. They all get to play their fair share of good and evil characters, which is welcome in a film like this. I can't say anything good about any of the characters that Grant plays, but he's much better at being despicable than I ever thought he could be, and Weaving excels at playing villains.

The two standouts in the cast for me, however, were Berry & Broadbent. Halle Berry is not an actress I've ever had a particular affinity for, but I thought she brought a wonderful, lived-in quality to her roles, especially when she plays the 70s journalist, risking her life for a big scoop. Broadbent is also great throughout, but really shines in his present day comedic scenes. His character's predilection for the word "ruddy" always managed to make me laugh, and he proves to be one of many, many characters in this film worth rooting for.

While it's hard to sum up the plot (make that borderline impossible), it's the kind of film that works better when you don't know all of the particulars. For a film that jumps around in time as much as this one does, it's never frustrating. They cut away at major moments, but it's almost always to another key part of the story, so you're not focused on missing out on something. For as much as I fear this film will be ignored at award time, I truly hope it's recognized for it's superior editing. This is one of the best edited films I've ever seen.

One assurance I can give you is that it makes every effort to give the audience a satisfactory pay-off in a holistic manner. The scenes in the far future are hard to follow at first because of the tribal dialect the characters use, but after two or three scenes, you begin to keep pace. The same can be said for all of the little coincidences that pop up throughout. You're rewarded for noticing every little thing, and it's not often that you can say that about a film. Even though it runs close to three hours, it's never boring, not even for a second, and the momentum that builds over the course of the film make the third act hugely satisfying.

Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that Cloud Atlas will likely not get the audience it deserves, particularly here in the US. Epic films that don't feature Hobbits or aren't directed by James Cameron don't tend to draw big crowds, and that's sad. That Tykwer & The Wachowskis were able to wrap up all of their loose ends and tell an epic story with a beginning, middle and end in under three hours is a miracle in and of itself. We live in an era that rewards sloth in filmmaking. Mediocre fare like the fourth Twilight book is broken up over two films with barely enough substance for one, and it's greeted with record-shattering box office. However, when filmmakers have the integrity and fortitude to confine their ambitious vision to one film, it's greeted with apathy.

I cannot recommend that you see Cloud Atlas enough. See it on as big a screen with as ear-drum shattering sound as you can. You may not love it as much as I did, but I guarantee you'll walk away from it feeling as though you've experienced something. And when is the last time you walked out of a theater thinking that?

GO Rating: 5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, October 22, 2012

Day 162: Alex Cross

"I will meet his soul at the gates of hell before I let him take another person I love from me."

Yeah, pretty much. That's but a taste of the overly verbose dialogue that crowds every inch of the film Alex Cross. If there's been a dumber detective movie made in the last ten or so years, I certainly haven't heard about it or seen it. As a matter of fact, I was a bit of a pariah in the theater, openly snorting and giggling at some of the more preposterous elements of this film, much to the chagrin of the serious minded Alex Cross fans in the audience.

I realize that I am not the target audience for this, and I fully admit that I went into the film knowing that it had gotten awful reviews, so I was there for the wrong reasons, but it doesn't mean I didn't pay my money like everyone else. In order for me to fully explain how awful the film is, I'm going to get into some spoilers, but don't worry, I don't expect you to see the movie and I don't think you should, and even if you do, these won't ruin your enjoyment of the film.

First off, Jesus Christ on a cracker, this movie is stupid. There's an old adage in screenwriting that you should enter a scene as late as possible and end it as quickly as possible, but screenwriters Marc Moss & Kerry Williamson have never heard of this. Well, in fairness, it may have been a directorial decision made in editing the film, but virtually every scene of this movie has thirty seconds of establishing silence before beginning the dialogue, and then once the dialogue begins, it's almost solely expository.

They feel the need to have a scene where Tommy (Edward Burns) tells his new partner Monica (Rachel Nichols) that he's sleeping with, but has known for two months, that he's been friends with fellow detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) since they were kids. The next scene is between Tommy & Alex and consists almost exclusively of them swapping stories from their past as kids growing up. Virtually the entire movie has mind-numbing structural contradictions like this. It's positively rife with them.

Here's another one I'd like to throw at you. This trio of detectives is hunting a serial killer (I'll get into how fucking stupid this character is shortly) and the killer is able to glean their identities not from any sort of crackerjack detective work, but because they live in a world where the local newspaper publishes photos of police detectives on the front page. Yeah. This is a totally plausible occurrence in the world in which this film exists.

So, about that killer. Matthew Fox plays him, and he doesn't have a name. His character's name on imdb is listed as "Picasso" because one character in one scene calls him that, so I guess that's as good a reason as any. Matthew Fox is an actor I have no particular affinity for, even though he was on one of my favorite shows of all time, Lost. However, viewers of Lost will know of this annoying tic that he has where any time his character of Jack thought he had the upper hand, his eyes would bug out and he would begin to take huge, dramatic pauses in between words. Okay, so his character in this movie does this the entire time. He seems to think that it makes him look intense, but it makes him look like an asshole.

So this killer is only a pawn in a much larger scheme, he's a hired hand who, we're told later, came highly recommended. Yet he hangs out at his first crime scene and sketches a picture for the detectives that will surely case the scene, and within this sketch, he includes a hidden message as to who his next victim will be. What the fucking fuck? What kind of logic is that? This guy's a paid assassin, receiving orders from a person disguising his voice on the phone with him, yet he knows not only who his next victim is, but he disguises it in a MAD Magazine style fold-in drawing? These are the sort of stupid, inane, nonsensical details that should be weeded out in a first draft, or at the very least be deleted from the film before it's released into theaters.

But, I'm getting hung up on minutiae here. Let's get into the absolute stupidest thing that this film does. The killer uses a sniper rifle to try and kill Alex Cross, but instead kills his pregnant wife. This leads to a solid fifteen minutes of scenes where Alex Cross has to comfort his other children, deal with his own grief, and get a sassy talkin' to from his mother about his duties as a father. In the interest of full disclosure, I've never seen a Tyler Perry movie before, but I imagine that these schmaltzy, ham-fisted scenes are the kind that his films are typically made up of, as they have no business in a detective film like this.

Much like my similar complaint with the villain in this summer's Dark Shadows, the filmmakers felt the need to pile on offenses for this villain because they don't trust the audience enough to want to see him taken down for his crimes. The filmmakers feel as though his crimes have to be so egregious and personal that the audience can't help but ravenously root for the hero to disembowel him, and be satisfied with nothing less.

The whole endeavor is a nightmare. Director Rob Cohen (Stealth, XXX, The Fast & The Furious) is the worst possible director for a film like this. His action sequences are all shaky-cam nonsense that you can't follow to save your life, and he thinks that swelling the strings on the score is a substitute for tightening the screws of suspense. The performances are almost comedically miscalculated. Tyler Perry has a loyal following, and I'm sure there are people out there who think he's a good actor, but he's so woefully miscast here. His idea of being intense involves staring off into the distance and delivering his lines in a trance-like monotone.

The only thing worse than Ed Burns the director is Ed Burns the actor, and he's as awful as ever here. Even semi-respectable actors like John C. McGinley, Giancarlo Esposito, & Jean Reno show up, almost to add some respectability, but fall just as flat as everyone else thanks to the awful script. That brings us to Fox, who is as bad as anyone has ever been in anything. He is irredeemably awful here, mistaking pauses and intensity for actual character traits. It's a horribly misguided performance, made all the worse because of the equally bad material he was given.

Avoid Alex Cross at all costs. Even if you're a fan of the other films in the series, this one bears no resemblance to those. It's as bad a movie as I've seen all year, and will certainly live in infamy as one of the only films ever made that I could find absolutely nothing positive to say about.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012


My faithful readers,

I am stuck. I'm in a bit of an existential funk as it is, but one thing I could always fall back on, no matter how hard things got, was that I could still sit down, watch a movie, jot down some notes and then crank out a review. Now even that feels like a chore. It took me a full four days to sit down and write my review for Seven Psychopaths, which I loved, because I get angry with myself for falling back on the handful of adjectives and phrases that I use to praise virtually every movie that I love. I found myself deleting entire sentences because I couldn't come up with a new way to say what I wanted to say.

I could chalk it up to writer's block, or maybe just a lack of enthusiasm for writing in general, but I don't think that's the issue. Here's the issue. I'm not well. Mentally or physically. I know that I need to do something about my physical well-being, and I have for a long time. I'm just too lazy to even get started at this point. Even going to the gym for 30 minutes a day was too much for me, so I haven't gone in a while. My mental well-being is also in a state of flux due to my current anti-depressant not being as effective as my last. I need new meds, which I should be able to just go and get, but my lack of insurance coverage has left me just taking my old meds in hope that things just don't deteriorate.

Why am I getting so personal on a movie blog that's supposed to be fun and enlightening about film criticism? I don't know, I guess I'm just trying to let you know why I can't write as well as I used to. I have a back log of some 20+ reviews that I've started and haven't finished, everything from The Dark Knight Rises to Easy Rider. I just stopped writing them because I felt like I had no interesting angle from which to approach them. It's sad that the abominable reviews for Alex Cross have made me interested in seeing it, just to see if I can write some hyperbolically bad review in an attempt to get my groove back. Who knows if that'll work though.

I guess what I want, more than anything, is for those of you who read my blog with any regularity to just throw me some suggestions. If you're a writer, how did you get unblocked? If you're just an average schmo, what movies do you want me to review? I need help, and I certainly haven't been able to find any within myself.

On a side note, my oldest daughter Clementine and I have been watching the entire series of The Simpsons in order over the past few months. We just started Season 9 this morning, and it's been one of the best things I've ever done with my child (as weird as that sounds). It's been a great experience, and I would highly recommend it for anyone with a child over the age of 6.

Okay, any help from anyone would be greatly appreciated and let's break out of this funk together!

~Elitist Movie Snob

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day 161: Seven Psychopaths

"Gandhi was wrong, and I'm the only one with the balls to say it."

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh started off as strongly as any writer in the late 1990s. His plays from Beauty Queen of Leenane to The Lieutenant of Innishmore racked up acclaim, Tony Award nominations, and respect from critics and fellow writers for his ability to capture the underbelly of everyday life mixed with scathing humor. His feature film debut was 2008's In Bruges, which earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, is an even better experiment, that is sure to be under-seen and under-appreciated.

A struggling writer by the name of Marty (Colin Farrell) is working on his latest screenplay for which he has a title, "Seven Psycopaths," and not much else. His best friend Billy Bickle (the brilliant Sam Rockwell) is desperately angling for a chance to help with the screenplay, but is also involved in some side work with his friend Hans (a never better Christopher Walken) as dog nappers. They're stealing dogs from a park near the LaBrea Tar Pits and returning them several days later for the reward money.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of the dogs they steal happens to belong to a mobster (Woody Harrelson). Marty's screenplay is also taking shape thanks to a tip from Billy about a serial killer by the name of The Jack of Diamonds killer, going around LA killing low-level mobsters. Before long though, the unlikely trio finds themselves on the run from the mob, and various other psychopaths they are encountering in greater numbers.

The film is a spiritual cousin to films like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in that it's almost more of a commentary on the very nature of writing than it is a film unto itself. The film is as layered and nuanced as anything Tarantino has churned out in his career, but can't help but being held up as an imitator, when it's far from it. It's sad to say that the film will likely end up being a victim of its own cleverness. Essentially, you're watching the film that Marty's writing, but the brilliance of it is that it's also shaped by the budding writing aspirations of both Billy and Hans, making it into a bit of a jumbled mess in the second act. But it all serves a higher purpose.

It's the kind of film that won't get the audience it deserves. The people who would truly enjoy it will likely stay away for fear that it's just another wannabe potboiler, and not the truly brilliant statement on action and crime films that it actually is. What sets it apart is that it's almost like watching a story being work shopped right before your eyes. Story lines come and go, but somehow manage to all tie together neatly at the end. As a matter of fact, the ending is brilliant beyond words, and worked for me in a way that I never thought it would. Conversely, I could easily see someone walking out of the theater detesting the direction they take at the very end of the film.

A huge part of what makes the film so successful is the performances. Rockwell is my favorite actor currently working, and he's in a full-on frenzy here. If you're not a fan of his from films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you likely won't be won over by his antics here, but for me they worked beautifully. Walken hasn't been this good in a long time, either. He goes for broke and it pays off huge dividends. He's fully given in to self-parody and it plays so brilliantly, I think he's going to be sadly devoid of awards recognition at the end of the year.

While I've never been a particularly big fan of his, Farrell makes a great leading man here. He underplays everything so well, and knows how to sit back and volley to his co-stars, giving them the payoffs, it's a great showcase for his unique abilities. Harrelson also makes the best of his slightly underwritten role, infusing his character with an unpredictability that pays off wonderfully. There's also some great small roles from Tom Waits, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. It's an amazing cast, top to bottom.

I hate that I always have to qualify films that I love by saying that this is not a film for everyone, but it truly isn't. While I found the film to be brilliantly self-aware and endlessly quotable, I could see it coming off as jarring or annoying to the average movie goer. If you love films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and the other films I've already mentioned, I would have a hard time believing that you wouldn't love this film as well. When I saw Argo last week, I remember thinking that it was one of the better movies that I've seen this year, but that I likely won't go back it watch it again. On the other hand, Seven Psychopaths is a movie that I cannot wait to see again. And again. And again.

GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, October 12, 2012

Day 160: Argo

"You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day."

When you get right down to it, there is no more pure way to evaluate a director's success than how much he or she improves with each successive film. Using solely this criteria, Ben Affleck is one of the best directors working in American cinema. His first film behind the camera was 2007's excellent Gone Baby Gone, followed in 2010 by the even better The Town. 2012 has seen him direct his best film yet, and arguably, one of the best thrillers in recent years, Argo.

Based, like so many great true stories, on a footnote from history, Argo tells another side of the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis. Six workers at the American Embassy in Iran escaped when the building was being seized, and hid out at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. When word reaches the CIA, they set in motion a series of half-baked plans to extract the Americans from Iran. The only idea that gains any traction however, is one posed by Tony Mendez (Affleck) to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a phony sci-fi flick titled Argo.

Mendez travels to Hollywood to meet with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to see what sort of material he can gather to make this idea work. They team up with producer Lester Siegel (the brilliant Alan Arkin), who sets them up with everything they need from a fake cast to posters & press junkets. The major hiccup in the plan however, is that Mendez will have less than 48 hours once he's Iran to prep the six people and get them out with a sound enough alibi that can fool the Iranian military & government.

The story first came to light when it was declassified by President Clinton in the mid-90s, and an article written by Joshuah Bearman appeared in Wired magazine. The story is compelling and gripping enough on its own, but Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio turn it into first rate drama. The way that they layer on complications and potential roadblocks that threaten to derail the mission at any moment, is masterful. The film's 120 minutes fly by, even though it's as unnerving as any two hours I've spent in a movie theater.

The true mark of why it's such a great film, however, is the way it effortlessly weaves humor into the film. The portions set in Hollywood are hilarious, with Arkin getting most of the best lines and relishing every minute of his screen time. The humor brings much needed levity to the dense subject matter, and never distracts from the main tension at hand, merely alleviates it enough to make the whole experience more fulfilling.

The performances are outstanding, with Affleck using his effortless charm to prove why he became a movie star in the first place. The supporting cast is also great, including a small roles from the always great Bryan Cranston, as well as Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador. The stand-out among the six Americans would probably be Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, the most reluctant to participate member of the group. A scene late in the film between him and Affleck is underplayed very well, and ends up making what should have been a groan inducing scene into a touching coda to the story.

Ultimately, the credit for the film's tremendous success belongs to Affleck. Like so many actors turned directors, he has a firm admiration for the films he was raised on, and never hesitates to give everyone else around him in the film their moment in the spotlight. He uses actors to their fullest, and uses the tropes of filmmakers like Cassavettes, Pakula & Lumet to great effect. All of his films feel strongly influenced by these and other great filmmakers of the 1970s, but this is the first time he has really stood on his own and showed how these influences have shaped him into a great filmmaker himself, rather than just paying homage.

Argo is a challenging, gripping, tense and hugely satisfying film. It is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of that term, in that it's not only engaging, but also enjoyable to people across many demographics. It's a solid film that will hold the interest of just about anyone who buys a ticket to see it, and I can't recommend any higher that you do. Ben Affleck has flipped the script on even his biggest critics. This is a grade-A effort on his part, and I eagerly look forward to whatever he directs in the future.

Go Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Day 159: Frankenweenie

"What were you boys doing up there?" "Science."

I had been hoping that 2012 would be a return to form for the once reliably macabre Tim Burton, but following the disappointing Dark Shadows, that hope seemed to wither away into nothingness. I'm not even sure what a return to form would look like at this point, it's been nearly two decades since Burton has made a great film (Ed Wood) and the only correlation I can make is that as his budgets have increased, his imagination has decreased.

It's only a matter of time before his films become derivative of his earlier films and he begins repeating himself ad-nauseum, and while I wouldn't necessarily say that his latest film Frankenweenie falls into that category, it's certainly not the long awaited return to form we've been hoping for.

Based on Burton's own live action short film of the same name (which is available on The Nightmare Before Christmas blu-ray from a few years back) Frankenweenie tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who loses his dog & best friend Sparky in a tragic accident. Being a young man with a healthy interest in science, thanks to his over zealous science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor stumbles upon the idea to bring Sparky back to life using electricity.

When his secret is discovered by his classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), Victor is blackmailed into becoming a reanimation veterinarian. The other children in town have their own designs on bringing their deceased pets back to life, and the film builds towards a climactic showdown of the various reanimated animals. There are some subplots involving the other children and a scene that I rather enjoyed involving the scared townspeople turning on the science teacher, and invariably, the very notion of science, but like most every other subplot, it went nowhere fast.  

The film isn't short on imagination, and it wears its heart for old monster movies firmly on its sleeve. The other kids in town resemble & even sound like famous horror film stars from Boris Karloff to Paul Muni, and science teacher Mr. Rzykruski is clearly based on Burton's beloved mentor Vincent Price. My favorite homage was the town's mayor, Mr. Burgermeister, based on the character from the classic Rankin/Bass holiday favorite Santa Claus is Coming to Town. There are homages aplenty, including the climactic showdown at a windmill, and they add to the overall loving air of attention to detail that the film is packed with.

Burton has always packed his films with outsiders, but with no real antagonist in this film, the outsiders struggle to find any meaningful direction. As I mentioned earlier, the subplots come and go quickly enough that you can't get invested in any of them, but the main plot has no real driving force to it, leading the final battle to have very low stakes. It could have been better had they stuck with the small-minded townsfolk's fear of science, but that's just one of many avenues that could have made the film feel richer and more complete.

The voice cast is notably good, featuring a mini-reunion of sorts for lovers of Beetlejuice, as the film features both Winona Ryder & Catherine O'Hara voicing characters. Martin Short is also a welcome addition in multiple roles, giving Victor's dad a nice, understanding tone that is usually in short supply in films about outsider kids. The child voice actors do admirable work as well, although it is odd to have both adults and children voicing the child characters.

The animation is fantastic, rendered in glorious black and white. I am an ardent admirer of stop-motion animation, and this is very good, if almost too bland. It doesn't have the anarchic glee of an Aardman Studio film or the visual opulence of a Laika film, but it doesn't look bad and adds to the overall eeriness of the film. It feels clinical rather than homey, and that does give it all a bit of a disadvantage when held up to other films in the genre.

Ultimately, it turns out that a film needs more than a lot of love for its influences to be a complete film. The film just doesn't have a ton of substance. It's a cute diversion and never overstays its welcome, it's just didn't have enough at stake to feel like a full experience. Tim Burton has it in him to make a great film again, it's just that he's wallowed in mediocrity for so long that when he does something halfway decent such as this, it ends up seeming much better than it actually is as a result. There's a lot to like about Frankenweenie, but I really wanted to love it.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]