Sunday, March 30, 2014

Day 289: Bad Words

"You can't find one little chicken tikka to get your shrimp tandoori all up in?"
After several years in the wilderness, former child star Jason Bateman got his career back on track in 2004 thanks to his starring role on the cult favorite sitcom Arrested Development. Since that time, he has become something of a go-to straight man for comedies looking to pair him with an ever increasing array of wacky stars from Charlie Day in Horrible Bosses to Melissa McCarthy in the terrible Identity Thief. Now making his directorial debut with the spelling bee comedy Bad Words, Bateman has gifted himself with a role that is a 180 from what we're used to seeing him do, giving him the chance to show what he can do when playing a thoroughly unlikeable character. Did it pay off? Read on to find out… 
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a forty year-old proofreader who has decided to exploit a loophole and compete in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee competition since he never passed the eighth grade. After a regional final win that allows him entry into the national finals, Guy brings his wholly unpleasant demeanor to the biggest stage imaginable, and his remorselessness shows no signs of cracking in the face of mounting pressure to drop out. Guy is accompanied on his journey by a journalist (Kathryn Hahn) whose website is sponsoring all of his endeavors thanks to the promise of an exclusive story on his quest to compete in such a prestigious tournament.
At the Nationals, Guy also meets a fellow competitor, ten year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who seems to want a friendship with Guy despite Guy's total reluctance to even speak to him. He ends up caving when he discovers that Chaitanya is in a hotel room by himself that's stocked with a mini-bar, and Guy's own selfish ends can be met. They strike up an unlikely friendship when Guy begins to see something of himself in the boy, particularly how he is treated by his emotionally distant, yet controlling father. Raised with no knowledge of who his own father was, Guy takes Chaitanya under his wing, teaching him to live it up, but their newfound friendship may spell disaster for their equally competitive natures in this major event. 
As a showcase for Bateman's unique comedic sensibilities, Bad Words is about as good a comedy as you can hope for. Devoid of the endless Apatovian riffing that has begun to seep its way into every mainstream comedy, including last year's The Wolf of Wall Street, it's refreshing to see a tightly scripted comedy that feels like the best possible version of this story, rather than a variation on a dozen other outcomes. It's also a breath of fresh air to have a protagonist whose sole mission is to destroy the livelihoods of the most innocent members of our society, and not be required to have a "come to Jesus" moment where he changes his fundamental personality flaws. While that's not to say that the film doesn't have a truly soft core beneath its hardened exterior, it's also nice to deviate from convention and subvert the audience's expectations even a little bit.
Andrew Dodge's script was one of the top scripts on the 2011 "Black List" of best un-produced screenplays, and much like another famously under appreciated black list script, The Beaver, this film embraces nastiness and turns it into its greatest asset. This is not a film for everyone, but those who love Bateman's brand of comedy and films with an air of mean spiritedness will find a lot here to enjoy. It's also a scathing critique of the current wave of helicopter parenting and parents' desire to breed a generation of winners, no matter the cost to their child's psyche. While it could have used a little more of that, it's a minor complaint for a film that really goes for broke in being offensive to everyone. It firmly subscribes to the adage that if it's okay to make fun of someone or something, it has to be okay to make fun of everyone and everything, and that's something that more films could use a dose of.  
Much like Bill Murray's terrific performance in Groundhog Day, there's no guarantee that Guy is going to do the right thing in the end, particularly once his motivations for competing in the tournament come to light. The highest praise I can offer Bateman is that he is his generation's Bill Murray. He possesses Murray's ability to be simultaneously charming and repulsive, and he is so wholly devoid of vanity as an actor that he radiates with the enviable comedic ability to make you root for him no matter what he's doing. Hahn is also very good, keeping pace with him at every step, and Allison Janney and Phillip Baker Hall do great work in very small roles. The real revelation of the film is young Chand, who delivers a performance well beyond his years, and takes just as well as he gives. Both Bateman's character and the actor have found a kindred spirit who can volley and spike the ball home, making him something of a fantastic discovery. 
As far as the direction goes, Bateman does a nice job of keeping the film portions suitably devoid of color and life, and contrasting it with the television footage of the Spelling Bee which is brightly lit like a Public Television broadcast would be. It's a nice dichotomy, and one which he exploits well. He doesn't go for a ton of visual flair, which is also refreshing, considering how many first time directors want to show off like kids in a candy store. He keeps things moving and values the words as much as he does the technique, doing his writer proud by placing such a high emphasis on the dialogue. It's not the flashiest debut feature of all time, but it's certainly a very good one.  
Although it does fall into a somewhat predictable pattern in the final ten minutes, Bad Words is still enough of a rebellious film to recommend. Formula works, that's how it became formula in the first place, and the smart writers and directors of this world are the ones who use it to their advantage, rather than letting it dictate how things should play out. It's not a perfect film, but it is hard-edged and cynical, with enough predictable redemption to make it agreeable to a large audience. It's a shame it hasn't found that audience, but like the best films that ride that line from Kingpin to all of the films of Mike Judge, it will find its audience with time, and they will cherish it for years to come.

GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Day 288: Noah

"We are men! And men are invincible!"
Director Darren Aronofsky has always been known for his ambition. No matter the scope of his projects, he has pushed his actors, his crew, and himself to achieve ever higher results that will equal the ambition he has for the film. His desire to turn the story of Noah and the ark into a film has been a lifelong quest, and Paramount Pictures has gifted him with a tremendous budget to actualize his vision. That fact alone makes this one of the most anticipated movies of the year, mainly because Aronofsky's fans are eager to see how well he does with seemingly no restrictions.
So could the film rise to the level it seemed to be aiming for, or would his reach exceed his grasp? Read on to find out...
Since there's no better place to start than with the text, "In the beginning there was darkness…" Aronofsky opens his film with a summary of the first five chapters of Genesis, leading up to Noah's entry into the saga. As a teen and descendent of Seth, the third son of Adam & Eve, Noah witnesses the murder of his father by Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain. Smash cut to Noah as a man, now played by the burly Russell Crowe, father to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly). Noah uproots his family after having a vision from The Creator that the world will be consumed by a great flood. Noah travels to visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), from whom he expects to receive more divine news of what part he might play in this saga.
On the way, they encounter a young girl named Ila, whom they essentially add to their clan since the rest of her family was murdered while mining for zohar, a magical mineral that can create light. They also happen upon a band of fallen angels called The Watchers, who have taken the shape of giant rock monsters, and eventually rally to protect Noah when they realize that he is on a mission from The Creator. When Noah receives another vision, that he is to build an ark in which he and his family will protect the innocent creatures of the Earth (mainly animals) in the flood, The Watchers help him to construct the vessel. However, when the self-appointed king Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) gets word of Noah's endeavor, he seeks to either destroy the ark or commandeer it for himself and his followers.
The thing that is most immediately striking about Noah is that it is not short on ambition, vision, or flat-out insanity. This has got to be one of the most far out, big budget studio films ever produced. It plays exactly how one would expect an art house film to look if it had a budget in the nine-figure range, and that's never a bad thing. Whenever a major studio can fund the strange and singular vision of an artist such as Aronofsky, they should take that opportunity and run with it, which they most certainly did here. The biggest issue in doing so is that it may not appeal to a large audience, and that's likely Noah's biggest downside. It has moments that are so insane, you wouldn't believe them unless you saw them for yourself, and as a critic, I just don't get to say that often enough. This is the best possible outcome of giving an auteur a ton of money.
The film is not without its faults, and they are legion. The characters are very poorly sketched, and really betray Aronofsky's previous work which was always heavily focused on character. The only exceptions to this would be Noah, Tubal-Cain, and Ham, Noah's middle son played as a young adult by Logan Lerman. These three characters have arcs (no pun intended), but everyone else is horrendously one-dimensional and end the story almost exactly as they began it. The film also takes a steep plunge at the end of the second act, and never really recovers. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel decided to give Noah an Abraham and Isaac-esque subplot that doesn't really pay off, and comes precipitously close to ruining the entire narrative. It was as if they let the sharks off the ark first just so they could jump them.
The film will have a very hard time appealing to the more traditional Biblical audience, as it doesn't devote any time to preaching to the choir. Christian audiences in particular have gotten so used to these pandering, nonsensical, formulaic movies that just want to make them feel good about what they believe, that they won't have any idea what to do when they see lumbering rock monsters and magical minerals in action. It's a real shame, too, because much like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, this is a film that can bolster the faithful by challenging their deeply held beliefs, and allowing them to come out on the other side of the experience emboldened and proud to know that they can still believe what they want to believe, and a movie hasn't changed all that. In other words, the people that need to see this movie the most, likely won't, and that's a real tragedy.
The film looks immaculate. The dirt and grime of the period feels incredibly real and honest, and the visual effects are a marvel. The choice to animate The Watchers like Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion creatures was a stroke of genius, and makes their somewhat incongruous appearance that much more palatable. Aronofsky's shot compositions remain among the best in the business, always nailing the big moments and utilizing the 1.85:1 aspect ratio like a master. A sequence on the ark where Noah recounts the creation myth is spectacular and breathtaking, and is the kind of thing that you just don't see enough of in a mainstream film. It's a fantastic set piece and truly delivers on what Aronofsky had set out to do, and the biggest letdown of all is that the film really never gets back on track after this sequence.
The performances are all good, though sadly there are no real standouts. Crowe fares better here than he has in some time, but his third act is the weakest of all the characters, particularly as you're left to watch him fall back on his hammiest instincts. Connelly is good, as is Emma Watson as the grown-up Ila, but they aren't really given much to do other than look pensive or cry. Hopkins is a delight, though he really could have amped up the nuttiness a notch, particularly considering how crazy he seems to have gotten in the last five years or so. Winstone fares the best out of the entire cast, and gives the film a true antagonist that matches the film's scope. He's definitely underutilized, which is high praise considering how much he does with the handful of scenes he has.
Noah is not an unqualified success. It's riddled with pacing issues, underdeveloped characters, and a third act that feels firmly out of step with all that preceded it, but I can't help recommending it for no other reason than it has to be seen to be believed. It's borderline insane, but the moments that work, work well, and the moments that don't, fail so spectacularly that one can't help but admire a filmmaker willing to take such enormous risks. If only every major studio film could be this unique and uniquely crazy. The multiplex would be a much more fun place to spend some time if every film felt more like this one than the interchangeable lineup of noisy, empty, spectacle-driven films currently crowding the marketplace. It's not a great film, it has far too many flaws to be great, but it is an experience that everyone should have, and whether you like it or not, at least you'll have had a reaction to it. That should be every filmmakers goal.
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 287: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

"Why would you take the most unsympathetic aspect of religion, such as the concept of sin, and let it survive beyond religion?"
When Lars von Trier announced that his next project would be a five hour film titled Nymphomaniac which would feature real, penetrative sex, many assumed that this was the next natural step in his evolution from filmmaker into full-time provocateur. His antics at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival proved that he was on the verge of going off the deep end, and his attempts to backtrack his statements in the wake of his ban from the Festival hardly seemed authentic. Yet somehow, much as America's "l'enfant terrible" David O. Russell manages to get actors to continue lining up to work with him, so too has von Trier re-enlisted help from regulars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, and Willem Dafoe.
Nymphomaniac has finally hit theaters and on demand in the first of two installments, with the second scheduled to debut in less than a month. Could Volume 1 live up to the hype or would it be confirmation that he's officially passed the point of no return? Read on to find out...
A lonely man named Seligman (Skarsgård) discovers a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg) beaten and lying in the street. He brings her to his home and inquires how she ended up there, to which she replies that in order to explain, she must start from the beginning. The film then cuts back to her childhood with a distant mother (Connie Nielsen) and a doting father (Christian Slater), and how she experienced her sexual awakening at the age of 2. At age fifteen, Joe (now played by Stacy Martin) loses her virginity to a boy named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) which is a repulsive experience for her. However not long after, her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) turns her on to a game where they compete to see which one of them can have sex with more strangers on a train than the other.
Joe begins a descent into the world of sex addiction, and Seligman takes every opportunity to parallel this to fly fishing, as well as a number of other subjects, all of which he seems to have mastered. Joe gets a job in her twenties working for Jerôme, and begins a flirtation with him that may belie stronger feelings they both harbor for one another. She also continues sleeping with as many men as possible, sometimes as many as ten a day, in an attempt to feed her addiction. 
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a bit like a tire blowing out on your car at the start of a cross-country trip: Crushingly disappointing and ominously unsettling. Not only are you now wary of the many miles that lay ahead, you're almost exhausted before you've even gotten halfway to your destination. When von Trier is on his game (Breaking the WavesDancer in the Dark) he knows how to weave a tapestry of misery that also manages to be a wholly edifying experience. The destination is worth the journey. Here, he seems to be more interested in how far he can push the boundaries while still managing to tell a coherent story, and never giving even a second thought to whether or not his story is worth actually telling. 
His insistence on giving Seligman and Joe such inane dialogue that compares sex to fishing for an absolutely interminable length of time makes you cringe with how heavy handed he's become as a director. When he made Antichrist, it felt as if he was taking a page out of Pasolini's playbook when he made Saló. Narrative, character, and enjoyment be damned, film is a medium with which a filmmaker can chastise an audience and help them experience the truly despicable nature of humanity. Nymphomaniac continues this trend, doubling down on misery and treating sex in a shameful way. In fact, had Steve McQueen's sex addiction film not used the title Shame, it would have been a much more apt sobriquet for this depressing slog of a film. 
None of the performances are any good. Skarsgård's character is an annoying stereotype who serves to spell out the film's themes like an elementary school teacher rather than contribute anything actually meaningful to the proceedings. It's a terribly written character, but it's not aided in any way by his somnambulant performance. Martin does nothing more than look dead behind the eyes as she engages in sex acts with countless men. The gold medal winners by far, however, are LaBeouf & Slater. Sporting respectively the first and second worst British accents ever committed to film, these two former child stars bring nothing more to the table than they've brought to any other film. They're both bad actors crushed beneath the weight of stultifying material. LaBeouf may be attempting to go full on Franco both on film and in his personal life, but he hasn't even a fraction of Franco's talent or self awareness.
The film's soundtrack is nearly as obnoxious as its incessant, rambling narrative, but its weapon of choice is Shostakovich's "Waltz No. 2" as opposed to overbearing fishing metaphors. Had that same piece not been used to such dynamic effect in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, it might feel fresh, but instead merely serves to remind the audience of a much better film about sex they could be watching. The soundtrack also features a deafening use of Rammstein's "Führe Mich" right at the top of the film after several agonizing minutes of silence, instantly letting you know that von Trier is obsessed with extremes rather than balance. He'd prefer to jolt the audience into a startled sense of unease rather than allow the world of the film to envelop them, which is fine when done correctly or in moderation, but at the start of a four-hour odyssey, it feels more like a harbinger of doom than an invitation to a journey.  
It's entirely possible that von Trier's full vision is something that cannot be experienced in segments, and this is just the calm before the storm. Maybe Volume 2 will validate this as the work of a genius whose entire creation must be seen before it can be judged fully. One could also say that maybe hell will freeze over or pigs will fly, so it's best not to work in hypotheticals, at least for the purposes of reviewing a film. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a cold, disgusting, hard-hearted film that doesn't really even work as art. It's like a perfume commercial, full of imagery that's supposed to be deep and meaningful, but when you think about it for more than five seconds, you realize that it's nothing more than a shallow collection of masturbatory nonsense. 
GO Rating: 0.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, March 21, 2014

Day 286: Muppets Most Wanted

"You have wocka'd your last wocka bear!"
When 2011's The Muppets hit theaters, fans lined up on two sides of the film. One side saw the film for what it was, a loving reboot of a franchise that had been doomed to a series of lackluster films, made by people with genuine affection for Jim Henson's most beloved creations. The other, more cynical side, chose to view the film as an affront to the characters and seemed unable to comprehend the fact that virtually all of the original Muppeteers have moved on to other things. In short, The Muppets will never be The Muppets again, and they would rather live in a world where nothing new or interesting can be done with these characters. But such is fandom, and the more rabid a fan base, the more dissenters there are in the ranks. 
Since the film was a hit, even by the most modest of standards, a sequel was all but guaranteed to happen. With The Muppets director James Bobin back at the helm, and all of that film's creators except Jason Segel involved, Muppets Most Wanted seemed like a can't miss proposition. So was it just that, or did it fall victim to sequel-itis? Read on to find out…    
Picking up quite literally where the last film left off, Muppets Most Wanted opens with the musical number  "We're Doing a Sequel," which skewers the very notion of follow-up films, and instantaneously lets you know that you're back in good hands. The globe-trotting sequel plot that worked so well for the very best of the original Muppet films, The Great Muppet Caper, is rolled out once more, and works like gangbusters. A criminal mastermind frog named Constantine who looks an awful lot like Kermit the Frog, except that he bares a mole above his lip, has just escaped from a Siberian gulag. Constantine's partner in crime, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) has just managed to convince The Muppets to hire him as their new tour director, and manages to win over the entire team, except for Kermit, via a plan to tour Europe and bring the Europeans a taste of Muppet fever.
At their first stop in Berlin, Constantine manages to switch places with Kermit, who is captured and brought to the Siberian gulag, run by Nadya (Tina Fey). Kermit's pleas that he's not an evil mastermind fall on deaf ears, as his old crew continues their tour that just so happens to be taking tour dates near highly secure vaults and museums, as Constantine and Dominic's plan is to use The Muppets as a distraction to steal the crown jewels of England. Their plan to frame The Muppets is also going swimmingly as an Interpol agent named Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) has teamed up with CIA operative Sam the Eagle, and their hunch is that these lovable characters are behind the numerous thefts occurring along their tour stops. 
Where The Muppets succeeded the most was in appealing to as broad an audience as possible, and making the film very family friendly, much like the original Muppet Movie was back in 1979. And much like The Great Muppet Caper was a more adult-friendly film, with a complex plot and jokes aimed squarely over the heads of the under-ten set, so too does Muppets Most Wanted skew older and ever-so-slightly more cynical. While children will still love the film, as my girls most assuredly did, they'll also be bewildered by a lot of the humor that the adults in the audience will be laughing at uproariously. Muppets Most Wanted is a much, much funnier film than The Muppets, but I would hesitate to call it a better film. Gone is the childlike sense of wonder that the first film had, and it's been replaced by rougher edges and more dense character development. Those statements sound absurd, but where that first film was intended to get a new generation of kids hooked on The Muppets, this film is designed to be beloved by the adults who grew up with them, many of whom are now parents, aunts, or uncles themselves. 
It's a double-edged sword, to be sure, but one can't help but admire the gusto with which the filmmakers have decided to go whole hog after something that may not appeal to kids at all. No child in the world is going to laugh at a line like "Citizen Kane only got four jamón serranos," or comprehend the extended tribute to the opening of A Chorus Line, but they'll see and hear the peals of laughter coming from the adults and be swept up into the world that The Muppets, when they're at their best, have always inhabited. That razor thin line between cynicism and "awe shucks" charm makes them an enduring institution, and their fans will be ecstatic that 99% of this film rests right on that line. Were I to have any complaint at all, it's that I think the joke about The Muppets being washed-up and forgotten was played out well into the reboot, and continuing to beat that dead horse is getting a bit old, especially for the diehards. We know The Muppets aren't as cool as they used to be, but we certainly don't need to be reminded about it ad-nauseum in these films. If there is a third film, and I pray there will be, please leave these jokes where they belong, in the trash bin. 
Steve Whitmire is not Jim Henson and Eric Jacobsen is not Frank Oz, but these two men embody their spirits so well that Kermit & Piggy feel as fresh and inspired as they were thirty years ago. They understand that pure mimicry would be an insult to these characters, and that infusing them with their own personalities and honoring the work of their creators is more meaningful and substantial than the thousands of people who can sound exactly like Henson or Oz. It's also beyond fantastic to still have Dave Goelz bringing life to Gonzo and the other characters he performs.
Gervais, Fey, and Burrell are all terrific too, making the most of their roles, playing to their strengths, and selling their characters in a way you'd expect from such seasoned comedic professionals. And of course the cameos are all great, though some are downright odd (P. Diddy, for example), and the three big names playing gulag prisoners are by far the most surprising stand-outs. There's also a particularly funny bit featuring Christoph Waltz, who was originally cast in Burrell's role, that made me cackle, and a return appearance from Hobo Joe (Zach Galifianakis) whom everybody always forgets about. 
The musical numbers, featuring a mix of popular songs and new creations from Oscar-winning songwriter Bret McKenzie, are also phenomenal. "We're Doing a Sequel," "The Big House," and especially "I'll Give it to You," are terrific, and the wordplay in "Interrogation Song" is beyond brilliant. That the finale features one of the most beloved songs in Muppet history is just the icing on the cake. The Muppets have always been vaudeville performers at heart, so it's no surprise that the musical numbers are the highlight of the film. 
While Muppets Most Wanted will likely not be as successful as its predecessor, it feels oddly poetic that it's doomed to be under appreciated. It's a dense film, with a ton going on in every frame, and it's as funny, if not funnier, than most comedies that have been released in the last several years. Time will be incredibly kind to the film, and it will likely be touted as a favorite by fans for years to come. Nitpickers will find tons of nits to pick, but as the saying goes, "haters gonna hate." This is a terrific film that will delight true blue fans and hopefully continue to cultivate a crop of new fans. You really couldn't hope for a more perfect Muppet movie, and this one delivers in spades. 
GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 285: Better Living Through Chemistry

"May I say that this pharmacy has the most impressive collection of douches I've ever seen."
The first law of motion pictures should read as follows: "If Sam Rockwell is in this film, I shall watch it." Not everyone abides by this rule, but the world would be a better place if they did. Rockwell's ability to elevate any material, no matter how good it is on the page, makes him the most dynamic actor working. He makes not so great films watchable (A Single Shot) and good films better (The Way, Way Back), and while a part of me wishes he was a household name, I'm somewhat enamored by the fact that he is a bit of a hidden commodity. It makes those of us who genuinely enjoy his work feel like we're in an exclusive club that knows more than everyone else. Thankfully the release of his latest film, Better Living Through Chemistry, is being simultaneously done in theaters and on demand, making it easier than ever to get your Sam Rockwell fix...
Doug Varney (Rockwell) is a mild mannered pharmacist living in a bland suburban town where nothing ever changes. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan) is a perfectionist who is obsessed with keeping Doug on a tight leash and never allowing him to deviate from his expected duties as a husband and bread winner for the family. Their son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) is having trouble at school and neither of his parents connect with him, and Doug's father-in-law (Ken Howard) has just sold Doug the pharmacy he's run for a number of years, yet refuses to let Doug rename it. In other words, Doug is a fairly stereotypical put upon twenty-first century man.
All of that changes when Doug is forced to do the pharmaceutical deliveries one night, and he crosses paths with Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), the trophy wife of a wealthy industrialist (Ray Liotta). Doug & Elizabeth begin a torrid affair, and Elizabeth convinces Doug to begin sampling his own supply of drugs, opening up a whole new world for Doug. The affair gets really heavy when they concoct a plan to switch her husband's prescriptions in hopes of killing him, so they can start a new life together, but things get really complicated for Doug when a DEA Agent (Norbert Leo Butz) begins a routine investigation into Doug's pharmacy.
Better Living Through Chemistry can only benefit from extremely low expectations. While it's not a bad movie, it's such lightweight fluff that it's hard to consider it a good one either. It hits all of the expected beats for a mid-life suburban dad crisis film, and features very little in the way of surprises. By the time the complications begin piling up, it's entirely too predictable to call groundbreaking or innovative, and it more or less plays out exactly how you expect. While there were a few deviations from this predictability, particularly in the last ten minutes or so, it refuses to do anything too bold or shocking and thereby failing to make itself distinguishable from the dozens of other films whose ranks it seeks to join.
The filmmakers clearly didn't trust themselves enough to craft situational humor, so they decided to tack on a narration by Jane Fonda that mainly relies on the formula of a distinguished actress saying dirty words and phrases equaling comedy gold. I admit that hearing Fonda say things like "balls deep" made me giggle, but it's the sort of cheap and unsatisfying laughter that such a formula induces, and that is ultimately the largest problem with the entire film. It seeks to be shocking and edgy when at its core, it's just as bland and safe as the suburban landscape it seeks to skewer. Even a subplot involving Doug bonding with his son over vandalism feels more obligatory than natural, and most definitely felt like an opportunity for the filmmakers to use a cover of "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" by a choir of children, rather than a free flowing extension of their characters' arcs.
As if it hadn't gone without saying, Sam Rockwell is a godsend for material this shallow. His ability to turn even the most ham-fisted dialogue into comedy gold makes him a national treasure. He transcends the material in such a way as to make it seem infinitely better than it is, lulling you into a false sense of security that the film is actually good. He's in nearly every scene of the film, meaning that the filmmakers knew how much he added to their script. Had it been Jeremy Renner, who was originally cast in the role, the film would have been a complete wash. That's not a slight against Renner, but he can't make a mountain out of a molehill the way Rockwell can.
The rest of the cast is very good, showing that the writer/directors at least knew enough to cast good actors that would make the most out of their subpar script. Wilde, Monaghan, Howard, Liotta, Butz, and especially young Harrison Holzer all do a very good job despite their woefully one-dimensional characters. Ben Schwartz is also good, if underutilized, as the pharmacy delivery boy. It's a real shame that the script is so flat and unimaginative, because one can imagine what this cast could have done with great material.
While it's not terrible, Better Living Through Chemistry reeks of mediocrity. First time writer/directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier clearly have a lot of ideas, it's just that their execution leaves much to be desired. It's a decent enough time waster, and Rockwell completists will get their rocks off on his hyperkinetic performance, but it's hard to recommend it without the major caveats already mentioned. I suppose if you got together a group of friends and each chipped in a buck to stream it, you'd most assuredly get your money's worth. The film is playing in select cities, and is available to stream via Amazon, M-GO, Vudu, and other on demand services. Just adjust your expectations accordingly as the film is not going to blow your mind.
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Images via 12345]

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Day 284: The Grand Budapest Hotel

"Did he just throw my cat out the window?"

It's no secret that I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan. From Bottle Rocket to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson got off to a tremendous start with one of the best trios of films to start a career ever. His fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is an acquired taste to say the least, as was its follow-up The Darjeeling Limited. The animated Fantastic Mr. Fox was just that, fantastic, but all of his worst attributes came to the surface with his last film, Moonrise Kingdom. It played more like a film made by any one of the countless Anderson copycats like Jared Hess, and made me apprehensive about his next film. 

Thankfully the trailers for his eighth film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looked like a return to form, and with a comedic performance from Ralph Fiennes, it looked like a can't-miss proposition. So is it just that, or has he officially gone off the deep end, never to return? Read on to find out...

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens on a girl walking through a cemetery and stopping at the shrine to a famous author (Tom Wilkinson) and cracking open his final book. The story then flashes back to 1985 where he begins telling the story of a trip he took to the fictional country of Zubrowka in 1968. The younger author (Jude Law) stayed at the now dilapidated eponymous lodge, wherein he meets the owner, renowned philanthropist Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa tells the author the story of how he came into possession of the hotel, and the story flashes back once more to 1932. 

Here we meet Moustafa as a young man played by Tony Revolori, working as a lobby boy in the hotel at the height of its opulence. His boss, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) trains him in the ways running a successful hotel, which Moustafa discovers, for Gustave at least, involves romancing the older ladies that stay at the hotel. One of these clients,  Madame D (Tilda Swinton) suddenly drops dead one day, bequeathing to Gustave a rare painting, much to the chagrin of her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave absconds with the painting, and upon returning to the hotel, discovers that he is now being charged with Madame D's murder.

That's only the tip of the iceberg for this film, as it weaves several more story lines and characters into its tale, including but not limited to: a fascist regime waging a war, an imprisonment, a prison break, a downhill slalom chase, murder, pastries, and a love story between Moustafa and a young pastry chef named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). To say that the film is overstuffed for one which runs a shade over ninety minutes is an overstatement, and that's the main problem with the film. It's such a hodgepodge of half baked ideas, executed with incredible precision, but none of which amount to anything more than a pastiche of diversions and subplots that ultimately distract and derail any forward momentum being made by the narrative. 

While the film isn't a total wash, and the first half hour is very funny, it becomes so bogged down in minutiae, one-note characters, and subplots that go nowhere, that by around the halfway point, it becomes hard to care about anything anymore. Much like Anderson's lesser works, there is no growth or change to be found in any of these characters. They all just sort of stagnate and serve a function that does not allow them to be characters so much as they are living set dressing. Paper dolls in an elaborately constructed fantasy world that is fun to look at, but has absolutely zero depth. It's the very worst of what Anderson could have become following The Royal Tenenbaums, and it only seems to be exacerbated at this point in his career. 

While Anderson's earliest films, in particular those first three, pay homage to Luis Buñuel, this film feels more of a piece with the work of Ernst Lubitsch. Flowery language, slapstick, and tons of frivolity. But whereas Lubitsch knew enough to give his characters some depth, these characters have literally nothing going on beneath the surface. Here's this one note, now hammer it on this piano until I tell you to stop. This seems to be the way that Anderson wants to make films nowadays. That's all well and good, but he's really lost sight of the forest for the trees, and it's impossible to engage with these films on anything beyond the most superficial level imaginable. 

As for the performances, a few standout and the rest are an interchangeable collage of utter forgettability. Ralph Fiennes does a bang-up job of handling the absolutely preposterous dialogue, and gives it a life that it most certainly would not have had on the page. One can't help but think of Harrison Ford's famous quip to George Lucas "you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it." That Fiennes manages to give as good a performance as he does in spite of the absurd dialogue he was given is a testament to the fact that he is one of our best living actors. Anderson regulars Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe manage to do the most they can with their horrendously shallow caricatures, and Abraham, Law, and Wilkinson in particular are the best of the newcomers.

Adrien Brody may have proven himself here to be the worst actor alive. He is utterly unable to create a believable character, and flounders with the shell of one he was given here. Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and even longtime Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson are reduced to blink and you'll miss them cameos, making their participation seem more mandatory than willing. It's not unlike the phase that Christopher Guest got to by For Your Consideration, where he had such a vast stable of actors, he couldn't even give half of them anything worthwhile to do. 

While the set design, cinematography, editing, and costumes are all gorgeously conceived, they do all the heavy lifting because the script and a large percentage of the actors are just sort of flopping around like fish out of water. Even the gimmick of changing aspect ratios to fit the different time periods in which the film is set falls flat since the vast majority of the film is shot in what's known as "Academy ratio," or 1.37:1. It's not conducive to the kind of films Anderson makes, and for someone that uses anamorphic as well as he does, it's disheartening to see him confine himself this way. 

It's more sad than it is anger inducing, but Anderson's best days are clearly behind him. Unless he can find another collaborator like Wilson or Noah Baumbach to help him write these scripts and add some dimension to these characters, there's no rebound in sight. This is his first solo script, and it shows. He has no interest in character, and just views them as another piece of the puzzle he's building, no more or less important than the color scheme. The Grand Budapest Hotel truly felt like it could have been a return to form in a big way, but it's merely a bold statement that he's continuing down a road on which some may not want to join him. I'm sorry to say that I must now count myself among those no longer willing to go on the journey. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, March 7, 2014

Day 283: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

"You're right Sherman, you're not a dog… You're just a very bad boy!"
Cartoon characters that originated on the classic The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show have an ignominious history when it comes to feature films. From the largely forgotten stand-alone Boris and Natasha movie from 1992 to the exceedingly terrible Dudley Do-Right and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle live action films, these characters have not been treated with anything even resembling tender love and care.

Enter The Lion King director Rob Minkoff, who has been trying to get a feature film version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman off the ground since 2003, proving that he was more than just a hired gun; He had a lot of love and respect for the source material, and was determined to turn it into a good film. So could this film buck the trend, or would it be just another misfire from a property that's positively laden with them? Read on to find out...
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) was always different from other dogs. While most dogs were content to fetch and play games, he was interested in bettering himself by reading and studying history. As an adult dog, he has now become a champion of industry, an inventor, and most importantly, adoptive father to a young boy named Sherman (Max Charles). Mr. Peabody has spent Sherman's childhood taking him through history to important events in a time machine he created dubbed the WABAC (pronounced Way Back). This upbringing has made Sherman an industrious and smart young man, but it's also kept him from being integrated with kids his own age.
On Sherman's first day at school, he proves himself to be the smartest boy in the class, much to the chagrin of the previous holder of that distinction, Penny (Ariel Winter). When Penny embarrasses Sherman in front of the whole cafeteria, Sherman bites her, causing the school to take action and alert Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), the school counselor. Mrs. Grunion seems determined to prove that Mr. Peabody isn't fit to be a father, and plans a visit to their home that, if it goes wrong, could mean the end of his custody of Sherman. Mr. Peabody invites Penny's family over for dinner that night, and when Sherman lets Penny know about the WABAC, she insists that he take her through time in it, which could spell disaster not just for Mr. Peabody, but for the time-space continuum in general.
What Mr. Peabody & Sherman lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with a whiz-bang, non-stop thrill ride of a story. While it certainly fails to break any new ground in terms of storytelling, it's not short on imagination or ingenious use of 3D. This is one of those rare occasions where shelling out the extra three bucks for 3D is well-worth your money, as the effects are aided by the technology in incredible ways. The film's greatest success, beyond just the overall look and feel of the film, is its fast-moving narrative and thoroughly enjoyable set pieces. While time travel films have been done to death at this point, the way these filmmakers utilize it is great, and allows for all manner of inventive action sequences in France, Egypt, Italy, Troy, and modern day New York City. The rules of time travel established in the film are also easy enough for kids to follow, and while individual moments may leave them scratching their heads, the film moves so quickly to its next beat that it's pointless trying to fuss over the details.
While this is normally detrimental to a good narrative, this film works well because it's not trying to be a deep and meaningful look at the ramifications of time travel; It's merely the device they chose to keep the story moving forward, which should make audiences more forgiving. More than anything else, it's a film about a father and son figuring out how to have an emotional bond that's deeper than the intellectual one they've spent the last seven years cultivating. Again, it's nothing groundbreaking, and certainly doesn't blaze a new trail down this familiar road, it's just a much more palatable version of these well-worn tropes. I also found myself getting a little choked up at a montage that's cut to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," that will likely have a similar effect on most of the parents in the audience. 
The voice work here is top shelf as well. Ty Burrell has established himself as a major comedic force on the small screen, but he does a bang-up job of giving life to Mr. Peabody. His penchant for puns is a great running gag that may cause many an eye to be rolled, but he delivers them with such aplomb, it's hard to hold it against him. Charles and Winter are also a solid cut above average for child actors, and the supporting cast is a who's who of brilliant comedic talent. Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Allison Janney, Stephen Tobolowsky, and even a cameo from Mel Brooks all flesh out this world hilariously, and do a great job of elevating otherwise run-of-the-mill jokes.
There also simply cannot be enough said about how terrific the animation is in the film. Dreamworks has really stepped up their game of late, beginning with Kung Fu Panda in 2008, and while they've had some misfires since then, they are much fewer and farther between. In hopes of actually turning into Pixar at this point, there's also a short film before the feature that stars Steve Martin as the leader of an alien race searching for a new planet to call home, which I subsequently found out is a teaser for their next feature Home. While Dreamworks is still just a notch below Pixar in terms of consistency, they're no longer the pale imitator they once were, and can comfortably call themselves a worthy competitor.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn't likely to set the box office ablaze the way The LEGO Movie did, but it's significantly more enjoyable than most above the line animated features that have been released in the past few years. Kids will eat it up and parents will find enough relatable material and gorgeous animation to make them feel as if they haven't wasted their money. It's not everything it could have been, but it's not bad, and has a lovability all its own. For the first time in a long time, a beloved franchise feels as if it's in good hands, and what more can you ask for than that?
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Day 282: The LEGO Movie

"Do you think zeppelins are a bad investment?"

In a given year, there are so many hastily put together animated films, it becomes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Parents in particular get dragged to so many films, they all just sort of blend together. The success of Shrek taught animators that while kids are the primary target for such films, double entendres could be snuck into screenplays for these films to give the adults something to laugh at while their children are enjoying the story and characters. 

While a large number of films, including all of the Shrek sequels, have overdone this trend with an ever-greater series of diminishing returns, it's always nice to see a film that executes it well. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did a nice job of this balancing act with their 2009 film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, when it was announced they would be doing a film centered around LEGOs, there was a lot of skepticism as to whether or not they could make it work. Were they successful? Read on to find out...   

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) lives in the town of Bricksburg, where everyone follows their instructions and never diverts from them. He uses guidebooks to learn how to dress, fit in, do his job, and mindlessly consume without ever asking questions. One night he encounters a strange woman named Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) at the construction site where he works, and while attempting to pursue her, he falls into a pit where he discovers a large red block he's never seen before. He touches the block and sees strange visions, and when he wakes up, he finds he's been apprehended by the police, and the red block is affixed to his back.

Wildstyle breaks him out of prison, informing him that he is "The Special," who was prophesied to bring an end to the reign of Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Many years ago, Lord Business built walls between the different LEGO worlds, to prevent them from interacting with one another, but a segment of people known as Master Builders, who can assemble anything they wish without the aid of instructions, have been trying to stop his plans. They inform Emmet that he can use the "Piece of Resistance" that is attached to his back to stop Lord Business' newest invention, "The Kragle," from permanently gluing everyone in place for all time. 

The LEGO Movie is one of the most inventive and original animated films ever made, somehow managing to create a world that seems as though it was dreamed up by a child, but smart enough to work within a defined set of rules that will easily make sense to children and adults alike. The entire conceit of the film is ingenious, and is simultaneously complex and convoluted, seeming to make up rules as it goes along, yet adhering to a very fundamental set of basic storytelling conventions. It is nothing short of wondrous in all of its sublime strangeness.

The filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild, and it all pays off for the most part. One of the tightropes they walk is how to make the film make sense in a way that seems childlike yet also sophisticated, and the film gets bogged down at times with lengthy explanations and abrupt stops in the story to drive home the message. It's a great message, and one that would have shone through without being hammered to death, and although I appreciate what they were attempting to achieve, it felt a bit overwrought and explained two or three times too many.

But none of that really matters in the grand scheme of things since the film is so funny and original. The voice acting is fantastic across the board, and compliments the fantastic animation sublimely. Chris Pratt is on the verge of becoming a huge star, and it's not hard to see why, even when he's simply doing voice work. Will Arnett gives us a perfectly realized Batman, Liam Neeson is hilariously funny as a Good Cop/Bad Cop hybrid, and Morgan Freeman does his Morgan Freeman thing once again as a wise mystic. My favorite character by far was Charlie Day's astronaut Benny, who tries in vain several times to build a spaceship, and the sheer delight in his voice when he's finally allowed to run wild was the highlight of film.

While the animation is computer generated, it has a handmade, stop motion feel that works incredibly well, and is never short on cleverness. Water, fire, explosions, and even construction sites are ingeniously done, working beautifully within an established set of parameters that makes sense. When a character returns as a ghost, they're dangled into the shot on a string, a simple, yet ingenious visual gag that's well worth the extra time and effort to animate, which is a blanket statement that can be made about the film as a whole.

The LEGO Movie works better than it has any right to, and while I do feel that it was overhyped to some extent, it's well above average when compared to the typical animated feature film. It's smart, funny, and appealing to both kids and adults equally. While the kids are likely to be more forgiving of its shortcomings, they are present, and they prevent it from being a perfect film. It's incredibly fun, and will likely spark the imaginations of everyone that sees it, young or old. It never feels like the product that it most assuredly is, and at the end of the day, that's what makes it so good.

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]