Saturday, May 31, 2014

Day 299: Maleficent

"Goodnight beastie."
Disney has been on a kick lately of turning animated properties into live-action prequels, sequels, and various and sundry. After the massive success of 2010's Alice in Wonderland, it seemed like a no-brainer for them to continue down this path, despite the film's rampant mediocrity. While last year's Oz: The Great and Powerful was not necessarily based on an animated property, it was another example of the studio favoring spectacle over story, and the film was a total mess that couldn't possibly live up to the hyperbole contained within its title. 
When advertisements began to appear for Maleficent, it felt like another trip down this same well-worn path, this time taking one of Disney's most iconic villains and just telling the same old story just from her point of view. With a first-time director, Robert Stromberg, at the helm, and a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, author of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, the deck seemed pretty stacked against this one. Could Maleficent transcend all that, or is it doomed to be the third in a string of stinging disappointments? Read on to find out...  
Wisely positing itself as simply a different version of the events we already know, rather than attempting to flesh out the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent opens on our title character as a young, winged fairy that lives in the Moors, a magical wooded area bordering a human kingdom. Her world is turned upside down one day, when she discovers a human boy named Stefan in the Moors, and the two become fast friends. As the years go by, Stefan stops visiting Maleficent, and she appears to have forgotten all about him, but when the vicious King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) of the human world tries to reclaim the Moors, an adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) summons all the creatures of the forest to lay waste to the humans.
The wounded Henry besieges his followers to avenge him, and promises the throne to whomever will slay Maleficent. The adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) steps forward and ventures to see his old friend. He drugs Maleficent and attempts to kill her, but finds that he cannot follow through, so to spare her and the Moors, he cuts off her wings and returns with them, finding himself crowned king when Henry dies. Maleficent, in a rage over the loss of her wings, vows revenge on Stefan, and permanently cuts the Moors off from the human world. She is unclear of how precisely to get her revenge, but when Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, she devises a plan to finally take her vengeance on Stefan and the humans.  
Here's the thing that any audience member is going to have to get past in order to enjoy Maleficent. This is not Sleeping Beauty, nor is it an attempt to stay faithful to that original story. It is a carefully crafted series of variations on all of those familiar story beats that in no way, shape, or form detracts from the original, but merely presents its own version of those same events. Those hoping to hear the name Briar Rose, or to see the virtuous trio of fairies from Sleeping Beauty in the same light, or to see Maleficent herself transform into a dragon are going to be sorely disappointed, and would do well to just avoid the film altogether. The film doesn't attempt to make Maleficent a flawless and virtuous character, but anyone hoping for her to retain remorseless villainy will also be up in arms over the direction this story takes her. 
Those willing to go along for the ride, however, are going to find a simply fantastic fantasy film that beautifully plays a variation on a tune you know by heart. This film's existence doesn't negate Sleeping Beauty's, but rather compliments it in such a way that it can be equally cherished by fans of the original who know it inside and out, as well as a new breed of filmgoers who maybe don't know it as well. The production design is gorgeously rendered, and though aspects of it are a bit too cartoony, there's none of the over-the-top nonsense that bogged down Burton's Alice and Raimi's Oz. The best fantasy is that which allows the scenarios to be fantastical while the performers ground themselves in as much reality as possible, something that Jim Henson knew all too well, and that's precisely what we get here. 
The film is not without its flaws, but it's also a good story told fantastically, that breezes by in just over ninety minutes. In other words, it never overstays its welcome, and it moves with alacrity from point to point, always keeping the end in sight. The visual splendor is incredible, with the only exception being that aforementioned trio of fairies, here renamed and re-rendered as a bumbling bunch of biddies that can't seem to do anything right. The problem was not with this variation on their characters, which worked marvelously, but rather with the creepy cgi employed to shrink Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville down to pixie size before allowing them to appear as normal humans when they take Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to the woods to raise her. 
It's almost impossible to believe that I've gotten this far into the review without singing the praises of Angelina Jolie, which should be sung as loud as humanly possible. She is easily 90% of why the film works as well as it does. She is a major league badass in this film, and carries herself with a grace that nicely compliments her delicious line deliveries. It may sound absurd, but it's hard to think that she won't become the iconic representation of this role in the future, and even those who won't appreciate the film for what it is will have an extremely hard time finding even a sliver of fault in her performance. Sharlto Copley continues to be one of the most interesting actors around, always willing to take risks, never playing it safe, and always being fascinating to watch. He could've stolen the whole film had he not been up against the sensationally fierce Jolie.
The rest of the cast is very good, including Sam Riley, so brilliant as Ian Curtis in Control, as Maleficent's shape-shifting sidekick, and Elle Fanning does very good work as Aurora. The message of female empowerment can't help but feel derivative of Frozen, if only because that film was such a juggernaut, but it will ring no less true for all the young, and young at heart, women in the audience. It's the kind of thing that isn't necessarily earth-shattering when held up to progress which society has made in the years since Sleeping Beauty was released, but in light of the consistent relegation of women to second fiddle throughout Disney's history, it's another huge step in the right direction. 
Maleficent is going to bother a lot of people, and it's going to enthrall just as many. That I fall into the latter camp is, to my mind, a sign that the film succeeded at what it set out to do, but do not be surprised to read as many negative things about the film as I have said positive. The film is a massive success, and finally achieves that balance Disney must have had in mind when it began rolling out these live action properties. It's reverent of the source material without being slavishly faithful to it, and it plays like any good summer blockbuster should, and anyone who doubts what an unrivaled badass Angelina Jolie is will be in for the shock of their lives. Both she and Maleficent are simply magnificent.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, May 26, 2014

Day 298: Cropsey

"I've never seen a perp walk like that."

Those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves parents have a duty to prove to our children that certain things aren't real, chief among them the boogeyman. Every now and then, however, a case comes along that shakes our firm belief that there is no such thing as the boogeyman to its core. One such case is that of "Cropsey," a Staten Island urban legend from the 70s and 80s that was used to scare kids from straying too far from home lest they end up kidnapped by this mysterious figure said to haunt the woods near the abandoned mental hospital Willowbrook.

Cropsey, a 2009 documentary about this case by filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, sets out to get to the bottom of the truth behind the legend, or whatever truth they can scrape together in this maddeningly abstract case. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera released an exposé on Willowbrook, exposing the harsh and inhumane environment in which hundreds of intellectually disabled patients, particularly children, were residing. By the end of the decade, the hospital was closed down, with a number of patients being relocated to other facilities, but the vast majority simply being let out into society with no way to fend for themselves.

Accordingly, a number of them returned to the grounds of the now abandoned facility, and began living inside the elaborate tunnel system constructed underneath the hospital. A series of annual disappearances of Staten Island children with intellectual disabilities beginning in 1981, caused this legend of Cropsey to pop up, and he took many forms from a hook-handed, axe-wielding psychopath, to an escaped mental patient living in the tunnels under Willowbrook. 

The 1987 disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a seven year old girl with down syndrome, exacerbated the case and also began to lead authorities toward one man, Andre Rand. Rand was a former custodian at Willowbrook, and was known to live in the woods surrounding the hospital, helping him fit the profile of this urban legend. When a search of the woods near the hospital turned up Jennifer's body, Rand was taken into custody and charged with her kidnapping and murder. A conviction was handed down for the kidnapping charge, but the jury reached a stalemate on the murder charges, mainly due to the fact that there was nothing but circumstantial evidence tying Rand to her murder. Nevertheless, Rand was going to jail for at least 25 years, the legend turned fact.

If this is where the story ends, it's an unsettling one to say the least, but as police began looking into Rand's past, they began to wonder if he could be tied to these other missing Staten Island children. Though the physical evidence, again, was in short supply, the amount of coincidences linking these cases piled up quickly, leading prosecutors to charge him in the disappearance of six year old Holly Ann Hughes in 1981. The filmmakers began their quest to make this film during the 2004 trial of Rand, and what they began to uncover was an unsettling series of connections, tangential and otherwise, between Rand and a number of these missing children.

Perhaps the thing that is most effective about this documentary is the way it forces you to continuously reconsider the case against Rand. It seems fairly cut and dry at first, but as certain pieces begin to fall into place, it becomes obvious that there are no easy answers, no matter how much the victims' families and law enforcement want them to exist. Rand looks like a psychopath, he fits the mold, and his link to several of these children, as well as potential motives from his past is unnerving, but again, it's all circumstantial. Is Rand really a master criminal, or a puppet in a much more nefarious scheme involving everything from a network of people preying on intellectually disabled children to Satanic cults?

That the case came to light at the height of the "Satanic Panic" so prevalent in Ronald Reagan's America makes certain eyewitness testimony seem specious at best, and doubt begins to creep into the audience's mind. However, as the filmmakers begin a correspondence with Rand, it becomes clear very quickly that the man they're dealing with is a master manipulator, again throwing the audience for a loop, and making them question exactly what they should believe. In that regard, it is one of the most effectively balanced documentaries to be released in a long time. 

It's clear that the filmmakers have constructed the film this way for maximum impact, despite the fact that you can tell certain information was withheld until the final moments of the film to make it seem more balanced, but that's only an afterthought of a complaint. As it plays out, the film is terrifying, suspenseful, and unsettling in all the best ways, despite some ham-fisted narration by Zeman throughout that wouldn't seem out of place in a first semester philosophy term paper. 

Cropsey is one of those rare documentaries that will make you believe in monsters if for no other reason than the fact that sometimes, they really do exist. There's no other explanation for it. The film is impeccably edited and weaves together a horrifying story in the vein of the very best murder mysteries, and the only sad thing is that there's no real closure, but merely a number of possibilities from which the audience is left to pick which version works best for them. That's what great documentary filmmaking is all about. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 297: Godzilla (2014)

"Look mommy, dinosaurs!"
Arguably the most beloved monster in movie history, Godzilla has a long and storied history with 28 films made by Japan's Toho Studios between 1954 and the present. Any time an American studio has attempted to bring the giant lizard to the big screen, however, the results have been disastrous. Roland Emmerich's 1998 version was much more interested in being a disaster movie than being a Godzilla movie, and the less said about Godzilla 1985, the better.
With franchise rights passing to Legendary Studios in 2010, Warner Brothers put a new version into development very quickly, and four years later, here we are with a new film from a director, Gareth Edwards, with only one film to his name. Admittedly his 2010 film Monsters is incredibly innovative and clever, but how will he fare with the eyes of the world literally on him? Read on to find out...
A pair of scientists (Ken Watanabe & Sally Hawkins) visit the Philippines in 1999 after a giant cave-in at a mining site. Underground they discover a large skeleton as well as a number of fossilized pods, one of which looks to have recently hatched and whatever was inside it burrowed its way out into the Pacific Ocean. In Japan at the same time, a nuclear physicist (Bryan Cranston) lives with his wife (Juliette Binoche) and son, and the plant he works at suffers a breach, causing hundreds of people to be killed and the entire area surrounding the plant to be declared uninhabitable. 
Fast forward fifteen years and the son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a soldier in the Navy, returning home to San Fransisco where his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son live. He receives a phone call asking him to come to Japan to bail his father out of jail, when he was caught exploring the uninhabitable zone where they used to live. Upon reuniting with his father, the two travel back to their old house to gather some files the father is trying to use to prove that the anomaly that caused the meltdown is happening again, and that the government is trying to cover something up. Sure enough, they are, and it's a bigger problem than anyone could have ever imagined.
I imagine that the inherent problem most people will have with this Godzilla is that my two paragraph summary of the plot doesn't mention that word once.  As a matter of fact, he's not even the thing they're trying to cover up. I'll go into mild spoilers here, but nothing that will ruin your enjoyment of the film, I promise. There are basically two large creatures dubbed MUTOs, that the government knows about, who feed off of toxic radiation. The scientists from the Philippines are hoping that they can lure Godzilla out of the depths of the ocean to battle the MUTOs before they destroy all life on earth. 
So basically, this world is one in which Godzilla already existed, and the opening credits do a sensational job of covering his history for the film, making it one of the more worthwhile opening credit sequences to come down the pike in a long time. The film is more concerned with the human drama of it all rather than the big monsters, and it's ironic that the same audiences who saw fit to pan last summer's Pacific Rim for its lack of humanity are the same ones now decrying this film's lack of giant monster making stuff go boom. For my money, it was a perfect mix of the two, and the action sequences that Edwards and his team give us are nothing short of awe-inspiring. 
The film is not trying to be clever or trick you into thinking it's a much smarter film than it is, because it's full of technical mumbo jumbo that honestly doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the end. It's almost akin to watching the original Godzilla without the subtitles, it just doesn't matter what anyone's saying, you know that there's danger and you know that the beautiful big green lizard is gonna start destroying stuff any minute. The fun is in the mayhem and splendor of it all. The script by Max Borenstein is equal parts rampant stupidity and gloriously over the top fun, and it works like gangbusters. 
The performances are uniformly good for what was being asked of these actors. Can they convey fear and anxiety and anger and look good while doing so? Yes. Sold! Cranston is of course the best among them, though I couldn't help but chuckle over the fact that the rug they put on him looked so cheap and fake for a movie with a budget north of $150 million. It was arguably the worst special effect on display. As a director, Edwards shows a flair for capturing the size, scope, and weight of it all, and the whole film is infinitely better because of his dedication to keeping the action focused on how the humans must view it, and the scope becomes enormous and focused all at the same time.
Godzilla is not the geek's wet dream that Pacific Rim was, but it's as good a start to a new franchise as fans could have possibly hoped for. It's solidly entertaining, appropriately suspenseful, and gorgeous to look at. It's all you could ask for from a summer movie, and though it will likely disappoint a large segment of the population simply because there's not enough Godzilla in it, those audiences need to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that sometimes there really is too much of a good thing. It's one reason why the Transformers movies are such complete and total bullshit. It's nothing but explosions and sensory overload. Sometimes it's nice for a film to scale things back and actually leave you wanting more. Appreciate it for once. 
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Day 296: The Double (2014)

"You're in my place."
Writer & director Richard Ayoade is probably best known to American audiences for his role on the series The IT Crowd or, depressingly enough, his role in the 2012 film The Watch. Savvier comedy fans will know that Ayoade was the co-creator of one of the most brilliantly subversive pieces of comedy ever, the short-lived cult classic Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Ayoade took the leap to feature film directing with 2010's Submarine, a charming, if derivative little film that wore its heart and its homages on its sleeve. Ayoade is back behind the camera with The Double, a mind-bending film that plays simultaneously to both of actor Jesse Eisenberg's wildly different strengths.
Simon James (Eisenberg) is a nobody employee for a nondescript company run by someone called The Colonel (James Fox). He is micromanaged by a fussy boss (Wallace Shawn), and is obsessed with a woman named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the office and lives in the building directly adjacent to his. Simon's crippling social anxiety prevents him from talking to her at work, at home, or on the train, so he contents himself with spying on her via a telescope in his apartment. While watching her one night, a man on the ledge above her window catches his eye. The man waves to Simon and then jumps to his death. When the police arrive, Simon tells them what he saw and strikes up his first real conversation with Hannah.
The next day at work, a new employee is introduced to everyone. James Simon (Eisenberg) is Simon's exact double, though no one seems to notice outside of Simon. That night on the train, James strikes up a conversation with Simon and the two begin a friendship predicated on the fact that James is everything Simon is not: confident, arrogant, self-assured, and charming. James begins to exploit Simon's brain, as well as the fact that they look alike, to try and get ahead at the company. However, problems arise when James begins seducing Hannah with information about her that he's gleaned from Simon. It isn't long before James begins using Simon's meekness against him, and Simon must decide to either take matters into his own hands, or end it all. 
Unlike most thrillers, foreknowledge of plot details will not spoil your enjoyment of the film at all. As a matter of fact, it would probably be wise to get as much information about the film as possible because the mystery is so vague in this film, and the answers are far from forthcoming. Even by the end, people who have paid attention to all of the clues will find themselves flabbergasted by the conclusion. I'm not going to spoil any of the details here, but this is one of the more baffling films I've ever seen. Unlike Under the Skin where the lack of information only added to the mystique of the entire film, here the lack of information only grows more aggravating as you begin to wonder not just how everything will pay off, but if any of it will pay off at all. 
Thankfully the film is stylish enough to hold your attention, and Ayoade is nothing if not a clever visual stylist. The film is equal parts BrazilFight ClubRear Window, and Eraserhead, and Ayoade is adept enough to ride the line between paying tribute to these films and creating a world that is still uniquely his own. Film geeks will really get their rocks off trying to spot the various homages and cameos that abound in the film, and a running gag involving Paddy Considine as a television star on some sort of Euro-trash 70s sci-fi show is one of the film's funniest and best conceits. His shot compositions are fantastic, and the film always looks amazing, even as it dwells in less than amazing settings, but it just feels a bit too much like it's trying to figure things out as it goes along rather than heading towards a definitive conclusion. By the end, the film feels as though it's reached the only possible conclusion to things rather than the best possible conclusion. 
As a showcase for Jesse Eisenberg, the film may be even better than his Oscar-nominated turn in The Social Network. Allowing him to play polar opposite characters, each of which cater to his thoroughly different talents, is a stroke of genius. As much as he continues to have a corner on the nebbishy doubting Thomas type, he's actually a much more effective actor when playing the dickish, arrogant, Mark Zuckerberg-type, and seeing him play both ends of the spectrum is a delight. Wasikowska is also very good, continuing to surprise each time out of the gate lately, and making her ill-fated Alice in Wonderland a distant memory by this point in time. Shawn is also having a blast, playing the Ian Holm in Brazil-esque boss, and shades of his legendary performance as Vizzini are in no short supply. The cameos in the film are also great, and not worth spoiling outside of the aforementioned Considine. 
The script is probably the film's weakest element. In the early going, it plays like a perfect thriller, gleefully setting up pins you just know they're going to delight in knocking down later. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a bait and switch at work here, and the film more or less abandons pay-offs to many of its early set-ups in favor of continuing to build a mystery you wonder if it will ever solve. There's not a definite conclusion to things, even though it seems as if there's going to be one up until the film's final moments. Instead you're just left with a handful of, admittedly, striking images and a whole bunch of question marks. Were the film not so well-made, this lack of a satisfactory conclusion would be twice as enervating. 
The Double is an admirable film, it's just not a very good one. It's impeccably made and shot, it just feels like a mishmash collision of ideas that never really reconcile with one another. It's confusing, but not in a fun way. Perhaps a second viewing will make the pieces come together in a much more obvious way, but I just wasn't taken enough by the film to want to see it again any time soon. Eisenberg continues to surprise and Ayoade shows that if perhaps he were a director for hire on a film he didn't script, he might be able to make something truly great and unique. Instead it's the kind of uniqueness that lies in an elaborately tacky tchotchke your grandmother might have made at a crafting class. You can nod in admiration at the imagination involved in its creation while simultaneously questioning the decision making abilities of the person who made it.  
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Day 295: Neighbors

"You're really villaining out in here."
It's a tale as old as time, the snobs versus slobs comedy, and one which has seen it's fair share of incarnations over the last forty years. With the new comedy Neighbors, the filmmakers are taking a family versus frat approach that, at least on the surface, seems like something new and different. The idea of a frat moving into a residential neighborhood has been done before, as recently as 2003's Old School, but this time the focus is on the family as opposed to the frat. Would the gamble pay off or would this be just another lame retread hoping to milk more money from consumers with severe short term memory issues? Read on to find out...
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are a thirty-something couple who have just moved into their dream house and started a family thanks to the birth of their daughter Stella. Desperate to cling to their youth, the two take a lackadaisical approach to parenting, with Mac continuing to blaze up with his friend Jimmy (Ike Barinhotlz) at work, and Kelly yearning to go out with her friend, and Jimmy's ex-wife, Paula (Carla Gallo). There seems to be promise on the horizon when a moving van pulls up to the vacant house next door, but much to their chagrin, they discover that it is a fraternity from the local college that is setting up their new frat house in the adjacent home.
Mac and Kelly decide to let them know that they're cool, and go to greet the frat boys and offer them a joint, and a request to keep it down. Fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and vice-president Pete (Dave Franco) ensure them that they won't be a problem, and if Mac and Kelly ever have a problem, to come and tell them first and not go to the cops. They invite Mac and Kelly to come party with them that night, which they do, all night, with their infant at home alone, and a bond seems to be formed. However, the next night, Teddy does not respond to the couple's requests to keep it down, so they call the police. When the officer (Hannibal Burress) rats out Mac and Kelly as the ones who lodged the complaint, the frat declares all out war on their neighbors.
The most glaring and unforgivable sin of this film is the fact that the script is simply awful. It tries to make heroes out of a couple that wantonly neglect their child, and while first time parents certainly have their moments, they're not all-out miscreants who treat parenting as a cool thing to do in their spare time when they're not smoking weed. This has got to be, truly, one of the most awful couples ever put on screen, and to ask an audience to root for or, worse yet, sympathize with them is simply insane. What makes this all worse is that their daughter is absolutely adorable, making their neglect of her all the more egregious. This is seriously one of the cutest babies ever put on screen. It is woefully apparent that neither of the two men responsible for this script have children, and if they do, I weep for them. Maybe all the residuals they receive from the sale of this script will help them pay for some really great therapy.
The film could get a pass if it merely bungled this half of the equation, but the frat brothers are almost as grossly stereotypical and under-realized as the alleged protagonists. Teddy is the only character with any sort of arc in the entire film, and even his is tacked on as an after thought to start the film's third act. The first hour of the film played like a trailer for an even longer film. There was zero character development, and the scenes played out more like a highlight reel of things to come rather than a collection of scenes that drove the narrative forward. To call this the worst script for a major motion picture that's been released this year would be an understatement.
Director Nicholas Stoller has struggled with his first few films to edit them down to a manageable length. In trying to keep this film to ninety minutes, however, he cut out all of the important stuff like character development and motivation. The film moves, but completely at the expense of anything other than getting to the next joke, and once the third act hits, it's a hurry up and wrap this thing up situation, so even those moments go to waste. It's also disheartening to see the wonderful penultimate scene from 2007's vastly superior Superbad so blatantly ripped off near the end of this film. When Mac and Kelly crash into their bed to sum up their experiences over the past few weeks, quite literally at times, the film reveals that it's completely drenched with flop sweat and trying its best to remind people of a much better film that they could be watching instead.
It's a shame too, because the film does feature two ace performances from Efron and Franco. These two young men crackle with the vitality that Rogen and his cohorts did a decade ago, and all of the endless riffing by their elders make their performances that much more grounded by comparison. This trend of "why do one joke when three will suffice" really needs to die now, if not yesterday. It's obvious that the script didn't give the actors much to work with beyond a loose framework, and so they're forced to fill in the blanks. Some bits go on for the length of a bible as well, like a scene in which Byrne's character becomes engorged and needs to express breast milk because she can't feed her baby due to, you guessed it, an all-night bender that has made her milk into moonshine.
Neighbors isn't the worst movie ever made, or even the worst one released already this year. There are a few laughs, but none of them come organically from the characters or situations. They're all throw away one-liners that likely seem funnier because of the dreck they're surrounded by. It feels like a concept more than a film, and the script is so atrocious, it's a wonder it ever got in front of cameras in its current state. It's obvious that the studios and producers are just putting out half baked products in the hopes that legitimate comedic talent will make it shine. Unfortunately, the best comedic talent in the world couldn't save this nonsense, let alone the cast they assembled.
GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Day 294: Locke

"I'm not turning back."
Steven Knight has crafted at least two outstanding scripts, one for director Stephen Frears' 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, and the other for David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. He has very little experience behind the camera, however, directing only four episodes of a TV series called The Detectives in the mid-90s, as well as last year's Jason Statham vehicle Redemption. Therefore, it was difficult to know what to make of his latest effort, Locke, a high concept/low tech film starring Tom Hardy. The trailers gave little indication as to what the film was about, placing a lot of the onus on audience members to trust that this was going to be worth their time. Did that gambit pay off? Read on to find out…
The film opens as Ivan Locke (Hardy), a Welsh construction foreman, is leaving a job site at the end of the day. He calls home to tell his wife (Ruth Wilson) that he's not going to be coming home, but she is out getting food and drink for a big football match that is on that night. His sons beg him to come home and watch with them, but he is driving to London. He then calls his friend Donal (Andrew Scott) to tell him that he is going to have to take the lead on a big concrete pour happening at work tomorrow, because Locke is going to be in London. Donal begins to freak out, but Locke calmly walks him through all of the steps he'll need to take at the site.
Locke then places a call to his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels) to tell him that he won't be at work tomorrow, but he is still supervising everything remotely. Gareth tells him that he may find himself out of a job if he's not on site tomorrow, but Locke tells him that it will be impossible. Locke is driving to London to attend to Bethan (Olivia Colman), a woman who he knows very little about, but has all of a sudden become a major part of his life. During his ninety minute drive to London, we get all of the information we need to suss out what's happening, as all of these balls Locke is trying to simultaneously keep in the air threaten to crash down to Earth at a moment's notice. 
And so Locke plays out, nearly in real time, and it is one of the most intense and nerve-wracking, yet highly edifying and brilliant films to come out in a long time. The way information is doled out little by little to paint a portrait of a man whom everyone thinks is completely in control of every aspect of his life yet is actually orchestrating his own downfall, is sublimely done. It's the kind of film in which the less you know about it going in, the more satisfying an experience it would be, yet there's no doubt that even with foreknowledge of certain plot points, it would still work just as well. This is a film that will play brilliantly on repeat viewings, as you can allow the tension to wash away and just marvel in how masterfully orchestrated it all is. 
The most remarkable thing about the film is how simply it's constructed. Filmed over the course of six nights, basically utilizing each night for a different, continuous take with three cameras rolling, you're stuck inside this world with Locke, and every tiny gesture, inflection, glance, word, and deed is magnified. You desperately pore over everything that you're given, assembling the pieces of the story as you try to find a deeper meaning within it all, yet in hindsight, you're given everything you need from this nearly perfect script. It is an absolute gem of a script, but it would amount to very little were it not for the impeccable performance given by Tom Hardy.
Hardy is as talented an actor as there is working today, and spending ninety minutes in his company is enough of a selling point for most people, yet somehow, he manages to surprise even those already privy to his massive talent. It is a shame that most American audiences only know him as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, which was a toweringly huge and broad character. He certainly did a lot with the character, and made him one of the more interesting comic book villains to ever grace the screen, but his talent for playing small and intimate could barely register behind that mask and Bartley Gorman impression. Hardy can do just about anything put in front of him, and his performance here is wonderfully nuanced, simple, and incredible.
Knight manages to keep things moving forward at all times, throwing in some very funny dialogue to ease the tension, and opening up the world just enough to give the audience a breather right when they need it most. You never feel trapped by the style of the film, but the character of Locke is infused with enough empathy to make the audience identify with him, which is crucial for a film of this nature. The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is wonderfully drenched with the reds and yellows of the highway, and utilizes natural light in a way that would make even Terrence Malick blush. It's a beautiful film to look at, and is made all the more interesting by its very selective use of sound. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is used sparingly and always at the right moments, and compliments the images and words in such a way as to never feel overbearing. 
The American distribution house A24 is still in its relative infancy, but with both this film and the equally amazing Under the Skin to its name already this year, it is positioning itself as a company to watch. Locke is nothing less than the best film released thus far in 2014, and my only hope is that it is not forgotten come the end of the year, least of all for Tom Hardy's career best performance. Getting people into the theaters to see it is likely going to be its biggest battle, but audiences have always sought out worthwhile films and this one should be no exception. Do yourself a favor and go see Locke, even if you have to drive ninety minutes to see it. You'll have plenty to talk about on the ride home. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via AceShowbiz]

Friday, May 2, 2014

Day 293: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

"I love Spider-Man, but I love Peter Parker more."

Spidey's back in action, once again under the direction of once promising rising talent director Marc Webb, who has traded in quirky rom-com cliche riddled films for all the 'splosions and cgi you can stomach. 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't a bad movie, it was just a wholly unnecessary one in a summer that saw two of the best comic book films of all time released. Something about Spider-Man just doesn't work on the big screen, as ridiculous as that sounds, and I'll get into the reasons why in a moment, but hell if they aren't just going to keep on trying.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) loves being Spider-Man. He says so himself right at the onset of the film, so you don't have to go figuring it out for yourself. Perhaps the only thing he loves more than Spider-Man is his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose father he more or less caused the death of in the first film. Peter and Gwen are cute together, and enjoy their time making goo goo eyes at one another and bantering in a playfully flirty kind of way that will get Spider fans all tingly in their testes. 

Meanwhile some guy named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a nerdy stereotype that works for Oscorp, the company that Peter's best friend Harry (Dane DeHaan)'s dad Norman (Chris Cooper) owns, and Norman dies too. Max is a big Spider-Man aficionado, but when an industrial accident involving a tank full of electric eels (not making any of this up) causes Max to gain electric powers (still not making any of this up), he teams up with Harry to take down Spidey because Spidey won't give Harry the radioactive blood that he needs to stop a disease from killing him. Oh, and Paul Giamatti is Rhino for four minutes.

Exhausting is the only apt adjective one can use to describe this mess of a film. It's not unlike, and I say this as a parent, listening to a child describe a Spider-Man story. It's all over the god damned map, yet somehow scripted in such a way that it jams close to two film's worth of material in for good measure. It fluctuates madly between prolonged sequences of Peter and Gwen talking and being in love, which in retrospect were the best scenes in the film if only by default, and scenes that have to cram ten minutes worth of information into five minutes of screen time so they can move on to the next action beat.

There is no cohesion to the film whatsoever. Everyone feels like they're in a different movie, with the notable exception of Garfield and Stone, who have an undeniable chemistry when they're together. It certainly doesn't help that Foxx feels as if he was either refusing to take direction or simply did whatever he wanted and Webb didn't reign him in. His scenery chewing shenanigans seem to come from another film altogether, and wouldn't feel out of place in a Schumacher Batman film. Which is interesting considering that his entire character arc is more or less beat for beat the same as Jim Carrey's Riddler in Batman Forever. Note to future comic book filmmakers out there… Batman Forever is not a film you want to crib from, no matter how liberally. 

Beware Spoilers in the next paragraph

I would be remiss if I didn't at least address the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, and that is the way they handle Gwen Stacy's death. It's pretty much the best scene in the film, and the two scenes following it are well done, but I was so exhausted by that point, they didn't land the way they were intended. This was clearly another case of hack screenwriters Bob Orci & Alex Kurtzman thinking that fans would be outraged if The Green Goblin wasn't the one responsible for her death, so they shoehorned him into a film he had no business being in, thus making this already overstuffed film burst at the seams. Stop trying to give fans what you think they want and just write a good story. The rest will take care of itself.

As I've already mentioned, Garfield and Stone are the two biggest assets the film has going for it. They are incredibly comfortable in these roles and with one another, making their scenes together the most enjoyable. Foxx is a nightmare of epic proportions, delighting in giving us not one but two horrendously over-the-top characters, neither of which land because they're such absurd caricatures. De Haan doesn't fare much better, chucking subtlety and nuance out the window in favor of glaring, devious glances and melodramatic line readings. He's been better in other things, so we'll just have to chalk this up to him not having solid direction.

Marc Webb is not a good enough director to be helming films like this. All of the best superhero movies were made by veteran directors that can handle multiple storylines and characters. It's no surprise that the scenes between Gwen & Peter are the best because it's the only thing he knows how to do. It's not unlike when Iñárritu made Babel, and the best scenes were the ones with Gael Garcia Bernal and the brilliant Adriana Barraza. That was a filmmaker in his comfort zone, and it's the same case here. Webb flounders when he has to do anything else, and the franchise as a whole will be better when he, Orci, and Kurtzman all move on. 

As bad as the film is, it's nowhere near the catastrophe that the part-musical Spider-Man 3 was. That's not exactly high praise, but it's about as far as anyone needs to go in commending the film in any way. After wading through two hours and twenty minutes of this migraine inducing nonsense, one can only think of Macbeth's immortal line, "it is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]