Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day 310: Get On Up

"Oh hell no, I'm in a honky hoedown. We're gonna have to take this and flip it."
Doing a biopic on James Brown is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he was undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, influential musicians of the 20th century, therefore he undoubtedly deserves the big screen treatment. On the other hand, his life and career spanned so many different eras of music, and had so many watershed moments, that it almost seems folly to try and portray them in one film. Nevertheless, the intrepid souls behind the new film Get On Up soldiered on and decided that the rewards of the former outweighed the risks of the latter. Did their gamble pay off, or would this be another missed opportunity like so many other musician biopics before it? Read on to find out...
It is virtually impossible to sum up the plot of Get On Up, other than to say that it follows the life of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), but not in any true linear fashion. The film frantically jumps around in time, opening with Brown walking to the stage for a 1993 concert in Atlanta. In fact, echoes of the famous line from Walk Hard ring in your ears... "James Brown needs to think about his entire life before he plays." The first stop on the flashback express is to a 1988 stand-off involving Brown, a shotgun, and a mess of drugs. Then we're in 1964 and James and the Famous Flames have to yield the final spot on the famous T.A.M.I. Show to a band lighting up the charts called The Rolling Stones. Then it's off to 1968 when James and his band went to Vietnam to entertain the troops and almost got shot down in the process.
The film finally settles into a bit of a rhythm, flashing back to Brown's childhood in Georgia, living in the woods with a distant mother (Viola Davis) and an abusive father (Lennie James). When his mother abandons them, his father, unequipped to rear a child, brings James to live and work for Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) at a brothel where he's tasked with bringing in customers. Next thing you know, James is 17 and is being arrested for stealing a suit, landing him in prison. A concert in the prison by a gospel band fronted by Bobby Byrd (True Blood's Nelsan Ellis) finally sets James on the right path, and before long, he's off like a rocket to the top of the charts. 
Throughout the film, though with very little consistency, James breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the camera. It's a conceit that suits this sort of film well, as it did in June's Jersey Boys, but with no established pattern, it feels odd and off-putting whenever it pops up. The film also suffers from an intense lack of focus. It jumps in and out of time with no rhyme or reason, and glosses over so many issues, that it takes on a sheen of a freshly manicured hand. It's as if the writers (who also scripted this summer's brilliant Edge of Tomorrow) wanted to cover all of the major events in Brown's life, leaving next to no time to develop any of them fully. Issues are raised and resolved with no explanation, such as when the Famous Flames walk out when they discover they've been relegated to also ran status on their new 45, yet are inexplicably back at his side in the next scene. Anyone not intimately familiar with all of the ins and outs of Brown's career will be left to scratch their head over how quickly things come and go.
Any one of these instances, in the right director's hands, could have made for a great film in its own right. Take for example Brown's concert in Boston the night after Dr. King was assassinated. It was, perhaps, the biggest moment of his career, and here it's relegated to also-ran status, sharing as much screen time as a bizarre dance sequence featuring a token white couple, played by Allison Janney and Pat Healy, grooving to Brown's music. It's not unlike last year's Lee Daniels' The Butler in that regard. It tries so hard to cram everything in, and ultimately gives no weight to any of it because it's on to the next major event before the repercussions of the current one can play out. 
It's also interesting to note that the film features one of the most tone-deaf sequences in history, one which rivals The Butler's infamous disco suit scene. Brown, dressed as Santa Claus, hands money out to neighborhood children and catches a glimpse of a pervy neighbor staring at his wife DeeDee's (Jill Scott) cleavage. They go in the house and Brown wallops her (in the only on-screen scene of Brown's notorious spousal abuse), and then sulks in the Santa suit for a full minute afterward. Any sort of impact that was intended by the scene is instantly blunted by the comical juxtaposition of Brown as Jolly Old Saint Nick. 
It is no small miracle, then, that Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Brown is enough of a salve to cure almost all of the films multitudinous sins. Make no mistake, you're watching James Brown when you watch Boseman on screen. He so perfectly and eerily inhabits the role, it is an absolute marvel of mimicry that mercifully never overshadows his performance. This is a true powerhouse performance, and is worth the price of admission in and of itself. The rest of the cast is also very good, with the always reliable Davis and Spencer dishing out the goods yet again, and Ellis marvelously going toe-to-toe with Boseman throughout the entire film. 
It's a shame that these terrific performances are given in such a dull and lifeless film. Director Tate Taylor proves conclusively why The Help was nominated for Best Picture, yet failed to yield him a nomination for Best Director. His work behind the camera is pedestrian in all the worst ways, and veers into first year film student indulgent toward the end of the film. Had Spike Lee gotten to make his Brown biopic, and utilized Boseman and the rest of this cast, this film could have been a force to be reckoned with. In its current state, however, it just feels like a mediocre film festooned with a collection of very good scenes.
Get On Up does good by Brown. It's sanitized and palatable to a general audience, and hits every familiar beat a musical biopic should, it's just nowhere near as extraordinary as its subject, or its lead performance. Had the film focused its energy on an event or a handful of events, it might have been a truly great film. Instead it's just a schizophrenic film that has a handful of truly great moments scattered atop a pile of clichés. It's not bad, truly, it's not, but it could have and frankly should have been a whole lot better.
GO Rating: 3/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Day 309: Lucy

"To knowledge."
The advertising campaign for director Luc Besson's latest film, Lucy, focused on the film's perpetuation of the myth that humans use only 10% of their brains. This pseudoscience has been around for decades, and has been the subject of numerous other films, the most famous of which is the ridiculously dumb 2011 film Limitless. No doubt, this is a big selling point for the film to countless people who still believe that's true, but to anyone that actually utilizes more than 10% of their brain, the film seemed hopelessly stupid. Could it rise above such low expectations, or would it be another in a long line of terrible movies that seem to think that they're smarter than they actually are? Read on to find out...
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American living in Taipei and dating a flaky drug dealer (Pilou Asbæk). When he tricks Lucy into delivering a mysterious suitcase to a mysterious and high-powered criminal named Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), he ends up getting Lucy involved in a world she was not prepared for. Jang uses Lucy, and a number of other people, as drug mules to deliver an experimental new drug to the major cities of Europe by stashing inside their abdomens. When Lucy runs afoul of some toughs, one of whom kicks her repeatedly in the stomach, the pouch of drugs inside her breaks open and enters into her bloodstream, causing her to gain power over unused portions of her brain. 
At the same time, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is delivering a lecture on how humans only use 10% of their brains, and begins to hypothesize what the human brain would be capable of at various percentages of use. Lucy discovers his work and attempts to track him down to better help him understand what a human can actually do with increased brain capacity. She must also find the other drug mules and retrieve the additional supply of the drug inside them to help her continue expanding her mind, but she's in a race against time as Jang wants his drugs to be delivered safely to the dealers. 
The most surprising thing about Lucy is how it manages to let the audience know from literally minute one that it's going to revel in stupidity, but it's going to do so intentionally. I must admit that I was baffled by the first ten minutes or so, because it seemed as if it thought it was a deep and insightful look at nonsensical pseudoscience, when in actuality it was trying to signal to the audience that it was pure nonsense. I am not ashamed to to admit that I wasn't giving Luc Besson enough credit to create an actual fun, dumb movie, and I thought that he had deluded himself into thinking the 10% myth was actually true. The amount of absurd things that happen in this film show that he is intentionally messing with the audience and flipping the script on them. 
Lucy is a breath of fresh air in a summer filled with mindless action films that think they have something to say when in actuality they're even dumber than a rock. This film is gloriously stupid, and I mean that as high praise. The film belongs comfortably in the company of films like Crank and its sequel, and 2011's Drive Angry as a self aware dumb action movie. The key to the film's success is that it's actually a very smartly made film. It is well aware of how dumb it is, and it continues to push the boundaries of believability to see if you're willing to keep pace. I daresay that the very audience that will enjoy it the most is the audience most likely to avoid it for fear that it will take itself too seriously. In the wrong director's hands, the film could have been an unmitigated catastrophe, but Besson knows he's past the point of making high art (if he was ever at that point at any time in his career) and for once plays right into the audience's expectations rather than falling victim to them.
Scarlett Johansson is terrific in the film, nicely combining her ass-kicking prowess of her work for Marvel Studios with the stoic seriousness of her recent triumph in Under the Skin. She continues to surprise every time out of the gate lately, and she perfectly achieves what she sets out to do. Besson's shrewdest bit of casting, however, was having Morgan Freeman play the doctor who spouts off absurd talking points throughout the first half hour of the film. It lends the film the sort of faux-respectability it needs to perfectly subvert your expectations. Freeman's absolute dedication to the drivel he has to spout off makes the film that much better, and is a perfect example of how well Besson knew exactly what kind of film he was making. Min-sik Choi was also a welcome addition to the cast, and played his cartoonishly unstoppable villain with all the aplomb he's brought to his much more subdued work with Chan-wook Park. 
Besson is back in top form here as well, instantly erasing the terrible memories of last year's The Family. As a matter of fact, it only makes that film, and his work on it, look worse in retrospect because he could have been having a lot more fun with a premise that was equally absurd. Besson's never been the kind of director to dig below the surface in his films, and he seems gloriously aware of that with this film. The action set pieces are a wonder to behold, from a crack car chase through the streets of Paris to a hilariously awful use of a rocket launcher. He similarly manages to work wonders when he further subverts expectations by having Lucy use ridiculous mind powers to avoid a lengthy action sequence. It's a top notch piece of directing.
Make no mistake about it, Lucy is a stupid, stupid movie, but it's also insanely fun. It's remarkably well-paced, never lagging for a moment, and anytime it takes a diversion into explaining the the remarkable new abilities that Lucy will gain with increased brain capacity, it gets even dumber and more fun. It's the kind of film that feels like it was written by someone who audited a Philosophy 101 course and only attended class while high out of their minds. It's full of ideas and explanations that go nowhere and bait the audience into thinking that it's deep when actually it's dumb as a rock. Lucy is not a good movie, but it is fantastically fun.  
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 308: Boyhood

"I was never concerned about the state of your soul."
Writer/director Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused) set out to do something truly unique back in 2002. He set out to make a film about one boy's journey through his adolescence, but do it in real time. With a team of dedicated actors, Linklater shot the film Boyhood over a period of 39 days spread out over 12 years. Essentially, what Linklater was able to achieve was nothing short of a miracle, and this film, by all rights, shouldn't even exist. Yet it does, and it is every bit the miraculous piece of filmmaking Linklater likely set out to create. Boyhood is truly as close to perfection as a film can get, and will likely stand the test of time as one of the towering achievements of motion pictures. Read on to find out why...
Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is your typical six-year old boy. He's struggling at school in the way most six-year old boys struggle at school, he's got an older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) that's always giving him a hard time,  and he's got a mom (Patricia Arquette) who is adjusting to life as a single parent since his dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), ran off to Alaska to find himself. Faced with few options,  his mother decides to uproot the family and move to Houston to be closer to her mother. She begins taking classes at a community college, and before long falls for her professor Bill (Marco Perella), and joins her family with his.
Over the next 12 years, Mason faces adversity in the form of a seemingly never-ending string of new towns and new friends, as well as new step-fathers, all while just growing up and trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. With their dad finally back in the picture, albeit as a once in a while dad, Mason and Sam continue to grow and discover themselves, all while attempting to navigate the typical trials and tribulations of human life.
The most miraculous thing about Boyhood, beyond its mere existence, is how the film is simultaneously about nothing and everything. The film is heavy on incident, to be sure, but never at the expense of just letting a moment play out to its natural conclusion. At 166 minutes, it should be a labored, bloated behemoth, but it's the next evolution in the kinds of films Linklater has always made, commonly referred to as "hang-out movies." I don't mean this as an insult in any way, shape, or form, but Boyhood is the ultimate hang-out movie because you never tire of hanging out with these characters. Mason's story is my story, is your story, is everyone's story. Anyone who's ever been a child in America can relate to this film, and I imagine a number of universal truths will extend far beyond our country's borders.
The truly remarkable thing about Boyhood is that it's a never-ending string of scenes that you're bound to relate to. Linklater managed to cram a whole lot of living into this film, from baseball games to midnight book releases, from camping trips to boring church services with family, this film seems to cover every possible activity you can think of without ever feeling belabored or required to hit certain beats. The film felt to me like a much more accessible version of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in that it so perfectly captures the human experience without ever consciously trying to do so. A film filled with moments is much more likely to resonate than one filled with plot twists and turns and other busy frivolities. You'll walk away from this film ruminating on the things that hit the closest to home for you personally, and it will perfectly speak to everyone in different ways.
Arquette and Hawke are both actors I've never really been over the moon for, but they both do career best work here. Arquette fills her character with the right amount of empathy without ever pushing her too far into sainthood or victim mode. It's an incredibly nuanced performance, definitely the best she's done in a very long time. Hawke is similarly great, reveling in playing the fun, hip single dad that gets to show up and have fun with the kids, but always struggling to connect with them in any meaningful way. Hawke very obviously brings a lot of his own personal and emotional baggage with him to the screen, and it pays off beautifully. Lorelei Linklater is also terrific, effortlessly being your average American girl without ever consciously trying to act like one.
It's Coltrane who turns out to be the greatest discovery of all, however. Linklater never could have known when he cast him as a five-year old, what he would grow into, but the director's always had a knack for finding talented young people, and Coltrane is likely his greatest discovery. Coltrane has all that same effortlessness that Lorelei Linklater does, but he also manages, particularly in the second half, to carry the film so adeptly, it's as if he's doing what he was born to do. It's an incredible performance, the kind that can only come from the kind of process used here, and I actively look forward to whatever he does in the future.
As for Linklater, there's no doubt that this is his masterpiece. The only way to score big is to shoot big, and Linklater banked a lot of hopes on this film, and manages to cash them all in by the end. He's never been the flashiest director, and that serves him so well here because he doesn't seek to feed any messages to the audience. He'd much rather let moments happen and allow the audience to come to them. The sheer dedication to the film is what makes his achievement so incredible. That he was able to see even a year into the future, let alone twelve, shows that his vision extended far beyond what the average director would have undertaken. 
Perhaps the greatest thing about Boyhood is that none of the things that I've just spent the last few paragraphs praising is ever present in your mind while you're watching the film. The characters and their journey manage to absorb you so completely that it's not until after it's all over that you sit back and just marvel at how Linklater and his team were able to make it so seamless. Boyhood is nothing short of one of the finest American films of this decade, and will easily stand the test of time and work its way onto best of lists that critics will write a hundred years from now. This is what great filmmaking is all about, and the thing that sets this film apart from all the other "great" films of American cinema is how slowly and stealthily it sneaks up on you. Much like life, it's over before you feel it's even begun. 
GO Rating: 5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Day 307: The Purge: Anarchy

"Big Daddy, we have two for your personal purge, we're bringing 'em down now."
Last year's surprise hit The Purge was the latest in a long line of thrillers with a great premise and boneheaded execution. The fact that the film's opening weekend total equaled roughly one-half of its total domestic gross was but one indicator that people were intrigued by the concept but turned off by the execution. One of the biggest complaints was how narrow the focus of the film ended up being. For a world where all crime is legal one night a year, why hole up in the suburbs with a rich family who has their home invaded by madmen? 
The inevitable sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, clearly set out to solve that one specific problem by opening up the world and showing how chaotic things would be on this night in an urban landscape. So could this film beat the odds and end up being a better execution of a decent premise, or would it once more drop the ball, failing to live up to its potential? Read on to find out...
On a March night in 2033, the annual United States "Purge" is about to commence. For 12 hours a year, all crime is legal, and though they make it a point to say "all crime, including murder," murder's still the only crime anyone's interested in committing. A single mother named Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is leaving her job as a waitress to go home to her teenage daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), who is wrapped up in watching online videos calling for people to rise up against the "New Founding Fathers" that started The Purge, as they see it as a means of getting rid of the poor and working classes. In another part of the city, a man known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo) is arming himself to go out and purge one specific person. In still another part of the city, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to Shane's sister's house to wait out the night when their car breaks down (for reasons that are explained, but are no less stupid than if the car had just miraculously broken down) stranding them in the middle of the city just as The Purge commences.
A bunch of thugs break into Eva's house, abducting Eva and Cali and bringing them downstairs to a tractor trailer. The Sergeant sees this happening from his car and though he tries to convince himself to drive off, he gets out of his car and kills the men trying to abduct the women. Seeing that they have no way of defending themselves, he offers for them to come with him, and when they return to the car, they find that Shane and Liz have snuck into his car to hide. After another series of events, the Sergeant's car breaks down, leaving the five stranded on the streets, with the Sergeant about to abandon them to go carry out his mission for the evening. When Eva desperately offers him another car if he stays with them, he takes her offer and they must travel to get the new car.
I would love to tell you that the movie's almost over at this point, but that's only the first act and the very beginning of the second act. Not only is the film 103 of the most bloated minutes I've spent in a movie theater this summer, it's also 103 of the dumbest. This franchise sucks. There's simply no other way to put it. Closing the world up and focusing on one family didn't work. Opening the world up to focus on a bunch of people similarly didn't work. I'm sorry James DeMonaco, there's no way for you to make this premise work. Sometimes a writer has to just say to themselves, "The Twilight Zone is no longer on the air, and my idea sucks if it goes on for more than thirty minutes, so I'll just have to take satisfaction in knowing that I had a great idea that just doesn't work under present circumstances."
Even the anti-Libertarian, left wing zealotry of the first film is amped up here. I had hoped this would be a more frantic film that didn't stop to deal with the implications of the 1% gone wild and the notion of letting someone live because they may just save your life at the end of the film, but DeMonaco was very concerned with shoehorning backstory and history on The Purge into the narrative. There's never a moment when any of this feels organic. At least the exposition delivery system in the first film was mostly done by television and radio reports, so it felt a bit more natural. Here it feels like the flow of the narrative has to grind to a halt any time someone wants to moralize for a minute or ten.
There's more action and more murder and more flames and all of the things that are perfect distractions for the fact that there's simply no story here. There are story lines and story elements, but no story. Survive. That's it. That's the only story. Watch how this group of people attempts to survive. It's insulting to an audience to attempt to make a film that has no story, and hope that all the little Twitter-ready quips you want to throw in about inequality will be enough justification for your movie's existence. It's not enough to have talking points if there's no narrative to weave them in to, and that's indicative of what's really wrong with this film. 
The performances are fine. The actors do what's expected of them which is run, whisper yell, and shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot, but there's no real "acting" happening here. There's also really no one in this movie. I know that the streets would not be overflowing with people on a night like this, but it sort of deflates your argument that the poor have nowhere to go where they can be safe, if every god damned street your movie takes place on never has more than three or four people on it (not counting our band of five "heroes"). I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the absolutely laughable cameo from a character from the first film. That absurd attempt to tie the two films together by more than just The Purge is also emblematic of the filmmakers' contempt for their audience.
There are really no circumstances under which I could recommend The Purge: Anarchy. It's a dumb movie made by and for dumb people. Any one of the films Roger Corman produced between 1969 and 1979 has just as much mindless violence, it's just that when his films took time out to moralize, it was satirical in nature. This film thinks it has something to say, and that's why it's so nonsensical. If there's going to be another one of these (and let's face it, there is), maybe don't set it all on one night. Maybe show how a group of sleazy businessmen have to plan the entire year to pull of a crime that they have 12 hours to get right so they don't go to jail. Something, ANYTHING, other than more non-stop, mindless violence would be better. I'd settle for ninety minutes of rich people sitting in their homes, safe from any danger at this point. At least it wouldn't be an insult to the audience's intelligence. 
GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Day 306: Life Itself

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel
"For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."
It wasn't an entirely unexpected thing when film critic Roger Ebert passed away in April, 2013. He was very transparent about his battle with cancer from the time he first announced he was diagnosed with the disease in 2005. It was part and parcel with who Ebert was as a writer and a person that he would open himself up to people the same way he had in his movie reviews, books, and various other writings. Always willing to share personal insight, without ever allowing it to overwhelm his opinion on a film, was one of the things that made Ebert the foremost film critic of the modern age. Life Itself is a documentary based on his 2011 memoir of the same name, made by Steve James, a Chicago documentarian whose film Hoop Dreams had Ebert as perhaps its most vocal supporter.
Life Itself was begun five months prior to Ebert's death, and spends a good portion of the film in Ebert's hospital room where he was confined after a leg fracture. Sparing none of the gruesome details of what life was like for him in his final weeks, the film spends most of its time in the past, recounting Ebert's history as the editor of The Daily Illini, the newspaper of the University of Illinois where he attended, despite dreams and talent worthy of Harvard. Ebert is remembered by his friends and colleagues as a ruthless pragmatist who also possessed an incredible talent paired with an equally large ego. Five months after landing a part-time job at The Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert is given the job of film critic, a bit of a joke position at the paper, but one which Ebert immediately elevates to an art form, thanks in no small part to his 1970 Pulitzer Prize.
Ebert struggles with alcoholism, as well as his ever-inflating ego, before being paired with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel of the infinitely more prestigious Chicago Tribune for a movie review program on public television in 1975. The two men were combative, antagonistic, and ultimately incredibly respectful of one another. Once Ebert finally kicked his alcohol addiction, he met Chaz, the woman who would come to be his wife and remained by his side for the last twenty years of his life. Ebert began to mellow, but never lost his ferocious and fiery attitude, becoming a champion of the underdog and becoming lionized by not just the critical community, but  by filmmakers who craved his acceptance of their product.
While it may seem on the surface like a film with very narrow appeal, Life Itself is a story that anyone can relate to, no matter their connection to Ebert or even film in a broader sense. Film was the conduit for Ebert's enjoyment of life, but never took him so far away from all that life had to offer that he couldn't relate to virtually anyone. The film also may sound like a reverential, glorified puff piece made by a man who owes everything to this critic, but it does not shy away from the seamier elements of Ebert's life, whether it be his alcoholism, his ego, his womanizing, or his desire to be close personal friends with people in Hollywood. If anything, it paints him as a real human being to show the less desirable aspects of his life, and as James and Chaz admit, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
That the film is a tale spun by such an incredible raconteur as Ebert, and realized by a master documentarian like James makes it one of the absolute best films of this or any year. Ebert's life has the makings of a classic redemption story, surrounded by a rivalrous friendship and an amazingly tender love story. As the egotism of his youth and early middle age gave way to the much more humble man he became in his later years, the true impact of Ebert on film as a whole becomes evident. His thumb and the direction in which he pointed it came to be a major selling point for studios and filmmakers, and in a classic superhero arc, Ebert learns that with great power came great responsibility. As he becomes a champion of the next generation of critics, and begins to embrace the 21st century model of blogging and social media, the full weight of his loss becomes noticeably immense.
The film really hinges on the two most important relationships of his life, one with Siskel and the other with Chaz. The constant tête-à-tête with Siskel as they try to not merely convey their opinion of a given film, but also convince the one is right and the other is wrong, provides the film with much of its humor and some of its heart. His relationship with Chaz tips the scales the other way, giving it most of its heart and even some of its humor. When Chaz reveals, for the first time in this documentary, that she met Roger at an AA meeting, we begin to get a picture of two damaged souls that found the perfect salve in one another. The scenes with Chaz reflecting on Roger's final days are among the most crushing and devastating in the film, and are likely to pierce the heart of even the most hardened and cynical in the audience.
The film also doesn't shy away from the brutal medical procedures he must undergo, giving an unsparing look at the end of his life, driven in part by the fact that Siskel kept his illness a secret from everyone, including Ebert, until the very end of his life. That the film also lined up participants as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Ramin Bahrani is also a testament to how much Ebert meant to people in the industry. The film is very inside baseball so to speak in regards to its filmic content, but it's also incredibly accessible to those who perhaps don't make their living in the same industry. It's a perfectly balanced film that reflects all of the virtues which Ebert himself would champion, and which are perfectly summed up in his quote from the beginning of my review.
Life Itself is, quite simply, one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. All of us can only hope to come to the same realizations later in our lives that Ebert came to, and that is why it's a film that will appeal to everyone. Ebert's greatest gift to the world at large was his ability to show us that we're all artists at heart, no matter our medium, and that we can love our work as much as we love our lives. The film perfectly encapsulates what a great film should be, and it beats with the heart of a man who loved film above all else except, perhaps, life itself.
The film is available On Demand, via iTunes, Amazon, and most other streaming services, and is also playing in limited release in theaters across the country.
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, July 4, 2014

Day 305: Tammy

"Muscle shirts are for muscles."
Melissa McCarthy is undeniably one of the most talented comedic actresses of her generation. Unfortunately, she is continually saddled with roles that are basically carbon copies of one another, always playing a loud and obnoxious woman whose hardened exterior masks a sensitive soul, and who also puts off a vaguely homosexual vibe that's countered by ferocious acts of heterosexuality. With her newest film Tammy, McCarthy steps, for the first time, into the role of co-writer, producer, and star, giving off a faint hope that she may be attempting something different for once. Does the film succeed, or is it just more of the same? Read on to find out...
We meet our main character Tammy (McCarthy) as she crashes her already damaged car into a deer. She then drives her busted self in her busted car to work at a fast food restaurant where she is promptly fired for being late again, and when she returns home, she discovers that her husband (Nat Faxon) has been having an affair with their neighbor (Toni Collette). Desperate to get out of her small midwestern town and start over, she goes to visit her mother (Allison Janney) and asks to borrow her car. When her mother refuses, she asks her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), who has already heard Tammy's story and has packed her bags, and tells Tammy that she has $6000 in cash and is coming with her.
And so the two set off in search of adventure, but after the first night of drunken revelry, Tammy wants to go back home, and Pearl accuses her of being a quitter. Tammy insists that she is not a quitter, and the two set off in search of Niagra Falls, a place Pearl has always wanted to visit. A quick detour in Louisville turns into a longer stay than they anticipated when Pearl makes the acquaintance of Earl (Gary Cole), a local farmer with whom she gets frisky. Tammy and Earl's son Bobby (Mark Duplass) attempt to bond, though Tammy is simultaneously assertive and cautious since she is still technically married. A run-in with the law soon sidelines their trip, threatening to undo it altogether.
Tammy is an incredibly unusual film. It just sort of meanders from set piece to set piece with no real force moving it forward, which works both to its benefit and its detriment. Its beneficial in as much as it is a character piece, choosing to spend more time in conversation and situational humor, and very little time on incident and plot points. In fact, I couldn't really tell you what the plot of the movie is, as it changes so often it's hard to keep track. It starts off as a road movie, then it turns into a heist movie, a reunion movie, a romantic movie, and a life lesson movie. None of this is to say that a film can't cross into a number of genres during the course of its running time, but it really felt more like a season's worth of television episodes condensed into a ninety minute film.
Thankfully it works more often than it doesn't, and is a pleasant enough movie to watch, if for no other reason than it takes McCarthy just far enough away from the kinds of roles she normally plays to be considered different. It's a baby step in a new direction, but it's nice to see her doing something that doesn't follow the exact same trajectory that most of her characters have followed. She is incredibly good at playing those characters and imbuing them with enough pathos to make them endearing, but this film attempts to posit her as a romantic lead, at least for a portion of the film, and the only disappointment is that they didn't just go for it completely. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the advertising campaign for this film, which is total garbage. Centering all of the advertising around her robbery of a fast food joint, which occurs right around the halfway point of the film, makes it seem as if its going to be exactly like the rest of her filmography, and is a total bait and switch. Anyone showing up to see that scene for ninety minutes will be sorely disappointed.
If I haven't come right out and said it by this point, I will go ahead and say that McCarthy is terrific in the film, showing that she's at home in a role that's adjacent to what she normally does. Now someone needs to give her a part that's further away from this so we can really watch her shine. Sarandon is terrific as well, having a blast playing a woman who knows that the end of her life is near, and is ready to chuck caution out of the window and live it up. If anything it made me sad that she doesn't get offered more roles that tap into her versatility. The rest of the supporting cast is aces as well, which is to be expected from comedic powerhouses like Cole, Janney, and Kathy Bates, who shows up to do her Kathy Bates thing late in the second act, and succeeds wildly.
McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone co-wrote the screenplay, with Falcone making his directorial debut on the film, and he does a serviceable job behind the camera. The one thing that really stands out about his direction is the flattering way in which he shoots his wife. The lighting and angles he use really allow her to shine, despite the tragic wig and costume choices made for the character. He proves to be as adept as Paul Feig (BridesmaidsThe Heat) at directing female-centric comedy and will hopefully continue to grow the way Feig has with subsequent projects.
Tammy is an unremarkable movie plot, character, and joke-wise, but for a film that is 90% centered around women, it's as good as one can hope for. There's nothing earth shattering happening on the surface, but the fact that it is the first film in a number of months to portray women as complex beings rather than shrill stereotypes (cough, The Other Woman, cough) makes it stand out. It's certainly not all that it could have been, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not a failure, and it's taking McCarthy to places she needs to continue to explore lest she be accused of doing the same thing in every film. It's a baby step in the right direction, but I'll take a any step over feet shuffling any day of the week.
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]