Monday, April 14, 2014

"Most Wanted" a Deserved #2

Kermit the Frog and company are quick to admit at the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted that sequels usually aren't quite as good as the original. In song, no less. And true to form, the sequel we have in theaters now isn't quite as good or memorable as 2011's The Muppets. It's not for lack of trying, however, as Jim Henson's creations crack every joke, drop in every celebrity cameo, and break every wall - especially the fourth - they can in their attempt to follow up the force of pure nostalgia that came before it.

Director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (sans Jason Segel this go-around) return to continue the story of the Muppets, fresh off their comeback show and ready to figure out the plot of the sequel. The plot sees the gang going on a world tour to take advantage of their rediscovered popularity, but subverted by an evil talent agent (Ricky Gervais) and a criminal mastermind Kermit look-alike named Constantine, who replaces everyone's favorite amphibian and sends his predecessor to a gulag run by a Russian Tina Fey. Together, the duo plan to use the Muppets as a cover in a plot to steal the crown jewels of Great Britain. Yes, the plot sounds silly. But considering this is a Muppets movie, it makes the best kind of irreverent sense.
Yes, everybody is back, even that one you forgot existed.
Freed from the shackles of a human-centric storyline (sorry, Segel; your heart was in the right place), Muppets Most Wanted focuses all of its attention where it SHOULD, on the felt-covered puppets with personality that we've become accustomed to over the previous decades. One of the major complaints about the 2011 Muppets is that it focused too much on Walter, a human-raised Muppet whose quest to join the group was the central theme. That the story gives more story to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Walter (yes, yes, but it's okay now because now he's one of them), and Sam the Eagle as main protagonists, while relegating their human counterparts to chiefly supportive roles, is a real step up, allowing the characters to thrive on their own now that they've become re-acclimated to the spotlight. Characters sound more like themselves (no more out of tune Fozzie), and the workload is shuffled around a bit more so that the A-Listers aren't the only ones carrying the film, or spouting the best dialogue.
Now Miss Piggy isn't the only one who wants him.
The film also capitalizes on two fronts, with both its human stars and soundtrack. No, Most Wanted was never going to upgrade from Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, but they get the absolute most they could out Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey. I've never been a big Gervais fan, but as a secondary antagonist with a snarky tongue, he fits in well. Fey of course shines, her lack of serious singing chops or accent skills actually adding to her humorous performance. And Burrell is pitch perfect as a French Interpol agent whose antics with Sam the Eagle (as a patriotic CIA agent, naturally) make for some of the movie's funniest bits. And that's not even including the numerous celebrity cameos, of which special attention needs to be given to Jemaine Clement, Salma Hayek, Josh Groban, Frank Langella, Usher, Stanley Tucci and Danny Trejo as standouts. Linking all this together is the soundrack by returning composer Christophe Beck and music supervisor (and Academy Award winner) Brett McKenzie (thus completing the Flight of the Conchords loop), which isn't quite as strong as it their collaboration in 2011 but doesn't have the glaring weaknesses, either (I still have nightmares of Chris Cooper attempting to rap). "Something So Right", performed by Miss Piggy and featuring Celine Dion, is engaging and beautiful while clearly meant to be remembered at awards season, and most of the other songs are varying degrees of entertainment. The only real complaint I have is with the variation, which sees the intruder Constantine overexposed and delivering two solo performances before Kermit even gets one from the confines of his prison cell. I hate criticizing Beck's work, since he's been delivering some great soundtracks over the years, but this is one that - while still good - doesn't quite compare with his previous efforts.
Name those celebrity cameos!
One final issue is the lack of focus on a target audience. Naturally, the Muppets gained their popularity from a generation that is showing more than a few gray hairs at this point. But at it's heart, they're supposed to be childrens' entertainment, and that's where the script fails. It's not that the movie isn't funny. It's HILARIOUS. but most of what makes the movie entertaining is dependent on the audience understanding pop culture references that sail well over smaller tykes' heads. How many kids would recognize Constantine wearing the iron teeth of James Bond villain Jaws? Or Kermit trussed up like Hannibal Lecter? Or gulag prisoners performing the opening number from A Chorus Line? This isn't a problem, per se, and fits in well with the personalities the characters have previously established. And there are a few gags (especially a couple of physical ones) at which kids will laugh raucously, but they're far overshadowed by those that will appeal only to those who understand the reference.
Easily the movie's best parts.
Without the nostalgia factor that made the 2011 film such a big hit, it was doubtless that Muppets Most Wanted would be a disappointment of sorts. But that honestly means little when this much fun is happening on the big screen. The irreverent story, self-referential humor, interesting characters and fun musical numbers make for something that is destined to come to rest in your DVD collection. Yes, it fails as a true "family" film, and it doesn't quite stack up against its immediate predecessor. It crosses just enough lines to be wittily eccentric, but is a bit too reliant on pop culture references to be "funny." But for those who grew up admiring the TV show's wackiness it's a worthy followup to the newly-reestablished movie franchise, warts and all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Oscars 2013 Catchup: 'Dallas Buyers Club' & 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Well, all right all right all right.
As I mentioned almost a month ago, my work status and living conditions cut into my movie-going availability for this new year. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on January 16'th, I had only seen four of the eight nominees for Best Picture (which expanded to five when I took in Philomena). Consider the fact that last year's Oscars were the first in which I'd seen ALL of the Best Picture nominees and you can see what a precipitous fall that was. And despite needing to play catch-up on 2014 films (with movies like Ride Along and Non-Stop, I might be doing myself a favor waiting for DVD), I still want to know what made the most recent nominees tick and why they were so favored. And so I recently rented two of last year's Best Picture nominees, looking to see if either of them deserved to be spoken in the same sentence as big winners Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar for Best Actor for portraying the real-life Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, in which Woodroof goes from rodeo enthusiast and serial hellraiser to terminal patient during the giant AIDS scare of the 1980's. Faced with the impossibility of obtaining life-saving drugs in the United States, he heads south of the border to get help via non-FDA-approved medication in Mexico. With the assistance of a fellow patient and trans woman Rayon (fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto), Woodruff traffics and distributes this unapproved medication to others ostracized by the system.

Let's be honest; as much as I love Chiwetel Ejiofor, and as AMAZING as he was in 12 Years, McConaughey ABSOLUTELY put forth the best performance by a leading man in 2013. It's easy to point to his physical transformation - his Woodruff looks like he could be snapped in half by Lou Ferrigno - but its the acting side of this man which deserves the most praise. McConaughey absolutely masters the screen, and when you consider what he as already accomplished in the world of entertainment last year (Mud, HBO's True Detective, and even stealing some early scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, which we'll get to later), that this is his (and the) greatest acting achievement of 2013 is really saying something. And while he's surrounded by a good supporting cast - including solid second-stringer Jennifer Garner as the requisite fictional love interest - the only one who steals any of the naked bongo player's spotlight is Leto, whose transformation into the (also fictional) Rayon is haunting in its perfection and commanding presentation. And to address the elephant in the room, I understand peoples' opinions that a real trans woman should have played the role. Their arguments make a lot of sense, however, to that I have two responses. One is that Leto's work does absolutely nothing to marginalize, insult or make light of the trans community. The other is that this is ACTING, and if Leto was the best actor - trans or not - to portray the role, than he was the right one to be cast. I know it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but does that also mean Idris Elba, Damien Lewis, Emma Watson and Daniel-Day Lewis can only play British people? That seems a tad restrictive, and kind of unnecessary. If someone is the best fit for the role, then it should be offered to them. And when they do as good a job as Leto does, there's not that much left to complain about.
Two of 2013's best.
Okay, tangent over... The story itself is also standout, with the screenplay by relative newcomers Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack doing an excellent job developing the characters and setting the tone. Vallee really transports the viewer back to the 1980's and captures the fears, prejudices and events of the era with a camera style that feels appropriately intimate. We're SUPPOSED to fall in love with these characters, and the director does absolutely everything within his power to make that happen. The only thing preventing the film from being perfect is the editing, which more often than not is excessively jarring and takes the attention of the audience away from the well-crafted story. It also draws attention to the rare story weaknesses, putting a small chink into what could have been a flawless film.
I love me some Rayon, even if she doesn't actually exist...
But even with those light missteps, Dallas Buyers Club is easily among last year's best offerings. Even if McConaughey and Leto hadn't won their well-deserved Oscars, you should do yourself a favor and see this movie if you haven't done so already. Between the excellent acting and mind-shattering story, this movie EARNED its Best Picture nomination.

But while you can see at a glance why Dallas Buyers Club earned a nomination, it's not so easy to say, unseen, where The Wolf of Wall Street fits in. On one hand, it's from a filmmaker (Martin Scorcese) who easily sits atop many experts' Best Director lists, and has absolutely earned that distinction. It's also headlined by superb talents in Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who now has more Academy Award nominations than an embarrassingly long list of talents like Gary Oldman and Bill Murray) and even a scene-stealing McConaughey. It's even got a screenplay by a man (Terence Winter) who cut his teeth on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. On the other hand, a LOT of controversy came out of this release, from the accusations that condones greed and sexism, amongst a litany of other transgressions carried out the film's characters. It has the distinction of containing the most uses of the word "fuck" in a mainstream motion picture, and that level of f-bomb dropping usually indicates a lack of creativity, rather than a surplus. Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Jordan Belfort, this definitely wasn't going to be as cheer-worthy as any of the other nominees. Of course, that didn't matter as it still turned out to be one of the best flicks I've seen in recent years.
Little known fact: Leo doesn't crumple up and throw away money, but James Franco does.
As I mentioned before, Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort's life, most notably his glorious rise on Wall Street to his equally precipitous fall from grace, fueled by a life of drugs, infidelity, outrageous behavior and general hooliganism, which eventually got him caught by the FBI. From the word go, you get a real impression of what kind of movie you're in for. The language is crude, the pace is hectic, and personalities are outrageous to the point of lunacy. And whether or not this is consistent with the tone of the book (and many reviewers say it is), this kind of energy with the New York Stock Exchange set as the background is entertainment incarnate. The acting is also top notch. As I mentioned, McConaughey steals a few scenes, even though they are decidedly at the beginning of the picture. Kyle Chandler shows up and puts in a suitable Kyle Chandler offering as an FBI investigator. And while I'm not entirely certain how I feel about Margot Robbie's performance as the mandatory female love interest, two items seriously impress me. First is that her pitch-perfect Brooklyn accent came out of an Australian actress. Second, she plays a vastly different role than her admittedly-smaller part in romantic comedy About Time. She never steals the scenes from the leads, but holds her own opposite more experienced talent, so that at least is commendable.
But the show belongs to these boys.
But this film is definitely a boy's club, and three men in particular are the ringleaders of this circus: Scorcese, DiCaprio and Hill. The director tackles a topic that is not quite as offbeat for him as the kid-friendly Hugo but still feels a bit apart from even his New York-set titles. On the surface it's the kind of nihilistic glorification of greed and selfishness that had NYSE audiences cheering at the inappropriate bits upon its release. But in reality it's easy to see where the guy in charge draws the line. When the boys are running a successful firm and (arguably) harming no-one, or when Belfort is comically embroiled in the middle of a life-altering scandal, it's easy to be drawn in and amused by the hilarious antics of the protagonists. But then there are the jarring scenes, especially a violent one in the last act, where someone IS getting hurt and suddenly the drug trip isn't funny anymore, and you realize that all those good times and funny bits were hiding something much, MUCH darker, something Scorcese makes no effort to cover up or excuse. Much like Kathryn Bigelow refusing to villify prisoner torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Scorcese actually leaves the actual condemnation up to the audience's discretion, which is exactly what a good director does.
Well, we know his kryptonite...
Scorcese's leads help him perfectly in his narrative effort. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Belfort, but to be honest it doesn't appear much of a stretch as some of his better performances over the years. Lately, it seems like he's been playing this same kind of prideful, self-centered role in The Great GatsbyJ. Edgar and Revolutionary Road. And so I only have to assume those who cry that the actor should have beaten out McConaughey and Ejiofor for the Oscar are merely DiCaprio fanboys, as here he is not quite on their same level (Don't get me wrong, he definitely deserved the nomination). But while DiCaprio puts up predictably strong work, the one who absolutely OWNS every scene is Jonah Hill. Honestly, I can't believe this is the same guy who brought us Superbad and 21 Jump Street. He's always been funny, but here he seamlessly blends into the role in a way I never would have thought him capable. If only one person from this film could have been nominated for an Oscar, it ought to have been Hill all the way. Not only has the actor been the lucky recipient of two Academy Award nominations, but he absolutely EARNED them, as well.
Well... that's different...
Now, as much as I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, I also admit that it has its share of problems. At three hours, it's either thirty minutes too long or short (better editing in the third act would have made for a watchable extended cut). Scorcese falls into his usual trap of obvious metaphors on occasion (one particular scene comparing Belfort to the cartoon Popeye is especially groan-inducing), a habit inexcusable for such a seasoned director. And the movie DOES contain a ton of controversial material, from the objectification of women to a relative lack of punishment for the protagonists, though it should also be pointed out that the real fault for this lies with Belfort and his cronies who played out the real-life story, not the filmmakers who faithfully adapted it to the screen. In fact, Scorcese should be lauded for taking such a despicable character and such a horrible story and making them interesting and utterly compelling to a movie-going public. It's incredibly easy to admire much of what Belfort did all those years on Wall Street, even if it turned out to be more harmful than anything else. And Scorcese's project is absolutely a condemnation of the events in question, even if it doesn't seem like it all the time. It isn't made for everybody, but I still think everybody should see The Wolf of Wall Street at least once. If nothing else, it's a window into a world you may never be a part of, and a cautionary tale so that this true story is never repeated again.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oh Captain, My Captain

Robert Redford is in a Marvel film. Think about that for a second. I mentioned as a side note the other day how comic book movies were getting wide respect in the film community, thanks especially to recent movies like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and The Avengers, the last of which sits pretty with the third highest worldwide box office gross of all time. Unlike video game adaptations, the comic book genre is now attracting talented directors, top shelf actors and producers invested in putting forward their best efforts. And there's no better example of that trend - which has only come in the last few years - than Robert Redford signing on for a major role in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which came out this past weekend. This is a man with two Oscars on his mantle, and perhaps SHOULD have been nominated for another with his starring role in 2013's All is Lost. The idea that someone as renowned as Redford, who could certainly hand-pick his next role, would decide to be in a movie like this speaks volumes as to just how influential, special, and overall GOOD the genre has become.
As you can imagine, he leaps at the opportunity.
And when we see the final product, we can understand why. Winter Soldier continues the story of WWII superhero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he adapts to a modern world vastly different from the relatively simple era in which he was raised. And that's the biggest difference between this and predecessor The First Avenger: theme. Whereas Joe Johnson's 2011 blockbuster danced to the tune of an upbeat, patriotic flair, the sequel from Anthony and Joe Russo (best known for their TV work on Arrested Development and Community) delves into dark shadows and moral ambiguity, and what that means to a man who adorns himself in stars and stripes, but is employed by the covert security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a man whose "secrets have secrets." And so this story ends up feeling more like Three Days of the Condor (completing the Robert Redford connection) or The Good Shepherd than it does your standard superhero fare, while still maintaining the same universe and rules we've become accustomed to with Marvel Studios' releases in the past decade.
Not since the days of piracy have eye patches been so bad-ass.
But espionage storyline aside, The Winter Soldier is STILL a superhero flick, and so you need a colorful, over-the-top bad guy for the hero to fight, right? Well, yes and no. On the yes side is the Winter Soldier himself (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious and silent assassin who is lethally brutal and a true challenge for our hero. But on the other end of the spectrum is a shadowy organization trying to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, causing Cap to distrust all of his established allies, including Fury and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Again, this is great not just because it provides such a sharp contrast from the largely open and straightforward story of The First Avenger, but also because it provides an excellent STORY, one in which the heroes (and the audience) are kept guessing as to what could possibly happen next.
Takes the "Iron Man" workout to another level.
That's thanks to the efforts of both screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first movie) and the directors Russo. The Russos especially have a lot to prove, as they've never really done the kind of action thrill-ride that Marvel fans expect. And while their last directorial effort came at a time when Kate Hudson was still an A-list actor (the 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree), there's no rust as they do a very good job here. Like most first-time action directors, they make the stupid mistake of shooting too close to the fight scenes (thus obscuring any and all detail), but otherwise their solid camerawork keeps everything fresh and exciting. They also get excellent performances out of their actors, from veterans Redford and Jackson to young rising stars Evans, Johansson and Anthony Mackie (as a high-flying sidekick). Even with castings of the likes of MMA star Georges St-Pierre as a minor villain, there are no substantial acting weaknesses, and that can't be overstated when you once again remember that you're watching a superhero flick and not a full-on spy thriller. And for that matter the special effects are really something else, explosive and insane as are the demands of the genre, and yet on a smaller, more believable scale than those of the Iron Man and Thor franchises. They're even more impressive when you consider that relatively little CGI was used. Sure, computers were used to render the gigantic Helecarriers and a few other items of note, but the directors were quite adamant about practical effects whenever possible, and their success is readily apparent.
Okay, Michael Jordan could probably have done this, too...
There's really only one downside to this movie, and that unfortunately comes to the story itself. I said before that audiences would be kept guessing as to the plot details, and that's true. But unfortunately, the screenplay is itself not without predictability, many of the major twists getting telegraphed well in advance. Characters do pretty much what you expect, limited not by the well-known comic book origin stories, but by the constraints of the spy genre and the overall talent of the screenwriters, which is good but not GREAT. Markus and McFeely are simply never going to get any Oscars for their work, which to be fair isn't a world-ending event. But what makes the movie stand out from its brethren is how bravely it seeks to actually change the parameters set out by the previous Marvel films, and leave the next franchise movie with something completely different to work with than we the audience had imagined. It's that risk-taking that makes me excited for all future entries.
No, this isn't a new G.I. Joe picture. Why do you ask?
It might not be on the same level quality-wise with recent marvel hit The Avengers, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still easily among the best comic book movies of all time. Marvel's "Phase Two" sees the company putting out some of their best efforts, and things look to only get better as the years go on. It's so amazing to see this genre getting the kind of respect needed to thrive, both from the critics and the studios themselves. No, it's not perfect, but considering the upward quality trend we've seen from comic book adaptations in recent years, it's more than a welcome addition to movie screens. It'll appeal to the older spy fans AND the young superhero crowd, a seamless blend that needs to be seen on the big screen to be believed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Video Games Stuck in First Gear

Well, superhero films have gotten better. Why not video game movies? Wait, wait, I'm serious! I mean, many game franchises are almost interactive movies as it is, from Mass Effect, to the latest Tomb Raider, to Bioshock, to Halo, to Uncharted. With these games, playing is like penning your own screenplay AND performing the lead role at the same time. So with all these storytelling advancements in the genre, why does Hollywood continue to treat the video game adaptations like the lazy child that hasn't earned its place at the table? Aren't we far enough by now from the early days of Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon? It's tough to get excited about these movies when it's plainly obvious that the biggest studios, actors and directors don't really want anything to do with them. Instead, entire legions of fans are insulted by low budgets, casting of whomever was desperate enough to appear at the time, and even - if they're REALLY special - the execrable presence of Uwe Boll.

SOMEbody needs a booster seat!
And that casual dismissal of the genre is what doomed Need For Speed, the adaptation of the franchise street racing game of the same name, before it could pop the clutch: nobody cares about who made or is in this film, or why. The only reason anybody was interested in the project was because of the racing aspect, a genre already monopolized by the popular, peaking, and far more insane Fast & Furious series. It doesn't help that there's not much story to begin with. After spending the first act on pointless setup, Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) is released from two years in prison, immediately hatching a plan to get revenge on entrepreneur/racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who framed Tobey for another man's accidental death. Naturally, revenge involves illegal street racing. Because this is a video game adaptation.
The closest you'll ever get to a "Bro" moment, thank God.
If you can't tell by now, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the hacktastic effort that was Need For Speed's story. Getting beyond the fact that it's an adaptation of a game series that hasn't been particularly popular or memorable in years, the tale is lazily scripted (by first-time writer George Gatins; what a SHOCK they didn't get a good screenwriter on board) and doesn't have nearly the plot to hold together the disconnected racing and chase sequences. The story is a dismal blend of tropes, from Getting the Band Back Together (despite the crew in question being largely inconsequential) to the required Will-They-Won't-They romance between Tobey and Julia - an exotic car dealer who would be completely forgettable were she not played by Imogen Poots - to Poetic Justice in the revenge storyline. There's even the idea of doing all this in the name of the film's most head-shakingly annoying character (why can't anyone genuinely interesting die in these movies?) to get it all started. The story has no flow, the characters have little motivation for their actions (at least, not beyond the usual stereotypical behavior), and there doesn't even appear to be anything akin to logic in the way the plot progresses. It's by-the-numbers blandness, from the pointless opening scene to the ultimately predictable conclusion.
Oh, hey! I was just thinking "Crash & Burn!"
But even Nicolas Cage movies have some redeeming value (Drive Angry was on TV, and now I've got Cage on the brain), and the same is true here. Most notably, it's the direction of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Scott Waugh that keeps things exciting on the screen. The focus on practical effects in the action sequences allows the film to stand apart from the Fast & Furious franchise, which had been defined more by their CGI effects in the more recent entries. And Waugh shows a great improvement in his style, judging from the differences between this and Act of Valor, the military flick he co-directed with Mike McCoy. The visuals are rarely too close to the action (except where understandable), and there really is a feel of excitement seeing these vehicles race, crash and - on occasion - soar like birds. My only complaint comes from the opening race, when we literally have no clue who is driving which car. Still, I can only imagine what Waugh could accomplish were he to have a serious budget on his hands, but he definitely shows a solid aptitude for this kind of noir action thriller.
He wears his sunglasses at night, too.
And despite the characters being written as though they were designed by a third grader on acid, the acting is actually pretty solid. Yes, there are the useless filler roles and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi plays as token a black, flamboyant sidekick as he can possibly be (which is to say not all that well), the quartet of lead actors really do possess talent and take as much advantage of their screentime as they can. Dominic Cooper might be a six-dimensional actor confined to a one-dimensional stereotype, but he still brings menace to a role that wasn't so threatening as written. Michael Keaton steals the intermissions between action sequences as a cool-as-ice radio DJ pulling strings behind the scenes (and for the record, it's great to see Michael Keaton doing regular work again. He's a fairly amazing performer). Poots is strong as always, and I really can't wait for the young lady to break out as a Hollywood star, even as she seems to be stuck in these sad, third-tier roles. But Aaron Paul might be the biggest surprise. I still haven't seen Breaking Bad, but already it's easy to see why the actor has accumulated so many fans with one role. Yes, his voice is distractingly deep for a man NOTICEABLY only 5'8", and his dialogue borrows directly from "Emo 101", and again, Tobey's motivations as a protagonist are vague at best. Yet Paul commands a presence those unfamiliar with his work would NEVER expect. Simply put, he proves that despite lacking a large frame, he BELONGS front and center. He might be a little too old to enjoy a Tom Cruise-like career at this point, but if he can pull off something of a "Cruise-Lite" path from now on, he'll absolutely deserve it.
When it came to hair gel, no expense was spared...
(Oh, and for the few people who might have noticed that Dakota Johnson, the star of the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey, was in this: she still doesn't impress me. I don't know whether casting directors see something the rest of us don't, or if Johnson is the person they go to when NOBODY ELSE is interested in a role, but I'm really starting to think the latter is the more likely scenario. So, yeah, I'm really convinced 50 Shades will be a dud upon its release in 2015.)
I've got the Need! The Need for Speed! Trademark! 
But great actors and great action does not a great movie make, especially when they are hampered by the kind of script that makes David Goyer look like a certified genius. I don't know if video game adaptations will EVER get the kind of dedication and effort that superhero flicks are getting right now, but Need For Speed is one of those titles that suffers mightily from the connection to its original medium. Could it have been better? Absolutely. Could it have been great? Maybe. But make no mistake, this is a bad movie made worse by the fact that talented people were brought in to try and hide its flaws. The producers behind this movie simply didn't care whether or not it was any good, and despite some excellent visuals and a few more strengths, the evidence is still plain for anyone to see.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Just Another Y.A. Blockbuster

Thanks to the box office success of Twilight and The Hunger Games, we can pretty much expect every semi-popular young adult novel to get big screen treatment in the near future. Every studio of worth out there will spend the next few years purchasing filming rights, throwing them at audiences, and seeing what sticks. We've already seen several examples of failures ranging from I am Number Four to Beautiful Creatures, and if there's something to be said for the adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent, it's that it stuck. Not "great" or "wonderful," or even "unique."That's because the story is so derivative of other, better material that it's bound to appeal to not only fans of the novels but any similar moviegoer curious enough to check it out.

The movie follows The Descendants star Shailene Woodley as Tris (God, it even rhymes with "Katniss"), as she navigates the trials of growing up in the ruins of a futuristic, post-war Chicago. Society in this world has been divided into five factions to maintain peace, and Tris is of the age where she can decide whether to stay with her family in the kind and selfless Abnegation faction, or join one of the other four groups, which pride themselves on traits like intelligence, honesty, and peacefulness. This is complicated when the test that helps students decide to what faction they "belong" fails to work on Tris, categorizing her as "Divergent" and unlikely to fit in anywhere. Naturally, Divergents are treated as enemies of the system, and our heroine tries to hide her nature by joining up with the brave, kinda-crazy faction "Dauntless", where she falls for the hunky instructor known as "Four" (Theo James). But when Divergent-hunters come calling... you know what? Forget it, I'm just going to stop right there.
She got tattoos! So you know she has an edge now.
There is barely a single word or sentence in that previous paragraph that could not be used to describe countless titles that have come out just in the past decade (except perhaps Abnegation... learn something new every day!), and that's Divergent's biggest, BIGGEST problem. Whether it's due to the direction of Neil Burger (Limitless), the screenplay by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), or even Roth's novel itself (Or, most likely, a combination of all three), the biggest sin is that there is barely anything noteworthy or original to grasp onto and declare "Yes, this is why it's special!" For all the crap I give it, Twilight took a familiar concept (supernatural) and put a unique twist on creating its universe. The Hunger Games, while ostensibly a copy of the Japanese book/movie Battle Royale, still made itself original enough to stand alone (not to mention the casting of Jennifer Lawrence). Beautiful Creatures had an amazing and appropriate setting. I am Number Four and the Harry Potter franchise had excellent lore. Divergent DOES have an interesting premise, with the factions and the disparity between them, but barely touches on it in what amounts to a rote, romance/action story. Well, to be fair, it also has... umm... wait a moment... it has... ergh... well, no... I guess... excellent acting?
Why hast thou forsaken us, Kate?
Yes, Divergent is fortunate to have such an amazing cast assembled, because they absolutely needed the best. The characters are so one-dimensional that only someone with the chops of Ashley Judd, or Kate Winslett, or Maggie Q, or Mekhi Phifer, or Ray Stevenson could make it work. When Miles Teller shows up as the generic bully, he actually brings some gravitas to the role. When Tony Goldwyn appears on screen, he isn't just a blank slate as Tris' father, but actually shows some magnetism, through his voice if not in his poorly-written words (one character ironically wonders why people keep asking her the same question; it's because of the inept dialogue, dear). And it's a good thing Shailene Woodley and Theo James are such excellent performers; Woodley plays the worst kind of female heroine, whose actions are entirely based on what is done to her and not on any driving force behind her vanilla temperament; while James' character development begins and ends with "brooding hottie". And yet, both actors make the material work through sheer force of personality. The romance between them, while basic, predictable and cliched, ends up working by virtue of their great chemistry, and they do the absolute most they can with the material. If it wasn't for that, this wouldn't much of a film. Yes, there are a few legitimate duds in Jai Courtney and Zoe Kravitz (sheez, Divergent even has a Kravitz in the cast), but even they don't detract from the story too much when all is said and done.
Where Hollywood thinks women should be: out of sight and silent.
But the acting can't fully save a story that borrows from literally every genre and trope in existence, from The Matrix (one person throwing a system out of whack), to Logan's Run ("I'm hiding my secret from the ruling government!") to Starship Troopers ("Let's get tattoos!"). Seriously, if the villains were as smart as they are supposed to be, they'd have realized that their plot to take over the city has been done a million times before, and BETTER. It's almost as if Roth cobbled together this tale from all the pop culture references and Young Adult novels she had accumulated in her young life, with nary an original thought or idea. To be fair, that might be over-simplifying things a bit; I have yet to read the book, so I can't say how many of Divergent's problems stem from her writing and how much from the adaptation process itself. But if she had ONE original thought when she compiled her novel, it never make its way to the big screen. Even the faction system is not a truly original concept, and that's the closest Divergent ever gets to declaring its independence from standard YA fare. The story is so reliant on coincidence - from Maggie Q's first appearance to just about EVERY major twist and turn - that it defies all expectation for the audience to accept the plot as it develops. And I'd even go so far as to say that wouldn't necessarily a BAD thing, as long as the story itself is told competently and the actors do a good job with the material. In fact, Burger is a pretty good, if not great, director, especially suited to this type of non-risky script, as he proved in 2011's Limitless. Even though the script is the kind of hackery that would demand multiple rewrites if it not for the film's brand recognition, Divergent turns into a competent, if not standout, filmmaking product.
Get it? It's "Red pill, Blue pill!"
Divergent tries to push a moral of anti-conformity and self-identification, but ironically does it in the most conformist fashion possible, stealing from everything that has come before and not standing out even remotely on its way to box office success. Naturally, every YA movie adaptation wants to see the same kind of success as The Hunger Games, but Divergent could only WISH that it was as interesting, compelling and urgent as the movie whose success it would wish to emulate. It's definitely a BAD movie, and yet also a WELL-MADE bad movie that overcomes many of its narrative obstacles through heart and sheer force of will. If only the filmmakers had taken more risks, as the movie does nothing to differentiate itself from the bland, predictable tropes and cliches that have never been so transparently on display as they are here. If it had attempted to deviate from the terrifyingly dull norm it had set for itself, it might have turned into something great. As it stands, Divergent is just okay, and I think we'll see subsequent sequels Insurgent and Allegiant justifiably fall off in audiences as a result. Teen girls (and anyone who identifies with teen girls) will watch and enjoy anyway, but anyone else can steer clear.

Monday, March 31, 2014

No Worries with the WABAC

Lost amid the rise of fledgling animation studios, the second renaissance of Disney, and the steady sinking of Pixar's brand, is the fact that Dreamworks Animation... is ACTUALLY getting better.

Not that the company has necessarily been BAD, as they've often put out fun, smart, unique family films and franchises like Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Megamind and Rise of the Guardians (Yes, they've had true stinkers like Sharks Tale as well, but that's besides the point). But the studio constantly played second banana to Pixar for almost its entire existence, and now it seems to be losing ground to more and more competition as 3D animation becomes more synonymous with moviemaking in general, not just the animated titles. But just a few years ago, things began to change. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was positively wonderful. And last year, The Croods was an absolute joy to behold. Yes, the company was still pumping out enjoyable franchise fare like Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (not to mention disappointing franchise bait Turbo), but little by little Dreamworks was definitely improving its brand, in what appears to be a strong desire to remain relevant in the coming years. And so we are introduced to the surprisingly good Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the first film released from Dreamworks' newly-acquired Classic Media collection.
Just a time-bending tale about a dog and his boy.
Based on Peabody's Improbable History, the series of animated shorts that ran alongside classic Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, Dreamworks' latest creation continues the story of World's-Smartest-Dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) and his adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) as they travel through time, exploring history and discovering its oft-humorous and questionably-accurate underbelly. But Peabody's greatest challenge might be fatherhood, as his young protegee gets in trouble by fighting another student, the precocious Penny (Ariel Winter). An attempt to soothe relations with Penny's parents inadvertently begins a chain of events that threaten to break the time space continuum and end the world as we know it.
Aren't you a little young for a toga party?
Even if I couldn't compare Mr. Peabody and Sherman to its low-fi progenitor, I'd still be impressed by how much fun it is. Director Rob Minkoff (best known for co-directing The Lion King) takes the (relatively) simple idea of time travel and makes the absolute most of it, creating five distinct worlds and making them fundamentally different from one another, while bridging them with a cocksure mix of historical parody and truly outrageous puns. This was absolutely necessary in the original, and modernizing it strips none of the charm or humor of which the fans had come to expect. It's incredibly easy for both kids and adults to enjoy, which really isn't seen too often in Dreamworks pictures. That alone is enough to state that this movie is something entirely different to behold.
They really believed they could fly...
Even the additions by Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright (a TV writer for Dirty Sexy Money and Six Feet Under) don't feel forced, though the film suffers from a first act that is HARDLY impressive. We're asked to swallow a lot in that first half hour of plot setup and character introduction, from the idea that a genius invented Planking and Autotune (Peabody probably should have been brought up on war crimes for that), to Sherman going to school (I mean, Peabody seems like the home-schooling type), to especially the introduction of Penny, a character so obviously created to appeal to young female audience members it's almost painful to accept her inclusion. Penny starts off as the typical spoiled-bratty-mean-girl cliche, and from moment one it's easy to see yourself hating this character for the entire 92 minutes. But as the movie regains its footing, Penny's character also sees dramatic changes, and becomes far more likable and empathetic as a result.
She just saw how she was represented in the beginning...
And when the story truly maintains focus where it SHOULD - the relationship between Peabody and Sherman - the result is a huge jump-start to the film as a whole. The original shorts never really had much of a back-story between the two characters, but here the focus is mostly on Peabody's challenges in raising a growing human boy, and the prejudices of those who feel he's unfit to parent due to him being canine and not human. Here, he's shown as being more fatherly and caring than at any time in the 1950-60's, even going so far as to create the WABAC time machine as an educational tool for his son. That father-son relationship (and the ups and downs that go with it) are the driving force behind the film's narrative, and while I think it's interesting that Dreamworks has focused on this dynamic in their better movies (Dragon and Croods both had daddy issues to resolve), it's an idea that really seems to bring out their best efforts. Here it doesn't quite have the same emotional "oomph" but succeeds as a modern take on those same themes. And again, it doesn't feel shoehorned-in, as the writing handily weaves it in with what was already established about the characters.
Is he pledging his allegiance to a Vespa?
And it's this identifiable and perfectly-included theme that makes Mr. Peabody and Sherman one of the more unlikely (and satisfying) hits of 2014. Is it on the same level as Dragon or The Croods? Well, sadly no; that first act is a bit of a downer, and the filmmakers don't quite have the bravery to follow through with some of their more daring material. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a tad disappointing when you wonder what they COULD have done. It plays a tad safe, but with a great story, excellent voice acting (seriously, Dennis Haysbert's baritone ought to be contractually obligated to appear in at least ONE scene of EVERY animated flick), and quirky animation reminiscent of its ancestors but also given a modern-day sheen, it's still one of Dreamworks' better family films. Maybe it's not quite on par with the pantheon of excellence the company has achieved, but this excellent second-tier title is another example of how a perennially second-place studio has upped its game in recent years. Hopefully it will continue to do so in this wondrous age of animated film.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Summer in Winter

So, yeah, this is where I am.
Oh, hi! I didn't see you there!

So, many of you might be wondering just where I've been since expressing my deepest disappointment in David O. Russell's nowhere-near-masterpiece (and never-shoulda-been Oscar contender) this past New Year's. I admit, it was a very steep drop off of the map, after all. Well, the short answer is that I haven't really been seeing many movies lately, and certainly not at the three-or-four-a-week I was pulling off at my peak. Well, that's no excuse, you might be thinking, just get out there and see more! But it's not quite that easy. And that's where the long answer comes in.

As a number of you know, I left my wage-earning retail job back in mid-October, and after a brief time living off of my savings, I started looking for something new to fuel my movie cravings (and you know, basic daily needs). Unfortunately, nothing really panned out, and as a result I recently (somewhat last minute and without telling anyone) jetted off with all my belongings to Florida to stay with my family until I can get back on my feet. I'm happy to report that progress is being made; I'll be (if everything works as it should) attending classes starting this summer, and I'm already taking on odd jobs to save up some currency. I'm even getting my driver's license while I'm down here (in Boston, that was never a necessity), so it's safe to say I'll be a totally transformed individual when I finally get back to my home city and old life. In the meantime, however, that means I won't be seeing nearly as many new movies as I'd prefer, and it will be a while before I can get around to seeing things I've been awaiting for months or even years (sad face). But while I might be renting movies from the library from now on, I thought I'd take this time to catch you up on the few I HAVE seen, in the meantime. If nothing else, these blurbs will give you some insight on some films you may not have gotten around to as of yet. Besides, all the REALLY good stuff isn't expected for a short while anyway.

It's a shame everyone was wetting themselves with joy over American Hustle's undeserved Best Picture nomination, because there were some films on that list that genuinely EARNED their place without the subsequent buzz, and Philomena was one of them. Based on the true story of Philomena Lee (here played by Judi Dench), it followed her and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) as they journeyed around the world in search of Philomena's son, who had been sold into adoption by Irish nuns while she was their indentured servant in the 1950's.

The film, directed by The Queen's Stephen Frears, generally focuses on the developing relationship between its two protagonists. And on the surface, that might appear to be a problem. After all, they're polar opposites, with Philomena the pious, naive, kindhearted soul, and Sixsmith portrayed as atheistic, overly-intellectual, and cynical. But under threat of cliches and "odd couple" tropes, Philomena manages to overcome these weaknesses, thanks largely to the strength of its leads. Dench is once again a marvel, a commanding presence on screen and largely Philomena's heart. And it's both interesting and rewarding to see Coogan excel in a serious role - after all, he rose to prominence largely as a comedic performer - as he not only plays the straight man in the relationship but also the narrative force behind the movie itself. Both actors go all out, and thanks to wry, witty dialogue their pairing is one of the best on screen in recent years.
Lovely, but I wouldn't want their winter.
But the greatest part of Philomena might be the fact that, despite painting the Catholic church in a fairly unpleasant light, Frears and his cast and crew refuse to pass judgement. Yes, the individual characters do have their say (in somewhat predictable fashion), but the film itself leaves the heartbreaking events depicted within as open to interpretation. Would God allow this kind of injustice to exist? Should the undeniably evil actions of a religious institution be forgiven? Those questions are left up to the individual audience members to decide, and that's amazingly refreshing in a world where supposedly the greatest directors of our age feel the need to constantly jam their messages down our throats (cough, Spielberg, cough). It helps make this film the masterpiece it is, and one that ought to be seen by everyone.

And the winner of the "Reminded me of Legion (and not in a good way) Award" goes to I, Frankenstein, the graphic novel-based, sci-fi epic from Aussie screenwriter-turned-director Stuart Beattie. Starring The Dark Knight's Aaron Eckhart as Frankenstein's monster, the film follows him as he survives to the modern day as an outcast caught in a supernatural war between warrior Angels and Demons. Oh yeah, Frankenstein also borrows heavily from the Underworld franchise, both in tone and - in some cases - casting. Try to keep that in mind.

The sad part is that this movie actually has some elements going for it. The conflict between the Angels and Demons is pretty fun and compelling, and most of the actors (including Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski and Miranda Otto) are actually quite good, thought they're not allowed to stretch past their limited roles and must be content with chewing as much scenery as possible. The special effects are also amazing, each explosion and disintegration beautiful to behold and belonging on the big screen. There are only a few moments where the CGI becomes obvious, and even those are gone quickly and replaced by either real-life actors or more impressive visuals.
No, he's not ugly, but he sure can act!
Unfortunately, there's just too much working against the potential excellence here, thanks mostly to Beattie himself. Yes, the man wrote Collateral, but that's not enough to justify letting him write the screenplay to the first major film that he's also directing. When you're not a proven director, you really shouldn't be spending somebody else's money on your own half-baked ideas. His biggest problem is pacing, the story introducing a massive, truly impressive battle taking place about an hour in, only for subsequent scenes and battles to pale in comparison. Beattie simply blew his wad (and perhaps his budget) too early, and the second half of Frankenstein plays out like a ham-handed Opera of the kinda-Damned. Another, relatively minor complaint is the casting of Jai Courtney, who to this point has not earned the high-profile roles he has enjoyed these past couple of years. So far he just plays a generic tough guy, which wouldn't be bad if he wasn't being given so much to do, as is the case here.
You should really have your landlord take a look at that...
Still, I'd be hesitant to call I, Frankenstein a BAD movie. Despite it's glaring issues, it does have a cheesy, so-bad-it's-good charm about it, and the acting is MOSTLY good enough to carry it, even if the script and director cannot. The only downside is that it's all but out of theaters at this point, and those excellent special effects simply won't cut it anywhere else but the most technically advanced home theaters. So if you still can and don't mind shelling out some money on a "bad" movie, I, Frankenstein isn't as poor a selection as you'd think. If it's nowhere near you however... you can watch something else. Really, anything else.

As the Pythons used to say, "And now for something completely different." I mean, there was no way I WASN'T going to see The Lego Movie. It comes from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who also penned the screenplay...you know, since they proved with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street that they could actually create good movies. It's also another animated flick NOT from the three-headed monster known as PixaDisneWorks, which makes it interesting in that just three years ago ONE of those studios would have snapped this project up. It's another example of more studios getting interested in producing animated products, and while I still expect the "Big Three" to dominate that particular scene, it's nice to see other companies (in this case Village Roadshow) taking a break from their serious dramas, adult thrillers or uncouth comedies to produce genuine family features.

In what is essentially a rip-off of The Matrix or any similar stories, The Lego Movie focuses on a normal Lego guy named Emmett (Chris Pratt), who is recruited by a band of legends known as the "Master Builders" to fulfill a prophecy as "The Chosen One", who would save the world as they knew it from the machinations of the dread Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Yeah, it sounds dumb. And in ways, it IS dumb... in a good way!
Way better than Christopher Nolan's last movie...
That's because Lord and Miller really know how to pace a movie that doesn't just entertain kids, but has a lot that adults can grab onto as well. Between the catchy theme song (which I guarantee will ironically be nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar next year), colorful worlds and kid-friendly characters, you could be forgiven for thinking that this film was a childrens-only affair. But the truth is that for every piece of slapstick and every silly pun, there are nuggets for adults in both the humor and the message the movie is trying to get across. Characters are both fun and excellently-conceived, played tongue firmly-in-cheek by actors like Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett (whose Batman steals every scene) and even three characters voiced by Liam Neeson. On top of that, the amazing special effects really make you feel as though you're inside a world made entirely of tiny building blocks. The directors are talented enough to know full well when to go all-out with the effects and go more for a retro, Ed Wood-style effect to remind you the film's origins, and that's a skill that many filmmakers never seem to learn.
See, this is what happens when you don't wear your seat belt!
Sure, the basic plot is completely unoriginal. Yes, it does have some focus issues (I don't expect a Lego brand movie to be anti-consumerism, but their pro-creative stance is a bit muddled when they're clearly advertising their pre-designed kits and not just the Lego bricks themselves). Yeah, the ending is a tad predictable and more than a little on-the-nose (although that aspect of the movie I still thought to be done well). But those are really the only gripes I can find about a movie that has enormous amounts of heart and character and is suitable for both children and inner children of all ages. If you haven't seen this yet... well, it's still in theaters, though it will eventually make a great home media purchase as well. Whichever way you choose (or if you decide to do both), you won't go wrong.

The last movie I'll look at today is the RoboCop reboot, and I think I speak for everyone who has seen it when I say... It's better than I thought it would be.

Naturally, when it was announced that MGM was remaking Paul Verhoeven's 1987 sci-fi classic, there were more than a few dissenting voices. As one who is anti-remakes in general, reimagining a film like this - one that I had just looked at in 2011, and still holds up just fine when you consider the current, bankrupt state of the city of Detroit - seems more than a tad unnecessary. But just because you don't like the idea of something being made doesn't mean that the final product cannot be good, or at least different enough to justify it's own existence. And that's where the English language-debut by Jose Padilha comes in and slowly but surely blows away any of your niggling concerns.
And THIS is why you don't perform double blind tests with everything.
On the surface, the main themes of this new Robocop are the same; near-dead cop (The Killing's Joel Kinnaman) is combined with a machine, fighting crime, only to come face to face with the corruption of the people who created him. The big difference here is scale; Whereas the original was based almost entirely in the futuristic, crime-riddled Detroit (much in the same way Escape from New York reflected a future version of 1981's NYC), this movie has more of a global focus, and that's more a reflection of our time, where global events have a much more immediate an impact on US soil and culture than they did thirty years ago. In that vein, OmniCorp isn't just trying to sell AI-operated policemen, because they've been successfully been using their robots for peacekeeping operations in countries all over the globe. What they're TRYING to do is get a foothold on American soil, where the people are justifiably upset by the idea of logic-driven, black-and-white lawmakers replacing human jobs. So in this case the reason for not going all-robot isn't their obvious defects, but the fact that they're so FREE of defects, that inspires the idea of putting a man inside of a metal suit.
I'd love the smell of napalm in the morning... if I had olfactory senses.
The cast is absolutely brilliant, filled with reliable names such as Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Michael K. Williams, Abbie Cornish, and even Samuel L. Jackson (as a hilarious Bill O'Reilly-esque TV host), though the standout might be Kinnaman, still relatively unknown outside his native Sweden. He has to essentially play three characters: one, the human, normal cop Alex Murphy, the emotionless, AI-controlled RoboCop, and the MurphyCop combination that gets screwed up on occasion. It helps that the character interactions between Murphy and the others is more fluid; the mystery of his family is never a mystery, as the idea that you could experiment on a near-dead man without the approval of the family is pretty much unheard of in this day and age. And Murphy tries to connect with them, though obstacles (his own embarrassment and pain at his situation, not to mention some unsanctioned personality modification) occasionally get in the way. Despite Kinnaman's talent, the character development for Murphy is unfortunately the weakest aspect of the movie, though it manages to work in some ways (most notably Murphy's interaction with police partner Williams), so this is thankfully an inconsistent issue, and anyway, there's so much great acting across the board that it's easy to forgive.
...Run.
The film has tons else going for it, from the impressive special effects, compelling universe, a cleverly-conveyed message, and a playfulness that is fundamentally (and necessarily) different from the original. Getting past the drastic alterations to the classic costume and the PG-13 rating (both of which I see as both signs of the times and making narrative sense, so can safely ignore) the only thing really lacking is a conversation about crime-ridden Detroit, which seems just as relevant today as it did back in 1987. But considering the larger scale of the story, even that is forgivable, when the focus is more about the differences between the US and the rest of the countries around the world. And for that reason alone, Padilha's new take on the story is 100% justified in its implementation. It's not BETTER or WORSE than the original, but did it ever have to be? I mean, come on people, this is VERHOEVEN we're talking about, not SHAKESPEARE. This RoboCop is all but an original tale, a fun, smart, sci-fi cautionary tale that will hopefully keep this franchise running for a few more decades. The only struggle now is to make better sequels than the original managed to produce. That's all I ask.

Well, I think that's enough for now. I've seen more in the past couple of weeks, but I'll tackle those in my next entry, after I spend some time in the pleasant, 70+ temps we've been enjoying down here. I hope you are all are well, and can't wait to bring you more movie talk in the near future!

... when I'm not in school or saving up money.