Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Prepare for Extinction: A Summer Movie Preview

Making over $1.2 billion last summer, Iron Man 3 is a tough act to follow.
Well, it's that time of the year again. May 2 begins the annual Summer Movie season, and every major studio is pumping out their tentpole films, in hopes that they will not only be successful, but perhaps grow legs and attain the kind of box office receipts of something like The Avengers or Iron Man 3. And trying NOT to be the next The Lone Ranger or Battleship,while they're at it. But while these kinds of blockbusters have begun to prop up in other, less dense times of the year (such as the most recent November with the Thor and Hunger Games sequels or Captain America less than a month ago), Summer is still the time you'll see most of these big releases, especially with school out and people looking for any refuge from the oppressive heat. So with all these comic book thrillers, ribald comedies and immersive animated efforts, the question becomes: where do you spend your money? What looks good? What looks bad? What will get delayed at the last minute, completely screwing up perspectives like these? Here are the scheduled movies coming out between May and August, 2014, and some thoughts on each one.


The Best Around
As is often the case, the film that opens the Summer season is one of the most anticipated. Yes, the marketing has been a bit relentless. Yes, the first installment wasn't universally loved (though to be fair, that was mainly because it was yet another origin story). But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 still lives up to its name thanks to an all-star cast - both returning and added - exceptional SFX, and the direction of Marc Webb, which many people forget was actually quite stellar in the first installment. Sony is hoping for a lot from their new take on the comic book franchise, already planning future movies centered around villains The Sinister Six and antihero Venom, but their next step towards those goals and future sequels demand a successful release here. And from what I can see, this is a movie that could live up to that high standard.

Last year Pacific Rim rode the concept of giant robots fighting giant monsters but didn't draw many audiences. As visually engrossing as it was (and pretty good to boot), it just didn't appeal to much of an audience. But hopefully Godzilla is still a recognizable enough property to garner legitimate attention, and reinvigorate the "giant monster" genre... Director Brian Singer returns to superheroes and the franchise he helped build with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Now the question is whether we'll get the director who brought us The Usual Suspects, or the one who brought us Jack the Giant Slayer... I'm only on board recently with Disney's Maleficent, as I'm not entirely sold on the villain-centric storyline. I am utterly convinced however, that if ANYONE can make it work, it's Angelina Jolie... Speaking of Disney, their latest based-on-a-true-story sports drama Million Dollar Arm will test the star power - and perhaps the throwing arm - of departing Mad Man Jon Hamm... Just because Drew Barrymore is costarring in an Adam Sandler flick doesn't mean it's automatic gold. Blended looks to be their most offensive pairing yet, so don't count on their usual magic... Palo Alto is based on the writings of James Franco, but otherwise the directorial debut of Gia Coppola looks pretty good... My cousin Mark works for Open Road, so my endorsement of Chef should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. However, the last time he recommended one of his studio's projects to me (and probably everyone else in the family, come to think of it), it was End of Watch, and so his recommendations are definitely something to which I pay close attention.

Bad Company
R-Rated comedies are a mixed bag, as for every Ted or 21 Jump Street are a handful of unworthy titles like The Dictator, The Campaign, Bad Teacher and The Watch dragging the genre down. Seth Rogen comedies tend to draw a lot of attention, but that doesn't mean that they're good, even when they have talented casts and crews like The Neighbors... Well, at least Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return is a more faithful adaptation of L Frank Baum's book series than last year's Sam Raimi massacre. But with animation reminiscent of a bad Saturday morning cartoon show, infantile humor, and Lea Michelle, I wouldn't expect too many people to care about it even if it were the only animated film all summer... Seth MacFarlane returns to cinema with western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West. Ted was a nice surprise, but I don't see a way that the director recreates the magic that made the 2012 surprise hit work. At best, it'll be okay. At worst, we're looking at career suicide...It's nice that comedy Mom's Night Out comes out on Mother's Day weekend. Now if it only looked even remotely funny... Elizabeth Banks is growing on me, but that doesn't mean her latest comedy Walk of Shame is going to be any good, especially when your director also did Drillbit Taylor and Without a Paddle... Jesse Eisenberg's new indie The Double sees him playing two different people with differing characters. So why is it that the actor appears to be exactly the same in both?... Is The Angriest Man in Brooklyn Robin Williams' attempt at regaining his relevance? If so, maybe he should instead get back into screwball comedies and step away from movies too ambiguously designed to be remotely approachable.


 The Best Around
As I've often mentioned, 21 Jump Street was one of the biggest surprises for me in 2012, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are back with stars Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube with 22 Jump Street. But with the story itself seeming derivative of the first movie - a fact which the characters gleefully admit - and the fact that the trailers haven't really been standout, what makes this sequel so appealing? Well, with this team and the chemistry they showed two years ago, you can expect uncensored gags, irreverent madness, and witty dialogue. Add Peter Stormare as a strong villain, and you've potentially got the recipe for a sequel that surpasses the original, in spirit if not material.

Dreamworks Animation probably hasn't had so much demand for a sequel as must exist for How to Train Your Dragon 2. Continuing the story of viking Hiccup and his dragon partner Toothless, the company is absolutely attempting to dominate the Summer movie season after bombing out with Turbo last year... Tom Cruise action thriller Edge of Tomorrow sees the star return to science fiction, which seems to be his most profitable genre of late. What makes this movie different? How about the casting of the uber-talented Emily Blunt?... After playing siblings in last month's YA adaptation Divergent, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort play romantic co-leads in another one, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. The book's popularity ought to ensure a healthy audience... After all the studio edits, it almost might be better to wait for the Director's Cut on DVD, but sci-fi class struggle epic Snowpiercer finally hits theaters this month and marks the Hollywood debut of Korean director Bong Joon-ho.

Bad Company
You might be mistaken for thinking that Transformers: Age of Extinction will be different from the previous installments of the 80's TV show-adapted film franchise. Sure, the ads have been explosive and exciting to watch, and we all like to see Mark Wahlberg, but then you have to remember again that this is most definitely a Michael Bay movie. Haha, no, you won't fool me again, Mr. Bay... Think Like a Man Too takes the cast from the first Think Like a Man and just drops them in Las Vegas. Is there any point? Not that I can tell, and Kevin Hart is inching closer and closer to overexposure with every movie in which he plays Kevin Hart... Just when you didn't think Clint Eastwood could get any older and more out of touch, he directs a musical based on the nostalgic Broadway hit Jersey Boys. I think Dirty Harry might be completely incapable of telling modern stories anymore... Comedian Gillian Robespierre makes her feature directorial debut with Obvious Child, clearly an attempt to appeal to the same crowd that saw Sleepwalk With Me. I just don't know if there's an audience out there for her work. It's certainly not me.


The Best Around
In all honesty, we probably remember Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a little bit of rose-tinted glasses. Yes, it was a solid movie, but if it hadn't been for Andy Serkis doing his usual excellent CGI performance, would it really have stood out? Thankfully, we don't have to worry about that, as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes looks better in just about every conceivable way, from an improved cast (Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman), to the dystopian, futuristic setting and a compelling story. Although sadly Rupert Wyatt does not return as director (replaced by Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves), I still have nothing but the highest hopes for this reinvigorated franchise.

Ten years after winning over an entire generation by writing, directing and starring in indie favorite Garden State, Zach Braff gets behind the camera once again to present us with Wish I was Here. He brings with him a talented cast that includes Joey King, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Donald Faison and James Avery (in his last film appearance) so you know hipsters and other film buffs will be referencing this one for years... Hercules seems to mix elements both good (star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and unsettling (director Brett Ratner), but I'm willing to bet it will be better than you might expect. At the very least it'll be leaps and bounds beyond what January's The Legend of Hercules could have hoped to achieve... The Purge, a basic locked-house horror film, was a piece of garbage. It's sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, takes the interesting concept of the original and actually seems to DO SOMETHING with it, which really ought to make all the difference... Sex Tape is the latest debaucherous effort from stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, but unlike Bad Teacher, the story and characters are easily approachable, and the film looks to provide some solid laughs. Maybe this is the movie that gets Diaz out of a lot of critics' doghouses... Earth to Echo mixes the found footage genre with E.T., and if you don't at least think that sounds interesting in some way, I'm not sure how else you can understand how excited this concept makes me... Sinister director Scott Derrickson returns to horror with Deliver Us from Evil, another haunted house movie that will scare the poop out of everyone... What makes indie romantic movie Begin Again watchable? For one, director John Carney is the man who brought us Once, a must-see for any music lover. Second, Mark Ruffalo leads an uber-talented and charming cast that includes Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Cordon, CeeLo Green and Catherine Keener. I can't imagine a situation in which I wouldn't want to watch this.

Bad Company
I'm not sure what happened to the Wachowski siblings, but it's a bad sign when their latest motion picture does nothing but reference their earlier, better work. Have their creative juices dried up so much that repeating The Matrix was the best they could do? Talented cast aside, Jupiter Ascending is one big budget spectacle I'm not looking forward to... Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon star in comedy Tammy, which looks to be right in the R-Rated wheelhouse McCarthy has carved out for herself. Now if previews would show me that same spark I've yet to witness... And So It Goes continues the careers of Hollywood actors Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton and director Rob Reiner in a film that will surely be targeting older audiences uninterested in anything else already out... Disney's Planes was fortunate to come out at a time when there wasn't much family fare available, justifying the quick-release sequel Planes: Fire and Rescue for the tiniest of audience members in July, when Dragon 2 will be winding down its own theatrical run. The question is which movie families will want to see at that point... Thought the Step Up franchise was done? Nope, Step Up All In is a generic dance movie, but previews aren't showing me anything potentially "Wow"- worthy, compared to its earlier entries. Let's face it, this is a genre that has fully run its course... Well, maybe Kevin Hart's stranglehold on comedy concert films will come to a close with The Fluffy Movie, focusing on stand-up artist Gabriel Iglesias. More likely is that audiences won't care, as Hart had built up a following not only through stand-up but also in supporting roles in film, while Iglesias just hasn't earned that same level of goodwill.


The Best Around
Guardians of the Galaxy, in many ways, signals a drastic change in how the public perceives and accepts comic book movies. For a long time now, the big two comic companies have been adapting their titles, but they've been focusing on proven names, like Superman, Batman and the X-Men. Even when Marvel began their contiguous universe, they started off with the safest bets; not just bestselling, but male, Caucasian, human heroes. That changes in August, when a little-known, multi-species team gets their shot at the big screen. The fact that this movie is coming out before DC and Warner Bros. have even ANNOUNCED a Wonder Woman movie shows just how far Marvel has come and how deep into their library they're willing to delve. And while it seems a little... offbeat when compared to its predecessors, that is also a sign that the studio is willing to reach out of their comfort zone and risk making something unique. And even if it FAILS, you know it would only be a minor inconvenience to the Marvel filmmaking juggernaut, and won't stop all innovation in its tracks, a la Green Lantern.

Goodfellas... and Ladies
At first glance, you might not associate French filmmaker Luc Besson with strong female characters, but when you actually think about it, it makes sense. Anne Parillaud in Nikita. Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional. Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. Now you can add Scarlett Johanssen in Lucy to that list. This fast-paced mind-fuck looks absolutely insane, with Johanssen at her ass-kicking best... Brendan Gleeson stars as a good priest under threat of death in Cavalry, John Michael McDonagh's follow-up to his critically-acclaimed The Guard. It looks like a good mix of humor and human spirit, though it might slip under many folks' radars, like Seven Psychopaths did two years ago... Into the Storm stars The Hobbit's Richard Armitage and is a disaster movie involving tornadoes. Your mileage may vary on how good the script is, as what's been shown of the visuals is fairly impressive... Chadwick Boseman already tackled one African American legend in 42, and now he gets that opportunity again, playing James Brown in Get on Up, the latest from The Help director Tate Taylor. I don't know if lightning will strike twice for either actor or director, but it's a compelling subject, at least... Let's Be Cops has all the makings of an under-the-radar hit. It's got up-and-coming stars, a unique and way out there story, and - oh, yeah - it actually looks funny. Don't be surprised if this turns out to be the summer's best comedy... Little has been released about The Hundred-Foot Journey, but it stars Helen Mirren, so I'll buy it based on her alone... The same goes for Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun, which I can only assume continues the story of her little-explored character from Cold Mountain. No? Well, I'll still check it out... The Loft is a remake of a Swedish film and is from the same director, but it's the cast - which includes Karl Urban, James Marsden, Rhona Mitra and Eric Stonestreet - that colors me interested... I almost didn't mention it, but One Chance looks like a real charmer. It stars Craig from Doctor Who, so it already has a leg up. Yes, I know he's done other things, but he's CRAIG from DOCTOR WHO. Seriously, what else does he need to do?

Bad Company
In the latest effort to ensnare audiences through sequel fatigue, The Expendables 3 hard targets that 18-49 male demographic that isn't worn down by the cinema violence from the previous three months. It combines the classic, weathered crew from the first two movies with a younger cast that includes MMA fighters, boxers, Twilight castoffs and recovering antisemites. Without Chuck Norris cracking jokes about himself. And it will probably be as good as that sounds... Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the sequel diehard fans have been waiting for ever since 2005. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know it's coming and fewer seem very excited. Those hoping for more from the mind of Frank Miller are likely to be disappointed... The Giver has the advantage of being based on the beloved, best-selling Lois Lowry novel. It however has the disadvantage of looking like low budget, semantic crap... As Above, So Below could be scary, but has the temerity to be a found-footage horror rip-off of The Descent in the year 2014. Hollywood, the audiences are shrinking, not growing. It's time to give it up... If you want to see a movie that has a decent cast, a director who has never filmed a feature narrative, cliched dialogue and a "been there, done that" premise, then you've already seen If I Stay and even Chloe Moretz isn't reason enough to check it out... With no Pixar movie this summer, there's absolutely a dearth of quality animated films coming out in its place. Underdogs, the latest flop (just watch) from Universal Studios, takes a shot at making a movie centered around the tabletop curiosity known as Foosball. I mean, why not just make a movie about soccer if you're not going to TRY and appeal to an audience?... Speaking of which, feel-good sports movies based on a true story really are dime-a-dozen (or at least their budgets appear that way), so it's no surprise that When the Game Stands Tall follows that same suit. The genre needs something special to bring it back to the forefront of cinema, but there doesn't seem to be anything here... Jessabelle is your standard end-of-summer paranormal horror romp, complete with the standard tropes that came from everything before it. Unlike previous efforts like The Possession or even Fright Night, there just doesn't appear to be anything unique to justify an audience spending money to see this.

That's it! What are you most looking forward to over the next four months? Anything you feel I failed to mention? Any predictions for this years winners and losers? I hope you all have an excellent movie-watching summer, and I'm excited to see what the tentpoles of 2014 bring to the table! Hope to review most if not all of these for you soon!

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Most Wanted" a Deserved #2

Kermit the Frog and company are quick to admit at the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted that sequels usually aren't quite as good as the original. In song, no less. And true to form, the sequel we have in theaters now isn't quite as good or memorable as 2011's The Muppets. It's not for lack of trying, however, as Jim Henson's creations crack every joke, drop in every celebrity cameo, and break every wall - especially the fourth - they can in their attempt to follow up the force of pure nostalgia that came before it.

Director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (sans Jason Segel this go-around) return to continue the story of the Muppets, fresh off their comeback show and ready to figure out the plot of the sequel. The plot sees the gang going on a world tour to take advantage of their rediscovered popularity, but subverted by an evil talent agent (Ricky Gervais) and a criminal mastermind Kermit look-alike named Constantine, who replaces everyone's favorite amphibian and sends his predecessor to a gulag run by a Russian Tina Fey. Together, the duo plan to use the Muppets as a cover in a plot to steal the crown jewels of Great Britain. Yes, the plot sounds silly. But considering this is a Muppets movie, it makes the best kind of irreverent sense.
Yes, everybody is back, even that one you forgot existed.
Freed from the shackles of a human-centric storyline (sorry, Segel; your heart was in the right place), Muppets Most Wanted focuses all of its attention where it SHOULD, on the felt-covered puppets with personality that we've become accustomed to over the previous decades. One of the major complaints about the 2011 Muppets is that it focused too much on Walter, a human-raised Muppet whose quest to join the group was the central theme. That the story gives more story to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Walter (yes, yes, but it's okay now because now he's one of them), and Sam the Eagle as main protagonists, while relegating their human counterparts to chiefly supportive roles, is a real step up, allowing the characters to thrive on their own now that they've become re-acclimated to the spotlight. Characters sound more like themselves (no more out of tune Fozzie), and the workload is shuffled around a bit more so that the A-Listers aren't the only ones carrying the film, or spouting the best dialogue.
Now Miss Piggy isn't the only one who wants him.
The film also capitalizes on two fronts, with both its human stars and soundtrack. No, Most Wanted was never going to upgrade from Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, but they get the absolute most they could out Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey. I've never been a big Gervais fan, but as a secondary antagonist with a snarky tongue, he fits in well. Fey of course shines, her lack of serious singing chops or accent skills actually adding to her humorous performance. And Burrell is pitch perfect as a French Interpol agent whose antics with Sam the Eagle (as a patriotic CIA agent, naturally) make for some of the movie's funniest bits. And that's not even including the numerous celebrity cameos, of which special attention needs to be given to Jemaine Clement, Salma Hayek, Josh Groban, Frank Langella, Usher, Stanley Tucci and Danny Trejo as standouts. Linking all this together is the soundrack by returning composer Christophe Beck and music supervisor (and Academy Award winner) Brett McKenzie (thus completing the Flight of the Conchords loop), which isn't quite as strong as it their collaboration in 2011 but doesn't have the glaring weaknesses, either (I still have nightmares of Chris Cooper attempting to rap). "Something So Right", performed by Miss Piggy and featuring Celine Dion, is engaging and beautiful while clearly meant to be remembered at awards season, and most of the other songs are varying degrees of entertainment. The only real complaint I have is with the variation, which sees the intruder Constantine overexposed and delivering two solo performances before Kermit even gets one from the confines of his prison cell. I hate criticizing Beck's work, since he's been delivering some great soundtracks over the years, but this is one that - while still good - doesn't quite compare with his previous efforts.
Name those celebrity cameos!
One final issue is the lack of focus on a target audience. Naturally, the Muppets gained their popularity from a generation that is showing more than a few gray hairs at this point. But at it's heart, they're supposed to be childrens' entertainment, and that's where the script fails. It's not that the movie isn't funny. It's HILARIOUS. but most of what makes the movie entertaining is dependent on the audience understanding pop culture references that sail well over smaller tykes' heads. How many kids would recognize Constantine wearing the iron teeth of James Bond villain Jaws? Or Kermit trussed up like Hannibal Lecter? Or gulag prisoners performing the opening number from A Chorus Line? This isn't a problem, per se, and fits in well with the personalities the characters have previously established. And there are a few gags (especially a couple of physical ones) at which kids will laugh raucously, but they're far overshadowed by those that will appeal only to those who understand the reference.
Easily the movie's best parts.
Without the nostalgia factor that made the 2011 film such a big hit, it was doubtless that Muppets Most Wanted would be a disappointment of sorts. But that honestly means little when this much fun is happening on the big screen. The irreverent story, self-referential humor, interesting characters and fun musical numbers make for something that is destined to come to rest in your DVD collection. Yes, it fails as a true "family" film, and it doesn't quite stack up against its immediate predecessor. It crosses just enough lines to be wittily eccentric, but is a bit too reliant on pop culture references to be "funny." But for those who grew up admiring the TV show's wackiness it's a worthy followup to the newly-reestablished movie franchise, warts and all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Oscars 2013 Catchup: 'Dallas Buyers Club' & 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Well, all right all right all right.
As I mentioned almost a month ago, my work status and living conditions cut into my movie-going availability for this new year. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on January 16'th, I had only seen four of the eight nominees for Best Picture (which expanded to five when I took in Philomena). Consider the fact that last year's Oscars were the first in which I'd seen ALL of the Best Picture nominees and you can see what a precipitous fall that was. And despite needing to play catch-up on 2014 films (with movies like Ride Along and Non-Stop, I might be doing myself a favor waiting for DVD), I still want to know what made the most recent nominees tick and why they were so favored. And so I recently rented two of last year's Best Picture nominees, looking to see if either of them deserved to be spoken in the same sentence as big winners Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar for Best Actor for portraying the real-life Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, in which Woodroof goes from rodeo enthusiast and serial hellraiser to terminal patient during the giant AIDS scare of the 1980's. Faced with the impossibility of obtaining life-saving drugs in the United States, he heads south of the border to get help via non-FDA-approved medication in Mexico. With the assistance of a fellow patient and trans woman Rayon (fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto), Woodruff traffics and distributes this unapproved medication to others ostracized by the system.

Let's be honest; as much as I love Chiwetel Ejiofor, and as AMAZING as he was in 12 Years, McConaughey ABSOLUTELY put forth the best performance by a leading man in 2013. It's easy to point to his physical transformation - his Woodruff looks like he could be snapped in half by Lou Ferrigno - but its the acting side of this man which deserves the most praise. McConaughey absolutely masters the screen, and when you consider what he as already accomplished in the world of entertainment last year (Mud, HBO's True Detective, and even stealing some early scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, which we'll get to later), that this is his (and the) greatest acting achievement of 2013 is really saying something. And while he's surrounded by a good supporting cast - including solid second-stringer Jennifer Garner as the requisite fictional love interest - the only one who steals any of the naked bongo player's spotlight is Leto, whose transformation into the (also fictional) Rayon is haunting in its perfection and commanding presentation. And to address the elephant in the room, I understand peoples' opinions that a real trans woman should have played the role. Their arguments make a lot of sense, however, to that I have two responses. One is that Leto's work does absolutely nothing to marginalize, insult or make light of the trans community. The other is that this is ACTING, and if Leto was the best actor - trans or not - to portray the role, than he was the right one to be cast. I know it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but does that also mean Idris Elba, Damien Lewis, Emma Watson and Daniel-Day Lewis can only play British people? That seems a tad restrictive, and kind of unnecessary. If someone is the best fit for the role, then it should be offered to them. And when they do as good a job as Leto does, there's not that much left to complain about.
Two of 2013's best.
Okay, tangent over... The story itself is also standout, with the screenplay by relative newcomers Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack doing an excellent job developing the characters and setting the tone. Vallee really transports the viewer back to the 1980's and captures the fears, prejudices and events of the era with a camera style that feels appropriately intimate. We're SUPPOSED to fall in love with these characters, and the director does absolutely everything within his power to make that happen. The only thing preventing the film from being perfect is the editing, which more often than not is excessively jarring and takes the attention of the audience away from the well-crafted story. It also draws attention to the rare story weaknesses, putting a small chink into what could have been a flawless film.
I love me some Rayon, even if she doesn't actually exist...
But even with those light missteps, Dallas Buyers Club is easily among last year's best offerings. Even if McConaughey and Leto hadn't won their well-deserved Oscars, you should do yourself a favor and see this movie if you haven't done so already. Between the excellent acting and mind-shattering story, this movie EARNED its Best Picture nomination.

But while you can see at a glance why Dallas Buyers Club earned a nomination, it's not so easy to say, unseen, where The Wolf of Wall Street fits in. On one hand, it's from a filmmaker (Martin Scorcese) who easily sits atop many experts' Best Director lists, and has absolutely earned that distinction. It's also headlined by superb talents in Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who now has more Academy Award nominations than an embarrassingly long list of talents like Gary Oldman and Bill Murray) and even a scene-stealing McConaughey. It's even got a screenplay by a man (Terence Winter) who cut his teeth on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. On the other hand, a LOT of controversy came out of this release, from the accusations that condones greed and sexism, amongst a litany of other transgressions carried out the film's characters. It has the distinction of containing the most uses of the word "fuck" in a mainstream motion picture, and that level of f-bomb dropping usually indicates a lack of creativity, rather than a surplus. Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Jordan Belfort, this definitely wasn't going to be as cheer-worthy as any of the other nominees. Of course, that didn't matter as it still turned out to be one of the best flicks I've seen in recent years.
Little known fact: Leo doesn't crumple up and throw away money, but James Franco does.
As I mentioned before, Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort's life, most notably his glorious rise on Wall Street to his equally precipitous fall from grace, fueled by a life of drugs, infidelity, outrageous behavior and general hooliganism, which eventually got him caught by the FBI. From the word go, you get a real impression of what kind of movie you're in for. The language is crude, the pace is hectic, and personalities are outrageous to the point of lunacy. And whether or not this is consistent with the tone of the book (and many reviewers say it is), this kind of energy with the New York Stock Exchange set as the background is entertainment incarnate. The acting is also top notch. As I mentioned, McConaughey steals a few scenes, even though they are decidedly at the beginning of the picture. Kyle Chandler shows up and puts in a suitable Kyle Chandler offering as an FBI investigator. And while I'm not entirely certain how I feel about Margot Robbie's performance as the mandatory female love interest, two items seriously impress me. First is that her pitch-perfect Brooklyn accent came out of an Australian actress. Second, she plays a vastly different role than her admittedly-smaller part in romantic comedy About Time. She never steals the scenes from the leads, but holds her own opposite more experienced talent, so that at least is commendable.
But the show belongs to these boys.
But this film is definitely a boy's club, and three men in particular are the ringleaders of this circus: Scorcese, DiCaprio and Hill. The director tackles a topic that is not quite as offbeat for him as the kid-friendly Hugo but still feels a bit apart from even his New York-set titles. On the surface it's the kind of nihilistic glorification of greed and selfishness that had NYSE audiences cheering at the inappropriate bits upon its release. But in reality it's easy to see where the guy in charge draws the line. When the boys are running a successful firm and (arguably) harming no-one, or when Belfort is comically embroiled in the middle of a life-altering scandal, it's easy to be drawn in and amused by the hilarious antics of the protagonists. But then there are the jarring scenes, especially a violent one in the last act, where someone IS getting hurt and suddenly the drug trip isn't funny anymore, and you realize that all those good times and funny bits were hiding something much, MUCH darker, something Scorcese makes no effort to cover up or excuse. Much like Kathryn Bigelow refusing to villify prisoner torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Scorcese actually leaves the actual condemnation up to the audience's discretion, which is exactly what a good director does.
Well, we know his kryptonite...
Scorcese's leads help him perfectly in his narrative effort. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Belfort, but to be honest it doesn't appear much of a stretch as some of his better performances over the years. Lately, it seems like he's been playing this same kind of prideful, self-centered role in The Great GatsbyJ. Edgar and Revolutionary Road. And so I only have to assume those who cry that the actor should have beaten out McConaughey and Ejiofor for the Oscar are merely DiCaprio fanboys, as here he is not quite on their same level (Don't get me wrong, he definitely deserved the nomination). But while DiCaprio puts up predictably strong work, the one who absolutely OWNS every scene is Jonah Hill. Honestly, I can't believe this is the same guy who brought us Superbad and 21 Jump Street. He's always been funny, but here he seamlessly blends into the role in a way I never would have thought him capable. If only one person from this film could have been nominated for an Oscar, it ought to have been Hill all the way. Not only has the actor been the lucky recipient of two Academy Award nominations, but he absolutely EARNED them, as well.
Well... that's different...
Now, as much as I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, I also admit that it has its share of problems. At three hours, it's either thirty minutes too long or short (better editing in the third act would have made for a watchable extended cut). Scorcese falls into his usual trap of obvious metaphors on occasion (one particular scene comparing Belfort to the cartoon Popeye is especially groan-inducing), a habit inexcusable for such a seasoned director. And the movie DOES contain a ton of controversial material, from the objectification of women to a relative lack of punishment for the protagonists, though it should also be pointed out that the real fault for this lies with Belfort and his cronies who played out the real-life story, not the filmmakers who faithfully adapted it to the screen. In fact, Scorcese should be lauded for taking such a despicable character and such a horrible story and making them interesting and utterly compelling to a movie-going public. It's incredibly easy to admire much of what Belfort did all those years on Wall Street, even if it turned out to be more harmful than anything else. And Scorcese's project is absolutely a condemnation of the events in question, even if it doesn't seem like it all the time. It isn't made for everybody, but I still think everybody should see The Wolf of Wall Street at least once. If nothing else, it's a window into a world you may never be a part of, and a cautionary tale so that this true story is never repeated again.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oh Captain, My Captain

Robert Redford is in a Marvel film. Think about that for a second. I mentioned as a side note the other day how comic book movies were getting wide respect in the film community, thanks especially to recent movies like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and The Avengers, the last of which sits pretty with the third highest worldwide box office gross of all time. Unlike video game adaptations, the comic book genre is now attracting talented directors, top shelf actors and producers invested in putting forward their best efforts. And there's no better example of that trend - which has only come in the last few years - than Robert Redford signing on for a major role in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which came out this past weekend. This is a man with two Oscars on his mantle, and perhaps SHOULD have been nominated for another with his starring role in 2013's All is Lost. The idea that someone as renowned as Redford, who could certainly hand-pick his next role, would decide to be in a movie like this speaks volumes as to just how influential, special, and overall GOOD the genre has become.
As you can imagine, he leaps at the opportunity.
And when we see the final product, we can understand why. Winter Soldier continues the story of WWII superhero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he adapts to a modern world vastly different from the relatively simple era in which he was raised. And that's the biggest difference between this and predecessor The First Avenger: theme. Whereas Joe Johnson's 2011 blockbuster danced to the tune of an upbeat, patriotic flair, the sequel from Anthony and Joe Russo (best known for their TV work on Arrested Development and Community) delves into dark shadows and moral ambiguity, and what that means to a man who adorns himself in stars and stripes, but is employed by the covert security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a man whose "secrets have secrets." And so this story ends up feeling more like Three Days of the Condor (completing the Robert Redford connection) or The Good Shepherd than it does your standard superhero fare, while still maintaining the same universe and rules we've become accustomed to with Marvel Studios' releases in the past decade.
Not since the days of piracy have eye patches been so bad-ass.
But espionage storyline aside, The Winter Soldier is STILL a superhero flick, and so you need a colorful, over-the-top bad guy for the hero to fight, right? Well, yes and no. On the yes side is the Winter Soldier himself (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious and silent assassin who is lethally brutal and a true challenge for our hero. But on the other end of the spectrum is a shadowy organization trying to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, causing Cap to distrust all of his established allies, including Fury and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Again, this is great not just because it provides such a sharp contrast from the largely open and straightforward story of The First Avenger, but also because it provides an excellent STORY, one in which the heroes (and the audience) are kept guessing as to what could possibly happen next.
Takes the "Iron Man" workout to another level.
That's thanks to the efforts of both screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first movie) and the directors Russo. The Russos especially have a lot to prove, as they've never really done the kind of action thrill-ride that Marvel fans expect. And while their last directorial effort came at a time when Kate Hudson was still an A-list actor (the 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree), there's no rust as they do a very good job here. Like most first-time action directors, they make the stupid mistake of shooting too close to the fight scenes (thus obscuring any and all detail), but otherwise their solid camerawork keeps everything fresh and exciting. They also get excellent performances out of their actors, from veterans Redford and Jackson to young rising stars Evans, Johansson and Anthony Mackie (as a high-flying sidekick). Even with castings of the likes of MMA star Georges St-Pierre as a minor villain, there are no substantial acting weaknesses, and that can't be overstated when you once again remember that you're watching a superhero flick and not a full-on spy thriller. And for that matter the special effects are really something else, explosive and insane as are the demands of the genre, and yet on a smaller, more believable scale than those of the Iron Man and Thor franchises. They're even more impressive when you consider that relatively little CGI was used. Sure, computers were used to render the gigantic Helecarriers and a few other items of note, but the directors were quite adamant about practical effects whenever possible, and their success is readily apparent.
Okay, Michael Jordan could probably have done this, too...
There's really only one downside to this movie, and that unfortunately comes to the story itself. I said before that audiences would be kept guessing as to the plot details, and that's true. But unfortunately, the screenplay is itself not without predictability, many of the major twists getting telegraphed well in advance. Characters do pretty much what you expect, limited not by the well-known comic book origin stories, but by the constraints of the spy genre and the overall talent of the screenwriters, which is good but not GREAT. Markus and McFeely are simply never going to get any Oscars for their work, which to be fair isn't a world-ending event. But what makes the movie stand out from its brethren is how bravely it seeks to actually change the parameters set out by the previous Marvel films, and leave the next franchise movie with something completely different to work with than we the audience had imagined. It's that risk-taking that makes me excited for all future entries.
No, this isn't a new G.I. Joe picture. Why do you ask?
It might not be on the same level quality-wise with recent marvel hit The Avengers, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still easily among the best comic book movies of all time. Marvel's "Phase Two" sees the company putting out some of their best efforts, and things look to only get better as the years go on. It's so amazing to see this genre getting the kind of respect needed to thrive, both from the critics and the studios themselves. No, it's not perfect, but considering the upward quality trend we've seen from comic book adaptations in recent years, it's more than a welcome addition to movie screens. It'll appeal to the older spy fans AND the young superhero crowd, a seamless blend that needs to be seen on the big screen to be believed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Video Games Stuck in First Gear

Well, superhero films have gotten better. Why not video game movies? Wait, wait, I'm serious! I mean, many game franchises are almost interactive movies as it is, from Mass Effect, to the latest Tomb Raider, to Bioshock, to Halo, to Uncharted. With these games, playing is like penning your own screenplay AND performing the lead role at the same time. So with all these storytelling advancements in the genre, why does Hollywood continue to treat the video game adaptations like the lazy child that hasn't earned its place at the table? Aren't we far enough by now from the early days of Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon? It's tough to get excited about these movies when it's plainly obvious that the biggest studios, actors and directors don't really want anything to do with them. Instead, entire legions of fans are insulted by low budgets, casting of whomever was desperate enough to appear at the time, and even - if they're REALLY special - the execrable presence of Uwe Boll.

SOMEbody needs a booster seat!
And that casual dismissal of the genre is what doomed Need For Speed, the adaptation of the franchise street racing game of the same name, before it could pop the clutch: nobody cares about who made or is in this film, or why. The only reason anybody was interested in the project was because of the racing aspect, a genre already monopolized by the popular, peaking, and far more insane Fast & Furious series. It doesn't help that there's not much story to begin with. After spending the first act on pointless setup, Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) is released from two years in prison, immediately hatching a plan to get revenge on entrepreneur/racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who framed Tobey for another man's accidental death. Naturally, revenge involves illegal street racing. Because this is a video game adaptation.
The closest you'll ever get to a "Bro" moment, thank God.
If you can't tell by now, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the hacktastic effort that was Need For Speed's story. Getting beyond the fact that it's an adaptation of a game series that hasn't been particularly popular or memorable in years, the tale is lazily scripted (by first-time writer George Gatins; what a SHOCK they didn't get a good screenwriter on board) and doesn't have nearly the plot to hold together the disconnected racing and chase sequences. The story is a dismal blend of tropes, from Getting the Band Back Together (despite the crew in question being largely inconsequential) to the required Will-They-Won't-They romance between Tobey and Julia - an exotic car dealer who would be completely forgettable were she not played by Imogen Poots - to Poetic Justice in the revenge storyline. There's even the idea of doing all this in the name of the film's most head-shakingly annoying character (why can't anyone genuinely interesting die in these movies?) to get it all started. The story has no flow, the characters have little motivation for their actions (at least, not beyond the usual stereotypical behavior), and there doesn't even appear to be anything akin to logic in the way the plot progresses. It's by-the-numbers blandness, from the pointless opening scene to the ultimately predictable conclusion.
Oh, hey! I was just thinking "Crash & Burn!"
But even Nicolas Cage movies have some redeeming value (Drive Angry was on TV, and now I've got Cage on the brain), and the same is true here. Most notably, it's the direction of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Scott Waugh that keeps things exciting on the screen. The focus on practical effects in the action sequences allows the film to stand apart from the Fast & Furious franchise, which had been defined more by their CGI effects in the more recent entries. And Waugh shows a great improvement in his style, judging from the differences between this and Act of Valor, the military flick he co-directed with Mike McCoy. The visuals are rarely too close to the action (except where understandable), and there really is a feel of excitement seeing these vehicles race, crash and - on occasion - soar like birds. My only complaint comes from the opening race, when we literally have no clue who is driving which car. Still, I can only imagine what Waugh could accomplish were he to have a serious budget on his hands, but he definitely shows a solid aptitude for this kind of noir action thriller.
He wears his sunglasses at night, too.
And despite the characters being written as though they were designed by a third grader on acid, the acting is actually pretty solid. Yes, there are the useless filler roles and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi plays as token a black, flamboyant sidekick as he can possibly be (which is to say not all that well), the quartet of lead actors really do possess talent and take as much advantage of their screentime as they can. Dominic Cooper might be a six-dimensional actor confined to a one-dimensional stereotype, but he still brings menace to a role that wasn't so threatening as written. Michael Keaton steals the intermissions between action sequences as a cool-as-ice radio DJ pulling strings behind the scenes (and for the record, it's great to see Michael Keaton doing regular work again. He's a fairly amazing performer). Poots is strong as always, and I really can't wait for the young lady to break out as a Hollywood star, even as she seems to be stuck in these sad, third-tier roles. But Aaron Paul might be the biggest surprise. I still haven't seen Breaking Bad, but already it's easy to see why the actor has accumulated so many fans with one role. Yes, his voice is distractingly deep for a man NOTICEABLY only 5'8", and his dialogue borrows directly from "Emo 101", and again, Tobey's motivations as a protagonist are vague at best. Yet Paul commands a presence those unfamiliar with his work would NEVER expect. Simply put, he proves that despite lacking a large frame, he BELONGS front and center. He might be a little too old to enjoy a Tom Cruise-like career at this point, but if he can pull off something of a "Cruise-Lite" path from now on, he'll absolutely deserve it.
When it came to hair gel, no expense was spared...
(Oh, and for the few people who might have noticed that Dakota Johnson, the star of the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey, was in this: she still doesn't impress me. I don't know whether casting directors see something the rest of us don't, or if Johnson is the person they go to when NOBODY ELSE is interested in a role, but I'm really starting to think the latter is the more likely scenario. So, yeah, I'm really convinced 50 Shades will be a dud upon its release in 2015.)
I've got the Need! The Need for Speed! Trademark! 
But great actors and great action does not a great movie make, especially when they are hampered by the kind of script that makes David Goyer look like a certified genius. I don't know if video game adaptations will EVER get the kind of dedication and effort that superhero flicks are getting right now, but Need For Speed is one of those titles that suffers mightily from the connection to its original medium. Could it have been better? Absolutely. Could it have been great? Maybe. But make no mistake, this is a bad movie made worse by the fact that talented people were brought in to try and hide its flaws. The producers behind this movie simply didn't care whether or not it was any good, and despite some excellent visuals and a few more strengths, the evidence is still plain for anyone to see.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Just Another Y.A. Blockbuster

Thanks to the box office success of Twilight and The Hunger Games, we can pretty much expect every semi-popular young adult novel to get big screen treatment in the near future. Every studio of worth out there will spend the next few years purchasing filming rights, throwing them at audiences, and seeing what sticks. We've already seen several examples of failures ranging from I am Number Four to Beautiful Creatures, and if there's something to be said for the adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent, it's that it stuck. Not "great" or "wonderful," or even "unique."That's because the story is so derivative of other, better material that it's bound to appeal to not only fans of the novels but any similar moviegoer curious enough to check it out.

The movie follows The Descendants star Shailene Woodley as Tris (God, it even rhymes with "Katniss"), as she navigates the trials of growing up in the ruins of a futuristic, post-war Chicago. Society in this world has been divided into five factions to maintain peace, and Tris is of the age where she can decide whether to stay with her family in the kind and selfless Abnegation faction, or join one of the other four groups, which pride themselves on traits like intelligence, honesty, and peacefulness. This is complicated when the test that helps students decide to what faction they "belong" fails to work on Tris, categorizing her as "Divergent" and unlikely to fit in anywhere. Naturally, Divergents are treated as enemies of the system, and our heroine tries to hide her nature by joining up with the brave, kinda-crazy faction "Dauntless", where she falls for the hunky instructor known as "Four" (Theo James). But when Divergent-hunters come calling... you know what? Forget it, I'm just going to stop right there.
She got tattoos! So you know she has an edge now.
There is barely a single word or sentence in that previous paragraph that could not be used to describe countless titles that have come out just in the past decade (except perhaps Abnegation... learn something new every day!), and that's Divergent's biggest, BIGGEST problem. Whether it's due to the direction of Neil Burger (Limitless), the screenplay by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), or even Roth's novel itself (Or, most likely, a combination of all three), the biggest sin is that there is barely anything noteworthy or original to grasp onto and declare "Yes, this is why it's special!" For all the crap I give it, Twilight took a familiar concept (supernatural) and put a unique twist on creating its universe. The Hunger Games, while ostensibly a copy of the Japanese book/movie Battle Royale, still made itself original enough to stand alone (not to mention the casting of Jennifer Lawrence). Beautiful Creatures had an amazing and appropriate setting. I am Number Four and the Harry Potter franchise had excellent lore. Divergent DOES have an interesting premise, with the factions and the disparity between them, but barely touches on it in what amounts to a rote, romance/action story. Well, to be fair, it also has... umm... wait a moment... it has... ergh... well, no... I guess... excellent acting?
Why hast thou forsaken us, Kate?
Yes, Divergent is fortunate to have such an amazing cast assembled, because they absolutely needed the best. The characters are so one-dimensional that only someone with the chops of Ashley Judd, or Kate Winslett, or Maggie Q, or Mekhi Phifer, or Ray Stevenson could make it work. When Miles Teller shows up as the generic bully, he actually brings some gravitas to the role. When Tony Goldwyn appears on screen, he isn't just a blank slate as Tris' father, but actually shows some magnetism, through his voice if not in his poorly-written words (one character ironically wonders why people keep asking her the same question; it's because of the inept dialogue, dear). And it's a good thing Shailene Woodley and Theo James are such excellent performers; Woodley plays the worst kind of female heroine, whose actions are entirely based on what is done to her and not on any driving force behind her vanilla temperament; while James' character development begins and ends with "brooding hottie". And yet, both actors make the material work through sheer force of personality. The romance between them, while basic, predictable and cliched, ends up working by virtue of their great chemistry, and they do the absolute most they can with the material. If it wasn't for that, this wouldn't much of a film. Yes, there are a few legitimate duds in Jai Courtney and Zoe Kravitz (sheez, Divergent even has a Kravitz in the cast), but even they don't detract from the story too much when all is said and done.
Where Hollywood thinks women should be: out of sight and silent.
But the acting can't fully save a story that borrows from literally every genre and trope in existence, from The Matrix (one person throwing a system out of whack), to Logan's Run ("I'm hiding my secret from the ruling government!") to Starship Troopers ("Let's get tattoos!"). Seriously, if the villains were as smart as they are supposed to be, they'd have realized that their plot to take over the city has been done a million times before, and BETTER. It's almost as if Roth cobbled together this tale from all the pop culture references and Young Adult novels she had accumulated in her young life, with nary an original thought or idea. To be fair, that might be over-simplifying things a bit; I have yet to read the book, so I can't say how many of Divergent's problems stem from her writing and how much from the adaptation process itself. But if she had ONE original thought when she compiled her novel, it never make its way to the big screen. Even the faction system is not a truly original concept, and that's the closest Divergent ever gets to declaring its independence from standard YA fare. The story is so reliant on coincidence - from Maggie Q's first appearance to just about EVERY major twist and turn - that it defies all expectation for the audience to accept the plot as it develops. And I'd even go so far as to say that wouldn't necessarily a BAD thing, as long as the story itself is told competently and the actors do a good job with the material. In fact, Burger is a pretty good, if not great, director, especially suited to this type of non-risky script, as he proved in 2011's Limitless. Even though the script is the kind of hackery that would demand multiple rewrites if it not for the film's brand recognition, Divergent turns into a competent, if not standout, filmmaking product.
Get it? It's "Red pill, Blue pill!"
Divergent tries to push a moral of anti-conformity and self-identification, but ironically does it in the most conformist fashion possible, stealing from everything that has come before and not standing out even remotely on its way to box office success. Naturally, every YA movie adaptation wants to see the same kind of success as The Hunger Games, but Divergent could only WISH that it was as interesting, compelling and urgent as the movie whose success it would wish to emulate. It's definitely a BAD movie, and yet also a WELL-MADE bad movie that overcomes many of its narrative obstacles through heart and sheer force of will. If only the filmmakers had taken more risks, as the movie does nothing to differentiate itself from the bland, predictable tropes and cliches that have never been so transparently on display as they are here. If it had attempted to deviate from the terrifyingly dull norm it had set for itself, it might have turned into something great. As it stands, Divergent is just okay, and I think we'll see subsequent sequels Insurgent and Allegiant justifiably fall off in audiences as a result. Teen girls (and anyone who identifies with teen girls) will watch and enjoy anyway, but anyone else can steer clear.