Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Very Bad Men

If there's one brand of popular entertainment I've never fully been able to get behind, it's the Jackass series with its plethora of stupid stunts, dirty jokes, and bad behavior. It's a series that still sharply divides audiences even after more than a dozen years, and many people I know and otherwise respect can't get enough of the antics of Johnny Knoxville and his crew. Now Jackass is spinning itself off, centering its fourth (FOURTH) feature film around the team's favorite ill-tempered geriatric in Bad Grandpa.

In this actual narrative by series creator and regular Jackass director Jeff Tremaine, Irving Zisman (Knoxville under a ton of makeup and prosthetics) is charged with getting his grandson Billy (Fun Size's Jackson Nicoll) across country to live with his father after the death of Irving's wife and the incarceration of his daughter. What follows is an incredible trip between Nebraska and North Carolina, in which Irving and Billy steal from convenience stores, destroy public property, act inappropriately at a male strip club, infiltrate a child beauty pageant, and risk the ire of a biker gang, all for cheap laughs from their audience and the surprise of those unaware people around them.
I've got a bad feeling about this...
One of the best aspects of the series' Zisman character is that, unlike many of Jackass' usual stunts, his antics are played against normal folk going about their business, unaware of Knoxville's identity. That's the goal of Bad Grandpa, to shock and surprise anybody who is not part of the (hidden) film crew, and by extension amuse the viewer with bewildered looks and moments of anger and revulsion. It's a theme that works, for the most part; some of the best moments are when spectators are frozen in surprise as Irving's dead wife (Spike Jonze, who also co-produced and co-wrote the story) topples out of a casket at a funeral home, or when Zisman gets his penis caught in a vending machine. Knoxville of course has been doing this for a decade, and knows his way around when it comes to catching people off guard. But it's Nicoll who steals the show, the young actor regularly out-acting and out-funny-ing his elder statesman, especially in the scenes in which it was definitely required. After all, few people might have actually recognized Knoxville with all that makeup on, but Fun Size - while a failure commercially - was still advertised and seen enough that many people might have still recognized the kid otherwise.
The implications are staggering.
Naturally the story between pranks is completely unoriginal. Between the road trip, the dead grandparent in the trunk (which ought to have been visited more often), an the beauty pageant strip tease (which is by far the best scene of the movie), Bad Grandpa was definitely written by men who had just seen Little Miss Sunshine (trading Rick James for Warrant doesn't differentiate things much). When you get past all the pranks and stupidity, the story goes exactly where you would expect from more traditional films. The truth is that Tremaine and crew aren't used to making this kind of film, and to expect a cohesive, let alone original, narrative from them would be a mistake. Still, I'm fairly sure Jackass fans aren't looking for that anyway, so their attention will simply wander in those moments while they await the next genuine moment of amusement.
That's one effed-up penguin.
Still - and I'm shocked to say this myself - Bad Grandpa might just be the best thing to come out of the Jackass brand. Sure, there aren't a ton of genuine laugh-out-loud moments; at best most scenes will merely illicit chuckles, and those funniest moments are all in the trailer. Bad Grandpa also lacks the wild, unpredictable nature of the series by limiting what they can do with their mediocre story. But Knoxville, Tremaine and company were never out to make groundbreaking fare, and those who are already fans of the truly unique genre will certainly find enough to feast upon. Anybody else, however, won't find enough to justify the ticket price, though at least this one doesn't go for the extra 3D price hike like its underwhelming predecessor.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Love Shack

If you want proof that romantic comedies aren't just for young, idealistic people, Enough Said ought to be enough to justify your argument. It's been quite the surprise over-achiever the past month, defying all expectations for a film starring a former Seinfeld alum (seriously, have you SEEN Jason Alexander's career?) and from a director whose name most people would never recognize. Sadly, the biggest reason this movie has seen such success has to be the unfortunate passing of star James Gandolfini, the talented actor dying of a heart attack this past June. Crude as it may seem, many theaters who otherwise might have passed on this indie title grabbed it for the sole purpose of making a buck on his name. I'm certainly not condemning that decision - it's a business after all, and as it is the most financially successful title of director Nicole Holofcener's career, it's certainly not hard to agree with their logic.

It's no movie about nothing...
Regardless, I'm glad Enough Said has stuck around long enough for me (and hopefully, you) to go see it. The story follows single mother Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she goes day-to-day working as a masseuse, unhappy at the thought of her daughter (and best friend) moving away to college in just a few short months. At a party she is becomes acquainted with both professional poet Marianne (Catherine Keener), with whom she strikes up a friendship, and charming fellow divorcee Albert (Gandolfini), with whom she begins a romantic relationship. As she grows to know each person, she learns all the bad habits of their respective exes. But as she learns more and more about Marianne and Albert, she realizes that they have more in common with one another than she ever would have expected.
Eva forgot to turn off her phone before the movie.
What's probably most refreshing about Enough Said is its differing cast. We've seen this same brand of story dozens of times featuring younger actors and actresses learning about the past lives of their significant others, but rarely have we done so from the perspective of a single parent, and even less from an older perspective. Louis-Dreyfus has been acting on television for years, and witnessing her performance, it's surprising that this is her first major big-screen role since 1997's Deconstructing Harry. Sure, her work here will be familiar to anybody who has seen her during her decades-old career on television, but her easy charm and likable personality make for an easy leading actress. The supporting cast is full of familiar and appreciable sorts, from veterans Keener (a Holofcener regular), Toni Collette (rocking her native Australian accent for a change), and Ben Falcone, to a trio of talented young actresses - Eve Hewson, Tracey Fairaway and Tavi Gevinson - who all are given scene-stealing moments thanks to a script (also Holofcener) that makes great use of its supporting cast in propping up the romance between its two leads.
They know what makes a trip to the movies great.
And that's where the absolutely wonderful performance by Gandolfini comes in. He might not get as much respect as more handsome men with half of his talent (mainly because half of his post-Sopranos roles were remarkably similar), but here we have distinct evidence that this man is in fact one of the great actors of our era. As resident "giant teddy bear" and a hopeful romantic, Gandolfini's performance makes you fall as quickly as Eva, while making even his supposed faults endearing in their appearance. Albert is a role that many lesser actors would have gotten absolutely wrong, but not this man, who commands the screen by his mere appearance and surprising wealth of charm.
Because I needed a picture of somebody else.
The differences also extend to the story, which focuses on that limited time until your only child (and if you're single, your main companion in life) leaves you all alone to go away for school. Eva's difficulty with that event rests front and center, as she struggles to finish knitting a blanket and becoming closer to her daughter's best friend. Thankfully however, the film never tries to imply that Eva needs a man to complete her happiness, as it is pointed out that she has friends more than able to keep her occupied. Still, her loneliness and fear of not having anyone to share intimate items with is also present, and really complicates he relationships with Marianne and Albert, especially when it comes to the idea that she might have to sacrifice one relationship to be happy in the other. It's a nice twist on the genre, and one that Holofcener manages to tell without relying on added exposition, voice-overs or unnecessary dialogue. The director trusts her audience enough to understand what's going on without hand-holding, a move much appreciated by those tired of the overly-complicated cliches that make up the bulk of these kinds of tales.
In the end, it was the laugh that did it.
Even without the added attention from Gandolfini's untimely passing, Enough Said proves itself a funny, smart and unerringly sweet romance story geared towards an older generation but able to be enjoyed by any audience. Waitress is the last example of such a broad acceptability, although Holofcener's work never gets quite as dark as that under-seen classic. Instead, Enough Said is light-hearted enough to appeal to everyone, whether you're looking to recover from a bad day or simply want to keep those good feelings flowing. It's been silently running while bigger blockbusters have been taking up the bulk of everybody's attention, and while I wouldn't recommend this over absolute must-sees like Gravity or Captain Phillips, it's one you would be probably be surprised by should you give it a shot at your theater.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Last Blood?

It’s pretty safe to say that we’re no longer where we were two or three decades ago.

Back then, it was the heyday for violent, R-rated fare. And two of the biggest movie stars on the planet were Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rambo. Predator. Rocky. Total Recall. Tango & Cash. Conan the Barbarian. Demolition Man. The Terminator. Cliffhanger. Eraser. Between these two men, Hollywood made billions at the global box office during the era that was the 1970’s through the mid-90's. Today, you can’t point at one actor or actress with that kind of guaranteed draw at the box office, and back then the industry had TWO.

Sadly, success was not meant to last forever. Part of the reason is that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are definitely byproducts of their era. At that time, we couldn’t get enough of the violent, pulpy and completely unbelievable action that permeated not only the movie industry but other facets of the entertainment industry as well; professional wrestling and American Gladiators were at their most popular, and our culture was definitely releasing some of the built-up frustration from the decades-long Cold War. Some of the most iconic moments in cinema were pithy one-liners from our action movies, as well. When Jesse Ventura uttered “I ain’t got time to bleed” in Predator, it was an instant classic. And he wasn’t even the STAR of the film. But changing times have seen the rise of films of multiple genres, including martial arts and “gore porn” (not to mention a similar rise in video games), most of whose heroes are not the jacked-up, testosterone-fueled supermen of the previous era, and while there are a few big men still succeeding in Hollywood, the aging action heroes of yesteryear have all but disappeared.
The team-up we've been waiting for since Expendables 2.
Still, these guys never quite go away, and they almost succeeded in a full-fledged comeback a few years ago with Stallone’s directorial effort The Expendables, which saw many of the older action heroes teaming up in an homage to movies past. Both Stallone and Schwarzenegger were part of that experience, and again two years later in the less heralded The Expendables 2. But now it looks like the Expendable phenomena might have run its course; practically nobody showed up to the actors' two releases this year, the puerile Bullet to the Head and the actually kinda-fun The Last Stand. Are we already tired of these aging stars of days gone by? Is the gimmick well and truly finished? Or will we still show up if they give us an Expendable­-like team-up in the form of new release Escape Plan?

Remember kids, drink your milk!
Formerly known as Exit Plan and The Tomb, Escape Plan features Stallone as Ray Breslin, a professional escape artist who breaks out of federal prisons in order to test their security measures. One day he is asked to step up to the next level, as the CIA want someone to test the viability of a new experimental prison for containing high-risk enemies of the State, based on Breslin's own study of prison design. But after accepting the job, things immediately go wrong as he is finds himself without intel, out of contact with his team and trapped in a hidden fortress surrounded by hundreds of the most dangerous people in the world. His only ally is Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), a career criminal with a few secrets of his own. Someone sent Ray Breslin here to die. As he attempts to escape, he is determined to find out who, and why.
He's going to "pump you up", and in prison that's just wrong.
Because this has all the earmarks of an old-school action flick (gratuitous violence, witty banter, etc) you'd be forgiven for expecting Escape Plan to be a generic action thriller, even more so because that's exactly what you're getting. Stallone and Schwarzenegger bring nothing new to the table besides Arnold's grey hairs and beard, though director Mikael Hafstrom (The Rite, 1408) manages to transition nicely from his more familiar horror fare to put together a decent well-rounded action film. That's the key word there, "decent." While the environment in which our heroes find themselves is pretty cool, everything else, from the faceless villain (Person of Interest's Jim Caviezel) and the rote plot to the cliched backstories, subplots and predictable twists mar the experience. But even with these things in the way, and a minor letdown of an ending, there's still a lot to like in this thriller, which goes heavy on the action in exciting and occasionally humorous ways.
Yup, "Fiddy" is here. 'Nuff said.
I really only have two complaints about the movie, though they're both major in nature. One is the treatment of co-stars. Obviously the bulk of the focus is on stars Stallone and Schwarzenegger (and they do as good a job as you would imagine), but there's actually a wealth of talented actors involved in this movie, and almost none of them have anything interesting to do. Caviezel, as I mentioned before, is fairly uninteresting as a character, though at least the actor's talent keeps it from slinking into irredeemable territory. But worse off are the trio of actors who play Ray's team on the outside. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson doesn't show anything proving that he's got talent as an actor, so it's a relief that he doesn't have much to do (and when he does it's appropriately cringe-worthy). But both Amy Ryan and Vincent D'Onofrio are great actors who are hampered by a simplistic script and limited interaction with the audience. Add in a surprising (and also limited) appearance by Sam Neill, and a cast that could have ably supported its stars is left in the dust.
Hi, Amy Ryan! Bye, Amy Ryan!
The second issue is the script itself, especially the dialogue. I can accept most of the sweeping generalities in a Stallone/Schwarzenegger action flick, so the story itself - while truly and deeply flawed - shouldn't bother most thrill-seeking audiences. No, the problem is the "witty" banter that simply wasn't. Puns are bad enough when they actually tie into the scene or moment in question, but when they're used seemingly without reason, the result is less funny than confusing. Screenwriters Miles Chapman (original) and James Keller (rewrite) can't seem to make the dialogue work consistently, and even the best actors couldn't have pulled if off effectively (and interestingly enough, Schwarzenegger proves equally inadequate at acting in German as he does in English). It sucks when even the intensely-hated Batman & Robin has better puns in comparison, and is indicative of just how rushed the scriptwriting process obviously was.
Is there a reason they have masks? Is that ever explained?
Escape Plan looked like it could have been more than just a decent movie based on its star power alone. But Hafstrom's effort is too much of a love letter to an era of Hollywood history for which few people still really care. After a brief resurgence in nostalgic popularity, the lack of audiences for this feature might be proof that audiences are getting weary of plus-sized commandos and their feats of immortality. With so much varied fare out there, this specific brand of violent entertainment is definitely on its way out for the time being. If it will have any chance of a sustained comeback, more will be required from its genre than the bare-minimum effort of Escape Plan.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Copy + Paste

Surprisingly, Kimberly Peirce's Carrie is the ONLY horror film this year to get a wide release during the month of October. Considering the year we're having in the horror genre, that's really quite a surprise, as 2013 has seen a number of solid-to-great releases thus far, between The Conjuring, Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw, and even some horror offshoots in World War Z and Warm Bodies. Sure, Paranormal Activity decided to sit the year out (and after seeing a trailer for the upcoming sequel The Marked Ones, I can't say I'm disappointed), but that's still no excuse to leave the traditionally scariest month of the year without the type of fare that exemplifies its reputation.

And is that one film a keeper? The original Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1976, is a horror classic, often regarded as the best Stephen King adaptation of all time. Is a remake - even one featuring the casting of the uber-talented pair of Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace Moretz - really all that necessary? Pierce certainly has the female perspective that should give an edge to this particular remake, and her experience exploring gender identity and growth (just look at Boys Don't Cry, if you can), Carrie ought to have been a slam dunk. Add on top the claim that it skews closer to the themes of King's original novel, plus the added focus on bullying in today's society, and this could have been a remake to eclipse the original.
Detention didn't want her...
And in some ways, it does. De Palma's interpretation of the the classic novel - while still beloved today - was certainly a product of its time, and the campiness and outdated fashion and technology clash terribly with today's norms. If nothing else, Peirce does an excellent job modernizing the environment, even if she doesn't go far enough; one student films the infamous "tampon" scene on her phone and even uploads it onto the internet, but that new plot line doesn't really go anywhere significant. Certainly the bullying aspects of the original Carrie are more prevalent today than ever before, and Peirce highlights that fact well, not to mention the apparent inaction of those supposedly in charge (from unassuming principals to teachers who are just as bad as the bullies). As a modern adaptation, Carrie works because Peirce manages to take a 40-year-old novel and make it feel current and relevant.
Just for the record; this amazing actress is 16!
Carrie also features an excellent cast, with Pierce succeeding with not only her two leads, but a number of the younger actors whom you may or may not recognize. In the lead, Moretz is simply the best young actress working today. Her versatility has led to scene-stealing roles in multiple films, and this is just the latest example of an up-and-comer taking it to the next level. Moore is similarly well cast, the veteran putting in one of her best performances in years as Margaret White, Carrie's religious fanatic mother. She's always been at least a solid actress, but Carrie sees her take it up a notch, and with a lesser actress it might have been too much. Moore engages the audience with every scene however, becoming one of the film's stronger parts. Judy Greer takes a break from comedies to take on a more serious tone, proving she's suited for these types roles as well. And thankfully, the younger performers do their share as well, as talents like Portia Doubleday (Youth in Revolt), Gabriella Wilde (The Three Musketeers), Alex Russell (Chronicle) and Ansel Elgort (soon to be seen in Divergent) do wonders on the big screen.
Mother and daughter have never been so scary.
Unfortunately, Carrie just doesn't do enough to sufficiently separate itself from the original movie. While claiming that the film hearkens back more to the King novel, what we get is essentially a scene-for-scene (though not shot-for-shot) remake of the original, with updated dialogue being the only significant enhancement. Yes, the ending is slightly altered, but not in a way that makes the film any better or more distinctive. Peirce even rips off the multiple-angle blood spill shot of De Palma's exactly; it's a move that was surely meant as an homage, but merely draws attention to the remake's derivative nature. Worse, the special effects in that iconic scene are blatant CGI effects, taking you out of the moment you've been waiting for the entire film. Evil Dead surprised and pleased many by using more practical effects in their more gratuitous blood-letting, and Peirce can't be bothered to use a real bucket of (fake) blood for one climactic scene?
Because you begged to see it.
Carrie had all the makings of a great horror flick, and if it had been the first of its kind, I doubt I'd be so harsh on it now. But Peirce owes far too much to Brian De Palma's original to accept this new Carrie White as anything original, no matter how good the acting or how modernized the production values. Instead, Carrie exists as a testament against remakes, or at least ham-fisted ones that bring little new to the table. It should have been a modern classic, especially with no major horror titles coming out to challenge its dominance. Unfortunately, this new Carrie mainly makes one want to go back and see a true classic from 1976.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Trippiest Place on Earth

Cannes. Sundance. Toronto. South by Southwest. Telluride. Venice. Every year, people flock to annual film festivals. There, they are offered a glimpse of the newest and (hopefully) best efforts by artists from around the globe. It's a cinematic breeding ground, a United Nations for filmmakers, and for many a chance to truly break out and be discovered by major studios and appreciative audiences.

Sometimes a title will come along, however, that you KNOW you'll likely never see on the big screen. Indies movies especially tend to skew away from the mainstream, often resulting in the kind of controversy and attention that makes for great headlines, but not substantive box office grosses. For Escape from Tomorrow, that came at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival from the revelation that the psychedelic horror/comedy had been shot guerrilla-style (basically sneaking around and filming when nobody was looking) at he Happiest Place on Earth. Disney has always been protective of its intellectual property, and the idea of making an a somewhat anti-Disney movie on its own front lawn was bound to make some waves. Despite my interest in seeing this, I however judged that pressure from the Magic Kingdom Walt built would keep theaters from showing this much-talked-about little movie, and that I'd likely have to wait for a DVD release.
Unlike the fez, sombreros are cool now.
Well, good luck prevailed here, and while I did have to go a bit out of my way to see Escape, I'm glad I did. The movie follows middle-aged husband and father Jim (Roy Abramsohn), who starts the last day of his family's vacation to Disney World discovering that he has lost his job. Slowly, his last day at Disney is distorted by freaky visions, cute French girls (any sane man's kryptonite), his own creepy children, and other mysterious characters as Jim just tries to make it through one more day with his life and sanity intact.
And THAT'S how he sneaked the script through the front gates!
If there's one word I can use to describe Escape from Tomorrow it's... surreal. Director Randy Moore has his faults (as all first time directors do), but he was quite sure of the story he wanted to tell here and the visuals he wanted to incorporate. The film is the ultimate argument against mass entertainment, taking one of the most revered institutions in the world and subverting it completely into something dark and maniacal. Through Moore's eyes, where many might see magic, he paints chaos in all shapes and forms. While the monochromatic imagery was more due to necessity than choice (natural lighting issues coupled with the use of non-standard handheld cameras forced the decision to shoot in black and white), it does a wonderful job of establishing the pessimistic mood of the film. But that doesn't mean that the entire movie is dark; early on especially, Moore manages to capture what makes Disney so enrapturing in the first place, even while depicting a decapitation on Thunder Mountain or adultery in the resort hotel.
If this were my kid I'd drop him off at Buzz Lightyear and run.
Despite the impressive camerawork and gleefully dark humor, there are a few issues that keep this from becoming a true indie classic. Most troublesome are the green screen effects, in which Moore couldn't capture the scenes he wanted at the park and edited them in post-production. It's glaringly noticeable when this takes place and really takes the viewer out of the story. Slightly better are the limited CGI effects, such as the ones that change the faces on the "It's a Small World" ride from cheery smiles to evil snarls during one of Jim's fever dreams. Still, with a film on such a small budget, poor effects are the best you can reasonably expect. The acting is also sadly mixed. While Abramsohn and Elena Schuber (playing his wife) are fine, most of the rest of the cast are a mixed bag, from kids Jack Dalton (who is creepy but little else) and Katelynn Rodriguez (with no personality whatsoever) to bland side characters that receive barely any development time between scant appearances. Finally, while Moore might have known what kind of story he wanted to tell, he doesn't have a clue how to end it; the last twenty minutes are full of expected plot wrap-ups but free of anything resembling an actual, understandable conclusion.
Best movie of the year!!
There's a lot to like in Escape from Tomorrow, a wacky, satirical, subversive and at times disturbing look at what's hidden behind the perfectly-placed curtain of seemingly innocent entertainment. Moore brings plenty to the table, and proves to be a talented - if flawed through inexperience - director, and might actually go places if Disney doesn't succeed in blacklisting him in Hollywood. But his feature debut does suffer from a bit too much rawness, and in fact is a far better on paper than it is a finished product. That doesn't mean it's not worth a look on concept alone, but perhaps avoid the few theatrical releases still out there (it probably won't last long anyway) and rent or VOD it instead. It's obvious however why this was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival; at the very least it's a unique idea - one I never thought would rationally exist - and is at least worth your attention, if not quite your admiration.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Captive Audience

There are people out there who do not think that Captain Richard Phillips is a hero. After the events which saw his ship, the cargo-hauling Maersk Alabama, captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia and Phillips additionally being taken hostage when the four pirates were forced to abandon the ship in a lifeboat, a soon-to-be rescued Phillips was hailed as heroic, facing the worst that the third world had to offer and coming out alive. But while feature film Captain Phillips, from by Green Zone and The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass, was getting ready for theaters, many people spoke out about their perception of recklessness in Phillips. This came most notably in a lawsuit from over half of his Alabama crew, claiming that the erstwhile hero knew well and good that the ship would be traveling through pirate-infested waters and did little or nothing to minimize the potential for its capture until it was too late.So how will this film portray him? Will he be shown as a hero or an idiot? Would we even get an answer to that question anywhere in Greengrass' film?

Yup, Hanks' return to "Oscar Season" is about upon us.
As Captain Phillips is ostensibly based on Phillips' own book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea", the former option seems to be the most likely. After all, it would hardly be sporting to take the base source of your material and dump it in the trash. Sure, World War Z did it, but that was based on a work of fiction, and had special effects to take your mind off the wasted potential.When presenting real life situations, it's often better to stick to the known facts, although a good director will weave in elements of fantasy to make the narrative more entertaining to audiences (Argo is a perfect example). Such seems to be the case with this movie, in which Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) sails his cargo ship around the Horn of Africa, only to see the Alabama hijacked by Somali pirates led by Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi). With most of the crew hiding and military assistance too far away to be of immediate help, the only man standing between four desperate men and the safety of the men under his command is Phillips.
Thankfully, this is not a romantic comedy.
Fortunately (and we shouldn't be surprised by a professional like Greengrass) the film is nowhere near as sycophantic as it could have been. Richard Phillips is definitely not portrayed as an heartless or reckless, but a smart man dedicated to doing his job as it is presented. The movie shows that he is aware of the potential pirate threat, and he did actually take steps to try and prevent such hijackings from taking place. Greengrass seems to state that such an attack would have been inevitable, given the circumstances, which was almost certainly Phillips' opinion. However, that doesn't mean he thinks Phillips is all that great a guy; as a Captain, he's more than a bit of a taskmaster, and doesn't exactly have the best people skills when it comes to the crew; his confrontations with the crew are essentially one-sided, and are moot as he's chief on the boat. It makes for an orderly ship, but not one in which the crew will appreciate the man in charge. At first glance, casting Tom Hanks in the role of such a relatively gray character seems a bit strange, but while the actor is perhaps better known for his "good guy" persona in charismatic role, we often forget how multi-talented Hanks actually is. Just look at The Road to Perdition or Cloud Atlas if you need any reminding; Hanks is not only a better actor than you might think, but here puts forth one of his most compelling performances in decades. Everybody knows he won an Oscar for playing Forrest Gump, but not many remember that he also won for Philadelphia for playing an everyman. It seems unlikely at this point (it's still to early to know who will be in the Best Actor conversations just yet), but it's possible he could win another one here. If he misses it, it certainly won't be for lack of trying.
...And then there's this guy.
But the real treat of Captain Phillips might be Abdi as the leader of the pirate crew. Making his theatrical debut, the Somali-American actor is given a lot of support and material from Greengrass available to him, and he makes the most of the opportunity presented. It helps that the role is not entirely villainous; in fact, Abdi plays a character strikingly similar to that of Phillips, a man under scrutiny from his superiors to complete a given job. Granted, his (probably not chosen) career is piracy, but the similarities between Phillips and Muse are made apparent from the get-go, and make for great interactions between the two. Additionally, Abdi proves elegant in his speech; though he often repeats the same line ("Everything gonna be okay"), the way in which his inflection changes perfectly matches the tone for the scene. Though on looks alone he'll never be leading man material, Abdi proves a fantastic surprise this year.
How thoughtful to provide showers out here.
And it helps that Greengrass is at his artistic best. Captain Phillips' narration is so smooth and full of suspense that it doesn't matter that we know how it all ends. Phillips is captivating, perfectly paced and without the missteps of the director's previous effort Green Zone, which glossed over character development and regressed into an action-packed farce of its original intentions. Yes, there are moments that feel a little forced, from an opening scene between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener) about how different the world is today, to a late-film conversation between Phillips and Muse in which the hostage suggests to his stonewalled captor that maybe kidnapping isn't the best alternative. Muse's response? "Maybe in America." The audience is well aware by this point under just how much pressure Muse is, so reiterating the point that there are people worse off in the world than us is a bit of overkill.
"Congratulations! You won!"
Despite these minor nuisances, they don't take away from the the sheer success that Captain Phillips is on the big screen. Excellently acted, perfectly assembled and more tense than you would ever expect, Greengrass has created one of the year's best movies, while not taking sides in the controversies surrounding the story. While it's not as good as Argo, it takes up that title's mantle as the "based on a true story" spectacular for 2013. Whether or not you consider Richard Phillips a hero, this interpretation of that fateful 2009 event is definitely worth a couple hours of your time. To miss out on this would be doing yourself a disservice as we approach the end of the year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Machete Kills

The original Machete was a "meh" movie. Paying homage to the exploitation-style "B" movies of the sixties and seventies, the action-packed film was a bit unique thanks to its Latino focus and casting, courtesy of creator Robert Rodriguez. While the original could only be called a modest success, the filmmakers of sequel Machete Kills have gone all out, expanding the cast, scope and budget. But does that mean you should take the time to check out the sequel to a movie that wasn't all that great to begin with?

The original Mexican vigilante returns to when the US government calls upon him to return to his native land. There, a revolutionary has built an advanced missile to launch against Washington D.C. unless his demands are met. Though he is devastated by a personal tragedy and uneasy about returning home, Machete Cortez finds himself in his element as he finds himself fighting also fighting against bounty hunters,  double agents, arms dealers, and every single bad guy back home.

Machete Kills is directed by Robert Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jessica Alba, Demian Bichir, Mel Gibson and "Carlos Estevez" (Charlie Sheen).

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Running Scared

Remember a few weeks ago, when Ben Affleck was named as the new Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Batman vs Superman? How half the fanboys on planet Earth convulsed in unison and proclaimed that it was the worst casting choice in existence, referencing decade-old schlock fests Gigli and Daredevil as proof? Well, Runner Runner just did its best to prove those internet doubters correct. Despite taking one of Hollywood's most improved actors - along with Affleck's directorial credits for The Town and Argo - and teaming him up with an already-impressive feature director (The Lincoln Lawyer's Brad Furman), the result ought to have been something special. So why does this film have the reek of disappointment from beginning to end?

Desperate to succeed at Princeton, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) attempts to make up the difference between his life savings and what school will actually cost by gambling online, using his talents at math and probability to excel in the early goings. But when faceless cheats hack the software and rob him electronically, he embarks on a journey to Costa Rica, where he plans to confront the gambling web site's mogul Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) about the burglary. Ivan assures Richie that the theft was due to rogue programmers who had written a backdoor into the system for their own gains, and not only does he reimburse Richie his losses, but offers Princeton's star pupil a spot in his organization. Looking to rebound from old failures, Richie accepts, but the more he learns about Ivan Block and his less-than-ethical business practices, the less sure he is that he should stick around for the long term.
It was just the beginning... of the end.
As I mentioned before, under the tutelage of Furman, Runner Runner should have been much, MUCH better than the shrug-inducing "thriller" we were delivered. So what went wrong? Well, while the story does involve some unique aspects - most notably online poker and the exotic Costa Rican setting - very little is actually done with those items beyond background noise. As a result we get a run-of-the-mill suspense film, disappointing as the screenplay came from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the duo behind crime thrillers Rounders, Runaway Jury and Oceans Thirteen. It's also a shocker for Furman, whose excessive editing and lack of balanced storytelling keeps the plot from being as engaging as it could have possibly been.
If this man is your star, you've got serious problems.
But the biggest problems for Runner Runner (besides the fact that hardly anybody would realize the meaning of the title) are easily on the casting front. The fact of the matter is, nobody should be handing leading man jobs to Justin Timberlake. The former 'N Sync frontman does have some talent as a performer thanks to his natural charisma, but with a lack of any other acting skills, he's better suited to supporting roles (like his part in The Social Network), where he doesn't have to be ON 100% of the time. Even getting past the part where he doesn't look nearly young enough to pass for a college student (not even the grad school student the film tries to say he is) is the excessive gesturing and facial expressions he expresses that a good movie actor does his best to tone down; Timberlake meanwhile shows more frenetic energy than Shia LeBoeuf on caffeine. Others come off slightly better; despite what could have been an over-the-top farce, Affleck does a good enough job in the antagonist role to sort-of make up for Timberlake's mistakes. As acting jobs go, tt's still a step down from his more recent roles, but that may have more to do with the material Affleck was given, and not an actual dip in his talent. The side characters range from cliched to ridiculous, however, with most of Gemma Arterton's pay going towards tanning lotion, and Anthony Mackie frustrating as he continues to play one-note characters after his 2009 breakout The Hurt Locker. Weak dialogue doesn't help any of them, and at least energy is put into their performances, but rarely this year has such a potentially-strong cast been misused so badly and to such detriment to the movie.
So THAT'S how Bruce Wayne made his billions!
So yes, Runner Runner is a poorly-named, terribly-paced disappointment. You could go in for a brainless diversion, I suppose, but there are already more than enough alternatives in theaters that are a lot better in execution than Furman's film could hope to have achieved. Go see Don Jon. Go see Riddick. DEFINITELY go see Gravity. Heck, go see Machete Kills (review forthcoming) if you're so inclined. But there's really no reason to waste your time here. It's just not worth the time, and the Batman of the future deserved better.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Family Matters

And just like that, we go from one of the year's best movies to one that is... not quite so close to that pedestal. Based on Tonino Benacquista's mobster novel 'Malavita', The Family is the first movie from Frenchman Luc Besson to get a wide release in the States since 2006's Arthur and the Invisibles. Despite gaining fame in the director's chair for such fare as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson is nowadays better known as a producer, and his tutelage has helped develop many films we still love today, including the Transporter series, Taken and more recently Colombiana and Lockout. Producing would seem to be his strength, but every so often he steps back into the director's chair when it suits him, this time to tackle the violent comedy that has often been his staple.

In this case, the story of The Family is based on the duality of the title. On one side is the family you raise; father, mother, children, the family pet. This is the family of blood ties, the ones you love unconditionally. The other "family" is the mob; ruthless, bloodthirsty and loyal to one another and the "don", the father of the gang. It's these two families Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is forced to choose between, and his snitching on the mafia has forced his remaining family - wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) - deep into hiding with the witness protection program. Under the watchful and humorless eye of FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), the Manzoni's attempt to carve out a new life in their new Normandy home. But old habits are hard to break, though their issues with authority may be their smallest concerns if Giovanni's former family were ever to find out where they were hiding.
Man, De Niro is not young anymore.
The immediate problem I see when The Family gets going is an utter lack of focus. Yes, the main plot is about the mob locating and trying to murder the Manzonis (thanks to an series of impossibly contrived circumstances), but in truth only about twenty minutes of the nearly two-hour flick even deals with this thread, and poorly at that. Instead most of the movie is split between each character's side story. Giovanni tries to face and justify his criminal past by writing his tell-all memoirs, while also tracking down why the water coming out of his pipes is brown. Maggie struggles to adapt to her new surroundings and the unwelcoming personalities of rural France. Belle crushes on a college student and fights off unwanted advances, while Warren turns his new school into his own little mafia training ground. Each character has plenty to do, although it matters little; this is a group of antisocial, hyper-violent malcontents, and the fact that they are the heroes of the tale can't help but feel a little bit wrong. For instance, while it's great to see Agron's character take down a group of boys who were going to try and have their way with her, you can't help but enjoy. But when she has the exact same reaction to a girl who steals her pencil case, you get the feeling that maybe it's not such a good idea to root for these people after all.
This is generally the first sign that your family might be insane.
At least they're admirably acted... well, most of them in any case. De Niro appears to be having a grand old time, especially since the film both lampoons and pays homage to the mobster flicks that made him a household name (in one particularly meta scene, he enjoys a viewing with some associates of Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas), and that energy translates into his performance, which is a step above his usual mobster routine. Jones meanwhile puts in his usual "Agent K" effort, resisting the urge to smile and humanize himself for the sake of levity. For those in the audience who like him, it'll be like Christmas in the Fall. For those who are not Jones' fans, The Family will be another example of his supposed mediocrity. Meanwhile, the film handily belongs to the ladies. Pfeiffer resumes her career resurgence by proving that she is willing and able to go hand-in-hand with De Niro's madness, while the aforementioned Agron is delightfully devilish as a daughter who is more alike to her parents than she would like to admit. I know I put down her role a little bit in the last paragraph, but I would like to clarify: any problems I have with the characters in this movie are not the result of the acting, but a lousy script - co-written by Besson and Michael Caleo - that the actors have to do their best to overcome. Most of them - D'Leo's cliched mob son notwithstanding - manage to do just that, although the clear winners here are definitely Pfeiffer and Agron.
She just can't get out of high school though.
When the time the movie comes to a jarring halt (thanks to an unarguably terrible ending), you can't help but feel that Besson might have benefited from staying out of the director's chair for this one. Plot threads are left wholly unexplored or incomplete, characters take paths completely outside their established behaviors, and the tonal changes of The Family so quickly shudder between violent comedy and serious thriller that it's clear there was an identity crisis on set. With gag scenes quickly giving way to vindictive cruelty, one has to believe that Besson's lack of polish here was an unintentional one, and that The Family fails to make its mark thanks to rustiness and not merely ineptitude. There are sparks of wit and charm scattered throughout the film, enough to suggest that this could even have been a GOOD film in someone else's hands. Sadly, Besson did not play to his strengths as a producer, and The Family suffers from his neglect.
"Forgive me, Lord, for I am about to sin."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Newton's Law

Alfonso Cuaron just might be the best director you’re vaguely aware of. Part of Mexico’s “Three Amigos of Cinema” alongside Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pacific Rim) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, Biutiful), Cuaron has been around for quite a while but doesn’t quite have the name recognition as the other two filmmakers. The box office holds this to be true, and despite critical acclaim A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men all failed to garner anything in terms of significant audiences. Only his contribution to the Harry Potter franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was a legitimate hit, though it's safe to assume that was more due to the enormously popular subject matter than the artist at the helm, and in fact it stands as the lowest-grossing title in the series. Sadly, Cuaron's name is one better appreciated by the insiders and producers in Hollywood and niche film enthusiasts than by mainstream audiences. But if there were ever a movie that I would think would buck the trend and drive people to the theaters to see an Alfonso Cuaron motion picture, it would be (and should be) Gravity.
Dancing in space: not as fun as it might appear.
Written by Cuaron and his brother Jonas, Gravity is essentially a shipwreck movie set in space, as astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are stranded in the bleak emptiness outside our atmosphere after a catastrophic event destroys their space shuttle and kills all other souls aboard. With no communication with Houston, rapidly dwindling oxygen and only vast nothingness as witness to what they experience, Stone and Kowalski must make a few desperate gambits if they ever want to see their homes again.
Sandra Bullock; in space, no one can hear you whine.
Unlike many science fiction blockbusters, Gravity confidently grounds itself in reality, and at times you’ll wonder just how Cuaron managed to capture shots without actually filming in orbit. Visuals of Earth and space are absolutely gorgeous, even as disasters (like the debris shower that sets up the story) blow everything to smithereens. This is not just one of few titles I would impress potential viewers to see in 3D, but also for IMAX screenings, as the expansive visuals alone would be worth the ticket price. Cuaron’s innovative and ingenious methods to filming the actors in a seeming zero gravity mean you’re never taken out of the story due to grievous physics errors. The science does have a few missteps, but worry not, purists, as the errors are minor and help keep the narrative moving smoothly.
But while the imagery is indeed excellent, Cuaron is not the type of filmmaker to rely on visuals alone. As a director, he buries within its seemingly simply narrative of survival elements of spirituality, isolation, and the difference between the vastness of space and claustrophobic environment suits humans are forced to wear in order to continue existing out there. In addition, he borrows from and pays homage to several of the "disaster in space" films that have come before him, from Apollo 13 to Alien to Wall-E, with none of it feeling forced or derivative. The director is smart enough to know that film-going enthusiasts will not be sustained by tension alone (and Gravity has it in spades), and he weaves a solid story and character study into what would otherwise have been a fairly straightforward movie.
Don't you miss the days of "working on the railroad"?
In fact if there's anything disappointing about Gravity, it's the actors, though perhaps not for the reasons you would think. Cuaron also realized that this kind of movie would need heavy hitters in the main roles (there are a few voiceover parts, but it's essentially a two-person job) if it were to have any chance of success, and although Bullock and Clooney were not the prime choices (Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached, and Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman were all tested or offered the gig), they play their roles almost as if the parts were written specifically for them. That's where the problem lies, as neither actor feels ousted from their comfort zone as performers. We've seen Sandra Bullock hyperventilate, complain and freak out before. In most of her films, in fact. And Clooney's smooth-talking "I know what I'm talking about" demeanor has existed pretty much since he popped into the world. Neither is put in new territory, and while they both do excellent work, it's not as if they had to try very hard to get there.
George is a hit with the ladies even in deep space
But that's the only real issue I had with this otherwise flawless gem. With a gripping tale, astounding special effects and even a wonderful, haunting soundtrack by Steven Price, Gravity is not just an amazing experience, but by far the best movie released this year. While it wouldn't be technically correct to call it the "District 9 of 2013", this is arguably the best science fiction film of the past decade, right up there with Moon and Sunshine and of course the aforementioned District 9. Will it remain the best movie of the year? The next few months offer some promising alternatives, from Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave to Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, among others. But most people already know how good those directors are. This is Cuaron's year, as mainstream fans are finally getting around to the idea that he is a great filmmaker whose work deserves to be seen. Gravity is just the latest example.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Double Feature: 'Don Jon' and 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Comedies are a funny thing. No, I'm not just saying that to be cute. Well, not entirely. What I mean is that they're not all that easy to categorize. One thing that makes someone laugh will be inherently different from another, and so forth. There are comedies about sex, comedies about politics, school, fantasy, reality... this list goes on. While most folk seem to agree on what makes an excellent dramatic performance, a comedic one divides its audience on a wide spectrum, whether done by Jim Carey, Will Ferrell or Anna Faris. For every human being, there are dozens of diverging ideas on what makes things funny, and that's why there's such a wide variety of subjects out there just ripe for parody.And you can be sure that many comedies for adults are CERTAINLY not for kids (although some aimed towards kids can be surprisingly insightful for parents).

Don Jon is one of those "adults only" kind of films. Written and directed by star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the story follows likeable douchebag (because statistically speaking, there has to be ONE out there) Jon Martello, who objectifies everything in his life, especially women. Every week he takes home a different girl from the club, until he meets who he believes to be the one, played by Scarlett Johansson. As they settle into an everyday relationship together, there's just one small problem: Jon can't get through his day without watching porn, which he sees as "better than sex". Naturally, that comes into conflict with his relationship to Barbara, and he soon must settle the differences between the two.
Seriously, that's the 3'rd Rock From the Sun kid
Despite being hampered by the usual mistakes that plague first-time directors (especially when those directors are actors to begin with), there's much more done right in this raunchy comedy. Gordon-Levitt proves that this is his element, as we suspected this genre was two years ago in the under-seen 50/50. But even besides his impressive transformation, most impressive is his cast, between the lovely Johansson - who is a better actress than many give her credit - to the always-strong Julianne Moore, the strong presence of Brie Larson (who only has one line but at times is the best part of the movie), and a surprisingly solid turn by Tony Danza. Yes, I said it: Danza does a good job. Don Jon is also unexpectedly insightful; while on the surface, the movie keeps the audience laughing with witty dialogue and perfectly-conceived editing and scoring, the director doesn't skip a beat in presenting his evidence on why an otherwise-decent guy like Jon treats women like things instead of people. According to Don Jon, it's a combination of public advertising (beautiful woman used to hawk hamburgers? That's Hot) to how he was raised. When Danza (as his father) recounts how he met Jon's mother (Glenne Headly), he recalls that the first time he saw her, the thought through his head was "That's mine." Now, Jon's dad is not a bad guy. As far as we know, he hasn't cheated on his wife, and despite some obnoxious elements to his character he's not a BAD guy. But his mental imagery of his wife as a thing to be possessed is an idea that has no shortage of examples all across the planet. Gordon-Levitt also tackles the other end of the spectrum - albeit more lightly - in dismissing romantic movies and entertainment as fake and damaging, essentially comparing Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey to the porn that men watch.
One big happy family.
As a director, Gordon-Levitt does make some questionable decisions (by playing a "guido", was he TRYING to draw in the Jersey Shore crowd? Or did he want to give mainstream audiences an easily-visible reason to dislike his character?), but for the most part Don Jon is raucously funny, surprisingly sweet and a treat for fans of 50/50 or similar works. Is it for everyone? God no, as the subject matter alone will definitely turn off many potential viewers. But as an honest, soul-searching comedy, Don Jon will probably come to a rest in my pantheon of 2013's best movies.

Meanwhile, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 specifically targets younger audiences this fall. With most of the year's potential competition either already released or not much of a threat, this sequel to the film based on the beloved children's book takes a whole new spin on the story, where the heroes of the first movie return to their home of Swallow Falls, where Flint Lockwood's (Bill Hader) invention, the food-creating "FLDSMDFR" has malfunctioned, turning the once-peaceful town into a "Lost World" of wild food-imals. Tasked with shutting his machine down for good so that the creatures cannot get off the island and assault the mainland, it's a race against time as Tim and his team journey across the island and attempt to take back their homes.

Cloudy 2 distinguishes itself nicely from the original with a vastly different premise, and the steady direction of Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn feels seamless with the preceding duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who ran off to make 21 Jump Street and the upcoming Lego Movie), and the story itself takes off mere moments after the end of the first movie. The jokes - even if they are all food puns - are crisp, vibrant and ought to appeal to children of all ages ("There's a leek in the boat!" is a personal favorite and doesn't get old.) They also rarely repeat the same gags, and the cast all have their parts to play, from the spunky love interest (Anna Faris) to the dim-witted friend (Andy Samberg) to the requisite tough-as-nails policeman (Terry Crews) and the father who is the exact opposite of his scientist son (James Caan). Though nowhere near as subtle or intriguing as the best of Pixar or Disney (it reveals the main villain in just a few minutes after the film's open), it's still a fun story that will keep the kids happy and won't bore their parents.
Beware, for El Pollo Diablo is coming... for you!
No, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 doesn't have the heart of The Croods, the witty dialogue of Monsters University or even the solid story structure of Turbo or Epic. When all is said and done, it probably will be less remembered than even the underwhelming Despicable Me 2, if only because Minions exist. But Cloudy 2 is still a lot of fun if you want to see something with your family this weekend, since Prisoners is absolutely not a kid-friendly option. If nothing else, it's a very nice option given the alternatives.