Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Double Feature: Sports Flick Drama

Sports movies are something special. Sports movies based on a true story are even more so. But sports movies based on a true story and produced by Walt Disney Studios?


Today we're going to look at two sports flicks that have come out recently that aren't exactly the second coming of Moneyball. The first, Draft Day, is a fictional behind-the-scenes look of an NFL team - in this case, the hard-losing Cleveland Browns - whose General Manager, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) gets the opportunity to trade for the #1 pick in the draft, just hours before one of the most celebrated sporting events in the United States goes live. He's under pressure from the owner (Frank Langella), his former championship-winning coach (Dennis Leary), and even his mother (Ellen Burstyn) to make a splash for a team and a city that have been suffering an epic Super Bowl drought. It's a lot of pressure on one man, who only wants the chance to build a team of his own and see what can be done.
"You can't let them in here! They'll... they'll see the big board!"
It's not everyday you see the National Football League have an actual presence in a movie - usually, unless the movie in question is a biopic, NFL team names are either replaced by fictional fill-ins or mentioned in passing - but they're all over Draft Day, along with a healthy presence from ESPN for good measure. While on the surface that might seem like a raw, artificial deal, this is a film in which the combination of Hollywood and the showmanship of the NFL really works. Thanks to a surprisingly deft script (courtesy of newcomers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman), it's got the strengths of both sides, with an excellent, stylized, expertly-edited narration that keeps you guessing as to the final outcome, and few of the weaknesses you might expect to come from that coupling.
Hey, I didn't know the Browns were interested in drafting Jackie Robinson.
Despite the strength in presentation, does Draft Day have its faults? Well, sure, the characters are all kinds of cliches, the subplot of the office romance between Weaver and Jennifer Garner's otherwise-cool "female sports executive" (because a woman can't be in a sports movie unless she's the love interest, mother or daughter) is forced, a bit unsatisfying, and absolutely a pandering to a potential female audience, and when you cast rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in a major role, need I say more? But under the expert direction of Ivan Reitman (yeah, I forgot the director of Ghostbusters was here) the actors mostly put in excellent efforts, the characters are at certainly memorable, whether it's Leary's gruff antagonistic Head Coach or Chadwick Boseman as a flamboyant, energetic potential draftee. Reitman is definitely a master storyteller, as this had all the potential to be an artificial-feeling romanticization of the real NFL. It still goes a little over the top, but Draft Day is a surprisingly fun football movie, and if you can still see this in the theater, you could do a whole lot worse.

And by "a whole lot worse," I'm obviously referring to Million Dollar Arm, which had all the potential in the world as a sports tale based on a true story, before Disney got its hooks in it. On the surface, the tale of a down-on-his-luck sports agent (John Hamm) who travels to India to recruit Cricket players as potential Major League baseball players seems like JUST the idea a clever storyteller brings to the big screen. In practice... well, if you were offended by the whitewashing and "white savior" controversy that was The Help, then you haven't seen anything until you see White People Problems: The Sports Flick.

As far as acting goes, this movie has a ton of talent. Hamm transitions smoothly from TV, and while he's certainly helped by his square jaw and gruff demeanor, he shows a range that may surprise you if you havent' yet gotten around to watching Mad Men. He's also surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including The Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal as the two young athletes the agent recruits, Lake Bell as his neighbor/love interest, and Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi in smaller roles. Hindi star Pitobash steals many a scene as a young baseball fanatic, and while Alan Arkin tends to play the exact same character these days, you can't discount his presence or entertainment value whenever he's on the screen. In all, gun-for-hire director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) gets excellent performances from his talented team. Unfortunately, that's where this movie's upside just about dries up.
I was feeling like Arkin when I saw this, too.
But while the story of these two young men and their introduction to the sport of baseball is interesting and occasionally inspirational, we really don't learn all that much about newfound pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. The script paints them as coming from typically poor settings, and even if the representation of their upbringing is accurate, it doesn't make up for characters that are shallowly written, despite the charm that Sharma and Mittal bring to the roles. Instead, the story focuses all its attention on Hamm's J.B. Bernstein, combining a typical fish-out-of-water story with  money problems and a "will-they-won't-they" love story with Lake Bell's polar opposite neighbor (again, even if the events are remotely accurate, why does it all come off as classic Hollywood schlock?). As good as Hamm is, he really ought to have been a supporting character in this tale, but for the Disnification by the film's financiers.
The Daily Show auditions ran a little late...
Million Dollar Arm has a slew of smaller problems, as well. The dialogue is full of genre cliches and familiar arguments. Worse, the arguments presented are forced and don't really make any sense from a logical perspective. For instance, many characters throw down in arguments with Bernstein in terms of his treatment of the players, even though the script makes things perfectly clear that in certain explicit situations he has no power over the topic in question, making the idea of his "redemption" (from asshole to nice guy) feel ill-conceived and baseless. And along those same lines, the redemption subplot is poorly implemented, and whether the numerous red herrings that are his out-of-nowhere character turns are due to poor writing or atrocious editing is pointless to ruminate on, as either way still kills much of the story's momentum. The film even wastes the musical talents of Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman, whose unique style is wiped away to provide a simple, rote soundtrack completely void of character or identity.
"Urge to kill... rising..."
And despite that, I can't really call Million Dollar Arm a BAD movie. It accomplished exactly what it set out to do, as mistaken as the goals it postulated were. It's occasionally fun, inspirational and interesting. It's also brainless, with the focus in the completely wrong place. Not to mention that since this is a Disney movie, they avoid pointing out any serious negative about the story (like the fact that one of these young men has already been released by his major league baseball club, while the other has suffered a string of injuries and may never pitch in the majors). I guess Disney figured that nobody would want to see such a strong cultural tale told from the point of view of someone who WASN'T an American, but since nobody bothered to see this, either, I guess that concept backfired on them anyway. This MIGHT be worth a DVD rental sometime in the future, as there's definitely some interesting stuff to glean from the story's mere existence. But when compared to Draft Day, or ANY decent sports movie for that matter, Million Dollar Arm comes up a bit lame.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Wrath of Godzilla

There's probably no better example of dumb Hollywood trend-following than the 1998 Roland Emmerich blockbuster Godzilla, an American adaptation of the popular Japanese monster movie series of the same name. While it was successful, Emmerich's re-imagining wasn't remembered fondly by those who sat through it. Newcomers were turned off by a stupid plot, annoying characters, and special effects that look dated compared to movies ten years older than itself. Established Godzilla fans were spurned by drastic redesigns of the creature itself, which ended up looking like a cheap knockoff of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. In the end, it was a movie that pleased absolutely no-one, and it would be sixteen years before the famous city-destroying lizard would ever get back to the big screen, this time with Monsters director Gareth Edwards at the helm.
That's no reef.
This new Godzilla is a very human-centric story as the world is suddenly and disastrously reintroduced to city-sized monsters with our smaller, slightly crunchy heroes left to scurry around avoiding being stepped on. As an American soldier traveling to Japan to bail his estranged father (Bryan Cranston) out of jail, Aaron Taylor-Johnson just wants to get things taken care of and return to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son at his California home. Unfortunately, this trip coincides with the re-emergence of an ancient monster that starts destroying cities and absorbing nuclear power sources all over the Pacific. Soon both soldiers and monster are converging on San Francisco, as the military struggles to contain the destruction and save the lives of all of the world's citizens in the process.
Duct tape is all the rage with crazy people in Japan.
Oh, the problems Godzilla has. The biggest is the fact that the title character has little screen time to speak of. While we get glimpses of the monster throughout the film - and his origins are merely glossed over, by the way - we never really get a good, long look at him until the end of the final act. It's not as though Godzilla doesn't have the opportunity to wreak havoc, as he appears numerous times in scenes setting up grand spectacles, only for the scenes to abruptly cut to either insignificant conversations between insignificant characters about what to do OR to the same scene but immediately after the off-screen carnage that Godzilla fans paid money to see in action. Obviously this was due to one of two things; either it was a budget decision, because that CGI LOOKS extremely expensive to produce (even if 3D added little); or it was a conscious decision to focus more attention on the human characters witnessing this crisis.
Right... what was your purpose here, again?
And we know that's a story angle that Edwards can do; his Monsters was very character-focused, even while the audience seemed to waiting on the edge of their seat for a GLIMPSE of anything alien. There are two reasons why - despite it being a brave idea - Edwards' effort doesn't work here. One is that the movie is called Godzilla, and people did not pay $8 (or more) for their tickets to watch a bunch of humans talking about all the action - and far more engaging action, mind you - taking place off-screen. Second, the characters here are one-note cliches from the annals of monster movies past. Cranston - while amazing - is your standard man driven into obsession by tragedy only to be proven right about the existence of giant monsters in our world. Olsen - while amazing - is your standard wife/mother/love interest whose existence in the film is purely to be an object for our hero to return to. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins - while amazing - are figureheads of a secret society who unsuccessfully tried to keep these giant creatures a secret, and take on a John Hammond-esque desire to not interfere and let nature take its course. David Strathairn - while amazing - is a typical military leader who doesn't hesitate to abdicate nuclear force against what he sees as a threat. And Taylor-Johnson - while struggling to wipe clean his British accent - is the MacGuffin, an American soldier with an unbelievably convenient skill set who gets caught up in trying to take down the monster before it can destroy his home. He also happens to be the luckiest man alive, as proven by the impossibility of the situations he survives. Though the acting is solid, there's not enough development here to make up for the lack of dedicated monster action we get.
Ooh, do we see him now? Wait, wait... no...
So after all that, my opinion on Godzilla must be clear... It's absolutely awesome.

Don't get me wrong, this is a movie with some clear, easily recognizable flaws. Edwards and his filmmakers take WAY too long focusing on things other than the film's main character, and the script - credited to newcomer Max Borenstein but with contributions from mediocre established writers David Callaham (Doom), David Goyer (Blade: Trinity), Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3) and Frank Darabont (okay, he's actually quite good) - just doesn't do this story justice. The actions of the humans are inconsequential (or just stupid), their motivations forced and derivative, and the characters themselves mere caricatures of established cliches.
Amazingly, you can understand almost everything Watanabe says this time around.
But while the film struggles narratively, it still has excellent action, amazing special effects, and it uses its title monster effectively when we finally DO see him let loose. Whether or not you're a fan of the classic Japanese movie creature, seeing him smash buildings or fight other giant MUTOs (yes, they look like derivatives of the Cloverfield monster, but that design was awesome so I'll forgive it) gives a definite feeling of awe and excitement, much like last Summer's similar epic Pacific Rim. Better, Edwards knows to treat Godzilla as a heroic figure, as opposed to Emmerich's more neutral stance in 1998. Sure, he directly causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (off-screen, naturally), but at the end of the day this is a monster you're still rooting for, if only because Hollywood got him right. Simply put, the best parts of Godzilla give you instant happiness, despite whatever else it does wrong. You might mentally tick off all the issues that this film has as you watch it on the big screen, but as the closing credits roll you'll find yourself putting down your 3D glasses, glancing at the screen, and uttering:
"Please, sir, I want some more."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Like Some Good Neighbors...

It's fair to say that just a few years ago, R-rated comedies kinda sucked. Sure, there were a few standouts, from Tropic Thunder to Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, but for a while R-rated comedies were synonymous with unimaginative, gross-out humor and uber-offensive stereotypes. The drought was so great that people overrated The Hangover to so hilarious degree that it spawned two sequels that didn't feel the need to try. That trend of un-inspriation took a sharp upward turn in 2012, when Ted and 21 Jump Street raised the bar by being clever and intelligent, while also keeping the silliness and gross-out humor that has become a staple of the genre. Was everything adult comedy oriented great? God no, not by a long shot, but for the first time in seemingly forever there was reason to actually look forward to R-rated comedies again. And Neighbors is definitely another step along that same direction.
And yet, not quite Rogen's usual fare.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Neighbors stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as newly-minted parents and homeowners Mac and Kelly Radner, whose life is changing fast and complexly enough without the arrival of a fraternity in the house next door. Though both sides attempt to be amicable, a misunderstanding between the party-hardy frat and the sleep-deprived family ignites a war between their houses, as each side thrives to make their neighbor's life a living hell.
So yeah, it's got something for the ladies.
The reason Neighbors is so good is for the two reasons I often state as necessary for the making of a quality motion picture, but often lacking in R-rated comedies: plot and character. While presented as a somewhat simple clash of ideologies - adults vs. college kids - the depth of the conflict between the two parties is presented in a way that is balanced, intelligent and really quite interesting. It would be so easy to portray the fraternity (represented primarily by Zac Efron and Dave Franco) as so annoying that they MUST be the bad guys, or the Radners as SO out of touch with their younger days that they blow things out of proportion. But Stoller - with a screenplay by relative newcomers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien - chooses not to go that route, instead giving both sides equal reason to both respect and aggravate the other. Yes, the frat boys are too loud, but they're also young people afraid of what will come after college, wanting to make their marks in life. And perhaps Mac and Kelly are overreacting a bit, but they're worried that parenthood means that their young lives are completely over. This wealth of personality makes these people, their motivations and the story very real to the audience. Yeah, there are some one-note characters in the bunch, but they're mainly filler to build up some of the laughs, and most of them work fine.
Wow, they really raided their closet for those.
Now, granted, good characters and a good story can actually BACKFIRE when the execution is shoddy, and Stoller should know all about this: his 2012 flop The Five-Year Engagement was a host of great ideas bogged down by poor pacing and direction. Fortunately, Stoller seems to have learned his lesson this time around, as Neighbors knows it's a fast-paced romp and never slows itself down to think too much about what it's doing, while still maintaining its surprisingly strong narrative. Sadly, its humor is merely second-rate. The dialogue is SMART, the antics are humorous, and the physical humor is well-timed. And yet, it never quite musters the courage to deliver on the hilarity it promises. It's sad, because Rogen is funnier than I've seen him in years, Byrne shocks - in a good way - with a performance that goes totally against her dramatic background, and Efron and Franco deliver equal portions of excellence in their roles as fraternity heads. Efron especially impresses - and not just due to his natural six-pack abs - quite possibly making 2014 the year he finally broke out in Hollywood.
I'm... not sure what to do with this...
If only second rate humor was the least of Neighbors' problems, though to be honest the list of negatives is not that long. Some of them are basic plot points - with this much partying, how are the Radners the only people complaining? - and others the misuse of certain actors - sure, Christopher Mintz-Plasse isn't the greatest ever, but all he gets is a glorified, unimportant cameo? - but most of those can be brushed aside as minor complaints. Slightly worse is the soundtrack, which includes no stand-outs, sounding like they were taken from the local Top 40 dance mixes at the time of filming. For a movie with so much heavy parting, a great soundtrack might have improved things greatly. Now, the presence of Ike Barenholtz and Carla Gallo as Mac and Kelly's divorced best friends presents a real problem. Their characters are as one-noted as many of the others, which wouldn't be a problem if they only played a small part in the movie. Unfortunately, the pair are jammed into the main story for little to no reason, chewing up precious screen-time and pumping out pure bile whenever they grace the screen. Their scenes are largely unnecessary, and ought to really have been edited out.
Yes, they're judging you.
Thankfully, that pair doesn't stop Neighbors from being a good movie; it merely stops it from being a great one. It's not everyday that a smart, clever, adult-oriented romp hits the big screen in such a successful way as this one has, and its success already at the box office means many folk already seem to agree. Should you see it? Well, while it's not on the same level as Ted or 21 Jump Street, if you're feeling the hankering for an R-rated smorgasbord of unfiltered, outrageous and absolutely juvenile laughs, then this is definitely worth your time. I promise you will be surprised.

Friday, May 16, 2014

'47 Ronin': The Untriumphant Return of Keanu Reeves

You know whom we haven't heard from in a while? Keanu Reeves.

Or more accurately, he's been trying to get in touch, and we keep hiding behind the furniture with the shades drawn until he goes away. How did this come to happen? Twenty-five years ago, we were more than happy to hang out with stoner Keanu when he was just trying to get "Wild Stallyns", the best rock band of all time, off the ground. Then there was that one time he worked with Patrick Swayze and turned into a Hollywood icon, but it was still cool. He remained grounded, even stretching himself creatively with some work based on classic literature from Bram Stoker and William Shakespeare, while speedily becoming known as a bit of an action star as well. Then he did a little movie for a pair of sibling directors that changed cinema as we know it. Granted, he also did the sequels, and that's arguably why we don't pay too much attention to Keanu these days.
The best English speaker here is the horse on the right.
But should we? I mean, he's not the greatest actor out there. There's no getting around it. But his being punished for the sins of a couple of overreaching directors doesn't seem a good enough reason for 47 Ronin to have become the failure it did. When it was released on a crowded Christmas weekend this past December, the oft-delayed directorial debut of Carl Rinsch had already seen its share of delays, from rewrites to exorbitant special effects to 3D conversion. But its story - a loose adaptation of the Japanese story known as Chushingura with the addition of fantasy elements - really isn't all that bad. What most people had a problem with - if they bothered to acknowledge the film at all - was the primary focus on Reeves as the "outsider" adopted into Japanese society, upon whom the Ronin are forced to put all their faith in for them to succeed in avenging their slain master. All praise the one white guy!
Group photo!!
And yeah, I can see why that would be seen as a problem. This isn't like The Last Samurai or Shogun, which were absolutely an outsider's visions of feudal Japan. 47 Ronin is based on traditional Japanese folklore and told from their culture's perspective, and so slapping an American hero (even one touted as being of mixed blood) on the front of that poster can leave a poor taste in peoples' mouths. But on the other hand, this release never pretends to be anything other than a fantastical, fictional variation on that tale, and from that perspective, as a movie it kind of works. It's not perfect, but yeah, this is absolutely a title worthy of a rental.
She's pretty, so naturally her character is tragic. Or she's a pop singer. Or both.
Bad stuff out of the way first: language. Obviously this was a movie primarily intended for American audiences, but having the actors perform in English was simply a mistake, even if I could write it off as simple literary replacement (in real life, they're speaking completely in Japanese, but we see it in English anyway). This works against the film in two ways; one, much of the dialogue can be irrevocably lost due to a simple lack of inflection; second, most of the cast doesn't really have a grasp on the language they're supposed to be speaking, with the few exceptions being those who have performed in American cinema before (Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi). I know it's not popular thinking, but this is a film that would have benefited from subtitles, as it would have allowed for not only more expressive actors, but more understandable ones, as well.
"So, sign here for my 401k, right?"
There's also a distinct lack of characterization when it comes to the Ronin, as well, though it's not as bad as you might think. Yes, Keanu's Kai gets top billing, and he's the cliched MacGuffin without which there would be no central plot. He does do a good job, but to be fair that's mainly because Kai is written as so fitting to his usual onscreen persona that it would have been impossible for him to screw up. But Oishi, the band's de facto leader (Sanada), has a whole arc, and despite his name being below Keanu's on the movie posters, he's arguably the film's main - and most sympathetic - character. However, it does go downhill from there. Kou Shibasaki is a standard damsel in distress, waiting for Kai to rescue her from her fate. Kikuchi's enigmatic witch is a major plus, but she really doesn't get much screen time to work. Still, she's a huge step up from Asano, who apparently learned to mug for the camera and chew scenery during his recent Hollywood sojourn. The rest of the characters have little to no personality, playing one-note parts whose names you'll never remember and whose impact on the story are negligible at best.
There's just something... intriguing... about Rinko Kikuchi... and not just her name.
But the biggest character in the film is by far the most evocative, and that's the imagery of fantastical, feudal Japan. Say what you will about Rinsch's work as director (and I though he did a solid job for the most part), but he oversaw a tremendous undertaking that included some of the most gorgeous special effects to hit screens since The Return of the King. The vistas are breathtaking. The camerawork is simply fantastic. The CGI environments are stellar. And the creature effects - with the exception of the quivering "Tengu" monks, which were predestined to look stupid - are far better than the professional standard that's been set of late. Yes, the actual mythology of this setting is surprisingly stark, with no explanations made as to how these monsters, witches and magic swords could possibly exist. But with the story moving at such a brisk pace, there's little time to dwell on what 47 Ronin doesn't do and you can focus on how good it looks while playing to its strengths.
He doesn't know Kung Fu. But he does have a killer sword!
Keanu might be passe these days (his other 2013 film Man of Tai Chi, might also find its way here soon), but 47 Ronin definitely didn't deserve to go down as the biggest box office bomb of all time (not counting for inflation). While certainly flawed, it succeeds as a simple popcorn actioneer that also treats its legendary subject matter with more honor than you might originally have thought. In fact, it feels so reminiscent of classic samurai films, both fantasy and traditional, that its appeal to fans of the genre is readily apparent. Should you rent it? Weak moments aside, there's plenty to enjoy in the two hours it will take to watch. And in the best case scenario, you might discover something you wish you had seen on the big screen when you had the chance.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Somewhere Alongside the Moonrise: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I still think Moonrise Kingdom should have been nominated for Best Picture.

Wes Anderson's 2012 nostalgic comedy was one of many casualties that Oscar season, which also saw Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck (whose Argo took Best Picture) miss out on Best Director nominations. That year was... kind of a mess. It's almost as if people are ignoring little gems like this while overindulging on and celebrating David O. Russell and his admittedly good - but by no means groundbreaking or original - fare. Not that Anderson, the Texan director whose movies seem to run on whimsy and charm, is lacking in public attention. Though he's had a few bombs, Anderson has reached that point in his career where not only does the mere mention of his name elicit squeals of glee from fanboys and fangirls, but his films have also proven good, quirky and unique enough to draw in more mainstream audiences. And Moonrise Kingdom is one of his most inclusive, with all the nuttiness of Rushmore but more approachable at the same time.
Ralph Fiennes: one less great actor who hasn't worked with Anderson.
So can The Grand Budapest Hotel capitalize on that and become Wes Anderson's greatest work yet? Well, yes and no. Budapest is arguably one of Anderson's most artistic efforts, as his distinct style is all over the German locations and sets in which the film was shot. Whether it's opulently-colored models, creative camera techniques or unique character models, Anderson is at his glee-inducing best. His story of a legendary hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) falsely accused of murder and on the run from the law with his loyal lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) would make for a great thriller, if the screenplay (also written by Anderson) wasn't content to throw every humorous anecdote and amusing situation along the way to lighten the mood. The fact that Fiennes can talk about sleeping with older women in the same nonchalant tone in which he tells of the violent passing of a fellow prison escapee proves that he belongs in this director's pantheon of recurring performers, many of whom make their presences known.
I even liked Jude Law in this! Truly this Anderson is sacred!
And it's a great cast that the director has assembled here. Though there are a few returning actors that could have done more (no more than a small cameo for Bill Murray?), The Grand Budapest Hotel is surprisingly built upon its new talent, with the Anderson regulars filling out the smaller support roles. Fortunately, that new talent is headlined by Fiennes, who is simply put on of the best actors working today. Revolori also impresses, and the two make for an excellent pair, as the younger actor's innocent and eminently loyal sidekick plays beautifully against Fiennes' haughty, confident and charismatic leading man. And the cast is littered with excellence, Saoirse Ronan as Zero's dutiful but independent fiance to Tilda Swinton as a wealthy hotel patron, to Adrien Brody as her inheritance-seeking son to Willem DaFoe as his thinly-veiled violent sociopath of a lackey. Returning actors Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum also find their marks as a police inspector and a by-the-book lawyer, respectively.
No, really, there's a funny story in here.
Budapest also carries an extra dose of the zaniness that makes Wes Anderson more than just a standard filmmaker, from his use of four distinct narrators (F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, and yes, I'm including the girl with the book at the beginning) to the Mexico-shaped birthmark on one character's face to having a man named "Monsieur Chuck" (Owen Wilson) to the beautiful cakes designed so that the prison would not want to disturb them looking for concealed escape tools. The atmosphere that the director creates never feels stale, and while there are times that a scene feels a tad overlong, it's a rare occurrence, and usually is made up for by the kind of irreverent humor and witty dialogue that feels reminiscent of the golden age of spoken comedy.
That's a lot of flattened cakes.
Unfortunately, The Grand Budapest Hotel is SO MUCH like a Wes Anderson comedy that.... it never really takes that next step you might have been expecting after the magic that was Moonrise Kingdom. Much like how Django Unchained was Tarantino's sideways step from Inglorious Basterds, Budapest just doesn't feel that different from Moonrise, not in locale or story (which are obviously differing) but in tone and pacing. The humor is the same, and the character archetypes just FEEL as though they've got Anderson's hands all over them. Keep in mind, that's not a bad thing. I mentioned before how the story would make for a great thriller, and another director would have done just that. By subverting that story and combining it with his style of moviemaking, however, Anderson makes something undeniably, indelibly his. And like the excellent Django, that identifiabe voice is what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel the wonderful experience that it is.
Nope, nothing suspicious going on here!
And while that means that The Grand Budapest Hotel ultimately appeals a little more to diehard Anderson fans than the average moviegoing audience, it's still one of the best movies released so far in 2014. You never know where the story will go next, and it makes for an excellent quirky, lo-fi option if you're already tired out from the big-budget tentpoles films that are starting to make their way into theaters. If you haven't already gone out of your way to see this, now is the best time to make it happen. Just don't expect anything truly groundbreaking - by Anderson's standards, anyway - and you'll enjoy your time at the movies very, very much.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Not So Amazing

People don't like to think about it, but the Spider-Man franchise NEEDED that reboot. After Sam Raimi's disastrous 2007 finale to his to-that-point beloved trilogy, Sony needed to get people excited about the franchise again, and reminders of "Emo Peter Parker" were not going to work. And so while the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was not universally loved for rehashing the character's origin story, it WAS a well-crafted, superbly-performed summer blockbuster that succeeded in washing away the stink of Raimi's failure. The question now was whether the first sequel in this reborn series could maintain that momentum, especially with at least two sequels and two spin-off films planned for the future. It's a lot to place in the lap of director Marc Webb, whose only experience before 2012 was the indie sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer. Could an inexperienced filmmaker with one monster hit under his belt be counted on for another slam dunk? If you read the title for this review, you have probably already guessed that no, he did not.
Suit up!
To be fair, not everything that is wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is Webb's fault. In continuing the story of Andrew Garfield's maturing superhero and his relationships with those closest to him, there were bound to be hiccups along the way. The sequel sees our hero during the summer after his graduation from high school, unsure how to pursue romantic interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) without putting her in danger, as he has made a name for himself cleaning up the streets of New York City. But he's also dealing with the fallout of mega-company Oscorp, whose CEO has just passed away, leaving son (and Spidey's childhood friend) Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) in charge of the corporation, and also accidentally birthing supervillain Electro (Jamie Foxx), whose obsession with the superhero turns deadly. On top of that, there are dozens of additional characters, plot threads, foreshadowing and aimless cameos (Hi, Paul Giamatti! Bye, Chris Cooper!) that keep the plot rumbling forward. And if you used that last sentence to sum up what was wrong with this film, you would be pretty spot on.
The romance!
You see, Sony - who owns the film rights to the character of Spider-Man - is trying desperately to compete with the "cinematic universes" which have become trendy among those studios out there powerful enough to be in the business, with Disney (The Avengers), Fox (The X-Men and Fantastic Four) and Warner Brothers (The Justice League) banking on those continuous, interconnected stories to fuel their respective franchises for years, if not decades, to come. Sony however has less to work with; they own the rights to one hero, one or two anti-heroes and a slew of imaginative villains. While Spider-Man is already a cash cow for them, they would love to make a bundle off of Venom, Sinister Six and The Black Cat if it was at all possible. And The Amazing Spider-Man 2 definitely drops breadcrumbs in those diverging paths, setting up not only future sequels, but what they hope will become new franchises. But that's also what holds this sequel back, as the story itself suffers from a serious lack of focus due to all the clues that are cool on the surface, but detract from the primary plot.
The bro-mance!
So how does a film franchise transform from a refined storyteller to the rambling drunk down at your local pub? My money is on screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, who replaced the first movie's James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. Kurtzman and Orci are certainly talented scribes, however their projects seem to swing the divide between fun and exciting (the recent Star Trek films, TV show Sleepy Hollow) and terrible (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with alarming regularity, and with little middle ground. Their strengths (and presumably Pinkner's, from working with them on Fringe) tend to be bombastic, action-filled sequences fitted around frenetic bursts of character development. While that in itself is fine, their style feels woefully inadequate to properly represent Peter Parker, a character who is not so much about macho action (though he's no slouch) as he is about inner turmoil and conflict. I hate comparing a sequel to the first movie, but Webb and his previous screenwriters had an EXCELLENT understanding of what made their characters tick, while here the new team seems more interested in fueling new franchises than allowing their movie to stand all on its own. The Peter/Gwen romance is hastily constructed, poorly written and painfully trite. The Harry Osborne character - while excellently acted by DeHaan - feels tacked on and undeveloped, not given enough time for non-comic fans to ascertain his motivations. There are WAY too many secondary characters with too many shallow, unfulfilled storylines, and Webb isn't even allowed to address the dangling threads he left open in the FIRST movie, such as the hunt for Uncle Ben's killer. But worst might be the way the film treats Jamie Foxx's villain, whose origins and rationale are about as cliched as comic book bad guys get. For a the sequel to a film that helped usher in a new age of superhero flicks, this followup is definitely a bit too safe and familiar for fans to rally behind.
No, wait, forget the bro-mance...
All this isn't Webb's fault, though he's hardly free from blame. His actors all acquit themselves nicely - which in addition to the ones I've already named also include Sally Field, Colm Fiore, Felicity Jones and Marton Csokas - lending to the fact that Webb is indeed an actor's director. Standing out, Garfield and Stone share some excellent chemistry, and even Garfield and DeHaan feel like genuine old buddies, despite the failings of the screenplay. And the action-packed fight scenes are well-done, though the special effects accompanying them don't look quite as impressive as they did two years ago. The 3D is especially disappointing - even by the low standards I've come to set - so I definitely don't recommend paying the extra cost to view it that way. But what Webb does most wrong is wilt under pressure, both from his corporate overseers (who doubtlessly demanded all the script's added nonsense) and from those who were disappointed in his work the last time out. While The Amazing Spider-Man carved its own image into the big screen, the sequel feels reminiscent and even derivative of Raimi's popular entries, from the bright colors to the cartoonish characterizations, diverting sharply from what we've seen before. And then he can't even get the pacing down, as whole storylines hinted at in the trailer are never even mentioned, no doubt edited out in a mad dash to meet deadlines and satisfy executives.
Explosions are much brighter this time around.
There are moments in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that live up to the pedigree that the first film afforded, but those are sadly few and far between. I'll give Webb some credit: this movie had lofty goals in mind, from its role as the catalyst to Sony's new cinematic universe to its adherence to the important Spidey stories fans grew up with. This man pulled his cast and crew together and collectively they did their best to turn a script with zero focus into something both entertaining and emotional. That they got as close as they did is primarily due to the talent in the director's chair. However, this is a spectacle that tries too hard to do too much and falls far short of even modest expectations, becoming easily the most disappointing superhero flick of the past decade. Whether this puts a hiccup in Sony's future plans of course cannot be known, but hopefully the next Spider-Man entry will be a step back up for a studio with their ambitions, because if The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is not a major step up from this mess, the future of the franchise is in serious trouble.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Stay Crappy, Ron Burgundy

At the height of Will Ferrell's movie career, the former Saturday Night Star was more unavoidable than Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade combined. Arguably his magnum opus was the 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy which, despite being a minor hit at best, is probably the most fondly remembered of his comedic works. So when Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was announced last year, it was met by fans of the original with great hope for a continuing franchise. Sadly, while it managed to accrue decent reviews and a better box office draw, its release during the uber-crowded holiday season caused it to fly under more than a few radars, mine included. The result was a so-so theatrical run that was almost completely forgotten by most. So now that a little time has passed, does this sequel stack up to the fun and quotable- and at times, brilliant - modern classic?
Proof that jheri curls are just plain wrong
The film takes place several years after the conclusion of the first Anchorman, with renowned newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) being fired due to his sloppy work. After sinking into drink and depression and separating from his much more successful wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), Ron is recruited to anchor an all-new, 24-hour news channel. Alongside his loyal news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner), Ron wants to make the most of his second chance, though he is handicapped by a graveyard shift timeslot, a smug, superior rival in prime-time anchorman Jack Lime (James Marsden) and learning to operate under the heel of black, female studio chief Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). In overcoming those obstacles, Ron Burgundy succeeds in ways nobody could fathom and changes the way people watch the news for all time.
I'd say Old vs. New, but James Marsden is actually 40.
Well, there's no nice way to say this: here the sequel is vastly inferior to the original. It's not that Anchorman 2 doesn't have its moments, or isn't particularly funny when it wants to be. It's genuinely great seeing the four leads back again, their camaraderie just as fresh and entertaining as it was nine years prior. Returning director Adam McKay gets good performances out of his actors, and while not every line of dialogue is gold, the best ones can slip under the radar and catch the audience completely unaware, making the film work hard for its laughs. The film also takes an interesting turn in its portrayal of the news, in this case its look at racial integration, the empowerment of African Americans in the media, and the transformation of the news from the early days of Walter Kronkite to the buzz-word TMZ and FOX News style of today's guerilla journalism. No, it's not meant to be educational, but that Anchorman 2 bothers to acknowledge it at all is reticent of the brains behind it. Finally, there are dozens of laudable cameo appearances, culminating in a sequel "News Team Battle Royale" that actually manages to beat the very good one from the first entry. Simply put, when Anchorman 2 is on its A-game, it appears unstoppable.
That moustache is still hypnotic, though...
But for every worthy laugh, awesome cameo and genuine moment of mirth, there are dozens of dead zones where just about everything goes wrong. For some reason, the editing team does a lousy job pacing this flick, which is strange when you consider that it's the same team that worked with McKay on The Other Guys, Step Brothers and the original Anchorman. So either Brent White was seriously off his meds, or nothing could possibly be salvageable from the lackadaisical story penned by Ferrell and McKay. The script does nothing of value with Applegate, who is still shoved in to the detriment of a superior, more interesting lead female character in Good's sassy, brilliant studio head. Whole storylines are introduced as a means to present some sort of conflict for Ron, but are then scrapped halfway through without any true resolution. McKay and Ferrell have ABSOLUTELY no idea how to use a creative genius such as Kristen Wiig, despite setting her character up in the most perfect of ways. And while Judah Nelson is positively the worst child actor I've ever seen, I still can't put all the blame on him because I'm not 100% certain that wasn't intentional. And either way, it didn't work.
"Adam McKay doesn't recognize my true worth."
Frankly, it all falls down to one solitary issue: Anchorman 2 just isn't all that funny. It TRIES to pull out the big laughs, and when the script focuses on the interactions between the News Team, the outrageous cameos and some of the more nuanced dialogue, it manages to hit that sweet spot to which all comedies aspire. But too often the movie shoots for the stars, only to fall tragically short. Worse, the fake melodramatics are punched up a bit TOO much, making that lack of true humor all the more noticeable. And even the really funny bits aren't all that memorable. Any fan of the original Anchorman probably has a dozen favorite lines of dialogue that could be rattled off the top of their head, but there just isn't that level of immortalising here, with the only ones that stick being call-backs to those great lines from the first movie.
And this is why we hate them.
The result is that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues might amuse you for a couple of hours, but you'll forget why almost immediately afterward. Yes, there are a few funny bits, and again that News Team brawl - though you have to wait until the end - is one of the bawdiest things I've seen of late. But this is definitely a fan-only event, and even those who loved the original Anchorman won't be all that impressed by the watered-down schlock that wasn't worth a ten year wait. If you're desperate for a comedy to see, and you loved the original, there's definitely something appealing about this sequel. But those expecting a return to the glory days of Will Ferrell will be sorely tested by yet another missed mark.