Tuesday, August 12, 2014
One of life's cruelest contradictions has always been the sadness which lies within so many of the people who make us all laugh. John Belushi and Chris Farley always spring to mind as lovable comedians whose depression and substance abuse took them from this world too soon. And now, it is Robin Williams, who is dead at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide. While this news came as a shock to me, I strangely wasn't surprised. Williams had always dealt with substance abuse, had been a lonely child, and I always sensed darkness lying beneath his constant energy, wit, and desire to deflect attention from his personal life by creating a character we all know and love. Like everyone has already said ad nauseum, Williams effected all of our lives. With a decades-long career spanning all genres and mediums, Robin Williams is beloved, and will be missed.
From stand-up, to the small screen, to the silver screen, and eventually finding his way on Broadway, Robin Williams was more than the maniacal improv genius he is so well know for. I enjoyed Williams when he was "on," when he was hijacking Letterman, doing wild stand up routines, lighting up the screen in his funniest roles. But his dramatic roles mustn't be overlooked. His best work was his ability to combine the two in some memorable performances. In the early 2000s, Williams delved deep into his dark side, personifying what now appear to be real demons in some villainous roles in Insomnia and One Hour Photo. It was quite a transformation for Williams, who pushed his range further than ever before. Williams was an institution, the uncle to us all. We all know about his performances and his awards so let's not retread.
I am deeply saddened by Williams' suicide, but not because he was a close personal friend. I am upset because suicide is an epidemic in this country and the death of Williams should point us in the direction of this disturbing trend. I am sure it will for a while, but I doubt it will sustain. More people die in America from suicide than car accidents today. Think about that. There is deep, dark sadness all around every one of us, and no matter how outwardly entertaining, funny, or happy someone may seem they could be suffering in ways most of us cannot comprehend. I have had suicide in my extended family, I have had my own bouts of sadness, but nothing even close to the depression one must feel in order to take their own life away from so many people who love them. Williams is survived by his wife and three children. Three children. That would be enough for me to survive, but then again I wasn't in pain like Robin Williams.
Suicide is pain, exposed in the most permanent and disturbing way imaginable. I am sad today, not because Robin Williams is gone so much as his family has to stay without him.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Boyhood restores my faith in the power of film as an art form. Amid the dog days of summer movie garbage, here is the best film of the year, a transcendent piece of storytelling that is compelling, moving, true, and unforgettable. Everyone knows the back story about director Richard Linklater shooting segments of the story over a 12 year period with the same cast, but this is not a gimmick picture. Linklater's daring move (the list of what could have gone wrong with production is endless, and filled mostly with death preponderances) pays off not in trickery, but in seamless storytelling that comes together in concert through emotional honesty. It is Linklater's masterpiece.
The story focuses on the life and times of Mason, played by Ellar Coltraine from a seven year old to a college freshman. Mason has a sister, Samantha, played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei. Their mother is a determined woman (Patricia Arquette) who struggles to make a better life for her children and ends up making mistakes in love over the years. The dad is Ethan Hawke, who at first is an earnest young man with a GTO and dreams of being a musician, but eventually turns into a responsible adult. Dad is there for the fun weekends, and it is mom who fights to keep her head above water. All of these characters float like satellites around Mason as he works his way through some of the toughest years we all have, There are ups and downs, simple moments and moments of confusion, loves and losses, the struggle to understand. Linklater taps into his characters with an honest eye.
The power of Boyhood lies in its details. Sure, there are big moments in the story as there are big moments in all our lives. Mason's mother marries her professor who turns out to be a frightening man. She hooks up with a student of her own once she becomes a college professor down the road, and things go south once again. But what sticks with me about the beginnings of these relationships is the way Linklater frames Mason's perspective of these gentlemen callers. It is a small, cockeyed glance, a look of curiosity and confusion as he witnesses another man moving into his life. A small detail, but an important one, something that still lingers.
There are moments that will reach any viewer, be it divorce, step parents, adjustments and understanding, or the simple times of happiness. As a son and now a father, I found the scenes with Mason and his father to be the most personal, and the next person in the audience may connect with something else. Regardless of the connection, this is a life unfolding in front of our eyes. As Ellar Coltraine becomes a man, so does Mason. He grows from a quiet young boy to a quiet, introverted teenager searching for himself. From trying to understand the world, Mason becomes a young man trying to understand his own existence. And there are no sweeping moments of epiphany, the music doesn't swell and characters don't change their world through unreasonable circumstances. Even when the mother's second husband turns out to be a dangerous threat, the situation is not resolved with theatrics, but in a very matter of fact way that reality dictates more often than not. He is simply... dealt with.
And the screenplay from Linklater is simple and conversational, a sublime work of ease and intelligence. It never outreaches its characters or goes for a big payoff, it simply exists, just like all of us in the end.
The transitions between years are done expertly, with music and current events shaping the year. At almost three hours long, I didn't want it to end. I could have watched this story all day long. Richard Linklater has pulled off quite a feat and created a magical movie going experience. I plan on seeing it again very soon because I know the experience will only enrich the early moments. It is rare that a film makes me want to go back almost immediately, but Boyhood begs for such a thing. I will not soon forget this.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (v), Vin Diesel (v), directed by James Gunn (121 min.)
I knew from the outset I was going to have fun with Guardians of The Galaxy. Something seemed just right from the opening credits, and the film that followed only solidified my initial reaction. Guardians of The Galaxy is the most fun anyone could have at the movies this summer. That may be faint praise with such a lackluster summer blockbuster season, but this movie would be a blast no matter what the situation. It is an exercise in tonal perfection, often times hilarious, sometimes exciting, always engaging.
The story is familiar, if only to make the wildly diverse characters and space opera adventure easy enough to follow. A brief prologue shows our hero, Peter Quill, at the bedside of his dying mother. This opening scene blindsides with an emotional punch as Quill's mother dies, he flees the hospital and is promptly scooped up by a spacecraft. Fast forward twenty years and Peter Quill has become a "junker," an adventurous pawnbroker of sorts, or a low-end Indiana Jones. He also likes to call himself Star-Lord, although nobody really jumps on board with his nickname. Quill gets his hands on an orb, the Macguffin of the film which both the good guys and the bad guys want to get their hands on. Turns out it is a planet-destroying weapon, but it doesn't matter much.
Before long everyone is trying to get their hands on this orb for money or power, and the pursuit brings Quill together with a ragtag group of misfits with their own agendas. Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned daughter of the galactic villain Thanos, and she wants the orb to get vengeance on Thanos for killing her real family. Bradley Cooper voices Rocket, a hot-headed racoon who has been genetically altered and embittered over the years. Rocket's sidekick is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree that says only one phrase. Then there is Drax, a slate-green brute with red designs on his skin. Drax and his people do not grasp the concept of speaking in metaphors, which makes for some great comedy throughout.
This band of misfits team up to defeat Thanos' disciple, Ronan, played with booming bass by Lee Pace. The plot is mechanical, merely a set up to deliver what turns out to be the funniest movie of the year in my estimation. This is a star-making turn for Pratt as the cocksure Quill, a mix of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Cooper's Rocket brings the snark, Groot the lovability, and Drax the dim-witted target. The quintet works in concert perfectly from one situation to the next, and the tone is always perfect. There is humor all throughout, but the picture never feels campy or like a spoof. And there are some rich cameos from John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom keep the film effervescent with their own comedic timing.
The universe on display feels a bit like a cobbled together version of a dozen other space adventure films, which I feel is partly the idea. The action isn't nearly as engaging as the story. We get a prison break, a number of chase scenes, and a peaceful planet on the verge of destruction, none of which are particularly original. The logistics of the plot aren't nearly as realized as the characters, which is a good thing if one has to suffer over the other. Where the CGI and the story might suffer, the inventiveness of the creatures occupying this world is enough to get this film a makeup Oscar. And on top of it all, the five central characters are all misfits in their own way, all have lost something in their past, adding weight to their budding friendships.
Guardians of The Galaxy is a wacky, wild entertainment. The freshness of the characters without any predestined baggage makes the story a treat as it unfolds without expectation. In yet another summer of mediocrity, here is one that would stand out in any hot season.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
LUCY - Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, directed by Luc Besson (89 min.)
Humans only access about 15% of our brain's capacity on average, so naturally the idea of using more is an interesting idea for science fiction, or in this case, action. Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro starred in Limitless a few years back, where Cooper's character took a drug which opened up more avenues of his cerebellum and allowed him to finish novels, dominate the stock market, and become rich and powerful. It was a slight film, but entertaining and edgy in its execution. Which brings me to Lucy, another "what if" film about the human brain. Only this movie doesn't much care about any philosophical implications or logical steps when dealing with a person whose brain suddenly increases to 100% capacity; we're here for the action.
Lucy, along with three other saps, is knocked out cold and one of the bags is sewn into her stomach. She is forced to mule this drug to the States, but before she can even get out of Taiwan she is attacked when in custody, kicked right in the stomach where the bag is (who are these fools?), and the bag hurts open. The granules flood into her system in some hyper-stylized moments of computer animation. Next thing you know, Lucy's brain capacity goes from 15 to 20%, then 30%, and so on. There are a handful of interesting things Lucy can do now, like see cellphone traces into the sky, hear from long distances, access computers, and even control objects through the manipulation of matter. Too bad the film wants to be about her exacting revenge for the most part.
Lucy turns into a badass fighting machine. She can't feel pain because that's just a blocking impulse in your brain and, well, there's nothing blocking anything anymore. Interwoven in the plight of Lucy is Professor Norman, played by Morgan Freeman who must have some sort of agreement to star in no less than fifty movies a year. Professor Norman has written books about the human brain, and Lucy seeks him out for his help. For what, I'm never quite sure. The action scenes pop up and dissipate while Norman is giving a speech in Paris, and eventually the two stories meet. But I couldn't muster the energy to keep paying attention by that point.
I didn't expect Lucy to be some sort of film neurologists would show their students in the future, but I expected it to be fun and fresh. By the third act, reality in any way, shape or form has abandoned the story. Lucy has basically turned into a combination of all the X-Men with her ability to change her hair in seconds and pin gangsters up against the ceiling with her brain. At the end, once Lucy reaches full brain capacity, she turns herself into some sort of computer and figures out ways to travel through time and space. I was lost. All the while a shootout occupies the lobby of the building where she is becoming a computer, a shootout with no point or consequence when it comes down to it because, well, Lucy is everything and everywhere? I'm not sure, because I was ready to get out of the theater.
Friday, July 11, 2014
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, directed by Matt Reeves (130 min.)
Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is not only a sequel that enhances and improves upon the origin story from 2011, it is one of the best films of 2014. That seems silly to say about a film revolving around CGI Simians and their fight against desperate humans, and it very well could have been that way. That is the magic of the film, the way it manages to counter what could be a campy premise and could easily devolve into corny farce with real, raw emotion, great performances (both human and ape, though the latter dominates here), compelling narrative threads, and thrilling action in perfect harmony with moments of important and patient development. I was blown away.
The “first” film in this series, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, was a prequel set up to bridge the gap between what happened in the present day and what Charlton Heston found in the true first film in the franchise, the 1968 classic. The success and quality of that picture leads us to Dawn, and ten years after the apes stormed the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared into the forests of Northern California. In this near future, a virus – labeled the “Simian Flu” – has spread among the humans, nearly wiping them off the planet except for a few pockets of desperate survivors immune to the disease. Meanwhile, the ape society that fled into the Redwoods has evolved even further, speaking more, thinking more, developing into a primitive tribal society in the foothills of the region. They have a caste system reminiscent of the original Planet of The Apes where the Gorillas are the muscle, the chimpanzees common society, and the Orangutans the educators and philosophers.
This raw societal dynamic is still led by Caesar, the focal point of the first film who has grown into a strong and respected leader of the apes. Caesar is, by virtue of the testing from Rise, the most evolved and thoughtful of the apes and is also a family man with a… wife?... a young impressionable son and a new baby boy. Caesar still has some fond memories of the humans while his second in command, the scarred and bitter Koba, holds nothing but hatred. None of these apes, who communicate through sign language and sparse dialogue, have seen a human in two years. So when a ragtag group of explorers pop up on the outskirts of their village, the society is upset and becomes somewhat divided.
The humans come from downtown San Francisco where a few hundred survivors have collected. This broken society is led by Dreyfus, played sparingly by Gary Oldman. The explorers who stumble upon the ape village are simply trying to get to a nearby dam to see if they can use its power to restore downtown Frisco. The de facto leader of this group is Malcolm, played with fantastic gravitas by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke. He, along with his son and his girlfriend (both lost their significant others in the plague), Ellie (Keri Russell), and a few more humans must talk their way through Caesar’s society in order to get the power they need. The relationship works, tentatively, at first. Caesar and Malcolm develop trust with one another, and learn about each other. But there is distrust and dissention among the ranks in both the human and Simian camp, and soon a double cross leads to an all out war between the two sides.
It is amazing to me the way director Matt Reeves and the screenwriters and effects crew are able to construct this film to work on so many levels. Not once are the apes farcical or goofy, they are completely believable. And not only that, even though the human actors are wonderful in their roles, there is an honest and undeniable emotional attachment to these apes. Caesar and his family are paramount to this incredibly engaging journey. There are deep philosophical elements to the story about trust and even xenophobia, and stories about friendship and what it means to lead. The action is paced perfectly, with enough time in between the big set pieces and shootouts to truly engage with characters both human and CGI. There are moments here, and shots from cinematographer Michael Seresin, which invoke the awe and wonder of early Spielberg fantasy films, especially a lovely musical moment in the forest at an abandoned gas station lit up among the greenery.
As good as Rise of The Planet of The Apes was, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is that much better, in virtually every way. The characters are smart and soulful, and there are sequences that engage us more than any summer blockbuster should do. This is an example of perfect balance in a film that is bigger than most, and could have suffered from the bloat and noise and annoyances of a certain robot franchise. Naturally these prequel films will be, at the least, a trilogy, and the set up is in place for a third entry. Bring on Battle of The Planet of The Apes.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
SNOWPIERCER: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, directed by Joon-ho Bong (126 min.)
Just when the postapocalyptic sci-fi landscape in film has started showing rust and staleness, along comes Snowpiercer, a wild and unhinged action thriller with a crazy setting and even crazier characters filling the screen. The premise is intriguing, if not a little silly when you sit and think about it. But that's the thing, don't think about it. Director Joon-ho Bong has achieved what many sic-fi directors cannot these days: he has created a world so unique and so Gonzo that one cannot help get caught up in the plight of these characters, no matter how much reality eludes the story. Snowpiercer is a one of a kind film I did not expect to see when the lights went down.
Within the train, a harsh class system has evolved between the haves and the have nots. Those kept in the tail of the train are poor and crowded, dirty and disheveled, fed only gelatin-like protein bars for every meal. This lower class are guarded heavily from getting to the front of the train, where the rich live in lush cabins and spend their time drinking and dining and enjoying nightclubs and free dental work. Occasionally, Mason (Tilda Swinton) makes a trip to the impoverished to dole out disturbing and creative punishment and set the rules straight once again. Swinton wonderfully chews scenery like she never has before, embellishing some nice idiosyncrasies in the Mason character which would fit well in a Terry Gilliam movie. This very divided system is the New World, but of course with such a divided system, revolution is never far away.
No matter how bizarre or violent Snowpiercer gets, it never dumbs itself down to appease audiences. Things are unclear for a long time, explained only as they would organically happen in conversation. There is no outsider standing in for the audience to get the whole story, so attention is necessary. And this world aboard the train and the increasingly wacky circumstances and situations build and build and deepen the film with every car. There are clever and electric action sequences, but I found myself more involved with the kooky story between these violent outbursts. These characters grow more important the closer they get to their goal, and each and every member aboard this train is compelling in their own right.
Snowpiercer is not a film for everyone, only a certain faction of sci-fi fans looking for a fresh take on a stale premise. I wasn't sure what to expect going into the picture, but what I saw was most certainly not on my radar. It is a pleasant surprise in every weird and oddball way imaginable.
Friday, June 27, 2014
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, directed by Michael Bay (157 min.)
Here we go again. Michael Bay lives in a world of adolescence, making movies for teenagers, but does that mean he has to make them unwatchable? I am all for popcorn flicks with big action and CGI, they surely have a place in this world. What I am not a fan of is overt sexism, ignorant racism, one-dimensional characters due to pure laziness, action scenes that don't know when to quit, and unnecessary excess upon excess. Transformers: Age of Extinction is more of the same, a lot more, too much more in almost every way. It's all the same stuff we have all seen in the first three Transformers films, only this one clocks in at over two and a half hours, the longest of the series. Despite it being about thirty minutes too long, not that trimming this down would make things better. It would have just made the overall experience less arduous.
The time is five years after the destruction of Chicago in the previous film, and all transformers are being rounded up and wiped out by shady government operatives, led by Kelsey Grammer's stereotypically wicked Harold Attinger. Turns out, however, Attinger is working in concert with the Decepticons, the bad ones, and a bounty hunter transformer we've never seen before. There is an entire subplot involving a big corporation in Chicago led by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who is creating his own transformers with their technology, but it doesn't matter.
Cade stumbles upon an old truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime, and one acton scene leads to another, and another, and another, and even one more, but then one more. Then, maybe one or two or ten more, and they're all the same. The bad guys come after the good guys, and one precarious situation unfolds after another. Perhaps they all make sense in the teenage mind of Michael Bay, but the plot points are brushed past at such a rapid pace in order to get to the next loud action sequence, none of it has any real consequence. The action takes us to Chicago which is mildly destroyed now, about $400 million I suppose. Then we go to Beijing, where a bomb is going to be detonated to do some stuff and some things. Who cares?! Let's get to the CGI!
Look, I completely understand what is going on here, and I know what to expect with a Michael Bay film. But does that mean the film itself has to be complete garbage? Remember way back six years ago when the origin Transformers came out, and was an entertaining summer action flick for the most part. We have come a long way from there, and gone way down on the quality scale. Make big loud action films, fine, but at least make them worth seeing. Bay's typical sexism is on display, with every woman used merely as an object. And the racism is in tact as well; the only black character is a big, loud, sassy black woman with attitude. He can get away with making trash movies, but how does Bay get by with such overt sexism and racism time and time again.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
THE ROVER: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, directed by David Michod (103 min.)
There is nothing cheery about The Rover, director David Michod's follow up to his searing Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom. The Rover is bleak, depressing, violent, and altogether captivating thanks to two intensely focused performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. Australian crime thrillers like The Rover rarely come with brightness or hope, and this picture carries misery in spades. This may not be the most glowing picture to paint for a film, as most of us go to be entertained and enjoy escapist thrills, but there is a place for the dark and dreary in cinema. For those able to find enjoyment in morally desolate filmmaking, here is a film that captivates.
As the title card explains at the outset, The Rover takes place in Australia ten years after "the collapse." Society has crumbled to a point of barely hanging on, at least in the Outback where things surely weren't bustling beforehand. This may be somewhere around 2030, but it may as well be the Old West. Eric (Pearce) is a hardened loner, a personification of the harsh landscape surrounding him. Disheveled, bearded and dirty, Eric wants no company, has no friends, desires almost nothing. But his car is stolen by three ne'er do wells who crash their own truck outside a dilapidated bar where he is having a drink. The three men are fleeing the scene of a shootout, or something along those lines, none of which is fully explained. Eric manages to get their truck up and running and pursues the men. All he wants is his car back, but the trio refuse to return it. They knock him out cold and leave him on the side of the road, but Eric will not stop until his car is returned and vengeance is taken.
Along his pursuit, Eric runs into Rey (Pattinson), a dim-witted American who is brothers with one of the three men and was shot and left for dead in the unexplained altercation. Eric gets Rey to a doctor so he can have his wound cleaned and dressed, but not because he cares at all for Rey. He simply needs Rey to take him to his brother. The rest of the film is the journey of these two men, where horrible things unfold and very little is made in the way of forward progress regarding their relationship. Eric is practically soulless, his eyes containing nothing more than rage and sadness, and no matter how much Rey tries to create companionship between them in his simple-minded conversations, Eric refuses to succumb.
The plot is thin and nothing more than a device to showcase two more important aspects of the film: The World and the performances. This universe of societal collapse is unsettling, and the people who God has left behind here seem to have let the despair get the better of them. There is a distinct Asian influence to the population. In the search for his car, Eric also runs across a strange and disturbing house where an old woman speaks obtusely while offering up young boys to Eric. The ruin of the world has subsequently ruined the minds and hearts of the people remaining.
Guy Pearce's performance is spare and captivating, a work more of eyes and cold stares than words. His single-minded determination is the dark, polar opposite to Pattinson's simplistic and warm characterization of Rey. I have enjoyed watching Robert Pattinson continue to shed his glamour doll image form the Twilight films by tackling roles in films like this. He is a talented actor and his role his is unlike anything I have seen from him thus far.
The Rover is also shockingly violent at times to match the bleak nature of the landscape, but for the right audience there is plenty to enjoy here. It isn't for everyone, but it is most certainly a captivating picture rife with performances that create tension and make for a harrowing story.
Thursday, June 5, 2014
EDGE OF TOMORROW: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, directed by Doug Liman (113 min.)
Edge of Tomorrow is a furiously energetic and thrilling summer action spectacle. From the very beginning it pushes the pedal to the floor and it never lets up. And even though most elements of the sci-fi story are familiar at their core, this is a truly original, inventive film. There is also quite a bit of humor and a connection with the characters that keep the story engaging, mostly due to the dedication of its leads, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The mechanics of the plot may outsmart the film in the end, but by the time the climax rolled around I was too busy catching my breath to nitpick what was an enjoyable and fresh experience.
Cage is thrown into action in one of these metal suits and, in a panic, kills one of the Mimics before it eventually kills him. And just like that, he wakes up back at the military base, starting the entire day over again, thoroughly confused. Despite his confusion and his attempts at an explanation, Cage is thrown back into the fray, is killed, and starts the day over yet again. This pattern continues until he gets a little better each day. Then during one of these trips into battle he meets Rita on the beach and walks her through a few daring misses. Rita seems confused by Cage's psychic abilities, but it turns out she knows what is happening to him.
I won't say more about the why or how of Cage's condition because anything can spoil the clever twists and turns. Cage repeats the day and the battle, employing Rita's help and the duo get a little further towards their ultimate goal each time around. Director Doug Liman is having fun with this Groundhog Day structure, as Cage trains every day and when he breaks a bone, Rita shoots him and they start the day over. There is some real humor from Cruise in this second act until the plot gets ramped up and the stakes get pushed higher. The action in Edge of Tomorrow is breathtaking, and it gets better with each restarted day. There is quite a bit of CGI necessary to make the suits and the aliens function properly, but it is seamless and never distracting. The opening scenes, where Bill Paxton - playing an Army Sergeant - does that Bill Paxton thing and chews scenery like a champ, sets a classic, militant tone in a futuristic world. I can't imagine invading a beach in France was a coincidence.
It is refreshing to see Cruise play basically the opposite of his typical character, and Emily Blunt has really found a niche playing headstrong and athletic women in sic-fi films. And just when the repeated days might get redundant, Liman and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (along with a team of writers) mix up the action with some car chases and scenery switches at just the right time. The balance of the action is key in the film functioning from start to finish. And as I said earlier, maybe the mechanics of the plot, in the end, outsmart the finale. I can't quite make sense of the way things ended up in those final moments, but honestly it didn't detract from my nearly euphoric enjoyment.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
GODZILLA: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, directed by Gareth Edwards (123 min.)
It's hard to believe a summer blockbuster could pull off what the new Godzilla pulls off. Here is a large summer monster movie that is surprising from start to finish in so many ways, that is patient, that is slow burning, and an action tentpole picture that earns its thrills when they do come. It is too easy to throw scene after scene of destruction on the screen and assault audiences with noise and fireballs, and director Gareth Edwards had the perfect vehicle for such a noisy barrage. However, Edwards, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, decided restraint was the proper way to approach this rebirth of the King of Monsters. The result of their calm, calculated re-imagining is a breath of fresh air.
The Japanese village has been shut off, quarantined, deemed uninhabitable due to the radiation from the disaster. Ford has grown up to be a Naval Officer and is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olson). Meanwhile, Joe Brody has never been able to move past the disaster in 1999 and swears government conspiracy. Ford gets a call at his home in San Francisco informing him that Joe has been arrested sneaking back into the Japanese village to try and get some important disks from his old home. Reluctantly, Ford flies to Japan to free his dad and is subsequently pulled headfirst into the plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace. Joe's cries for justice reach the ears of Dr. Serizawa, who believes Joe might have some important information about what actually destroyed the power plant in '99. Turns out, as well all knew, Joe's conspiracies were correct. The disaster wasn't an earthquake, but it wasn't Godzilla either.
I won't spoil any more plot points but I will say Godzilla is a surprising thriller in several areas. The appearance of the King of Monsters is more than an hour into this two-hour film, but the anticipation has been earned. There is mystery at the core of the picture, and it builds upon dread and impending doom so that when we first see Godzilla it is not just another CGI money shot, but a well-earned, awe-inspiring moment. Edwards understands the effectiveness of patience and the power of making audiences wait to see what they've come to see. He is borrowing straight from the Jaws playbook, and it works. Even when Godzilla flashes his destructive brilliance in Frisco - in surprising ways - the battle scenes are not long and loud and they don't move a million miles per hour. They are all encompassing, but brief, and this addition by subtraction makes the whole thing feel satisfying. These scenes in the film's climax, where we really get the first extended looks at Godzilla, are the antithesis of the climactic moments in Man of Steel.
The performances here all feel like performances that don't belong in a Godzilla film, where hokey dialogue and bad acting became status quo. Cranston delivers a dedicated, weighty performance as Joe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's stiffness seems to work well with his Ford character. Olsen and Watanabe serve their purpose to the picture, but Godzilla revolves around the work of father and son. Godzilla is a solid summer blockbuster, but not really in any ways I expected. The cinematography is elegant, the screenplay is smart, the direction sound, and the monster himself is given a fresh rebirth on his sixtieth birthday.
Friday, May 9, 2014
NEIGHBORS: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, directed by Nicholas Stoller (96 min.)
Mac and Kelly attempt to make friends with Teddy and his brothers on the outset, sharing weed with them as a peace offering. They end up staying all night and partying because, well, they have the baby monitor so its fine to leave your four-month old at home alone. Bonds seem to have been forged and friends made, but pretty soon Teddy doesn't listen to their pleas to keep things down, the cops are called, and Mac and Teddy begin a war of pranks and underhanded schemes against one another that run the length of the film. The sabotages escalate in some funny scenes, some not quite as funny, but all with a great deal of energy and conviction from the actors.
The attempts from Mac and Kelly get elaborate. They try and sabotage the house by flooding the basement because college kids don't have money to fix things like that. But the fraternity brothers raise money by making some plastic molds of certain body parts in a sequence that feels forced and isn't as funny as it might have been on paper. Then they decide to try and turn Teddy and Pete against each other which works, but then it doesn't work or it doesn't really have much of an effect. Mac and Kelly employ their two friends, the main one being Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz), to help take down the fraternity and, naturally, chaos ensues. Jimmy does what any self-respecting idiot sidekick friend should do, and that is get the elephant's share of laughs.
Some things really work in Neighbors, other things are just a little too clumsy or they miss the mark in the humor department. Efron is solid, and even a little sinister as Teddy. And in a nice ironic twist, or perhaps just a sign of the times and the natural progression of age, it is funny to see Seth Rogen struggling to be the responsible adult in a film like this. Rose Byrne has her moments too, although one scene involving her breast milk in the middle of the picture is one of those aforementioned moments that don't really induce laughs so much as unease. That is the gist of Neighbors, which is laugh out loud hilarious when it is focused, but head scratching from time to time. Fortunately, the hits manage to outweigh the misses in the end.
Thursday, May 1, 2014
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, directed by Marc Webb (142 min.)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers an identity crisis almost from the get go, undermining any good work the film manages to do with the character. There are strong elements here, and there is some fantastic action, but there are also too many plates in the air and too much confusion for a superhero movie. Spider-Man 3 suffered this disease but to a much greater extent. This is no where near the disastrous mess that final Raimi/Maguire picture turned out to be. There are things to enjoy here, and director Marc Webb captures the essence of Spidey with great humor and agility. I only wish they would have simplified where they decided to complicate.
While Peter struggles to find common ground with his lady, villains are forming all over New York City. The central villain, and the most interesting, is Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx. Max, after falling into a vat of electric eels in a typical super-villain genesis narrative, becomes Electro, glowing neon blue and feeding off electrical energy to gain power. The film does a good job early of creating empathy for Max, who was a nobody doing grunt work for Oscorp. But once Max/Electro turns on Spider-Man in a rather abrupt scene, he becomes nothing more than a special effects prop. There is also Harry Osborne, the spoiled rich kid played by young Dicaprio clone Dane DeHaan. His rise and fall takes about ten minutes it seems, as he becomes the new Green Goblin and is swiftly dispensed in the third act. Oh yeah, and there is also Paul Giamatti, getting about three minutes of screen time as Rhino in a completely wasted role. Too many plates in the air.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has moments of joy for the audience, mainly in the opening scenes where we ride along with Spidey shooting webs across the city. But before long the entire focus of the film shoots off in more directions than a web. We are here, then there, then we get long moments of exposition that don't truly explain anything. There is a good 45-minute stretch in the middle of the picture where we don't see Spider-Man at all. I am all for development and attention to character, but not dialogue simply for dialogue's sake. Garfield and Stone have obvious chemistry, and Foxx is interesting for a spell as Electro, but the entire thing just ends up messy and confusing, and twenty minutes too long to care.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
BLUE RUIN: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (90 min.)
From the outset it is clear Dwight's appearance doesn't match the intensity in his eyes. He is hidden beneath dirty long hair and a full beard that covers nearly all of his face. This makes us focus on his eyes, and they are burning with desire. For what, we aren't sure yet. Dwight is homeless, a drifter, with only a dilapidated blue car to his name, but as I mentioned his disposition doesn't fit that of a homeless man. He doesn't drink or act sickly or shuffle through the streets with a shopping cart. He sneaks into homes to bathe himself and collects meals from trashcans, then eats while reading in his car. In the morning, Dwight is brought in by a police officer, but even this seems out of place. She is not there to put him behind bars, but she wants him to be in a safe place to tell him some bad news, news that sets the plot of Blue Ruin in motion.
Dwight (Macon Blair) is told by the officer that a certain man is being released from prison. Despite his lifeless body language, Dwight shows his emotions through his eyes and regardless of how much the officer pleas with Dwight to not do anything, she must understand what is going to happen. Because we see his eyes, and we know. Just like that, Dwight begins planning his revenge against this man, whose crime is clearly responsible for Dwight's current psychological and physical state. He gets his car running and tries to steal a gun, which doesn't quite work so he takes a different route. The man is released form prison and Dwight, waiting outside the prison behind the limo picking him up, follows the man to a bar.
I don't want to spoil the events which transpire because it will inadvertently spoil everything afterwards. Dwight begins to exact his revenge, but the target shifts and changes and the scope broadens. He sneaks into another home and cuts his hair and shaves his beard and it's as if we are given a new character in the film. Seeing Dwight clean shaven seems to open up the picture on a visual level. He visits his sister, who may be in danger, and the plot moves forward even more. Dwight seeks out a high school friend, Ben (Devin Ratray), who supplies him with guns and teaches him how to handle himself. Again, I don't want to say any more because watching the revenge plot unfold is the entirety of the film.
Blue Ruin is quiet and terse throughout with bursts of shocking violence along the way. Macon Blair is captivating as Dwight, as he explains what it is he is doing and must do in a flat, detached voice that adds a certain chill tot he dialogue. Everyone else in the film has only a handful of scenes along the way, it is Blair's film and he handles it well. Director Jeremy Saulnier makes sure to keep the color blue in a majority of the scenes, and allows the film to happen rather than forcing any of the action. The climax is a bit of a mess the way it unfolds, but it is brief and appropriate when all is said and done. There is nothing earth shattering in the picture, but nothing is intended to be. As a revenge film, Blue Ruin is a nice addition to the genre and a sign of great things to come from its director and star, who are both worth the price of admission.
Friday, April 18, 2014
TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, directed by Wally Pfister (119 min.)
Transcendence is a confused and muddled film with big ideas at the beginning, big ideas which are systematically taken apart step by step thanks to a weak script and illogical behavior from central characters. This ultimately derails everything. The actors involved give it their all, I suppose, but the screenplay pours water all over their performances. Here is a sci-fi thriller with no faith in its own ideas and no energy. At the heart of everything lies an interesting premise: what happens when technology and humanity ultimately meld together? What would be the implications of such a thing, where self awareness was not a mutually exclusive idea to the human race, and computers and the internet were able to achieve self awareness? In the hands of a competent film, these ideas with this plot could go places. But, alas, we are not given the tools to carry these theories anywhere interesting.
The bullet was fired by a member of R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a rogue group of militant anti-tech people, led by Bree (Kate Mara). Well, Bree seems to be the only one we get to know, so I suppose she's a leader of some sorts. This sure seems like a ragtag unit, which leads me to their assault on computer labs across the country… how? They can't even manage to have a proper secret hiding place throughout the film, yet they can simultaneously infiltrate secure laboratories and blow them up? I am digressing into the illogical aspects of the picture, and if I do that we will be here all night. So let's move on.
Evelyn has a great idea. She plans to upload Will into his own supercomputer and put him online so he can live after his body dies. The plan is so hair brained that I can't imagine even the most layman individual thinking it is a good idea, regardless of the emotional connection. Evelyn and Will's friend, Max, played by the always milquetoast Paul Bettany, realizes the implications of such an endeavor. But here is this brilliant scientist, risking the fate of humanity on uploading her husband to a computer so she can hang out with him forever. Either way it happens, and Will is uploaded to the internet, so his mind apparently encompasses everything. Literally, everything, so that alone should end the film. But no, Will has Evelyn move out to a dying desert town where they build an expansive field of solar panels and an underground computer lab. That's right…
In my opinion, there are two very important elements to a successful sic-fi film. 1) Believe in the idea, and 2) make certain the characters act logically in the face of the illogical. Most sic-fi films dip their toe in the illogical, and as long as the characters in the story handle this lack of sense with a very firm conviction and dedication to the logical, the picture works. Transcendence has neither of these things. Logic abandons the thesis of the picture for sure, but it even leaves very basic, very simple moments in the film. The whole thing unravels from one scene to the next, and the weak screenplay falls apart at the seams with every word. Wally Pfister, who is a fantastic cinematographer, loses sight of anything interesting or worth our time in his debut directorial feature. What a wasted opportunity, and what a waste of two hours in the theater.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The central story of Disconnect focuses on a seemingly normal family with all of the distractions of work and technology we all have in our lives. The father, Rich (Jason Bateman, an underrated dramatic actor), is a busy lawyer who loves his kids but allows his work to stay in the way. His wife, Lydia, is played sparingly by Hope Davis. They have two children, a teenage daughter and a younger teen son, Ben (Jonah Bobo) who becomes the focus of this tragic tale. Ben is like many teenage boys, awkward and quiet, consumed by his music and a loner in the halls of his school. Naturally, Ben's "different-ness" catches the eye of two hateful boys in his class. But instead of bullying him in the halls the two boys take a route of bullying and cruelty all too familiar these days; they go to the internet. They use Facebook to create a fake account of a young girl and begin flirting and luring Ben into a trap.
Our second narrative revolves around a reporter, Nina Dunham, played by Andrea Riseborough. Nina is an investigative journalist who catches sight of an online sex website where young men perform favors on camera for those willing to pay on the other end. She meets and reaches out to Kyle, one of the young men, and urges him to tell his story on a special report with his identity kept secret. He agrees, and his report begins to upset things within his group and draws the attention of the FBI. All the while, an odd flirtation grows between Nina and Kyle.
The third story involves Derek and Cindy Hull, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton, as a married couple dealing in their own individual ways with the death of their young son. Cindy reaches out to people in a chat group online, developing a relationship with one man in particular, while Derek's grief sinks inward and he disappears from Cindy in life. Derek is struggling at work and Cindy is lost at home, so when their identity is stolen and their bank accounts hacked, the devastation cripples their lives. They hire a private investigator, Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) to find out who did this. Mike also happens to be the father of one of the boys responsible for bullying young Ben, and causing a tragic event that unravels the family in our central story.
All of these stories are given their own time and focus, and the balancing act by director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern keeps things afloat. While the story of the Ben and his family takes center stage, the narrative finds easy and unforced ways of weaving these tales together. As I mentioned there is a tragedy that is the focus of the picture, but in each of these stories there is tragedy and misfortune. What weaves these stories together even more than characters and situations is the human condition and the way we retreat into the internet to find help. As the title suggests, there is a disconnect between us all these days, and that is the thesis of the screenplay. More often than not, there are people around us we can go to, but perhaps not as easily as we can find chat rooms and online relationships.
Friday, March 28, 2014
NOAH: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, directed by Darren Aronofsky (137 min.)
I admire many things about the work of Darren Aronofsky, but what I love the most is his ambition, and the passion in each and every moment in all of his films. You can feel his heart and soul being poured into his pictures, regardless of the scope of his story. And now, after the success of Black Swan, Aronofsky was given $130 million, an all-star cast, and The Old Testament in order to make his first epic. Noah is a wildly ambitious, inventive take on a biblical legend, and a story that will certainly ruffle the feathers of a few purists along the way. But Aronofsky clearly set out to challenge his audience, and challenge he does. This is a robust film, one deep with ideas, powerful in imagery, and moving in performances.
The Creator reaches out to Noah in a number of ways early on, most notably in some hallucinatory dreams where Noah is shown the destruction of the world. He seeks out advice from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who assumes fire with cover the planet. "Not fire," Noah informs him. "This is death by water." He figures out his mission: build an ark for The Creator's animals and Noah's family, and survive the annihilation. This is the basic story as told through time, but what is not covered on a regular basis is the impending hoard of wicked men, led by Tubalcain (Ray Winstone), direct defendant of Cain himself. What is also left out of most retellings are The Watchers, fallen angels who have been encased in gangly rock and lava bodies for eternity. These Watchers, with the gravelly voices of Nick note and Frank Langella, protect Noah on his quest and help him construct the ark.
The ark was actually built in New York State, and is an impressive set piece. The animals traveling toward the ark in two-by-two formation is some effective CGI, and the flood itself is more furious than the stories may have ever described before. What I found so fascinating about Noah is the fact that the ark is built, the flood occurs, and the family is set adrift merely an hour into the film. What happens next in the narrative is an unexpected dose of psychological turmoil within Noah, and a family drama unfolding with wonderful tension and emotion. Noah becomes conflicted about what The Creator has told him, whether or not he and his family are part of the plan moving forward, and his decision on this matter upends the passengers. Connelly as the hard-working supportive wife, has a scene where she confronts Noah and his decision that is among the most intensely powerful moments in her career. And Watson digs deep in her role as Ila, finding new levels as an actress. The three central characters are fantastic, and Winstone the perfect antagonist.
There are so many timeless ideas, and criticisms on modern culture. Man is to blame for the destruction of the world in the film, Noah is a staunch environmentalist and vegan, certain aspects of modern culture that fit seamlessly into a story older than time. Is the film itself something great? I don't quite know. It's hard to say here on opening day. What I do know is it is a busy film that somehow never feels crammed full or rushed, a picture that is always moving forward while taking time to breathe. Noah is a picture that will take time to properly judge. That doesn't mean it will weaken over the years, that is merely speculation as to how brilliant it may seem a decade down the road.