Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thor 2: Electric Boogaloo

The original Thor was released just two years ago, as a precursor to arguably the greatest comic book movie of all time, The Avengers. Taking Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby's conception of a living god existing among humans and his journey to learn from and help them, and cultivating it into an excellent space opera featuring fantastic action, humor and storytelling, director Kenneth Branagh and an all-star cast put forth an amazing production, handily among the best of its kind, besting all but The Avengers and perhaps the original Iron Man (and a few of the X-Men movies if you really want to count the Marvel properties owned and operated by other studios). And so, between the film's relative success (for a B-list character) and the insane popularity of it's 2012 mash-up pseudo-sequel, there was bound to be another entry to the franchise, in this case Thor: The Dark World. But with new director Alan Taylor (a longtime small-screen filmmaker best known these days for his work on Game of Thrones) behind the lens, how much difference should we expect from this sequel, an might that in fact be a good thing?
Whatever you do, don't tell him to put the hammer down.
After the destruction of the Rainbow Bridge at the end of Thor and after being subsequently being cut off from Midgard (that's planet Earth, for those unawares), our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) and his fellow warriors have been correcting the damage done to the galaxy, traveling between the Nine Realms and putting down the uprisings that have been occurring outside of the reach of the Asgardian warriors until now. When peace is finally achieved, Thor returns home with grief in his heart, still pining for Earth and his true love, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has been searching the stars for the slightest sign of his arrival. But even as he does return to visit her, he finds the planet in crisis, as a rare planetary alignment has blurred the barrier between worlds. Soon the Nine Realms will find themselves in danger once again, and it's up to Thor and his villainous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to protect the known and unknown universe from a dire threat, as the Dark Elves and their malevolent leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) search for a secret weapon to enact their ultimate plan for conquest.
Loki is the one who knocks.
If there's one advantage that Taylor brings to the table over that of the much more renowned Branagh, it's that the former knows his way through a fair share of action scenes. Where Branagh - like many modern directors - did not fully understand how to bring compelling action to the big screen, Taylor brings a whole new skill to the table. This new Thor is chock full of action, from a land and air battle between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians to a portal-jumping fight that travels all over London, Taylor and his crew prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can create wonderful, intelligent and thoroughly thought-out action that is easy for the audience to follow without diminishing its visual wonder. Battles have a meaty weight to them, and while perhaps not as exciting overall as in The Avengers or adopting the humorous overtones of Iron Man 3, they still fit in nicely with the family-friendly tone that Marvel has become known for the past few years. The CGI in Thor: The Dark World also looks far more seamless than in its predecessor, with Taylor making excellent use of what must have been his largest budget to date. There is a much larger range of environments than before, each with its own personality and culture that the director and his team ultimately respect.
Twoo Wuv!
The narrative is also very strong, though perhaps not spelled out as thoroughly as it could have been. Rather than a story about actions, The Dark World focuses on relationships as its main current. At the forefront is the relationship between Thor and Jane, but there is also the complicated brotherhood of Thor and Loki, and the differing relationships between each brother and their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and mother Frigga (Rene Russo). To a lesser extent, we see connections between Thor and his fellow warriors, between Odin and Frigga, and even the chaotic connections between Malekith's Dark Elves and the Asgardians. Even though the plot itself is a bit ragged, with motivations often lost or never fully realized, these connections are expertly explored, and by top-notch actors, as it stands. Hemsworth continues his streak of strong performances in his return to the role that made him a star. Showing a more mature, demure and contemplative side to the what was largely a brash and impulsive character throughout two films, the actor fully embraces his leading man status AND firmly takes the reigns of his franchise, recognizing that it brought him to where he is today. Hiddleston also stands tall, thanks to both an excellent role and a legion of fans who have been clamoring for more Loki since his now-legendary breakout two years prior. Hiddleston is definitely playing a villain, but seems to have garnered such a mass following of those who want to see the character as more of a reformed anti-hero than a straight bad guy. Taylor and his screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, alongside legendary comic writer Christopher Yost) give the fans just that, with a character that is equal party sympathetic and evil, with plenty of room to grow.
No Sif for you!
It's a shame the rest of the characters don't get quite as much development, and as a result their performances as a whole suffer. There are a lot of roles strewn throughout the movie of differing levels of importance, and even the biggest parts sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Though they're often given moments to shine, both Portman and Hopkins are much, MUCH weaker here than they were in Thor. Portman does the best she can with the material she's given, and is still quite good, while Hopkins definitely seems to chafe in his reduced position of importance, as his showing is as bare an effort as is necessary. Eccleston's main antagonist is bereft of depth, though the benefit from deriving material from so talented an actor is that it gives Loki the attention he deserves. Stellan Sarsgard and Kat Dennings both return, but both have reduced character and end up being reduced to mere humorous extras. To add insult to injury some of the gags aren't even funny, though thankfully those moments are few and far between. Rene Russo is one of the few talents to get more to do in the sequel than the original, and her bad-ass take on the Asgardian queen is a welcome addition to the mythos. It's sad she still has a relatively small part in the movie, however. And Idris Elba, who was such a universal delight in the original, returns with more variety to his overall performance. It's too bad Elba seems stuck in supporting roles, as he naturally has the talent to lead his own franchise, given half the chance.
Women might just be the true strength of Asgard.
But the biggest misstep might be the treatment of Jaimie Alexander's Sif and the Warriors Three, played by Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano. The trailers all tease of a love triangle between Thor, Jane, and Sif, who in the comics has a long relationship with the God of Thunder. But that's all Taylor does with the material; he teases, never going any deeper into the idea. There are two reasons for this. One is that the The Dark World is fairly packed with sub-plots, side characters and quite a bit of action. That leave much less for character development, and Sif's apparent affection for her fellow warrior had to take a backseat to other, more important scenes. The second was an incident early in production, where an on-set accident caused Alexander to suffer a spinal injury, no doubt resulting in a reduced role. Perhaps this will be revisited in Thor 3, but for now it's mere window dressing. As for the other uses of the characters, Taylor generally keeps them for comic relief, and for one major sequence towards the end of the second act, they actually have a bit of importance. Still, Marvel fans no doubt hope that these four - such an integral part of the history of Thor himself - will have more to add in future sequels.
Thor and Loki: Brothers in arms.
There are definitely issues that plague Thor: The Dark World, though despite these missteps, Alan Taylor excels in bringing us the latest chapter in the the character's ongoing epic tale. Even better, he gives his entry to the franchise a personality all its own, borrowing a bit from Branagh's original while adding his own distinctive flare to the final product. While the there are obviously some major differences between the two, the overall quality of The Dark World is just about on par with the original, placing it near the top of Marvel's greatest movie releases. Even if you're not a fan of the superhero genre, I urge you to go out and see this gem, as it's one of those fun epics that doesn't NEED prior knowledge of the series to get by. However, it is true scions of Kevin Feige (the guy who organizes all these movies) who get the best out of this film, and those who live for Stan Lee cameos, post-and-mid-credit scenes, and fun action meeting even more fun humor as our heroes fight to save the day will find little to nothing wrong with this, another successful step on the way to 2015's Avengers sequel.
Wow, Loki really let himself go.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I'm Free as a Bird Now

With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, what better than an animated kid's movie to put you off of your turkey day festivities? No, really, I'm serious.

Free Birds follows smarter-than-average Reggie (Owen Wilson), the latest turkey to be pardoned by the President of the United States, as he lounges away his stress-free days at Camp David. Soon, he meets and is kidnapped by fellow turkey (and intellectual counterpart) Jake (Woody Harrelson), a freedom fighter who recruits Reggie for a mission of the utmost importance, given to him by none lesser than the "Great Turkey". Using the government's super-secret time machine (naturally located near the President's vacation spot), the duo travel back in time to rally the turkeys of 1621 and to forever remove their species from the Thanksgiving feast menu.

Free Birds is the first animated feature film to be released by Reel FX Creative Studios, yet another in the growing list of companies hoping one day to be on the same level as Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. Just looking at the condition of their first feature, there's no doubt that there's a long way to go for there being any chance to reach that plateau, but there's still a lot to like here, especially when there's not a whole lot in theaters right now that looks to challenge it for family viewing.
Indicative of the "faceless government" we all know and love...
Under the direction of Jimmy Hayward (wisely returning to animation after the disastrous live-action Jonah Hex), Free Birds shows off intentionally cartoonish animation that is leagues better than some of what I've seen this year, especially when you consider how many movies from experienced filmmakers have come out in 2013. When you compare the sheer quality of the animation to Epic and Despicable Me 2, there's not much contest. Hayward and his team put in a solid effort on the character animation AND the design of the universe they inhabit, and the results are simply gorgeous.
...and unfortunately, that doesn't translate to still shots.
The film also boasts a very talented cast, led by Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Amy Poehler. Wilson's somewhat cartoonish voice naturally lends itself to animated fare, and if he wasn't so in demand for live-action gigs, I could easily see him easily transitioning into voice-only work for easy money. Despite frequent hiccups like The Internship, I remain convinced that Wilson is actually an underrated actor (watch Midnight in Paris for the best example), and when he actually helps out a production, it's worth noting. Considering Harrelson's vegan, pro-animals lifestyle, it's easy to understand why he got on board with this production. It helps that he's the film's greatest asset, combining the bravado of an American action star with the comedic timing of... well, Woody Harrelson. Poehler doesn't carry the same kind of weight with her performance as her co-leads, but she still does a decent enough job as a native Turkey fighting for survival before the first Thanksgiving. The cast is rounded out by genre standards, from a ruthless hunter (Colm Meaney) to an honorable Turkey Chief (leave it to Keith David to make me cry), though the film is stolen at many moments by Star Trek's George Takei as the voice of S.T.E.V.E., the time machine's charismatic artificial intelligence. Hayward also provides voices for several characters, and does a good enough job that it's surprising he hasn't done this kind of work before. The cast overall puts in a solid effort, and Free Birds is all their better for their dedicated involvement.
Reggie enjoys the simple things in life.
Sadly, we're reminded that this IS a film designed for small children, and even the most youth-minded of adults will become alert to this fact in quick succession. From the simplistic plot to the annoying sidekick who are just there to appeal to younger viewers, there's little here to appeal to people of older persuasions, and while there's a tender soul hidden within the story, Hayward doesn't do quite good enough job of letting it loose as the birds whose freedom he's advocating. Free Birds starts with the myth that turkeys are naturally dumb (which anyone who actually has spent time with the birds will tell you is an utterly false pretense), then never fully makes up for its missteps by the the film's end. Instead, a by-the-book story of uprising and justice is littered with jokes (some good, some cringe-worthy bad) and material that will be out of date in ten years' time (punctuated by an obligatory "Angry Birds" reference and the appearance of "Turducken"). Free Birds also doesn't recognize one of its best bits, as an early favorite for kids (and one heavily featured in the trailer) are the yellow-HAZMAT-suited government agents, who completely disappear after our heroes go back through time. By not revisiting them at all after the first act, it's clear that the filmmakers either lost sight of or never realized the true draw of their motion picture. In a year where Dreamworks makes cavemen more than a five minute joke and Pixar actually makes a CLEAN college film, it's a shame that second and third-rate animation studios do not take the lessons they SHOULD be learning from the big two, and only try to match them in terms of technology.
As per the norm, it's the lady that rules the roost.
For the record, Free Birds is a pretty good movie. No, it certainly doesn't appear that great when compared to the best and greatest of today's animated fare, but for a first-time effort from a fledgling studio, it could have been much, MUCH worse than the genuinely fun flick we get. It doesn't have much to offer the non-family audiences, however, so if you're flying solo or taking somebody more mature to the movies you'd do better to buy tickets for just about any other title out there. At least until Disney's Frozen hits theaters in two weeks, this is the best flick to take your young children, and while spending extra to see this in 3D wouldn't really be worth it (par for the course), it's still one you can take your kids to enjoy without worries that they won't get the message. And while the delivery is doubtlessly flawed, Free Birds' message is one just smart enough to which you might just choose to listen.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Ender's Game" a Close Win

There are two men out there named Orson Scott Card. One is the beloved author whose novels managed to win both major US prizes for science fiction (the Hugo and the Nebula) in two consecutive years, making him the only man to do so. His singular novel, Ender's Game, is practically required reading, having become so well-known since its release in 1985. The book surprisingly predicted many modern developments, from drone warfare to the internet to tablet computers like the iPad you're reading this on. In short, Card is one of the most prolific Sci-fi authors, right up there with Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. The OTHER Orson Scott Card is the homophobic individual living in Greensboro, North Carolina, whose well-known opposition to same sex marriage has caused a ton of backlash as groups sought to boycott Ender's Game, the film based on his seminal work. Even film distributor Lionsgate distanced themselves as much as they could from this man, fearing the fallout over the controversy for their $110 million product. Do either of these men leave a lasting mark on what has actually landed in theaters?
Battle School can't even splurge on some camouflage sleepwear?
In 2086, an invasion by the alien species known as the Formics practically decimates the planet Earth. The heroics of our military was just enough to drive them off, but the government fears an even stronger return. Determined to adapt their strategies and discover the next great commander, they assemble the best known minds on the planet in a space station designated "Battle School" under the command of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the smartest of the bunch, a loner who constantly finds himself bullied by those larger than him, but who also possesses a keen strategic mind that puts everyone - especially those who doubt him - to shame. As Ender rises through the ranks and gains friends and allies, he awaits his greatest challenge; taking the fight to the Formics and end the threat to Earth once and for all.
The only reason he's wearing yellow is that it makes him a brighter target.
For all the fuss about supporting Card's story, he really doesn't have all that much to do with the production of the movie itself. Yes, he is listed as a "producer", but in this case that's really an honorific due to his providing the source material. Instead, the screenplay is penned by director Gavin Hood, who rebounds nicely from the cringe-worthy disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He takes the book and adapts the tale nicely, spreading the major events and many minor ones nicely over the course of a two-hour feature. Given almost total control over the start of this potential franchise, Hood proves his mettle in both character development (well, mostly, as we'll see later) and action, with the film's special effects being among the best in theaters this year (and I saw this on an IMAX screen, so I would have noticed the imperfections). While certainly not living up to the visual achievements of Gravity, Hood's rendition of outer space is still astounding, and his set pieces are all well-designed and beautiful to the discerning eye. A great SFX team was put together here, and under Hood's direction they succeed in building this futuristic universe and replicating Card's vision.
Explosions in space are amazing!
Hood is more than ably assisted by a talented cast, anchored especially by its younger actors. Butterfield hasn't been seen since 2011's excellent Hugo, and here he shows off another side to his acting ability. While written perhaps a tad blandly, the young performer quickly turns Ender Wiggin into someone the audience can easily root for, and keeps that momentum going throughout the film. You really get a feel for the extremes with the character, as Ender tries to balance his duties as the hero of humanity with the neuroses and desires that come from being a kid. Also excellent are Hailee Steinfeld, who steals many a scene as Ender's friend and compatriot Petra, and Abigail Breslin, who has a few appearances as our protagonist's Earth-bound sister. The veterans also get to show off a bit, as both Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis do their jobs as supporting characters well. Only Harrison Ford feels forced, his gruff military man a clear phone-in and ultimately a disappointment after his impressive turn in 42.
Ford: still flying Solo. 
While Ender's Game is definitely a solid movie, it does have a few wrinkles that never quite even out. Despite Hood's best efforts, the story feels rushed, as Ender must navigate nearly a dozen major plot points within the little time given. This means that many minor characters are severely underdeveloped, and their burgeoning relationships to the film's hero are a bit sketchy at best. A bit more padding would have sufficed in filling some of the more egregious holes, but considering how hard it is for parents to keep their kids still, it's understandable that the studio wouldn't have wanted to tack on an additional twenty minutes where it wasn't completely necessary. More of a letdown is the distinct lack of 3D offerings. I know, I'm the guy who usually criticizes 3D as gimmicky, especially when it's poorly implemented. But the the special effects here were MADE for 3D conversion, the gorgeous space scenes and complex indoor battlefields practically popping out of the screen already. The lack of this tech is questionable for a few reasons, mainly because it would seem natural for the genre but also because 3D will often help sell your movie to overseas markets. After all, Paramount delayed GI Joe: Retaliation for nearly nine months when they realized how much of a financial bump 3D conversion would get them across the world. Why did Lionsgate fail to make this happen? Especially with a big-budget sci-fi epic that has had more than its share of problems these days?
Welcome to Battle School. You'll never learn most of their names.
So should you overcome your hatred of that second Orson Scott Card and see this movie on the big screen? Well, yeah. It ought to be noted that Card is not making a cent off of the box office draw; he was paid a sum for an early draft of the screenplay (that was later scrapped), but other than that he's making no money off of this adaptation of his work. So if you decide to get out the movies and check this out, don't worry; you are in no way supporting him financially. More importantly, Ender's Game is a fun, smart, and excitingly epic tale that takes you a galaxy away and deep into one of science fiction's most well-known tales. Yes, there's other fantastical fare out there right now in Thor, but if you've already seen that Marvel production and are excitedly awaiting next week's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, then this is another film you should add to your must-watch list.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bad Boys of 'Last Vegas'

Sometimes old men just want to act like young men. That's the message of Last Vegas, which brings some talented veteran actors into the territory settled by the likes of a young Nicolas Cage, Bradley Cooper and Ashton Kutcher. In the film, four childhood friends meet up in Las Vegas for a bachelor party and a wedding, each going through their own personal crisis. Billy (Michael Douglas) is marrying a woman half his age, but is conflicted over whether he really loves her. Sam (Kevin Kline) is recovering from yet another joint replacement surgery and is unsatisfied with the way his life has become. Art (Morgan Freeman) recently recovered from a stroke but feels coddled at the hands of his worrying son. Paddy (Robert De Niro) still mourns the loss of his wife a year before, and has some unresolved issues with Billy. As they arrive in the city of sin, each is rearing to let loose and have a good time, but they're not prepared for what is thrown their way in Las Vegas, and what it will mean for their friendship as a whole.
The boys are back in town
Naturally, the best part of Last Vegas are the interactions between the main actors themselves. Each performer has their own distinct strength to bring to the table, from Douglas' easygoing charm to Kline's peppy spryness to De Niro's tough guy attitude to Freeman's mellow voice and quick wit. From then opening scene (which features the characters as children), we understand the balance of their friendship, and it helps when the actors are diverse enough to be distinctive but alike enough for the audience to understand why they would be friends (you know, just like real life). That said, I do wish the pairings had been more diverse; De Niro and Douglas are almost always paired with one another, while Kline and Freeman play more of a comedic duo when they're by themselves. De Niro, meanwhile, never pairs with Freeman or Kline with Douglas, meaning their interactions are sadly limited. Still, the script does a good job of giving each lead their own arc, and of integrating Mary Steenburgen into the all-male cast, even if it is just as the love interest torn between two men.
Well, she's got a captive audience.
As director Jon Turteltaub has done in the past, he proves he can create a film that appeals to broad segments of the population. While perhaps not as kid-friendly as The Sorcerer's Apprentice or the National Treasure franchise (mainly because of Las Vegas' well-deserved reputation in general), Last Vegas can easily be enjoyed by any adult watching. In effect, it is the complete opposite of the gonzo, up-the-ante humor method that The Hangover and its sequels employed. The laughs here are certainly innocuous enough, relying mainly on the interplay between the main characters and generic jokes about old age, though the quality of the actors does raise the quality somewhat. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments but to be honest, most of the film will only get silent chuckles, though the point should be raised that never does the humor fall flat.
...and special celebrity referee Morgan Freeman!
If there's one place Last Vegas fails, it's the dramatic story between Billy and Paddy. Without giving away too much, their off-screen feud is one of the oldest cliches in Hollywood storytelling, not to mention one that they reenact in the present day (past and future reflecting one another is another Hollywood cliche). Despite both Douglas and De Niro performing well enough to carry the tale, they can't get away from the fact that their story is nothing new, even with the unique (though not as much as it used to be) setting and strong acting performances to back it up. It also doesn't help that Kline and Freeman's characters have nothing to add to that mix; as I mentioned before, they're mainly for comedic relief, adding no dramatic tension to the overall plot.
To another year of relevance!
Despite the film's many flaws (Turteltaub will never be confused as a "great" Hollywood director), Last Vegas is still very much a fun time at the movies. It's relatively safe, taking no risks whatsoever with its plot and character development, but the humor stands out, as does the fact that we never get to see veteran performers have so much fun on the big screen. Usually, this kind of movie is a young man's game, and these four actors put Hollywood on notice that old men can -and want to - have fun, too. Now they just need a better vehicle to do it with, as Last Vegas is a decent, but not quite worthy effort to get these four men out of supporting roles and back into the limelight where somebody seems to think they still belong.

Friday, November 8, 2013

'12 Years': The Best Movie of 2013?

For the second year in a row, one of the year's best films is about slavery. But unlike Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which was an uplifting tale of the demise of our national shame, or Django Unchained, which was a thrilling, fictional action romp, 12 Years a Slave takes a dark look at American slavery and for a (relative) change of pace tells it from the perspective of the oppressed. It also carries the distinct point of being based on a true story; it's adapted from Solomon Northup's autobiography of the same name, released back in 1853. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man raising a family and making a living as a renowned violinist in New York. But when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south, he couldn't dare try and convince anybody in authority as to his identity in a place where simply knowing how to read would be a death sentence for a black man. And so for twelve years, Northup (under the given name of Platt) was forced to pick cotton, build guest houses, punish his fellow slaves, and witness or suffer some of the worst atrocities visited upon man in the whole of our nation's history, all before his eventual (and statistically unlikely) escape all those years later.
We're going to have to learn to pronounce his name, now.
Directed by Shame's Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is arguably the toughest movie to watch in 2013. McQueen does not shy away from difficult topics, and when a whole race of humans were subject to the kinds of dangers that slaves were subject to in the two decades leading up to Lincoln's presidency, there is no shortage of material for the director to mine. Starting with kidnapping and slavery, we see murder, rape, lashings, lynchings, inhuman punishments, families broken up, and people worked to death. That McQueen and his crew can capture the sheer force of that inhumanity and not flinch at the emotional devastation it brings is more than remarkable; when fellow slaves refuse to get involved in an attempt on Northup's life that literally leaves him hanging from a tree for most of a day, you really get a sense of how that depressingly real world worked on a daily basis. Hans Zimmer's score highlights this all nicely, adapting to the events of this dreary world and excelling where it needs to without threatening to overshadow the scene itself.
Wait... is that Garret Dillahunt? I LOVE him!
McQueen also has the help of an all-star cast to supplement his directing talents. Ejiofor has long been recognized as a talented actor, but not necessarily one that has achieved mainstream success. Arguably his biggest role before now came in the British thriller Pretty Little Things, and that was over a decade ago. Here, he makes the argument that we really should have been paying attention to films like Kinky Boots, Serenity, Children of Men and Redbelt in the years before this. When we're tasked with witnessing Northup's trials over his dozen years of enslavement, you need an actor who can carry that load and look impossibly more tired and worn down from one scene to the next. You can't just ROOT for a character like Solomon; his journey demands that he literally be in the gracious thoughts of the audience, to be PRAYED for, even by nonbelievers. As an actor, Ejiofor manages to elicit that quantity of sympathy with his performance, putting forth a masterful showing that so far outpaces anything else seen this year.
Solomon dearly wishes he knew how to quit him.
And Ejiofor isn't alone, though the extensive cast has a "mixed bag" status. There are some truly epic, award-worthy performances here, especially from the likes of Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson. While each of their characters have similar character traits (evil, quick to anger, sadistic folk), their skills prevent them from becoming overly repetitive, also thanks to the fact that they have their own unique motivations and desires. Other actors would be lucky to have such depth to work with; both Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt put in excellent efforts, but neither is given incredibly much to do, with Pitt narrowly winning out in sheer importance to the story. It never hurts to have such exemplary talents in your cast; sometimes you just wish more had been done with them. That is especially true when noteworthy actors (like The Wire's Michael K. Williams and Academy Award nominee Quvenzhane Wallis) are loaded into "blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos.
Somehow I don't think he's in the mood for "pat-a-cake"
But even the best films possess a few flaws, and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt put together some gorgeous shots (Bobbitt's work also excels in The Place Beyond the Pines), but occasionally become lost in them, focusing a bit too long on the beauty of the shot, slightly undermining the nature of the setting. Another quibble (because these are indeed quibbles) is one that other reviewers seem to love, the performance of Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. Don't get me wrong, I DID like Nyong'o's performance (even if it's not as groundbreaking as people are saying); it's just that the character itself seems to be a fictional catch-all for black women slaves, a design created explicitly to suffer the tragedies of the era that Solomon Northup was not necessarily in danger of suffering. Again, Nyong'o is fine, but her character seems fabricated merely as a side note to deflect attention briefly away from Northup's story. Personally, I preferred Pariah's Adepero Oduye as a mother separated from her children a more compelling overall character, despite substantially less screentime.
Um, is that Beasts of the Southern Wild's Dwight Henry?
As the closing credits roll, you'll probably never want to see 12 Years a Slave ever again. It's has all the makings of a modern classic, but its subject matter ensures that - while arguably one of the year's best - you're not going to walk away feeling all happy and gleeful and wanting to take your friend to see it as well. It even caps the whole thing off by reminding you that Northup's experience was a unique one; of thousands of free blacks kidnapped and sold into slavery, few were ever heard from again, let alone rescued. 12 Years is a story that took far too long to make its way to the big screen, and the result under the direction of McQueen is quite easily among the year's best. So do yourself a favor and see it once. Even if you never want to see another movie anytime soon, I think you'll agree the risk is worth the reward.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

No Time for Love, Dr. Jones!

Movies will always be great date options. It might seem cliched to suggest to a new couple to go out for "diner and a movie", but to be fair, movies have the power to create a steady conversation that will last well into the dessert course. For that reason alone, the romance genre often has a shelf life that often exceeds most other style of film. Every Valentines day, movie studios pump out whatever romantic tale they can weave, because even if the movie itself is crap IT WILL MAKE MONEY. With every poll indicating that women make more decisions about what movies to see, there's no reason for studios not to make more of The Notebook or Gone with the Wind or Definitely, Maybe. That said, romance itself can be a bit repetitive. Many follow the same tropes, have the same conclusions and even star the same actors. So it's nice to see the industry try a twist on the all-too-familiar formula.When the director of Love Actually tosses time travel into the mix with his usual strengths, it can't NOT be worth a look. Time travel is cooler than ever now, with Looper, Doctor Who and the video game Braid using the plot device to increasingly-effective results. So when it comes to more traditional romance, how does it work out?
About Time: proof that Gingers can get hotties too.
In About Time, aspiring lawyer Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is a normal young adult, who learns from his reserved father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have a unique ability; they can travel back in time to rewitness or change past events in their lives. With his newly-discovered talents, Tim decides he is going to find the love of his life, whom after some searching turns out to be Mary (Rachel McAdams). Using his gift, he adjusts any errors he makes in the wooing process, and he and Mary start a long and happy relationship with one another. The more Tim travels, however, the more complicated his simple life becomes, and soon he learns that not even time travel can fix every problem he wishes he could solve.
How many times has she gotten married, now?
The best thing About Time brings to the table is its cast. Not many people realize who Gleeson is (he played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter movies, and he had a small role in Dredd), but he is a talented actor who does his absolute best to lead this film. He might not have been the best fit - he doesn't have the looks for the kind of role that would have gone to Hugh Grant over a decade ago - but he perfectly emulates the kind of nervous energy we've expected from British romance story in the past decade. He's definitely got the makings of an up-and-coming actor. McAdams, the other lead, is a natural at the romance game, and it's no surprise that she charms her way through the film so easily. But like much of her usual work, there isn't a whole lot of variation; she's exactly what you would expect from a love interest in any of her previous efforts. However, like many comedies, the About Time is owned by the supporting cast. There is a strong group here, especially Lydia Wilson as Tim's flighty sister Kit Kat, but also Tom Hollander as a malcontent playwright, and Joshua McGuire as Tim's equally-nervous co-worker. But Nighy outdoes everybody else and is of course wonderful - par for the course - and if the film had followed his own time-traveling adventures, I'm sure none of us would be disappointed. Nighy brings sophistication and charm to even his worst roles - I'm looking at you, Total Recall and Jack the Giant Slayer - and in doing so brings up the quality of any movie by his mere presence.
Hey, now.
Unfortunately, that's just about all About Time can be bothered to get right. As much as everybody and their dog adores Love Actually, it's easy to forget that classic came out over a decade ago, and while director Richard Curtis has been working as a writer since, his only other directorial effort was the little-seen The Boat That Rocked, which also received mixed reviews. His rustiness is readily apparent, as scenes run over-long, humor relies too much on awkward situations instead of actually-funny dialogue, and there is a rampant over-abundance of voice-overs by Gleeson. There ARE some funny bits, especially those that show Tim going back in time over and over again to fix the same problem, but those genuinely humorous moments are the exception, not the rule. About Time skates by as much as it can on natural charm, but make no mistake; this movie has more than its fair share of issues.
Gleeson gets a few pointers about being a great British actor.
About Time also suffers from one major problem; its time travel subplot doesn't make any sense. I know that sounds a bit odd after I somewhat defended Looper's nonchalance in its utter lack of scientific logic, but for the most part last year's thriller at least followed its own (admittedly nonsensical) rules. In comparison, About Time blindly adds in the almost-magical element and for a while it's merely an amusing diversion. But as time goes on, the audience is spoon-fed additional rules that change the entire nature of the plot device, only to break those rules down the line without consequence. It just seems like Curtis and his crew didn't know to do with this new element (much like most directors and 3D), and the result is that it really doesn't come off as anything other than a gimmick.
Guy gets girl... snore...
There are moments in About Time that are genuinely sweet, raucously funny, and cause many an audience member to shed a few tears. It's a shame however that these bits add up to about twenty minutes of a full two hour movie. Richard Curtis just can't pull this little bit of a mess together, which is too bad since there was a ton of potential present in every facet of this production. But then again, this is what movie dates were created for. Despite its flaws, About Time is a near-perfect movie to take your significant other to, if for no reason that options are fairly sparse. Otherwise, there's no pressing need to see this. Maybe it'll find a second life on DVD, but for now there are way too many better options for you to give this British RomCom the time of day.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Double Feature: The Counselor and All Is Lost

With Halloween past us and more and more titles hitting local theaters, there are a lot of options from which to choose. Adults especially have no end of options, as only a few releases in the coming months will be even remotely geared towards kids (Free Birds, anyone?). So which ones are worth your ten (or more) bucks? Here are a couple of considerations.

Ridley Scott... what the heck happened? I mean, I know a ton of folk were disappointed with the renowned director's return to both science fiction and the Alien universe in last year's underwhelming and confusing Prometheus, but I never imagined it might actually get worse. There, his confused storytelling was at least partially made up for by his technical wizardry. In The Counselor, an all-star cast cannot make up for that that aforementioned poor plotting and an editing process that is as uneven as such ventures can ever get.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular character, a lawyer who gets involved in shady business dealings with the Mexican cartel due to money problems. But when an expected (and lucrative) shipment is hijacked en route, the criminal organization comes to believe that he is involved, putting any and all of his friends in immediate danger at the same time.
You will learn absolutely nothing about these people.
If The Counselor has one strength, it's the outstanding cast. Besides the always-strong Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem also put in noteworthy performances, really putting some personality into this crime thriller. Cameron Diaz also surprises in a role that is both her best performance in years, and her most shocking (unlike Bad Teacher, which was just shockingly bad). Diaz will do things as an actress here that you've never seen before, and come off as the best part of the movie. Only Penelope Cruz appears completely wasted as a casting choice, given little to do and bad dialogue to do it with. Actually, this is a problem with all the actors, as characters are barely fleshed out and motivations are all but unexplored. What you're left with is an aimless cast reciting endless repetitive monologues explaining the nature of the story, instead of actually showing us any of the interesting bits.
Cameron goes after that Oscar.
This is largely the fault of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. In his first screenplay since 1976 (and the first to be given feature film treatment), the novelist fails to reign in his enthusiasm for the complex story and the result just isn't pretty. It would be easier to blame Scott, but it's obvious the director did absolutely everything he could with a screenplay that treats little things like the passage of time as an inconvenience. Scott captures the beauty of sweeping landscapes with his camera, and captures the gritty underworld in which our characters find themselves. Another issue he has to deal with as a director however is that there are far too many players in the game. Scott is forced to weave a narrative that is constantly weighed down by about a half-dozen side characters - each with their own arc - with each absolutely necessary to the overly-complicated plot. That wouldn't even be so bad if the leads had anything noteworthy to do; they absolutely do not.
Stetsons are cool, now.
If there's any consolation for Scott, it's that - unlike Prometheus - there really wasn't anything he could DO to make The Counselor good. This kind of high-concept story definitely would have worked better as a novel, and McCarthy should not give up his (undoubtedly lucrative) day job. This film is about as far from a must-see as you can get, and while it's not quite as bad as last year's Killing Them Softly, it runs that same vein of slow-paced, violent crime thrillers, and may appeal to fans of that set. But when a cast and director this good are wasted on a screenplay this bad, nobody is walking away clean.

There's a small, but still decent chance you realized that All is Lost existed. Starring resurgent Oscar winner Robert Redford (after a break, he appeared earlier this year in The Company You Keep and will have a big role in 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier) and captained by Margin Call (I haven't seen it yet but hear wonderful things) director J.C. Chandor, this is the survival-against-all-odds movie everybody would be talking about if it weren't for the mere existence of Gravity.

Redford plays a nameless sailor, whose private ship "The Virginia Jean" undergoes some of the worst luck you can have when in the middle of the Indian Ocean. First, the boat is struck by a lost shipping container, which rips a hole out of the hull and fries all the electronics in one fell swoop (including the navigational equipment, radio and all wireless communication). Then, after our hero manages to patch up the hole, a storm hits that finishes the cargo container's job. Adrift and with little chance of rescue, Redford's character must do everything in his power to make it back home.
He's looking a little rough around the gills, there.
All is Lost is unlike any similar film you've seen before, with the first divergence being the complete lack of character backstory. As I mentioned before, Redford's character doesn't have a name. We also learn nothing about his family, friends, or reasons for being all alone on that side of the planet. Most movies would attend to those aspects with multiple voice-overs, something All is Lost proudly does not provide. In fact, with the exception of a couple of sentences spoken at the very beginning of the film (and a few incidental outbursts), there's really no dialogue at all. All by his lonesome, Redford's character speaks so infrequently that when he does he usually has to clear his vocal chords from inactivity (I can just imagine Redford refusing to speak on the set in preparation for the role). There is no CGI tiger, nor a volleyball named Wilson, to keep him company, and I'm certain a lesser actor would not have been able to put together such a brilliant silent performance as we see here. Even at 77, Redford reminds us why he's such a renowned actor, as he not only does most of his own stunts but carries an entire film without the need to even open his mouth.
Huh. That doesn't look encouraging.
Unfortunately, that brings with it its own set of problems. As I stated earlier, I never saw Chandor's rookie effort Margin Call, so I have little experience (like most) with his style of directing. And to his credit, he certainly does a great job capturing shots and helping his lone actor maintain that image of the bleak atmosphere of being lost at sea. But without character interaction, we're left with only character activity, and half of this film follows the actor performing acts that may confuse and bore anybody who does not sail on a regular basis. Chandor does a little bit to help, making sure we see the clearly printed signs on things like the "Life Raft" and "Survival Supplies", but those moments are inconsistent with the vast majority of the film, where we're shown things that MIGHT be important, but we're unsure why.
He ain't singin' in the rain.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that - sight unseen - you might have already seen all that All is Lost has to offer. You'd be wrong, however, as the tandem of Chandor and Redford make for an impressive movie, if not necessarily one you NEED to see in theaters. This is a brave production, one that really takes a good, long look at the human spirit and leaves you hanging until the very last moment to see whether it is found lacking. Thematically, it is very similar to Gravity (if a bit in reverse), and since Alfonso Cuaron's drama is DEFINITELY a must-see on the big screen, this being in theaters so soon after seems like a bit of a scheduling misstep. Redford is certainly enough reason to check it out (though Oscar predictions might be a bit out of reach), and Chandor does a good enough job, despite his inexperience as a filmmaker. But if it comes down to this or Gravity (and really, why haven't you seen it yet?), the choice is glaringly obvious. Check out All is Lost only after you first surpass that hurdle.