Friday, May 31, 2013

Adventure Time

It's been two months since The Croods sauntered into theaters and became the first major children's hit of 2013 (Escape From Planet Earth might have technically been first, but just try and find somebody who actually remembers it). Now, just as the Dreamworks picture's theatrical run is just about wound down, who do you expect to pick up the slack? It's not Pixar, or Sony Animation, and certainly not Aardman. So who takes the reigns of children's animated theatrical showings now? Well, it's the blandly-named Epic, coming to us from Greenwich, Connecticut's own Blue Sky Studios (the makers of Rio and the Ice Age franchise). While animated movies that feature mainly action and adventure don't often do that well at the box office (Blue Sky's parent company 20'th Century Fox found that out the hard way thirteen years ago with Titan A.E.), Epic still had a couple of things going for it this past weekend. One - as I said - is that with the Croods effectively out of the way, the family film has no serious competition until the end of June. The second is director Chris Wedge, whose experience perhaps is not all that extensive (in this millennium he has only directed the first Ice Age and Robots), but he's still a talented filmmaker who can deliver impressive results. Sure, his name will never be featured among the likes of modern animation legends like Lee Unkrich or Brad Bird, but if he's going to make a movie, It doesn't hurt to take a look.
My, what a long neck you have...
M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) is a normal teen who moves in with her father Professer Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) after the death of her mother. Professor Bomba is an eccentric, constantly searching the forest to try and find evidence of a small, advanced society whose existence keeps nature alive and the forces of evil and decay in check. While M.K. scoffs at these theories, Bomba is in fact correct, as a war has long been raged between the destructive Boggans and their leader Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the noble Leafmen, led in battle by the noble Ronin (Colin Farrell) and ruled by the good Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles). But the time is coming to name an heir, and an accident finds the skeptic M.K. shrunk down and joining the Leafmen in helping keep the balance in the forest, as Mandrake and his followers push to make the forest theirs once and for all.
The Three Amigos!
Epic has all the makings of a second-tier animated film, and it's not just because it comes to us from a second-tier production studio... actually, that might be the reason, so why don't I just move on? The animation is actually quite crisp... when the characters you're supposed to focus on are right in front of you. Character models are well-animated, with fluid movements, and look like they might have come off of the Disney or Pixar lots. The backgrounds as well are quite lovely, the lushness of the forest and the dark, Burton-esque bleakness of the Boggans' territory beautiful to behold. But when the "camera" pans back and we see characters moving at a distance, it's obvious where the animation budget was cut. Background characters or main characters moving at a distance appear to have jerky, simplified movements, completely distracting you from the rest of the world and marking the low-point of 3D animation. It pulls you out of the movie, and when the animation is this good, that's a shame.
Yes, he uses that sword. It's pretty awesome.
The story is another point of contention, not in that it's bad but in that the heroine-transforming, nature-saving tale it weaves cribs from bigger, oftentimes better fare. Obvious comparisons are James Cameron's Avatar and Fox's animated FernGully: The Last Rainforest, but the film also borrows heavily from epic adventures such as Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz with impunity. In fact, Josh Hutcherson's young Leafman Nod is almost an exact copy of Han Solo, right down to owing money to a crime lord. The characters are certainly a problem, as most of the talented cast can bring nothing new beyond the archetypes they are shoehorned into. They do the best they can, though some (such as Chris O'Dowd's snail who openly pines to join the Leafmen) are better than others (I'm looking at you, Aziz Ansari). Most of them, especially Seyfried and Waltz, manage do a great job regardless of the material. Still, there are a few question marks among the cast, most notably why they cast so many musicians in support roles. I mean, I get that Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler does the film's one (albeit truncated) musical number, and Beyonce of course provides a track for the closing credits (while doing a decent job acting-wise). But how did rapper Pitbull get in here? Especially when he couldn't even handle the half-dozen lines he was given? Was he supposed to provide something musically too? And if he did, what happened to it?
Christoph Waltz has never looked better!
But while there's absolutely nothing top-notch about Blue Sky's latest effort, it does enough, well enough, and prettily enough to be entertaining for families with nothing better to do. The story itself does solidly enough, and even picks up in the last act to provide sufficient entertainment for all ages. Throughout it is sweet and elaborate with it's message without getting too preachy for its own good, proof that the filmmakers didn't try to do too much with their decent idea. It's a shame that most people will forget completely about Epic  before long, as there's just nothing really memorable about the sub-two hours you spend in the theater. It's certainly good enough to take your kids to on a hot summer day as you await the arrival of Monsters University in a month, but by the same token it won't be something you'll need to see again, even when it eventually becomes available on DVD. Once again, this is a Chris Wedge production that is good enough, but not quite great. Never great.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Fast & Furious 6

Fast Five was one of the bigger surprises of 2011, as the street race franchise turned full-on heist flick a la Oceans 11 and brought together almost every favorite character from the franchise, while also adding the immeasurable credentials of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to the mix. Now they've done it again, and Fast & Furious 6 proves itself even bigger and bolder than its predecessor in crafting a redemption tale for its gang of thrill-seeking thieves.

After pulling off the impossible in Rio, Dominic Toretto and his team scatter to the four corners of the Earth with their share of a $100 million prize. But they're called together again by old friend Luke Hobbs, who needs their help in hunting down dangerous terrorist Owen Shaw, a man with similar tactics to our heroes. Hobbs offers the team full pardons for their assistance, but that isn't the reason Dom agrees to help. One of Shaw's crew is a familiar face from the past, and while they all assumed that Letty Ortiz had been dead a long time, they can't explain why someone who looks just like her appears to be assisting Shaw in bringing chaos to the world.

Fast & Furious 6 is directed by Justin Lin and stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Gina Carano and Luke Evans.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Drunk with Power

Oh, if only I could somehow get those two hours back. The Hangover: Part III was released this Memorial Day weekend, and the final tale from the series that put Todd Phillips on par with Judd Apatow in terms of pure cinema raunchiness finally comes to an end, and it's an ignoble one that should have occurred back in 2009 with the closing credits of the first Hangover. Phillips up to that point had made a B-List career from his crude comedies, especially Road Trip and Old School. He was a director able to tap into that coveted 18-49 male audience with practiced ease. The Hangover proved not only to be an audacious comedy (it was certainly unique, if perhaps a bit overrated), and a star-making one at that. Besides Phillips, the movie proved to be a launching point for then-middling actors Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Ken Jeong and especially Zach Galifianakis. But The Hangover Part II was a mess, missing most of the charm that the first film so enjoyable. Still, it was a big fat success, and so Part III was all but guaranteed, and with a restructured story (no more memory loss) and a promise that it would be the most outrageous finale to date, it should have been at least worth a look.

Nobody needs that many sheets.
In this reunion of sorts, "Wolfpack" members Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) come together to help the disturbed manchild Alan (Galifianakis), who has unraveled even more after stopping his medication and in the aftermath of his father's death. The four men are making their way to a rehabilitation center for him when they are waylaid by ruthless gangster Marshall (John Goodman), from whom Lesley Chow (Jeong) stole $21 million in gold. Kidnapping Doug as collateral, Marshall demands that the remaining Wolfpack members find and apprehend Chow by any means necessary, and recover his gold in the process. If they cannot capture him within three days, Doug is history. But of course, with this group, nothing ever goes as planned. And when it comes to Chow, anything and everything is possible.
Jeffrey Tambor can never, ever smile.
Unfortunately, despite the insanity that is usually associated with this franchise, Part III makes Part II look like vintage Bill Cosby. Never mind the fact that most of the jokes here just aren't funny, but even the situations the trio find themselves in lack oomph. The first two Hangover movies featured Mike Tyson's tiger, a baby with sunglasses, transsexual prostitutes, and Mike Tyson. The most this sequel can muster is a decapitated giraffe, and that's the opening scene. The actors also look bored, sticking to their predetermined roles of straight guy, freaking-out guy and whack-job with minimal effort. Galifianakis' malaise in particular is disappointing, as Alan's zaniness is probably the main reason there are three Hangovers instead of just one. John Goodman is certainly a talented actor, but his character is too bland, and it seems like he was cast just to bring a strong presence to the movie (incidentally, the same role Paul Giamatti had in Part II). Melissa McCarthy is also grossly misused, as her crass, completely unlikeable character tries to undo all the goodwill she's gained from Bridesmaids and Identity Thief. Only the scenes with Ken Jeong's Chow are anything approaching quality, and that's because Jeong is the only cast member who seems to care that people are paying to see him put on a show. His crazy stunts almost manages to make up for the rampant stupidity of the film. Almost.
Oh, why, why are you doing this?
See, while The Hangover: Part III's best scenes are those featuring snippets from the original (best moment: the reunion of Alan and the baby - now toddler - in sunglasses), those are the times when Phillips seems to lose his focus and relapse into the coolness that this whole thing started with. In Part III, the movie takes itself FAR too seriously, committing far too much to the violence and not enough to the insanity that was the director's pedigree. A perfect example of this is the forced evolution of Alan; why do we need to see Alan become a different person? Sure, he's a halfwit moron with little redeeming value, but that's how we like him. The idea that Alan had to change in order to provide some sort of "closure" to the trilogy is the kind of misguided idea directors like to try when they think they're getting your money regardless. There are many other scenes that wouldn't feel out of place in the humorless context of modern action films or even serious dramas, as the writers obviously had a difficult time adjusting to the concept that many people were already tired of The Hangover's act. Still, their comedy is even darker than usual, to the point where it has barely an inkling of commonality with the first two movies.
Policeman of the year.
I have to give Phillips and his crew a little credit: with an almost guaranteed blockbuster on their hands, they refused to go the safe route and make an identical, certainly tiresome finale for their Hangover franchise. It's just too bad they don't know how to make anything else. The Hangover: Part III is arguably the worst movie this year. It's not funny, it's not exciting, and it completely disregards everything that made the original Hangover a treat for the senses. The good news is that we won't be seeing any more of this trash, at least not for the foreseeable future. The bad news is that it exists at all, and puts the final nail in the coffin of a once-robust film legacy. Apparently, it needed more Mike Tyson. Or at least his tiger.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Star Trek Into Darkness

It's been four years, millions of dollars and trillions of 3D applications, but we're finally getting our new Star Trek. Star Trek Into Darkness is the continuing story of J.J. Abrams' reboot of the Gene Rodenberry 1960's television show, replacing legends William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. It shouldn't have worked, but thankfully 2009 saw tons of respect thrown towards Trekkies of all ages, and Abrams' vision proved amenable to moviegoers everywhere. Now he's back with BBC's 'Sherlock' as a villain, and the result is everything you would want from the director before he runs off and directs the new Star Wars sequel.

After a mission in which Captain Kirk betrays the sacred Prime Directive to save his friend, he finds himself stripped of his rank, his friendship, and his command of the starship Enterprise. But a second chance makes itself known when the terrorist known as John Harrison attacks Starfleet, igniting an epic manhunt when he flees deep into Klingon territory. Now it's up to Kirk and the Enterprise to capture one man and make him pay for the lives he has taken. But everything is not as it seems, and Kirk may learn that his brash actions have consequences affecting everybody under his command.

Star Trek Into Darkness is directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, John Cho and Anton Yelchin.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Not-So-Great Gatsby

If you went to high school in the United States, chances are you had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel 'The Great Gatsby.' And if you did, you likely realize that better perhaps than any other work of fiction, Fitzgerald captured the essence and spirit of what we call the "Roaring Twenties", with the freely available liquor and cares hidden so far below the surface they're practically unrecognizable. It was the party after allied victory in The Great War, and before we would realize the devastation that was the Great Depression. On the cinematic front, there are now five adaptations of Gatsby, ranging from Herbert Brenon's original 1926 entry to the classic 1974 film scripted by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford and Sam Waterston. But Baz Lurhmann's latest rendition of Fitzgerald's seminal work looks to change the entire look and feel we've been accustomed to in 2013's The Great Gatsby. For one thing, it's Baz frickin' Lerhmann, the man whose modernist film adaptation of Romeo + Juliet has become easily the most popular cinematic version of Shakespeare's most famous play. This is a man who has become known for his visual splendor, a la Moulin Rouge and Australia. Even if you're not a fan of his work, you have to admit that he takes an artistic effort to make his movies as visually arresting as possible. Looking at the early trailers for his Gatsby, it's easy to see how his ocular voluminosity could work wonders with the age of excess that was the 1920's.
When the bowtie was king.
For those of you who still haven't read 'Gatsby' (or if you're like me and have forgotten most of it), it's the story of nouveau riche millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man known for his extravagant all-night parties and his mysterious anonymity. He takes interest in young neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), and pines after the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). But Daisy is married to philandering Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and until now didn't even realize that Gatsby was still alive. In the chaos that follows, friendships are tried and tested, and in the end, we learn just who the cryptic Jay Gatsby really is.
Wish I could see what was so interesting.
The good news is that Luhrmann's vision of the world Fitzgerald originally created is largely fitting. Gatsby's parties are full of pomp and circumstance, and the showy decorations, ginormous and elaborate mansions and the outrageous dresses looking both perfectly modern and eminently appropriate for the time. The director also has a flair for cinematography, capturing shots beautiful to the naked eye. The special effects work is unfortunately hit-or-miss; while his shots of the majestic (but still under construction) New York City are gorgeous, some of his more action-oriented visuals - most notably Gatsby driving his gold-tinted car though the city - have enough twinges of falsity to their animation that it's unfortunately noticeable. A few other visuals don't exactly work (makeup effects create some very cartoonish characters, for instance), but for the most part Luhrmann's efforts are successful. Far more likable is the soundtrack, compiled by Jay-Z, which includes the hip-hot artist alongside pop artists Lana Del Ray, Florence and the Machines and a host of others current-day performers. While the soundtrack is very much modern, Jay-Z's talents combined with Lurhmann's modernist touches never lets the anachronistic soundtrack feel out of place in the ninety year-old setting.
Daisy could use these flowers as camouflage.
The Great Gatsby is also another step on the great career that is Leonardo DiCaprio stardom. For the longest time DiCaprio was the epitome of unfulfilled potential, often performing well enough but not at the level of excellence many had predicted for him (and in the case of Titanic, sometimes less than that). That abruptly changed in 2004 with The Aviator, with such a mature performance that rose above almost everything else that year. He proved that year was no fluke by following it up by great performance after great performance, starring in The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, Inception, J. Edgar, and Django Unchained. In Gatsby, he once again puts forth a dominating effort, perhaps the greatest characterization of the suave and emotional Jay Gatsby to date. One of the rumors for why this film was pushed back was so that DiCaprio would not have to lobby for two award nominations at once (along with Django, which sadly saw him left off the Oscar ballot), and if true his showing here definitely gives the theory some merit. Still, it's not entirely his show, and Luhrmann does a decent job surrounding him with great actors like Mulligan, Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke and Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, all of whom meld into their characters and provide their much-appreciated talents.
One of the bigger talents in the movie. No, I don't mean Tobey.
Sadly, the acting is also largely where Gatsby goes wrong, most decisively with Tobey Maguire, who trounces everybody's combined good efforts with a performance worthy of the Razzies. Maguire is so completely miscast for the role that it almost seems silly to criticize his performance, but since he was the man Luhrmann chose to narrate his tale, I'm going to do so anyway. Maguire varies between trite, boring voice-overs and overly emotive dialogue, and never succeeds at drawing any interest from his audience. It's bad enough that Nick Carraway is a boring side character in the life of Jay Gatsby, but as we're supposed to be seeing all of the action through Nick's perspective, it would have been nice to actually want to give a damn about him. Instead we're forced to suffer through some of the worst dramatic acting this year, and all because Luhrmann wouldn't realize that Maguire had been regressing talent-wise since he peaked almost a decade ago. Nick Carraway CAN be interesting (Watterston did it in the seventies!), but Maguire absolutely sinks any good his character might have achieved.
"A toast to forget the last two hours."
Maguire is not the lone problem with Gatsby (how did Luhrmann not learn how to cut and edit a film by now?), but he is the most obvious and offensive flaw within it. While it's visually splendid, does have a few good moments and is largely well-acted, this Great Gatsby is a drab, soulless, BORING recitation that almost put me to sleep on more than one occasion. There's just nothing going on behind the scenes, and the director does little to make Fitzgerald's creation relevant beyond his cosmetic touch-ups. Luhrmann's work is all sound and fury, and while he definitely makes the film all his own, it remains one of the more disappointing of the year, and perhaps will even be remembered as one of the year's worst. Fans of the director and Fitzgerald fanatics might get what they want out of this, but everybody else should stay far, far away.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Double Feature: 'The Place Beyond the Pines' and 'Mud'

Today's double feature films actually share common themes! Usually, I just lump two movies together no matter their content in order to rush along and catch up on my backlog of film-going exploits. But today's features carry two very universal and very emotional themes that should be appreciated by all viewers: Love and Family.

The first of these releases, The Place Beyond the Pines, is director Derek Cianfrance's dramatic followup to his excellent (and under-appreciated) 2010 indie Blue Valentine. It's three tales of fathers and sons, the first focusing on traveling stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) returning home to Schenectady, New York (from where the film gets its name) and discovering that an old girlfriend has given birth to a baby boy. His baby boy. Giving up his stunt gig, he struggles to find a living wage while trying to be there for the son he didn't know he had, eventually robbing banks to try and support his estranged family. That leads him into conflict with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who is also balancing his love of being a police officer with his disdain for the rampant corruption in the department. Each man tries to provide for the futures of their infant sons, and their decisions will have dramatic repercussions in their childrens' lives.
Besides a full, enthralling story that keeps you glued to your seat, the big showstoppers here are definitely Gosling and Cooper. For those of you who failed to witness his worthy performance in Valentine, Gosling once again thrives under Cianfrance's direction, flawlessly walking that fine line between his good man persona and a dark, desperate edge driven by his desire to provide for his family. If anything, it's a harder role than that of Valentine, which had him play two sides of a coin but in two different times. Here he's doing it all at once, an amazing effort that ought to be applauded. And for those who thought Bradley Cooper's performance in Silver Linings Playbook was impressive, he completely blows that showing out of the water here. In a performance worthy of the nomination he got for last year's decent romantic comedy, Cooper really commands the camera. Whether that's due to his natural talent coming to a head or his working under an actor's director like Cianfrance is unknown, but he's definitely puts in one of the better performances this year. Backing them up are solid showings from veteran actors Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne, each adding just enough to make their roles memorable.
The film does have a few surprises, most notably the curious final act featuring Glanton and Cross' grown children, but for the most part the surprises work better than you might have expected. It's not too often that you get a movie that is tailor-made for fathers and sons (in fact, it's surprising that this wasn't released closer to Father's Day), but The Place Beyond the Pines is a brilliant piece of artistic filmmaking that caters to that specific demographic. If you're a fan of Cianfrance's previous works or either of the film's principal actors, this is definitely a film you shouldn't miss.

Mud isn't far behind it, though the pedigree of writer/director Jeff Nichols certainly isn't as renowned as that of Cianfrance. Fans at least will point to 2011's apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter as proof of his talent, though I admit I have yet to see that particular film. But if Nichols' talent is anything close to what he displays here, that film may be due for a rental. Mud is the story of two Arkansas youths (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who investigate an empty island looking for a small boat that supposedly washed up in the last flood. What they find instead is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a man on the run from the law and awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Running low on food and supplies, Mud asks the boys for assistance in getting things he cannot go into town to get and to reconnect with Juniper. Meanwhile, both the law and a gang of vigilantes hunting Mud are moving in, and the two boys might be getting in way over their heads.

Nichols does a great job crafting his story, and the main reason this coming-of-age tale works so well is because the director doesn't treat it like it's any old reworked classic. Nichols' story is deliberately paced, parceling out morsels of information in easily digestible pieces. Though Mud's background isn't as deep or mysterious (or unpredictable) as similar characters throughout cinema history, Nichols' effortless ability to keep the story suspenseful is a major asset in keeping his audience focused on the task at hand. Mud if nothing else is exceedingly well-told, presenting the rural south in a way not seen since Mark Twain was at his literary height. This isn't a surprise; the director has claimed Twain as an influence on his work, and that type of narration definitely helps his movie achieve greatness.
The acting corps also doesn't have many lightweights, as everybody here is a seriously-talented performer vying for recognition. The cast is filled with the likes of Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, putting on strong performances in small roles. Witherspoon shows what she can do outside of her romcom element, reminding everybody of just how good she can be in dramatic stories. And McConaughey is definitely looking for Best Actor awards, his smoothly demure fugitive one of the absolute best performances he's made to date. But surprisingly the movie actually belongs to Sheridan and Lofland. Lofland, a newcomer with no prior film experience, works well in the sidekick role, playing a sounding board for Sheridan and providing a bit of comic relief as well. Sheridan is both a surprising and excellent lead, however, adopting those Tom Sawyer-esque mannerisms of the character while feeling still unique and individual. His ability to narrate a film without saying much is something to be celebrated in a Hollywood where too many filmmakers believe that audiences need things spelled out for them.
What we have here in The Place Beyond the Pines and Mud are two excellent independent films. If they're playing anywhere near you (both were playing at over 600 US theaters this past weekend), then you should do yourself a favor and check them out. One is a fantastic drama which adult fathers ought to attend with their adult sons, the other a mystical and yet utterly modern romance that ultimately manages to feel wholly unlike anything you've seen before. Both ought to be worthwhile whether seen on the big or small screens, but I definitely encourage the theatrical route, as while there's been the occasional great reason to go the movies lately, these are the types of films smart film-goers should be fully supporting.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sleep, Little Baby

If there's only one thing you can say about Danny Boyle, it's that he refuses to be easily defined. The visually-distinctive director has been making films for almost thirty years, and unlike many artists who have been working for that long or longer (*cough* Spielberg *cough*), his work has never felt like a copy of his previous efforts or constricted by a lack of risk-taking. He's happy working in any genre, whether it be drama (Trainspotting), adventure (The Beach), horror (28 Days Later) or science fiction (Sunshine), never spiting a story because of where or how it takes place. And of course he has now broken through to mainstream audiences with his heavily lauded (and fairly lucrative) Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. Those movies engaged audiences, drove them to the theaters, and had them conversing with one another for weeks after they had finished watching.

Trance is not like either of those films. Instead, it's more of a throwback to Boyle's early methods of storytelling, and in more ways than one: it was actually an idea brought to him way back in 1994, after he had finished filming thriller Shallow Grave, by screenwriter Joe Ahearne. While he didn't take it on at the time, Ahearne did eventually turned the screenplay into a television movie in 2001. But Boyle never forgot the tale, and recently he finally pushed to get it made. And while it's certainly flown under the radar here in 2013, Boyle makes enough of an effort to ensure you should check it out in its inevitable DVD release.
In modern-day London, Simon (James McAvoy) has assisted a robbery crew in their theft of a priceless painting. But when the gang's leader Franck (Vincent Cassel) inspects their haul, he discovers that he only possesses an empty frame, the art itself having gone missing. Suspecting treachery on Simon's part, he attempts to torture the location of his prize out of the mild-mannered man, only to learn that Simon has no memory of hiding the painting due to a head wound he suffered in the heist. Desperate and angry, Franck hires the services of hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an effort to get Simon to remember. But when retrieving that memory becomes more difficult than intended, it will take all of Elizabeth's effort and all of Franck's patience to see this painting doesn't disappear forever.

As would any movie having to do with the human memory, Trance is definitely very complex. Much like Christopher Nolan's Inception, there are multiple layers of reality happening all at once, with nothing counted on to be as it seemingly appears. There are vast departures from that 2010 blockbuster however, not the least of which is that while Inception found itself quite bloated and unbelievable by the end, Trance's goals and machinations are far more simple. Character motivations are relatively simple, making them more easily sympathetic and understandable. What remains a nuisance, however, is the storytelling itself, with Boyle waving the camera around and moving between past, present, dream and reality with a madman's ambition. Sometimes it does work, but at others it's a bit too trippy to really be taken all that seriously.
At least the characters are interesting enough to keep us enthralled, even when the story gets a bit away from us. James McAvoy is an excellent, genre-defying actor who absolutely had to be top-notch for this movie to be good, and he passes that test with ease. As a performer, he has to do the most transforming, as the character we see at the end of Trance is a far cry from the one we are introduced to in the beginning. Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth is also intriguing, though marred by bland personality through most of the film. From moment one we're aware that something about her is off, but a good performance and excellent writing make sure we're never truly sure until Boyle is ready to let us in on the secret. Vincent Cassell is by far the weakest of the cast, his thick French accent unable to convey most proper emotions in English. However, as a standard thug/bad guy he remains effective, a violent foil to McAvoy's more timid protagonist.
But despite some clever trickery and some really good acting, there just isn't enough here to recommend Trance to the average movie-going public. Boyle has made some real head-turners in the past, and he certainly has enough twists here to keep the story from becoming stale and unwatchable. However, there's not enough intrigue to make it worth the ticket price, especially when the ending will leave you scratching your head in confusion and frustration. This is certainly an okay movie, just not one I would recommend going to the theater to see. Instead, check it out on DVD, where the minuscule budget, bare bones story, and derivative elements will play much better on a smaller screen. It's not bad, just not up to Danny Boyle's usual level of excellence.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Suit Up

With the release of Iron Man 3 this past Friday, Marvel studios officially kicks off their much-awaited "Phase Two", a series of films that leads up to 2015's anticipated sequel The Avengers 2. Starting the ball rolling with Iron Man and making it work was very important for two big reasons. First, Robert Downey Jr.'s irreverent interpretation of Marvel's "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" is easily the most popular of its superheroes, widely out-grossing the still-successful films featuring fellow Avengers Captain America, Thor and the Hulk at the box office. Second, while the newest sequel is seen more as a followup to Joss Whedon's excellent The Avengers than it is to the previous Iron Man titles, it still carries the stain of coming after 2010's terrible Iron Man 2, easily one of the worst released that year. And so Iron Man 3's co-writer/director Shane Black (taking over from the departing Jon Favreau) upped the ante by introducing Iron Man's strongest foe (The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley) and one of the original comic book's most famous stories, as the movie is loosely based on Warren Ellis' 2005-2006 Extremis storyline. Top it off with more Iron suits than one man could possibly have use for (or so one would think) and you have all the makings of a potentially amazing Iron Man sequel.

This is his indoor attire.
Following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Downey) is trying to get back into his daily routine as a billionaire inventor with a great girlfriend in Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and an amazing gig as famous world-saving superhero Iron Man. But he's having difficulties sleeping, his worldview irrevocably changed by the events in New York City, and exacerbated by the terror attacks of The Mandarin (Kingsley), an international criminal guilty of bombings around the globe. When one of those attacks hits a little close to home, Stark gets it in his head that he will handle the menace, exposing himself and everything he holds dear to urgent danger. But everything is not what it seems, and soon his past comes back to haunt him. Surrounded by enemies, Stark must rely on his wits if he wants to survive what comes next.

However, he cheats at Rock Paper Scissors
Shane black does an excellent job pulling together his own rendition of an Iron Man story while melding it with the existing cinematic mythos. His signature black humor fits in nicely with where Favreau had gone before, and his history with Downey (the pair worked together on the cult favorite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) makes great use of the tongue-in-cheek storytelling that comes from their pairing. Black has a great feel for directing - as much as Downey does playing - Tony Stark, one of the few superheroes more interesting in his everyday manner than he is in costume, unlike "mild-mannered" Clark Kent or boring entrepeneur Bruce Wayne. In fact, the whole second act of the film features Stark without working armor in the middle of Tennessee (sans southern accents, strangely) and teamed up with a precocious brat (Ty Simpkins), and it's the best part of the whole movie. Black's ability to avoid cliched pitfalls works wonders for his star; Stark is eccentric and confident and yet plagued by demons, as three-dimensional as a character in comics can get these days. And that's even BEFORE he straps himself into a flying tin can and fights evil. To that end, The director also does a great job humanizing Stark's world and pits him against more grounded villains, while still keeping the supernatural and super-powered elements of the Marvel universe.

Might be time for a tune-up.
Black also does an excellent job directing the required action scenes, especially considering his relative lack of experience. Sure, he carries a massive special effects budget behind him, but had he failed he certainly wouldn't have been the first director to balk under the pressure of a major production. Instead the visual effects are flawless, the fight choreography is well-done, and there always seems to be a reason behind every action. The action sequences, from my personal favorite of Iron Man attempting to rescue seventeen people thrown from a plane to a battle royale between dozens of automated armored suits and an equal number of super-powered baddies, are expertly conceived, and while not everything works perfectly it does manage to at least match the intensity of what we've come to expect from this franchise.
You never see a good performance from him coming.
Unfortunately, while Downey is amazing as Stark, his side characters leave a lot to be desired. In most cases, it's an example of incomplete character development rather than lack of acting talent that sabotages these roles, though in the case of Rebecca Hall it manages to be both. Sadly, Paltrow wasn't much better, despite being a perfect down-to-earth foil for Downey's perfectly flamboyant performance. She's simply not given enough to do, and when she is the results are underwhelming. The same can be said for Don Cheadle, whose return as the military equivalent of Stark can be summed-up in two words: "paint job." Favreau also returns in an acting role, and shows that the expansion of his character wasn't remotely necessary. The villains are definitely better, with Guy Pearce once again showing that he should have made it to the big time years ago. But while Pearce is great, moreso is Kingsley, who terrifies despite relatively little screen time. Both make excellent bad guys, although if there is a failure it's that their motivations are never fully made clear. Still, it's better than the plain silly villain we sat through in Iron Man 2. That was just insulting.
And now, the ultimate test of her antiperspirant.
There are also some storytelling gaffes, not the least of which are the murky goals of the bad guys or the pointlessness of the secondary characters. Besides that, Iron Man 3 gets a little... dark in the latter half, with Tony Stark becoming a bit more amoral than most of his superhero bretheren (actually, he's about on par with Christopher Nolan's Batman, and not in a good way). While that might not be the best side-effect of Black's command, at least it can be forgiven by the fact that it matches the mood of the scene. Also, minor plot threads such as Tony's supposed post-traumatic stress disorder and relationship woes with Pepper are introduced in the first act, only to be resolved without explanation by the end of the second. Okay, they might have been a bit out of place (especially the PTSD) in a family-friendly action flick, but in that case why introduce them at all? There's also a nice, probably unexpected twist that might upset a few fanboys, but audiences ought to get a kick out of it. Finally, the ending is a bit TOO clean, to the point where an opening isn't left for potential future sequels. When we were introduced to this new Marvel movie universe, our understanding was that heroes would continue on, with or without their original actors. If this is Downey Jr's last Iron Man flick, Black and company definitely didn't leave it open for anybody else to take up the reigns in the future. And when the future shows at least two more Avengers pictures, that's an odd oversight.

Poker night's going to get a bit rowdy.
In the end, Iron Man 3 is easily the best movie we've seen in 2013, though that was admittedly an easy task. In some ways it's the best of the current Marvel crop, and in others it doesn't quite match up with the fun and intensity of the first Iron Man. Still, while it's still no match for The Avengers, it a great movie and a major step up after the Iron Man 2 debacle. Yes, you'll probably have to go back and rewatch all of those movies to understand what exactly is going on, but is that really such a bad thing? Iron Man is fun, funny, action-packed and simply amazing. Hopefully this won't be the last time we get to see Downey don the red and gold, but if it is at least he goes out on a spectacularly high note. This is as close to "must-see" as summer blockbusters get, despite even its most glaring flaws. If you're even remotely interested in comic books, explosive action and expressive humor, this is your jam.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Painfully Gained

If there’s one thing director Michael Bay knows, it’s how to excite people. For nearly twenty years, he has been devising methods to burst our collective eardrums and flash-fry our optical nerves with visual and aural verve, always striving to pack theaters with folks looking for their next fix of thrills and explosions and everything awesome. He’s also one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood, and while he has been known to occasionally back the wrong horse (does anybody remember The Island?) and his movies have never been truly good, his care spent on special effects and crowd-pleasing elements are a huge reason his legacy ought to remain intact.

But while he’s probably best-known right now for the computer-generated antics of his Transformers trilogy (with a fourth on the way), one might forget that he actually started off with more grounded action films like Bad Boys, which blended violence and comedy in such a unique way that it did much to create the modern action genre as we know it. Hence Pain & Gain, with his smallest budget in over a decade, which tells the insanely true story of bodybuilders and criminals Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie). The Sun Gym Gang, as they became known, hatched and executed a plan to kidnap and rob Miami businessman Tony Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), eventually attempting to kill the man when the dirty business was concluded. But their fortune was not due to last, and their empire came crashing down not long after.
Just say No, kids...

This isn’t a typical Michal Bay production, relying less on gnarly explosions and more on character development to push the story forward. Unfortunately, the director’s biggest mistake was making the violent sociopaths herein the heroes in his tale. I’m not saying that bad guys cannot be considered heroes under the right circumstances; Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths was almost two hours of loveable crazies, and Richard Linklater’s Bernie made you root for a guilty murderer to get off scot free (and this was Jack Black, no less!). Bay’s problem is that this is a character-driven issue, and he’s just not a director who cares about his characters. You wing up hating just about everybody, whether they are the “heroes” or the “police” or anybody in between. Wahlberg and Mackie’s characters are so idiotic that you can’t help but shake your head at their incompetence and self-deception, not to mention their unlikely successes. Ed Harris’ private eye Ed Du Bois is dry and dull, and you’ll DEFINITELY hate Israeli actress Bar Paly as an immigrant exotic dancer cannot be understood half the time. You won’t even like Shalhoub as Kershaw, whom one character refers to as a “difficult victim”. The only person in this whole mess you’ll actually connect with is that of Paul Doyle (actually a composite of several real-life people), and that’s equal parts due to Johnson’s excellent performance and being an excellently-written role. You actually feel for Doyle, a recovering drug addict with a religious streak, who ends up joining the group and committing vile acts not through bad urges, but through desperation and a severe lack of options.
One of the few comedic successes
But the entire movie cannot be rested entirely on Johnson’s (and sparingly Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson’s) back, and it isn’t long until you’re clamoring for something – ANYTHING – to relieve the monotony. Bay’s strengths – explosions and pretty image – are thankfully intact, although limited in appearance. The director does a good job of capturing both the shiny and dingy sides of Miami, from the squeaky-clean tourist areas and luxury homes to the run-down neighborhoods and seedy warehouse districts. Of course, he became familiar with these areas from his work on Bad Boys and its sequel, and while things have probably changed in the time since, he still manages to use the area to the greatest cinematic effect. While many who praise Bay argue that it is his action sequences that set him apart, it’s not – his command of all things visual is his true strength, even if it’s not quite enough to make up for his other failings.
Money is not usually this bright.
One other nice aspect of Pain & Gain is how it – like many Bay productions – doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Though it amusingly purports to tell a true story (fact-checkers ought to have a field day with the script), Bay and company make full use of the nuttiness that occurred at the time, and the results are almost too crazy to be believed. And the insane part is that the scenes that you might consider too out there to possibly be real, the ones that make you laugh out loud due to their ridiculousness… ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Ironically, it’s the more normal parts of the story that were altered in order to make the characters more sympathetic. But while Bay perhaps failed in his final execution, one has to respect the wink and nod of being reminded during a particularly gruesome and comedic moment that, yes, “This is still based on a true story.”
You're not a real Miami resident without a racing dog.
But make no mistake; despite its occasional bits of amusement and a genuinely strong performance from Johnson, Bay’s return to more human fare is a painful exercise in just how much he has become reliant on giant robots to be successful. Pain & Gain is a mediocre, amateurish and thoroughly unnecessary attempt at forced relevance, both for the filmmakers and the subjects of their labors. Yes, it’s still better than many of the brain-dead macho violent movies released in 2013, but that line is more of a limbo bar than a high jump. Bay generally wants his movies to be awesome, but this one definitely doesn’t make it. Bay is not a character-driven director, and that’s simply the kind of filmmaker this title needed if it was going to be close to sufficiently entertaining.