Friday, March 14, 2014

A Summer in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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