Month: December 2013
“47 Ronin” * (out of 5)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, and Rinko Kikuchi
Written by: Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini
Directed by: Carl Rinsch
I’m no genius, but I’m guessing that if you need to showcase a man with real body-covering tattoos to sell your movie, but he’s only in one scene, your movie might not be able to stand on its’ own merits. Such is the case with the dreadful ’47 Ronin’, a lavishly produced movie that seems to believe it is a standard-bearer for the genre, when the reality is quite embarrassing for everyone involved. A $175 million production budget does not guarantee that the result will pop off the screen as it should, nor does it guarantee more than wooden performances from the cast. It guarantees nothing, which is precisely what I took from this film. It does not offer an original thought, and interesting idea, or perhaps the most damning statement of all, it does not offer anything worthy of deeming it cool.
The core story is a common one for those interested in Japanese history/mythology. A shogun rules the land with an iron fist, and various villages offer up tributes to their ruler in the form of samurai battles. The village of Ako is unique in that their governor/magistrate Lord Asano is benevolent, and even took in a “half-breed” boy they found in the apparently demon-infested forest. This boy, named Kai (Reeves), has powers-we’re not sure why or how, but he could be a warrior. I have no idea if the story behind Kai means anything, or in the end where he comes from, and to be honest, who cares?
The film’s turning point occurs when Lord Asano is betrayed by Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) from another village or province. Kira uses a witch (Kikuchi), who can apparently conjure up poisonous spiders and shape-shift into a dragon and a smiling fox. Yes, a smiling fox- not entirely unlike the viral video. This witch sends her conjured spider to pee poison (basically) on Lord Asano’s lips, and thus cause him to do unruly things. These actions bring disgrace upon Ako, meaning Asano must, ahem, relieve himself of duty. Thusly, the samurai that serve under him no longer have a master, and are considered ‘ronin’. After some time, these ronin, headed by Oishi (Sanada), seek to avenge their master using overly choreographed fight scenes and blades acquired from snake-men that have an unclear link to Kai. Are you lost yet? Does it really matter how they get from point A to B? I certainly had a hard time caring after witnessing all the ridiculousness.
First-time director Carl Rinsch doesn’t know which film to make here (if one can even consider it his in the end). It’s stylish, for sure. One can see, stylistically, why Ridley Scott originally tabbed him to direct “Prometheus”. In fact, the film’s redeeming qualities are in the beauty of the locations and costumes. What it lacks is a clear…direction. Is it trying to be a mystical action film, or a historical epic? If it’s an action film, why is the action boring? If it’s a historical epic, why did the filmmakers bother to get an all-Japanese supporting cast and then have them speak English the entire film? There’s an obvious parallel to this, a film done so well that this pales in comparison- “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Ang Lee understood what type of film that should be, and dare I say “47 Ronin” may have been a far superior film with an experienced director.
At its’ best, “47 Ronin” is dull, by-the-numbers, and simply exists. At its’ worst, it’s completely non-sensical and uninterested in paying respects to the cultural heritage to which it belongs. Just to make sure they kick Japanese mythology in the teeth for good measure, Gedde Watanabe makes an appearance as the leader of an acting troupe. This is the same actor who portrayed Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles”, quite possibly one of the most racially stereotyped characters in cinema history. Maybe everyone involved with this meant well, but the result is powerfully embarrassing. There isn’t enough style to carry the lack of substance, creating a miserable, confusing experience that results in one of the worst films of the year.
*Note- There is no conceivable reason to see this film in 3D. Nothing popped off the screen, and it’s clear it was simply a wash job to get back some of the money Universal stands to lose on this expensive stinker.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Meagan Good, James Marsden, Kristen Wiig, Greg Kinnear, and Dylan Baker
Written by: Adam McKay and Will Ferrell
Directed by: Adam McKay
This will be hard to admit, but from time to time, a film occasionally surprises me- and I’m proven wrong. My first experience with the original “Anchorman” ended up being one of those times. I didn’t see it theatrically, and waited until a friend forced it upon me. What a revelation it was- a straight-up comedy, incredibly well-made and structured, with nearly every joke hitting the mark. Sure, it’s a complete farce, but one that worked extremely well. Audiences didn’t initially warm up to the theatrical release, but like a cult film, it found an immense audience on DVD- including myself.
It comes as no surprise that there has been clamor for a sequel- the only issue is that Paramount had strong misgivings about making one. The box office wasn’t strong for the first film, and farce comedies don’t generally perform well. It’s wonderful that this did get made, however. Not only does it satisfy fans of the first film, but it contains enough fresh material and biting sarcasm to go around. It may not be as crisp as the first, and it contains a few awkward moments, but overall, it deserves kudos for continuing to take risks, and I laughed out loud multiple times.
Summarizing the plot should be rather straightforward. The blustering Ron Burgundy (Farrell) has now married the daring anchorwoman from the first film, Veronica Corningstone (Applegate), with whom he has fathered young Walter. Life is beautiful for them until Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) decides to retire at the network and makes Veronica, not Ron, the lead nightly anchor. Ron can’t handle it, leaves the network, leaves Veronica & Walter, and ends up back in San Diego, drunk in front of Sea World crowds. Luckily for him, he meets a recruiter looking to start a 24 hour news network in New York City. The idea sounds ludicrous to Ron, but perfectly normal and sane to us.
Aside from the jokes and scenarios you can imagine after seeing the first film, the sequel offers a biting satire of today’s version of the “news”. With news networks on all the time, it’s necessary to fill that space with CONTENT. How do these networks acquire this content? Is it possible that the content isn’t always ‘newsworthy’? Is it possible the boundaries of acceptable news stories have stretched a tad over the years? Answers to all questions are a resounding yes. The fact that news and news anchors are now trusted less by the public are part of the reason that these two films exist, and that the farce is so resonant. It’s an unfortunate but true part of our society.
Thankfully, “Anchorman 2” understands the folly that is a good portion of news today. By showcasing Ron Burgundy on a screen surrounded by multiple talking heads, with headlines running across the top and bottom of the screen, we can clearly see how crowded news delivery is today. Creating a scene with Brick Tamland (Carell) going postal in front of a green screen points out the hilarity that is broadcast meteorology. After all, do we need high-tech graphics to tell us what weather is coming our way? The whole thing is silly, really, which is most likely the reason why these films work so well.
If there are downsides to having this much fun at the theater, it’s the occasional overkill. Farce is susceptible to such things, and at nearly two hours, the film occasionally runs into that. The subplot involving Ron going blind and living in exile could have been skipped. Also unnecessary are the oddly repetitive and off-putting actions of Champ Kind (Koechner), illustrating the need for a more well-rounded character (or perhaps actor? This film illustrates why Koechner hasn’t been nearly as successful as his comrades). Poor Christina Applegate doesn’t have much to do this time around except react to what Will Ferrell’s character does to her, and the attempt to give Meagan Good’s producer a meaty role falls a bit short.
For its’ minor drawbacks, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is still the year’s funniest film. It’s also an obvious achievement, not only to get these actors together again, but to give us a film that is worthy of our attention, all while inventing a few new laughs and trying its’ hand at social commentary. If there is another sequel, I’m not sure there is anything left to comment on. We know the ‘news’ is no longer news, and so we, the audience, have to choose what we consume. It’s a laborious task- perhaps one of the reasons why so many flock to The Onion, ‘The Daily Show’, and for all intents and purposes, ‘Anchorman’ films.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, and Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by: Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, & Guillermo Del Toro (screenplay); J.R.R. Tolkein (novel)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
How can a film like this be boring? I love the previous four films (yes, four, since the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is so clearly connected to this), so what possibly could go wrong? Is it conceivable that I try harder to be ‘critical’ now that I’m writing about these things I love? Sure. Is it also conceivable that the bubble finally burst, and Peter Jackson delivered a bloated, plodding, nearly joyless Middle Earth film that actually feels three hours long before we even meet the marvelous titular character? Absolutely.
Up to this point, these ‘creatively adapted’ four films have given us visual splendors as well as soulful performances. Jackson and crew have no equals as it pertains to technical brilliance, and they have such an outward passion for the material that it has shown on-screen. His indie sensibilities paired with his keen eye for ‘dirty worlds’ have been a natural fit for J.R.R.Tolkein’s material, and I do not believe there is another filmmaker working today who could have come close to what he’s accomplished.
So, what is “The Desolation of Smaug” missing? To begin with, it lacks the sincerity and heart of the previous films. Perhaps it’s the lack of whimsical, wispy musical overtures like the ‘Shire’ theme. Perhaps it’s the lack of hobbits in general. Perhaps it’s the newfound toy Bilbo has that draws his darker side out. Perhaps it’s a creative choice to show all, or most of the main characters allowing their negative traits to shine through, leading them on dangerous paths. By themselves, all of these reasons would be solid markers to prove the lack of heart in the film, but together it snowballs into an unenjoyable conglomeration of CGI set pieces and choreographed battles.
Even the lightest part of the film involving the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) had no resonance once I learned that she was a completely fabricated character. I made a point not to read The Hobbit, as I figured that three films totaling 8 hours would probably provide all the narrative I needed. Finding out after the film that Tauriel was invented for this film was disheartening- after all, if Tolkein’s work alone, and Jackson’s prowess aren’t enough, why would we be interested? I think the answer lies in a cynical place- Tauriel exists to soften the edges, to attract more females to a film with a predominantly male cast, and mostly, to bring in more money.
Thus far, Jackson has been able to deftly navigate the muddied waters of studio interests, rights issues, fanboys, and casual viewers. Choosing to include a character not previously established, combined with the need to stretch this material into three films, disappoints me. I guarantee it has been difficult for Jackson to satisfy everyone, but I cannot deny the negativity that has now gathered around what had been a relatively pure experience for me. Call me naive, but that’s where I stand.
If there is one thing that works extremely well, it’s certainly the realization of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on-screen. If Smaug were in the rest of the film, I’d have to reconsider my overall opinion. Sadly, he’s only part of roughly 45 minutes, and it’s clearly the high-water mark for the film. Smaug’s slithering, booming voice strikes an excellent balance as he exchanges witty repartee with Bilbo, and his movements are so cool yet menacing that I can’t help but think of him as one of the better ‘villains’ of recent age. It should come as no surprise that he’s the best dragon we’ve ever seen in movies, with respect to Draco of “Dragonheart”, and the Hungarian Horntail of “Harry Potter” fame.
I imagine that the last entry for Middle Earth, next year’s “There and Back Again” will be a better film than this. One can only hope that Jackson has remembered what made these films the experiences they are as he finishes the editing process- they are deeply rooted, beautiful to look at, and strong with emotion and heart. The first two things are abundant in “The Desolation of Smaug”, but the heart is sorely lacking, turning this into an exercise in action choreography and CGI set pieces, nearly redeemed by a scaly talking monster.
*note- I saw this in 2D instead of the ‘groundbreaking’ High Frame Rate 3D format introduced with the last film. While I slightly regret this after taking in Smaug’s antics, I still don’t know if the HFR format is a thing or not. If you’ve seen it in HFR 3D, please, please let me know what you thought.
“Out Of The Furnace” ****1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard
Written by: Scott Cooper and Brad Inglesby
Directed by: Scott Cooper
**Caution- spoilers ahead**
Recently, a professional film critic explained to me why certain films affect us more than others. While discussing the wonderful film “Once”, I confessed how emotional it made me feel, and how involuntary a reaction I had. He described the feeling as a movie ‘breaking down our defenses’, and that great films can have that effect. I had a similar reaction watching “Out Of The Furnace”- it stirred up strong emotions about family, brotherhood, and community, and does so in a straightforward, subtle way. This is one of the best films of 2013, bolstered by strong performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Forest Whitaker, as well as a simple yet powerful script.
This is a film that gives us something generally missing in films these days- integrity as it pertains to masculinity. I am generally worn out by ‘guy’ films today- too many bulging biceps, slow-motion violent battles, and a great deal of ‘talk’ about honor, strength, loyalty, etc. Those are not bad things in small doses, but their bombastic nature has left me yearning for a film that doesn’t need brawn, per se, to define manhood. Christian Bale (in another appearance-transforming role) plays Russell Baze, a hard-working, caring, and tender man who seems to have found a particular comfort in his life. One moment of bad luck changes his life- a moment that only exists because his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has found trouble again, and he ends up in prison. Some understand that situation more than others, i.e., a sibling that cannot escape their own demons, and it ends up affecting their own lives. However, we do it, because it’s the right thing to do; we should take care of our family, and at least afford the opportunity for change to troubled family members. After all, we cannot choose our family, but we can choose what to do about it.
Russell Baze accepts his fate in prison, and makes the necessary changes to better himself in preparation for release. When Russell is released from prison, his world has changed- his father has died, his girl couldn’t wait for him and now dates the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker), but his brother is still in a state of flux. Rodney can’t hold down a job, gambling, drinking, and fighting to make ends meet and escape the demons he has from 4 tours of Army duty. The two brothers need each other, and Rodney seems to finally realize that when he takes ‘one last fight’, the famous last words of every boxer and cat burglar.
The local greasy town bookie (Willem Dafoe), cares for Rodney, but cares about himself and money more. Therefore, he agrees to send Rodney to a fight in the backwoods of New Jersey, where the stakes and money are higher. Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things in that area, including the local drug and fight scene. Harlan is a sociopathic, redneck tough guy, played by the only person I can think of in that role. It’s menacing enough, sure, but there is no nuance- the man is a straight up psychopath, and a mean one at that. It’s his scene, and therefore his rules (although I imagine anywhere for him is considered his dominion). Therefore, it’s no surprise when Rodney finds himself in danger at the hands of Harlan, apparent King of the New Jersey Woodsmen.
A lesser film might have made the decision to make this a straight revenge story following this moment, but director Scott Cooper (also of the very good “Crazy Heart”) elevates the material. It seems like a virtual certainty that once Russell learns of the bad news about his brother that a bloodbath will ensue. Instead, the film responds with subtlety- Russell and his uncle (Shepard) simply get in a truck, armed with the information they have and a few bullets, and head straight into the hornet’s nest for Rodney. We can call it revenge, but I think this movie tells us that they believe they are simply doing right by their family. The understated love for each other that this family shows on-screen lends credence to this thought, and helps me understand why they would risk their own lives and well-being instead of allowing the seemingly helpless police force take care of business.
Another thing worth mentioning- while Rodney is at Harlan’s mercy, Russell and his uncle hunt deer, which gives the movie two opportunities. First, we can see how deftly they move about the woods, using patience and cunning to trap a deer, and the respect they give the process. It also gives us a chance to see Russell pause as he stares down a deer in his sights. We sense in that moment the clarity and peace he has, and the first part of his life, with all of the pain and joy he’s had coming to a stopping point, which then leads into the second stanza of his life, and the pain he’s about to experience. It’s a powerful moment looking back on the film, one that will stay with me.
There’s also something to be said about the setting of the film, our nation’s rust belt, and changes taking place there as the steel industry grows stagnant. Characters even talk about the changes briefly, as Russell himself works at the local mill. An entire way of life in this area of the country is close to becoming irrelevant; I’m not sure the director wants us to think about the societal impact of outsourcing, but it certainly provides a parallel and relevant backdrop to the story of two brothers, one clinging to the old guard of manual labor, and the other who can’t find a solid second option, thus turning to the underbelly of the area. When I look back at this film as a whole, the setting certainly contributes to the powerful reaction I had.
I blame myself for not being incredibly excited to see this film- the trailers, using Pearl Jam’s “Release” as background, gave me the idea that we’d get a typical story about backwoods justice and bombastic themes of revenge. Instead, this is a powerful, personal film that succeeds on the conviction of the script and the subtlety of the performances. This time, when a trailer touts all of the Academy Award wins/nominations, it’s certainly applicable. As I mentioned before, we can’t always choose our family, but we can choose what to do about that. I can’t think of another film that gives a better example of this, and treats the material with such respect, not to mention a more accurate depiction of what honor and integrity and manhood should be. This is one of the best films of the year, and I’m happy to be wrong about it.
**note- Listen to the “I Hate Critics” podcast, up early to mid next week, and hear myself, Bob Zerull, and professional film critic Sean Patrick discuss this very film. Visit http://www.ihatecritics.net to see more, or like them or myself on Facebook. Follow I Hate Critics on Twitter @H8Critics, or myself at @FFPerspective. Thank you so much for listening/reading!**
“Frozen” **** (out of 5)
Starring (the voice talents of): Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, and Santino Fontana
Written by: Jennifer Lee, story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Shane Morris, inspired by the story The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
For nearly twenty years now, Pixar has dominated the animated scene by making far superior films than the competition, including their mouse-eared partner’s in-house efforts. Now that Pixar creator John Lasseter appears to be in charge of Disney’s animated projects, it is clear that a changing of the guard is taking place. Old is colliding with new at Disney, and the culmination of this event takes place with the stunning “Frozen”, a beautiful, touching film with better than average musical numbers, and an unfortunately bland title. If this is where new Disney begins, amazing cinematic experiences lie before us.
The symbolic merging of old and new begins before the film itself in the form of a new film short starring, of course, Mickey Mouse and friends. What appears at first to be an old “Steamboat Willie” cartoon quickly comes to life, going from black and white to color and three-dimensional characters. The short is clearly representative of what has made the company great in the past, and what is expected to come. As a bonus, children today may be familiar with these old characters due to the popularity of the newer “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” show. Seeing them rendered in 3D isn’t a shock to their system like it is for us; conversely, they may be shocked to see the 3D characters in black and white. This interesting amalgamation of technology and nostalgia not only gives us some laughs, but sets a specific tone for “Frozen”.
The film itself begins with a montage of melancholy. Young sisters (and princesses to boot) Anna and Elsa are playing in the palace, when younger Anna prods Elsa to ‘use her powers’. It appears that Elsa can make and manipulate the cold from her fingertips, and in a freak accident, Elsa harms her sister to the point where Anna needs ‘magical’ treatment, and cannot remember the injury. These events lead to an understandable, if not shortsighted overreaction by the king and queen to isolate their ‘dangerous’ daughter until she can learn to ‘control’ her power.
Unfortunately, they can’t control turbulent seas, and they perish- leaving Elsa and Anna alone to mourn their parents and grow up separate from each other. The distance between them becomes exaggerated over time, until they barely know each other by the time Elsa becomes the queen. Perhaps the original story by Hans Christian Andersen tells us (I haven’t read it), but there is no mention in the movie of a curse put on Elsa, or an evil witch, or some poisoned fruit she eats that causes her to have powers. It simply exists, meaning Elsa transfers all of the blame to herself. She’s been isolated and riddled with so much guilt, self-doubt, and angst that you can’t help but feel for her. Keeping that in mind, when her bubble bursts (and it does), it’s frightening and gratifying all at once. She escapes the kingdom, retreating to the mountains to be alone. Her ‘outburst’ turns into one of the most magnificent animated spectacles you’ll ever see; exquisitely beautiful, yet strikingly dangerous as it covers the kingdom in ‘eternal winter’ (it’s called ‘eternal’, but how do we arrive at that conclusion? There is no explanation)
Anna goes after her sister, meeting the rugged yet approachable Kristoff (an ice salesman) and his pal reindeer Sven along the way. Naturally, they join the search. These two have an interesting relationship as it pertains to animated films- Sven doesn’t talk, but Kristoff holds a conversation with him nonetheless. As other critics have pointed out, a Disney movie of yore would’ve given Sven the ability to talk; shifting the way that it’s presented gives the film a different, and dare I say better, dimension. Another character joins the fray on the way to confront Elsa- a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who can talk. Olaf is a memorable character, in the same vein as Donkey from “Shrek”- a silly yet endearing sidekick. The movie’s biggest laughs come from him.
The inevitable confrontation between Elsa, her sister, and the frightened citizens of the snow-covered kingdom resolves itself soon enough. The conclusion is satisfying, sure, but more important is the way in which it concludes. The heroines, one a queen and the other a princess, are allowed to persevere without first securing a ‘Prince Charming’, or tying their fates to the procurement of a love interest. I love that the filmmakers respect their audience, children and adults alike, enough to give their female leads a different solution. What results is far more powerful and satisfying.
Again, we can see the changing of the guard clearly through the lenses of “Frozen”. It’s not a perfect film- in particular, I’d say some of the lyrics in the musical numbers are downright comical, and the title is particularly lame (why not just go with “The Snow Queen”?). On the whole, however, “Frozen” strikes a near-perfect balance between emotion and comedy that brings traditional Disney storytelling into a new age. It’s by far the best animated film of the year, and although it may not sit at the head table with other Disney heavy-hitters like “The Lion King”, I think it’s fair to say it’s not far behind.
*note- I saw this in 2D, and instantly regretted it. The natural way that snow and ice looks in this film would have seemingly popped off the screen had I seen it in 3-D. That isn’t often something I clamor for.
*** Feel free to listen to me talk about this review as I make another guest appearance on the “I Hate Critics” podcast with host Bob Zerull and professional film critic Sean Patrick. The website is http://www.ihatecritics.net, and you can find the podcast link there, or search for it on iTunes. Thank you for reading and/or listening. 🙂 ***