Sunday, September 29, 2013

Day 242: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

"I don't understand the vest... Is it winter on your torso and summer on your arms?"
Hollywood has a long history of co-opting books and adapting them into films that bear little to no resemblance to the source material. Such was the case with 2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, an enjoyable film from Sony Pictures Animation. It should come as no surprise that the film's 2013 sequel Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 similarly shares no similarities with the sequel book Pickles to Pittsburgh, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the film has little in common with anything, including its ad campaign that made it seem as if it was going to be ninety minutes of food puns. Thankfully, it's much smarter than any of us have been led to believe...
Picking up literally where the first film left off, the island of Swallow Falls, having survived the wrath of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader)'s invention that turns water into food, is visited by world famous inventor, and Flint's idol, Chester V (Will Forte). Chester offers to relocate the citizens of Swallow Falls to San Franjose, a Silicon Valley stand-in, while his Live Corp will handle clean up duties on the island. Chester offers Flint a job at Live Corp, but Flint struggles to make a name for himself at the corporation despite his best efforts. Meanwhile back at Swallow Falls, clean-up efforts have failed because it seems that the food has gained sentience. 
Chester dupes Flint into returning to the island to locate his invention, but Flint pulls a fast one on him when he gathers his friends from the first film to accompany him in his quest. Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), Manny (Benjamin Bratt), Officer Earl (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T) and Flint's dad (James Caan) join Flint in his quest, along with Flint's monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris). Their mission seems clear, but Flint's friends notice something more nefarious happening on Swallow Falls, and Flint is too blinded by his loyalty to Chester to see it clearly. Can his friends change his mind in time to save the day? 
The recent spate of sequels and prequels in the animation world have really suffered from a dearth of originality, something that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, thankfully, has in spades. What I feared would very quickly devolve into another exercise in "more of the same" actually turned the formula on its head. Flint is actually one of the more interesting protagonists in a children's film series because he's simultaneously childlike in his sense of optimism and wonder, yet also incredibly susceptible to peer pressure and the crippling self-doubt that can bring with it. In other words, he's completely relatable and goes on a journey in both films that children will readily relate to.
What helps this sequel more than anything else is its desire to do something different. The original film's directors only get a story credit here, and their replacements in both the writing and directing departments handle their duties admirably. The film is not content just to rehash ideas from the first film, but build on them and let the plot develop into a logical extension of what the first film accomplished. For example, it always seemed a bit forced that Baby Brent became part of the team of heroes in the first film's third act, and this film deals with that issue, challenging the notion of why Brent, who bullied Flint his entire life, would suddenly be his friend.
The film also deals with the notion of hero worship, and how Flint's father was never really a role model for him, but the appearance of Chester, who clearly was, throws some doubt on how Flint will reconcile these two men competing for his affection and loyalty. But before you go thinking that the film is all heady ideas and no fun, I'm also happy to report that the film is a great deal of fun. Film buffs will get a kick out of the references to everything from PredatorPlanet of the ApesJurassic Park, Jaws and even a quick nod to Modern Times, just to name a few, and kids will love the inspired sight gags, particularly those involving Steve & Flint's Dad.   
Thankfully they cast the first film well, because the cast really makes the material shine in this film. Hader has the perfect voice for Flint, infusing him with all the qualities that make him a character worth rooting for. The supporting cast is fantastic as well, with Faris, Bratt, Samberg, Forte & Crews all doing great work, as well as Kristen Schaal as Chester's orangutan sidekick. It's funny to praise NPH for his work as well since his character mainly just says his name, but his line readings are great and endlessly amusing. The gold star for the film has to go to Caan as Flint's dad, however. He managed to get the two biggest laughs out of me, and the way his character rides the line between blissful ignorance and blazing self-awareness is hilarious. 
All credit for the film's success should similarly go to the film's three credited screenwriters, John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, & Erica Rivinoja. They've crafted a compelling story and done justice to all the characters from the original, helping them to grow in very realistic ways. The direction by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn should be similarly praised, particularly for its creative use of 3D to give the world depth, rather than just resorting to a bunch of gimmicks. If the film has any fault, I would say it lies in the film's overly complicated climax, a problem the first film also suffered from. It's such a roller coaster ride to the finale and then it sort of grinds to a halt as roadblock after roadblock is thrown up seemingly just to pad the running time. This has become more prevalent since Finding Nemo fell into this trap, and I just wish that filmmakers working in this medium would wrap things up a little quicker.
These grievances are minor though, and certainly didn't hinder my enjoyment of the film. It's a truly great animated film that breezes by  in just over ninety minutes and just barely flirts with overstaying its welcome. I truly hope that more sequels demonstrate this kind of continuation of the story from the first film rather than just spinning their tires in hopes that audiences will blindly shell out money for more of the same. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 likely won't set the world on fire, but it shows that imagination in this genre is in no short supply, and given the right filmmakers, writers and voice talent, the sequel can once more be a viable storytelling option and not just a fertile but stagnant cash cow.  
GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 241: Rush

"Men love their women, but more than that, they love their cars."
Now relegated to just a footnote in history to all but the most passionate racing fans, the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt & Niki Lauda dominated headlines around the world for the middle years of the 1970s. What better subject for a writer like Peter Morgan to tackle than that of these dueling protagonists with his latest film Rush. Re-teaming with director Ron Howard after their 2008 awards' darling Frost/Nixon, Morgan has crafted an equally fascinating story of two men with seemingly nothing in common, other than an undying desire to win. 
The story opens in 1970 when Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) & Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) are up and coming racers in the Formula Three class. Against the wishes of his family, Lauda buys his way into the Formula One world when he feels his talents can no longer be contained by a third class racing organization. Hunt continues working his way up the ladder until his financier Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) takes a page out of Lauda's book and buys Hunt into the Formula One world as well. Hunt is a maverick, living on the edge and constantly flirting with disaster, whereas Lauda is a by-the-book perfectionist, always seeking to make the most of every opportunity he's given.
After winning the World Championship in 1975, Lauda seems poised to dominate the sport for years to come. Hunt, on the other hand, finds himself without a sponsor and struggling to join a team for the 1976 season. When McLaren brings him aboard, he begins to pose the first significant threat to Lauda. Juxtaposing their on the track positions is the two men's love lives, with Lauda in a committed relationship with his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) and Hunt juggling multiple women at one time, often under the nose of his model wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde). As Hunt begins to gain on Lauda in the standings, one fateful race at the German Grand Prix changes the fates of both men forever. 
While he's never been the flashiest or most lauded director in Hollywood, Howard has a workmanlike attitude that's gained him many admirers both in and out of the industry. His films are rarely cited as the best ever made, but he's never really made a terrible movie (yes, even The Grinch isn't terrible). It makes sense then that he would latch onto a character like Niki Lauda and his desire to be the best without ever really being anyone's favorite. Lauda seems tailor made to be the villain of a film like this, with such a dynamic presence like Hunt also on screen, but Howard is too good a director to let Lauda's faults weigh him down to the point of becoming an antagonist. You can't help but admire the man, even as he seems to be going out of his way to make himself unlikable, and that's what makes Rush as good a movie as it is; Howard's desire to keep both men on equal footing.
Howard's never been known for flashy visuals, but the racing scenes in this film are breathtaking and give the film an immediacy it wouldn't have had with a lesser director. It's some of the best work of his career, particularly with Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) behind the camera. The film's editing by Daniel P. Hanley, also an Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind, is equally brilliant, even when the pacing of the script threatens to bog down the whole affair. The middle portions of the film suffer from a bit too much lethargy, but the direction, camera work, editing & score by Hans Zimmer all keep things moving almost in spite of the script's desire to pause too much for unneeded reflection. This is almost a technically flawless film, and those elements go a long way towards making the film so good.
The performances in the film are equally outstanding, particularly from the two leads. Hemsworth follows through on all the promising talent he's shown in more overblown fare like Thor & Star Trek, and is as dynamic a screen presence as anyone else in his age range working right now. Bruhl is an actor we haven't seen much of, apart from small but memorable roles in Inglourious Basterds & The Bourne Ultimatum, but he is every ounce Hemsworth's equal and makes Lauda a fully formed character. The biggest downfall of the script, in a very similar way to Morgan's script for The Queen, is that outside of these two, there aren't really any characters of substance.
Lara is quite good as Lauda's wife, and McKay manages to steal a handful of laughs in a largely thankless role, but beyond that, there really aren't any standout supporting characters. One major gripe that needs to be addressed, however, is with the makeup choices made for Olivia Wilde's character. Whomever worked on her makeup needs to be tried for war crimes as they managed to turn one of the most attractive women working in film today into George Hamilton. She was so tan and her skin just looked like it was crying out for a good moisturizing. It's even odder since her character was a model who hocked skin care products, so I'm not sure if there was some sort of symbolic meaning to her makeup, but if there is, it's as big a failure as the symbolic caged birds that are featured prominently in several shots after Hunt loses his sponsorships.   
Rush is a very good film that eludes greatness due to a handful of script miscalculations. It is technically brilliant and features two incredibly strong lead performances, but the script feels like it was a draft or two away from being great. There is still a lot here to recommend, even if you aren't a racing fan, which I most certainly am not, and I think that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives across the board. Even for a film where the characters are literally going in circles, the rivalry between these two men is enough to keep you glued to the screen.
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 240: A Single Shot

"Most problems, John, aren't as bad as they seem... Thing is, you got to deal with 'em before people get backed into corners."
Hot on the heels of one of the best performances of his career in The Way, Way Back, Sam Rockwell is back in a film that couldn't be more dissimilar, the moody Southern gothic tale A Single Shot. Director David M. Rosenthal (Janie Jones) takes a page out of the David Gordon Green playbook by casting Rockwell as a dubious Southern man harboring dark secrets and trying to stay one step ahead of the law and the lawless. Heavily indebted to films like Green's Snow Angels, as well as A Simple PlanNo Country For Old Men & especially Winter's Bone, A Single Shot attempts to distinguish itself in a seemingly indistinguishable genre. 
Lonely hunter John Moon (Rockwell) lives alone in a trailer in the mountains of a non-descript part of the Southern United States. One morning while stalking a deer, John accidentally shoots and kills a young woman. Upon discovering her belongings, he finds among them a satchel full of cash, which he scurries off with, leaving the body behind. In an attempt to reconnect with his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) and young son, he gives her $4000, but suspicions begin to arise as to how he came into that much money, and it isn't long before a stranger shows up in town (Jason Isaacs), whom John recognizes from a picture he found among the dead woman's possessions. 
John begins a descent into panic as mysterious notes begin finding their way into his home, and he becomes leery of just about everyone in town, from an old friend (Jeffrey Wright) to a bewigged lawyer (William H Macy) John hired to help with his legal troubles surrounding his impending divorce. In a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else and their business, John can't help but feel like a man alone, and staying one step ahead of trouble begins to become too much of a challenge for John.    
The inherent problem with A Single Shot is that it can't help but feel derivative of the films I mentioned in the first paragraph. Virtually every other "guy finds a ton of money belonging to a dead person & trouble ensues" film has explored the various outcomes of such a plot and they never end well for the finder. The film can't help but feel like it's moving towards an inevitable conclusion at a snail's pace because that's exactly what it's doing. Adding in the element of danger towards the people he cares about adds a modicum of suspense, but it is then inexplicably jettisoned in the blink of an eye. With nothing even remotely original to say or show the audience, the film can't help but feel like an interminable slog through familiar territory.
The film's climax, when it finally comes, is also as bleak and unsettling as any I've seen. The film attempts to emulate the climactic scene in the boat in Winter's Bone, but just continues to come across as a pale imitator. In fact, most of the film, from the design elements to the cinematography, seems to be attempting to redo Winter's Bone, and it just feels like a fool's errand. By the time the final scene comes, what should be an eerie parallel to the first scene ends up feeling like a half-hearted attempt to tie everything together in the most obvious way imaginable. It's a shame too, because the film has some nice moments in it that could've made this final moment all the more haunting.
Thankfully the film has some pretty great performances from an array of fantastic actors, all of whom make the film slightly more watchable than it has any right to be. Macy proves how much he can do with very little (though he really lets the wig do all the acting for him, particularly in his final scene) and Isaacs shows just how underused he is as an actor, even in this film. Wright, as well, brings a ton of life to his two scenes, both of which highlight what a truly underrated actor he is, even in a minuscule role. 
The film belongs to Rockwell, however, who manages to create a fully formed character, despite being given very little to work with beyond a series of stereotypical backwoods traits. Rockwell is never dragged down to the level of the second rate material he was given, and its only in retrospect that you realize how good he was in spite of the nonsense he was being forced to do and say. He has a number of really good scenes, particularly the scene when he attempts to bring the money to his estranged wife and is confronted by an unexpected childcare situation. That he can manage to acquit himself of this film almost entirely is a testament to just how phenomenal of an actor he is, and how chameleonic he can be in any given film.
A Single Shot is not a total wash, mainly thanks to its actors. I only wish this cast had been assembled in something more deserving of their time and talents. The film does manage to capture the dirt and grime and unsavory elements of deep backwoods life, but it just can't help but feel pat when that's been done before with equal verisimilitude. If the film had brought something new and original to the table, with this cast, it might have made for a hell of a film. Instead, it can only look and feel like the squandered opportunity it truly is, which is the saddest indictment of all. 
The film is currently in a very limited theatrical release but is available OnDemand and streaming on iTunes.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via RottenTomatoes]

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 239: Blue Caprice

"What are we gonna do with you, huh?"
Anyone going into the film Blue Caprice with at least a cursory knowledge of the film's subject matter will get shivers down their spine when the character John (Isaiah Washington) utters that phrase to his newly found "son" Lee (Tequan Richmond) early in the film. The film is an at least partially fictionalized account of the series of events that brought together the two men who carried out the sniper attacks that crippled Maryland and Virginia for nearly a month in late 2002. The film is a haunting portrait of madness and the lengths that people will go to in order to prove themselves to one another or the world at large.
Opening in Antigua, Blue Caprice wisely starts off by showing us a seamier side of a place that most Westerners consider to be paradise. Abandoned by his mother, 16 year-old Lee wanders the streets and beaches until he attracts the attention of John, a man vacationing with his three young children. There are hints that John may have brought his children there against their mother's wishes, and so John & Lee are portrayed as men in desperate need of one another. Returning to the states five months later, John has fully Americanized Lee and has begun to call him son.
After a short stay with a woman who eventually kicks them out, John & Lee end up in the home of Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) & Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams). Ray is an old friend of John's who quickly shares his habit of shooting guns in the woods with Lee. Finding the kid to be a natural, John begins to craft a plan to cause panic in the lives of people who, in his estimation are living ignorantly in this world they think is safe. After a series of random violent acts, John purchases the titular automobile and begins modifying it for the next phase in their plan, one which would cause unparalleled panic in the area around our nation's capitol.
First and foremost, the film is anchored by two powerhouse performances from Washington & Richmond. They manage to convincingly portray these characters without seeking to infuse them with empathy. Washington, in particular, has an uncanny ability to turn moments in which you begin to feel some sympathy for him into opportunities to show the true madness lurking just beneath the surface of this man. The script by R.F.I. Porto is full of moments like these that immediately undercut all attempts to make the audience feel any sort of connection to these characters. Late in the film when John looks at Lee and says "I've created a monster," it's brilliant both for its placement at that particular moment and for Washington's delivery which oozes with sick, paternal pride.
First time director Alexandre Moors almost completely resists the urge to ladle on the heavy handed metaphors. Only a third act rainstorm as the two set out across the country feels a bit on the nose, but otherwise the film is as even handed and assured a directorial debut as any I've seen lately. The film is wise to keep the time period ever present in the audience's mind, particularly its use of television news coverage of the war in Afghanistan and an early scene where Lee watches soldiers recruiting people outside a local center. The way the film uses the actual 911 calls and news footage of the shootings both early and late in the film is appropriately unsettling and raises the film's urgency in a significant way.
I really can't say enough good things about Washington's performance here. As an actor, he's no stranger to controversy and the fallout it can cause, and he channels a lot of that pent up aggression into his character and creates a chilling portrait of evil. I sincerely hope he is not entirely overlooked come the end of the year awards season. Richmond is his equal in every sense of the word, staying lock-step with his surrogate father, and going on probably the more interesting journey from a neglected kid to a remorseless killing machine. Their performances compliment each other in all the right ways.
The rest of the cast is very good, if almost wholly underused. Nelson is great at playing backwoods hillbillies with a questionable moral compass, and I mean that in the best way possible. He plays a subtle variation on his character from the underrated and under-seen 2003 film Wonderland, and his character adds true richness to this world. Adams is also very good in her handful of scenes as is Cassandra Freeman as the woman who kicks Lee & John out of her house early in the film. Leo Fitzpatrick, best known for his role as Telly in Kids, also has a great scene as a weapons dealer.
Blue Caprice is a spare and haunting film that will linger with you long after it's over. If I have any complaint to lodge against it, it's that the film is a bit lethargic in its first two acts and then a shade heavy handed in the third, but those are minor complaints. I imagine the film will play just as good at home as it does in a theater, so if it doesn't come to a theater near you this summer, be sure to seek it out when it hits video. It's worth it just for the two lead performances alone, and I sincerely hope it leads to more work for Washington. He is an actor with serious talent and not a shred of vanity, and I can only hope that roles this good begin to come his way on a regular basis.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via RottenTomatoes]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Geek Spotlight: The Resurgence of Matthew McConaughey

A little over a year ago, I, like many of you, had more or less written off Matthew McConaughey. His career started with a bang when he appeared as townie David Wooderson in Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused, a role for which he would come to be identified for a number of years. Much like the other actor who got his first big break in an ensemble piece, Sean Penn, McConaughey seemed to want to differentiate himself, and in 1996 & 1997, he appeared in two of the headier summer blockbusters to come down the pike, A Time to Kill & Contact. McConaughey didn't appear content to wallow in the typical action fare, and even his appearance in the vastly overrated Amistad all but confirmed as much. He wanted to be viewed as an actor and not a movie star. 

Then something strange happened. In 2001, he starred with Jennifer Lopez in the forgettable, but hugely successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. Although he would appear in some decent films over the next ten years (Frailty, Tropic Thunder & We Are Marshall), he was mostly gaining notoriety for appearing in a never ending series of interchangeable romantic comedies: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, etc. They were only notable for featuring posters in which McConaughey demonstrated the inability to stand up on his own...

McConaughey looked as if he was headed for obscurity. Even his attempt to launch a franchise, Sahara, is now mostly remembered for the nonsensical legal battle that raged for years after the film flopped. He made some direct to video disasters like TipToes & Surfer, Dude that attracted attention solely based on how awful they were. He was also gaining attention in the press for his nude bongo playing antics & seemed to be a joke to other celebrities, mainly due to his frequent shirtlessness.

Then in 2011, he made a small film called The Lincoln Lawyer that gained a modicum of attention based on the fact that it wasn't a rom-com and wasn't flat out terrible. This seemed to signal to some that McConaughey may have been trying to break out of the vicious cycle that had consumed him for the better part of a decade. 

For me, it was 2012's Bernie that first made me take notice of the fact that McConaughey might be coming back. Working once again with Dazed director Linklater, McConaughey ditched all pretenses of vanity and went for broke in a small but memorable role, finally showing that he was content just do work on good films again, no matter how big the role. It was a bold move for McConaughey, and one that he would double down on when he worked with William Friedkin on the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe. Here again, McConaughey wasn't hampered by his desire to always be the good guy, and played a downright despicable human being. It's a great performance in a very good film.

Later that summer, he was the stand-out in one of my favorite films of last year, Magic Mike. What made his performance here so revelatory for me is that he was very clearly playing with his image. He brought all of the things to the forefront of his performance that he had become known for (the bongo playing, the shirtlessness, the seemingly good guy with ulterior motives) and utilized them in a way I didn't think he was capable. His charisma was finally being put to proper use, and it elevated the entire film around him.

He finished off 2012 with The Paperboy, one of the worst films of last year, but one in which McConaughey, for the first time in a long time, managed to acquit himself of nicely. Thankfully he was surrounded by the scenery chewing antics of John Cusack & Nicole Kidman, and his performance as a quietly closeted homosexual in the deep south of the 1960s managed to be one of the only things worth talking about in that awful, awful film. It was the last sign we needed to know he was back... He had managed to be the best thing about a terrible film. 

McConaughey started 2013 off with a bang, appearing in easily the best film of the first half of the year, Mud. Here he shows depth and emotion, and pulls off the kind of suspicious character that most movie stars can't play. I find it interesting that later this summer, Matt Damon would attempt a similar feat of dubiousness with Elysium, and end up getting shown up by his former punchline. Damon is the kind of actor that you just know is going to do the right thing in the end, but McConaughey manages to plant doubt in the audience as to whether or not he really is the good guy he purports to be. He also showed he had a great sense of humor by appearing in Butch Walker's music video Synthesizers, reprising his role as David Wooderson.

The rest of his year is also shaping up nicely, with a supporting role in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street & the lead role in Dallas Buyer's Club, a role for which he dropped down to a gaunt and sickly-looking 100 pounds. It smells a bit like Oscar-baiting to me, but I'm also okay with it, because I do think he deserves recognition for managing to put together a run of films since The Lincoln Lawyer that rivals the best run of any actor over a three year period. He also managed to land the lead in Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Interstellar, which will likely follow in the footsteps of Inception as a critical and commercial success.

Those of us who had written McConaughey off as recently as two years ago should now eat our words; He is the serious and seriously talented actor we all suspected he might be, and with his detour into rom-com hell hopefully over, he can continue to work on great films both big budgeted and small. I  happily admit how wrong I was about him, and I actively look forward to whatever he does next... as long as Kate Hudson isn't involved.

Photos via 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Friday, September 13, 2013

Day 238: The Family

"Just trust me, okay? There's gonna be a line out the door like this place was a whorehouse."
Since his first big breakout feature in America, Leon (The Professional), director Luc Besson has proven to be a much more prolific producer than director. When it was announced that he was directing his first English language film since 1999's The Messenger, expectations were high, despite the fact that most of his features as a director have been underwhelming. However, The Family looked promising, with a trio pedigreed actors in the leads and Martin Scorsese aboard as an executive producer. Could it buck the trend? Read on to find out...
Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) is a former mafioso who is in witness protection in France along with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfieffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) & son Warren (John D'Leo). His family seems to cause trouble no matter where they go, and the film opens with them being relocated to Normandy after a disastrous stay in the south of France. It isn't long before they're starting trouble in their new home, much to the chagrin of Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) the agent assigned to their case.
Now dubbed the Blake family, dad sets about torturing and maiming anyone who he feels is disrespecting him, mom is an equally loose cannon, Belle finds creative ways to deal with lecherous French teenage boys & Warren runs the school in a similar manner to a junior mafioso himself. After a comically absurd series of events, the incarcerated Don Luchese (Stan Carp) gets wind of their new location and dispatches his hitmen to take care of this family once and for all. 
The most pressing issue with The Family is that it has a serious identity crisis. Is it a comedy with unnecessarily serious moments? Is it a drama with jarringly tone deaf attempts at comedy? Is it an action film? A gangster film? A fish out of water, strangers in a strange land tale? It appears to be attempting all of these things at once. Utilizing DeNiro in this type of role seems like a stroke of genius on the surface, but the film seems to want him to be both his character from Goodfellas and Meet the Parents all at the same time. It's a convoluted mess of a film that played like a raucous comedy to half the audience at my screening, which was unsettling at best, to be honest.
The film's "comedy" comes almost exclusively from violent scenarios. Are we supposed to think it's funny that mom blows up a grocery store because the clerks were rude? Should we chuckle at dad's violent fantasies where he holds men's heads to a charcoal grill after he thinks they're condescending towards him? In fact, it's almost hard to believe this film was directed by a Frenchman, because all of these acts of violence, save the final fifteen minutes, happen as a result of ugly Americans clashing with rude French citizens. If it is a comedy, it's one of the most violent & mean spirited ones I have ever seen.
The film is also awash with muddled references, such as when DeNiro's character is asked to attend and lead a debate on the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin film Some Came Running, but a last minute issue with the print forces the audience in attendance to watch Goodfellas instead. So we're left to imagine a world where we, the audience, are watching Robert DeNiro the actor watching a film with Robert DeNiro the actor in it... It's too muddled and confusing for me to handle. It's not too far off from The Expendables films where the characters call one another by names of other characters that the actors have played in other films. It's far too confusing to actually generate laughs. 
As for the performances, they're all fine, if derivative of other performances they've already given. DeNiro takes a little from column A (Goodfellas) and a little from column B (Meet the Parents) and ends up with a performance that's no better or worse than we've come to expect from him in the years since 1997, his last truly great year as an actor. Pfeiffer is enjoyable, playing a variation on her role in Married to the Mob, but she's always fun to watch. Tommy Lee Jones has a corner on the curmudgeon market at this point, so there's no point in even naming the other, identical roles he's played before. D'Leo was probably my favorite of the bunch, playing a great variation on the son who takes up his father's business. 
The script, by Besson and Michael Caleo, based on the novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista, is the weakest element of the film by far. Besson's direction is snappy and sometimes clever, but the script is such a muddled mess of self-reference, it's virtually impossible to nail down what kind of film it wants to be. I haven't read the source material, but something tells me it all went wrong in the adaptation. It seems like a case of the filmmakers pulling off the casting coup of getting DeNiro involved, and then tailoring the script around him, and ending up with a jumbled mess of nonsense. I refuse to believe this is the best possible version of this story, because the premise has legs. 
As if I haven't made it abundantly clear by now, The Family is a mess of a film. Fans of the gangster films and tv shows of the 90s and early 2000s will find things here and there to chuckle at, including an appearance by Vincent "Big Pussy" Pastore, but more than anything, you'll likely find yourself disappointed by all the squandered potential on display. Besson still has style to spare as a director, and the actors turn in workmanlike performances, but it's all in service of a ham fisted, half baked script with serious identity issues, which ultimately makes it a huge miss.
Go Rating: 2/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Summer 2013: The Worst Summer in Recent Memory?

Summer is typically that time of year when moviegoers like to shut their brains off and watch aliens & dinosaurs team up to make the White House go 'splode. This particular summer was one of the worst in recent memory, and I will get into the many reasons why, but I will also compare it to the other "worst summer" I can recall, and why that may bode well for the coming fall & winter films.

Summer began with Iron Man 3, which I was disappointed with, but in retrospect, turned out to be one of the better films of the summer. At the very least it tried something different, and placed a good deal of emphasis on dialogue & character, something that other big budget affairs would summarily ignore. Then came The Great Gatsby, which was similarly disappointing if for no other reason than it failed to live up to the promise of its first half. A week later, summer went right in the tank for me with Star Trek: Into Darkness, a film that still makes me very angry when I think about it, and the season never really rebounded.

Leave it to the films I had the lowest expectations for to be the four best studio films I saw this summer: Pacific Rim, The Heat, Now You See Me & Turbo. Those four seemed, on the surface, to be rehashed run of the mill nonsense, but ended up surprising me in ways I didn't think possible. On the other hand, you had films I wanted to see like Man of Steelwhich ended up taking a stupid story and cramming as much headache inducing action into the final forty minutes as the human brain could handle before it revolted entirely.

Other films I was looking forward to such as Despicable Me 2, Only God Forgives & Elysium ended up disappointing as well (one more than the others, for sure), but it just went to show that it almost wasn't worth looking forward to any films this summer as they were sure to disappoint in the end. It's no surprise films like Lee Daniels' The Butler & We're The Millers have become late summer successes because, despite their varying degrees of mediocrity, at least they tried something different.

So whose fault is it in the end; Mine for expecting too much, or the studios for not delivering? I guess it's partially my fault for thinking that the big studios gave a shit about filmgoers and tried to deliver good films, but I find it hard to blame myself for a movie not being good. It's why I steered clear of White House Down, The Lone Ranger, World War Z & Fast & Furious 6... I just didn't care enough to spend money on films that were obviously products. At least Man of Steel had the decency to confine its rampant IHOP & Sears product placement to the film itself to at least fool me into forking over my money first.

All of this leads me to recall the summer movie season that was wrapping up fifteen years ago. The summer of 1998 brought us some world class stinkers: Godzilla, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Doctor Dolittle, The Horse Whisperer, Hope Floats, Snake Eyes, The Negotiator, The Avengers, Disturbing Behavior, Six Days Seven Nights & 54 to name but a few. There were some decent films: There's Something About Mary, The X-Files Movie, Mulan, The Truman Show, The Mask of Zorro; And even four of the best films that year were released that summer: Buffalo 66, Out of Sight, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas & Saving Private Ryan. But for the most part, that summer was flat-out awful. But something strange happened between Labor Day & New Year's... A glut of fantastic films were released, including, but not limited to: Life is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, Velvet Goldmine, Little Voice, Rushmore, Waking Ned Devine, Pleasantville, The Thin Red Line, A Simple Plan, Gods & Monsters, American History X, & Apt Pupil.

Looking ahead to this year's fall & winter slate, I see some films that have the potential to rival that year's fantastic finish, and hopefully we can look back at 2013 as an overall great year, much the way we now view 1998 (a year I may go so far as to say is the best of that decade). The point of all this is, I suppose, not to judge a year until it's over. After a disappointing spring that yielded a few decent films, only one of which, Mud, is likely to end up on my year end best list, I was ready for a promising summer. Thankfully a handful of indies (The Way, Way Back, Fruitvale Station, Much Ado About Nothing, Blue Jasmine, The World's End) ended up redeeming the summer to an extent, but of the big budget blockbusters, I really only enjoyed two films that made any money: Now You See Me & The Heat. The others that I enjoyed such as Pacific Rim, Turbo, & R.I.P.D. all flopped.

The moral of all this, I suppose, is that there is a time to announce 2013's place in history, but that time is not now. It was a disappointing summer, to be sure, but the year's not over yet, and that's the most exciting prospect of all...