Friday, November 28, 2014

Day 330: Penguins of Madagascar

"I don't think I like your attitude, vending machine... Or your prices."
Dreamworks' Madagascar franchise is its longest running next to the Shrek franchise, so it's only fitting that they would execute a spin-off involving a beloved side character, in much the same way they did with Puss in Boots three years ago. The quartet of super resourceful penguins from the films already have their own television show on Nickelodeon, so giving them their own film has a lot of advantages, namely a built in brand and following. The only real problem with Penguins of Madagascar the film, however, is that there's really no reason for it to exist. Apart from some funny jokes and inspired casting choices, the film feels like an unnecessarily protracted episode of the television series.
It's a good thing that the penguins themselves are entertaining enough to spend ninety minutes of your time with, but a meandering plot coupled with a ridiculously bloated climax truly makes you feel every one of those ninety minutes. Like so many bit characters who have taken the spotlight before them, the penguins' antics are amusing enough in small doses, but with no foil for their shenanigans, the film doesn't have a strong center—making the prospect of that Minions film they advertised before this movie even more daunting. Sure, there are worse ways to spend your time, and kids will eat it up with delight, but to turn any side character into the focal point of an entire film requires the kind of discipline Dreamworks has never really had in any substantial quantity. 
The film's best bits come early, including an all-too-brief origin story for the quartet narrated by every child's favorite documentarian, Werner Herzog. I'm obviously joking as Herzog is clearly there for the amusement of the film literate parents in the audience, but when he utters the line "chubby bun-buns," it becomes apparent that this is the extent of the filmmakers knowledge of what to do with Herzog. The film as a whole would have been infinitely better had Herzog maintained his narration throughout the film, but after five minutes, he's gone, never to be heard from again.
His portion of the film covers the formation of the group we already know from their countless other adventures, but by the time the title is flashed on screen, we've jumped ahead to the middle of Madgascar 3, to pick up their side quest from that film. For those of you unfamiliar with the penguins, there's Skipper (Tom McGrath), the boneheaded leader, Kowalski (Chris Miller), the bluntly honest brains of the group, Rico (Conrad Vernon), the non verbal loose cannon, and Private (Christopher Knights), the timidly cute one. It's established early on in the film that Private wants to prove himself a valuable member of the team, and so the rest of the film is completely in service of that plot.
During a mission to procure Private's favorite cheesy snacks from a vending machine deep within Fort Knox, the penguins run afoul of Dave (John Malkovich), aka Dr. Octavius Brine, an octopus who has a convoluted history with the penguins. Dave's plan isn't so much world domination as it is getting everyone in the world to turn against all penguins, the way they turned against him, by transforming the penguins into ugly monsters that no one could love. In pursuit of Dave, for reasons that are never really explained in any satisfactory manner, is the North Wind, a group of cold climate animals that possess technological resources beyond anyone's imagination. Led by a wolf mistakenly named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), they're trying to stop Dave as well, but view the penguins as more hindrance than help.
The only ace up the film's sleeve is uncovering Dave's real plan and then figuring out how exactly Private is going to prove himself to the others, which makes the numerous action sequences somewhat dull in retrospect. They're enjoyable enough, but every one of them goes on for so long, mainly because there's just not enough of a story here to which any time can be devoted. This is ultimately the film's biggest missed opportunity when you consider that nearly all of Dreamworks' output of late from the aforementioned Madagascar 3 to How to Train Your Dragon 2, and even this year's Mr. Peabody & Sherman, have all favored story over spectacle. In fact, the film that this shares the most DNA with isn't Puss in Boots, but The Croods: A simple premise with a clear endgame in sight loaded down with sight gags and drawn out action sequences that make the film just barely reach feature length.
The other shame is that there's some great voice work happening here, despite the actors not being given much to work with. All of the penguins' voice actors have been doing this for the better part of a decade, so they nail their characters, but Malkovich and Cumberbatch are forced to do the most they can with very little, including an interminable bit involving Malkovich giving orders that mimic the names of celebrities—i.e. "Nicolas, cage them!" It should also be noted that Cumberbatch has yet to learn the proper way to pronounce the word "penguin," still referring to them as "pengwings," though I'm not sure if it's intentional at this point or not. The jokes come fast and furious, however they only land about 40% of the time, making the film more cute than funny. Again, this is a perfectly fine goal for a film that goes direct to video, but cute doesn't really cut it on the big screen.
If you have little ones, they're going to love the film, but I also suspect they won't give it much thought after it's over. There's nothing unique, original, or terribly interesting that happens, and they'll notice that much of the film's climax is borrowed from Despicable Me 2. Their parents, on the other hand, will likely be less enchanted by it and its incredibly disposable nature. It's not a bad film, but it feels like a gigantic step backward for an animation studio that's really been doing its best work in the last few years, even within this very franchise. About the best thing I can say is that its homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is light years better than the one that Star Trek Into Darkness tried to pull off last year, and that's just about the strangest thing I've ever thought when leaving a kids movie.

GO Rating 2.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Day 329: The Theory of Everything

"Look what we made."
Bear with me as I suss something out momentarily. I recently watched Howard Stern's Private Parts again and one of the things that really struck me about watching the film in 2014—17 years after it came out and 14 years after Stern and his first wife divorced—is how utterly meaningless the love story aspect of the film is now. Granted as a time capsule of their relationship and the things they went through together and how they relied on one another is still powerful, but his final summation and thesis statement for the film is now completely diminished. It was with similar apprehension that I approached the new film The Theory of Everything, based on a book by physicist Stephen Hawking's first wife Jane. 
Would this film similarly falter when the audience knows the outcome? Thankfully the answer is no, but perhaps more regrettably, the film is an utter failure as a love story, and that's the angle with which the film is clearly being sold to the general public. To weigh it against another film that's perhaps a more fitting comparison, consider another award baiting romance from several years ago, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. That is a film which shifts its love story halfway through the film, and shows Benigni's character Guido goes from learning about love by wooing his future wife in the first half, to demonstrating unconditional love to his child in the second. This film tries to pull off a similar feat, but stumbles in a big way and never recovers.
When we're introduced to Stephen (Eddie Redmayne), he is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge in 1963, and has an appropriately awkward meet cute with graduate student Jane (Felicity Jones). Their courtship is the stuff of classic movie romances, but not long after they begin to fall for one another, Stephen is diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease that the doctor tells him will claim his ability to move and eventually breathe on his own, and that he will be dead within two years. Despite Stephen's best efforts to shut Jane out, she has fallen in love with him and refuses to give up on him. They marry, and not long after Stephen is awarded his doctorate for his revolutionary theory about the formation of our universe.
So far, so good, but then the film begins to, pardon the expression, degenerate, and in a move that I would consider bold were it not so unintentional, explodes in on itself much like Hawking's initial theory about black holes and the big bang. Stephen and Jane don't necessarily fall out of love, but it's clear that neither can give the other what they truly need, despite their clear affection for one another.  When Jane's mother (Emily Watson) suggests that she join the church choir, she meets hunky choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan is no stranger to tragedy, having recently lost his wife to leukemia, and he begins spending more time with the family, and inevitably forms a pearl clutching chaste bond with Jane. 
In the film's most egregiously manipulative scene, Stephen travels to Bordeaux, France where he suffers an attack at a concert and slips into a coma. This is juxtaposed with a camping trip Jonathan takes with Jane and her children in which we're all but shown that they finally consummate their very British attraction to one another. For a film that has spent a good deal of time arguing science versus faith, the scene is staged like something out of a misguided Christian abstinence film, showing teens that if they stray from their committed relationship, bad things will befall their significant other. It's out of place in a good film, but in a film seemingly bred in a test tube to win awards, it feels right at home. 
Once Stephen loses the ability to speak, Jane brings on Elaine (Maxine Peake), a new caretaker designed to help Stephen get back in touch with the world. Pardon the expression, but Elaine basically wants to fuck Stephen's brains out the moment she lays eyes on him, and Jane is now racked with suspicion, and the film begins to resemble something that wouldn't seem out of place on Lifetime. It becomes horribly reductive, and expects us to just be okay with Stephen and Jane still loving one another, but also loving others. Were this a film about a non-monogamous relationship, that would be one thing, but the filmmakers spend the better part of an hour setting this up as a love for the ages only to pull the rug out from under the audience.
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Would it have been better to ignore all of this and just show their love for one another and throw the rest of these developments into a post-film scrawl? I'm not entirely sure, but in its current state, the film is trying to have it both ways. The emotion of the film's ending will land with even the most cynical audience members, but in retrospect it feels like a cheap ploy to get you reaching for a kleenex rather than reflecting on what it actually all means. Director James Marsh is a manipulative son of a bitch, who has no shame in bombarding the more susceptible audience members into crying every five minutes or so, and his heavy hand makes the film feel like the cheap awards grab it really is at its core. 
Thankfully the two leads are tremendous in the film, and their performances end up curing a multitude of sins. Redmayne is outstanding in a role that could have very easily reached I Am Sam levels of gunpoint forced empathy, but he sells the pain and anguish of Hawking's reality beautifully. Jones may not have the more physically demanding role, but she's got a tougher time with a more nuanced shift from doting to loving to suffering to frustrated, and she pulls it off with aplomb. The supporting cast from Cox and Watson to David Thewlis and Simon McBurney as Hawking's father is also top notch, with very few false notes to be found. 
It's a shame that Marsh's direction and the overbearing strings of Jóhann Jóhannson's score make the film feel like an attempt to recreate A Beautiful Mind whole cloth. In fact, I jokingly referred to the film as A Beautiful Mind 2: Hawking Boogaloo, mainly because that's the exact spot in the awards season lineup this film is hoping to fill. Many will be suckered by this film's charms, and they are many, but I hope that the rest of us can see when we're being so brashly manipulated, and not succumb to the temptation to fall in love with this film. It's got some good performances, but it's also got the stench of a film that thinks it's a whole lot more Important—with a capital I—than it actually is. 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Day 328: Foxcatcher

"What do you hope to achieve, Mark?"
Very, very few directors make a career out of working exclusively in the realm of the "based on a true story" genre, but Bennett Miller has proven to be quite comfortable in this realm. His third and latest film, Foxcatcher, sets its sights on chemical heir John DuPont (Steve Carell) and his bizarre, often contentious relationship with Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). It's a story of a lot of things gone awry from misplaced patriotism to the sheltered world of the extremely wealthy, and there are a lot of ideas flowing through it, but these ideas never really gel into a cohesive story about any one thing, which ultimately works against the film. 
The film's biggest issue is that it doesn't necessarily have a point of view; There's no one character that the film is really about. It's about all three of these men, but really only gets inside the head of Mark Schultz, mainly because he's a bit of a dolt and an open book, making him the easiest of the three to psychoanalyze. DuPont is a total enigma, and Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman knew they couldn't really hang their hat on him as the protagonist, so they sort of split the difference between the Schultzes, and end up with a curiously unfocused story. 
The first half and a hair beyond that focus intensely on Mark, who forever lives in the shadow of his much more well-known brother. When he receives a call from Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) to come and meet with the wealthy but somewhat reclusive DuPont, Mark jumps at the chance to meet with someone who seems interested in him. DuPont offers Mark the chance to come and live at his estate and train at his newly built facilities, dubbed Foxcatcher, in preparation for the upcoming World Championships and 1988 Olympics in Seoul. DuPont pitches himself as a patriot, and someone who is fed up with the way America treats its Olympians, and offers Mark this chance to finally distance himself from his brother.
At first, Mark and DuPont form a bond based on their mutual failure to live up to their family name. DuPont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a world class horse breeder, and he sees wrestling as his way to get the acclaim from people that seems to only be lavished upon his mother. It's a powerful bond, and one which the film wisely focuses its attention on, without ever really spelling it out for the audience. Unfortunately after winning the World Championship, DuPont begins to treat Mark as something of a conduit through which he can reach his much more successful brother Dave, and their once touching yet undeniably bizarre relationship begins to feel strained. Things really take a turn for Mark once Dave accepts DuPont's offer and moves his wife (Sienna Miller) and children onto the estate to begin working for Foxcatcher. 
At this point in the film, things start to really lose focus. DuPont was adamant about bringing Dave to work with the team, yet knows that he can't control him the way he controlled his brother. Mark slowly but surely fades into the background, until he just sort of disappears from the film altogether. All of the work the audience has invested in caring about Mark must now go into still caring about Dave and DuPont, and it's a big risk that doesn't quite pay off for the script or the film. The timeline also starts to get a little hazy, and the passage of time becomes almost impossible to keep track of once the '88 Olympics come and go. I hate to constantly harp on films where the third act fails to live up to the promise of the first two, but this is another film in which that's sadly the case.
More so than that, however, is the fact that the film feels like a damn good one hour episode of Dateline, or some other true crime show, stretched out to an almost unbearable 134 minutes. The film does build a good amount of tension, but much like Michael Haneke at his worst, building tension for over an hour doesn't make a film compelling in and of itself. In fact, this film feels like it could have been made by Haneke, as it will likely work incredibly well for some in the audience, but ultimately left me feeling cold. 
Thank goodness Miller is still an ace when it comes to casting his films, as the core trio of actors here is spectacular. Carell transforms himself wholly into DuPont, even cutting a profile that looks downright birdlike, nicely complimenting his insistence on being called "Eagle," as well as his general infatuation with birds and ornithology—another subplot that ultimately goes nowhere. Nevertheless, Carell nails his performance and sells it in a way that will more than likely silence anyone who's looked at him as nothing more than a buffoonish funny man. He's got an edge to him that Miller exploits to great ends.
Tatum is another surprising revelation, proving yet again that he's the real deal. He makes Mark a pitiable character without ever really appealing for pity. It's a terrific balancing act, and one which he pulls off with aplomb. It's perhaps least surprising that Ruffalo is great, only because anyone who's followed his career knows what a terrific actor and chameleon he is, but he once again delivers a solid performance here. The film is handsomely shot by Zero Dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the score by Rob Simonsen is both spare and haunting, nicely complimenting the similar imagery.
The real shame is that this was probably a crack ninety minute film stretched beyond its means to well over two hours. I'm not sure if it could have used more editing in the writing process or in post-production, but either way it just feels downright interminable by the time the climax rolls around. It's a good movie, with some terrific performances and a handful of great scenes, but it feels truly less than the sum of its parts. One should never leave a film based on a true story feeling that an already enigmatic human being has become even more so. The film purports to offer a character study about DuPont, yet manages to put such a fascinating person even further out of reach for the audience, which is ultimately its fatal flaw.
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Day 327: Interstellar

"Love is the one thing that transcends time and space."

It seems appropriate that Interstellar began life as a Steven Spielberg movie, because nobody does big budget big idea movies quite like Spielberg. Except for Christopher Nolan. Nolan has become the 21st century's Spielberg, and it started with The Dark Knight. Much like Jaws did 33 years earlier, The Dark Knight reinvented the blockbuster and sent studios scrambling to copy its formula without ever really understanding it. And much like Spielberg, as Nolan's success grew, so too did his ambition.

This brings us to Interstellar, Nolan's most ambitious movie by a mile, and unquestionably his least successful. Inspired by everyone from Georges Mèliés and Jules Verne to Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Hawking, Nolan backdoors his most personal film inside an enormous special effects bonanza, designed to simultaneously appeal to everyone. Unfortunately the film ends up appealing only to a very select audience. Nolan wants to take big ideas like the meaning of life and meld them with even bigger ideas like the infinity of our universe, but the film is so horrendously unfocused that it ultimately ends up feeling hollow and meaningless.

As a matter of fact, the film it actually has the most in common with isn't 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. One simply cannot deal with a topic as vast as that in a single film, and to do so is folly. The Meaning of Life is arguably the weakest big screen effort by The Pythons, though it does have moments of sheer genius. Interstellar is in the exact same boat. It works in fits and spurts, but never really gels as a movie, and feels like so much less than the sum of its parts.

The most obvious problem with the film is its script. It's truly lousy and doesn't work as science fiction, mainly because it's so concerned with delivering too much science, it loses sight of the fiction. The human drama falls flat at almost every single turn, and that's due to a major problem with the ending that I will get to in a moment. It also suffers from a problem that a large majority of Nolan's films suffer from which is the need for a character or characters to over-explain everything. His concepts are often so complicated and convoluted that they require lengthy explanations by a character in order to make sense.

Joe Pantoliano's character in Memento does this in his final scene, DiCaprio & JGL both do it, a lot, in Inception. Good lord does Bane ever do this in The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, the one time he did this masterfully, i.e. pulling off an incredibly complex plot and/or twist without a ton of explanation, was The Prestige. It happens again in this film, twice actually, and both times it drags the film down to an absurd extent. The film does not move at a fast enough pace to not grind to a halt when a character decides to explain him or herself, and until Nolan figures out how to write a script without doing this, his films will continue to go down in quality.

Spoiler Alert

I cannot truly discuss why I disliked the film without going into spoilers, so skip these two paragraphs if you haven't seen the film. For me, the film really went off the rails when Matt Damon showed up. It wasn't necessarily his character or what his character does. It was incredibly obvious that he was going to throw a wrench into the plans because they hadn't come up against any real threats to their mission at that point. The issue was that he had to explain his entire plot as he was attempting to kill McConaughey's character. This is Bond villain 101 level, "allow me to explain the entire plot to you," villainy and it felt horrendously out of place.

The much, much bigger issue, however, was the fact that at the end, when McConaughey finally reunites with his—much older—daughter, he talks to her for all of ten seconds before deciding to go see Anne Hathaway. What the actual fuck? All of his bluster and speechifying about the love between a parent and a child being the only pure form of love, and now he's gonna throw that all away and go fly off to lay some intergalactic pipe in his fellow Oscar winner? That's the point at which the movie lost me entirely, and actually made me angry. It rendered everything that came before utterly meaningless, and that's the biggest tragedy of all.

End Spoiler Alert

Maybe one day I will reconsider my position on the film. Perhaps I will look as foolish 40 years from now as the critics who panned 2001 upon its first release. I don't think that will be the case, however. I saw this the way the filmmaker intended it to be seen, and it still failed to awe me in the way he hoped. One of the things that makes 2001 so great is the lack of a need to explain things. This film spends its third act explaining absolutely everything in the most hackneyed ways imaginable, whether it's via a villain explaining every facet of their plot or a hero explaining the moral lesson he's finally come to terms with. That's bad screenwriting, any way you slice it, and all the special effects in the world can't make up for a script as deeply flawed as this one.

A wise man (or woman) one said that sometimes the simplest fix is also the best fix. How easy it would have been to fix this script before it ever got in front of a camera, let alone had millions of dollars worth of after effects added to it in an attempt to compensate for the fact that it's just not that great of an idea? I admire Nolan for reaching for the stars, but I shake my head in disbelief over the fact that he failed to do such a basic thing as delivering a competent script.

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Day 326: Laggies

"I'm my own animal."
 When the quarter-life crisis became an accepted rite of passage about a decade ago, it hit right when I was in the midst of mine. It seemed like a viable way to give a name to that malaise that hits all twenty-somethings who have to grudgingly accept that life isn't going to be all that we had thought it would as teens. It's certainly not a new phenomenon, it's just that in this day and age, we love to label things in an attempt to connect and bond with one another over such universally unavoidable experiences. The new film Laggies attempts to put a face on the quarter-life crisis in much the same way Garden State did a decade ago, and overall it's a much less cloying and twee look at this phase in life, but it's in many ways the exact same film. 
As Megan, Brit Keira Knightley plays that decidedly most American of twenty-something women: the one content to cling to the past rather than accept the realities of the future. Her friends to whom she was so close in high school have all moved on and gotten married or are having children, and Megan seems content to spin a sign by the side of the road for the her father's (Jeff Garlin) tax business. At the wedding of her best friend Allison (Ellie Kemper), Megan's longtime boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) attempts to propose to her, but Megan freaks out and flees the wedding.
Stopping at a grocery store, Megan encounters a group of teenagers who ask her to buy them some alcohol. Desperate to reconnect with her youth, Megan follows through and then clings to the gang for the rest of the night, making a special connection with 16-year old Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). The two then forge a relationship of mutual exploitation that finds Megan posing as Annika's mother for a meeting with a school counselor, and Megan asking Annika if she can crash at her place for a week to basically drop out of society and, presumably, figure out what she wants to do with her life. 
The script is both savvy and clever enough to address the obvious problems with a character like Megan doing all of this, but it's also mixed with high doses of whimsy that undercut the honesty of so many moments in the film. There really is no good reason for Annika's single divorce lawyer father Craig (Sam Rockwell) to let Megan stay at their home, but he does, at it sets up a myriad of eye-rolling rom-com contrivances. Megan is an incredibly deceptive person who manages to withhold information from certain individuals long enough to get what she needs from them, and that should be a much more troubling trait for a protagonist than it actually is. Knightley's winning performance makes her faults secondary to her virtues, making Megan a much more likable character that she has any right to be.
Though her inevitable relationship with Craig is projected virtually from minute one, it's both a joy to watch it unfold and a bit foreboding at the same time because we just know that the truth will come out at some point. Though this is a plot device as old as time, it's to the credit of both Knightley and especially Rockwell that it works at all. Rockwell is an utter delight in everything he does, but it's surprisingly nice to see him play a guy that's been dealt a lot of lousy luck in love, yet still clings to the hope that things are going to work out in the end. I hate to sound like a broken record at this point, but if Laggies could have used more of anything, it's Sam Rockwell. 
Director Lynn Shelton is a darling of the mumblecore scene, and her films Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, while a welcome departure from the usual masturbatory influences of her contemporaries like The Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg, are nonetheless steeped in contrivance. It's disheartening, then, to see her go whole hog toward a story that plays out, almost by the moment, exactly how you expect it to, but as with the rest of her work, her excellent cast helps to elevate the material. In fact, it's really a cop-out for me to say that the film has no right to work, since it's formula has been proven to work countless times in countless other films of this ilk. The best one can hope for from a film like this is that the cast is good enough to make the subpar material work, and thankfully they are. 
Laggies is a pleasant diversion, and fans of both Knightley and Rockwell will find the money and time spent in their company well worth it, but much like Garden State, these films suffer from the ever-present specter of The Graduate. That film nailed the quarter-life crisis and gave it an ending worthy of the actual depression faced by the young. Now these films can only hope to uplift and give everyone what they want only after making them learn some harsh lessons about themselves. Laggies is an enjoyable film and it has a lot of good in it, but it hasn't got an original bone in its body, nor does it have a single moment of greatness. I miss the days when films aspired to greatness.
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Day 325: Big Hero 6

"Your hormone and neurotransmitter levels indicate that you are experiencing mood swings, common in adolescence. Diagnosis: puberty."
When Disney first acquired Marvel back in 2009, the question on everyone's mind was, What's going to be the first Marvel property they adapt for an animated film? Little did anyone suspect that the obscure late 90s comic Big Hero 6 would secure that honor, but in hindsight in makes perfect sense. There are no beloved characters to honor, no major crossover with other Marvel titles to worry about, and a basic storyline so generic, it could be easily adapted to the Disney style. Gone are the ties to Silver Samurai and Viper, no doubt due to their complicated ownership by Fox and involvement in their Marvel films, and in their place is a much more sensible version of the same story of a group of geniuses, and their merchandise-ready sidekick, who band together to save the city they live in and love.
To retain the Japanese elements of the story while also making it palatable to Westerners who just need American heroes to root for, the film is set in the fictional futuristic city of San Fransokyo. Here, a 13-year old high school graduate named Hiro (Ryan Potter) opts to use his talents to create robots and hustle people on the underground robot fighting circuit rather than do some useful with his talents. When his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) gets wind of Hiro's money making scam, he steers him instead toward the university he attends, where he and a group of super geniuses spend all day tinkering with the latest high tech devices in an attempt to make life better.
Perhaps the smartest thing about Big Hero 6 is the way it gets all of the character introductions and motivations out of the way within the first twenty minutes, and then gives the characters some time to breathe, grow, and get to know one another better. Had this been the typical "origin story" narrative we've seen done to death a hundred times by now, the inciting incident of the film--Tadashi's death--would have likely been its climax. Thankfully screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts know better than to bog their film down with such contrivances. This is not to say that the film is wholly original or marches to the beat of an entirely new drummer--Laika seems to be the only animation house doing that anymore--but it twists the conventions enough to make them feel fresh and innovative.
When history writes its post-mortem on the Disney/Marvel era, no doubt the thing that will be most apparent is Disney's inherent ability to take the elements within Marvel's oeuvre and bend them just enough to fit the Disney mold. They've done this with such regularity in their Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it's almost second nature to them at this point, and Big Hero 6 is no different. Knowing that their most successful and beloved films need a character for the kids to latch on to and talk their parents into buying shirts, toys, bed sheets, etc. emblazoned with that character's likeness, Disney wisely focused their attention on the robot Baymax as their breakout character, and he is a delight.
As voiced by 30 Rock star Scott Adsit, the robot was designed by Hiro's brother as a medical technician, one whose only function is to heal the sick. This gives the character a unique bent in that he can constantly be the outsider in any situation, looking for ways to aid those he's designed to protect, without ever formally changing his nature. It's a savvy piece of character writing, and both Adsit, the writers, and animators all combined to make a character that's a welcome change of pace and as familiar and cuddly as the characters we've loved our whole lives. It should come as no surprise that there is a direct correlation between how much you like the character of Baymax and how much you like Big Hero 6.
The story itself is serviceable, a typical whodunit where an invention designed to help others is turned against its creators to harm humanity, and enough twists to keep at least the younger minds in the audience wondering who's really behind it all. Sadly the thing that the film is least successful at achieving is breaking the mold or doing anything outside of the expected. In fact, it would come as no surprise to discover that this film, Wreck-it Ralph, and Guardians of the Galaxy were all written at the same time, because they all feature nearly identical climaxes.
The very young, under six or so, will not get much enjoyment out of Big Hero 6. In fact, it seems best designed to play to the pre-teen set, who will see in these characters people worth aspiring to. Hiro and his band of inventor friends use their unique talents and abilities to aid one another, and it will hopefully inspire in the young the sense that we should never stop trying to be at our best in everything we do. It's got humor, it's got action, and it moves like a bat out of hell, feeling infinitely shorter than its 108-minute running time would suggest, and frankly what more could you ask for?
Those of us in the audience cynical enough to have suffered crushing disappointments personally and professionally will see through all of the hopeless optimism, and study the mechanics of the film, admiring it more for what a technical marvel it is than an emotionally edifying experience. But it's those 7 to 13-year olds in the audience who will see in this film their future, and that's frankly something that more films should aspire to. Disney was incredibly savvy and forward thinking to pick Big Hero 6 for their first Marvel animated effort, and no doubt this film will be cherished by that pre-teen demographic for years to come. At their best, films and comics should make the viewer or reader aspire to something greater than themselves, and never has that message been more apparent than it is here.
**Also, as any good Marvel fan should know by this point in time, make sure you stay all the way through the end credits for a terrific little surprise. 
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Day 324: Before I Go to Sleep

"No one knows... no one but you."
In the 13 years since Christopher Nolan's Memento and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive reinvented the amnesia thriller, very few movies have used the incredibly rare affliction in a serious way. It seemed as if those two films more or less did just about everything that could be done with that particular plot device, and it was now relegated to action movies such as the Bourne films, ridiculous comedies like 50 First Dates, and Nicholas Sparks weepies like The Vow. Nevertheless, when it was announced that the bestselling book Before I Go to Sleep was being adapted into a film with a pretty formidable cast, it seemed as if perhaps the amnesia thriller was back.
It's a shame, then, that the film turned out to be soft-focus nonsense better suited to Lifetime than a bill shared by two Oscar-winners. As Christine, a woman suffering from the old "in 24-hours your brain will entirely reset" brand of amnesia, Nicole Kidman is appropriately scared and suspicious of everyone around her, and the audience will do well to follow her lead. Christine must rely on three specific people to piece together what happened to cause this condition. The first is her husband Ben (Colin Firth), who has more or less put his entire life on hold to care for Christine and bring her some sense of normalcy. The second is Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neuropsychologist who enlists Christine's help in preparing a paper on atypical types of amnesia, and who seems to be helping her leave a trail of breadcrumbs that will aid in recovering her memory.
The third person, however, is Christine herself, and she does this by leaving herself various and purposefully enigmatic clues for her to discover when she once again wakes up with no memory of her life. This is sort of where any film like this lives or dies, and the fact that Memento did this entire plot device to perfection already makes it disheartening to discover that this film seems content to rehash it yet again, if only as a means to an end. With relatively no supporting cast to speak of, this becomes a three-hander, and thankfully these are all incredibly talented actors who can do quite a bit with very, very little, and so spending ninety minutes in their company is certainly not a terrible proposition.
It's other great asset is that aforementioned running time. The film doesn't overstay its welcome, and rips through scenes with a ton of momentum, it just doesn't service the plot as well as a more expansive running time might have. Compare this film, though only for a moment, with this month's Gone Girl. Both books run just of 400 pages, yet there's nearly an hour's difference in their film adaptations' running time. When one further considers the amount of subplots and information that the film Gone Girl jettisoned, I can only imagine how much stuff was cut from this book to get it down to 90 minutes. This ends up leaving the whole endeavor with the pungent stench of a Reader's Digest version of the book.
As any fan of The Sixth Sense will tell you, if a film's got a great twist, it can cure a multitude of sins--a significant multitude in that particular film's case. Therefore, it's doubly disappointing that this film's twist is so preposterous, and ultimately relies on such a Herculean suspension of disbelief, that it falls apart almost as it's happening. The initial twist is actually pretty good, and though it is projected a bit too much, too soon, it's the aftermath and the ramifications of said twist that require downright pole vaulting leaps of logic. You may just go mad exploring all the potential "but what about this?" questions that will arise on the car ride home.
Take, for example, last year's vastly superior film Trance. That film similarly suffered a suffocating death by a thousand cuts, but it was perhaps so preposterous that it ultimately ended up working when it really shouldn't have. This film is so dead serious that its equally ludicrous twist ends up feeling as if it walked in from another film altogether. This is a dour film with a tone that's downright funereal, and unravels its final moments with all the charm of a belligerent drunk demanding to know if you "got" what he was just saying. If you're going to force an audience to accept something so utterly ridiculous as to be laughable, it helps if you set a tone that compliments your demands.
Before I Go To Sleep isn't a bad film. It's competently made and well-acted by its trio of stars, though anyone hoping for a twist reprisal of Mark Strong & Colin Firth's love affair from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will be sorely disappointed. It's basically like an old pair of sweatpants, reliably comfortable, but sorely lacking the image of authority it so desperately wants to project. It's nothing you haven't seen before, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the typical amnesiac thriller will constantly be three steps ahead of it. Now, none of this is to say that no filmmaker or writer should ever attempt this line of plotting ever again, it's simply a plea for those filmmakers and storytellers to reinvent the genre. It's been done before, and lord knows it can be done again, it's just probably worth waiting until it can be done properly. Otherwise, what's the point?
*As a plea to anyone desiring to go see the film, I must caution you to avoid the film's imdb page, as it contains a major league spoiler right in the cast listing. 

GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]