Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Hobbit, Pt. II – The Desolation of Tolkien?

Another highly anticipated sequel has arrived in theaters. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug bowed last weekend just in time to satiate our Middle Earth jones. In December 2001 I saw Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien installment, LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring, and was completely hooked. The man had done it right: epic action set pieces, no holds barred production values and not one performance unworthy of the material. I knew then Jackson and New Line had the holiday box office sewn up for the next two years. Has the Middle Earth master done it again with his Hobbit trilogy? The answer is absolutely “Yes,” but with some caveats that diminish the shine of this otherwise brilliant cinematic experience.
Picking up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off, Jackson’s follow-up is a rambling journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim a treasure stolen by the dragon, Smaug. An adventure that takes us through a trippy forest infested with giant spiders, the Woodland Realm of the Elves, and the seemingly Russian-themed Lake-town before arriving at a grand hall overflowing with gold. Along the way, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) with his dozen dwarves encounter the shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a bargeman of dubious familial history called Bard (Luke Evans) and the suspicious if likable Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry). Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is busying himself trying to discover who the Necromancer (?) is that is working to bring back some ancient darkness. (Hm, wonder who that is?) Bilbo keeps his precious new ring secret and it certainly comes in handy on more than one occasion, but is shocked by the sudden scrutiny of the Eye of Sauron. Sound like a convoluted story line? It is, and frankly this film does drag in places.
This picture’s only shortcoming is its shapeless nature. The Lord of the Rings films all had recognizable beginnings, middles and endings while still holding their respective places within that trilogy. This year’s excursion to Middle Earth, while action-packed and occasionally gripping is a ponderous saga that starts and three hours later stops. Perhaps it started in the right place and ended where it was most convenient to the trilogy, but it all felt deficient somehow.
I doubt I was alone in wondering by LOTR: The Return of the King how Sauron was able to covertly return from the grave. Much of the new material in these films seems geared towards answering that question. This is fine, even necessary perhaps; however Jackson and fellow scribes Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have gone above and beyond in expanding a 150 page children’s book into three, three hour films. Not only do Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) make appearances, two characters not in the book, a new non-Tolkien character has been introduced as well. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elven character, exists because as Ms. Boyens put it: “She’s our redhead. We created her for that reason. To bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy. We believe it’s completely within the spirit of Tolkien.” Is it? I didn’t know J.R.R. had a thing for redheads. Well, padding a lean plot and patching conceptual holes is one thing, but is creating a whole new character truly respectful to a writer’s vision? Not to this reviewer.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in no way a bad movie. Peter Jackson’s grand vision of Middle Earth continues in the tradition he founded in 2001. This movie has everything, brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed action, eye-popping visuals, strong performances, a hero king, a wise wizard and a brave hobbit. There’s even a romance blossoming between Fili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel, which seems to ruffle Legolas’s flaxen hair. I liked this movie, even if the non-story and filler material is a drag in every sense. I recommend this film not only to Tolkien fans like myself but to moviegoers in general, it is first rate cinema.

December 17th, 2014 The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be released and so will end this trilogy. Will it be the end of Middle Earth on the big screen? J.R.R. Tolkien left a great wealth of material in his literary legacy; however word has it his heirs have refused to sell any further film rights. I fear that, even if they stick to their convictions, this most distinguished of all fantasy franchises may yet be tapped again. After all, in Hollywood, where there’s a market, there’s a way, and probably some legal loophole to be exploited. If a young Boba Fett can be the subject of his own film franchise, why not a young Gandalf? Or Thorin? Or even Tauriel, the completely created warrior princess? The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug dragged, and the franchise has begun to smell of dead horse – as in “flogging a…” – which is sad. Peter Jackson and New Line need to quit while their Tolkien adaptations are still respectable, it is time to take this franchise into the west, and film history. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Last Vegas – This Ain’t Kid Stuff

     Unlike actors, who contrary to popular belief are just flesh and blood, there are a few film subjects that never get old. Love, friendship and the unstoppable onset of age are a handful of such timeless themes and all three are presented with warmth, humor and respect in Last Vegas.
     This low-key yet flashy film presents four of the finest actors of the past thirty years: Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, as four childhood pals from Brooklyn who gather in Las Vegas to celebrate the marriage of the last bachelor among them. Michael Douglas plays Billy, an aging west coast big shot who finally breaks down and proposes to his much younger girlfriend during his eulogy for a deceased business mentor. Robert De Niro plays Paddy, Billy’s best friend who is still holding a grudge over the LA impresario’s failure to appear, or even call, when his wife died a year earlier. There are deep, long standing animosities between Billy and Paddy, and these threaten not only the Vegas weekend but their 60 year friendship. Morgan Freeman appears as Archie, a man struggling to regain his freedom after suffering a mild stroke that has sent his son Ezra (Michael Ealy) into full blown panic protection/control mode. Rounding out this venerable quartette is Kevin Kline as Sam, a man with his wife Miriam’s (Joanna Gleason) permission to fool around in Vegas so long as she doesn’t hear about it – what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
While Archie and Sam at times seem little more than comic relief to the heavier drama between Billy and Paddy, their stories do get enough attention to afford them satisfying resolutions. All told, the stories and characters complement each other well in this light-hearted film about grown-up quandaries.
Also featuring in this old-timer’s weekend in Vegas film is Mary Steenburgen as Diana, a lounge singer who attracts the romantic attentions of both Billy and Paddy. Diana’s presence not only complicates the old buddies’ already tense times, but also plays an important role that drama’s ultimate outcome. Ms. Steenburgen herself proves by playing Diana that a woman 60 years young can still be charming and sexy.
There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Last Vegas – even the two tween-agers sitting behind me occasionally laughed out loud. (I’m pretty sure they walked into the wrong theater, Ender’s Game was playing in the theater next door.) When the climactic party scene gets too wild in the guy’s penthouse suite none other than rap star Curtis Jackson III, a.k.a. Fifty-Cent, makes a cameo as himself, first complaining about the noise, then asking if he can come in… “Fiddy” is refused entry by the party’s gate-keeper. While nowhere near the same class as On Golden Pond or even The Sunshine Boys, this picture, written by Dan Fogelman (Cars, Stupid Crazy Love) and directed by Jon Turteltaub (The Kid, National Treasure), knows better than to even attempt such lofty melodramatic heights and stand on its own merits. Those merits are multiple, a good time at the movies with some great actors playing people to whom grown-ups can relate and its all set in the town that has become – for good or bad – a giant theme park for grown-ups.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect to this film is its genuineness in dealing with the issues of aging and loneliness. Even though these issues are dealt with in comic fashion no punches are pulled. A stroke would be a serious mortality wake-up call to most people, as would the loss of the woman you’ve loved since you were children in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Last Vegas confronts and comforts those cruel realities as well as any film, and does so while keeping the schmaltz meter set squarely at zero.

Watching Last Vegas made me realize that I’d rather spend 90 minutes watching Robert De Niro and Michael Douglas barely talk to each other than watch 100 minutes of $150Million in CGI special effects. Those tweeners behind me may someday realize themselves they feel the same way. I hope so at least, and that’s coming from a guy who was the kid who saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom five times in the summer of ’84. Last Vegas is definitely a must see, I’m still smiling thinking of it, although admittedly it’s a wistful smile.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Gravity Pulls You In And Never Let’s Go!

I’d been looking forward to Gravity since the first teaser trailers appeared last year, teasers that became more frequent as the launch date for Alfonso Cuarón’s space opera drew ever nearer. Usually, when I see a film giving such advanced notice my skeptical nature expects the worst. If a film is good it will speak for itself, no hyping necessary. Today however, after seeing Gravity in 3D I’m made to wonder if that campaign begun so many months ago was hype or a warning to all other films this fall, saying: “Don’t Bother – We’ve already got you beat!” From its breathtaking opening shot to the final, awe-inspiring frame, Gravity is that truly great film of 2013 for which many of us have been waiting.
The story itself could not be simpler: stranded astronauts must survive and find a way to safely return to Earth. Resources are scarce for Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Kowalski (George Clooney), who find themselves adrift 600 km above the Earth after a catastrophic cascade of debris pulverizes their shuttle and cuts off all communications with mission control. The two embark on a desperate journey through a vacuous non-environment to the International Space Station where they hope to use a Russian space craft as their life boat down to terra firma. Sounds simple enough, but the themes of isolation and re-birth after tragedy are explored and superbly integrated into Stone and Kowalski’s characters.
Sandra Bullock deserves high praise for her performance as mission specialist Dr. Ryan (her father wanted a boy) Stone. Dedicating herself to a six month fitness regimen, spending countless hours reviewing the script with Cuarón while blocking this picture’s sometimes intricate action; Bullock proves she’s not just a movie star, she is an actress. One scene that stays with me has no eye-popping visuals or intensely implied danger; it is simply Bullock, as Stone, communicating with someone on Earth who cannot speak English. A cinematically sedate scene, it is nevertheless emotionally charged. This unknown inhabitant of planet Earth plays with his dog and sings his daughter to sleep while Dr. Stone listens and we feel her loneliness, her torment, hopelessness. A well-written scene beautifully performed by the talented Miss Bullock. I can’t help but wonder whether she can look forward to a second Academy Award for this performance as the resilient Dr. Stone.
Visually, Alfonso Cuarón – whose films include 2006’s Children of Men and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) – has crafted one of the most striking visions I’ve seen since the passing of Stanley Kubrick. Utilizing top drawer CGI and green screen compositing, Cuarón takes us on a ride that goes well beyond convincing; it comes precariously close to inducing vertigo! The opening scene, for example, is roughly 15 minutes of drifting into close-ups and out to long shots while orbiting high above Earth. If these uncompromised, gracefully dynamic visual stylings have a drawback, it is one shared with films like The Blair witch Project: the non-stop motion becomes almost nauseating at times. That said though, there is absolutely no other downside to the experience of Gravity, it is truly a cinematic masterpiece whose imagery aspires to, and handily achieves, epic proportions.
Gravity’s innovative sound design must be celebrated hand-in-hand with its’ outstanding visual achievements. There is no sound in space because there is no air to carry the sonic waves. Yet rather than have a film that lapsed between dead silence and tinny radio transmissions - with their cliché *beep*s – Cuarón challenged accepted norms. He recognized that while sound may not travel in space, it would certainly travel within the confines of spacesuits. The result is a new aural concept: motors and impacts, large and small, can now be heard in space, but they sound like motors and impacts underwater, muted by a medium not altogether friendly to the conveyance of sound. Brilliant. I can’t decide whether Cuarón deserves an Oscar or a Nobel Prize for this film. 

At the time of this writing Gravity has conquered its’ third straight weekend ruling the box office. Small wonder. Sure, there are some liberties taken with the distances between orbiting objects and platforms, but let’s just call that poetic license. Cuarón’s 90 minute epic is an edge-of-your-seat adventure that has reset the standards of space-borne drama. The man’s vision is an intimate tale played against the grand canvas of space. Gravity is a big screen must-see, because no television DVD, Blu-Ray or VOD viewing will ever do this spectacle justice. If fact, I may see it again myself, and I haven’t doubled-up on a film since I was a teenager. My compliments, Senor Cuarón, bravo!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Riddick The Inter-Stellar Bad-Ass Is Back!

            Previously, in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), Vin Diesel’s outlaw anti-hero eluded capture, battled on inhospitable planets and became king of a gothic army of baddies known as Necromongers. Despite a massive budget, intensive marketing and a cameo by Dame Judy Dench, the picture was poorly received on all fronts. Diesel fans, including myself, looked forward to the strongly implied sequel to that film; however, when what was hoped would be the launching of a major new franchise fizzled, Riddick was left with his Necromonger  hoards, all dressed up and no green light to go. The ensuing scrapping of the franchise was, in my opinion, a blessing in disguise.
While it is intriguing to imagine what Riddick would do with his own army of darkness, the truth is this character is not a leader; he’s a loner outcast in the tradition of a High Plains Drifter or Mad Max. The first steps in rebooting a Riddick franchise had to be dumping the weird armored heavies and re-establishing the solitary anti-hero. Both tasks were accomplished quickly and believably in Riddick by having Vaako (Karl Urban) lure the outlaw king from his throne with the promise of finding his home world Furya, only to abandon him on a desolate planet we’ll call “Not Furya”. And so, Riddick is reborn, unchained from the problematic trappings of his last outing.
            The first half hour or more of Riddick is virtually a silent film, showing the man himself living a Robinson Crusoe existence on “Not Furya”. He sets his own broken leg, injects the venom of a giant scorpion-like creature into himself to become desensitized before vanquishing the beast; and through flashbacks and voice-over brings us up to date on Vaako and the Necromongers. This introverted first act was effective; it re-introduced the title character and his abilities while also distancing this story from the previous film’s baggage.
            The plot takes off in earnest when Riddick realizes that a slowly approaching rain storm brings serious trouble. He activates the distress beacon of an abandoned outpost and soon finds himself again evading capture from not one but two teams of bounty hunters. One is a group of scruffy bad asses loosely lead by Santana (Jordi Mollà). The other group is professionally uniformed, slick and lead by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and the brawny Dahl (Katee Sackoff). Riddick plays it straight and tough from the start letting his hunters know they’re all in danger and need to vacate the planet...Why doesn’t anyone ever listen? Oh yeh, Santana wants the fortune offered for Riddick’s head and Boss Johns wants to know the fate of his son, William Johns (Cole Hauser), who died a coward’s death in Pitch Black (2000).
Riddick is good science fiction in that the alien worlds and creatures are imaginative, though it’s hardly on the same level as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It should go without saying that this is not the sort of film one judges by the same standards as Oscar contenders or small Indie Productions. Some films are watched for fun and escapism alone, or for some quick vicarious thrills. Riddick knows what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t try or pretend to be anything more than an action adventure film; and on that level, it succeeds.
Apparently Vin Diesel acquired the rights to re-boot the Riddick franchise himself as part of his agreement to appear in more Fast & Furious films; as a fan, I’m glad he did. I have also been following, for years Diesel’s plans to make an epic biopic about Hannibal, the Carthaginian who crossed the Alps to attack Rome in the third century B.C. Who knows, that picture could be Diesel’s Braveheart, though that’s a bold expectation. Until then, fans of the shaved-headed, Gen-X answer to Clint Eastwood will have to be content with Riddick, two solid hours of rock ‘em / sock ‘em entertainment.

It really shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Riddick makes it safely off of Not Furya re-invested in the search for his home, leaving the door open for a new high-concept Sci-Fi franchise. Personally, I look forward to following Riddick on his odyssey to Furya. I doubt I’m alone, and I know it’ll be decent, escapist fun. Diesel’s third turn in one of his most famous roles is not just adrenalin-infused candy for his fans, though, but is truly for anyone who can enjoy a good ride at the movies.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pints, Punch Ups and WTFs?! at The World’s End

            It’s hard to recapture past glory, live up to our youthful potential and/or the expectations others have of us. These hobgoblins of the adult psyche, which we sense most acutely as middle-age approaches, plague not only Gary King (Simon Pegg) but the film he dominates: The World’s End. Not that this latest release from the team of Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is bad, no, far from it!  However, this high-energy comedy feels a lot like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life; hilarious yet forced, lacking that spark which made its predecessors so outlandishly enjoyable.
            Story-wise, The World’s End is essentially an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, with the feel of having been written between questions at a pub quiz. Gary King, a man stuck in perpetual teen-aged rebellion, gathers four old friends to their sleepy hometown of Newton Haven to conquer an epic pub crawl they bungled some 20 odd years earlier. The night starts with Gary’s mates, Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsen), Steve (Paddy Considine) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) all basically humoring their “loser” pal from the past. Thankfully, just as the rebukes and relationships edge towards genuine adult drama, this film launches into its true nature: an apocalyptic sci-fi comedy. The five friends find themselves running from pub to pub (it’s their only plan) evading blue blooded non-robot simulants of the townsfolk. These “simulants” are put together like life-sized G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls (or Action Man if you’re reading this in the UK), a concept both imaginative and disturbing. It seems while everyone was off building grown-up lives complete with careers, kids and divorces; and Gary was off doing, well nothing really; a quiet alien invasion has been taking place not only in Newton Haven, but all over the world!
Ultimately, it is up to a very drunk Gary to make the case for mankind and convince the homogenizing and exceedingly polite aliens that Earth doesn’t want to be groomed to join their galactic community. Gary’s words speak not only of humanity but of himself as well: yes we’re uncouth; yes we’ve spent much of our time on the planet so far screwing around; and yes, we know what’s best for us and we still don’t do it! BUT we want to be free, to do what we want to do, to have fun and get loaded and, well who the hell are you to tell us what we should be or do?! Piss off!
            Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have said The World’s End is the conclusion of a trilogy with their previous films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The connective tissue between the three is evident and there is a full-circle sense of finality to The World’s End. I will miss this team that made zombies funny, British coppers bad-asses and a pub crawl a world saving odyssey. Perhaps destiny will reunite Pegg and Wright; it was all over with Meaning of Life but it wasn’t with Return of the Jedi. (Hmm, Cornetto Wars, Episode One, The Phantom Whippy?)

The World’s End is great fun, with rapid fire humor, fights with life-sized action figure people and good running gags; but it is hardly the back-of-the-net goal that was the first romantic comedy with zombies. This film came dangerously close to being boring, with a group of friends gathering, re-opening old wounds and dealing with the perennial under-achiever. The first thirty minutes or so dragged as we got to know who these five were, have evolved into and what subtle animosities they harbor for one another. Thankfully, good action, comedy and solid writing came through in the third act and all that early, banal dialogue even turned out to be important. Maybe I’m being too hard on Pegg and Wright because of my unrealistic expectations of their work. It is hard to live up to your potential and other people’s expectations, especially once you’ve created a reputation for excellence. Like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Pegg & Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream” finale may be damned to be an under-appreciated good time, judged by fans more for its failings than for its accomplishments.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Elysium: A Latter-Day Metropolis

            Once every generation, a filmmaker looks at the world, ponders trends both technological and social, and extrapolates a dystopian future onto the big screen. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is a classic example. This year we’re given Elysium, from South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp. This film presents a powerful and rare combination of human emotion and stunning visuals, with a plausible, if alarming, vision of the future.
            Blomkamp’s film takes us to the year 2154, when the rich and powerful live on the clean, green space station of Elysium, while the impoverished working classes subsist on the filthy, barren planet Earth. The rich get fresh air; margaritas served poolside by droids; and top-notch healthcare. The non-rich get squalor, routinely bullied by police droids and safety regulation-free workplaces. In this world, hard-working parolee, Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory where he works. Told he has only five days to live, Max’s life-long quest to get to Elysium takes on a new urgency -- there, he knows the radiation damage can easily be repaired.
            The idea of humanity being segregated into two classes is far from new. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) showed the wealthy experiencing lives of leisure atop skyscrapers, while the denizens of the lower floors toiled away hopelessly. Elysium shares more than just a conceptual likeness with Metropolis, though. Both films are insightful works of genius. They are intimately human stories combined with state of the art visual effects; bringing to life a focused, abundantly-textured prophecy.
            Jodie Foster appears in this film as Delacourt, Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, who features prominently in the traitorous circumstances which ultimately bring Max to the idyllic space station. It was odd seeing Ms. Foster playing a villain, which she did with a professional, steely composure. While I’m glad Ms. Foster leant her talents and name to this project, the role was small and shallow for and actress of her caliber. Perhaps Ms. Foster saw this as an arguably important project, and wanted to lend it her name recognition and gravitas? I don’t know, but she did a great job as always in her role.
            Elysium is peppered with terms like “Homeland Security” – Delacourt’s responsibility - as well as “undocumented” and “illegals” in referring to spacecraft carrying refuges from Earth. Hearing these terms was effectively disturbing. I can’t say whether it was Blomkamp’s intention to create a metaphor of America’s immigration issues in his film. I can say, however, that these expressions gave Elysium a sharper allegorical edge.
            There is a romantic subplot in Elysium, involving Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse Max grew up with in an orphanage. When the two were children, he promised her that they would one day go to Elysium. Frey’s daughter has leukemia, and sadly, this complicates both her life and her relationship with Max.
            Children appear often in Elysium, much in the way they featured prominently in Metropolis. It’s easy to fall into sentimentality with children, but Blomkamp kept his perspective, and what might have been a flaw became strength. Perhaps children figure significantly in both pictures because they become the future -- do we really want to imagine our own kids’ great-grandchildren living in this 22nd century?
            There is a final subtext to Elysium that I believe is worth mentioning. One of the opening scenes shows the Earth after the oceans have risen: most of Africa is submerged, along with Europe and both sea boards of North America. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any trees left on our depleted world. But there is still love for our planet, as shown by a Nun who gives young Max a locket containing a photo of the Earth from space. Elysium, the Nun tells Max, may look very beautiful from here, but the picture in the locket is what we look like to them. Elysium notwithstanding, there is no “Planet B.” We must never forget where we come from.
            Elysium is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It is a thoughtful and moving social commentary wrapped in science fiction, with seamless special effects and thrilling action set-pieces. Blomkamp’s script does not ignore the humanistic for the money shot, and this, as much as anything else, elevates his picture’s value. In total, Elysium is not only worth seeing, but with today’s cultural climate, it may genuinely need to be seen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We’re The Millers...The Anti-Christ of Family Films

     It has been a long while since I’ve gone to a movie that had me laughing out loud. We’re The Millers had some great comedic moments. Sadly, the occasional hilarity was not enough to save this RV wreck of a motion picture.

     We’re The Millers focuses on thirty-something David Clark’s (Jason Sudeikis) mission to smuggle two tons of marijuana from Mexico to Denver, Colorado. To accomplish this, Clark enlists his stripper neighbor, Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a lonely and neglected teen-aged friend Kenny (Will Poulter), and to round out the ensemble, a homeless street-thief girl, Casey (Emma Roberts). Together, this foursome poses as an all-American family in an RV literally stuffed with weed. The conflict begins when Clark discovers that his employer has double-crossed not only him but Pablo Chacon (Tomer Cisley), the rightful owner of the kind green stuff. Additionally, the “Miller Family” is befriended on the road by another traveling family, the Fitzgeralds – Don, Edie & Melissa (Nick Offerman, Katherine Hahn and Molly Quinn, respectively) – an over-friendly, white bread slice of American middle-class monotony. Oh, by the way, Don is a DEA agent on vacation! Uh-oh! Predictably, the “Millers” bond, develop real familial ties and learn the most important lesson of family: you may not always like each other, but in the end, you’re all in it together.

     Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis tackles his first starring role with the subdued cool of a young Chevy Chase. It is probably safe to say that We’re The Millers owes some genetic material to National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)--in fact, I’d go so far as to say that Clark (?!) Griswold and David Clark almost certainly share a common ancestor...Maybe, Uncle Milty?

     Jennifer Aniston plays stripper-turned-mom, Rose, as smart, strong and no nonsense. Additionally, Aniston proves she’s still the sex symbol that she became on Friends by performing one of the greatest pole dances seen on film since Flashdance(1983). There’s even a Flashdance homage as she soaks herself under an industrial emergency shower!

     Will Poulter and Emma Roberts both turned in convincing performances in this family road trip from hell, but I think I need to single out Poulter’s work for some high praise. He portrays Kenny as pathetically nerdish and naive, yet possessing a big heart and real courage in the face of adversity. Poulter plays this poor kid so well that it is hard to believe his resume includes pictures like Son of Rambow and Chronicles of Narnia. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more from this young man in the future.

We’re The Millers lurches between outrageously hip hilarity and tedious awkwardness -- the kind of awkwardness that makes an audience cringe at a situation, not with it -- and a tedium that comes from forced, hackneyed moments of emotion. I felt forced to watch it. This film failed to commit fully to the irreverent, as much as to the heart. Consequently, the irreverent made the heart seem corny, and the heart made the irreverent seem vulgar. There was never an organic integration of the two, as there was in films like Bad Santa(2003).

     Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball(2004)) even took that Hail Mary comedy shot of showing supposedly humorous out-takes before the end credits. OK, while the scene where Sudeikis, Poulter and Roberts bust out the theme from Friends is cute, the whole idea of showing out-takes is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a bad director desperate for cheap laughs.

This film’s greatest flaw lies in its basic plot: Weed is legal in Colorado. Medical marijuana has been legal for many years, and last year, we voted to make it totally legal – now, one can own up to an ounce for personal use. There’s no need to import the stuff from Mexico anymore, we grow it here, lots of it, and it’s damn good...I hear.

     The trade-off between comedic gags and painful schmaltz resulted in neither a brilliantly funny, nor completely “feel good” picture. This film seemed to try and play both ends off the middle, consequently becoming underwhelming in its mediocrity. The final scene could easily be a set-up for a sequel (Hmm, They’re The Millers?), but I would be surprised if that ever happens. Yes, I had a few good laughs, but aside from Jennifer Aniston’s pole dance, sitting through We’re The Millers there was only one place I wanted to be...anywhere but the theater I was in.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blackfish Takes Us Beneath The Calm Surface of Orca Captivity

  “Blackfish” is a name given to Orcas, popularly known as “killer whales,” by the First People of the Pacific Northwest. They believed these whales to be departed chiefs, and beings possessing great spiritual power. Today, “Blackfish” is the title of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening documentary about the life and controversy surrounding Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld’s Orlando park. As a cetacean advocate, I was genuinely elated to hear that Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Unlike so many other feature documentaries, this film also succeeded in securing impressive domestic and international distribution deals, meaning this remarkable, even important documentary will most likely be coming to a theater near you.
 Blackfish opens with the recording of a 9-1-1 call, made on February 24th, 2010, after Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau, his trainer. From the springboard of this terrifying, tragic event, we are taken behind the scenes of not only the tight-knit marine mammal trainer community, but into the harsh realities of cetacean capture and the captivity industry. 
 Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, when he was approximately three years old. From the moment he was abducted, Tilikum (“Tilly”) experienced immeasurable trauma and hardship. He was first sent to SeaLand Of The Pacific, a shoddy, now-defunct dockside marine park in Victoria, British Columbia. He was subjected to bullying and injury by the female orcas with whom he was kept. Every night, the orcas were lured into a tiny, dark enclosure called “the module.” Every morning, Tilly would come out with new rake marks (teeth marks from the other whales). One day, his trainer, Keltie Byrne, slipped, and her foot entered the water. According to witnesses, it was Tilikum who grabbed her foot and pulled her into the tank. The female orcas joined him in “playing” with, and eventually killing, Keltie.
 After Byrne’s death, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum for their recently-launched captive breeding program, and he was sent to to Orlando to become a breeding bull.  This marked the second time Tilly was ripped from his surroundings and thrown into an artificial, corporate-organized pod, where orcas from different places, languages and even cultures were forced together. 
 Cetaceans are second only to humans in terms of cognitive capacity. Their anatomical brain features denote a profound intelligence, second only to humans. These self-aware, highly social beings have languages and names for each other; create art; use tools and display cultural diversity. For most captive animals, every attempt is made to replicate their natural habitat. Not so in the case of cetaceans, who are primarily acoustic beings and navigate their world by use of sonar. In concrete tanks, reflected sonar signals are disorienting -- the human equivalent of a funhouse mirror maze. Wild cetaceans may travel 100 miles per day or more. Confining a dolphin or whale in a tank such as those at SeaWorld is the spatial equivalent of locking a human into a bathtub-sized cage for life. In light of the above, it becomes readily clear how these animals become psychologically disturbed, and ultimately feature signs of psychosis. Tilikum killed twice more; the last victim being SeaWorld Orlando’s much loved and respected senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau.
 Naturally, SeaWorld -- the largest and most powerful corporation in the multi-billion dollar captive cetacean industry -- declined to participate or contribute in any way to Blackfish. Company statements are conspicuous by their absence throughout. Surprisingly, however, SeaWorld recently issued a statement directed at film critics, attempting to point out errors in this film’s content. This is fair, I suppose, but I felt condescended to by SeaWorld, who seemed to take the attitude that they had the right to tell me how to feel about this film and how to review it. Also, with a little research, I found it easy to debunk much of the rebuttal statement’s rebukes. For example, in their rebuttal, SeaWorld states that whales: “…express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.” While superficially accurate, this claim ignores the fact, in the wild, whales can – and do – avoid confrontation, and/or escape in any direction. Further, orca tribes typically don’t mix and families are stable. 
 It’s difficult as a reviewer to judge a project with any real objectivity when its subject matter is so close to one’s own heart. If this film has a weakness, it is that  Cowperthwaite was required to lean heavily on talking head interviews due to limited free-use captive orca footage. Any documentary must achieve a comfortable balance between interviews and engaging cinematic b-roll imagery. Given the engrossing nature of this piece, however, this imbalance is easily overlooked. 
 I was impressed that Cowperthwaite spurned sensationalism and declined to use graphic footage of Tilikum’s assault on Miss Brancheau. In doing so, she honored both a personal ethos and the Brancheau family’s wishes, thereby respecting her memory and preserving her dignity. 
 Blackfish is one of those rare cinematic triumphs: a documentary focusing on a fairly obscure subject that will be seen by a large audience, and significantly impact the issue it addresses. Previous documentaries like Zeitgeist, Bowling for Columbine, or even I Want your Money, dealt with issues we must all confront every day -- modern life, guns and taxes. But Blackfish brings to light the little-known, ongoing international tragedy of cetacean captivity. Please make the effort to find this film and give it your full attention. The film, and the cause, deserve it!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Way, Way Back – The Agony and the Glory of Being 14

            We all have that one summer that we smile about, cringe over, and wish we could re-experience -- even if only for an afternoon. Usually, it’s a summer between our 12th and 16th birthdays; when we no longer feel we’re children, but the adult world isn’t a comfortable fit either. A desperately awkward period when we are searching for our adult “voice” while enduring the fear that, in our sink or swim futures, confidence might fail us and we drown in self-doubt. In The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- the same writing team that collaborated on 2011’s The Descendants -- take us into the world of 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his awkward, break-through summer.
            Faxon & Rash’s film, which they both co-wrote and co-directed, centers on Duncan’s month at the beach house of his divorced mother (Toni Collette)’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Uncomfortable with his mother’s romance with the passive-aggressive control freak, Trent, Duncan escapes into a secret part-time job at the local water park, Water Wizz. There he finds a clown prince mentor in Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen goes through pains trying to teach the poor kid how to laugh and enjoy himself, while also showing him the ropes of the water slide business -- like how bikini-clad girls will patiently “hold” at the top of a slide, never suspecting the park employees just eyeing their glistening, perfect butts. Through Owen’s dealings with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), the park’s resident “Wendy” to its team of Peter Pans, he also teaches Duncan about proper, grown-up relationships.
Newcomer AnnaSophia Robb plays Susanna, Duncan’s one peer-aged friend and long-suffering daughter of boozy neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). Miss Robb portrays Susanna perfectly, with just the right mixture of amiability and teen-aged aloofness. Together, Duncan and Susanna share the oft-forgotten emotional damage that divorce can inflict on children. The two are, for all intents and purposes, their parents’ old baggage, both literally and figuratively, a truth of which they are acutely aware. Also, they seem to share the understanding that they both know what’s going on in the adult world, but are still too young to do anything about it.
Duncan eventually finds his adult voice, ending the beach house vacation with the beginning of a confident new life -- and, hopefully, a brighter future for him and his mother.
Faxon and Rash’s script for The Way, Way Back is funny in its presentation of life’s awkward moments and heartbreakingly realistic in depicting the troubled ones. Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss this film as run-of-the-mill, coming-of-age summer fare, but for the strong characters and performances that elevated the otherwise banal story. Liam James plays Duncan as a kid whose life is completely shattered by his parent’s divorce, with such a drab moodiness that even I was irritated by him until he hooked up with Owen. Sam Rockwell’s Owen is a character of such rapid-fire comedy and wisecracks that, 30 years ago, this role would have gone to Bill Murray. As it turns out, Rockwell brought a slacker charm to Owen that made him fun and eminently likeable. Allison Janney appears as the obligatory wacky neighbor, the alcoholic divorcee and fretful mother, Betty. Janney turns in a performance of great humor and motherly love for Betty that is also unflinching in its rendering of a pathetic middle-aged woman trying to hold onto youth for just one more summer. Steve Carell is cast out of type as Trent, and it was good to see him stretching his acting repertoire. While it might not be a far reach to envision Carell as the type of guy who rigidly quotes the rules of the game Candyland, seeing him do so with Trent’s seething, serious tone was impressive and disturbing. Faxon and Rash appear in their film as Owen’s two employees, Roddy and Lewis. These seemingly hackneyed characters are made human by very good writing and well-crafted performances.
I’m not completely sure who the target audience is for The Way, Way Back. The 80’s music and references made the grown-ups’ “spring break for adults” part of the story nostalgic for me, but the film’s central character was a 14-year-old boy, so I felt lost as to where my attentions should go. Teen-aged viewers might be put off by some of the intense themes of this film, and find the humor lacking for their adolescent tastes.
I liked The Way, Way Back a lot. If you come across it, definitely don’t pass it by. Strong writing and wonderful performances make this otherwise cookie-cutter, Year-My-Voice-Broke-at-The-Summer-Place film something special, but unique in its own style. Sort of like how we came out of that one summer way, way back, ourselves, we may not be as special as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t worth knowing and appreciating.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Lone Ranger Rides Again – It’s Legendary Fun!

     In the pantheon of American lore, there are a handful of iconic heroes. Superman and Batman come to mind; perhaps Audie Murphy, the all-American soldier and the original G.I. Joe. Lurking in this shared national memory are tales from days of yesteryear when The Lone Ranger rode the old west in the name of justice. Yeah, written like that it sounds pretty corny. However, The Lone Ranger recognizes its source material’s inherent corniness and plays it for fun (Unlike The Legend of The Lone Ranger, which took itself way too seriously when it galloped into theaters in 1981, went through the screen, out the back door and on to cinematic oblivion). This latest incarnation allows us to forgive and forget the old-fashioned cornball and enjoy seeing the masked man ride again.
The tale of The Lone Ranger begins with John Reid (Armie Hammer) returning to his Texan hometown; a lawyer hoping to bring civilized law to a lawless land. Reid accompanies his Texas Ranger brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), in a posse to apprehend psychotic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). The lawmen are ambushed, leaving John Reid the sole-survivor. Reid is rescued and resuscitated by Tonto, and the two partner up to bring Cavendish to justice. Reid and Tonto have very different reasons for seeking justice, and very different ideas on its execution. If the Lone Ranger’s trail is one of holy vengeance, then Tonto’s is one of redemption. Reid wants Cavendish for the murder of his brother. Tonto sees in Cavendish a profound evil, born from the lust for silver that brought about the destruction of his village - which Tonto unwittingly aided as a child. Reid does capture Cavendish, but when he brings the villain back to town, he discovers a level of corruption for which law school had failed to prepare him.
There is some recognition in The Lone Ranger of the treachery experienced by Native Americans at the hands of progressing “white” civilization. An Indian War is manufactured to poach silver-laden Indian land. Also, during a raid, a Captain Fuller (Barry Pepper) is aghast by the blood on his hands. Only then does he realize that his mission has been a product of lies, not the noble advancement of the United States’ manifest destiny. These themes, while present, are displayed subtly so as not to drag down the film’s entertainment value.
It is probably common knowledge by now that Johnny Depp’s Tonto virtually carries this film, like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp’s larger-than-life character and performance are the real draws here. Tonto is cool, mysterious, somber yet comical, and yet accessible; a bridge to the audience as he regales this film’s story to a young boy in 1933. Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger, on the other hand, is a prim dweeb and a goody-two-shoes. In school yards, backyards and playgrounds, children will probably now argue over who gets to play Tonto in their imaginative adventures.
     Depp has once again teamed with director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer for this picture. Together, this trio created the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The Lone Ranger certainly feels like the opening installment of a new franchise. Sadly, I’m afraid it lacks the same magic that made the Pirates films so popular. Combined with flawed timing and genre, I just don’t see this picture faring as well as its makers had hoped (It already lost its opening night battle with Despicable Me 2). In the past month, we’ve seen five other big budget/big action releases; there just might not be enough adrenalin left in moviegoers this weekend. Also, the Western genre is, frankly, all but dead. There have been exceptions - Django Unchained and True Grit were critical and commercial successes - but they were just that: exceptions.  The genre no longer speaks to us as it did 40 or 50 years ago. I may be wrong, but only time, and this holiday weekend’s box-office receipts, will tell if The Lone Ranger spawns another franchise.
     There is no denying that The Lone Ranger is pure fun! It plays off the cornball brilliantly, as when John Reid first dons his big white hat and his brother asks if they didn’t have a bigger one. Filmed in New Mexico and Utah, this film also boasts some of the most scenic locations the American West has to offer. It delivers an edge-of-your-seat, climactic chase sequence (complete with the William Tell Overture) and – in true Depp, Verbinski & Bruckheimer form – ludicrous, Harold Lloyd-like stunts. I left the theater smiling and I do hope to see another Lone Ranger film. So, as John Reid declares at the end: “Hi-Ho Silver, Away!” Corny? I know, but it’s all good. Tonto immediately orders him to “Never do that again!”

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Shallow Shine of The Bling Ring

           Once again, Sofia Coppola proves she’s her father’s daughter in helming The Bling Ring, an impressive portrait of cool kids making cool mistakes. Judging from the number of teen-aged girls in the theater with me, I was concerned I might not exactly be in Coppola’s target audience. As it turned out, Coppola’s script (co-written with Vanity Fair journalist, Nancy Jo Sales) and her directing style later had me wondering whether the teen-aged girls were within her target audience.
            The Bling Ring tells the true story of Marc (Israel Broussard), the new boy at LA’s Indian Hills high School, who is befriended by fashionista Rebecca (Katie Chang). Marc, Rebecca and their pals, Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), all share an obsession with fashion, clubbing and the glamorous lives of their favorite celebrities. When Marc discovers online that Paris Hilton will be hosting a party out of town, he and Rebecca break into Hilton’s Beverly Hills mansion on a lark and take souvenirs. This light-hearted burglary quickly becomes habit and soon the whole gang is stealing from the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and Rachel Bilson (Oddly, I guess Hilton didn’t mind the trouble too much; she let Coppola shoot the recreations in her house!). The gang makes out like bandits, literally; copping pricey designer purses, shoes, dresses and jewelry, along with thick wads of cash which, I guess if you’re really rich, you keep around the house. Flashing their ill-gotten bling all over Facebook and at house parties, the ring takes it all too far and the law does catch up with them.
All of the young actors do excellent work in The Bling Ring, and I think we’ll be seeing more of Israel Broussard in the future. Honestly, though, the one starlet whose performance everyone wants to know about is almost certainly Emma Watson.
Many remember watching Miss Watson growing up as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films. Miss Watson seems to be handling this pivotal point in her life very well; staying in the public eye while choosing her roles carefully. Nikki is a great, if flawed, character. For now, Miss Watson seems to be playing off of being a grown-up (and sexy?) Hermione; she even has a cameo in This Is The End as herself, raiding James Franco’s booze supplies as the apocalypse rages. It’s too soon to say whether Emma Watson can transition her childhood success into a lifelong career. Maybe she will; perhaps she won’t, but based on her performance in this film, she’s certainly giving it a solid shot.
The Bling Ring is that rarest of birds; a well-funded film that keeps the spirit of its independent roots. Sofia Coppola’s use of photographic depth of field in her storytelling is phenomenal and truly unique to her visual voice. Ever since the homerun she scored with 2004’s Lost in Translation, I’ve waited patiently for her to create the masterpiece she’s so capable of producing. Sadly, while fun and thought-provoking, The Bling Ring falls short of masterpiece status.
The Bling Ring’s best feature is its illustration of a lifestyle-obsessed culture, not in its nearly passionless characters. The most emotionally charged scenes are when the gang tries on clothes from celebrities’ closets or gazing upon the stolen glamour of their reflections in a mirror. The intense scene in which Chloe finds a gun and threatens Marc with it is reminiscent of the French New Wave and exemplary of how these kids’ lives are so detached from reality. It is no mystery how kids can become this way. In recent decades, Western culture has made great strides in the worship of wealth, glamour and popularity, with LA/Hollywood at its epicenter. Coupled with home lives devoid of meaningful relationships; parents too busy and too stressed trying to survive; Coppola’s film becomes an extreme example of a new norm – and easily become a pandemic.
One would think that each generation learns something from the past, but I guess not. 50 years ago we had the Valley of the Dolls; 30 years ago we had Less Than Zero; today, we have The Bling Ring. Wealth can only buy off a degree of unhappiness, but it can never satiate one’s soul.
Because, and in spite of this, The Bling Ring’s characters are not engrossing; and the drama, frankly, lacking.
Sofia has shown she can handle the hard stuff; the intimacies characters share and the convoluted themes they represent. I’ll keep waiting for her magnum opus, her Lawrence of Arabia, her Apocalypse Now or her Wings of Desire.  It is coming, I’m sure. She is, after all, her father’s daughter – she’s proved it time and again.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Lesser “Man of Steel”

            I’ve always looked forward to Superman movies, ever since I was a boy. Even though I personally favor Batman, films featuring the noble Man of Steel never failed to fire my imagination with hope for humanity. As Superman’s father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) told his son in “Superman(1978)”: “They (humans) can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.” Batman exemplifies dark poetic realism, with Gotham City a stark reflection of inner-city decay and the man himself a mere mortal with the funding to become a high-tech vigilante. Alternately, the refugee last son of Krypton always represented something greater, a higher ideal for us all with some comic book innocence and optimism for mankind’s future. That is, until now.
            I doubt I need to re-tell the story of Superman/Kal-El. i.e his evacuation from the planet Krypton and his inauspicious upbringing on a Kansas farm. Suffice to say, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) in “Man of Steel” spends the first half of the film searching for his place among us Earthlings, sometimes hiding his powers with superhuman inner strength. In flashbacks, Kal-El recalls the homespun wisdom of his Earthly father John Kent (Kevin Costner), assuring him that someday he’ll know the right time and place to reveal himself to the world. The trouble begins when other survivors of Krypton, led by the malevolently dedicated General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrive on Earth. Zod and his crew seek Krypton’s “Codex” which holds the genetic keys to re-establishing the Kryptonian race, but Jor-El merged this “Codex” with the infant Kal-El at the cellular level before sending him to Earth. Naturally, fistfights and all-out battles ensue, causing apocalyptic destruction from Kansas to Metropolis.
            This is where “Man of Steel” pays off for its action/adventure genre: the visual effects are spectacular! Richard Donner and the Salkinds - the team who created the 1970’s/80’s “Superman” films - could hardly imagine of the flying effects and epic scale of destruction brought to life by director Zach Snyder in “Man of Steel.” To some extent, this cinematic intensity is a bad thing, though, because the level of carnage spread through Metropolis (and in 3D no less) was enough to give this reviewer flashbacks to September 11th, 2001. Sometimes, less is more, and too much is just plain excessive.
            Director Zach (“300”) Snyder’s new image of Krypton is decent science fiction to be sure. Kal-El is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries as children there are grown in vitro with pre-ordained abilities and destinies in society. Kryptonian technology, envisioned by Production Designer Alex McDowell as an earthy yet organic “Geo-Tech”, looks and feels terribly derivative of David Lynch’s “Dune”(1983) and 2004’s “Chronicles of Riddick.” All in all, though, not a bad re-boot of Superman’s home world, but nothing eye-popping or groundbreaking either.
It was disturbing to see the amount of Christian symbolism in “Man of Steel.” From a scene where a confused Kal-El consults a priest, to Superman’s appearance before a group of soldiers looking like the second coming of Christ (Sun over his shoulder, cape billowing in the breeze), it was all a bit too much. I know there was always a Superman/Jesus parallel at work, but honestly, if there were any more messianic images in this picture the Pope would have to issue a statement!
            “Man of Steel” is filled with fine actors whose talents are wasted on this film’s poorly drawn characters. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White: okay, getting old, getting portly and venerable. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El: pretty okay, great voice but no great lines to deliver. Amy Adams appears as Lois Lane, she’s capable and adorable and the blandest lady reporter in history. None of the actors mentioned above are at fault for their shallow performances – the fault lies squarely with the filmmakers. In a mega-production filled with massive special effects and adrenaline-infused action set pieces, intimate character-building scenes tend to become 2nd class concepts. That said, how does one create a Superman movie and fail to create any kind of tangible chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane? Fine – there’s a kiss, and some chatty scenes including one beside John Kent’s grave. Nowhere, however, is chemistry created even close to the level generated between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in 1978!
            The most emotionally driven, interpersonal moments in this film occur between young Kal-El and John Kent. In these scenes, we watch a young boy grow up knowing he is an outsider to all those around him, a boy who must keep his amazing talents and abilities a secret. Kevin Costner brings a natural strength, a common sense, everyman appeal to John Kent. It is Costner’s performance that makes us feel what could easily have been the tired, old concerns of John Kent – that people might come, take his son away, that the boy might misuse his powers, or even use them at an inopportune time. John Kent’s simple farmer’s understanding of wrong and right gifts Kal-El a moral center forged in the American Heartland, but Kevin Costner gifts John Kent with the soul to make us believe in that moral center.
            At the end of the day, I have to admit 1978’s “Superman” can’t hold a candle to “Man of Steel” in scale, raw action or special effects. Still, I prefer the older film to the one I saw this week hands-down. Christopher Nolan, who brought Batman back to the big screen with his films starring Christian Bale, worked on this film as a creative consultant. Perhaps Warner Bros. felt Superman needed to be modernized for a 21st century audience in the same way as Batman. This was beyond a tragic mistake -- it was a betrayal.
In the climactic man on man battle royale against General Zod, Superman is forced into an action I never imagined I’d witness. I’m not disappointed in Superman for his deed; he was put into a unavoidable situation not by free choice, not even by Zod, but by this film’s creators. So what if Nolan, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer had to update Superman for the 21st century? What does it say about us that the “light we need to show us the way” is now a man who kills another with his bare hands? If that is what we as a people need to rediscover hope, then we’ve failed very idea of Superman. You don’t ask Jesus to carry brass knuckles, you don’t ask Superman to snap General Zod’s neck. The innocence is gone from this “Man of Steel”. Even the colors of Superman’s re-envisioned costume appear muddied for today’s world.

Monday, June 10, 2013

“Mud”: Southern Gothic Love and Strength

            In a summer movie season filled with tent-pole pictures such as “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel,” it’s easy for a smaller film like “Mud” to be overlooked in the fray.
 “Mud” tells the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a young man in Arkansas, as he carefully maneuvers a period of upheaval in his life. Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), journey one morning to claim a boat stuck in a tree on a river island but happen upon the film’s title character, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out. Faced with his parents’ pending divorce and the destruction of his way of life along the river, Ellis bonds with Mud and chooses to help him connect with his lifelong love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud must elude law enforcement and the powerful, violent family of a man he killed for beating Juniper, causing her to miscarry. Ellis has his own girl troubles; trying to forge a relationship with the very pretty, if untrustworthy, girl of his dreams, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis grows strong and confident over the course of this film, but he is slowly disillusioned of love and trust. Ultimately, Ellis’s angry cynicism simply doesn’t stand up to the powerful bonds of true friendship and family.
Written and directed by native Arkansas filmmaker, Jeff Nichols, “Mud” is a bit like the river that plays so prominently in its story -- sometimes beautiful; at other times, slow-moving. This is hardly an indictment, however; even the calmer portions hold one’s attention in anticipation of the adventure promised by Ellis and Neckbone’s perilous journey.
            Matthew McConaughey was voted one of People magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” in 2006, but for “Mud,” he let himself go to seed. We never see him appearing clean or shaven, and the results are brilliant. I’ve never been a huge fan of McConaughey’s work, but he turns in a respectable performance as this film’s titular character, a fugitive hobo (not a bum, as per Mud; hobos work for their money!). Without McConaughey bringing an amiable humanity to his tragic character, it might have been hard to believe Ellis and Neckbone would have done all they did for him. Indeed, were it a rougher performance, we wouldn’t care ourselves about Mud’s romantic quest to ride the river into the sunset with the love of his life, Juniper.
            “Mud” features stellar performances from many of its cast members. Reese Witherspoon is almost unrecognizable in her authentic portrayal of Juniper, a barfly flirt who takes Mud’s love for granted but genuinely values their lifelong relationship. Sam Shepard perfectly plays Mud’s de facto father, Tom Blankenship, as an unkempt yet life-savvy retiree who can’t avoid the feelings he has for the boy he found in the woods decades earlier. A-Listers and venerable character actors aside, it’s Tye Sheridan who truly carries this film squarely and capably on his young shoulders. I remember seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in “This Boy’s Life” opposite Robert De Niro back in the early-1990s and knowing immediately that he was destined for a brilliant future in film. I’d like to say the same here for Sheridan, but honestly I’m not as certain about him. I see potential in Sheridan for stand-out performances in the years to come, but I think he’ll have to work harder at it than DiCaprio. I hope he puts in the work; I think many filmgoers will be grateful if he does.
 “Mud” is in the same ballpark as “Stand By Me” and even “Sling Blade”, but is sadly not quite in the same league. Another coming-of-age film, “The Kings of Summer,” was a Sundance darling and seems to be getting a lot of press. Given said recognition, this is no wonder.
Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” deserves to be known, shown and seen. Young teen boys should take a break from space men and super heroes to see what life is really like and truly about in this film. Likewise, people who want to enjoy a solid, down-to-earth story should not miss this valuable if understated offering, as well. Please do make the effort to see “Mud.” It might not be around long in the face of its staunch competition for screen time, but it is refreshing to see a movie wherein the stars are actors, not computer-generated effects.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Best Trek in Generations! “Star Trek: Into Darkness”(3D)

Can I just write “Wow” five-hundred times and have that count as my review of this film?
            Obviously, J.J. Abrams’ latest installment in the Star Trek franchise not only meets with my approval, but is in my opinion the best Star Trek movie since 1982’s “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” was a great final outing for the original crew of the star ship Enterprise, if you were okay with the thinly-veiled JFK assassination plot. Likewise, “Star Trek: First Contact” not only had some very good character development and science fiction “what if?” elements it was also a load of laughs (“You told him about the statue?”). Still, neither “The Undiscovered Country” nor “First Contact” comes close to the glorious successes and excesses of “Into Darkness”.
            From the first scene “Into Darkness” propels you into 132 minutes of virtually nonstop 3D action and intrigue. The film starts out as straightforward mission to capture a rogue Federation Agent, but quickly turns sideways. Kirk (Christopher Pine) comes to realize that the greatest enemy to the Federation and peace with the Klingon Empire lies at the very heart of the Federation. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the film’s principle villain (nope, I’ll not give that character’s true identity away!) and it is through interactions with this bad man that Kirk grows to appreciate the grave responsibilities that accompany the chair of command.
            During those brief moments when the action in “Into Darkness” slows enough for us to catch our breath and get a smattering of plot-moving dialogue there are plenty of fun “ah-ha” moments. Alice Eve plays Dr. Carol Marcus whom many will remember should go on to have a child with Kirk as per “Wrath of Khan”. Kirk, Spock and Uhura land on the Klingon home world of Kronos in a ship that was impounded the previous month during some affair involving a fellow named “Mudd”, obviously the loveable charlatan rogue who appeared in two separate episodes of the original series. (Quick question: Anyone else think funnyman Jack Black would make a great Harry Mudd in Star Trek 3? Let me know, better yet, find a way to let J.J. Abrams know.) Nurse Christine Chapel is mentioned in passing and Leonard Nimoy even makes what may be the briefest cameo of his career as old Mr. Spock pointedly not advising his younger self. Perhaps the best homage moment came when Scotty (Simon Pegg) lamented the lack of power from the Enterprise.
            The sets and special effects of “Into Darkness” are all top drawer and beyond imaginative. The Engineering section of the Enterprise is immense yet decidedly not terribly science-fiction-like; as one might imagine the engineering room of a high energy physics-driven star ship. The City of London is envisioned in the 23rd century as being overgrown by buildings that dwarf St. Paul’s Cathedral (which is visible in one scene but you have to look for it down around the base of the skyscrapers). The artificial gravity on board the U.S.S. Enterprise goes haywire at one point and we’re treated to one of the most dynamic gravitational mix-up scenes ever filmed, wherein the way “down” keeps shifting at the most inopportune of moments. All this filmic pizzazz and 3D cinematography blend seamlessly to create a visual joy ride worth twice the price of admission.
Since this is my first review of a 3D film I think I’d like to address this recently-reborn format. 3D lends itself very well to high action films such as “Into Darkness” where it can be utilized to bring space flotsam flying at you or have spears flying into the fray from behind you. In more intimate settings, the true artistry of the format can be seen when focus is shifted from foreground to background and multiple points in between very much the way our own eyes shift focus while scanning our 3D world. These shifts can be used to focus and hold our attentions, guiding us gently through what might otherwise be a very flat scene - pun intendedJ. 3D is definitely a format that has come of age in the past five years, but an exploration of its impact not only on “In Darkness” but on film in general should, and will, be the subject for a forthcoming essay.  
            I know there are many Trekkies and/or Trekers out there who are still freaking out over the recasting of the original series’ legendary characters. There are also some who would point out that Gene Roddenberry himself is on record as never wanting Star Trek to look back but always look forward. To those people I say, with respect, get over it. As long as the characters are respected and the story lines aren’t cheapened, why not explore where today’s cinematic technology can take Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and all of the crew of the gallant NCC-1707?
            With a price tag of $185 Million - and every penny of it on the screen! – “Star Trek: Into Darkness” goes well beyond operating on all thrusters. This film has everything: action, drama, romance, bro-mance, strong special effects, Klingons and even a Tribble! In the end this Star Trek blazes ahead at Warp Factor 9 promising to take us once again, where no one has gone before.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Opulence and the Emptiness and “The Great Gatsby”

I’m happy to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised by Baz Luhrman’s latest magnum opus “The Great Gatsby”, arguably his best film since 1995’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Honestly, I was expecting a sedentary snooze-fest treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel similar to the 1974 Robert Redford version, but I really should have known that the man who made “Moulin Rouge” would handily capture the spirit of the Jazz Age. This latest Gatsby is certainly not a flawless film; it is entertaining and in places even tender in its portrait of a man driven to riches only to be worthy of the one woman who would make his gilded world whole.
Because I’ve never read “The Great Gatsby” I can’t tell how heavily Luhrman and Craig Pearce (co-writer w/Luhrman of the film’s screenplay) drew upon Fitzgerald’s prose in crafting the deeply expressive narration delivered by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) which elevates the film above the commonplace.
The film opens with Nick, a likeable young man under treatment at a sanitarium for a host of emotional issues including depression, alcoholism and insomnia who relates to his psychiatrist the events of the summer of 1922... Hoping find a place for himself in the Wall Street boom of the 20’s, Nick had rented a modest house out on New York’s Long Island -- beside the fairy tale castle mansion of an enigmatic man famous to all, but known by few, a man called Gatsby.
What Nick planned as a summer of financial studies became an adventure into the private lives and excesses of the ultra-rich and powerful. Nick’s cousin, Daisy, married to Tom Buchanan, an adulterous heir of old money, lived on the old money side of the bay opposite the Nuevo Riche side where both Nick & Gatsby resided. Between a sordid lower Manhattan apartment orgy with Tom and the almost czarist extravagance of Gatsby’s weekend happenings Nick became both insider and outsider, viewing the world of the idle rich from “within and without”. When Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio) took Nick into his confidence concerning cousin Daisy, Nick developed into both agent and sole true friend to the millionaire.
Gatsby was a man from Daisy’s past, a man who went off to WW 1 but never returned because of his poverty. Driven by a strong vision of what he could be and a powerful optimism, Gatsby spent years reinventing himself to amass the fortune he felt he needed to secure a future for himself and Daisy. It was no accident Gatsby bought the palatial mansion directly across the bay for Daisy and Tom. Likewise, Gatsby’s mad weekend bacchanalias were not mere frivolous extravagances; he yearned each weekend that Daisy would be enticed to travel across the bay and they would meet, again, and recapture the romance of their youth.
Nick was to be instrumental to the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, and in the process taken in to Gatsby’s empty, lovelorn sphere as well. There, Nick recognized Gatsby as possessing the kind of heart money can’t buy or create and we, like Nick, come to wonder if Daisy may not be good enough for Gatsby. How shallow and materialistic was Daisy that she wept uncontrollably at the beauty of Gatsby’s silken shirts? In the end, Nick assured a confused but hopeful Gatsby that he was better than, worth more than, those rich folks he aspired to join, that he was “worth the whole damn bunch of them.”
It’s hard to tell for me whether Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance, at times seemingly wooden while at other times painfully natural, was intentionally so, old sport. The millionaire Gatsby was played with a larger than life forced charm that was hard to swallow from an actor like Di Caprio, but when Gatsby first reunites with Daisy that façade fractured to reveal a poor Romeo in romantic awe of his Juliet. In the most intimate scenes Di Caprio’s Gatsby was human, but he too often put up his wealthy front even to Nick, who by the end understood the source of that tragically guarded nature.
 “The Great Gatsby” is as mentioned above a flawed film. Luhrman incorporated modern music into this Jazz Age masterwork and sometimes it works, other times it only served to break the spell of the film and remind me that I was watching a movie. Similarly, Luhrman’s, poetic realist colors and dynamic visual style were occasionally obtrusive and again broke this film’s spell. Tobey Maguire was amiable (Maguire always is!) as Nick but the performance was scarcely brilliant, evidence that with a good script even a mediocre performance can carry a film. Carey Mulligan - perhaps best known popularly as Sally Sparrow from the legendary “Blink” episode of Dr. Who - portrays Daisy with vulnerability and grace; still, Luhrman really needed to pull her aside for those scenes where she’s supposed to be expressing the boredom of the idle rich and utter the single word every director should know: “Less”. These minor flaws did at times pull me out of the film’s story but never for long, after the first 20 minutes I was too rapt by the sheer majesty of Baz Luhrman’s creation and Fitzgerald’s characters to care.
I don’t know if “The Great Gatsby” will be remembered next Oscar season, at least not for the acting which was solid but never extraordinary. However, I do feel that this may be the first must-see film of the 2013 summer movie season; it has it all, music, love, great visuals, depth of emotion and classic source material that should bring in casual teen-agers and ardent cinemaphiles alike. See “The Great Gatsby”, a provocative vision of the opulence and emptiness of 1920s America.