Friday, June 28, 2013

Day 215: The Heat


"I'm telling you there's a mole. It could be that albino rat or it could be your boss Puss in Boots."

Much like The 40 Year Old Virgin was the coming out, so to speak, of Judd Apatow to the world, so too was Bridesmaids for his Freaks & Geeks co-creator Paul Feig. Seemingly doomed to wallow forever in under-appreciated and underused-ville, Feig showed that world that he had the comedic chops to direct a feature film. His follow-up film, The Heat, seems like a can't miss comedic formula. Pair a beloved actress (Sandra Bullock) with a comedic force of nature (Melissa McCarthy) in a subversion of the buddy cop formula. So did it pay off? Read on to find out...


Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is a by-the-book, horribly disliked FBI Agent yearning for a promotion when her boss Hale (Demian Bichir) gets promoted himself. In order to give Ashburn a chance to improve her reputation, Hale sends her to Boston to work on a drug running case that's given the agency some trouble of late. Upon arriving in Boston, Ashburn finds her first true lead, a low level drug dealer by the name of Rojas (Spoken Reasons), was just brought in for questioning by a reckless officer named Shannon Mullins (McCarthy).

It isn't long before Ashburn finds herself partnered with Mullins to try and crack open the case of who the mysterious drug lord at the top of the chain is. But naturally, their styles clash and their tenuous partnership is threatened by their equally stubborn behavior. Can they learn to not only accept one another for who they truly are, but solve the case, and make time for plenty of stops along the well-worn path of the buddy cop movie formula? I'll let you figure that one out for yourselves...


The Heat is a fantastically funny and winning film that I can see having great appeal across a number of demographics. In all honesty, the only complaint I can seriously level at it is that it's a bit lethargic and too long for it's own good, but any comedy clocking in at the two hour mark suffers from this same flaw. I personally was never bored or disinterested, and I actually liked the languid pacing of the film for one major reason: It's a character based comedy, and the more time you spend in the company of these characters, the more fully realized they become. Too often filmgoers complain that film characters have changes of heart or reversals too quickly, in the interest of speeding along the plot. Here the plot take a bit of a backseat to the character building, and in all honesty, those are the kind of films I love best.

I can guarantee that your average filmgoer will likely get bored with the film or nitpick bits and pieces that could have been cut or trimmed to keep the running time down, but coming out on the other side of the film, I view all those moments as essential. You can tell immediately that the film will be like this when all of the exposition is handled in one brief scene between Ashburn and Hale, and is followed by a scene of equal length that consists of nothing more than Ashburn sitting in her apartment watching tv and playing with her neighbor's cat. As a fan of character-based comedy, I knew immediately that I was in good hands with the film.

The film does a remarkable job of playing on your pre-conceived notions of what a buddy cop movie should be, and it almost delights in delaying certain tropes just to get you excited for those moments when they inevitably come. It's a fantastically clever way of playing on the audience's expectations, and I salute Feig and writer Katie Dippold for being smart enough to fall into the genre traps even as they're subverting them.


Sandra Bullock is a wonderfully talented actress, and really shines in roles like this. It's unfortunate when she is lauded for mediocre performances in maudlin dreck like The Blind Side, and then virtually ignored when she hits it out of the park like she does so often in films like this. McCarthy is fantastic as well, proving to be one of the most dynamic comedic screen presences currently working. This is a perfect case of the material rising to meet her formidable talents, something she was sadly not given in this year's Identity Thief, a vastly inferior film in every regard.

What truly sets this film apart though is the amazing supporting cast. Every actor in McCarthy's demented Boston family (in particular Jane Curtin, Bill Burr, Nate Cordrry & Joey McIntire) is hysterically funny, and hits all the beats you want them to. In smaller roles, great comedic talent like Tony Hale, Michael McDonald, Thomas F. Wilson, Dan Bakkedahl and Kaitlin Olson flesh out the world. They're all underused, but wisely leave you wanting more, so that's refreshing in this day and age.


Ultimately, the film comes down to the chemistry between Bullock & McCarthy, and they are wonderful. I would have happily spent more time in their company, and if you're fans of theirs, you would be foolish not to see The Heat. Anyone who says that there are no great female roles would do well to watch Paul Feig's films, because he's probably the only male director right now focused on giving these talented and funny women the showcases they deserve.

GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Day 214: Monsters University

"We gotta get out of here, I can't go back to jail!"

2001's Monsters Incorporated was one of the first Pixar films, but it also established Pixar as an animation company interested just as much in telling great stories as utilizing the latest technology. Unfortunately Pixar, of late, has turned their focus more to the latter and almost completely ignored the former. Cars 2 and Brave, while both gorgeous to look at, can hardly be viewed as torchbearers of the Pixar golden age of great storytelling.

But could a return to one of the studio's most beloved pairs of characters yield the kind of results the studio has failed to produce of late? 2013 sees the return of Mike & Sulley, but rewinds the clock and sends them back to their formative years with Monsters University. Is it a worthy companion piece to the original or just another futile return to the well for a once great studio? Read on to find out...


While I'm happy to report that Monsters University is a solidly enjoyable, largely entertaining film, it's hardly the kind of film that will draw cheers of ecstasy from the general public. Don't misunderstand me, even a middling Pixar effort, which this most assuredly is, is still better than the bulk of what lesser animation houses are churning out, but it's still a mostly forgettable and slight film. Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is an idealistic young bookworm of a monster who discovers, on a field trip as a youngster, that he wants to be a "scarer" when he grows up, that is a monster that travels into the human world and scares children to harness their screams, which power the monster world.

As a college freshman, enrolled in Monsters University's Scaring Program, Mike establishes himself as a smart & dedicated student, albeit one who everyone seems to agree just isn't scary enough to make it as a scarer. Mike's arch-rival is a young James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a scare major with a rich family pedigree that seems to think he can just coast into a career as a scarer. When a mishap gets both scarers kicked out of the program, they're forced to join a second rate fraternity and compete in The Scare Games, a competition in which the winning fraternity gets admitted back into the Scaring Program. Can this scrappy bunch of misfits compete against major league competition from the other fraternities?


Well of course they can, and will, and therein lies Monsters University's greatest fault... It's far too rote & predictable to be a Pixar film. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautifully realized world, full of tons of genuinely enjoyable characters, but to hang their story on such a well-worn pastiche as the age old "snobs vs slobs" underdog story is just lazy. The film has some nice nods to films like Animal HouseCaddyshack and virtually any other film of this ilk you can think of, but that works almost wholly to its detriment because it has no identity of its own.

It also falls victim to what I like to dub "prequel syndrome" where it relies on you having seen the first film in the series, and therefore takes very little time to establish anything that's already been established in Monsters Inc. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it's just ultimately confusing for the future when you'll be unsure of which film to watch first. It similarly lacks the first film's heart, which came from the relationship between Sulley & Boo. Without a Boo-like character to base the film's emotional core around, it becomes nothing more than an an entertaining but somewhat hollow comedy.

It does speak volumes, however, about the relationship between Mike & Sulley that it is enough to ultimately propel this film. Your goodwill towards these characters is most assuredly tapped into, and it makes you take an almost immediate liking to two characters who are, at least in this film, selfish and self-centered individuals. Granted they've got to have some adversity to overcome in order for the story to work, but they don't start off as particularly likable.


Most of what I just mentioned is ultimately successful because of Crystal & Goodman's voice work. They have created two wonderful characters, and the energy and heart in their line readings keeps the film going. The supporting characters are all solid as well, with Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, and especially Charlie Day, adding great characters to this world as the other members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity. It's nice to see another side of Steve Buscemi's villain from the first film, Randall, too, and Helen Mirren brings the proper amount of gravitas as Dean Hardscrabble.

The film's design is gorgeous and fully realized, and it's definitely something to brag about. It's a lovely world to spend two hours in, and the technology is working at its very pinnacle. I should also mention the short film beforehand, The Blue Umbrella, which is done in amazingly photorealistic animation, but is similarly another story about two objects falling in love and then overcoming all manner of adversity to get together. It's nice and incredibly well-made, but it's nothing you haven't seen before, which is ultimately the problem with the feature film as well.


Believe me when I tell you that the design, voice work, comedy and heart are not what's ultimately wrong with the film. It's the story by director Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, & Daniel Gerson. It's just too trite and obvious and ultimately unnecessary. It's funny, it's cute, and it's fun to watch, but it's just not the Pixar I grew up loving. I'm hopeful that since the first film's director Pete Docter has turned his attention away from this prequel and towards telling a new story (Inside Out, set for release in 2015), that Pixar can regain some of its former glory. Otherwise, they're just going to become their parent company, Disney, and while that's not a bad thing, it's ultimately disappointing, because while they're still very good... they used to be great.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, June 21, 2013

Day 213: Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


"But masters, remember that I am an ass, though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass."

In 1993, Kenneth Branagh brought one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies to the big screen with his star studded film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Virtually everything about that film is perfect, with the glaring exception of Keanu Reeves, so why then do we need another film version of Much Ado? I guess the simple answer is, why do we ever need another version of any Shakespeare play on film... a new concept.

Joss Whedon, at first glance, seems an unlikely filmmaker to try his hand at Shakespeare, but in the wake of shooting last year's The Avengers, he gathered several friends for two weeks at his home and shot a new vision of Much Ado. Beyond filming it in black & white and in modern dress, did Whedon do anything that merited another adaptation? Read on to find out...


I'm happy to report that while this isn't quite as good as Branagh's version, it's still a solidly entertaining film with lots of performances and directorial choices to admire. Much Ado tells the story of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a nobleman welcoming a squad of soldiers back from a victorious battle. The details of the battle and what kind of soldiers they are is a bit fudged in this version, but I digress. The soldiers are bachelor-for-life Benedick (Alexis Denisof), lovelorn Claudio (Fran Kranz), malicious Don John (Sean Maher), and are led by John's brother Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). Claudio is immediately smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), and Don Pedro sets about a plan to woo Hero to Claudio's side, and secure the blessings of her father.

Benedick, meanwhile, finds himself confronted with an old romantic adversary, Leonato's niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). The assembled set in motion of course of events that attempts to drive the two sworn enemies into each other's arms. In the midst of all this, Don John concocts a plan to trick Claudio into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful to him, and the lovers are threatened to be torn apart by this deception. Since this falls under the guise of one of Shakespeare's comedies, we know everything will turn out alright in the end, but the series of events that get us there is where the true joy in watching this story unfold lies.


First things first, Whedon wisely takes a page out of another director's handbook to help flesh out the characters. One of the main things I liked about Michael Hoffman's 1999 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream was how he added in wordless asides and flashbacks that served to build up the characters' backstories. Whedon does the same here, opening on a doomed one night stand between Beatrice & Benedick that serves to illustrate why these two dislike each other so much from the start. There are a lot of other moments like this throughout the film, many of them involving the buffoonish constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), that added dimension to the story without having to attempt to reword or unnecessarily move the dialogue around.

The film is brilliantly composed and shot in gorgeous black & white, one of the major advantages of digital filmmaking. Black & white takes on a lustrous tone here, and the work by cinematographer Jay Hunter is very good. The score, done by Whedon himself, is also very good, including a nice, jazzed up version of "Hey Nonny Nonny" that accompanies the masked ball scene early in the film. There are probably several nitpicky things that I could call out in regard to the time period lapses and the virtual non-explanation of what war and where these soldiers are coming from, but the words override all else, and it's a doozy of a script.


The performances, sadly, are a mixed bag. While some of the actors handle the Shakespearian dialogue with aplomb, it very quickly sinks some of the others. Denisof & Acker are both good as the two leads, but they pale in comparison to the lively wordplay achieved by Branagh & then-wife Emma Thompson in the 93 film. It's almost unfair to make the comparison, but as good as they are, they end up feeling like pale imitators in the end. Reed Diamond as Don Pedro & Clark Gregg as Leonato are far and away the most natural with the dialogue, and their scenes together elevate the rest of the film.

Fran Kranz does some interesting things with his character, infusing his dialogue with modern pauses and tics, but Claudio is such a banal character that it's really difficult to be excellent while playing him. Likewise Morgese as Hero, it's just an underwritten character, but she does a fine job with it. As much as I love Nathan Fillion as an actor, he flounders a bit as Dogberry, trying to underplay everything, and most of his laugh lines landed with a thud. Two of the worst offenders, however, are Don John's co-conspirators Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) & Conrade (Riki Lindholme). While both attractive young actors, they feel oddly out of place, and their villainy reads more like boredom or a fundamental misunderstanding of their characters.


Much Ado About Nothing is a risky experiment that almost completely pays off. Thankfully Whedon understands the characters and the dialogue enough to keep things moving lightly for much of the 107 minute running time, and his final shot is absolutely gorgeous, the kind of thing that proves what a fantastic director he is. Most of my grievances are of the nitpick variety, so please don't let that dissuade you from seeing it. If you're a fan of Shakespeare or the Whedon-verse in general, I highly recommend Much Ado. It's one of the better film adaptations of Shakespeare to come out in recent years, and I can only hope he does more down the line.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Day 212: Gangster Squad

"Don't shoot where it is, son; Shoot where it's gonna be."

One of the most absurd, ridiculous, preposterous movies made in the last several years, Gangster Squad is the kind of film that loves to think it's a fun & original homage to film noir, but in actuality, it's so blinded by its own stupidity, it can't even tell a coherent story. Director Ruben Fleischer grabbed everyone's attention with his 2009 debut feature Zombieland. In my review of his second film, 30 Minutes or Less, I chalked that film's failure to connect as a film to the typical sophomore slump that hits virtually every filmmaker. Little did I realize, it was nothing more than a sign of things to come... infinitely worse things.

Gangster Squad borrows so liberally from other, better films, it has no identity of its own. It never met a cliche it didn't like, and if it had just a tad more of a sense of humor about itself, you could replace the word Squad in the title with the word Movie, and it could almost pass as a genre parody. Featuring far better talent than befits such a piece of dreck, Gangster Squad stars Josh Brolin as John O'Mara, a sergeant with the LAPD in 1949, who is shown early on playing by his own rules. One might go so far as to call him a loose cannon if one were so inclined. O'Mara is charged by Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, gravelly as ever) to form a squad, as it were, that will go after Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a crime lord whose ruthless tactics have all but ensured that he rules the entire Los Angeles crime world.

Joining O'Mara on his squad are salty old sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), smart guy Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black guy Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), hispanic guy Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) and slightly looser cannon Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who has found himself smitten with Cohen's moll du jour, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Getting back to Navidad Ramirez & Coleman Harris for a second, I identified them by their race rather than any character traits because that's all the film expects of them. They are given no identity by the filmmakers outside of being a blind stab at diversifying their demographics. And seriously, Navidad Ramirez? Why don't you just call him Pancho Villa?

The biggest mistake made by Fleischer and his screenwriter Will Beall, is treating the audience with utter contempt. I dealt with the issue of paying homage versus wholesale rip-off in my review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, but this is another film that I honestly don't think was smart enough to nod at film noir genre conventions, and thought that just ripping them off in the hopes that no one would notice would be enough. Everything from the doomed shoeshine kid, to the harebrained attempts at writing hard boiled noir dialogue fall flat. Add to that the fact that the film revels in 21st century cgi blood & guts effects, and the film is a mess from start to finish.

Anyone who genuinely enjoys film noir will roll their eyes in disgust at this film's boneheadedness, so they can't possibly be trying to appeal to that segment of the audience. You need look no further than the use of Jay-Z's "Oh My God" in the film's theatrical trailer to see at whom they were marketing this film, and the fact that they knowingly marketed this to young people and minorities is disgusting to me. It's a blatant statement by the studio that they knew it wouldn't fly in middle America, so they made a bald faced attempt to change their marketing strategy and hope that people would be dumb enough to spend their money on this piece of trash. It's shameful.

Now, let's talk about the cast. Sean Penn throws any and all respectability he has into the wind with his performance here. Caked in ridiculous makeup, Penn flails and flounders in one of the most absurd displays of overacting ever committed to film. Brolin's a decent actor, but he's never looked more bored or disconnected to a character before. He seems like the only one that can smell the steaming pile this movie would turn out to be. Gosling is his usual comatose-self here, mistaking being stoic for being tough. Late in the film when he starts pistol whipping dudes, screaming, and dumping acid on them, it's too little, too late to salvage whatever was left of his somnambulant performance.

Nick Nolte is in far too little of the film to be interesting or effective. I thought that maybe when he showed up to the premiere of the film in his bathrobe that this was a sign that he was equally crazy in the film, but no, he's just gone off the rails in real life. Giovanni Ribisi is fine as the doomed-from-the-start Keeler, but he seems to have played a variant on this role at least a dozen times by now (most notably in The Other Sister). As for the rest of the cast, Stone, Pena, Mackie & even Patrick do so little that they barely register. The film is full of some great, film noir looking character actors in minor roles, but none of them do anything.

When we look back on Ruben Fleischer's career, I imagine we'll think fondly of "what could have been" after a fantastic start. Now, he's just the guy who makes shitty, second-rate genre movies, notorious only for the controversy surrounding their production and/or release. The less said about Gangster Squad in those conversations, the better, because it deserves the quick burial it received upon its release back in January. It's an embarrassment to everyone involved, and the sooner we all forget it even exists, the better off we'll all be.

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day 211: 42

"He's a Methodist... I'm a Methodist... God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."

The only number in all of Major League Baseball to be retired across all thirty teams is the number 42 (and after Mariano Rivera retires this season, no one will be wearing it on their jersey for every game). The number has a ton of significance, as it was the number worn by Jackie Robinson when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and once and for all broke the color barrier in the majors. It may seem insignificant now, when the game is packed to gills with non-white faces, but what Robinson did, the doors he opened for all of the non-whites that followed him into the game was no small feat. Writer/director Brian Helgeland, best known for his Oscar winning adaptation of LA Confidential, seemed an unlikely choice to helm a biopic about Robinson, but could an unconventional choice lead to an unconventional film? The answers lay ahead...

42 is anything but an unconventional film, so the choice of Helgeland as writer & director certainly didn't pay off in that regard. If anything, 42 is as by-the-numbers, man overcoming adversity, filmmaking 101 as it gets. That doesn't mean it's a bad film, it's just not the barrier-shattering film that befits a man such as Robinson. The film essentially spans two years: 1946, when Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides he wants to be the man whose team is the first to sign a black man to play for them, and 1947, when Robinson finally makes it from Triple-A affiliate Montreal to Brooklyn and leads his team to the NL Pennant. 

Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, and is an actor I had never laid eyes on before this film. We first glimpse Robinson as a scrappy playmaker, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in late 1945. When Rickey decides he wants a player from the Negro Leagues to sign a deal to play for his franchise, he hones in on Robinson, making him an offer to play with Montreal. Robinson faces resistance, both from people within the organization and from a plethora of racist outsiders, finding their perceived way of life challenged. 

Robinson proves himself to be a difference maker during the 1946 season with Montreal, and Rickey tells Brooklyn's manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) to prepare for Robinson to play with the Dodgers in 1947. The film then hits all the highlights, from his first plate appearance, to his teammates having to deal with all of the newfound pressure that comes from having a black player on their roster. But through it all, the film never loses focus on Jackie's own struggles, and those of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).

The first thing I have to say is that as a baseball lover, any film about baseball has to be a real stinker for me not to like it. I'm constantly reminded of Brad Pitt's line in Moneyball, "how can you not get romantic about baseball?" It's shocking to me that some 66 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, that there hasn't been a major motion picture about him, and that when we finally do get one, it's sort of middle of the road. It's not a terrible film, and I would be shocked if it didn't truly speak to people of color and give them a hero in Jackie Robinson that they could then aspire to, but for someone who achieved something so momentous, I would have expected a more daring film that tried something more than just a paint-by-numbers formula. 

The film is most assuredly guilty of a whitewash on a lot of the issues within the film, namely Branch Rickey's real reasons for signing Robinson. I would love to think that his intentions were as noble as Helgeland presents them, but historians have pointed to the fact that it was more than likely a business decision than anything else, but I don't want to totally discredit the gesture in and of itself. It's also a lot easier to depict Robinson's various teammates accepting him one by one, slowly throughout the season, as it adds more drama, but it's highly unlikely that things would have actually worked this way in real life. 

That being said, I'm glad that the film didn't shy away from the nastier elements involved with Robinson's signing, namely the racism that would have by and large ruled those days. Alan Tudyk as Phillies skipper Ben Chapman single handedly drops enough n-bombs to make Quentin Tarantino proud, but I was surprised by how prevalent the word was throughout the film, particularly in a PG-13 production.

The cast, for the most part, was very good, particularly Boseman & Beharie. They brought a real passion to their relationship, and Boseman carried himself with the elegance of a golden age Hollywood leading man. Beharie was especially good in the bulk of her scenes, putting her solidly on my radar for the future. Ford was fine, if a bit much, as Rickey. Ford has never really been much of a character actor, so to see him trying so hard was distracting, but he's not bad. Meloni is great as Durocher, as is Lucas Black as PeeWee Reese & Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, getting the biggest laugh in the entire film with his talk with Robinson about the showers. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention John McGinley's work as Dodgers play-by-play man Red Barber. McGinley is a uniquely gifted actor, and I love seeing him lose himself in roles like this one. My biggest complaint of the film was with Andre Holland's character Wendell Smith. I didn't think that Holland did a bad job, but this character functioned as such a plot device, I was embarrassed for him in a lot of his scenes. He goes right up to the precipice of being a "magical negro" character, but never goes over the cliff. While he certainly existed in real life and had a relationship with Robinson similar to what was depicted here, he spoke almost solely in quips and quotes. 

As I said earlier, 42 is not a bad film. It will play well to baseball fans and history fans alike, but will likely play best to young people who will look to Robinson's actions & sacrifices as inspirational. It's a bit oversimplified and overwrought, but it's well-made and well-acted. I would hope that when the time comes to create another inspirational baseball biopic (like the inevitable Roberto Clemente one), the filmmakers will take these lessons to heart and try something that's not so conventional. But as it stands, 42 could have been a whole lot worse, and thank goodness it wasn't.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 210: Man of Steel

"They say it's all downhill after the first kiss."

Superman has a long, storied history on screens both big & small, and with the exception of Richard Donner's original 1978 Superman: The Movie, virtually every live action incarnation of the big, blue boy scout has been met with indifference. Sure, Superman II, Smallville, Superman Returns, and the like all have their defenders and apologists, but there is no universally beloved film version of Krypton's last son. This makes the prospect of a reboot in this day and age all the more precarious, even when it's masterminded by Christopher Nolan, the architect of most recent cinematic love affair with Batman. 

Putting Nolan at the helm would have been a mistake, so Warner Brothers turned to their other in-house "visionary" Zack Snyder, the guy behind the film versions of 300 & Watchmen. Armed with a script by Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer, could Snyder be the man to finally give the people the Superman film they've been pining for since the year before I was born? 

There is no easy answer to that question. For me, the answer is not really, but I have a feeling that this film will reignite the dormant passions of the average filmgoer for The Man of Tomorrow. It's noisy, action-packed, chaotic, and so full of religious overtones, it won't help but play like gangbusters in the bible belt & flyover states alike. But for Superman fans who long for a great story to hang all those various effects on, this is not the film for us. 

Man of Steel is the very definition of a reboot. It's not beholden to any of the Superman films that came before it (the biggest issue most people had with Bryan Singer's 2006 attempt to bring Kal-El back to the big screen). The film opens with the birth of Kal-El on the dying planet of Krypton. His father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is the leading scientist on the planet, and is finding his pleas to the elders of the planet that it's demise is at hand, to be falling on deaf ears. The chief military officer of the planet, Zod (Michael Shannon), seeks to use an ancient Kryptonian artifact to rebirth his people on another inhabitable planet, but faces resistance from Jor-El, who has secretly used the artifact to get his infant son off of the dying planet. 

We then flash-forward to an adult Kal-El, now going by the name of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), moving across the country in search of a home to call his own. Through flashback, we are introduced to his struggles in his early life, and we witness the unconditional love given to him by his adoptive parents Jonathan & Martha Kent (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane). Somewhere in the Arctic, Clark discovers a ship that once belonged to Krypton, which becomes his de facto Fortress of Solitude, but it is also discovered by the US Military, and a nosy reporter by the name of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). After an encounter in which Clark saves Lois' life, she becomes curious about unearthing the history behind this man who is clearly not human. 

Aboard the ship, Clark discovers his birthright, thanks to a simulation program that allows him to communicate with his long dead father, Jor-El. He dons his iconic blue suit, and begins to harness his powers. Simultaneously, Zod and his crew have broken out of The Phantom Zone where they had been imprisoned for treason, and have traced Kal-El to Earth. They give him an ultimatum, surrender or perish with the inhabitants of Earth. When Kal-El surrenders, he discovers Zod's true plans, and must come to terms with whether or not to stop him from destroying Earth. 

I'm exhausted after just summarizing the plot, which is somewhat indicative of one of my biggest issues with Man of Steel, it's just not a very good story. It's an interesting collision of lots of ideas from the Superman mythos, but it's just not interesting enough to hang a 140 minute movie on. Superman's arc is interesting enough, but the best moments in it all take place before he becomes Superman. The flashbacks to his childhood are where the film really flourishes, and we only get glimpses of it here and there. 

The most pressing issue that the film has is that it's got, for lack of a better term, severe attention deficit issues. The film doesn't go more than ten minutes without an action beat, and the opening sequence set on Krypton was like something straight out of George Lucas' woefully misguided cgi-dependent Star Wars prequels. Russell Crowe rides on a space dragon and there are floating communication devices, and laser guns and the film just seems to want to throw all manner of nonsense at the audience right off the bat. While it never gets worse than this, the last forty minutes of the movie are a non-stop tornado of destruction. So many buildings are demolished and there are so many explosions, you could be forgiven for thinking you're just watching the latest Transformers movie. It's borderline impossible to follow the action, and worse yet, the 3D is not used in any sort of interesting way. I truly do not know why this film was released in 3D, Snyder does absolutely nothing innovative with the technology. 

You could likewise be forgiven for thinking that I didn't like the film based on those last two paragraphs, but the film is not a total wash. There are some genuinely good moments in the film, but they're hurried off the screen to make room for another interminable action sequence. And don't even get me started on the overt attempts to turn Superman into some sort of messianic, Christ-like figure. There is actually a scene where he says to Jor-El, "I can save them," and then jumps out of a spaceship and holds in the air, posing like Christ on the cross before zooming away to save Earth. I was willing to forgive his discussion with a priest in which Kal-El is framed in the shot with a stained glass Jesus over his right shoulder, but stop being so obvious. 

What can one truly say about the performances in a film like this? At least in a film like Batman Begins, there were enough quiet, character moments in which the actors could thrive. Here, they're given literal moments to establish their characters before punching one another through concrete. Henry Cavill is fine, if bland, as Kal-El. He's no Brandon Routh, but he's not even close to Christopher Reeve status. Amy Adams is similarly fine as Lois Lane, certainly given more to do than previous incarnations of the character, but still not a whole hell of a lot in the grand scheme of things. Michael Shannon is one of the best actors working today, and he does the best he can with the shoddy material that he's given, but he does manage to create a character that has some depth and dimension to him. 

And now, brace yourselves for the phrase I never thought I'd commit to words: Kevin Costner gives far and away the best performance in the entire film. His four or five scenes as Jonathan Kent are fantastic, and both he and Diane Lane manage to ground the film in genuine emotion during their scenes. It's almost a pity this weren't a straight, linear origin story, because I would have truly liked to have spent more time in their company. 

Man of Steel is not a total failure. It manages to be entertaining and emotional, in spite of its numerous attempts to undercut those two things. Zack Snyder was a poor choice to direct this film, because he doesn't know how to do anything well but action, and even his action sequences were exhausting and derivative. There is a great Superman film that has yet to be made, and I have hope that this film lays the groundwork for a great film yet to come, but this is certainly not it. If nothing else, the film will make you long for the days when filmmakers didn't listen to the general public's demands for bigger, faster, louder, more, and just got down to brass tacks and focused on telling a good story. 

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Day 209: This Is The End

"What, are you telling me The Green Goblin here can't afford to buy us more food?"

Basing any feature length film on what was previously a short film is almost always a dubious proposition. What works well for thirty or so minutes often ends up feeling padded when transitioned into the ninety-plus minute range. I've never seen Jay & Seth Versus the Apocalypse, but it always sounded like a premise that would have been funny for a few minutes.

When it was announced that Seth Rogen was going to co-write & co-direct a feature length version of this film, I was filled with dread over what would likely be the end result, a two hour film with twenty minutes of laughs in it. As much as I loved bragging about being right on the money with my initial prediction for last week's The Purge, I am similarly pleased to report that I was equally wrong with my prediction for This is the End.


This is the End features several comedic actors all playing "themselves," so just bear that in mind as I go through this synopsis. Jay Baruchel arrives in Los Angeles to spend some quality time with his good friend Seth Rogen. Seth wants to take Jay to a housewarming party at James Franco's house, and Jay is apprehensive because he feels that he's never fit in with Seth's Hollywood friends, but he agrees to go anyway, as long as Seth promises to stick with him the whole night.

On a trip to a convenience store to purchase cigarettes, Jay & Seth witness a mass catastrophe that involves explosions and people being sucked up into the sky by beams of blue light. When they return to Franco's house, his side of town at first seems unaffected by this, but it isn't long before a massive sinkhole opens up and swallows many of Franco's A-list celebrity guests. Franco, Rogen, and Baruchel, along with Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, are the only survivors of the party, and hole up inside Franco's home in an attempt to ride out what could be anything from a zombie invasion to the apocalypse itself.


I'll be as blunt as I can be about this... If spending the next ninety minutes with these six comedic actors does not sound enticing to you, there is absolutely no reason for you to see this movie. This is a film aimed very squarely at their fan base and is not interested in winning over new converts. That being said, as someone who is a fan of theirs, this is probably, collectively, the funniest movie that any of these six actors has made in some time. They squabble over rationing food, use Franco's camera from 127 Hours to record video confessionals, and even manage to film a long gestating sequel to Pineapple Express, complete with Jonah Hill playing Woody Harrelson.

The film has a ton of laughs, and I fully admit to laughing almost all the way through the film. Even when it takes an extremely bizarre turn towards the end of Act 2, it never succumbs to Judd Apatow "it's time to get serious, now" syndrome. It maintains the feel of a comedy throughout the entire film, which was refreshing from a band of actors who, honestly, I could never take seriously (yes, even Oscar nominees Hill & Franco). This isn't a dig against them as actors, I just happen to think that they wisely stick to their guns and do what they do best. Bearing that in mind, I can totally see this late second act turn completely alienating a portion of the audience, but I'm kind of okay with that. It actually works within the context of the film even though it is, admittedly, ridiculous.


It's such an easy thing, as an audience member, for me to say that I like when actors poke fun at themselves, but it's honestly nice to see that these guys have a sense of humor about their personas, and have no problem poking fun at their various idiosyncrasies. Franco in particular, coming off one of the worst one-two punches in his entire career with Oz & Spring Breakers, was particularly good in the film. He certainly has no pretenses about the various assumptions people make about him, from his stoner-like manner to his perceived homosexuality, and it made me like him an awful lot more than I did when I went into the movie. Craig Robinson was the stand-out for me, however. He's a solid comedic actor, often relegated to the sidelines, and he really manages to steal most of the film with his sly delivery and unassuming manner.

The rest of the principles were good as well, but the film manages to mine the biggest laughs from its cameo players. Michael Cera's behavior at Franco's party got the most laughs at my screening, as did more minor roles from Jason Segel, Kevin Hart & Emma Watson. There are two fantastically funny cameos, one very close to the end of the film, and an even more left field one at the very end, that I won't spoil here. As screenwriters & directors, Rogen and longtime partner Evan Goldberg don't do anything groundbreaking here, but they manage to keep the film moving, in spite of most of it being six dudes of varying degrees of celebrity, sitting around a house in the midst of the apocalypse.


As I said earlier, this film is very squarely aimed at the segment of the population that most enjoys what these actors do, and for those people, this film will be a rousing success. If you're not in their camp, don't expect to walk in and have them prove you wrong, however, as this is not that kind of movie. If you're willing to let go of your preconceived notions about what this film is going to be, and just go along for the ride, I'm willing to bet that you'll find a lot more to like about this film than dislike. And that's something I've had a virtually impossible time saying about any of these guys in quite a while.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Problem with the MPAA, and why the Ratings System in America Sucks

As I sat in the theater last weekend waiting for my screening of The Purge to begin, the strangest thing happened... Three little children, ranging in age from probably five to eight years old, wandered into the theater. As a responsible and concerned parent myself, I worried that they had mistaken this theater for the one showing Epic, so I began to rise from my seat and direct them back to the lobby, when something even stranger happened... Their father entered and directed them to their seats. Then he left the theater, which just about made me jump out of my seat, but it turned out, he was just headed to the concession stand, as he returned several minutes later with popcorn and goodies.

Now, I write all of this as someone who accompanied his mother to films like Nightmare on Elm Street 4-6Pet Sematary & Graveyard Shift, but there is a fundamental difference between the horror films of yesterday and today, which I'll explore in more detail a bit later. The biggest and most immediate flaw that needs fixing, however, is the ratings system in The United States that allows deadbeat parents to bring their young children to such films, rather than seeking out a babysitter like any responsible parent should. Let's delve into the history of the ratings system and then discuss further why it's fundamentally flawed and needs to be revamped sooner rather than later...


The MPAA, or Motion Picture Association of America, introduced its film ratings system back in 1968. The book "Pictures at a Revolution" by Mark Harris, gives a wonderfully detailed history of the impetus for this change, but a lot of it was spurred by the influx of European films such as Antonioni's Blow Up, Godard's Vivre Sa Vie, and Truffaut's Jules & Jim.

In the halcyon days of early motion pictures, there was this thing called The Hays Code, adopted by the US Government in 1930, which dictated the kinds of things allowed to be portrayed in motion pictures, but more importantly, it read like a laundry list of behaviors and scenarios which had no place on theater screens across the country. There were, in fact, 36 things that were absolutely forbidden to be depicted on screen. You can find a detailed list of them here, but it included such things as: "White slavery," "Ridicule of the clergy," "sedition," and even "a man and a woman in bed together."

Since European filmmakers were not beholden to this code, their films featured things like an implied menage a trois (Jules & Jim), prostitution (Vivre Sa Vie) and *gasp* nudity (Blow Up). As these films made their way to the States, it was apparent that our country was not long for The Hays Code, and American films like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate were already incorporating themes forbidden by the code. Jack Valenti, then President of the MPAA, established our current ratings system (G, PG, R & X) to help people stay better informed of the content of the films being released.


There have been only two changes to the current ratings system in the 45 years since its inception. In the 1970s, as pornographic films began to rise in popularity, the X rating, which used to connotate adult only content that was inappropriate for children, began to have a stigma around it, and was almost never used until the MPAA replaced it in 1990 with the (ultra rare) NC-17. Then in 1984, on the heels of extremely popular but questionably PG rated films like Gremlins & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the MPAA created the PG-13, now the most popular rating for films being released, to indicate that the film was not quite appropriate for children under 13, but not harsh enough to merit an R rating.

The flaws of this system should be inherently obvious. If there is a designation between PG & R, there must also be a designation between R & NC-17. The NC-17 rating has virtually as bad a stigma attached to it as the X did in the 1970s. It's so rare because most theatre chains (AMC, Regal, Cinemark) refuse to show them at their theaters, so most studios will choose to skirt the MPAA altogether and release their films "unrated."

But how can they possibly do this? Well, the worst kept secret in all of Hollywood is the fact that the MPAA ratings system is entirely "voluntary." The MPAA themselves boast of this on their own website. But our corporate movie releasing structure, in which films must play in large multiplexes in order to make any money, dictates that any film playing in a chain theater (such as the ones mentioned above), must carry a rating from the MPAA. It's a catch-22 if ever there was one, but anyone that thinks that Hollywood isn't a business first and foremost is just fooling themselves.


So why does this system suck so much, and why does it need to be revamped and/or replaced? The biggest issue is that it's almost thoroughly unenforceable. In the day and age of the multiplex, children or teenagers can buy a ticket to any movie and then sneak in to see the one they actually want to see. This is an American pastime, one that dates back to before the time my step-brother and I bought tickets to see Crocodile Dundee 2 and then snuck into the theater showing Rambo 3 instead. The only time I remember actively seeing any theater employees checking people's tickets to an R-rated film outside the door of the theater was when South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released in the summer of 1999. In the age of understaffing to boost profits, however, this policy just won't fly like it used to.

Let us then take a look at the ratings system adopted by our neighbors across the Atlantic. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) has a much better system that they use, in which they adopted a rating system that includes a 15 rating, in which no children under 15 are admitted to a film, period. They have a stricter 18 classification (same thing, only no one under 18 admitted), but this 15 rating better encompasses what an R-rating in America should be. This prevents deadbeat parents who don't want to spring for a sitter, or even worse, those that think it's perfectly fine to bring their kids to the latest torture porn horror film opening at number one in the US.

More information on their system can be found here, and while this system is by no means infallible, at least it tries harder than the blanket statement in the R-rating in America "under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian." At the very least, it turns people like this away at the box office, and while there are myriad ways to get around this, it's at least an attempt to curb this sort of behavior from parents who are either brain dead or clueless.


But, elitist movie snob, you say aloud, isn't the onus really on the parents then? Why yes, of course it is, and parents should take a more active role in deciding which films are right for their children to see, but if there's going to be a ratings system in place, it needs to be geared towards the lowest common denominator. It needs to be a system where it's less of suggestion that you "shouldn't" take your kids to see a certain film, and more of a requirement that you "can't" take them. It certainly doesn't help matters that the ratings board classifies films such as Saw, Eyes Wide Shut and The Devil's Rejects, that no child should see, under the same rating umbrella as films like The King's Speech or Schindler's List, which more mature children and teens would benefit greatly from seeing.

The age old criticism of the MPAA is that they have a puritanical sensibility when classifying films with sexual content (Shame was slapped with an NC-17) but turn a blind eye to excessive gore and violence (the brutally nonsensical Evil Dead remake from a few months ago). An additional rating, similar to Britain's 15 classification, might help to soften some of this, and give high school sophomores a chance to see films they might otherwise get turned away from. If nothing else, it would at least be a step in the right direction, and I think it's been long enough (23 years) since the system has been changed in any way, for it to be revamped once again.

I am in no way, shape or form advocating censorship, but as long as this ratings system is in place, it needs to function better than it currently does. Roger Ebert was a longtime advocate of overhauling the system, and one of his more recent articles (found here) is eloquently stated and should be read and forwarded to everyone you know that cares about this sort of thing. There is also a fantastic documentary by filmmaker Kirby Dick titled This Film is Not Yet Rated that attempts to expose the hypocrisy in place over at the MPAA, and I would likewise recommend it for further exploration of this topic.

I know there are a ton of international readers on this site, and I hope that this at least sheds some light on the plight of moviegoers here in America and you found it to b e an interesting read, but this last piece I am directing to our American readers. We must act. We must bring about change, or nothing is ever going to get better. There was a petition circulated last year that garnered over 200,000 signatures in an attempt to get the MPAA to reconsider its R-rating of the documentary Bully. While it ultimately reached a dead end, and the Weinstein Company edited the film to get a PG-13, this sort of deplorable behavior on the parts of the MPAA, the theater chains and the studios needs to stop.

Here is a list of addresses for your local chapter of the MPAA. Write them a letter. Let them know you're upset and demand a change, otherwise it's never going to happen. They will tell you that they have bigger fish to fry, what with piracy and all that, but they need to know that they have a bigger problem on their hands right here in America, where they can actively do something to fix it.

Photos via [12345]

Friday, June 7, 2013

Day 208: The Purge

"Well, I hope you all had a grand time tonight."

When I first saw the trailer for the new "horror" film The Purge, I was immediately intrigued by its premise: In the near future, The United States has made all crime legal for one night a year, in order to provide people with a release of all the anger & hatred that's built up inside them. It sounds like the kind of b-movie premise you'd find in a grindhouse theater in the 1970s.

The most nagging issue brought up by the trailer was the fact that it looked as though the film was going to turn out to be nothing more than a home invasion action/thriller that would merely use that premise as a springboard for some sort of pseudo-intellectual take on the perils of Libertarianism. But could it possibly pull off the seemingly impossible feat of having a cool premise and not bating the audience into falling for whatever ham-fisted moral lesson the filmmakers really wanted to impart? Read on to find out...


The simple answer is... I hate it when I'm right. Well, not always, but when I see a movie trailer and can pin down exactly what sort of movie they're going to end up making despite whatever promising setup they lay out, that's when I hate being right. Set in 2022, the film tells the story of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a home security specialist living in an affluent neighborhood in a reborn America. Some years back, the film's fictional government administration imposed a new law in which one night a year, all crime is legal, and this has brought unemployment down below 1% and virtually eradicated crime on the other 364 days of the year. James lives in an opulent home with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and slightly younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder, looking eerily like a young Joaquin Phoenix).

On the night of the annual purge, the family is dealing with normal family issues, such as Zoey's promiscuous boyfriend, the family's nosy and snooty neighbors, and Charlie's moral ambiguity on the purge event in general. Shortly after the family puts their house in lockdown, Charlie spots a man (Edwin Hodge) on one of the home's security monitors asking for help and shelter. He disarms the family's security system to let him in, and the man immediately disappears inside the home.

It isn't long before a group of masked thugs, led by a placid psychopath (Rhys Wakefield) show up, demanding that the family either turn the stranger over or face invasion of their home and certain death at the hands of good folks just looking to purge their baser instincts. The film then essentially devolves into a series of discussions about the situation's moral quandaries, balanced with a healthy dose of people being shot and/or stabbed.


I'm of two minds about The Purge. Part of me admires a film that takes risks and is bold enough to be a conceptual horror film instead of just another flimsy premise on which to hang murderous set pieces. The other part of me, though, is bothered by not only the film squandering said bold premise in favor of action nonsense, but having to wade through the filmmakers' heavy handed attempts to impart a message that's been beat to death in the media for the last few years. Politically, I am as far left as one can get, but zealotry is zealotry whether it comes from the left or right, and it's just as insulting to me when I see liberal viewpoints played out in hackneyed ways in order to make a point. The film's ultimate message about who the real monsters are made me squirm in my seat.

Having said all that, the film is not a total disaster. While I was able to figure out virtually every twist and payoff that the film would dole out, I couldn't help but admire a film clearly aiming for the lowest common denominator at least having the wherewithal to even take the time to set things up in the first place. The film telegraphs every single one of its setups, but at least they're there, which is more than I can say for other films of this same ilk (I'm looking at you The Strangers). I was also appreciative of the way they handled a lot of the exposition surrounding the purge event itself. Through television news shows and talk radio, they manage to dole out the (admittedly shaky) history of the purge in an interesting way that allows the story to just get going without stopping to explain the minutiae of it all.


The performances are as uneven as the film itself, ranging from Ethan Hawke oddly underplaying virtually everything he does, to Rhys Wakefield hamming it up like he's got stock in Boar's Head. None of the performances are particularly distracting (Burkholder wears one expression throughout the entire film, but then again, so do most eleven year old boys), but none of them are particularly memorable either. They serve this film well in that they never go too far in any direction lest they risk actually taking a chance on something.

The film was written and directed by James DeMonaco who has written similarly middle of the road fare like The Negotiator and 2005's remake of Assault on Precinct 13. I guess I just wish the film had taken a few more risks, or any risks at all to be honest. It more or less played out exactly how I expected it to, save for all the preachiness of the film's denouement, but such is the state of Hollywood filmmaking today. Films in general don't take many risks, especially those coming out in the summer months when boatloads of money stands to be made. I guess this is just another product of a film being micromanaged and focus grouped to death.


At the end of the day, I'm left with more questions than answers about The Purge. The premise concerning 12 hours of legal crime can extend to more than just murder, which is all this film is concerned with. If there is a sequel (and let's face it, if it makes money, there will be), I would hope they would focus on other aspects of this consequence free night. I would genuinely like to see this premise explored more fully, maybe even its origins or one of the first years of the purge, but since this is Hollywood, they'll probably just remake this film with a new family.

And that's what is really wrong with The Purge. It was made 40 years too late to be any good or interesting. Had this been made in the 70s by Paul Bartel or Herschell Gordon Lewis, it would be revered today for being ahead of its time. Now, it just sort of sits on screen to distract you from your own problems for eighty-five minutes, and when that's all Hollywood seems to be aiming for these days, this film really hits the bulls-eye.

Go Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]