Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 207: Now You See Me

"I need a time out... there's too many French people in the room."

Too many times I've been fooled into thinking that a great cast will automatically equal a great movie. I've been lulled into a false sense of security too many times by the likes of Troy, Mystery Men, America's Sweethearts, and All the King's Men. When the trailers first started appearing for this summer's magician bank robbers movie Now You See Me, I began to get flashes of the same dread. Could a film with a premise that sounds this preposterous really be populated by so many talented actors? Well, like any great magician, this cast was at least two steps ahead of the audience, because this is far and away the best film I've seen so far this summer...


Four struggling magicians with varying specialities are called together by a mysterious benefactor to form a team act that promises to take their abilities to the next level. There's street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), traditional illusionist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and struggling pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). They resurface one year later as the newly formed Four Horseman, financed by wealthy industrialist Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The big trick during their first show at Las Vegas' MGM Grand is to rob a bank thousands of miles away in France.

When they succeed, they are arrested and their case is assigned to bedraggled FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). Because of the international nature of their crime, Rhodes is paired up with Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), but they must let the magicians go once they realize that there's no physical evidence to hold them. With no other leads, the agents turn to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man who has made a living debunking the bad illusions of poor magicians. It isn't long before The Four Horseman announce their next show, and begin upping the stakes for their finales, and Rhodes & Dray traverse the United States trying to stay one step ahead of the rogue magicians.


To say any more about the film is to give away too much, although it would be virtually impossible for me to spoil the way that things shake out since it requires watching the entire film for it to make sense. Needless to say, the film is much more clever than I could have anticipated, particularly since it comes from the director of the Clash of the Titans remake, Louis Leterrier. In fact, I fully expected his direction to be the film's greatest liability, but he does an admirable job of keeping things moving and never getting too far ahead of the action, story or twists.

The film's screenplay was written by Ed Solomon (best known as one of the co-creators of the Bill & Ted franchise), based on a story Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt, and is the film's best asset by far. The dialogue is witty, funny & keeps things moving in new and interesting directions. It's nice to see a film that relies so heavily on dialogue and witty repartee between its characters, particularly in a summer that has, to put it mildly, valued spectacle over virtually anything else. The film is also smart enough to keep you guessing right up until the end, and, provided that you are willing to go along with their final twist, will make you want to see the film again to see how well it all holds together.

The only criticism I would offer of the screenplay is that it keeps The Four Horseman out of the picture almost entirely for much of the fourth and fifth acts of the film (it is most assuredly a five act structure). The audience becomes invested in their storyline & characters, and while the last third of the film does concern them, they're barely on-screen for any of it. It does make sense in the larger context of the story that the filmmakers are telling, but their presence is definitely missed for that portion of the film.


Having said that, however, the real star of the film is Mark Ruffalo. His character was by far my favorite, and Ruffalo rises admirably to the challenge of more or less carrying the film once he appears. This is not to say that the rest of the cast is bad, it was just nice to see him rising above the fray, since he has gone unrecognized so often in his ensemble work in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindThe Kids Are All Right, and even The Avengers. The first formal reuniting of Zombieland co-stars Jesse Eisenberg & Woody Harrelson is every bit as good as you hoped it would be. Harrelson is always a delight, and ever since The Social Network, Eisenberg has been able to create his own persona independent of older claims that he was the second coming of Michael Cera.

The rest of the cast is also great, with no weak links at all. Freeman & Caine are clearly having a great time as two old codgers, Fisher has some really great moments, particularly her introduction, and Franco has the best action scene in the entire film. Melanie Laurent is probably the only character not given a whole lot to do, which isn't surprising in a cast this stacked. Her character is meant to be enigmatic and mysterious, so most of the time, the audience is kept at arm's length from her, but she's certainly not distracting.


Much like Trance relied on your willingness to believe in the power of hypnotism to go along with many of the plot developments, Now You See Me similarly relies on your belief in magic to keep it afloat. Several characters in the film are continually reminding one another that a leap of faith is required to believe in real magic, and the screenwriters are clearly hoping that such subliminal suggestiveness will translate to the film's audience as well. It does require a few leaps in logic to fully go along with the film to all the various places it takes you, but once it has its hooks in you, it's hard to not go along for the ride.

If nothing else, you should at least be able to appreciate this talented cast delivering some zippy, fun dialogue, and you certainly won't get that in any other movie currently in release. This, more than any other film at the multiplex right now, is actually worth your time & money.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Day 206: Epic

"Moist is what we do."

Blue Sky Animation Studios is a solid anomaly in the animation world. Like a workhorse pitcher, they never seek to surprise or keep anyone on their toes, they just want something that goes right down the middle of the plate. They rely more on stunt casting & crowded, busy composition than they do on creative voice casting or innovative storytelling (the hallmarks of the better animation studios in the industry).

Therefore, it's hard to be too critical of their latest animated feature, Epic, as it has no real ambition beyond getting kids to sit down and shut up for ninety odd minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's lots of things to nitpick and pull apart in this film, but because it took no real risks, it's virtually impossible for me to look down my nose at the film. Maybe I'm just getting soft, but judged solely on its ambitions, Epic achieves more or less exactly what it set out to achieve.


M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) has just moved in with her estranged father Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother. Bomba searches the forest surrounding his home incessantly for evidence of little leaf men, coming off like a cross between Doc Brown & Wayne Szalinski, so basically, not fit to parent. Meanwhile, we discover that those little leaf men he's in search of really do exist, and there are two factions at war with one another. One faction, The Leaf Warriors, serves Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) in service of keeping the vegetation and plant life of the world healthy. The other, The Boggins, serve under the guidance of the maniacal Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), and seek to destroy all plant life, and thrive in its rot.

When M.K. has had her fill of her crazy dad (after what only seems like a few hours) she decides to run away, but finds herself thrust into the middle of this battle. She is presented with a magical bud that, when it blooms, will become the savior of The Leaf Warriors. She is shrunk down to their size, and joins a faction of warriors led by Ronin (Colin Farrell) & Nod (Josh Hutcherson) who must get the bud to Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler), a caterpillar (I think), who will know how to make it bloom and save their world.


My first, and most immediate, gripe with Epic is that it doesn't feel like its own movie. It borrows so liberally from other works of fantasy & animation that it can't help but feel derivative. Among the many stories it borrows from are Ferngully, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Lion King, Disney's Fairies films, and Avatar (a shocking statement as that film was borrowed almost wholesale from other works). It never truly feels like its own film, and that's a shame because there are some interesting ideas at play here. It feels like a kindred spirit to Zack Snyder's 2010 film The Legend of the Guardians, a film that tries to cram three films' worth of story and adventure into ninety minutes, and ends up feeling rushed and ultimately unsatisfying.

There are two things that I will give this film a ton of credit for however. First, it has the courage of its convictions to kill off a major character at the end of the first act, and then leave that character dead. Not many animated films do that anymore, and even those that do, almost always end up bringing that character back from the dead (I'm looking at you Rise of the Guardians). Second, the film has a handful of very creative visual sequences. The first major action setpiece (in which said character dies) is fantastically well done, and the film's running gimmick of having the little people's world run at a faster speed than the human world is very clever. Whenever the two worlds collide, the animators do an interesting job of conveying this, and it works better than virtually anything else in the film.


But like all Blue Sky films, this one is only as good as the mixed bag of a voice cast assembled to bring these characters to life, and here we have some good highs and some disastrous lows. First, there's solid work in smaller roles from good comedic actors like Sudeikis, Chris O'Dowd, Aziz Ansari, Judah Friedlander & Kyle Kinane. Then you have decent, if phoned in, work from respectable actors like Waltz & Farrell and work that's serviceable, but nothing to write home about from Seyfried & Hutcherson.

Then there's the ridiculous stunt casting. I know she's a mom, but Beyonce's voice is anything but matronly, and she sounds about twenty years too young for the role of the queen. And have none of these animators seen Steven Tyler's atrocious voice work in The Polar Express? What were they thinking giving him a character with more than two or three lines? Then you have Pitbull, most famous for thinking that the words brilliant and billions rhyme. Again, he's got a small part, but the measure of how good a complete film is, is in how well even the smallest roles are cast. I hate to use this analogy twice, but they just appear to be aiming right down the center of the plate, trying to appeal to as many people as possible, but can we please stop casting musicians to do major voice work in high profile films? It almost never works out well.


Epic is anything but, and while that's disappointing, it's anything but unexpected from an animation house like Blue Sky. Even their best work is mediocre, and they don't appear to be aiming for anything more. I'd take a film that shot for the moon and fell way short over a film that aims for Poughkeepsie and lands right in the middle of the town square. Your kids (under 10) will likely enjoy it much more than you will, but as C.S. Lewis said, "a children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Day 205: Pain & Gain

 "I knew Danny was making most of this shit up, but it didn't matter because we were gonna be fuckin' rich."

Michael Bay. Fewer names inspire such passionate reaction as his. From his early days spent as a music video director ripping off more talented video directors like David Fincher (you can find evidence of this all over youtube), Bay has been a lightning rod for controversy, most of which he goes out of his way to stir up himself. He is the kind of director that makes bold, brash, unsubtle, unintelligent movies, and makes a fortune doing it. He has undeniable talents behind the camera, but seems content to put those on the back burner in favor of shooting explosions, robots & tits in slow motion. 

Ditching his infamous Transformers trilogy, at least for the moment, he's scaled down and made Pain & Gain, a film that isn't bad, but in the hands of a better director, could have been fantastic. Based on a true story, Pain & Gain tells the tale of bodybuilders Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) & Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), two gym rats working at Sun Gym in Miami, FL in the mid-90s. Daniel is not content to watch others grab the American dream while he wastes away in a gym, so when a rich, new client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) comes to the gym and begins training with him, Danny sees an opportunity to take what he feels is his away from someone he feels doesn't deserve it.

Danny & Adrian recruit another new gym rat by the name of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help in their kidnapping & extortion plot, but he proves to be a weak link in the chain, sympathizing with Kershaw, and making their entire plan unravel pretty fast. Luckily for them, no one believes Kershaw's story, so they seem to have gotten away with everything. Kershaw employs a private investigator by the name of Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to do what the police wouldn't, but the three meatheads may prove to be their own undoing as they begin to run out of money and seek other sources of getting fast, easy cash.

The film is anything but subtle, but it manages to still be an entertaining enough film. While it thankfully never asks you to sympathize with these criminals, it definitely has fun at the expense of just about every character on screen, and usually not in a lighthearted way. In fact, my biggest issue with the film is that it's just plain mean sometimes. Characters, especially those who don't look like the typical Hollywood movie star, are treated with contempt for any sort of physical or mental deformities, and end up being the butt of almost every joke in the film. Michael Bay is just a mean dude. He's the equivalent of a playground bully, has all the cool toys, won't share them, and takes every opportunity he can to point out how stupid everyone else around him is. 

In spite of all this, the film is still highly watchable and holds your attention for two hours and change. While the characters act in the most ridiculous manner imaginable, Bay has no problem reminding you (sometimes in on-screen text) that what you're watching is a true story. And that's the best thing about the film. Truth is stranger than fiction, and this is a hell of a story. Michael Bay just couldn't be more wrong as the person to tell it. He can't focus on anything long enough to make it interesting and the film severely lacks focus. I can only imagine what this same film had been like in the hands of a much more skilled filmmaker or filmmakers, like The Coen Brothers. 

The performances are pretty good, for the most part, with Johnson being the stand-out. He's never had a character with this much depth to play on-screen before, and he rises admirably to the challenge. It feels sort of like his coming out as an actor, and makes me excited to see what the future holds for him. Wahlberg is disappointingly one-note in his performance, but his character is probably the least nuanced of the group. I know he's a better actor than this film let him be. Same goes for Harris, who's also good, but is playing a completely one-note character. Shaloub goes for broke in his role, and would like be a distraction if he weren't surrounded by chaos like he is here, but it's only in retrospect that I see his character to be all over the map.

Pain & Gain isn't a bad movie. But it certainly isn't a good movie. It's got a great story, some interesting characters, but lots of mean-spirited, attention deficit-esque filmmaking. Michael Bay just needs to stay in his corner of the sandbox with his robots, much as Tim Burton has come to realize he's only good at one thing, being a weirdo. It only makes it worse when he tries to do something different. He's just not suited to it, and ends up almost ruining what could have otherwise been a great little movie.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day 204: Star Trek Into Darkness

"Enough with the metaphors... That's an order."

In 2009, Paramount handed the reigns to one of its most successful franchises, Star Trek, to their in-house wunderkind, J.J. Abrams. The film that Abrams delivered was a fun throwback to the Trek of old, with plenty of action thrown in to hold the attention of viewers not used to the more leisurely pace of Gene Roddenberry's creation. The film was a surprise hit that summer, and expectations could not be higher for the follow-up, Star Trek: Into Darkness. So could the film live up to those expectations? Read on to find out...


The answer to that question will depend on two things... Your affinity for big budget, science fiction filmmaking & your tolerance for said filmmakers' interpretation of Star Trek. I will therefore be giving the film two scores, one as a joe schmo sci-fi fan with no particular reverence for the Star Trek canon, and one as the faithful Trekker that I am. I haven't done this before, but I've never encountered a film quite like this before that almost requires the scores to be separate.

Picking up less than a year after the events of 2009's Star Trek, Into Darkness opens with the Enterprise crew conducting two separate missions on a primitive planet with no knowledge of Starfleet. Circumstances force Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) to choose between breaking the Prime Directive, which dictates that Starfleet not let their presence be known on such planets, or letting his friend and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) die inside of a volcano he is attempting to prevent destroy said civilization. Kirk chooses the former, and is relieved of his command of the Enterprise by his mentor Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

A terrorist attack in London, masterminded by a rogue Starfleet officer by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) forces Pike to retake command of The Enterprise, and he chooses Kirk to serve as his First Officer. Another attack, this time of Starfleet Headquarters, forces Kirk back into the Captain's chair, and he gathers his crew to track down Harrison and make him pay for his crimes against Starfleet. Disobeying direct orders from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to kill Harrison, Kirk instead takes him into custody to stand trial, but gets more than he bargained for when Harrison's true motives come to light.


A little background on my history with Star Trek before delving into my review, I grew up a fan of The Original Series, and saw all of the TOS films in the theater with my father. He had introduced me to the series, and I was a fan for life from a young age. My favorite film of the series is Wrath of Khan, and it's a film that I love and never get tired of watching. I wholeheartedly enjoyed 2009's Star Trek and thought it was a great action film with lots of nods to fans of the original series. Putting aside any loyalty to the brand, I would say that Into Darkness is a worthy successor, upping the ante in all the right areas, and will be enjoyable to casual Trek fans and non fans alike.

Now, I'm going to stop being polite. As a Trekker, and more importantly as a diehard fan of Wrath of Khan, this film is a travesty and a sham of the highest order. For only the third time in my life, I walked out of the theater before the film ended. Granted, it was almost the end, but it just became too much for me to bear any longer. A series of events is set in motion that mirrors those at the end of Wrath of Khan, and while I wasn't happy with where things were heading, I accepted it and continued to watch, although I was getting more and more perturbed as I knew where they were heading. When the moment came however, and I won't spoil it here, but the diehards will know what I'm talking about, I couldn't handle it any more and I walked out.

It's fine to pay homage to what's come before, but when you're ripping off a vastly superior film wholesale in the way that Abrams and his hack screenwriters Roberto Orci , Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof were, I refuse to sit idly by just to see where you're going to take things. What they did is inexcusable and I defy anyone to tell me otherwise. It's a slap in the face to Star Trek fans everywhere, and it's even worse to do it in a film that was otherwise nicely setting up its own mythology. I take what they did personally, and I have a hard time believing that other Trekkers won't feel as strongly.


As for the performances, they're pretty good on average, with some being better than others. Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding as the villain of the film, and I have no qualms with saying he's the best thing about it. His calm, cool demeanor masks a rage that only boils to the surface at key moments, and he's a joy to watch when it does. As for the main crew, Karl Urban as Bones and Simon Pegg as Scotty remain the best at paying homage to their original counterparts without ever devolving into mimicry. They are, without a doubt, the best crew members to watch in these films. Bruce Greenwood is also great in his two scenes as Pike, making him a worthy father figure for the wayward Kirk.

But about that Kirk, Chris Pine is just awful as Kirk. First and foremost, he's not given good material, and I would go so far as to say that the writers treat Kirk like a moron. But it really doesn't help that Pine is so devoid of anything even resembling a personality that he makes mediocre material even worse in practice. His James T. Kirk has all the braggadocio and bluster that made William Shatner such a fantastic Kirk, but he has none of the street smarts or brilliant split second decision making that made Kirk the best captain to ever commandeer the Enterprise. Pine looks like a child on bring your kid to work day, and that should never be what I see when I look at James T. Kirk.


The film is well choreographed, well paced and solidly entertaining summer action nonsense. But as a Star Trek movie, it's grade-A dreck. The filmmakers can't go fifteen minutes without a major action beat, virtually every conversation is had while running or walking or yelling at one another, and there's no time for anyone to convey any ideas without setting up the next action beat. It's a fun movie, but it's not a Star Trek movie. And even worse, they rip-off the greatest Star Trek movie of them all to try and lend the film some much needed gravitas, and they just end up looking as bad as the people who produce those mockbuster movies over at The Asylum.

J.J. Abrams, you may have fooled the general public into thinking that you're a great action director, but you sir are nothing more than a world class hack, content to sit back and rip off much better filmmakers than yourself. Everyone involved in this film owes an apology to Trekkers everywhere, and you can rest assured that this Trekker in particular will approach anything you do in the future with appropriate caution. I shudder to think of what you're about to do to the Star Wars universe.
Average Joe GO Rating: 3/5
Trekker GO Rating: 0/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Day 203: Iron Man 3

"You know what keeps going through my head... where's my sandwich?"

I'm not entirely sure why I have a preternatural desire to re-establish my geek cred every time a new superhero movie comes out, but here goes... I have never really been a fan of Marvel Comics. Growing up, Daredevil was the only Marvel superhero I read with any regularity. I was always, and will likely always be, a DC kid at heart. Since Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, however, I have enjoyed Marvel's film output much more than DC's. I'm not a big fan of any of the Spider-Man films, or anything 20th Century Fox has done with Marvel characters, except the first two X-Men films and First Class. Beyond that, though, I have thoroughly enjoyed the Marvel cinematic universe that has been mythologized beginning with 2008's Iron Man.

The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark was the first step they made towards upping their game, and it hasn't let up at all, creating some really great comic book films up through last year's Avengers, which I liked despite not loving it like everyone else. So now that all the setup is over, what's the next step for this batch of Marvel superheroes? If Iron Man 3 is any indication, it's time to start throwing all of the comic mythology out the window, and start creating more realistic confines, similar to what Christopher Nolan did with his marvelous Dark Knight trilogy. But do these characters really lend themselves to this treatment? Read on to find out...

The short answer is no, they don't. My biggest beef with Iron Man 3, in fact, is that it could have gone balls to the wall, pure comic book silliness, and it didn't. Now, what I mean by that is that audiences have accepted a universe where gods, aliens, superheroes & supervillains all co-exist in the real world. So why shy away from the more fantastical elements that a villain such as The Mandarin could have presented? But I'm getting ahead of myself...

In the aftermath of the epic battle that saw him team up with The Avengers, Tony Stark is experiencing something he never has before... anxiety & panic attacks. He is haunted by his memories of seeing and fighting against things he never dreamed possible. Meanwhile, the US Government is facing a new terror threat in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a next level terrorist, seeking to instill fear in the American people by routinely hijacking the airwaves & broadcasting terrifying messages.

Tony finds himself tinkering away, trying to create a new Iron Man suit that can fuse to his body from great distances, but finds himself sucked into The Mandarin's game when his bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) is seriously injured in one of The Mandarin's attacks. Tony goads The Mandarin into coming after him, and ends up losing his home, suits & direction in an attack on his Malibu home. Tony must now get his groove back and find out what's at the heart of The Mandarin's plot, and find out if it has anything to do with an old adversary, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), that has reemerged, seemingly out of nowhere.

First things first, I think that choosing Shane Black to write & direct this film was an inspired choice on Marvel's part. Black was the go-to big budget action screenwriter for most of the late 80s & early 90s, and has sensibilities that play directly into this new breed of big-budget action films. Downey is an actor blessed with the ability to deliver Black's dialogue incredibly well, and their pairing is what keeps Iron Man 3 afloat, even as it gets bogged down in nonsense. 

A lot of people get down on Iron Man 2, but apart from the fact that it spent more time setting up The Avengers than anything else, I thoroughly enjoy Iron Man 2. It certainly doesn't hurt that it had two fantastic actors (Sam Rockwell & Mickey Rourke) teaming up in a classic villain revenge plot. Having said that, I don't understand, then, why everyone is giving Iron Man 3 a pass for having, basically, the exact same villain dynamic, except for the fact that Killian's tech is more advanced than what Hammer & Vanko were working with. Can anyone explain this to me? It's basically the exact same motives for this villain as they were for the previous villain. Is this the new trend in Iron Man villains? They're all motivated by revenge on Tony Stark for being an asshole? 

The similarities between this film and The Dark Knight Rises are staggering. I know that this film was in production when that one was released, so it's unlikely they could have incorporated so many similar elements intentionally, but this film really felt like an attempt to say, "we can deal with all of the same subject matter in a more lighthearted way." Here are just a few of the strange coincidences: Main villain turns out to be a pawn of another villain, hero spends most of the film out of his trademark suit trying to deal with crippling psychological issues, hero is a playboy billionaire philanthropist who inexplicably only has eyes for one woman, terrorist mastermind seeking to instill fear through the destruction of the elite in our society, stupid kid sidekick for no good reason, "clean slate" program. I'm not saying... I'm just saying. 

My biggest gripe, however, is the way they handle The Mandarin. If you haven't seen the film, skip to the next paragraph, as there's some serious spoilers ahead. Let me start by saying that Ben Kingsley is FANTASTIC in this film, without a doubt the best thing about it. Even when he's revealed to be just an actor playing a part, I loved what he did. I was not crazy about that particular reveal, but I fully admired his choices and thought he was outstanding in the film. In the comics, The Mandarin has 10 magical rings that he acquired from an alien race that crash landed, and he uses them against Stark in ever interesting & creative ways. This universe has already established aliens, why not keep this element intact? Are they afraid that introducing magic into this world will be the last straw for some people? We've come this far, why not go whole hog? It's a cop out, and a nasty one at that, to introduce this particular supervillain, and then wash him away as a plot device, only to have Tony Stark end up battling, essentially, zombies. I know the Extremis infected people weren't really zombies, but that's more or less what they were. This entire subplot was troubling to me and makes me upset that if they're willing to introduce major characters into this universe just to throw them away at the drop of a hat, what are they going to do with Thanos or Doctor Strange or some of the even more fantastical characters?

I'm being a tad unfair towards Iron Man 3. For the bulk of its running time, it's solidly entertaining. Black deserves all the credit in the world for this, as I'm sure most of the plot developments I disagree with were studio mandated. Downey will never be as good as he was in the first Iron Man, but he's still very good here. His scene in the news van with his biggest fan was my favorite in the entire film, and was the perfect synergy of Black's great writing and Downey's terrific delivery. Don Cheadle is perfectly fine as Rhodey, but he's given very little to do here beyond sidekick shit. His handful of scenes with Downey, though, are among the best in the film. 

Guy Pearce is someone that I used to like a lot, throughout the 90s and early 00s, but I'm just not a fan of what he does anymore. It's sad to me that they made a point of not killing of Justin Hammer at the end of Iron Man 2, and he could have very easily have been this character without having to establish an entirely new character and backstory, but some of that may have to do with my undying love for Sam Rockwell. The less said about Gwyneth Paltrow, the better. She's someone I genuinely cannot stand (with the exception of Sliding Doors), and beefing up her role just helped to push me further and further away from the love story elements they're so desperate to infuse this series with.

Lots of great actors are more or less wasted in glorified cameos, like Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, and Miguel Ferrer, but one actor I would like to praise is James Badge Dale. I first took real notice of him with his fantastic five minute scene in the hospital stairwell in Flight, but his role here as Killian's main henchman is great also. He's a vastly more interesting screen presence than Pearce, and I would have actually liked to have seen what he would have done with a better or more meaty role. He is, most assuredly, an actor to watch.

So yeah, I know I'm supposed to just take these things with a grain of salt, and sit back and not think too much, but I'm really bothered by a lot of what they did with this film. Again, I can only fault Marvel and Disney for these decisions, as they seem to great to leave solely to the writer/director. I didn't dislike Iron Man 3, I'm just disappointed by it. Maybe my attitude toward it will change over time, as it sort of has for The Avengers, but only time will tell. Right now though, at this moment, I have no qualms with saying it is my least favorite of the Marvel Avengers films. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, May 10, 2013

Day 202: The Great Gatsby (2013)

"I wish I had done everything on earth with you."

The quintessential high school English teacher's go-to novel for nearly the last century, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has received no fewer than five film adaptations and an opera. So why on earth did we need another film version of this masterwork? The honest answer is, we didn't, but it's more likely that none of the previous adaptations have been wholly successful in bringing the novel to life. So how did director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) & executive producer Jay-Z fare on their version of Gatsby? Read on to find out...


The short answer is that this film is nowhere near the travesty that the trailers have led me to believe it was going to be. Don't get me wrong, it's got issues, they are numerous, and I will dive into them, but overall, I was impressed by how much relative restraint Luhrmann was working with, especially considering that's never been known to be a quality he had in any measurable quantity.

For those of you that managed to escape high school without having to read the novel, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, who possesses Matthew Broderick's inability to age past 23) is an idealistic stock broker living in the fictional town of West Egg, NY during the Jazz Age. Carraway's cousin is Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) who lives with her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) in old money East Egg, just across the harbor, but it's his neighbor, the reclusive & enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), that helps Nick to come out of his shell.

Gatsby throws elaborate parties every weekend at his mansion, and Nick attends one on invitation from Gatsby himself. He is instantly sucked into a brave new world, and comes to find out that Gatsby is desperate to reconnect with Daisy, the proverbial "one that got away." Nick is conflicted because his cousin is a married woman, but he is persuaded by Gatsby's numerous charms, and also his extraordinary sense of hope. The further we dig into the world, the more we see that no one is really who they appear to be on the surface, and the love triangle of Daisy, Tom & Gatsby is doomed to meet with a fatal end.


The first thing that I was taken with was how similar the structure of the first act of Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is to Gatsby. I would have to watch them both again to prove this theory, but the major beats seemed to be identical, all the way up through Gatsby's introduction (set brilliantly to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"). The frantic pace established in the first thirty minutes of the film slows at this point, though, and I was downright shocked at how Luhrmann managed to fight his baser instincts and just let the story play out in a very classical way. The rapid fire editing, camera tricks & gratingly anachronistic soundtrack choices begin to take a back seat to the love story portion Fitzgerald's story.

The major problem with this, however, is that Luhrmann can't maintain this sort of pace either, and the climactic scene set at The Plaza Hotel, just lies on the screen like a cold, dead fish. The scene is so devoid of anything even resembling a spark, I found myself beginning to check my watch with regularity from this point on. What's more, the fatal car crash that follows this scene is so laughably melodramatic, that whatever semblance of momentum that had been building to this point dies right along with the somewhat minor character killed in the crash.

I will fully admit to actually being on board with almost every choice that Luhrmann made up until this point (except for his grating soundtrack choices). I would even go so far as to say that the film was excellent up until the Plaza Hotel scene. The tone, pacing & major story beats all worked together seamlessly to make the film highly watchable. Luhrmann's use of 3D was similarly good, utilizing depth of field well, and even tacking a brilliant, lingering lens flare on to the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock. But the film's final thirty minutes are patently awful, borrowing liberally from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.


The last thing I want to mention delves a bit into spoiler territory, so if you want to go in fresh, skip to the next paragraph. My number one issue with the film was its fundamentally flawed understanding of the character of Daisy. Perhaps it's just based around my view of the world at the time I first read the novel, but I always saw Daisy as the primary antagonist of the novel, much more actively involved in bringing about Gatsby's demise. Here she seemed to be written to be a worthless pawn of the powerful men around her. I can't possibly be alone in thinking this about her, but it certainly never crossed the minds of Luhrmann or his co-writer Craig Pearce.

The performances are probably the weakest thing about the entire film. DiCaprio stands head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble, giving us, arguably, the definitive portrayal of Gatsby on screen. He shows all of the vulnerability and naivete that most other men to portray the role have kept hidden, and this makes him as endearing to the audience as he is to Nick. The other main players are all decidedly weaker. I've never been a fan of Tobey Maguire as an actor, but he's the cinematic equivalent of a wet sandwich in this film. He has no personality, and if he didn't constantly remind you of how smitten with Gatsby he was, you'd never know it from the blank expression he wears throughout the entire film.

Carey Mulligan is perfectly fine as Daisy, I think I just hated the filmmakers' interpretation of the character too much to decide whether or not she was actually good in the film. Joel Edgerton is an actor I've come to like quite a bit, particularly since his role in Animal Kingdom, but here he's woefully miscast. The scene I keep harping on, set at The Plaza Hotel, he played all wrong, and he never seems to be truly manipulative in the way an old money Buchanan would. He just sort of plays him like a dope. The rest of the supporting cast is fine, and Bollywood fans should get a kick out of seeing Amitabh Bachchan as Gatsby's dubious business associate Meyer Wolfsheim.


I was a senior in high school when Baz Luhrmann brought teenagers out in droves to see his interpretation of Romeo + Juliet, and if the late night screening I attended of Gatsby last night is any indication, he's about to work similar magic with young people once again. I only hope this prompts them to actually read the novel though, as the film is very firmly an interpretation of the novel and not the final word on it (hopefully). I liked the film a lot more than I ever thought I would, but the film's third act is fatally boring, unoriginal and downright stupid at times. This is not the disaster I thought it was going to be, but it's also not the great film the first hour or so led me to think it might turn out to be.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Top 5: Films That Failed to Stick the Landing


It's happened to everyone. You're watching a movie, and things are starting to wrap up, and all of a sudden, you see it: The Perfect Ending. But then a strange thing happens... the movie keeps going. Even though they had the perfect ending, the filmmakers don't end their film, and in the process, come dangerously close to tarnishing your entire opinion of the film in the process. This has happened numerous times in films that I've watched, and today, I'm looking at my Top 5 examples of films that failed to stick the landing because they didn't end minutes or seconds sooner. Beware, spoilers ahead...----
5. Mystic River (2003, dir. Clint Eastwood)image


Clint Eastwood spent the latter half of the nineties & the first two years of the new century stumbling through rote, interchangeable thrillers like Blood Simple & True Crime. However, his 2003 adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel Mystic River put him back on the map in a big way. The film features brilliant performances from all of its leads, including Oscar wins for Sean Penn & Tim Robbins. At the film's climax, Penn's character Jimmy kills his childhood friend Dave (Robbins) because he's blindly & wrongly convinced that Dave killed Jimmy's daughter. When their other childhood friend Sean (Kevin Bacon), who is a detective, confronts Jimmy to find out when the last time he saw Dave was, the film is never more intense, as the audience is wondering if Sean will put aside his lifelong friendship and turn his friend in. They discuss their childhood, and Jimmy defiantly walks away from his friend, boldly daring him to try and pin Dave's murder on him. If the film ends here, it's a masterpiece, but instead, it continues for another several minutes, ending at a parade where all the major, surviving characters shoot furtive, borderline ridiculous glances at one another. Apart from watching Dave's wife Celeste stumble through the parade crowd in a panic, the film could lose all of the rest of this and not be changed one iota from the much better ending that happened several minutes sooner.

4. Source Code (2011, dir. Duncan Jones)image

Good science fiction filmmaking is so hard to come by these days, but one of the most original science fiction films in the last few years was 2009's Moon. Directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, it placed me firmly on board for anything he did in the future. His follow-up film was 2011's Source Code, a film with a complicated premise, but one that makes perfect sense while you're watching the film. The film builds beautifully to an ending where the hero Capt. Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) realizes that he's been used by his superiors, but he gets one more 8 minute loop on the train before his life is to be terminated. As the eight minutes expire, he finally leans in to kiss Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and a beautiful freeze frame occurs, leaving us and him in the moment he always wanted... until it unfreezes and they espouse some nonsense about him having created an alternate timeline. Look, I'm not down on happy endings, but when they're tacked on to an otherwise perfect downer of an ending, they really grate on my nerves, and that's exactly what happens here.

3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, dir. Steven Spielberg)
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There is no director in the history of cinema that fails so consistently to end his films where they should end than Steven Spielberg. While I could have easily given this slot to Minority Report or War of the Worlds, I had to go back to the first film I've ever walked out of in the theater, 2001's A.I. David, the android who wants to be a real boy, finally makes it to the fabled Blue Fairy and finds himself trapped in a frozen ocean, praying to his deity to make him a real boy. This ending is haunting and gorgeously shot, and was the most likely ending point back when original director Stanley Kubrick was going to make the film. The only problem is, it's not where the film ends. It proceeds for another fifteen minutes and gets bogged down in gobbledygook that includes super advanced A.I. and a plot contrivance that finally made me storm out of the theater (he kept that lock of his mother's hair in his pocket for thousands of years? Please). Had the film ended when it should have, people would have been depressed, but likely would have talked about the film as a modern masterpiece. Instead, when is the last time you heard anyone talk about this film, let alone even thought about it yourself?

2. LA Confidential (1997, dir. Curtis Hanson)image

One of the best films of the nineties, Curtis Hanson's tribute to film noir, LA Confidential, builds flawlessly to a dramatic shoot-outat The Victory Motel. Our heroes Bud White (Russell Crowe) & Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) are hopelessly outgunned, and Exley seems ready to die in the line of duty, just like his idol, his father. White takes three shots to the back, presumably killing him, but Exley gets the upper hand on the crooked Capt. Smith (James Cromwell), who advises Exley to hold up his badge when the cops show up, so they know he's a cop. Exley then shoots Smith in cold blood, but manages to get his badge in the air just as a swarm of patrol cars arrive. Had the film ended here, it would have made the film a masterpiece, as it nicely tied up all the multiple themes and story lines at play throughout, but instead we get a thoroughly unnecessary epilogue where we find out that White survived his fatal looking wounds, and ends up with Lynn (Kim Basinger). While the twist that Smith ended up a fallen hero was somewhat of a downer, had the film ended with the shot of Exley with his badge aloft, people would talk about it in the same breath as "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

1. The Hurt Locker (2009, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)image

An undeniably brilliant film, and one of the more deserving Best Picture winners from the past few years, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is an intense look at the lives of American soldiers in modern day Iraq. The film's hero, Sgt. William James (a never better Jeremy Renner), spends his days in Iraq defusing i.e.d.'s, and is only truly happy when putting his life or the lives of his fellow soldiers in danger. After two botched missions leave his partners with a respective leg injury & a total loss of will to continue serving, James himself returns home to his wife (Evangeline Lilly) and infant son. The film's absolute most brilliant moment comes on a shopping trip, as his wife send him to the cereal aisle to buy cereal, and we see a man who has always been 110% sure of himself and his purpose in life, lost in a mundane world that most of us are right at home in. Had the film cut to black here, I would have no problem calling it one of the best films of the last decade, but there are two more scenes that insist on spoon feeding the audience this message that was so well conveyed with a single image. James delivers an impassioned monologue to his son and then heads back to the Middle East, the only place he's truly at home, while blaring rock music kicks in. Sure, it's a great tribute to men like Sgt. James who will continue the fight when everyone else has given up, but it's a bit heavy handed considering the film had such a beautifully poetic final image some five minutes earlier. It doesn't make me hate the entire film, but it keeps me from loving it as much as I want to.

So there you have it. Please let me know what you think and what some of your favorite movies with better endings would be. In preparation for this article, I asked a bunch of my film geek friends, and there were two films that kept coming up which I would like to attempt to defend if I may.

The first one is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While that film most certainly suffers from not knowing when to end (though to be fair, they were wrapping up three film's worth of storyline), it most assuredly ends at the proper moment, with Samwise back in the Shire, living happily ever after.

The other one I heard a lot was No Country for Old Men, and I couldn't disagree with this more. While the entire Anton Chigurh/Llewelyn Moss storyline was riveting, it was not what the movie was actually about. You need look no further than the title to discover that the film is actually about Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Ed Bell, coming to terms with his own uselessness in a world of bold new crimes & criminals. While the film keeps you riveted with its cat & mouse chase, the film needs to end with Sheriff Bell becoming aware of his own mortality, and how he lives in a world that truly is not for old men.

What are some of your favorite examples?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Day 201: Mud

"You can call me a hobo, 'cause I'll do work. You can call me homeless, 'cause right now that's true. But if you call me a bum one more time, I'm gonna teach you a lesson in respect your daddy never did."

Writer/director Jeff Nichols created one of the more interesting films of the last few years with 2011's Take Shelter. As a matter of fact, now that David Gordon Green has moved on to almost exclusively direct stoner comedies these days, Nichols has become the premiere Southern gothic filmmaker. His latest film Mud, in addition to being his best film yet, continues the year long winning streak of its star Matthew McConaughey, that started with last year's Bernie. So why & how is it his best film yet? Read on to find out...

Fourteen year olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) & Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live along a river in rural Arkansas, and on a small inlet, they discover a boat up in a tree, carried there by the most recent flood. After deciding to claim it as a hideout or fort for themselves, they discover a mysterious drifter named Mud (McConaughey) has been hiding out in the abandoned boat. Mud is in some trouble with the law, and is waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to join him on the island so they can escape together.

Ellis is going through turmoil at home, with his parents splitting up, and is immediately taken by Mud, because he seems to be motivated by that most wonderful ideal to any fourteen year old boy, true love. He & Neck begin recruiting supplies to try and help Mud get the boat out of the tree, but when a series of bounty hunters show up in the small town looking for Mud, the clock begins to tick.

First things first, this film is the kind of slow burn character film that just isn't made that much anymore, certainly not by major studios. Though McConaughey gets top billing, young Tye Sheridan is arguably the star of the film, and that's another risk you don't see being taken often enough. It pays off incredibly well because both Sheridan & Lofland have a preternatural ease on screen, and their scenes together are some of the best in the entire film. The film is also populated with a ton of great character actors in small roles including Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker & Sarah Paulson.

In fact, in any other film, I would be sad to see such great talent relegated to such small roles, but these two boys are so fantastic, you never seem to mind that the big names are barely on screen. As the title character, McConaughey shines, making you believe he's got the kind of sordid past his character requires. In fact, I would use his co-star Witherspoon as a great counterpoint example. Witherspoon looks like a beautiful, Hollywood star acting like she's slumming. McConaughey is so at ease in the skin of this drifter, it never feels like he's acting. He clearly took a ton of inspiration from Robert Mitchum's brilliant performance in Night of the Hunter, and these two films would make a fantastic double feature.

Nichols' screenplay is wonderfully sparse, filled with just enough dialogue to help build character, but never feel too talky. Nichols creates wonderful mood, atmosphere & tension naturally, without ever feeling forced. The film builds and builds, and while the climax tended a bit toward the ridiculous, the film's denouement was much better than the one found in Take Shelter. I got worried he was going to fail to stick the landing once again, but the final two scenes of this film are wonderful.

While I think this is a film that can be enjoyed by just about everyone, I think that anyone who's ever been a forlorn & love sick fourteen year old boy will connect with this film in a very visceral way. Ellis' journey through the phases of love, both with what he experiences personally and what he sees happening around him, is so wonderfully realized. The film is never cynical about love, but keeps it at an appropriately aesthetic arms' length, and therefore keeps it feeling solidly real. And Michael Shannon's brilliant monologue & deconstruction of the meaning of The Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" is worth the price of admission alone.

While I've been hesitant in my recommendations for both Trance & Lords of Salem, I would wholeheartedly recommend Mud for just about anyone. Every audience member will connect with it differently, but it's a fantastic character study & slow burning thriller. It's the kind of movie you keep saying that they don't make much anymore, but thankfully, they do and they did. Go see Mud, you truly won't regret it.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]