Saturday, June 21, 2014

Day 304: The Rover

"You never stop thinking about a life that you've taken. It's the price you pay for taking it."
Australian director David Michôd made a name for himself in America with his 2010 directorial effort Animal Kingdom, which earned an Oscar nomination for a fiercely brutal Jacki Weaver. The film was remarkable in the way it pared away everything except character, making that the most important thing in what was masquerading as a crime drama. For his second feature, The Rover, Michôd pares things down even further, jettisoning most of what was already a relatively small cast for Animal Kingdom, and fixing his gaze on a pair of unlikely companions.
The title card that welcomes us into the world of the film simply reads: Australia. 10 Years After The Collapse. Eric (Guy Pearce) travels the Australian countryside, which has been ravaged by the unexplained collapse, pulling his car over to patronize a makeshift bar in what was once someone's home. A trio of criminals, led by an American named Henry (Scoot McNairy) crashes their car outside the bar and the crooks quickly commandeer Eric's vehicle. Eric manages to get their car working again and gives chase, staying calmly determined to reclaim his property despite the weapons his enemies are brandishing. When Eric attempts to attack, he is knocked unconscious, and when he comes to, the criminals have absconded with his car, but left him theirs for some odd reason. 
As he begins his attempt to track down the men that stole his car, the injured Rey (Robert Pattinson) stumbles on his brother Henry's car, and Eric recognizes him as someone that may have information on where his own car has ended up. He takes Rey into the mountains to visit a doctor (Susan Prior), and when Rey's wounds are dressed, he uses a gun he's procured through rather unscrupulous means to tell Rey that he is to bring him to Henry and his car. As they travel the scorched Australian wilderness, pursuing what may not even be a reliable lead, Eric begins to realize that Rey is ill-equipped to handle the realities of this new society, and attempts to tutor him in the ways of survival.
This is a film that is very low on just about everything except for character. There are very few plot points, even fewer major incidences within the plot, little to no dialogue for long stretches of time, and virtually nothing to look at in the barren wasteland through which they traverse. It's a good thing, then, that these two characters are fascinating enough to want to spend 100 minutes with, despite the fact that they do and say very little. Eric is clearly uninterested in sharing any details of his personal life with Rey, whose slow-wittedness makes him something of an open book. Their relationship starts out of necessity, but following a few coldly dished out life lessons by Eric, and a gripping shoot-out in a motel, Rey begins to see Eric as the mentor that his own brother never was for him. 
The interesting thing about the film, however, is that all of this is very much on the surface. You don't need to dig for these themes, as they're blatantly obvious, so it gives you a chance to just sort of fill in whatever blanks make the most sense to you for these characters. The film wouldn't be out of place in the 70s and early 80s Ozploitation movement that gave birth to such directors as George Miller and Ted Kotcheff, both of whom I feel comfortable placing Michôd right alongside, but even despite some moments of shocking violence, it's much more cerebral than a lot of those genre pictures were. Mad Max gave us the post-apocalyptic action, Wake in Fright gave us the over the top violence, and Walkabout gave us the beauty of the Australian outback, so what Michôd decides to do instead is to play on the audience's knowledge and expectations regarding those films, but subvert it by never giving them so blatant a pay-off.
Natasha Braier's cinematography is brilliant in its sparseness, its harsh contrast between light and dark, and in its beautiful stillness. There are so few female cinematographers, so it's always nice to see one excel at her craft. The film's script is very good as well, giving the audience all they need to keep pace with the film, but depriving them of enough to keep them wanting more. Michôd's direction is just as good as his script, always doing less than he needs to, and never succumbing to the temptation to get flashy with his camera moves or editing when it clearly wouldn't fit the style of the film. 
The performances are all excellent as well, with Pearce proving that he's always at his best when doing very little. He has a gift for subtlety that I wish more directors would tap into, since they always seem to want to keep him playing things so absurdly over the top as to be distracting. As good as he was in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, I think that even he would like to leave that performance behind at this point. Pattinson is equally good, much better than I expected, even in spite of the fact that I've always kind of liked him as an actor despite his poor choices in the past. He injects some much needed pathos into the film, and gives the audience a character to latch on to in the midst of a huge number of despicable people. 
The Rover is a very good film, but not one that's going to set the world on fire. It's unsurprising that Michôd is a contemporary of another wonderful Australian director, Andrew Dominik, whose films are unsparing, but which audiences have, by and large, turned their backs on. They don't shy away from the reality of the world that we live in, or once lived in, or certainly will live in, and that's just not the kind of thing people want in a movie anymore. It's a sad state of affairs, but it's comforting to know that these filmmakers are still out there, producing consistently top notch films despite the public's reticence to embrace them. 
GO Rating: 3.5/5

Images via BoxOfficeMojo

Friday, June 20, 2014

Day 303: Jersey Boys

"You think Frankie woulda cut Tommy loose right then. If that's what you think, you're not from Jersey."
The musical Jersey Boys is what has commonly come to be known as a jukebox musical, meaning that none of the songs are originals, they're all from the same songwriters, group, etc. and there's a story thrown in for good measure to tide the audience over between numbers. As reductive as that label has become, it's actually a very apropos description for this particular show since the jukebox was more or less the pivotal music delivery device of the time. Translating the show to film seemed like a no-brainer, considering its popularity, but the choice of Clint Eastwood as director seemed strange to say the least. So would the film do the show justice, or would it the latest victim of lackluster musical to film translations? Read on to find out...
The film opens in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951, where small time hood Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) works for crime boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Tommy spends his nights performing with his brother and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) as The Variety Trio. Tommy's best friend is Frankie Castellucio (John Lloyd Young), a hairdresser's apprentice with a great singing voice. When Tommy gets pinched and sent to prison, he encourages Nick to cultivate Frankie's talent and give him singing lessons. Frankie's talent and confidence grow just in time for Tommy to get out of the clink, and Nick to go in. Tommy invites Frankie to join the group in Nick's absence, and very quickly he makes Frankie the lead singer. 
The only problem is that trios have become passé, and the band will need a fourth member to become a marketable group. Tommy's friend Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) tells him about a friend of his that just wrote the hit song "Short Shorts" for The Royal Teens, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Gaudio impresses Frankie with his songwriting, and after some negotiating, is invited to join the band. Frankie and Bob have a drive that Tommy doesn't seem to have, and they soon land a deal with a record producer named Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) who loves Frankie's voice, but relegates them to a backup role. After a year of schlepping in this capacity, they finally get the money together to pay for the studio and record a demo Gaudio's written called "Sherry." Frankie changes his last name to Valli, the group changes their name to The Four Seasons, and the rest is history. 
Jersey Boys is not a film for everyone, but those who connect with it will connect with it a very strong way. The thing that is most interesting about the film is the artificiality of it all. Eastwood revels in shooting most everything on a set on a studio backlot to anchor the film in the style of the films made during the time period in which it is set. It's a bold move that paid of handsomely, but the total artifice of it all will be a major turn-off for most audience members. Everything about the film feels fake, from the wigs and costumes, to the rear projection during driving scenes, and just about everything in between. It's not afraid to feel like a film, which is something that most modern audiences reject at first sight, but those of us who appreciate theatricality in film will adore the film. It will also play like gangbusters to the over fifty set who are more than a little nostalgic for the time period and music, a generation raised, like Eastwood, on movie made on backlots with a ton of glitz and glamour, all of which is very knowingly false. 
Several things about the film really work well, namely the way that Eastwood handles the story's multiple narrators. Direct address to the camera opens the film, and is ever-present from that point on, but it's a fantastic way of bringing the audience into the world of these characters. It's a very Jersey movie, which shouldn't be all that surprising, but anyone that was raised in and around the Italian households of New Jersey will instantly recognize the glaring stereotypical flourishes such as a clock in Frankie's parent's home flanked by pictures of the Pope and Frank Sinatra. In other words, this movie couldn't be more New Jersey if it called you a stunad and popped you right in the balls. 
Having said all that, the film is a mess, but what a glorious mess it is. The domestic drama, particularly between Frankie and his wife Mary (Renée Marino) is needlessly melodramatic, but it's pitched to the rafters and ends up feeling of a piece with the entire film. There are also large sections of the film, sometimes twenty minutes at a time, when there's no music in the film, and that should be a death sentence for a musical, but the film never lags, and always continues moving forward, even when it takes a substantial step backward in the narrative a little past the midway point of the film. It also helps that the bulk of the film is set before the band becomes famous. Too often in these biopics, there is a rush to get to the stardom and excess of it all, but this film knows that it's bread is buttered under the streetlights on those Jersey street corners, and gives the film a uniqueness not present in most other jukebox musicals. 
The film's biggest revelation by a mile is Vincent Piazza as Tommy. The New York born actor is a force of nature, completely at home in the world of the film and in Tommy's shoes. The way he carries himself, the way he talks to the other characters, as well as the audience, with an air of being above everyone else, makes him a marvel to behold, and were he not such a strong center for the film, it might have failed entirely. Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Nicky are also fantastic, perfectly inhabiting their characters and keeping things moving forward at all times, despite some absolutely preposterous facial hair on Bergen for the entire second half of the film. Walken is also fantastic, as to be expected, getting a chance to do his Walken thing without being a distraction.
As for John Lloyd Young, he looks like Frankie and sounds like Frankie, and that's just about good enough. He doesn't feel at home in front of a camera, and seems to be holding back too much at times, afraid to go too far over the top, but it's almost always to his detriment. He is very good, but anytime he's not singing, he looks lost. The script by the show's book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice blurs enough of the lines between fantasy and reality to be considered strong without crossing over into great. The details they skirt or condense will be lost on anyone not intimately familiar with the history of The Four Seasons, but that's okay because they keep things brisk and light all the way through. 
If it's said once, it's worth saying a dozen times, Jersey Boys is not a film for everyone, but those who connect with it will cherish it, warts and all. It's not without its flaws, but its flaws make it so lovable and enjoyable. It seems like a cop-out to say this but this is a very specific film made for a very specific audience, and those that don't fall into that category will likely find very little, if anything, to enjoy about it. This is an old-fashioned yarn spun by a director who knows a thing or two about the good old days, and this is a perfect way to recapture them, by simply pointing out that all the things people love about this time period were as artificial as they accuse today's films and music of being. It's an interesting thesis, and one I didn't expect to find in a film like Jersey Boys, but I'm glad it's there, no matter how many layers of artifice are covering it up. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, June 13, 2014

Day 302: How To Train Your Dragon 2

"What you're searching for, Hiccup, isn't out there. It's in here."
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, coupled with 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, was the film that more or less brought respectability to Dreamworks Animation. Prior to that, the studio was basically known for the Shrek franchise and a whole mess of interchangeable films where the characters all made the same face. HTTYD was a fantastic blend of character based humor and stunning animation, which more or less did away with the endless series of pop culture references that made Dreamworks a bit of an also-ran compared with the more sophisticated work of Pixar. When Kung Fu Panda got a sequel three years ago, it was, in my humble opinion, the perfect sequel in that it expanded the world, developed the characters, and introduced a formidable new threat. Everything seemed to be lining up for How To Train Your Dragon 2 to follow in that film’s footsteps, so could it do just that, or would it be a crushing disappointment? Read on to find out…
Picking up five years after the events of the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 finds the citizens of the small medieval island of Berk enjoying their newfound harmony with their former dragon enemies. The hero of the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is charting new territory on the back of his dragon Toothless, seeking to change the opinions of others across the land in regard to dragons. When he comes across a group of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harington), he discovers a nefarious plot by a human named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) to trap and control all of the dragons in the land.
After informing his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) of the plot, Stoick tells him of the legendary terror that Bludvist has reigned over, and encourages his son to stand down and focus his attention on learning to lead the people of Berk. Hiccup does not listen, and goes to attempt to reason with Bludvist, but soon finds himself face to face with another human amassing hordes of dragons. This human, however, has much more harmonious designs for the dragons, hoping to unite dragons and humans in peaceful harmony, a standing that Hiccup readily supports, which isn’t surprising considering that this human is his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett).
As far a ticking off boxes on a list of things that successful sequels do and do well, How To Train Your Dragon 2 most definitely ticks them all off. The characters, for the most part, grow and change, the stakes are raised, there’s just enough of the familiar to balance out the new, and our hero faces his greatest challenge of all, and rises to meet it. If I have any complaint at all, it’s that at times, particularly in the film’s somewhat bloated second act, feels as though it’s making sure all those boxes get checked off. It seems almost catty to ask certain things of a sequel and then begrudge the film when it rises to meet those challenges, but the sense of adventure and the organic feel of the first film are mostly gone here, sadly, replaced by an overwhelming urge to do something different without ever stopping to think if this particular set of circumstances is really the best they could have come up with.
My only other complaint about the film is regarding the villain. In a film that is as lily white as a world dreamed up by Joseph Smith himself, to make the only villain in the film a person of color, voiced by a person of color, does seem like an oddly out of touch thing to do. I acknowledge that this world was established to mirror the United Kingdom to some extent, and it would feel just as odd to attempt to shoehorn in characters of color just for the sake of having them in this world, but to use them in this way is just as offensive, if not more so.
Now, before I start to sound as though I didn’t enjoy the film, let me assure that I did enjoy it a great deal. Seeing it in IMAX 3D was worth the additional ticket price because the animation is second to none among films released in the past two or three years. The action is top notch, the pacing is good overall, particularly in the first and third acts, and the story earns its big, emotional reveals all too well. As I said earlier, it makes the most of every opportunity to have the characters grow and change, and deals with the notion of rising to meet your responsibilities incredibly well. It’s a solid story, told in a tremendously inventive visual way. In fact, it is pretty much the equal of Kung Fu Panda 2, which I certainly do not mean as a slight against this film. I think that both sequels take their characters and story on a journey forward, and honor the past without repeating it.
The voice work is also very good, and though Jay Baruchel still sounds like he’s fourteen years old, he manages to use such youthfulness to his advantage, particularly in light of his character’s journey. Butler does unusually strong work for an actor who seems to have come into his career on cruise control. Harington & Blanchett are worthy additions to the cast, as is Hounsou, despite the film’s decision to hamstring him with a horrendous stereotype of a character. The likes of Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are more or less wasted, as their characters don’t add much to the plot, but a bulked up role for Craig Ferguson’s character paid of handsomely thanks to Ferguson’s tremendous comic timing. 
All in all, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is about as good a sequel as one could hope for from Dreamworks, or any major animation studio for that matter. Even Pixar’s sequels have been lackluster, with the Toy Story films being the exception that proves the rule. That they took the time to consider the characters and how they would have grown since the events of the first film is miracle enough in this day and age, but to couple it with eye-popping animation and great voice work makes this succeed far more often than it fails. It’s not all that it could have been, but it’s also so much better than it could have been, and sometimes, that is enough cause for celebration.
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Top 5 Reasons Why "Gremlins" Is A Better Movie Than "Ghostbusters"


June 8, 1984 was quite a day to be alive. Two classic comedies with twisted sensibilities were released that day, and though Ghostbusters was the bigger hit, and the more revered of the two, Gremlins is still one of the best horror-comedies ever made.

Credited with being one of two catalysts, along with Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, for the creation of the PG-13 rating, Gremlins was something of a phenomenon that summer. Grossing $148 million dollars on a budget of just $11 million, the film was a legitimate four quadrant hit.

Though it's thought of today as more of a cult hit than the much more popular Ghostbusters, there are a number of reasons it's actually the better film. Here are just five of those reasons...

1. It's Much Darker. MUCH Darker
Gremlins Kitchen

While both films are undeniably comedic, Gremlins is rooted in the tropes of the horror genre. It shows the small town of Kingston Falls as a sunny suburban landscape early in the film, the very picture of Americana, but once the Gremlins attack, we see the town obliterated. It's a subtle jab at the idealized world of the 1950s, and it hits home because it leaves the audience feeling as though they're not safe anywhere. There's also Kate's horrifying description of her dad's Santa Claus prank that goes tragically wrong, the laboratory sequence that introduces the Gremlins themselves, and of course, that famous kitchen fight between Mrs. Peltzer and a gluttonous gremlin, all of which add up to make one of the darkest blockbusters of all time.

2. Phoebe Cates Is WAY Hotter Than Sigourney Weaver
Phoebe Cates Gremlins

This is not a slight against Sigourney, she is still one of the sexiest women on the planet, but we're talking about Phoebe Cates here. The ultimate dream girl, Phoebe perfectly balances girl next door good looks with unrivaled sexiness. It's also a quasi-reunion for Cates and her Fast Times at Ridgemont High co-star Judge Reinhold, which helps to remind us that she was at the center of one of the best nude scenes in movie history. The only downside is that the winter setting keeps her covered up for most of the film. What we wouldn't give to combine Phoebe with Sigourney's Zuul costume.

3. Joe Dante Is a Better Director Than Ivan Reitman.
joe dante

Ivan Reitman is a legend, that's an undeniable fact, but Joe Dante is a much better filmmaker. There's never any doubt that Ghostbusters is a comedy, but Gremlins deftly walks the line between horror and comedy, and plays on conventions of both genres to further confuse the audience. The fact that all of his work prior to Gremlins had been on horror films such as Piranha and The Howling made him the perfect choice to balance the comedy in Chris Columbus' script with horrifying and hilarious imagery. Though both men have had shoddy track records of late, it's hard to deny that, purely from a technical standpoint, Dante's the much more skilled director.

4. It's One Of The Most Film-Literate Films Ever Made.
Gremlins Spielberg

That's executive producer Steven Spielberg riding through a shot in a wheelchair early in the film, in a scene that also includes a reference to HG Welles' The Time Machine (you can see it in the background there). These are but two of the dozens of references to other films or film ephemera sprinkled throughout the film. Add in references to E.T.Indiana JonesIt's a Wonderful LifeForbidden Planet, and even Dante's own The Howling, and you've got the makings of one of the most referential, yet still original, films of all time.

5. It's Got The Better Sequel
Gremlins 2

In the annals of sequeldom, Ghostbusters 2 is rightly considered one of the worst. It's basically just the first movie all over again, just without the jokes. Gremlins 2: The New Batch, on the other hand, is a scathing satire of sequels, corporations, and even its predecessor. Director Joe Dante was given carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted, and he made a film that is brilliantly subversive. He takes down corporations, but also has a sympathetic corporate overlord character. He got Leonard Maltin to appear in the film, trashing the first one, and then being eating by Gremlins. He had Gizmo get "pushed too far," and become a Rambo-esque action hero. It's a truly brilliant film that improves upon the original in every way, and continues to be one of the most sadly misunderstood sequels of all time.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Day 301: The Fault in Our Stars

"The world is not a wish granting factory."
The book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is one of those books that everyone rants and raves about, but the subject matter (teens dying of cancer) keeps people such as myself away. The main reason I stayed away was not that I couldn't handle an honest look at the world from the perspective of a teenage girl dying of cancer, subject matter that hits somewhat close to home. It's that I couldn't handle any sort of attempt to sentimentalize or deify children forced to grow up too fast. Too often in these sorts of stories, the children possess a wisdom beyond their years because their entire lives are crammed into one-quarter or less of the average lifespan, so the author will seek to make them life lesson spouting machines rather than fully fleshed out characters worth giving a damn about. 
When a feature film was announced, it seemed as good a time as any to test that theory. Could this story buck the trend and seek to deal honestly with a very real, very scary, and very human set of circumstances, or would it be just another in a long line of romantic stories that backdoor the same old familiar beats through the guise of a horrendous tragedy? Read on to find out...
Fair warning, I cannot address anything that happened in the novel which was left out of the film, so bear that in mind as you read this. If your response to something I may have gotten wrong or simply misconstrued is "they explain that in the book," there's no way I could possibly have known that. 
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) was thirteen years old when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which soon spread to her lungs. Pulled back from the brink of death thanks to an experimental medication, Hazel has managed to survive for four more years when the story opens, though she is forced to be on oxygen 24/7 due to her weak lungs. She is suffering from a severe bout of depression, which her father (Sam Trammell) and mother (Laura Dern) try to cure her of by encouraging her to attend a support group at a local church run by the overly cheery Patrick (Mike Birbiglia), a testicular cancer survivor. Though Hazel attends simply to appease her parents, one day she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), a charming 18-year old whose cancer claimed his right leg before going into remission. 
Augustus is smitten with Hazel, and begins to make it his mission to cheer up a girl who seems to have resigned herself to the fact that she's going to die by simply being miserable all the time. Hazel, in return, shares her favorite novel with Gus, written by a reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) that Hazel has been trying unsuccessfully to contact for years. When Gus manages to establish contact with the author, he and Hazel are invited to come to Amsterdam and have the ambiguous ending of the book explained to them in person. Gus uses his "Genie Wish," the film's version of the Make-a-Wish foundation, to enable this to happen, but just before the trip Hazel takes a turn for the worse. The film then has another eighty minutes or so until it's over. 
The problem with The Fault in Our Stars is that it is the worst sort of pandering, wish fulfillment storytelling imaginable. By making Gus a character who is utterly without fault, the film becomes nothing more than another Young Adult novel that seeks to use escapism to fool impressionable young girls into thinking that no matter what their circumstances, the perfect man will eventually come along and cure all your problems (even cancer!) Now while the film has the common sense to not have Gus literally cure Hazel's cancer, the absurd lengths to which they go to present him as a towering pillar of virtue led me to believe that it wasn't out of the cards that he might have a vial of cancer-curing serum hidden somewhere in his house. The film is just another in a long line of seriously misguided attempts to show that teenage girls simply need a perfect man to make them complete. 
This is a dangerous road to travel, and the fact that the film goes out of its way to show that Hazel comes to certain realizations that are incredibly mature and wise on her own, she might never have convinced herself they were true had it not been for the unconditional love shown to her by Gus. They even go so far as to give her mother a moment of absolutely disgusting selfishness, that is perhaps not outside the realm of possibility for a parent facing the death of their child, which only serves to show that she's never known true love of any kind before. It's downright despicable, and audience members fooled into swooning over the love story, or impressed by the honesty of the jokes the characters crack at their disease's expense, are completely missing the forest for the trees. The real message at play here is far more disconcerting, and certainly one which the average teenage girl will pick up on much more readily: You're not complete without a man.
Perhaps the book does a good job of steering things away from this line of thinking, but I doubt it. That message rings out loud and clear, and the gaggle of crying moms and teenage girls at my screening only further cemented that. The fact that there were tears was not surprising, it's when the tears came that spoke volumes about what message got through to the audience. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I can say that no one was crying over how empowered Hazel felt at the end of the film.
One other scene worth noting is a trip to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, where Hazel and Gus share their first kiss. The heavy-handed insertion of various Anne Frank quotes such as "I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite indepedent of anyone" certainly doesn't help matters, but again, there's something more nefarious at play here. When they kiss, the entire room, filled with visitors to one of the most sacred spots in the world, where the Holocaust truly hit home, stop gazing at the history around them and applaud these two young lovers. Stop. Just stop. It's really quite despicable when you think about it, and shocking that they would so baselessly mine a tragedy like that to make teenage girls swoon. 
Thank goodness Woodley and Elgort are both fine young actors, otherwise this would have been a complete waste of time. Woodley continues to grow as an actress in interesting ways, and always seems to make the best choices in regard to line delivery, so I must applaud her for that. Elgort is similarly good, though the terrible caricature he's portraying does him no favors. They have real chemistry, and I continue to look forward to whatever they do in the future. Dern is fine as well, despite her character being drawn with the broadest brush imaginable, and Dafoe does good work in his two scenes, making a fine villain for a young adult film, not afraid to face the wrath of the throngs of angry teenage girls sure to despise him for the rest of time. 
It's that damned script, though, that really stinks of horribly manipulative trickery. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose credits include a 2009 double feature of 500 Days of Summer and The Pink Panther 2, it suffers from horribly protracted misery mixed with a healthy dose of unwarranted proselytizing. It's the very worst of what can come of a book adaptation. The lackadaisical direction by second time feature film director Josh Boone does no one any favors either. It's shot with all the flair of a Lifetime movie, and would likely have been right at home on that network, whose stock in trade is this sort of calculative dreck.   
The Fault in Our Stars is pure garbage. It has made me as angry at a film as I've ever been, and it has everything to do with the fact that it thinks it's honest, real, and true, when it is in fact the exact opposite. This is a terrible film to let your tween and teen daughters watch, as it will only bolster the nonsensical belief that they're not complete without the perfect man to show them the world and how much beauty it holds. This is nothing more than another in a long series of stories designed to make them feel less than by pointing out the things they need to come to the realizations that will make them an adult. It's despicable, and I'm honestly shocked that so many critics and audience members are falling victim to its subterfuge. If it walks like a lion, and roars like one, don't be surprised when it tears your arm off while you're busy being entranced by its beauty. 
GO Rating: 0.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Day 300: A Million Ways To Die In The West

"Ow! That came out of my penis! "
In the pantheon of bad decisions, the choice by Fox to give Family Guy a second chance at life in 2004 ranks somewhere between Blues Brothers 2000 and Napoleon invading Russia, and I'll leave it to you to decide where it falls between the two. Seth MacFarlane is funny to a point, and seems to have a genuine love for pop culture, but his attempts to rebottle lightning came off as just that. As his properties become increasingly drenched in flop sweat, he turned his attention to Hollywood and produced the very funny but slight 2012 smash hit Ted (which has a sequel in the works, because no one ever learns).
For his follow-up, he's dusted off the dustiest genre of them all, the Western comedy, which hasn't had much success in the 41 years since the release of Blazing Saddles, yet nevertheless, here we are. Could A Million Ways To Die In The West prevail against insurmountable odds, or would it drown in a sea of bodily waste jokes? Read on to find out (as if you don't already know the answer to that)...
Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer living in late 19th Century Arizona, a place where death is waiting around every corner at the hands of the eponymous ways. Following an act of cowardice, Albert's girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him and takes up with mustache shop proprietor Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), leaving Albert a mess. Even his friends, the pious shoemaker Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute fiancé Ruth (Sarah Silverman) are no help, so Albert decides to head further west to San Francisco. On what is to be his last night in town, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), a new woman in town whom he saves during a bar brawl.
Albert and Anna become fast friends, and Anna agrees to beard, I mean pretend to be Albert's new girlfriend, to make Louise jealous. After a confrontation at the fair, Albert challenges Foy to a duel one week from that day, and Anna agrees to help him learn how to shoot a gun in preparation of their duel. Little does Albert know that Anna's husband is Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the fastest gun in the west, and that he is headed to town to track down his wayward wife. 
A Million Ways To Die In The West suffers from a severe lack of identity. MacFarlane seems to want to make more than just another cheap comedy, so he makes a point of spreading the jokes out to make room for horse chases, sweeping montages, and the like. The problem is that he just can't help himself, and has to constantly insert lower than lowbrow humor into the proceedings whenever he seems to be getting bored. Therefore the movie suffers from not so much peaks and valleys as valleys and chasms. As a result, the film becomes a total waste of time, money, and effort. MacFarlane has always had issues balancing sharp satire with lowest common denominator jokes and randomly inserted incongruous pop culture references, and here he seems to be trying so desperately not to rip off Blazing Saddles that he legitimately doesn't know what else to do. 
The film also fails to live up to a title as seemingly open ended as A Million Ways To Die In The West, by presenting perhaps a dozen or so ways to die in the west, but I suppose A Smattering Of Ways To Die In The West just doesn't sound all that interesting. People have been writing the western's obituary for decades now, particularly since Clint Eastwood so elegantly brought it to a seeming close with Unforgiven, but it's a genre ripe for parody. It was ripe for parody in 1973 when Mel Brooks inelegantly spoofed just about everything about it, but it still seemed like there were a handful of satirical buttons to push, and honestly MacFarlane seemed an inspired choice to push them. It's just too bad he couldn't think of anything to do beyond the title and a few rants that lose their effectiveness thanks to the bluntly stupid way they're presented.
MacFarlane isn't an actor. As much as he wants to be one, he just isn't, and though his easy-going charm lends itself well to certain kinds of roles, incongruously placing that same personality in the old west isn't funny in and of itself. The film wouldn't have worked any better with someone else in the lead role, so it's hard to lay too much of the blame at the feet of his performance, but this film has his name all over it, including no fewer than four credits in the opening titles, so it's similarly impossible to absolve him. Theron and Neeson are both very good, but utterly wasted on terrible material, and the film gives Ribisi, Silverman, and Seyfried nothing to do. NPH comes the closest to absolving himself of a nothing role, but his late film hat-shitting antics tarnish any goodwill he managed to build up prior. 
The script for the film is atrocious, and where just about everything wrong with the film begins and ends. It's a completely tone deaf assortment of set pieces, none of which are funny enough to sustain a laugh that lasts longer than a split second. There are a couple of funny moments in the film, but the various trailers and commercials gave them all away, so if you're not even mildly amused by them, don't even bother checking out the film. Thankfully it looks nice, and cinematographer Michael Barrett does an admirable job of making the film look like a comedy, despite the disconcerting lack of comedy in the film. There are also at least five cameos, two of which are completely wordless throwaways, though one of the two that hasn't been spoiled is actually hysterically funny, but comes too late in the film to act as any sort of redemption. 
Is A Million Ways To Die In The West the worst movie of all time? No, not by a long shot. Is it the worst movie of the year? No, there's been far too much fierce competition for that title already. MacFarlane is a talented guy, but he needs to stop holding out hope that anyone will take him seriously as an actor or director. He's good at one thing, infusing often sharp social satire with random pop culture references that come fast and furious, and succeed roughly 25% of the time. The moment he steps away from that formula, he flops about like a literal fish out of water. He may be guilty of trying to cram in four jokes where just one will suffice, but he often finds a way to make at least one of them funny. This film is completely absent that formula, and while that may appease a small segment of the population crying out for him to do something different, it will do nothing to appease his fans or convert his detractors. As a result, this film is just a total mess, and there are roughly a million better ways to spend your time and money, give or take a couple hundred.
GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, June 1, 2014

It Was 47 Years Ago Today, Sgt. Pepper Taught The Band To Play

Sgt Pepper

**I acknowledge that this is primarily a movie blog, but I wrote this piece for, and I'm not thrilled with some of the changes the editor made, so here is my original, unaltered piece**

One of the most, if not the most, famous albums in history was released on this day in 1967: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For their eighth studio album, The Beatles had decided that they were going to stop touring and just focus on being studio musicians. It was a ballsy move at the time, considering that bands who didn't tour suffered a fate worse than death, but considering that The Beatles had become the standard bearers for the music industry as a whole, in retrospect it seems like a perfectly logical step for them.

The band had grown tired of touring, mainly because they could no longer enjoy doing so. Their concerts were attended by rabid fans who just screamed for the duration of their set, making it impossible for the band to hear themselves, let alone one another. None of this is to mention the furor that popped up around John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" comments which lit a firestorm around the band's tour to support their Revolver album.

However, anyone who was paying attention to the last track on Revolver, "Tomorrow Never Knows," could hear that the band was evolving into something more than just another pop band cranking out three-minute, radio ready tunes. This was complex music that could never work live in concert, and so the band retreated to their Abbey Road studio in November, 1966 to begin work on a concept album based around their respective childhoods.

Of the first three songs recorded for the Sgt. Pepper sessions, only one made it onto the album proper, "When I'm Sixty Four." The other two, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" would be released as a double A-side .45  the following February, and both would fail to reach the top of the charts, causing some in the press to begin writing The Beatles' obituary.

That same month, Paul would suggest doing a different kind of concept album, one in which they would take on a fictional persona of an Edwardian-era, big band-type military outfit with a suitably absurd name to accompany it. And thus was born Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band. Beginning with the eponymous tune and concluding with the epic "A Day in the Life," the album was a masterpiece, destined for endless deconstruction, criticism, and attempts to duplicate its sound and concept.

Though it's tough to call it their best album (Rubber Soul gets my vote), it was the beginning of a new era of music, informed by the psychedelia and inner-exploration one which the band was about to embark. As a nice, tidy dividing line between a band's old stuff and new stuff, it's second-to-none. And none of this is to even mention the equally talked about and dissected cover art, which featured everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Muhammed Ali. Conspiracy theorists combed through the images for clues on everything from the band's cover-up of Paul's death to their alleged burgeoning interest in Satanism.

Despite all that, it is a landmark album, and one worth revisiting today of all days. You can enjoy both the mono and stereo versions, and comb through that for subtle differences, most notably on "She's Leaving Home." The only thing I could find hidden within the album, is solid gold awesomeness.