Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Don't Let Go: The Worst Films of 2013

This year, even Michael Bay can't make the cut.
I'm going to go on record and say that 2013 has been a horrible year for movies. Truly, sincerely horrible. Only in the past few months have we seen the few great titles of the year be released, with only a few honest gems and a vast majority that proved mediocre or worse making the vast majority of what we saw January-September. I can count those truly excellent ones on just my fingers, though to be fair, there are still a few award bait pictures that clamor for my attention.

Still, I've seen enough to present what I consider to be 2013's worst examples of cinema to see the light of day, and there were tons of titles to choose from. Though a number of stumbling blocks prevented me from visiting the theater as much as I had the last few years, I still managed to pack in over 100 movies these past twelve months, and of those, around 30 were bad enough to be considered. Yes, with almost a third of the movies in contention, it was extremely tough paring it down. Between January 1'st and now were some truly awful titles released that even last year would have easily made the cut, if only they hadn't been fortunate enough to be born in 2013.

As regular readers know, I have two rules with this list:

1) I only put movies that were deemed worthy of a wide release (600 theaters or more at any given time) in the "Bottom 10." It doesn't excuse their (sometimes epic) badness, but comparing a typical Adam Sandler movie to something horrible but from an unknown filmmaker doesn't feel right, in that the more experienced and popular filmmaker ought to have known better, whereas the no-name might be doing something crazy simply to be different. I give these smaller movies a break, if only because hardly anyone saw them anyway.

2) I won't rag on movies that I haven't seen. As I said before, I saw a bit less in 2013 than in previous years. One only has to look at Rotten Tomatoes to see a good number of movies I did NOT include here that perhaps I WOULD had I bothered to see them in the theater (or in some cases on DVD). Before I get into the list itself, I'll roll out an "Honorable Mentions" list of these unwatched titles and their respective Tomatometer rankings (I'll stick to scores less than 20%). If you REALLY want me to review any of these, leave a note and as a self-admitted masochist I'll do it when I get the opportunity.

Honorable Mentions: Getaway (2%), Scary Movie 5 (4%), Battle of the Year (4%), The Big Wedding (7%), Safe Haven (12%), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (12%), The Smurfs 2 (14%), Baggage Claim (14%), The Last Exorcism Part 2 (16%), Tyler Perry's Temptation (16%)

And now, the 10 worst films of 2013 (as seen by Mr. Anderson)!

10) Dark Skies

Director Scott Stewart returns to these rankings after making both the 2010 and 2011 lists with his crimes against cinema, Legion and Priest, respectively. His new alien invasion flick, Dark Skies, is actually the best movie he's made so far, although it's still plainly obvious he shouldn't be offered gigs that put him behind the camera. I mean, even Shyamalan made a few decent movies, before his name became a joke, to somewhat justify his repeated job offers. Stewart is essentially the same gag, but with a worse setup. And this effort isn't good enough to make me think that will ever change.

9) The Hangover: Part III

This was the trilogy finale even Hangover diehards weren't anxiously awaiting. As I've said before, I do applaud director Todd Phillips and his crew's efforts not to simply repeat the previous movies' pattern and recycle the same gags over again, and also for adding talents such as John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy. But in the process they also took away everything that was charming and (at times) hilarious from the franchise, turning Part III so dark it often forgot to add "comedy" to that mix. The distinct lack of humor - I would have settled for Part II's crude, unfunny jokes - and complete lack of comprehension as to what makes a GOOD movie is what ultimately sinks it worse than its predecessors (and that's saying something), though thankfully most of the cast has already moved on to bigger and better things. Hopefully this will be the last we hear of THIS franchise...

8) Runner Runner

Let me say this as loud as humanly possible: JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE IS NOT A GOOD ACTOR. If you have a movie with the former N'Sync frontman cast as your leading man, that should be the first sign that the product has problems. Everything here feels phoned in, from the screenplay to the frenetic direction  to the acting; if anybody had bothered to see this, they would have been shocked by Ben Affleck's talent regression to his early 2000's Daredevil form. Timberlake's presence is really the nail in the coffin, and he can host Saturday Night Live as often as he likes; endless charisma is no substitute for legitimate acting qualities.

7) Machete Kills

Although I added the original Machete to 2010's list, I'll also be the first to admit that it carried a light campiness that helped mitigate some of its more egregious flaws. As dumb as the final product was, it never took itself seriously, and was a near-perfect homage to the era of exploitation films. In fact, if I could go back in time and take it off the list, I just might. However Machete Kills, as similarly hokey as it is, never captures that flavor, taking itself far too seriously and straying far from the low-budget charm that made the original so admired. It also wastes a potentially excellent cast with a do-nothing script, pointless plot threads, and Robert Rodriguez's over-inflated ego. With as badly as this one bombed, I'd be surprised if they went through with the promised Machete Kills Again... In Space sequel that they teased in the opening... which also happened to be the best part of the whole film.

6) A Good Day to Die Hard

For true Die Hard aficionados (and despite liking the movies, I don't count myself within that group), it must be difficult to see a sequel to their beloved franchise suck THIS much. Many thought that Live Free or Die Hard's PG-13 farce was the ultimate insult to the universe's favored everyman superhero (I actually didn't mind it too much), but director John Moore proved that the series hadn't stopped going downhill when he cranked out this turd, in which he rehashed tired cliches, set the whole thing in Russia (for no particular reason), and worked off of a script that stripped away all the charm and fun that MADE Die Hard such a successful brand in the first place. Bruce Willis didn't even want to be there; you can tell from his monotonous, dead-soul performance that he was just on screen to cash a paycheck. That might be A Good Day's biggest offense: taking an immortal character and absolutely destroying his soul. I almost want another Die Hard movie just so the character can go out on a sufficiently high note and wipe the stink of 2013 away forever.

5) Bullet to the Head

The Expendables franchise has helped reinvigorate the careers of many older action stars, but not all Hollywood reboots are created equal. Some are actually good (The Last Stand), some mediocre (Parker and Escape Plan) and some are downright bad (scroll up one). Falling into this last category is this mess, which has Sylvester Stallone as a hitman out to avenge the death of... someone... and... yeah, it's one of THOSE movies. It even has a decent bad guy (Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa) and manages to segue into a classic "buddy cop" variant. But the film is so mean-spirited, humorless, racist, sexist, and completely out of touch with the progress of today's society, that it becomes a black hole into which all perceived quality is irrevocably lost. If this had been released twenty years ago, it might have become a cult classic. Released in 2013, it reminds us how much we've moved on as a species.

4) After Earth

I think I have to explain not why this movie made the list, but why I don't have it at #1. Certainly, that's where many people will have it, most of them much smarter and more worldly than I. As I said way back at #10, M. Night Shyamalan has become a running joke, and film promoters know it now: they actively hid his name in the marketing efforts for After Earth in a vain effort to sneak some butts into seats. But the sad part is that you can't really heap all of this mess upon his shoulders. One might blame more Will Smith, whose creative passion behind the project (in which he would star with son Jaden, though neither of them was any good) could easily have mucked things up more. That's not an apology for Shyamalan's artistry, mind; he's still terrible. So what is it that makes this movie better than three others released this year, when it failed at direction, creature design, acting, screenwriting, creative thinking and plain old logic? Well, the landscape shots were kind of pretty. So there's that.

3) Movie 43

There is one legitimately funny scene in the otherwise abhorred Movie 43, Peter Farrelly's sketch movie in which horrible things happen for no good reason beyond the There's Something About Mary director's own amusement. Proof that more talent is not better (a total of 13 directors and 19 writers produced the final product), the movie was almost entirely unfunny (again, with the exception of one scene), and while the filmmakers desperately attempt to cater to the gods of tastelessness, their efforts were instead consumed by it. There's a reason half of the cast is pretending this debacle doesn't exist, and that none of them would promote it. Hopefully we'll never see a sketch movie this bad again in my lifetime.

2) The Counselor

What makes The Counselor such a sad addition to this list is that it had the ELEMENTS to be one of the year's best: a consistent director (Ridley Scott), a talented, all-star cast (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz), and a screenplay by one of America's most celebrated living authors (Cormac McCarthy). It's this screenplay that carries the weight of the movie's flaws, as it fails in conveying emotion, tension, sex appeal, subtlety, and pretty much everything that comes standard with the truly refined motion picture many expected this to be. It didn't help that the director and cast could do little to improve upon the material, and they certainly tried their best. Unfortunately, The Counselor was destined to show up here, among not just the worst of 2013, but of the past decade as well.

1) Grown Ups 2

Yes, in a year of truly awful science fiction, dull thrillers and all-around horribleness, it's the unfunny comedies that really hit hard in 2013. And Grown Ups 2, Adam Sandler's first sequel, is absolutely the worst. There is no real central plot, as the four main characters move from scene to scene without motivations, or not any that can't be solved by one minor mid-film event. And then there's a party at the end, I guess? This was a project so half-assed, there's practically none involved, unless you really want to include the countless poop and fart jokes that is the joie de vivre of your typical Happy Madison audiences (even if they'll never know what that means). However, this is a sad state of affairs even by those historically-low standards, and I'll never, ever forgive Sandler for allowing Twilight's Taylor Lautner to become the hands-down best part of the film. These are just some of the reasons Grown Ups 2 is the absolute worst movie of 2013.

So that's it! What do you think? Is there any film here you think I'm treating unfairly? Was there anything you saw this year that you think should have been on the list? Write in and let me know, and together we can stop financially supporting the worst that Hollywood has to offer. Thanks for stopping by, and have a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

'Grudge Match' Past its Prime

Rocky Balboa fighting Jake LaMotta sounds like it should be a fan film, or maybe part of an unlockable secret mode in the Fight Night video game series, instead of a full-length motion picture. But that's the idea (at least in the marketing) behind Grudge Match, a sports comedy from a director who at least has some experience in that genre (but also Adam Sandler movies).

The movie pits Sylvester Stallone against Robert DeNiro - as Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen respectively - rival boxers who once upon a time fought one another in a series of epic bouts. But one man's retirement to prevent the deciding tiebreaker, shocking everybody and preventing the pair from settling the score once and for all. Thirty years later, circumstances and one very determined fight promoter (Kevin Hart) force them to face one another again, and despite their advanced age and diminished physical prowess, both find they really want this final fight. And as comedies released on Christmas goes, this has all the elements of a straightforward crowd-pleaser (not surprising, as it's from director Peter Segal, whose movies tend to draw crowds even as they repel critics). But does that premise work well for a feature, or does it turn into a featherweight come midnight?
Worst name for a PPV event, ever.
Well, it does work, kind of. We get to know each of our warriors right off the bat, and that's where things immediately start to fall flat. It's obvious from the get-go that we're supposed to be rooting for Razor, as thirty years ago he lost the girl (Kim Basinger), his will to go on with boxing, and to top it all off  was robbed of his winnings by his crooked promoter. He's easily got the most to reclaim, and getting his life back on track is a noble, well-trod goal in sports films. 
It's the small guys you have to watch out for.
Kid, meanwhile, is... an unrepentant, narcissistic asshole. I get that it's kind of close to De Niro's Raging Bull role, but when you have two heavyweights (and I mean from stardom and character development standpoints, not weight class) headlining your movie, you need to give them both a reason to resonate with the audience. Can you imagine Warrior if you had not been able to connect with the roles of BOTH Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy? Giving both sides an emotional stake in the climactic fight is extremely important, but Kid doesn't have anything besides his pride on the table. Unlike Razor, he doesn't really need the money, attention or family to fulfill his needs (although he does connect with his illegitimate son, played by Jon Bernthal). He just wants to win to satisfy his ego. There's no reason to root for Kid, making De Niro's contributions to the film somewhat moot, since he's not even treated like the kind of straight-up villain who would NORMALLY only need the restoration of his pride as the ultimate goal.
Sixteen years after winning that Oscar, she's back in crap.
Grudge Match does make up some ground with how it treats its secondary characters, all of whom add significantly to the story. A REALLY bad movie would have overused the two most popular and humor-friendly members of the cast - Hart and Alan Arkin - to the point of annoyance. Instead, all the supporting actors have an equal responsibility for progressing the plot, and are used no more than they are absolutely needed. Now, I might have LIKED more output by Hart, who is close to becoming one of Hollywood's breakout comedic stars, especially since he's the funniest part of this movie and his absence is pretty keenly felt by the audience. And while I'm not his biggest fan, having Arkin on screen here is infinitely better than when there's NO Arkin on screen. And when you think about it, there's nothing funny about Stallone or De Niro, which is odd when you remember that this is supposed to be a sports COMEDY, not a sports DRAMA. Hart and Arkin are absolutely necessary to making the movie even remotely funny, and when they're not around, there's nobody else to pick up the slack. It would have even made sense for Segal to lean on these two actors, as he doesn't have the makings of a GREAT movie on his hands to justify being economical with their usage. Grudge Match needed more from these two, but never quite figured that out in time.
Free Kevin Hart! We want Ride Along!
From an inspirational sports comedy perspective, the rest plays out in a fairly normal fashion. Though Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman have mostly worked on television, their screenplay moves the story along smoothly, getting our heroes back into fighting shape, dealing with one antother's presence and tackling their personal issues in standard, unsurprising ways. That's the other major problem with the movie, as there's nothing here that catches you off guard in the way a good sports movie will often do. It's all fairly straightforward, and the few niggling plot threads are sewn up pretty quickly. I don't expect a genius story to come from Segal's editing room (this is the man who brought us Get Smart and Anger Management, after all), but a little bit of complexity would have been a welcome addition to a movie that has no real surprises in store. 
That is not a flattering shade of green.
Even with all of Grudge Match's flaws, there's still a bit of nostalgic fun in seeing Rocky and Jake square off in the third act, giving the film a nice boost of charm. It's too bad that this feels required, however, as without that particular face-off this is a title that needed a lot more polish if it was going to be anything decent. It's not even particularly funny, as there just aren't enough humorous elements to magically transform it into the comedy it bills itself as. Instead, Grudge Match is instantly forgettable, especially when you consider how many superior theatrical options are available right now. If you really, desperately want to see that fictionally iconic match-up, it'll still be there when the DVD is released, but otherwise there's absolutely no reason to run out there to see it right now.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'Saving Mr. Banks' from Himself

You wouldn't be wrong to look at Disney and assume that they run the planet at this point. Over the years, they've been amassing huge tracts of business landscape. They own animation juggernaut Pixar. They own and operate ABC and a host of other television programming licenses (including 80% of ESPN). They bought Marvel Entertainment, bringing an entire stable of profitable superhero franchises under their already-sizable roof. And this time last year the company purchased legendary studio Lucasfilm from science fiction scribe/legend George Lucas. That's right; Mickey Mouse owns Star Wars.

Naturally, this is an exciting time to own stock in the corporation (The Lone Ranger notwithstanding), but it's not hard to look back about fifty years, when Disney only SEEMINGLY ran the planet. It was the 1960's, when the company was much, MUCH smaller, but the affect it had on modern culture was never in doubt. Disneyland was one of the world's top tourist destinations, and every movie coming out of Disney's celebrated studio was an instant gold mine. Walt Disney himself was a beloved public figure, despite the allegations of racism and antisemitism that arose during what has become known as the Golden Age of Animation.
Get used to this face... Apparently Mrs. Travers wore it a lot.
And that's a life worth exploring on film, even if only in the minimalist, somewhat pandering efforts of Saving Mr. Banks. The movie recounts the untold story of Disney's (Tom Hanks) twenty year effort to adapt his daughters' favorite novel - "Mary Poppins" - to the big screen. Only one obstacle stands in his way: author Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson), who is only agreeing to the deal on the basis that she has final say on the production. As heads collide, Travers reminisces to her early years in 1900's Australia, and her memories of an alcoholic, yet loving father. Gradually Disney begins to truly understand what it is that makes this novel and the character of Mary Poppins so special to this British author, though their difficulties make the production of one of cinema's most endearing family classics very, very hard to get done.
I think they hired Hanks just to deflect any controversial asides.
This feel-good picture comes from John Lee Hancock, and upon reflection it makes perfect sense that the director of The Rookie, The Alamo, and The Blind Side was on hand to crank up the inspirational vibe on this motion picture. The characters are all good folk, trying to get things done, and learning a bit about one another in the process. And in Thompson's case, that's worthy of some serious Oscar consideration; her performance as the successful, eccentric and somewhat protective author is right to draw raves, as she takes on a character that a lesser actor would have made either cringe-worthingly annoying or mind-numbingly sappy. Credit where it's due, some of that brilliance does come from the screenplay - co-penned by TV writers Kelly Marcel (Terra Nova) and Sue Smith (Mabo) - which features a wealth of witty dialogue, plenty of heartfelt moments and quite a bit of genuine emotional inflection. But it's Thompson who makes the role special, taking someone who could easily have been portrayed as a shrew - or worse, a villain - and making her sympathetic to everyone in the audience.
Much music was made on that piano, and... other stuff...
And it's not just Thompson that shines, as most all the cast put forth some of their best efforts to date. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak light up the screen as the renown songwriting duo of Richard and Robert Sherman, who created such classics as "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", while West Wing and Cabin in the Woods fans will recognize the charming Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi. Paul Giamatti turns in his casual "lovable schlep" as Travers' unwitting but friendly personal driver, certainly not a bad deal. And of course Tom Hanks is having a stellar year; between this and his excellent work in Captain Phillips, it's officially a comeback year for the veteran leading man. Casting him as Disney is a no-brainer, as there isn't an audience out there that cannot be pleased by Hanks' cool demeanor and earnest expressions. But the scene-stealer in Saving Mr. Banks is undoubtedly Colin Farrell, who appears in Travers' flashbacks as her troubled father. Again, it's a role (lovable drunk) that could so easily have been botched by a no-name performer, but Farrell really draws the audience in and allows us to get into the soul of his character. In return, we get to appreciate some of the best work from one of the industry's more under-appreciated actors working today.
Wait, when did this become Heidi?
Unfortunately, despite some stellar acting and more than a few feel-good moments, Saving Mr. Banks is far from a perfect product. Thompson's jokes almost always work, but the screenplay doesn't really allow anyone else (with the occasional exception of Disney himself) to get a jibe or zinger in. And when they do, well, they're usually not all that good. It's all about the interactions between the two main stars, and while the actors who play those secondary parts ARE quite good, they can't quite overcome the limitations of the script. There's also a distinct sense of whitewashing when you see the movie. Even if I hadn't been told about some of the egregious lies the movie would have you accept as fact (despite it said that she'd only published the one book, Travers actually had written quite a few books between "Poppins" and the movie's production, and she actually HATED the movie itself) I wouldn't say I could have been surprised. It's a movie BY Walt Disney Studios CONCERNING their parochial namesake; of COURSE there's going to be more than a bit of image massaging going on. The creative changes do make sense, but my issue has more to do with the blatant nature of Hancock's ham-fisted direction than it does with eschewing historical accuracy. Frankly, if Hancock was a better, more subtle director, he might have made this film into something truly exceptional.
Ah, the days when everyone wore ties...
As it stands, Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a serviceable, solid, and even quite sweet film. If you were looking for something to take your family to over the Christmas break, it's one of the stronger options out there, though Frozen is still the clear front-running option. While there's no getting past the fact that Banks is a flawed motion picture, it's got an abundance of charm and sufficient talent in front of the camera - especially in its two leads - to carry itself quite effortlessly into the hearts of any audience. Excellence it could have reached, especially in regards to its love letters to fathers, but for a sycophancy that ironically advocates forgiving troublesome dads without acknowledging it's own parent's missteps. Still, Thompson is looking at a well-deserved Oscar nomination (if not a win), and there ought to be a good deal of fun had at the movies should you decide to make this your destination.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Down the Hobbit Hole, Part Deux

There can't possibly be a human alive who who has watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and didn't fall in love with them. From 2001 to 2003, the man behind such studio bombs as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners tackled the beloved series of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, and in doing so became the hero to fantasy fans around the globe, culminating with the climactic The Return of the King's win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. There are many who consider that movie as among the greatest movies ever made, and many more would include it within their top 10 of all time. That's why people were so excited when Jackson was eventually tasked with taking Tolkien's introductory novel "The Hobbit" and adapting it to the big screen, even if it was going to be three movies (that's about 100 pages per entry), and featured brand new technology that showed the film at a crisp - albeit occasionally nausea inducing - 48 frames per second.

The one moment of rest in this crazy thing.
And it's also the reason many were somewhat disappointed in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a movie that felt both overlong and overly-saturated with blatant Lord of the Rings fan service. While it was still better than most people gave it credit, there's no doubt that Jackson's delicate balancing act didn't quite pay off, as his additions to what was otherwise a bare-bones plot came off as not intended to make the best movie, but please the biggest crowds. However, despite An Unexpected Journey's many flaws, it was still good enough to keep both die-hards and casual viewers excited for Bilbo Baggins' continued adventures in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which came out this weekend. While Jackson still has to add a LOT in to make up for the fact that he's made a two-and-a-half hour movie out of such a small part of a small book, his continuation of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their company of dwarves as they journey to liberate the treasure-laden Kingdom of Erebor from the clutches of ginormous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Desolation sees the party arriving at the Lonely Lountain, after contending with Orcs, giant spiders, uncompromising elves, a huge shape-shifting bear, and - worst of all - small-town politics.
That's right, Bilbo, welcome to Camden, NJ.
That Jackson can create a genuinely fun film where his protagonists essentially face their threats through the same means every time (fighting and running, usually in that order) is very much indicative of how good a director he really is. No matter how big or small a budget is, bad directors will usually blow it, while good directors will almost always shine, and this is a man in his element. Jackson, through a mixture of New Zealand scene-capturing and green screen implementation on par with Lucas or Cameron at their best, recreates the world of Middle Earth with such clarity and vision that even the most discerning eye couldn't find fault with his approach. Most notably, the character designs are a huge step up from An Unexpected Journey, where most of the monsters were a bit cartoonish and lacked menace. Here, secondary antagonist Azog (Arrow's Manu Bennett) is vastly improved animation-wise, and Smaug himself is terrifying, through the latter is also enhanced by the talent and charisma of Cumberbatch, who steals the movie much in the way fellow motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis' Gollum did the first time around.
He's one bad mama jama.
Jackson also seems to show a keen insight of what worked and what didn't work in An Unexpected Journey. The Desolation of Smaug, story-wise, is superior in just about every way to the first installment. That's partly because Jackson finally gets it across that this is not Bilbo's story. Yes, the name of the movie DOES start with The Hobbit, and the young adventurer is certainly no passive observer, as things would easily turn out much different without him. But this middle entry makes it perfectly clear that the whole affair is really about an exiled prince's quest to reclaim his homeland, and what that journey does to him emotionally. Armitage's character grows so much this time around, as Thorin finds himself surrounded by familiar territory and the prospect of power looming. Borrowing from Lord of the Rings, the idea of power corrupting the noble is yet another link back to the first trilogy, but thematically it fits and stands as one of Jackson's better implemented connections.
You still can't remember all their names, can you?
But Smaug's overall quality improvement is also because there's more of a flow to the storytelling this time around. Jackson's addition of legitimate Tolkien lore - plus a few improvements all his own - don't feel nearly as ham-handed this time around. There is still a ton of fan service, but most of it - for instance the appearance of Orlando Bloom's Legoas - are perfectly sewn into the plot (although they couldn't resist throwing in a Gimli jab). The prequel elements are still in play, as Gandalf's adventures reveal more elements that won't come to fruition until The Fellowship of the Ring, but gone are the forced cameos from Christopher Plummer, Cate Blanchett (who does still have one small appearance), Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, and Elijah Wood, which did little more than appease fans of the original trilogy. And you have to imagine that Jackson learned his mistake in including Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown (also known as "Jar Jar") in reducing his screentime in Desolation. I'm just glad the director did not try to shoehorn a Gollum appearance in, as it would have been cool but counterproductive to the project.
Between this and Magneto, McKellan never has to work again.
As to the tale, there are four converging storylines - Bilbo and the Dwarves, Legolas and elf captain Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, added because The Hobbit sadly has no ladies) hunting orcs, Gandalf tracking down the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) and the political struggle of Lake-town between Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the town's Master (the always amiable Stephen Fry) - and while three of those things were most definitely NOT part of the original novel, almost none of it feels out of place or unnecessary. The dwarves even have a bit more to do and say, although I still defy you to identify each one on sight and point out how each individual is important to the overall story. The only one of them to have an arc is Kili (Aidan Turner) who takes an arrow in the knee AND falls head over heels for Tauriel. Well, he is rather tall for a dwarf. However, I say "almost" all the sub-stories fit because the Lake-town political struggle comes late in the game and does little more than pad out the film's already-gargantuan run-time. But it also allows Richard Armitage's Thorin to make a big speech (aww, almost like a little Aragorn) and show what a leader he could be. So between that and setting up much of the struggle for the third movie, it serves its purpose.
Mark my words, Luke Evans is going to be huge very, very soon.
Because of that strong storytelling, Tolkien's characters also have quite a bit more to do this time around. Martin Freeman looks more comfortable in the hairy soles of Bilbo Baggins, and his natural charm combined with the character's everyman heroics make for an easy hero for whom to root. Armitage, McKellan and Evans also stand out, each bringing a slightly different bravado to the big screen that cements their identities in wholly different ways. Bloom, Lilly and Lee Pace (as the elven king Thranduil) add quite a bit of variety, with Bloom's obviously CGI-enhanced skin the only serious gripe I can muster. All the characters have something to add, whether it's plot exposition, or classic sword-and-sorcery tropes, or humor, though Jackson thankfully shies away from singing or childish gags this time around. Everyone's personalities are coming to a head, just in time for the epic showdown that will be next year's There and Back Again.
Because Middle Earth needs at least one kick-ass femme fatale...
In fact, The Desolation of Smaug shows few of it's many flaws on the surface, though some are remarkably vivid. Some scenes, such as an early one with Mikael Persbrandt as the skin-changer Beorn, feel included solely to appease fans of the novel, their actual relevance to the plot shoddy or un-revealed. Some new characters are merely rehashed versions of minor characters from the original trilogy. For instance, Ryan Gage's Alfrid (the Master's assistant) is practically a carbon copy of Grima Wormtongue. And the action sequences, while a whole lot of fun, tend to get more than a little silly and nonsensical, as well as over-long.
He's baaaack...
But the movie's biggest fault (beyond the story, of course) might become apparent if you see it on IMAX screens. Jackson's decision to film his newest trilogy at twice the normal framerate is quite the ambitious affair, as 48 frames per second was the next - albeit untested - effort to create a brighter, more crisp picture. But what happens when you're able to see things more closely is see more visual errors. This is apparent in the Lonely Mountain sequence, were a meticulously-rendered Smaug is perfect, while the settings around him have not been given nearly as much attention, and it shows. It's distracting, and can easily take the viewer right out of the experience, no matter the quality of the cast or director. It's not as noticeable if you're watching on a smaller screen (and certainly not in 3D), but it doesn't do much to positively endorse Jackson's ambitious method.
Oh, right, he IS in this...
I still contend that Tolkien's first major novel did NOT need to get separated into three films, as there simply hasn't been enough story for our main heroes to engage in without blast after blast of narcissism, nostalgia and unnecessary fan service in a deliberate (and when you consider the popularity of Lord of the Rings, unnecessary) attempt to appeal to audiences. That said, The Desolation of Smaug is still a big step up from its predecessor (let's call it an 8 out of 10), and there's nobody I'd trust more to compile this series than Jackson, who shows he's still got the goods a decade after his last great movie. And let's face it, if and when you see this (and An Unexpected Journey, which isn't great but is still a good, solid effort), there's no chance you won't be chomping at the bit to see next year's finale, which now feels ages away. It's not nearly up to the quality Jackson set with his first foray into Tolkien's work, but his Hobbit trilogy is turning into a decent - and more importantly, fun and exciting - moviegoing experience.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

'Out of the Furnace' Burns Brightly

I didn't know this, but apparently the weekend after Thanksgiving is not particularly productive for the North American box office. Since it's usually such a slow weekend, movies released at this time tend to be few, with maybe one new release opening up and often failing to garner an audience when it does. Two years ago, it was the terrible The Warriors Way that was sacrificed to an early grave, while last year saw the critically praised but commercially panned Killing Them Softly (which I also consummately hated) diffuse all potential Oscar talk for Brad Pitt in 2012. This year, the sole national release for this weekend is Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper's directorial followup to 2009's well-received country-singing Crazy Heart, a title many considered a decent pick for Academy Award potential. Does this mediocre release date (which guaranteed an early box office finish behind Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) mean that the studios and their celebrity producers (Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio, who had originally been labeled as director and actor) believe their film doesn't deserve that much faith?

A bit of fun before all the drama begins.
Out of the Furnace is a revenge thriller that pits Russell Baze (Academy Award-winner Christian Bale) - a normal, factory-working good man in Braddock, PA - against lowlife criminal and overall scumbag Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), an Appalachian hustler who is suspected of being responsible for the disappearance of Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). With there being only so much the law can do, Russell feels he is the only man who can find and punish the man responsible for separating him from his brother.
Gladiator gets a sequel 2000 years in the making.
This movie has two major strengths going for it: Cooper, and his amazing cast. As a sophomore director, Cooper has a lot to live up to, especially with praise for Crazy Heart being as great as it was. He has a natural aptitude for storytelling, and that's especially good when the story he actually tells differs in respects to what the trailers had brought a potential audience to expect. Now, it's not that the trailers lied, per se, but they do diverge quite widely from the tale Cooper actually brings to us. Considering how many trailers essentially give away the story of their respective titles, that Out of the Furnace surprises us with its twists and turns is just as much a key to victory as Cooper's overall talent. The director has a talent for capturing the perfect shot, and the imagery he evokes is that of a big-budget Winter's Bone due to its Appalachian, Rust Belt locale and depressed economic setting. He makes great use of his locale to establish his story (which he re-wrote from a script by Brad Ingelsby), and despite the dangers of a slow-burning plot (Killing Them Softly was terribly slow, to the point of boredom), the movie is never dull, keeping you entranced as you anxiously wait to see what happens next.
He's really going for that Oscar this year.
And as I mentioned, Cooper gets a huge boost from his all-star cast, especially concerning the (surprisingly limited) interplay between Bale and Harrelson. Harrelson's Harlan is a monster from the word go, and the film more than establishes him as a dangerous, evil human being (and setting the foundations for Best Supporting Actor nods, perhaps), more than worthy for a movie of this style. Meanwhile, Bale's Russell takes a lot longer to set up, while never losing sight of the idea that he is the epitome of good. That building of his character was necessary to keep Russell from stagnating, and despite some threats of cliche, Bale reminds everybody of the monumental talent he really is. Affleck meanwhile quietly puts forth one of his best performances, that of a youth troubled by war and falling into the trappings of debt and depression. Affleck has always been a good (sometimes better than big brother Ben) actor, but his turn in Furnace easily takes the top prize. Zoe Saldana also excels, though I found myself wishing they'd used her a bit more. After all, there's no doubt in my mind that one day this young talent will earn Academy Award nominations, and perhaps walk away with one as well. This was an excellent display of her skills (the scene with Bale on the footbridge is emotionally devastating) and she's absolutely destined for bigger things than Star Trek and Colombiana. Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe round out a fully engaging cast, one that really makes the best of their given material.
Spoiler: this is the best scene in the movie.
And that's a good thing, because the material they have to work with is... "meh". Cooper supposedly had his own upbringing in Appalachia in mind when he was retooling Ingelsby's screenplay, but the result is a LOT of universally cliched ideas. The major and minor themes - poverty, frontier justice, social treatment of combat veterans, legal jurisdiction battles, loneliness, emotional trauma, brotherhood - have been done before, in essentially this same format. No matter how good the actors are (and they are spectacular!), Cooper can't quite compel his movie to be more unique than it actually is. There were also some questionable decisions made for the final cut, as some scenes ran a little over-long and contained some questionably redundant material (I mean seriously, how many times to we need to be reminded that Russell is a good man?). But while the director really should have let someone else come in and tinker with his relatively disappointing script, he's a talented-enough artist to somewhat overcome those hurdles, while trusting his cast to do the heavy lifting in a tale that doesn't lack for suspense and authentic emotional toil.
Now, who's up for playing Old Yeller?
There's a surprisingly long setup, as the audience soon becomes fully accustomed to the slow burn that takes up the first 90 minutes of Out of the Furnace. That makes the swift final act a complete surprise, as Cooper had perfectly positioned his pawns for a quick checkmate. But despite feeling a little rushed, the movie actually benefits from this change of pace, and it actually makes for quite the exciting and appropriate conclusion to the tale. Still, it (and his minor, newbie-level mistakes) keeps his final product from becoming the awards juggernaut it ABSOLUTELY had the potential to be. Out of the Furnace is still tons better than the fare that usually comes out the weekend after Thanksgiving, and if you find yourself with a couple of hours to spend before the year's end, you can do a whole lot worse than giving Scott Cooper's latest effort a shot. Great actors, an up-and-coming director and not one boring moment make for a couple hours of sheer quality entertainment.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Disney's 'Frozen' Warm to the Touch

After nearly a decade of being left in distant third by Pixar and Dreamworks and seeing other rival animation studios surface worldwide, the once legendary Disney Animation has finally regained a serious foothold in today's crowded market. In Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, they have created two of the absolute best family features in recent years (as I've pointed out, Wreck-It Ralph should have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar last year), and while they seem to be returning to a familiar formula with Frozen, directors Chris Buck (Surfs Up and Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (who also penned the screenplay) show that Disney can still put on a kick-ass song and dance when given the opportunity.

Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson tale "The Snow Queen", Frozen is about sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), princesses in the glorious kingdom of Arendelle. For a long time they've been cooped up in their castle, separated not just from the world, but for the most part from one another. This is particularly hard on the lonely Anna, who remembers sharing joyous relationship with her sibling in the past. On the evening of her coronation as Queen, Elsa accidentally reveals to the world a power to control the elements, and when this incident results in her running away and the kingdom being awash in snow (in July), it's up to Anna - alongside gruff mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and Olaf, a magical, living snowman (Josh Gad) - to becalm her sister and try to get the world back to the peaceful, sunny way things used to be.
Just your typical bubbly, overly-friendly, smart Disney princess... maybe...
For the first act, we are introduced to this land in the best possible way: a combination of lovely ice and snow and Broadway-quality song and dance. We're introduced to the sisters, the reason they drifted apart, and family tragedy, all to the enthusiastic harmonics of "DoYou Want to Build a Snowman" and "For the First Time in Forever". The musical score was assembled by Christophe Beck (whose impressive resume includes Pitch Perfect, The Muppets, and last year's Academy Award-winning short film Paperman) and written by Tony Award-winning songwriter Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and their combined genius really shines in that first twenty minutes. Those amazing numbers (and to a lesser extent, Menzel's solo performance of "Let it Go") transfix the audience and combine with outstanding visuals to render the average viewer catatonic with emotion. It's the best example I can think of where a movie musical actually carries the charm of a Broadway play, without feeling like a cheap, misunderstanding castoff. It is here that Frozen is at its absolute best, as Beck and Lee make the most of their combined resources and start things off with an impassioned opening salvo of epic set pieces and glorious musical achievement.
No, you may not call him "Bumble".
But somewhere after this point, what makes Frozen truly an unique, prodigious treat is muffled a tad. It's not that the rest of the movie is without charm, or that it is not excellent in its own right; the directors do an amazing job of moving the story forward and keeping you rooting for our likable heroes. But in comparison to that astounding opening, the story just doesn't have the emotional momentum to overcome its limitations, from characters that aren't as deep as they are charming to a definite lack of story development. Besides the opening, Buck and Lee's biggest success is their treatment of the Snow Queen, which when all is said and done is nothing short of miraculous. Menzel's Elsa is not evil or even converted to evil by the fear of the other characters. She's simply misunderstood - more anti-hero than outright villain - and her character never really alters from the very good, very caring character that was established at the beginning. However, the quality of the musical numbers takes a downturn in the second act, and while they're all still quality songs delivered with spunk and dynamism, they don't get any better than those openers. There isn't even a final number - only a reprise of an earlier one - despite a relatively weak ending that would have benefited from a strong closing bit. Finally, despite subverting your expectations of the Disney Princess genre - no doubt due to Lee's work on the screenplay - the film prefers to skew uncomfortably close to that same style, and for the most part doesn't feel different from the Mouse's early, "Damsel in Distress" stories that really ought to feel old-fashioned in this day and age.
Because they have to make a billion dollars in merchandise, as well.
The dialogue is at least razor-sharp, and delivered by a surprisingly elite cast to boot. Sure, you have the unknowns, from Glee's Groff to Broadway star Santino Fontana (playing a seemingly prototypical Prince Charming) who deliver solid efforts. And the twin leads of Bell and Menzell are absolutely perfect, Bell a surprise as her career to this point isn't exactly rich with musical numbers. Nonetheless she does a great job as a charismatic heroine, fitting right in with the likes of Rapunzel, Belle and Pocahontas. Veteran Menzel has never had much of a cinematic career, her biggest effort to date coming in the adaptation of her iconic theatrical role in Rent. More known on Broadway, she takes her combined singing/acting experience and easily converts it to the big screen; some of the film's best moments feature either her understated yet powerful singing or her understated yet compelling acting. The cast is rounded out by veteran voices Ciaran Hinds and Alan Tudyk (though I wish they'd done more with both), and Gad fulfills the comedic sidekick role alongside Sven the silent reindeer. Though both provide laughs (Sven's antics are definitely inspired by Tangled's secondary hero Maximus), they're thankfully not overused, their humor providing just the right amount of levity comparable to their contributions to the plot. It's this excellent use of characters by the directors that keeps both the children and adults in the audience invested in the story through the final two acts.
Don't get in the way of her "Ice Fu".
And these strengths - alongside that stellar opening - are what make Frozen not only the best animated movie this year, but one of the best movies of 2013. There are definitely some gaffes when it comes to Disney's latest effort, and it doesn't come very close to the overall quality of Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, let alone classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or The Little Mermaid. Or almost anything from Pixar, for that matter. Even when the movie actively departs from its Princess-y roots, it never distances itself enough to morph into anything distinctive (a defect highlighted by the Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse, which runs with it), and the movie as a whole never really lives up to that outstanding first act. But demerits aside, this is a strong, fun, funny, delightfully subversive and emotionally engaging story for children of all ages and a must-see for anyone who has ever had affection for their siblings. It may not end up being long-remembered, but it certainly ought to be fondly remembered in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Still Hungry? 'Catching Fire' Sates

I can't imagine there was anyone happier than myself when it was announced that Gary Ross would not be returning to film the sequels to The Hunger Games, his highly-successful adaptation of Suzanne Collins' epic young adult book series of the same name. Despite being a solid movie in its own right, Ross' vision was damaged by unnecessary shaky-cam (one of Hollywood's true evils), an uneven narrative that didn't take advantage of the excellent casting, and a failure to understand and/or retain many of the book's essential themes. Though Francis Lawrence didn't come into the franchise with experience in young adult adventure (his previous works include Constantine and Water for Elephants), fans of the novels and movie lovers overall ought not be disappointed in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel that is superior in every way to the original.

Picking up a few months after the end of The Hunger Games, we see the PTSD-afflicted winner of the recent games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), trying to readjust to her life in the remote, criminally poor, coal-mining District 12. But her actions in the previous Games - which saved not only her life but that of the unrequitedly-smitten Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) - have been seen as a beacon of hope by the other Districts, and rumors spread of unrest targeted at the Capital and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Soon, the amoral dictator urges Katniss under punishment of death upon her family to do what she can to quell the masses on her and Peeta's upcoming victory tour. But when this only serves to fan the flames of revolution, Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in the Games, as Snow and new gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) add a new wrinkle, pitting former victors against one another to show that they are not immune to the power and strength of the government. The two most recent winners find themselves squaring off against seasoned killers, unsure of whom they can trust and how they can possibly survive another impossible situation.
CGI fire is much more effective this time around.
If one thing is for certain, Catching Fire definitely benefits from both the change in director and the substantially larger budget the success of the original allowed. The Hunger Games was no cheaply-made motion picture, but at times it FELT like it. What was supposed to be an epic, sprawling movie felt quite claustrophobic, limited in both scope and vision. Lawrence (no relation to the main star) succeeds in making the postapocalyptic land of Panem a visual spectacle, but also manages to capture the cultural aspects of the land as well, whereas Ross' version would simply throw different costumes out as something to distinguish characters. It also helps that Lawrence the director skews much closer to the source material, making the movie less about surviving impossible odds and more about the political landscape and the ramifications of one's actions. He shows an amazing understanding of Collins' vision of this world, and that understanding means that he does a better job of keeping in the bits from the book that are actually important. Ross, meanwhile, simplified the whole first book to the Hunger Games themselves and the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who returns). This new director does a great job taking the important parts of the source material and condensing it into a full-length motion picture, and even though clocking in over two hours for a movie that is mainly targeted to young adults is usually considered a no-no, Catching Fire never feels long thanks to a strong approach to filmmaking and a story that never feels uninteresting or trite.
The costumes possess the same vibrant flare as the original.
He is also assisted by a returning cast that has so many more interesting things to present the audience. One of The Hunger Games' biggest disappointments was that there wasn't nearly enough for its supremely talented actors to do. Catching Fire is absolutely a character-driven affair, however, and it's refreshing to see true artists given actual material with which to ply their trade. Lawrence certainly stands out, putting forth an even greater performance here than her Oscar-winning appearance in Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence the actor is a revelation, a talent well beyond her years, and as long as she remains in the business, she'll be among the very best at any given time. She has the ability to carry every scene, sometimes without dialogue, but the biggest improvement over her performance in the original has to be her chemistry with co-star Hutcherson, another burgeoning star. Though Hutcherson's Peeta was bland before, his rising talent (not to mention some healthy character development) make for heady improvements, and after two films we're finally buying into the idea that the relationship between our two romantic leads is actually going somewhere.
She's not listening to those House at the End of the Street reviews...
And they're not alone, as Lawrence the director and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, credited here as Michael deBruyn) parcel out much activity to Panem's supporting characters. Again, with such a strong cast, this should have been a no-brainer, and the creative minds don't disappoint. There are the obvious stand-outs, such as Woody Harrelson as our heroes' alcoholic, emotionally disturbed mentor, Stanley Tucci's perfectly flamboyant game show host, and Donald Sutherland's stand-in for the evil Emperor Palpatine (I especially loved how Lawrence added scenes of President Snow with his granddaughter, who absolutely adores his arch-nemesis Katniss). Some are even a little unexpected, such as Elizabeth Banks, who was strong in The Hunger Games but whose character goes through such a personal and emotional transformation that you are shocked by the strength of her performance. But Catching Fire introduces a whole slew of new characters, and strong performances come from Sam Claflin as a mysterious charmer and warrior, Jeffrey Wright as an enigmatic tech genius, and Hoffman as a wily strategist. You even have to love Lynn Cohen (Magda from Sex and the City) as a mute, elderly volunteer for the new Games. But my absolute favorite of the new entries (and I imagine for most others) has to be Jena Malone as a feisty, unapologetically abrasive tribute who drops not one, but two f-bombs (censored, of course) in a fit worthy of her character. It's thanks to these strong performances that this sequel stands above the bland, emotionless material it was forced to work with the first time around.
Well, at least hydration shouldn't be a problem.
Not that Catching Fire is a perfect movie. Acting-wise, some performances don't live up to the others. Given more to work with, Hemsworth proves he's nowhere near the talent that big brother Chris has become, remaining as dull and emotionless as he was the first time around, and exposed as a performer all the more. With this, his painful-to-the-senses work in Paranoia, and the designation of his latest film, Empire State, to direct-to-video status, we may be seeing the end of Liam Hemsworth as a viable movie star. Another disappointment was Lenny Kravitz, who charmed many in his role as clothing designer Cinna the first time around. Though his role was certainly lessened, it looks like he's frustrated just being on set. Though Kravitz has been good in the past (Precious is a good example), the fact that he's not principally an actor really becomes apparent at moments like this, when he can't disguise that he wishes he was doing something more. Finally, while Lawrence the director does add a few scenes to build the world a bit more from the books, his adaptation is sadly slavish to Collins' original novel. Much as I enjoyed reading the books, Catching Fire was NOT particularly well-written, and Lawrence maintains many of Collins' missteps, from introducing potentially game-changing characters and promptly doing nothing with them, to adjusting the rules of a situation to suit the story's purposes, rather than letting things happen organically. Because it is an adaptation, I'm not suggesting MAJOR adjustments needed to be made, but polishing the edges a bit more would have been a good idea.
They actually kinda like one another this time around!
Gary Ross' Hunger Games was a good, solid, adaptation of a young adult novel. As standards go, that's probably closer to the middle of the pack than most fans of the franchise or Suzanne Collins enthusiasts might be willing to admit. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in comparison is a MAJOR step up, with Francis Lawrence's sequel matching the tone of the original, but improving the product in every single possible way. Catching Fire isn't just a great YA adaptation, but a great overall MOVIE, and potentially one of the year's best. Granted, it hasn't been an overall superb year for the cinema, but that shouldn't take away from the success this film makes in walking that delicate tightrope most adaptations have to execute. I'm certain most people with any interest in seeing this have already done so (November box office records, and all that), but if you're taking a wait-and-see approach to this franchise because you're comparing it mentally to other young adult titles like Twilight or Beautiful Creatures or Warm Bodies or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, then you're truly missing out.