Sunday, October 26, 2014

Day 323: St. Vincent

"I'm Catholic, which is the best of all the religions."
A funny thing happened on the way to respectability for Bill Murray. Though always recognized as the comedic genius he was, his early attempts to be taken seriously in films like Razor's Edge fell curiously flat. Once he teamed up with Wes Anderson for Rushmore, however, Murray finally began to get roles that deftly balanced his humor with his even more tremendous gift for pathos. As we entered the new millennium, Murray's Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation marked a major step forward for him, giving him entrée into the world of seriously gifted actors. Then the trouble began. It started to seem like he just really wanted an Oscar, and began taking roles that were tailor made for him, which is a blessing and a curse for an actor. It's a blessing in that the material was more suited to his unique abilities, but a curse in that he just generally seemed to be playing the same guy in every movie. 
As we come to this point in 2014, he's already appeared in one maudlin, overwrought ensemble piece (The Monuments Men) after another (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and his latest film, St. Vincent, is sadly more of the same. In many ways, it's actually worse than those two movies, neither of which were anything to write home about in the first place. Murray's right in his zone, playing a cantankerous misanthrope on the verge of his golden years, but the material he's given to work with never rises above patented mediocrity. There's nary a beat, joke, set piece, or plot device in this film that hasn't been done better elsewhere. In fact, the film shares a ton of DNA with the infinitely better Bad Santa, a role that Murray famously turned down, leaving one to wonder if Murray just really wanted his chance at that role. 
I can't honestly think of any other reason he, or any of the other terrific comedic talent in this film, would appear in such calculating, formulaic nonsense as this. The film's extended opening sequence gives us far more information about the irascible title character than we need to understand who he is. The film's brilliant opening, where Murray's Vincent tells an off-color joke in a bar, would have been plenty enough evidence to fill in the blanks on this grouch, but as the opening titles roll, we're treated to an orgy of evidence that he's just not that nice of a guy.
The plot kicks into high gear when newly divorced single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door to Vincent with her ten-year old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). In only his second scene, Oliver is reading Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree with his mom, which they follow with a discussion on nature versus nurture. The precociousness is cranked up to the max immediately with this character, and though Lieberher is a talented young actor, his character is a gross stereotype that's just as offensive in this day and age as the--to borrow a phrase from Nathan Rabin--manic pixie dream girl. Hollywood, I don't need another wise beyond his years grade schooler who suffers torment at the hands of even more stereotypical bullies. I've seen that movie a hundred times or more, try on a new trope for size. 
Nevertheless, Oliver's new classmates are less than sympathetic to a sensitive young soul and steal his keys and wallet on his first day, leaving him to ask Vincent to use his phone to call his mother. Since Vincent is hard up for cash, and Maggie is in desperate need of a babysitter, the stage is now set for an unlikely mentor/mentee relationship in which the two will use the qualities the other lacks to bolster one another's confidence and life. Vincent teaches Oliver to stick up for himself, and Oliver proves an ace at picking winning horses at the racetrack, and so they bond to the dulcet tones of Jeff Tweedy in a montage you've already seen, quite literally, a dozen times before. 
The film wouldn't feel so offensive were it able to provide the audience with something, anything, they haven't already seen before. Vincent's insurmountable debt to a "don't make him have to get rough" bookie (Terrence Howard), coupled with his expensive dalliances with a pregnant stripper with a heart of gold (Naomi Watts), as well as the ever increasing bills he's behind on to keep a loved one in an assisted living facility, put him at such a disadvantage as a character that the film only bothers to wrap up one of those plot threads. Cast all of that aside for a moment and take a look at the subplot in which Oliver's kindly teacher (Chris O'Dowd) gives his class an assignment to find a person in their lives who embodies the qualities of a saint, and you're starting to get a sense of just how conventional this film truly is.
You're likely beginning to wonder if there's anything at all that's good about the film. Murray is always a joy to watch, particularly when let loose in a film, but this stock character does him no favors. It was nice to see Melissa McCarthy play a normal person that didn't have to suffer through an endless series of "fatty make a funny" jokes. Watts and O'Dowd also bring plenty of life to their roles, and Lieberher is better than the average child actor. Beyond that, I can't really think of any reason to recommend the film. 
In his first time out of the gate as a feature writer and director, Theodore Melfi proves that he brings nothing new to conventions that are as old as film itself. I referenced Bad Santa earlier, but you could go all the way back to Chaplin's The Kid to see this exact same story told more simply and with less rote dialogue. Audiences deserve better, and I can only hope that they see through this manipulative and seriously unfunny film.  
GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day 322: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

"You've always confused love with admiration."
Art is subjective, and nothing brings that concept into sharper focus than the act of critiquing art. Critics must walk a tightrope between understanding the artists' intent and then judging them on how well they conveyed that intent. It's especially disheartening to see a film in which a major subplot involves a heartless critic having a showdown with an artist, yet right about two-thirds of the way through Birdman, that is exactly what happens. I'm frankly a little sick and tired of hearing the argument that critics bring nothing to the table when it comes to art, and simply make up their mind about something before they even lay eyes on it. It's the kind of argument one would expect to crop up in an M. Night Shyamalan film, which incidentally is precisely what happened in Lady in the Water, but for a film like Birdman, which passes itself off as high art, it feels grossly out of place.
Birdman is so consumed by its own meta-ness, it's own never-ending argument about what makes great art, and what an artist must sacrifice in the name of creating that art, that it ends up not really being about much of anything. In the first bit of knowing business surrounding the entire project, the film casts Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an actor best associated with a superhero character he played three decades ago. Thomson is in the midst of mounting an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway, but prior to the first preview, the show is in major trouble. 
It seems as though everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and to top it off, Thomson is haunted by an inner voice belonging to his superhero alter ego who constantly tells him that he's doomed to fail with this endeavor. In and of itself this is an intriguing idea to hang an entire film on, but the film's director Alejandro González Iñárritu has never been one for subtlety and he's got something to say, dammit! The film deftly balances a number of characters that are involved both in the play and in Thomson's life. There's Lesley (Naomi Watts), the self-doubting actress on the verge of a breakdown just as she's about to achieve her lifelong dream of performing on Broadway. There's Lesley's boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a highly respected but egomaniacal actor called in to replace another actor who was injured by a falling light during a rehearsal.
Every great character needs a love interest, so we're given a naive young starlet (Andrea Riseborough) who is carrying on an affair with Riggan, and may or may not be pregnant with his child. Riggan's estranged daughter (Emma Stone) is also in the mix, thanks to a job as his personal assistant which only further drives a wedge between her and the man she felt did a terrible job raising her. How about an overworked and overstressed producer (Zach Galifianakis), who is trying to keep his star happy while ensuring that the show actually gets up on its feet in front of a paying audience? Or maybe an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) still enamored with him despite his countless flaws? It all sounds like a mess of characters constantly coming in and out of the film and muddying up the narrative, but that's actually the thing that the film does best, balancing these various characters and their neuroses. 
Where the film falters is in its "look at me!" bravado that finds the entire film constructed to seem as if it is one long, unbroken shot. The characters become tools to literally move the story from one scene to the next, and some of these characters--mostly the women--end up being given short shrift. It's a marvel that Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki (Gravity) manage to make it as seamless as it actually is, but once you realize that it's a gimmick and not a necessity to the story, the shine completely comes off. Despite the best efforts of this technique and a bombastic, overwhelming, non-stop percussion score by first time composer Antonio Sanchez, the film just has no drive to it. There's no engine in this film, and that's the real problem at play here.
My biggest gripe with the film, however, is its insistence on making straw men out of the media and critics in general. A scene near the beginning of the film finds Riggan hosting an impromptu press junket where the topics range from his decision not to make Birdman 4, to his rumored use of baby pig semen to keep his youthful appearance, to a completely disposable argument about French philosopher Roland Barthes. It's a nightmare collision of ideas meant to convey the vapidness of the modern media, yet it goes to such great lengths to convey this point that it's almost wholly meaningless in the end. 
The film's fatal flaw occurs, as I mentioned earlier, about two-thirds of the way through the film when Riggan and an icy theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) have a showdown in a bar. The critic attacks Riggan for being nothing more than a movie star who thinks he can act, and informs him that she intends to pan his show before she's even seen it. This leads to a very violent argument about criticism, and how critics risk nothing while artists bare their souls and lay their reputations on the line in the name of what they do. Cast aside the fact that Ratatouille did this entire argument much better, and in an infinitely simpler way, and look to Iñárritu's past to see that this screed has been a long time coming.
As he has morphed from the wunderkind director of Amores Perros into a much-maligned one trick pony, he's allowed bitterness to get the better of him. He's got something to say about art, and he's going to force everyone to listen while casting a critic as the villain in the argument. It's cheap and ridiculous, and lessens the impact of his message. If you're truly wanting to silence film critics, create a piece of art worthy of praising rather than bombarding them with shame over having an informed opinion that they can elucidate using concrete examples of where you failed to make your point. Stop telling me about great art and show me some already. It's getting late in the film to be making platitudes. 
Having said that, Ińàrritu's greatest asset is his cast. Keaton truly lives out the message he's forced to deliver in that hamfisted monologue, and taps into his well of resources to give an incredibly well-rounded performance. Keaton is always at his best when playing a caged tiger of a man, just waiting for his chance to break free and tear into the scenery, and he gets the chance to play both of those things here. Watts, Ryan, Riseborough, Galifianakis, and especially Stone all get their moments to shine as well, and all of them deliver very good performances.
It's Edward Norton that stealthily and handily walks away with the entire film, however. Playing an even more thinly veiled version of his real-life persona, Norton has one of the toughest jobs of any actor. He has to play an actor with an immense ego, but even more than that, the talent to back that ego up. He's confrontational, he rubs people the wrong way, and he just generally doesn't care what anyone thinks of him--and I'm not talking about Edward Norton here, I'm talking about his character. He knows this character so well, and plays him so adeptly that it's hard to think that he too isn't tapping into some stuff that hits entirely too close to home. 
Much like its main character, Birdman suffers from too much of an identity crisis to be considered a great film. It wants so desperately to be loved because it's spilling its blood for you and offering up great personal sacrifices in the name of art. However, much like Riggan's ex-wife tells him, it confuses love with admiration. It isn't enough for you to admire Birdman, you have to love it, otherwise it was all in vain. Art in any form is not an all or nothing endeavor, and it's sad to see a film that has moments of sheer and utter brilliance collapse under its own weight. I would have admired it a whole lot more were it not trying so hard to make me love it. 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Day 321: Whiplash

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'"
The key to success for any "Man vs." film is a good antagonist. A good antagonist can cure a multitude of sins, and at their best, can even make an unworthy protagonist worth rooting for simply by virtue of how bad their antagonist truly is. There are a number of factors that determine whether or not an antagonist is successful, but only one is crucial to their success. You have to believe that they truly think they're doing the right thing. There has to be a moment, or series of moments, in which you think to yourself, "I can see their point." You don't have to agree with them or endorse their evilness, but you have to understand that they feel in their heart of hearts that they're doing the right thing. 
There's a moment fairly late in the terrific new film Whiplash where J.K. Simmons, who plays a ruthless instructor at a prestigious music conservatory, lays out his philosophy of teaching in no uncertain terms. His reasoning is sound, his logic is flawless, and the angry young artist that still lies dormant somewhere in the back of my subconscious thought, "he's exactly right." You would be hard pressed to find a better antagonist in cinema this year than Terence Fletcher, and as played by Simmons, he is one of the most incredibly three-dimensional antagonists of the new millennium. 
Loosely based on writer/director Damien Chazell's experience in high school band, Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. The film opens on him practicing drums in the music room late at night when Fletcher walks in to observe him. Carrying himself with the ramrod discipline of a military drill sergeant, Fletcher's mere presence is enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the students with whom he works, let alone a first year student like Andrew who views him more as legend than man.
Everywhere Andrew turns for the next few days, Fletcher seems to be there, watching, observing, haunting him. If the film achieves any immediate success, it's in establishing Fletcher's presence as a thing to both fear and desire. Andrew is in possession of some skill, but is clearly not yet ready for the big time. Nevertheless, Fletcher plucks him from his first year jazz ensemble to join his own Studio Ensemble, built by Fletcher from the ground up. A place where only the best of the best can thrive. Thus the stage is set for an epic showdown of Andrew's youthful arrogance and Fletcher's hair-trigger temper, and with both men possessing personalities that resemble powder kegs more than human beings, the real fun is in waiting for the fireworks to begin. 
If Whiplash suffers from anything at all, it's far too many visual indulgences by a first time director eager to show off his skills behind the camera. Early in the film, Andrew goes to the movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and we get rapid fire close-up shots of popcorn being shoveled into a tub, candy being placed on the counter, and a lid being slapped on a drink in a sequence that wouldn't seem out of place in Requiem for a Dream. It's an unnecessary flourish designed more to scream "look at what I can do" rather than further the story. The story is being furthered by the girl behind the concession counter, played by Melissa Benoist, as she silently flits with Andrew, foreshadowing a relationship to come, but the director doesn't seem to notice because he's too busy showing off. It's a minor complaint, but it tends to pop up more often than is really needed, particularly during the montage sequences of Andrew practicing until his hands bleed.
Teller proves that he is a capable actor, but he was gifted with a gem of a role. The bigger issue for Teller as an actor is that he is upstaged, in nearly every moment of the film, by Simmons. Even when Simmons is not on screen, which is easily half of the film, his presence looms so large in the wings as to devour the film whole. This is a towering performance by an actor normally known for his gregarious father figures, yet who never lets you forget he once shined as a white supremacist on HBO's Oz. It's the role of his career, and he doesn't miss a beat. He is simultaneously disciplined and unhinged, a lethal combination that is only amplified by his major shifts between one extreme and the other. 
It's almost a shame to call him a "supporting actor" in this film, a phrase you will hear uttered often in the same breath as his performance along with the word "best," simply because the film seems to be supporting him rather than the other way around. He casts a long shadow, and one which never seems to fade, even after you've left the theater. The mere fact that I cannot seem to stop talking about his performance in this film is indication enough in my mind that he steals not just the film, but the very concept of what it means to be a great antagonist.
The film features some amazing music, music which forms the beating heart of this film, performed by musicians working at the top of their craft, but even that major element of the film seems to be in service of Simmons monumental performance. For a film with so many specters looming large over it, from the frequently cited Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich to the legendary halls of New York music like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall which also make their way into many conversations, it still manages to be a one-man show. In fact, despite some great moments like a heavy handed dinner scene where Andrew is forced to contend with his jock cousins, Teller is not unlike Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. He gives a performance that would be lauded as fantastic were he not appearing alongside someone giving one of the best performances of all time. 
Whiplash is essential viewing for artists and musicians, who will cringe in sympathy with characters being pushed, both from without and within, by a drive to be the best at what they do. More than that, however, it is the chance to spend a little over 100 minutes in the company of some of the greatest music ever written being fawned over and having literal blood spilt in its name. And more than anything else, it's the chance to see one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances by J.K. Simmons. There are few greater joys for cinephiles than to see a journeyman character actor lift a film up and place it on his or her back. Whiplash gives you the chance to see that in action, and I cannot recommend any higher that you grasp that opportunity. 
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Day 320: The Book of Life

"They crushed our dreams... hilarious!"
Though the new animated film The Book of Life bears the name of co-writer and director Jorge R. Gutierrez, one glance at the design of the film, as well as the mischievous streak running through it, and it's unmistakably a product of its producer, Guillermo del Toro. The second film from animation house Reel FX is a substantial step-up in quality from last year's Free Birds, and is one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made. Though it suffers from a number of issues, the things it gets right are nailed so expertly that it's easy to forgive the missteps. 
Creating a mythology within the span of a single film is always difficult, so the filmmakers opted for a framing device that involves a group of rowdy school children visiting a museum, and getting a lesson in the Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead from an eager tour guide (Christina Applegate). The tour guide tells the children the tale of three children who grew up together, and a wager between La Muerta (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), two rulers of the underworld, that would shape the trio's destinies. As children and again as adults, sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna) and macho Joaquin (Channing Tatum) fight for the affections of Maria (Zoë Saldana). The wager involves who will win her hand in marriage, and Xibalba tips the scales in his favor by gifting Joaquin with a special medal that will make him invincible. 
Manolo's destiny is to be a bullfighter, and while he is skilled, his reluctance to kill the bulls coupled with his passion for music make him a poor champion of the town. Joaquin on the other hand, is now a decorated soldier, whom the town relies on to beat back the advances of a wicked bandit named Chakal (Dan Navarro). Maria is torn between the two men, but devoted to her town, and reluctantly accepts Joaquin's proposal in a bid to save the town. Manolo doesn't fare as well, ending up on the losing end of a snake bite, and soon finds himself in the Land of the Remembered, once ruled by La Muerte, but now lorded over by Xibalba as a result of their wager. Manolo must now face his greatest fear to return to the land of the living and win back Maria's hand to set things right. 
While the story is a fairly paint-by-numbers tale of staying true to yourself and persevering in the face of great odds, the flavor of Mexican history and folklore woven throughout make it truly stand out from the crowd. Small one-liners like "Why are Mexicans obsessed with death," perfectly illustrate that not all children's fables have to be sanitized and glossed over for children to enjoy them, making it a more well-rounded affair than one might suspect. In fact, the film shares a ton of DNA with Dreamworks' first Shrek film, from its fractured fairy tale sensibilities to its unusual choices in music used in the film. The film features such a wide array of pop tunes, it will make your head spin. Any film with a soundtrack diverse enough to include Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Biz Markie, Rod Stewart, Elvis, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes has to be admired. 
Where The Book of Life truly shines, however, is in the animation. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen. The animation is mind-blowing, and the use of 3D is among the best I've seen in a film. Everything from the dusty, small-town land of the living to the DayGlo Land of the Remembered and the barren and bleak Land of the Forgotten is impeccably rendered, and gives the film a look and feel unlike anything else you've ever seen. The film falls back too easily and too readily on cheap pop culture references, odd stunt casting, and anachronistic humor, giving one the sneaking suspicion that there was either too much meddling from the studio or too little faith in the audience by the filmmakers, but those quibbles melt away as you begin to lose yourself in the whole experience. 
As mentioned above, the stunt casting is a bit distracting at times, particularly in two major roles. As Joaquin, Channing Tatum pulls off the equal parts macho and boneheaded tendencies of the character, but his voice is inescapably white bread. For a film full of wonderfully talented Latino voices, his almost becomes grating at times. It's better than him attempting an accent like he so memorably failed to do in the cold open of 22 Jump Street, but I can't help but wonder if there wasn't a more qualified voice actor of color out there somewhere. Ice Cube also stands out as an oddity, playing a character called The Candlemaker, who oversees all the activities in all the various worlds of the film, and doesn't come close to modulating his voice to appropriate any level of authority. He turns the character into a joke-spouting clown rather than a benevolent overlord, which is a tad troubling. 
These are minor issues, however, when one considers all the great voice talent found throughout the rest of the film. Luna, Saldana, Perlman, Trejo, Navarro, and pretty much everyone else nail their characters with such aplomb, it makes the film just that much better as a result. Kudos must also be given to Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla for his rousing score that combines the best of authentic Mexican music with the classic heroic score one would expect to find in a fairy tale for families. 
The Book of Life is a somewhat uneven film that manages to overcome its faults and deliver a wholly enjoyable film for all ages. Some one hundred-plus years into filmmaking, and more than ten times that length into storytelling in general, it's nigh impossible to make a story so often told seem fresh, innovative, and new. The Book of Life does just that and more, giving it the comfortable feel of the familiar, mixed with just enough originality to seem radically contemporary. This is a film that will appeal to just about everyone that loves a good story told in a different way, and if you're not craving that by this point in the year, there's probably just no pleasing you.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Curious Case of Blockbuster Fatigue

X-Men: Days of Future Past was released on blu-ray this past Tuesday and in the 72 hours that it's been available for me to purchase, I have held it in my hands twice and thought about purchasing it several more times than that. But there's this nagging feeling every time I have the urge to buy it. This feeling that I honestly just don't remember anything about it. I only just saw it three months ago, yet it's already left my brain for the most part, and I just can't bring myself to purchase it, even at an admittedly great price for a 3D blu-ray.
This whole summer I felt as though most every movie I saw completely left my brain within 24 hours of having seen it. The only exception to that was Boyhood, which I'm still ruminating on months later, but now that blockbuster filmmaking has entered the age of shared universes, homogenization, and focus group tested sameness, I can't bring myself to care about any of the big movies I've seen in the past few months. I liked Days of Future Past while I was watching it. It was entertaining, well-written, well-acted, and well-made, but it ultimately felt disposable, and that's the problem with this particular age of blockbuster filmmaking. I have a theory as to why that is, if you'll allow me to share it.
The problem began in 2008 when Nick Fury showed up after the credits of Iron Man. The promise of incredible team-ups to come and crossovers and shared universes seemed amazing. It seemed like the kind of thing that geeks like me could only dream of when we were kids. Nine films and six years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I'm beginning to understand why getting everything we ever dreamed of isn't always a great thing. I've enjoyed all of the Marvel movies, but have I watched any of them more than once? The answer is no (okay, maybe I saw Avengers twice, but that was only because my oldest daughter really wanted to see it). In fact, the only reason I went to the theater to see Thor: The Dark World was because Clementine wanted to see it. I bought it when it came out on blu-ray, but like every other Marvel movie I own, it's just gathering dust on the shelf.
I'm reminded of the famous line from Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum's chaos theorist lectures Dr. Hammond on the inherent danger of what he's done saying, "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." I understand the irony in quoting one of the biggest blockbusters of all time in a rush to prove why blockbusters are inherently flawed, but replace the word "scientists" with the word "filmmakers," and you've got a perfect example of what's wrong with movies today. In fact, the quote seems even more prescient when you look at what Malcolm says just before that quote. "You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it." It's eerie how many parallels there are between what he was saying and where we are some 21 years later. 
Another gigantic film this summer was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another well-made, well-acted, well-scripted film that I couldn't tell you much about if you put a gun to my head. I remember the apes; some were good, some were bad. I remember the humans; some were good, some were bad. How did it all shake out in the end? I don't honestly remember and I only saw it 10 weeks ago. That's a problem. The rush to get these films into theaters as quickly as possible before the increasingly short-termed memories of global audience members lapse altogether, has ruined big budget filmmaking. The effects look great, but I can literally see great effects anywhere I look. The problem boils down to the studio system that allows this sort of environment to not only thrive, but to become the only way to get films made anymore.
It also comes down to poor writing, and I'm about to pin some blame here. When we write the obituary of this era of homogenization in blockbuster filmmaking, I think the blame will fall squarely at the feet of rampant egomaniacs Bob Orci & Alex Kurtzman. This writing duo has been nothing if not consistent in their hackneyed scripts that feel tailor-made to the sensibilities of studio heads looking to churn out a familiar product with only marginally interchangeable parts. All of their films are the same. Every single one of them follows the exact same formula to the point where I'm not even convinced they do any actual writing anymore. They're a script making factory, not writers, and the fact that they've placed the Star Trek franchise into Orci's hands makes me more fearful for my favorite fictional universe than I've ever been, even when Enterprise was the only game in town. 
The willingness by studios to just reboot a franchise anytime it starts to come apart is another major problem here. The first Smurfs movie was a surprise hit, but then the second one bombed after they announced they were already working on a third one, so their solution was to just reboot it. Talk has swirled of rebooting Spider-Man again, despite the fact that the reboot 2 years ago was basically the same exact story that was told in 2002, just with different villains and a different love interest. And don't even get me started on DC and Warner Brothers' attempt to mimic the Marvel formula by cramming a dozen superheroes into one film and then saturating theaters with a non-stop barrage of superhero movies over the next 6 years. It's awful, and someone's got to put a stop to it.
My excitement for the new Star Wars: Rebels cartoon series was instantly diminished halfway through the first episode when I realized that they're linking its universe to the Star Tours ride at the Disney theme parks. Is this what it's come to? Honestly, do we need a Boba Fett film or a Han Solo film? What's next, a Willrow Hood film? I know that's an extreme example, but it's not as far a leap today as it was five years ago. I liked the most recent Hunger Games film quite a lot when I saw it, but the trailers for the new one have done nothing but make me apprehensive about the potential for more bloated filmmaking in an attempt to keep these franchise cash cows going. It's a truly sorry state of affairs, and it's not going away any time soon unfortunately.
The best big budget movie I saw this summer was also one of the biggest flops. Edge of Tomorrow, despite its terrible title, was fun, thrilling, and memorable. The script was exceptionally well crafted, the direction was top notch, and Tom Cruise turned in his best performance in 15 years. How did the American public greet a film with no ties to another franchise? They ignored it, and in turn missed an opportunity to reward filmmakers doing solid work. It's despicable that the combined box office for Edge of TomorrowPacific Rim, and Cloud Atlas, arguably the three best $100 million-plus movies of the last three years, is less than for the fourth Transformers movie alone. That's a truly pitiful statement. 
Can anything turn this ship around? Yeah, if people stop going to see middling fare because they think it looks cool or they played with the toys as a kid, then maybe we've got a fighting chance. I don't see that happening though, and I fear that this era hasn't even peaked yet. That's the scariest thought of all. 
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, October 10, 2014

Day 319: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

"I told you this day was cursed."
Adapting a book is always a daunting task for any filmmaker. The task of deciding what to keep and what to jettison can lead to everything from inspired improvements on the text to outrage from fans of the book. Adapting a slim book, or one with little to no filmic qualities, presents an entirely different set of challenges such as what to flesh out and what elements crucial to the book's success are going to be crucial to the film's success. When an adaptation of the beloved children's classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was announced with The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko behind the camera, things seemed promising.  When Cholodenko left the project early last year and was replaced by Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta, lots of question marks loomed, namely would his subversive tendencies be stifled by a Disney film?
The Cooper family leads a life of hopeless optimism, led by the unflagging positivity of patriarch Ben (Steve Carell). Despite being unemployed for several months, Ben never fails to see the bright side, and that attitude carries over to nearly every member of the family from his wife Kelly (Jennifer Garner), oldest son Anthony (Dylan Minnette), only daughter Emily (Kerris Dorsey), and infant child Trevor. In fact, the only member of the clan that fails to see the good in anything is middle child Alexander (Ed Oxenbould). On the eve of his 12th birthday, Alexander discovers that the coolest kid in school is planning to have his birthday party on the same night as Alexander, causing all of his friends to change their plans, and he makes a fool of himself in front of Becky (Sidney Fullmer), the girl he likes.
When his family fails to be a support system for Alexander, he makes a birthday wish that just once, his family would have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The next morning, literally everything that can go wrong for the family does go wrong, leaving Alexander to believe that he's cursed his family. Ben is on the verge of blowing a big job interview; Kelly continually screws up her opportunities for a promotion at work; Anthony's girlfriend (Bella Thorne) breaks up with him despite the prom being that night; and Emily has a cold that may prevent her from performing the role of Peter Pan in the school play. Alexander is now forced to help his family see that the bad days will only make them appreciate the good ones even more.
Clocking in at just a shade over 80 minutes, the best thing about the film is its breakneck pace that makes it actually feel even shorter. The film doesn't stop for a minute, which is both its best asset and biggest weakness. It seems almost deliberately designed to move so quickly to its next beat that you never have a moment to stop and think about how thin its premise actually is. It's not a bad film, and would have been an even more interesting film had it not bore the moniker of a very famous and beloved book, but having assumed the mantle it did, it's more of a curiosity than an unqualified success. There are a bunch of inspired moments, including an hysterically funny cameo by Dick Van Dyke and a bit at the end involving some Australian "cowboys," but it's sadly not as good as the sum of its parts.
The biggest problem with the film by a mile, is the imprint of the Walt Disney Corporation all over it. From Alexander's Darth Vader shirt, to the prominent placement of several songs from Peter Pan, to the fact that Dick Van Dyke is even referred to as Bert, it reeks of being a product more than a film. When a film is well-paced and entertaining, things like this shouldn't stand out, but the fact that all the action seems to stop in order to shill for Disney feels really disingenuous. It's also odd to find moments from the book thrown out, such as the disastrous trip to the shoe store, making it feel more inspired by the book than based on it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just call the film something else. It reminded me of The Lorax, which became so consumed with its own additions that they condensed several pages of the book down to a single montage.
The film features a ton of talented people in front of the camera, which does help to distract from its issues. Carell is as good as he almost always is, never making it feel like he's phoning it in, which he probably was. The Cooper kids are all very good as well, with Ed Oxenbould making for a particularly good protagonist. There are also some strong cameos from Megan Mullally, Donald Glover, Burn Gorman, and of course the aforementioned Van Dyke. With so much capable comedic talent, it's no wonder the film works as well as it does, it's just a real shame that the material didn't rise to the level of the talent involved.
As a director, Arteta has never really been one for visual flair, with Youth in Revolt being the one exception that proves the rule, but he does admirable work here. Considering he was basically a director for hire having to deal with the demands of an overbearing studio, it's hard to imagine anyone could have turned this into a great film. The screenplay by first time screenwriter Rob Lieber is a mishmash of inspired gags and grating cliches, and it's hard to know if the film's structure came from the screenplay or took shape in the editing room. Either way, it's a decent enough effort by all involved, but nothing that rises above being mildly entertaining.
If you have kids in the 8-12 range, this film will succeed wildly with them in much the same way the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films did. However, if your nostalgia for the book is bringing you to the theater, you're only going to be disappointed by what you find. I feel like a broken record at this point, but it's hard for a film that's so wholly inoffensive to be anything other than a decent time waster. The real shame is that no one involved seemed to be aiming any higher than that, and when that's your goal, it doesn't take much effort to succeed.
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Top 5 Trailers That Were Better Than The Movie, Round 2


Last March, I did a Top 5 list of trailers that were better than the movie, and the criteria I laid out for that list was simple...
These are the kinds of trailers that, when you re-watch them, make you want to immediately see the movie again. Now, there’s lots of great movies with equally great trailers, but it’s a rare phenomenon to have a great trailer, and then the movie turn out to be good, just not as good as the trailer
Over the past two years, a lot of trailers have come out that looked phenomenal, but then the films themselves turned out to be disappointing at best and flat out awful at worst. Here is my (not at all) definitive list of the latest round of trailers that were better than the movie. You can click the title of the films to read my review of them.


5. Prometheus (2012) It was a gross oversight to leave this film off my top five last time, and I'm going to rectify that here and now. Ridley Scott, much like another director we'll visit with again later in this list, knows how to cut an amazing trailer. The fact that he was mirroring the original trailer for Alien with the first trailer for its quasi-prequel only helped pump up nerd boners to epic engorgement. Looking at the trailer again, I have a foolish desire to watch the movie again, but having just re-watched it a few weeks ago, I'm also instantly reminded of how eternally stupid this movie is. Everything from characters abandoning their principles to service the plot to the black goo to the horrendously boneheaded decision to cast Guy Pearce and then bury him in unconvincing old age makeup. It's a nightmare of a movie, but damn this trailer's good. I've also included the original Alien teaser for comparison purposes.


4. American Hustle (2013)

What a trailer this is. Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times," wigs aplenty, Christian Bale going balls deep in another character, David O. Russell's trademark camera movements. It's kind of my own fault for getting so pumped about this one, but I couldn't help it, it looked amazing. After my first viewing of the film, I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I liked the film more than I did, but after a second viewing, it's faults came to the forefront and became impossible to overlook. There's still a lot of great stuff in the film, but it's also a huge mess, and would have benefited from another year or so of development. All in all, it's a good movie that features some great performances, but overall it would have been better had it sported the title Tina Fey gave it at the Golden Globes: Explosion at the Wig Factory.


3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Scorsese's back, baby! That's what I kept telling myself every time I saw this trailer in the four or five months leading up to its release. If he can make a Kanye West song bearable, just think what he was going to do with this movie. While the film itself has its positives, the complete dearth of decent human beings among the characters and the utter douchebaggery of Jordan Belfort made the film an almost unbearable slog through two decades of reprehensible behavior. Scorsese managed to acquit himself of most of the criticism, mainly because he's one of the best visual directors in cinema history, but watching this trailer again brings me right back to a time when I thought this was going to be amazing.


2. Man of Steel (2013)

This one's a bit of a cheat, since I hated the movie, but holy hell was I pumped for this movie, and ninety percent of it had to do with this trailer. This trailer made me forget that Zack Snyder was directing it, and that's reason enough to secure it a place on this list. I was rendered speechless by the quiet moments between Clark and his parents juxtaposed with chaos and destruction. It looked like a masterpiece in the making. We all know how the film turned out, so there's no point in going over that well-worn territory, but it's become increasingly apparent that Zack Snyder has about ten minutes of greatness in him per film, and the way he manages to use that footage in his trailers is an art form unto itself. If the trailer for Batman v. Superman looks amazing, it might be time to start writing its obituary then and there.


1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

This one's a real head-scratcher because this movie wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything near what the trailer led us to believe it was going to be. Much like his work in front of the camera, Ben Stiller has a hard time balancing comedy and drama, and often fails to find that sweet spot where the two can work in harmony. When he's doing straight comedy, like in Tropic Thunder, the result can be sublime, but with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he had Benjamin Button parodies residing alongside poignant moments, and the movie's a mess. It's a watchable mess, and it works more often than it doesn't, but this trailer promised amazing things. Maybe I'm just blinded by my love of the song "Dirty Paws," but the whole film felt like a huge missed opportunity to do something great.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Day 318: Annabelle

"Demons can sometimes use objects as a conduit to achieve their desired goal."
It's not rare for cinematographers to make the leap to the directing chair, and that move has given us some of the best directors of the last forty years. It's not a sure thing, however, because for every Nicolas Roeg and Barry Sonnenfeld, there's Jan DeBont, Andrzej Bartkowiak, and more recently Wally Pfister. It should come as no surprise, then, that Warner Brothers turned the directing reigns for this prequel to The Conjuring to that film's cinematographer, John R. Leonetti, whose work as a cinematographer has yielded some pretty good films.
As a director, however, he's overseen some total garbage like The Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Could Annabelle be his first step toward proving he's worthy to be considered among the best cameramen-turned-directors, or would it be another crushing disappointment? Read on to find out...
The cold open to last summer's hit film The Conjuring featured a creepy doll known as Annabelle, and her scene served as a fine introduction to the work of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Because everything needs a backstory now, we get to see Annabelle's evil origins, but first we are treated to literally the exact same scene that opened The Conjuring. From there, the film goes back a year to 1970, and an idyllic suburban California town, rife with some creepy shenanigans. John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first child, and John presents Mia with a doll she been searching for her entire life. She adds it to her collection, and a home invasion that night finds the doll in the hands of a murderous couple, and when police arrive to dispatch with the criminals, the female invader kills herself while holding the doll.
Mia is ordered to stay bedridden for the duration of her pregnancy after suffering a stab wound during the home invasion, but all manner of mysterious things, including a fire, begin happening in their house. After the birth of their baby, they move to an apartment, but the troubles follow them there as well. A trip to a local bookstore owned by Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) leads Mia to believe that the doll may be the cause of these troubles, and is after the soul of their new baby. The couple turn to their priest (Tony Amendola) for counseling, and after he is attacked by the doll (or a force associate with the doll), he tells the couple that the doll intends to take a soul that very night.
First and foremost, I have to give the film kudos for not being afraid to wholesale rip-off concepts that have been done much better in films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. It's unfortunate, however, that this film is lacking the strong character development from those films, leaving it to feel like a shrill imitation rather than a loving homage. As much as the film is clearly aspiring to those two films I just mentioned, it ends up coming off like a classier, glossier, more upscale version of Child's Play, and as easy as that comparison seems to someone who hasn't even seen the film, the number of parallels between the two is even more glaring once you've seen it. The film is of two minds from minute one, seeking to appeal to the film geeks in the audience by naming the main characters Mia and John -- the first names of the two actors who headlined Rosemary's Baby -- but it ends up being so film illiterate that no one who clues into such a reference will find the film satisfying.
On the other hand, any film that uses popcorn as a plot device knows exactly where its bread is buttered. The overarching problem with Annabelle is that it tries to come off as self-aware, when in actuality it feels workshopped to death in such a way that all of these moments feel like contrivances in retrospect. The film ultimately ends up feeling like a machine manufactured in a lab to dole out cliches without ever understanding the inherent pleasures behind such cliches. [Minor spoiler alert] Take for example a noble sacrifice executed by a supporting character near the end of the film. It intends to be an homage to Father Karras' noble sacrifice at the end of The Exorcist, but because this character is not given the development that Karras was, it comes off as a cheap attempt to copy that film, rather than an honest to goodness tribute. We shed tears for Father Karras because we know his inner life, and his decision is the culmination of an entire film's worth of character development. Here, however, we roll our eyes because we recognize instantly what they were going for, and how poorly they failed to execute the conceit. [/Minor spoiler alert]
Bearing all of this in mind, it's not easy to fault the performers as they do the best they can with the material they were given. The script's contempt for the characters is a bit alarming, using them as nothing more than a jump-scare delivery system; Mia hears a noise, goes to investigate, gets dragged off by unseen forces, etc. etc. etc. It is a shame to see an Oscar-nominated actress like Alfre Woodard playing a one-note character, and I can't help but hope that she saw something in the character as written that just didn't end up in the film. I will point out, however, that Tony Amendola as the priest has a hell of a career ahead of him in taking on roles that F. Murray Abraham turns down.
Much like The Conjuring, the film feels appropriately spooky, and the cinematography by James Kniest is very good, though I can't help but wonder how much was his doing and how much was Leonetti's. The score by Joseph Bishara, who also scored The Conjuring and both Insidious films, is also good, if a bit reliant on the old startling strings to accompany startling images trick. I'm almost happy to see a film that relies on good old fashioned suspense-building rather than an endless stream of gore masquerading as horror, but it's disheartening to see it done in service of a story that's just frankly garbage.
As a director, Leonetti clearly has learned from the much better directors he's worked with since his last directorial effort eight years ago. What he, and Hollywood in general, need to do, however, is spend more time developing a story worth telling. In the rush to get this film into theaters as quickly as possible, in an attempt to cash in on whatever notoriety they have, makes all of the hard work by the crew feel like it was done in vain. There's a good film somewhere in this director and crew, and especially in that creepy doll, but this just isn't it.
GO Rating 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Day 317: Gone Girl

"I thought writers hated clichés."
With his third film, Fight Club, David Fincher proved to be a master director of book adaptations, a skill he's now honed on four subsequent adaptations. In fact, fans of the director would have to agree that his only misstep since 1999 was 2002's Panic Room, a film which he basically made as a director for hire. For his sixth book adaptation, Fincher decided to tackle another recent bestseller. What makes Gone Girl so intriguing is not just the fact that he's working for the first time from a script penned by the book's author, but that he's adapting a work written by a woman, Gillian Flynn. Would this director, known for his hyper-masculine sensibilities, be able to bring to life a book so beloved by women everywhere? Read on to find out...  
On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) seem to have drifted apart in irreparable ways. Rather than spend time with his wife prior to his shift at the bar they co-own, Nick spends some time alone, leaving Amy in the house by herself, the same way she spends most every day. A call from a neighbor prompts Nick to return home, only to find signs of a struggle and no sign of Amy. Two local detectives (Kim Dickens & Patrick Fugit) question Nick about the events leading up to Amy's disappearance, and Nick is soon in over his head with falsifications and half-truths, making him the prime suspect.
Nick's only confidant is his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), who believes Nick is innocent, but also knows that he's not being forthcoming with her. The events of the present are juxtaposed with Amy's diary entries painting a picture of marital bliss that slowly devolves into deception and fear of the man she loves so dear. As Nick tries in vain to prove his innocence, digging up any potential leads he can, including an old boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) whose relationship with Amy seems equally mysterious. With nowhere left to turn, Nick is forced to participate in Amy's annual tradition of sending Nick on a treasure hunt of their past year together, hoping it will reveal the clues he so desperately seeks, and eventually clear his name.
Whether you're going into the film having read the book or not, my sneaking suspicion is that most audiences will abhor this film. It holds a mirror up to the modern marriage in such a way that will disturb and linger with viewers long after it is over. Having read the book, I can appreciate the streamlining that Flynn was able to do to her story, and most especially for the humor that manages to seep into every crack of this pitch black narrative. It is incredibly well realized and pulls no punches, making for one of the more unsettling movie going experiences in some time, though I have no doubt that those who liked the book will also like the movie. It's intense when it needs to be, light when you don't think it could be, and overall a scathing indictment of the sacrifices people make to remain in a committed relationship. 
While his touch remains surprisingly light as a director, the little moments that Fincher manages to weave into the film make it unmistakably of a part with his unique mind. The second time we see Nick in the film, he's carrying the board game Mastermind under his arm, subconsciously tipping the audience in a particular direction. That he follows this with stunning revelations about Nick's overall incompetence is only further proof of the fun he's having leading you in one direction, only to strand you a moment later. One might even go so far as to mistake such trickery as contempt for the audience, but the sadistic glee with which Fincher misdirects and misleads will be immense fun for those who have read the book.
If you haven't read the book, I would only caution you not to make your mind up too early. The way that the film's first act plays out is full of all manner of chicanery, and having your heart set on something is only going to lead to heartbreak in this story. The film's second act is its strongest, with revelations coming fast and furious, and the film's pace taking on the momentum of a runaway train. The third act, however, is where the film becomes transcendent. It's going to aggravate viewers and even some fans of the book, who may not like the additions Flynn and Fincher made, but it really drives home the film's themes in all the best ways. The book's ending is intact, for those who didn't care for it, but my suspicion is that those who felt that way weren't ready to embrace such naked truths about the very nature of relationships. Never before has a bleak ending been hammered home with such joy.  
As for the performances, they are rock solid, top to bottom. This is the role that Ben Affleck was born to play; The conniving, good-looking, unappreciative dimwit who tries so hard to be a nice guy that he ends up alienating his most staunch allies. As one character remarks, it's in his marrow, and the ease with which he plays Nick gives one pause at both how naturally it comes and how well he nails it. Rosamund Pike truly lives up to the "amazing" qualifier her character's been saddled with her entire life. Simply labeling this a great performance would downgrade how absolutely perfect she is in every regard, making every facial expression, tic, gesture, and mannerism land with unrivaled authority. This is truly a "star is born" moment.
The supporting cast is equally fantastic, with Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens adding the best support by far. The biggest surprise, however, is how good Tyler Perry is in the role of Nick's high-priced attorney. As someone who's never thought much of Perry, as an actor or as a personality, I am happy to eat crow and say that he seems born to be in front of the camera. It's a thoughtful performance, every bit as calculated and disciplined as the rest of his oeuvre seems to be the opposite. It almost seems to go without saying that the work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter, and composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross is top notch, but the way Fincher's creative team works together makes the film that much more incredibly to look at and listen to.  
Flynn and Fincher are a match made in heaven, if only because Flynn knows so well how to craft a story that plays into all of Fincher's strengths, and vice versa. While it's certainly the least "Fincher-esque" movie that he's made since Panic Room, it's equally satisfying to see him work so well in untested waters. The film is going to be a tough sell, and those who didn't like the book will find all of their same issues with it intact here. Those willing to hear and see harsh truths about themselves played out masterfully on the big screen, however, are going to find a film that both disturbs and entertains in equal measure, and often within the same breath. Gone Girl is one of the most wholly satisfying movies made in the last year, and I am literally giddy with anticipation to talk about it with others, particularly those who don't like it; And I suspect they will be legion. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]