Friday, November 29, 2013

Day 257: Frozen

"Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway."

I've documented the bizarro flip-flop that occurred between Disney Animation Studios and Pixar right around 2010 in my reviews for Wreck-it Ralph & Brave, so I won't dive into it again here, other than to say that after the lackluster Monsters University this summer, expectations were high that Disney could save the studio that once saved it with their fall offering Frozen. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen was being touted as a return to the musical extravaganzas that Disney churned out with regularity for most of the 1990s. So could it possibly live up to these outrageously high expectations that people has placed on it, even going so far as to deem it the front-runner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar some eight months before it's release? Read on to find out...

The kingdom of Arendelle has two princesses, the elder of which, Elsa (Idina Menzel) has the powerful ability to create snow and ice from her fingertips. When playing together as children, Elsa nearly kills her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), and a powerful spell revives her, but erases her memories of Elsa's powers. Elsa is convinced by her parents to keep her powers secret from her sister, and therefore Elsa grows distant and cold, protecting her sister by avoiding her altogether. After a shipwreck kills their parents, Elsa is to be crowned the Queen of Arendelle, and at her coronation, Anna falls in love with a handsome prince, Hans (Santino Fontana) from a nearby kingdom.

When Hans and Anna seek Elsa's blessing to marry, she refuses as they've basically just met. When Anna pushes her sister, Elsa inadvertently reveals her powers to everyone, and retreats to the mountains, blanketing her kingdom in snow and ice. Hoping to make things right and save the kingdom, Anna sets out to talk to her sister, and enlists the help of an ice merchant named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) to reach the ice castle that Elsa has created. They're joined on their journey by a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), a relic of Anna & Elsa's pre-accident childhood, and proof that Elsa may not be the evil person everyone is painting her to be. Anna must try and convince her sister to end the curse she's put on her kingdom before everyone freezes to death.

The film that Frozen has the most in common with of all the Disney Animation Studios films since The Little Mermaid is Tangled, and if that statement is taken as the compliment I intend it to be, you'll have a good sense of what to expect from this film. Frozen and Tangled are incredibly similar in their structure, story, plot devices and romantic lead characters, but Frozen has a slight edge in my book for one major reason, and I may lose some of you when I say this, but bear with me. Frozen is by far the greatest screen parable ever created as a metaphor for someone dealing with their homosexuality. Now, I don't know for sure that the filmmakers ever intended this to be exactly what I just said that it is, but the points of comparison when looking at the character of Elsa are just far too many for me to ignore, and it deals with the issue in such a way that those too righteous to ignore the similarities can easily write them off.

Elsa has a secret that from a young age she is forced to suppress. Her parents go so far as to erase her sister's memories of her secret, and Elsa is forced to grow up in shame, learning to "conceal it, don't feel it," from her parents. So scared is she of the person that she is becoming that she hides away from the world, and when she does "come out" so to speak, she's immediately shunned by society and forced to retreat from the world altogether. Those who seek to understand and love her for who she is are eventually gotten the best of by those seeking to destroy her and what she stands for, causing more shame and humiliation for a person who cannot change who she is no matter what. This is heady stuff for a kids' film, and reminds me of Happy Feet, another masterful film that dealt with a similar subject matter.

For all that Frozen ultimately does, it succeeds most when it shirks convention and plays out in surprising ways that you won't be able to predict. It's a flawed film in that it still consolidates its narrative to fit into a neat and tidy 100-minute running time, but it manages to pack enough twists to what you think is going to happen to feel fresh despite its often woefully ordinary narrative predictability. These may sound like backhanded compliments, and in a way they are, but this film feels like the farthest any filmmaker will be able to push the boundaries in a Disney animated film. Every step forward is followed by the slightest, most hesitant half-step back. But even a horrendously contrived character like Olaf has enough genuinely great moments to make him a welcome addition to the film, and my daughters (along with every other kid at the screening we attended) absolutely adored his antics.

The voice work is superb, and if Idina Menzel weren't already a nouveau gay icon, her work as Elsa would cement her status as such. Her soaring ballad "Let it Go" is by far the highlight of the film, and will likely reduce many an audience member to tears with its lyrical fleetness and brash delivery. Kristen Bell is also good in her role as Anna, managing to turn an fairly run-of-the-mill princess character into one with a bit more depth than you might expect. Josh Gad & Jonathan Groff also deliver top notch work that allows them to call on their training as stage actors to great effect, and Alan Tudyk is clearly having a blast voicing another character of dubious morals, The Duke of Weselton.

The songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez (who also created the fantastic songs for 2011's Winnie The Pooh) are wonderful, displaying a classic show tune sensibility infused with the clever wordplay that Robert displayed a gift for with his Broadway compositions for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. The score proper by Christophe Beck is also very good and calls to many of the song's melodies in a solid way. The film is also gorgeously animated, and although I did not see it in 3D, I could tell that the compositions were framed with 3D in mind, and if I see it again, I will most assuredly shell out the extra money to see how well they used the technology.

Frozen is a very good film in a year that's seen a dearth of originality in feature length animation. It's theme of being yourself in spite of what the world thinks basically ensures that it will remain a vital film for generations to come, and I think I will only grow to love the film more over time. While it's not the masterpiece I had hoped it would be, it's still got much more going for it than against it, and I feel that it will play well to just about every demographic out there, and will have a long shelf life after it leaves theaters. I can't think of any reason not to recommend Frozen, and if you are concealing or have concealed a secret about yourself, this film will speak to you in ways I cannot imagine. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day 256: Thor: The Dark World

"Well done, you just decapitated your grandfather."

If I have to be the one to say it, then so be it. I have Marvel movie fatigue. I've enjoyed almost all of the Marvel Studios films so far, but I haven't honestly loved any of them, and with them coming fast and furious these days (this is the second of four to be released in a 15 month period), I'm just finding it harder and harder to get really jazzed about them anymore. It also doesn't help that I found 2011's Thor to be a perfectly serviceable, sometimes funny, sometimes lethargic exercise in superhero filmmaking. I wouldn't call my desire to see the sequel Thor: The Dark World anything even close to excitement, and honestly if my seven year old daughter Clementine hadn't suggested seeing it, I might have just waited for the dvd. So was I right or was I foolish to be unenthusiastic about this latest entry from Marvel Studios? Read on to find out...

Thor: The Dark World is essentially a dual sequel to both Thor and The Avengers which really couldn't be avoided since Thor (Chris Hemsworth) factored so heavily into the victory over his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the latter film, and their contentious relationship had been set-up in the former. Therefore, the myriad issues that need resolving in this film come from both of its predecessors. This is ostensibly a stand-alone entry in the ongoing saga of Thor, the would-be ruler of Asgard, and it feels more like that then another long slog through set-up for The Avengers sequel due in 18 months, mainly because its otherworldly setting gets it away from the more earthbound concerns of The Avengers.

A race of dark elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) once attempted to use an evil element called the aether that could plunge the nine realms of Asgard into darkness. After their defeat at the hands of Thor's grandfather some 5000 years ago, they went into some sort of hibernation, waiting for the next alignment of the nine realms to once more attempt to take control of the aether and carry out their plan. We certainly wouldn't get that sort of set-up if the present weren't the time when this attempt would be made, but a wrinkle develops in the dark elves' plan when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor's earthly love interest from the first film, gets possessed by the aether. Thor brings Jane back to Asgard, and as the dark elves arise from their slumber and seek the aether, he must formulate a plan to protect the woman he loves and his homeland from destruction. 

As convoluted as the plot sounds, it's surprisingly easy to follow, as are all of the Marvel films. They dabble in seemingly complicated plots, but they're truly geared towards being easily understood by the lowest common denominator. That's not a knock, it's been the stock in trade of comic books from their infancy, it's just so hard to sum up the plot of these kinds of films after the fact, even though they were simple to follow while you're watching. If it weren't for the film's use of two of the most hackneyed plot devices in all of science fiction filmmaking (elemental substance that can cause destruction and a cosmic alignment of the planets), I might go so far as to say that I actually loved Thor: The Dark World. As it stands however, I legitimately enjoyed it while I was watching it, but could honestly care less about it now that it's over. 

And that's my biggest problem with these films in general, they're ultimately disposable. With the possible exception of Jon Favreau's Iron Man, none of these films has really felt like a fully contained, self-sufficient and wholly satisfying story. Everything now is just a stop along the way, and you begin to feel like a passenger on a never-ending bus trip after a while. It just sort of becomes tedious when the films introduce these world threatening plots that you just know are going to be resolved by the time the film is over because we've got to get to the next stop on our route. It's slowly becoming a slog through the Marvel universe, and maybe I'm just being cranky, but I wish there wasn't this forceful push to have the film introduce entire plot lines and villains, as well as some element that plays into the larger whole, and then dispose of them by the end of the film because all the loose ends need to be tied up by the time the Marvel logo rolls on the next film. 

I feel bad in a way saying all this, because there's a lot of really great stuff in Thor: The Dark World. The humor woven through the film is fantastic, and the final battle sequence that bends physics and has characters literally jumping through time and space to attack one another is the most fantastic action sequence in this entire cinematic universe to date. Also, the funeral sequence for a fairly major character that occurs right around the midway point of the film is gorgeously shot and incredibly moving. These two moments, taken alone, might be my favorite of any that Marvel Studios has produced. 

The cast is very strong, as to be expected, with Hemsworth and Hiddleston being an absolute delight to watch sparring with one another. Their relationship is the true emotional core of these films and makes the ridiculous attempts to insert Jane Foster into the narrative all the more distracting as a result. Portman isn't bad per se, she's just playing as one-dimensional a character as she did in the awful Star Wars prequels, and isn't a good enough actress to transcend the weak material she's given. Hemsworth and Hiddleston however shine throughout, and the rumors of last minute reshoots to insert more of Hiddleston into the film were well worth the time and effort as he remains the most compelling character in any of these films. 

The rest of the supporting cast is fine, if underused. The attempts to work everyone in and give them all something to do are a bit distracting, but I will say that I genuinely enjoyed what Rene Russo did with her expanded role as Thor and Loki's mother Frigga. The film's director Alan Taylor brings a visual inventiveness to the film that previous director Kenneth Branagh just wasn't really capable of, and the film is that much better as a result. I genuinely enjoyed the look of the film, and it felt like a standalone film being forced to play by the rules of an established universe. I admire everything he did and tip my cap to him for refusing to take part in the nonsensical mid-credits scene that I absolutely abhorred. 

I'm really of two minds about Thor: The Dark World. The child in me is ecstatic that this character has finally gotten a cinematic epic worthy of his epic nature from the comics. On the other hand, the film geek in me is exhausted by Marvel's continued insistence that everything be connected and linked and set up and paid off and all by the end of the film. It's become exhausting, and I just can't get excited about any of their upcoming slate with the notable exception of 2015's Ant-Man, mainly due to director Edgar Wright's participation. Granted, Marvel's not the utter train wreck that DC has turned into when it comes to their films, but their tack of sucking as much personality from these films as possible to ensure that they're all a part of a larger whole is getting wearisome. I'll end up seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I honestly couldn't give a shit about any of them right now. I can pretty much tell you exactly what they're going to be… bland and ultimately forgettable. 

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, November 25, 2013

Top 5: Disney Princess Films

This week marks the release of Disney Animation Studio's 53rd feature length animated film Frozen, and as the film features 2 new princesses to add to the growing list of Disney royalty, I thought it would be a good time to look back at my favorite Disney Princess films. To date there have been ten, if you don't count Brave-- which is technically a Pixar film, so I'm not including it here-- and I thought at first about potentially ranking the Princesses themselves, but have decided instead to rank the films in which they appear. Therefore, a princess like Mulan who I think is a phenomenal model of what a princess should be, doesn't quite crack the top five because I find the film around her to be lackluster. As a dad to two little girls, you can be sure that I've hashed out this argument a handful of times already. Hit the break for a quick rundown of 6-10 and then a more detailed countdown of my top five Disney Princess Films. 
10. Cinderella (1950)
9. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
8. Aladdin (1992)
7. Mulan (1998)
6. Pocahontas (1995)
5. The Little Mermaid (1989)
little mermaid
Arguably the smartest and boldest move that Disney made when they redoubled their animation efforts just prior to the 1990s was hiring the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The two had created the Off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors, and were just what the studio needed to usher in this new era of the animated musical. Their first effort together was 1989's The Little Mermaid, a film that was just re-released on dvd and blu-ray in a gorgeous new high definition transfer. Incredibly loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the same name, The Little Mermaid gave us a different kind of Disney Princess in Ariel, one who longed for more from life than just going about her routine, and her insatiable curiosity pays off, only after she makes a bargain with the evil sea queen Ursula. While it's not as wholly satisfying as the best of Disney's output from that era, it's still got some fantastic songs, great comic relief and makes for a thoroughly entertaining film that succeeds for both kids and kids at heart.
4. Tangled (2010)
While it wasn't Disney's first foray into cg animation, Tangled certainly remains their best, combining classic Disney charm with an irreverently sardonic edge. Rapunzel is another princess in the vein of Ariel who at first longs for something more than the confinement of her tower, but then takes charge of her own destiny when she finds true love in the form of Flynn Ryder. The film's songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are among the best in any Disney film, particularly Oscar nominated duet "I See The Light." The film's sense of spectacle is also second to none, featuring some of the sharpest, most gorgeously rendered animation that's ever been put on film, and the conceit of having the animals in the film be unable to talk works to the filmmakers advantage as it yields some of the best physical comedy in the history of the studio. Tangled showed that a Disney Princess film didn't mean it was exclusively made for little girls.
3. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
By far my favorite of the post-millennial Disney animated films is 2009's The Princess and the Frog. The film was a return to the hand drawn animation days of Disney's golden age, and proved that the spirit of the hand drawn musical spectaculars of the 90s wasn't dead and buried. Though they've only done one hand drawn film since (2011's fantastically underrated Winnie the PoohThe Princess and the Frog feels like it could have sprung out entirely in its current form back in the 90s. The film also gives us my second favorite Disney Princess in Tiana, a strong-willed, hard working woman who has a can-do attitude and doesn't rely on a prince to make her feel like a complete person. The film's soundtrack and songs by Randy Newman are probably my favorite of any Disney film, and the opulent New Orleans set animation is among the finest work ever done by the animators at Disney. This is the kind of film I wish they were making more of, and I hold out hope that The Princess and the Frog will one day be recognized as the masterpiece that it truly is.
2. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The second Disney film done in an anamorphic widescreen ratio, and the first photographed in 70mm, remains among the greatest all-time animated films, 1959's Sleeping Beauty. The story of Princess Aurora and the curse placed on her at her birth by the evil Maleficent (still the greatest Disney villain ever) remains among the most beloved animated films for a reason. It's story is simple and effective, and the animation is eye-poppingly gorgeous. While Aurora herself amounts to nothing more than a spectator in her own eponymous story, the trio of good fairies that protect her provide enough pathos for the audience to latch on to, and the film's score is a delight for the ears. With the upcoming release of a live-action film based around Maleficent due next year, it's obvious where the story's true appeal lies, but there's no denying that this is the absolute height of what Walt Disney and his animators achieved in his lifetime.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award still dazzles today, and it should come as no surprise that the film Beauty and the Beast also features my favorite Disney princess by a mile, Belle. Belle is the sort of literate, open-minded, good hearted person that any little girl can aspire to. She doesn't seek her validation from those around her or rush into a forced relationship with an overbearing bag of douche like Gaston. She seeks her own path, and keeps the well-being of her father foremost among her priorities. Arguments can, and probably should, be mounted about Belle's severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, but being an animated film, her arc can't run much longer than the ninety minute running time, so we can just assume that most of the "falling in love" happened off-camera. While the film itself is not my favorite telling of this tale (that would be Jean Cocteau's 1946 French version La Belle et la Bete) this one manages to score thanks to its beautiful hand drawn animation and winning score and songs, once again by Menken and Ashman. Beauty and the Beast remains the gold standard among the modern Disney classics, and it's a wonderful film worth revisiting again and again.
[Images via 123456]

Top 5: Spike Lee Joints

With this week's release of the American remake of Oldboy, I decided to take a look back at the career of the film's director Spike Lee.  Lee has had one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood, and his prolific nature has virtually ensured that if you're not a fan of his most recent film, he'll have another one out soon enough. Having started off directing some of the most incendiary films of the late 80s and early 90s, he's now moved into a career balancing personal pictures (Red Hook Summer, Miracle at St. Anna) with director-for-hire work (Inside Man) and documentary work (When the Levees Broke). While I'm certainly not a fan of all of his films-- I could live the rest of my life and never give another thought to She Hate Me or Girl 6-- he's made some undeniably great ones. Here's my list of his top five films.
5. Bamboozled (2000)
Structurally, the film is a bit all over the map, but 2000's Bamboozled might be Lee's most incendiary film. Set in the early days of reality television, days when it seemed nothing was off-limits, a television producer (Damon Wayans) pitches a modern day minstrel show to be performed in traditional blackface. The show's stars Savion Glover & Tommy Davidson are reluctant at first to participate, but also need the work, and the devastating toll that the show takes on them forms the film's emotional core. There are some fantastic supporting performances by Mos Def, Paul Mooney & Michael Rapaport (playing a character that is Lee's most direct attack on Quentin Tarantino ever), and while the film's climax takes things a shade over the top, this is still essential viewing. Every year when some stupid quasi-celebrity or meathead athlete shows up for some function in blackface, I think of the final moments of this film, and it reminds me of what a horrendous legacy was left behind by the days when blackface was considered entertainment.
4. Summer of Sam (1999)
1999 was a year that found many directors (David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, The Wachowskis) unleashing a torrent of visually stylistic masterpieces on the world, and I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to put Spike Lee's Summer of Sam comfortably in their company. It's a fictional story set in the all-too real summer of 1977 when New York City was held hostage by The Son of Sam serial killer. While I think it may be a case of style over substance as some of the subplots could have been jettisoned without losing much from the overall story, it's one of Lee's most assured directorial efforts, and his use of music is never better than it is in this film. The centerpiece montage set to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" is still amongst my favorite uses of a song in a film, and the supporting cast featuring Adrien Brody, Ben Gazarra, Michael Rispoli & Patti LuPone is one of the best Lee has ever assembled.
3. Malcolm X (1992)
malcolm x
The word epic doesn't quite cover 1992's Malcolm X. Denzel Washington gives hands down the best performance of his career in a film that spans the rise and tragic demise of one of the great warriors in the battle to secure equal rights for black Americans. While many fans of the film may rank this one higher than I have, I admit that I've only seen it from beginning to end maybe twice, but I find myself re-watching a handful of scenes from the film over and over again, particularly Malcolm's trip to The Audobon Ballroom, where he would be assassinated, set to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." It's probably the single greatest scene Lee has ever put on film. And as for Washington's performance, it's electrifying and connected in a way that he hasn't been since, and it honestly feels like a performance he's been trying to recapture for most of his career.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
After 9/11, the world waited to see how New York based filmmakers would handle the tragedy and its aftermath, and Spike Lee rose to the occasion to deliver the quintessential film about post-9/11 New York City. 25th Hour is ostensibly a film about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) enjoying his last 24 hours of freedom before shipping off to prison for seven years, but at its core, the film is more about the dual love/hate relationship he has with himself, his friends, and most importantly his city. The city has never felt more isolated than it does in this meditation on masculinity, yet it also feels stronger and more assured than it has in decades. If Summer of Sam was about a city overreacting to numerous catastrophic events, 25th Hour is about a city that emerged from the other side of an enormous catastrophe more resolved and more unified than ever, despite its countless differences. It's also almost worth watching just for Brian Cox's final monologue as he drives his son to prison, and the montage that accompanies it. It radiates with a power that can only be delivered by a filmmaker in complete control of his craft.
1. Do The Right Thing (1989)
In 1989, on just his third narrative feature, Spike Lee managed to create the quintessential film about race relations in America. Do The Right Thing is the rare film that achieves the monumental task of presenting a multitude of characters on both sides of the issue without demonizing any of them. Set in and around the fictional Sal's Pizzeria in Brooklyn, Lee weaves a tapestry of characters from Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) the black man whose death at the hands of the cops sets a riot in motion, to Sal (Danny Aiello) the pizza shop owner and his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro), to Mookie (Lee) the black pizza delivery guy who works for Sal, and dozens of other characters in between. It gives open and equal air to almost everyone, and presents the issue of race as more than black and white, but a series of murky greys that yields no easy answers. Lee's use of music is second to none once again, using Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as the anthem of the riot that ends the film, but also as a cry of desperation for a series of characters that will never be the same again. Some 24 years after its release, Do the Right Thing still burns with an intensity that Lee has yet to match on film, and it will likely remain his masterpiece.
Honorable Mention: Clockers & 4 Little Girls
[Photos via 123456]

Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 255: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"From now on, your job is to be a distraction, so people forget what the real problems are."

A couple of things to get out of the way before I start this review. One, I haven't read any of Suzanne Collins' books on which the films are based. Two, I rather enjoyed the first film The Hunger Games, despite director Gary Ross' affinity for shaking the camera during virtually every frame of the film. And three, against my better judgment I decided to go see the sequel Catching Fire on the day it opened, in spite of the fact that I knew the theater would be packed and there would be at least two sets of people in the audience that would annoy the shit out of me (both of these premonitions were correct). Having said all that, here's what else I can tell you. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best genre sequel since The Dark Knight, and it's the one of the most batshit bananas blockbusters I've ever seen. 

After the events of the 74th Hunger Games, survivors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their home in District 12 before embarking on their victory tour. Katniss is haunted by the memories of what she did to survive the first game, and is having trouble maintaining the facade that she's in love with Peeta when her heart clearly belongs to Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has the largest mouth I've ever seen on a human being). Katniss has bigger problems, however, because President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn't happy with the fact that she has become a symbol of rebellion to the residents of the various other Districts. He wants her to sell herself as a product of the Capitol by threatening the lives of those she cherishes most.

The problem is, the uprising has already begun, in spite of Katniss' best efforts to play along. Snow charges new Hunger Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a plan to force her into submission and crush the uprising before it begins. The plan they devise is that this year's 75th Hunger Games will feature a pool of participants culled from past victors of the games. And since the only other male survivor in District 12 is the drunk & unreliable Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss & Peeta find themselves back in the thick of another fight for their lives.

What Catching Fire does so well is it builds on everything set up in the first film and improves it in every way possible. It is unfortunately the middle portion of a trilogy, meaning that it's almost all rising action and no climax, but it serves that purpose incredibly well. It builds and builds, raising the stakes, and while its ending is likely to feel like a total anti-climax to some (including the chatty teenager and her even chattier mother sitting behind me), it works like gangbusters in service of a story that's clearly just getting warmed up.

I was worried when the trailers first started popping up for this and it looked to an outsider like myself to be another "more of the same" sequel, I was overjoyed to find out that I was mistaken. While it almost purposefully borrows the same structure as the first film, it plays on the audience's familiarity with that plot by subverting your expectations and keeping you guessing the entire time. It's the kind of film that keeps you right where it wants you, thinking that you know what's coming and then shocking you when something different happens. It's a truly fantastic sequel in that regard, and the kind of subversion of form that I wish more storytellers embraced.

When the film finally gets to the 75th Hunger Games, all manner of crazy shit happens that I never expected in a relatively mainstream film. From killer fog and bloody rain to vicious baboons and birds that torment people by impersonating their loved ones, it's all so insane that it has to be seen to be believed. Thankfully new director Francis Lawrence has dispensed with the epileptic camerawork of the first film and given the games a much calmer look that aids the insanity going on in every frame. It's comforting to watch more classic compositions when it's in the service of showing just how bonkers everything going on truly is.

The film's biggest asset by a mile, however, is its cast. Lawrence is without a doubt the best actress in her age range currently working. There really is nothing she cannot do, and I just loved the hell out of her in this film. She manages to win the audience's pathos with little effort, and it's undeniable that Gary Ross' single greatest contribution to these films was casting her in the first place. It's the supporting cast that sells the whole endeavor, employing fantastic character actors like Sutherland, Hoffman and Harrelson and supplementing it with a bonkers Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a seriously underused Lenny Kravitz, and of course Stanley Tucci, primping and preening all over the place like a purebred poodle at a dog show.

The new additions to the cast are fantastic as well, particularly Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two of the more eccentric former tributes. Jena Malone and Sam Claflin are also great as the two most prominently featured former tributes. Hemsworth and Hutcherson are perfectly serviceable in their roles, though the love triangle they're involved in with Lawrence seems woefully underdeveloped and at times feels like clumsy attempts at fan service. The story could've been just as great without this forced romantic subplot, and I credit screenwriters Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt (using the name Michael deBruyn for some reason) for jettisoning enough of it to keep the focus firmly on the revolution plot.

I may regret this statement and it may read as heresy to some of you, but Catching Fire is every bit as good as The Empire Strikes Back. It's a faithful and epic second act that finds our characters at their lowest point imaginable and keeps their fates hanging in the balance until the story's resolution. While the studio smelled nothing but money and decided to split the third book into two films, thereby rendering this the unofficial middle of this trilogy, it doesn't lessen this film's impact as a great and true second act of a trilogy. I am now excited to see where this story and these films are headed and I cannot wait for the next film. Do yourself a favor and even if you weren't crazy about the first film, go see Catching Fire. It's everything you could've hoped it would be and more. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Spotlight: The Career of Bruce Dern (And Why You Shouldn't Write Off Any Actor Until They're Dead)

This week I saw Alexander Payne's latest film Nebraska, and it got me thinking about a lot of things. First of all, a lot of people my age, and certainly younger than I, aren't really familiar with Dern's long career as an actor, and this column will seek to rectify that by recommending several films in which the actor proved why he was one of the premier character actors of the 1970s. It also stirred up a lot of thoughts surrounding the notion that an actor's career is truly never over until they're no longer able to make films for one reason or another, most notably their death. Until I heard that Dern was going to be starring in Nebraska, I hadn't thought much about what he might be up to, and I certainly never thought he was capable of once more being the subject of awards recognition, and how many other actors have faced a similar paradox. As Yogi Berra once put it so succinctly, "it ain't over 'til it's over."
Bruce Dern started his career, like so many great character actors of the time, by doing journeyman work in television. Beginning in 1960, Dern appeared in no fewer than 30 different big name programs of the day such as The Outer LimitsThe Fugitive, and Gunsmoke. After snagging bit parts in a handful of westerns, his first big break came with a featured role in Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They? It was his work with Bob Rafelson & Bert Schneider's BBS Productions that brought him the two best roles of his early film career in Jack Nicholson's directorial debut Drive, He Said and then opposite Nicholson in Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (both of which, incidentally, are available in Criterion's fantastic boxed set America: Lost & Found, The BBS Story).
Dern proved that he was an electric screen presence, not content to play it safe, and he had an edge to him that was hard to fake. Like my favorite character actor of all time, Robert Mitchum, Dern had a danger to him when you watched him work, and you could tell he had the life experience to back it up. The 70s were Dern's crowning achievement as an actor, turning in memorable performances such as playing Tom Buchanan in the otherwise lackluster adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and as an astronaut in visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull's directorial debut Silent Running.
His best work of the decade would come in two very different films, first as pageant director "Big Bob" Freelander in Michael Ritchie's essential comedic skewering of the pageant world Smile, a film I can't help but watch from beginning to end anytime I catch it on tv. Then came the crowning achievement of his work to that point, his Oscar-nominated performance in Hal Ashby's Best Picture nominee Coming Home. His work as the cuckolded Vietnam veteran Bob Hyde was overshadowed by his Oscar winning co-stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, but Dern shows tremendous range and angst in what could have easily been a throwaway default antagonist role.
The 80s and 90s were a bit of a wilderness period for Dern, as his brand of character actor became obsolete in an era of safe, sanitized Hollywood films. There were two notable exceptions, the first being his turn as Ton Hanks' deranged neighbor in Joe Dante's highly underrated 1989 black comedy The 'Burbs. The second was as the crooked sheriff in Last Man Standing, Walter Hill's inessential re-telling of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. For the most part however, he was underutilized at best, despite working consistently, mostly in bit parts.
The 2000s were a bit kinder to Dern, seeing him taking on more memorable roles in films like All The Pretty Horses and Monster, as well as the HBO series Big Love, though none of those seemed to offer him anything more than a role to honor his stature as a statesman for character actors everywhere. When he turned up in last year's Django Unchained, as the slave master who ordered Django's cheek be branded with a "runaway r", it seemed more like a favor to Dern than the kind of meaty role Tarantino was throwing the way of great 70s actors like Robert Forster & David Carradine. Then came a godsend in the form of Alexander Payne's perpetually in development film Nebraska, a role that had always been intended for Dern.
Dern's performance is amazingly strong and as good as any lead male performance this year, but he faces a predicament not unlike another distinguished older actor from several years ago, Peter O'Toole. In 2006, O'Toole was nominated for his strong but understated work in Venus, but lost to the much flashier but no less powerful Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. O'Toole had been given an Honorary Oscar for his entire career in 2003-- an honor he initially turned down in hopes he would "win the little bugger outright," which alas will never happened now that he's officially retired from acting-- but his eight career nominations and zero wins speaks to a larger problem in the Academy. There are far too many politics involved in the voting, and he lost his first go around in 1962 for Lawrence of Arabia since everyone naturally figured he'd have another shot at one in the future. He lost to his contemporaries such as Cliff Robertson and Ben Kingsley at future ceremonies, but his loss to John Wayne in 1969 points directly at this problem. The Academy gave Wayne the Oscar because he was a statesman of the profession, and not because his work in True Grit was better than O'Toole's in Goodbye Mr. Chips and especially Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy, but he won because he was due.
This feeling pervaded the Academy for many years, bestowing Oscars upon James Coburn for Affliction, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, and countless others simply because they hadn't been recognized yet. This honor eluded such performances as Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Albert Finney in Erin Brockovich, but those days are all but gone now. Therefore it seems that Dern will likely be consigned to also-ran status when he loses to the flashier work of Chiwetel Ejiofor or Matthew McConaughey (both of whom are fantastic and deserving, but have much showier roles than Dern's). If the 2008 Best Actor race taught us anything, it's that the Academy favors flash (Sean Penn in Milk) over subtlety (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler).
The most heartening thing about this year's Best Actor race, however, is that it prominently features two names that most thought would never be in an Oscar race again. In addition to Dern, a lot of talk has been swirling around Robert Redford's solo performance in JC Chandor's All is Lost. This performance is even further out of field than Dern's because Redford, despite a Best Actor nomination 40 years ago for The Sting and a directing Oscar for 1980's Ordinary People, never really ranks among actors that people talk about with great reverence. Redford is certainly an ambassador for the profession and his Sundance Film Festival has had an undeniable impact on the world of independent filmmaking, but he's not exactly someone that people mention as being a great actor. He's a great movie star, that much is not up for debate, but his acting abilities have never really been all that revered or talked about.
However here are Redford and Dern, both 77 years of age, and both in the middle of their first Oscar race in decades (which, as my friend Meagan astutely pointed out, is a revival of their Gatsby/Tom Buchanan rivalry). History says that neither man is likely to win, but it's important that we not forget about actors like Dern and Redford because as long as they're alive and making movies, they can surprise us and work their way back into the Oscar race at any moment. I hate to say we shouldn't write off any actor until they're dead, but it's true (and James Gandolfini's buzz in this year's Supporting Actor race shows that maybe even death isn't enough to discount an actor's chances at awards season glory). If nothing else, I'm happy that people are talking about Bruce Dern again, and maybe seeking out his early work because he is a fantastic actor that demands your attention.
[Images via 12345]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Day 254: Nebraska

"David, these plants need water. They're plants."
Alexander Payne started his career off with three films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) at least partially set in his home state of Nebraska. After diversions to California's wine country (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), Payne is back on familiar ground with his sixth feature, Nebraska. Payne's detractors accuse him of portraying the Midwest nothing more than a barren haven for rubes, while his most ardent fans see the verisimilitude with which he portrays a territory for which he has a deep, abiding love. So which camp does Nebraska fall into? Read on to find out...
We're introduced to our main character Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wandering aimlessly on the side of the road near his home in Billings, Montana. A police officer stops him to ask where he's going and he silently gestures ahead of himself. When asked where he's coming from, he flicks his thumb in the other direction. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station, and asks where he was headed, Woody shows him a letter he received in the mail that informs him that he may have won a million dollars, and he's heading to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. David informs his dad that it's a scam to get him to buy magazines and he needs to let it go, but for the next several days, Woody heads off on foot until someone intercepts him and tries to level with him that there is no million dollar prize awaiting him in Nebraska.
David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mother Kate (June Squibb) refuse to indulge Woody's fantasies, but David finally acquiesces and agrees to take his dad to Nebraska, even though he knows it's all a sham. David is basically trying to make the best of a bad situation and spend some quality time with a dad who was distant at best, in hopes of maybe helping him to get past this delusion and move on with his life. A pitstop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska however brings all manner of crooked family members and old business associates out of the woodwork once word gets out that Woody is heading south to collect some money.   
Shot in cold and remorseless black and white, Nebraska is a return to form for Payne, whose diversions west I wasn't a big fan of. While those films had their moments, they felt a bit like the work of a filmmaker somewhat out of his element. Nebraska allows Payne to indulge in the bleak and black Midwestern comedy for which he first made a name for himself. Woody Grant is a character that sees the world in much the same way as it's presented here, and the shades of grey which permeate the film elevate the entire endeavor into something of a minor miracle. What seems like it's going to be a long slog through the flatter portions of this country becomes an, at times, uproarious comedy for those wiling to recognize what it sets out to do.
The film itself gets trapped in the small town of Hawthorne in the way that many people do in such towns all over this country, and it's a magnificent film when it just sort of explores the banal world of small town folks and their relationships to one another. While the film never stoops to outright mockery of small town life, it presents it in a way that will seem foreign to those who've never known of such a way of life, and thankfully never goes for laughs at the expense of any of these people. It's the kind of film that shoots from the hip and shows these small town dynamics for what they are… outright strange. It's a delicate balance that's maintained by Bob Nelson's fantastic script, which has no shortage of empathy for its characters.
As for those characters, Bruce Dern gives a phenomenal performance as Woody, infusing him with so much humanity, you'll wonder why no one else is utilizing his talents in this way. Dern has the salt of the earth type down pat, and the way he delivers his one or two word retorts and answers to questions is nothing short of brilliant. Forte is outstanding as well in a way I never expected. Anyone who's seen his work on SNL or with Tim & Eric will know that his characters often have an incredible anger boiling beneath the surface, and Payne exploits that to tremendous effect. June Squibb is also fantastic as Woody's long suffering wife, who proves to be quite the firecracker herself. She gets many of the film's biggest laughs with her wonderfully incongruous lines. 
The film's cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeous in its sameness and truly aids the story in the best way possible. The score by Mark Orton is sublimely simple, utilizing folksy sounding music that can be both comedic or poignant depending upon the context in which it is used. And I truly cannot say enough good things about Alexander Payne's work here as a director. This is the first film he's directed for which he didn't have a hand in the script writing, and it's focused his work in such a way that he's never been better. The film's stark look is aided by his often comedic compositions, and he understands comedy on a much deeper level than most directors working in the genre today.
Nebraska is a small film with a leisurely pace, but it's as affecting and honest as anything you'll see this year. Bruce Dern gives what might be the performance of his career, and thankfully it's in the service of a film that rises to meet him at every occasion. I'm glad to have Alexander Payne back home in the Midwest working in a place and style he knows like the back of his hand. The time away has strengthened him as a director, but he's put his skills to great use here, and I feel like he's only going to get better. Nebraska is an immensely charming film that is most assuredly worth seeking out. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Day 253: Parkland

"Everyone ready? You all know what's on here, right? And we're sure you're ready?"
With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination on President John F. Kennedy just one week away, there has been a crush of films, books, documentaries and television shows surrounding the event. One film in particular, Parkland, got lost in the shuffle when it had an all too brief theatrical run in early October, and that's extremely unfortunate because it's one of the least exploitative looks at the assassination ever made. While most of these seek to deal with the onslaught of conspiracy theories and effect that the assassination had on the country, almost every one, including Oliver Stone's film named after the President himself, have seemingly forgotten the man whose life ended that day. 
Parkland tells several interweaving stories involving various people in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) was a local businessman who rushed to Dealey Plaza with his 8mm Bell & Howell camera to record a home video of the President's motorcade as it passed. Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) was a resident at Parkland Memorial Hospital, in the middle of a long shift that seemed as if it would never end. James Hosty (Ron Livingston) was an FBI Agent in Dallas who was potentially sitting on information about a local Dallas man that was a known lunatic by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong). Oswald's brother Robert (James Badge Dale) was a quiet father, holding down a respectable job and relishing his anonymity. Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) was the Secret Service agent in charge of the President's visit to Dallas, and had put the city under, what he thought, were unprecedented security measures to ensure the President's safety. 
A little before 1pm, all of that changed when shots were fired as the President's motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. Zapruder captures the assassination on film and the President is rushed to Parkland Hospital where his body is met by Dr. Carrico. Lee Oswald is picked up that afternoon after shooting a police officer, and news of his arrest sends Robert into a frenzy to discover how and why his brother may have been involved in the President's death. The Secret Service scramble to protect Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Sean McGraw) from any potential harm that may come to him, and everyone in Dallas is trying to make sense of exactly what happened and why, hoping that Zapruder's film may hold the answers to those questions.
The film is never better than in its first thirty minutes as all of these many characters are introduced in brief but memorable ways, and the film's true genius lies in how easily it brings all of these characters together. The scenes in the hospital as the doctors and nurses try in vain to save President Kennedy's life are among some of the most heart wrenching and intense scenes ever put on film in regard to this event. The various nurses and Secret Service agents stand by helplessly in the room as Carrico and chief resident Dr. Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks) do all they can to revive him. It's intense and all the more despairing because we know the outcome of their efforts. The ensuing scenes when Kennedy's wife Jacqueline (Kat Steffens) and a priest (Jackie Earle Haley) offering last rites are the most powerful in the entire film, and help the audience to feel the full gravity of what had just transpired.
The film doesn't necessarily lose focus after this, but what follows lacks urgency, simply because we already know that even fifty years later, there were no answers to be had that day. The race to get Zapruder's film developed and seen by the Secret Service makes for a compelling second storyline, and it's fascinating to watch. Thankfully writer/director Peter Landesman is smart enough not to actually show Zapruder's film, which has been played to the point where it has almost lost its impact, and instead chooses to focus on the reactions of the people viewing it for the first time. The scenes involving the FBI office, and James Hosty are also interesting, particularly once Oswald's name comes up as the prime suspect and his superior (Jason Douglas) wants to know why he didn't report the information he had on Oswald. 
It's the film's almost total shift of focus to the Oswald family in the third act that truly weakens the film. Robert Oswald's story, and his devotion to his lunatic mother (Jacki Weaver, going deliriously over-the-top) and even his brother, despite what's being said about him, is interesting in its own way, but make for a far less compelling story than the one concerning the other characters in the film. The scenes are strongly executed and fascinating in their own way, but pale in comparison to the rest of the story. It likely could have made a brilliant film on its own merits, but the tangential connection to the rest of the events (Oswald ends up in the same Parkland Operating Room, after being shot by Jack Ruby, that the President died in just 24 hours earlier) makes it feel like a separate movie at times.
The performances are outstanding all the way around. Giamatti is fantastic as Abraham Zapruder, infusing the character with tremendous pathos. Thornton is always great, and his appearance in this film will make you wish he did more films since he's such a committed presence. The periphery characters like Parkland's head nurse played by Marcia Gay Harden and the secret service agents played by Tom Welling, Mark Duplass and Gil Bellows are equally good and flesh out the world in a very realistic way. Zac Efron surprised me the most of the primary cast members, in that I never expected him to do work of this caliber. I'm sure he's got acting chops that can be exploited in some way, but no one's been able to get a performance this well-rounded out of him before, and I think he will most assuredly surprise you.
James Badge Dale is also very good and grounded, though his subplot is the most superfluous, and gives us the oddest performance in the entire film via Jacki Weaver's Marguerite Oswald. While she may be doing a spot-on impression of the real woman, her voice and mannerisms seem completely out of step with the rest of the film and are truly jarring in context. It's such an odd set of scenes and a truly bizarre character for an otherwise realistic film. This is honestly the only point and plot on which I fault Landesman, who otherwise did a bang-up job for his first directorial effort. 
Parkland is a truly unique film in that it tells a multi-character, multi-story arc in a shade over ninety minutes. It almost feels as if it's over just after it began, and I mean that as high praise. It's the kind of film that isn't made much anymore. It doesn't have an agenda or a list of stylistic flourishes it needs to check off, it's just a tight, intense film told incredibly well by a talented cast. History buffs will enjoy it on an entirely different level, and appreciate it's adherence to the events of the day, but as entertainment, it succeeds in ways I didn't think possible. The film was just released on Blu-Ray and DVD, and I would highly recommend seeking it out as a way of remembering this somber anniversary. 
GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]