Month: February 2015

2015 Academy Awards Recap

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oscars

According to some lesser-known social media site called “Twitter”, the 2015 Academy Awards took place this past Sunday.  Host Neil Patrick Harris got in a few fine jabs at both the Academy and the audience, but his ‘prediction box’ bit fell flat.  The show was a mix of awkwardness and fine acceptance speeches, especially from Patricia Arquette, Common & John Legend, and screenwriter Graham Moore.

Aside from the severe lack of Gone Girl nominations, I suppose the show was interesting enough.  As for predictions, my Oscar ballot was awfully inaccurate, but I’d like to share what maybe should have won in the major categories:

 

Best Picture
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred Winner- Gone Girl
*Rationale- Birdman is a fine movie, and a worthy nominee. However, I counted 11 films I liked more this past year, most of all the absolute perfection that is Gone Girl. I’m bummed that Hollywood couldn’t help but honor a movie about itself. Go head and be narcissistic, Academy, but you got it wrong.

Best Actress
Actual winner- Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Preferred winner: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Still Alice, and I love Julianne Moore in most everything. There’s just no way that it’s better than the subtle psychopathy on display from Pike. It’s something I’ll remember for years.

Best Actor
Actual winner- Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Preferred winner- Michael Keaton in Birdman
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Redmayne’s performance, but too often the Academy awards the physical performance over the more resonant one. Keaton has been overlooked for decades now, and his brilliant turn as a has been seeking admiration is just right; despite what he says, I believe it’s easy to draw parallels between the man and his character.

Best Supporting Actress
Actual winner- Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Preferred winner- Emma Stone in Birdman
*Rationale- Arquette was excellent in Boyhood, but the little bit of Emma Stone we see in Birdman was the best supporting performance. One specific scene, an encounter with her father (Keaton), showcases her range. It’s truly brilliant, considering the lengthy shots this film has, being able to put that performance together without breaking.

Best Supporting Actor
Actual winner- J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Preferred winner- J.K. Simmons
*Rationale- In my estimation, there wasn’t a better performance all of last year. Simmons was the ultimate villain, full of fire, brimstone, cold calculation, deceit, and the belief that he was right. It’s the perfect formula. The idea that Whiplash was inspired by true events is frightening. Simmons gave the performance of a lifetime.

Best Animated Film
Actual winner- Big Hero 6
Preferred winner: How To Train Your Dragon 2
*Rationale- Big Hero 6 is not a bad movie, but its’ manga sensibilities dragged it down, resulting in a very underwhelming film. The marketing team did their jobs very, very well. HTTYD 2 is a superior film, in both scope, humor, and heart; how the Academy didn’t see that is beyond me. My guess is they shied away from a sequel title. One must wonder what they were doing here, especially with the omission of the popular Lego Movie.

Best Score
Actual winner- Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Preferred winner- Danny Bensi/Saunder Jurrians for Enemy and Mica Levi for Under the Skin
*Rationale- There is never anything special about the prolific Desplat’s work, nothing memorable, only distracting. It’s as if he cannot help but bore the listener. Some may dismiss this category, but to me, the score can make or break the film, and too often, Desplat’s music distracts. The tense, terse strings of Enemy and Under the Skin have cues that call to mind the best parts to Bernard Herrman’s brilliant Vertigo score, yet still maintain their own off-putting nature. The Academy often has no balls to nominate the right score, let alone choose the right winner. No exception here.

Best Original Song
Actual winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma 
Preferred winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma
*Rationale- For the first time in recent memory, there were a plethora of decent original songs, from the adult-contemporary tune from Begin Again to the hyper beats of “Everything Is Awesome”.  “Glory” deserves the win, however, for its’ power and quality.  John Legend’s pointed comments while accepting the award absolutely rang true.

Best Visual Effects
Actual winner- Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher for Interstellar
Preferred winner- Insterstellar
*Rationale- Complain all you want about Interstellar’s story- I don’t think complaints for the visual effects would hold up.  Aside from some impressive visuals in Guardians of the Galaxy, no film compared to Interstellar’s innovative designs, especially for the robots.

Best Original Screenplay
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred winner: The 4 writers of Birdman (based on the actual nominations; Damien Chazelle for Whiplash based on my preference)
*Rationale- Oscar basically got this one right based on the nominations, for it’s one of the more original, interesting ideas in recent memory. If Whiplash would have been in this category, I’d have chosen it; however, Oscar got lazy and placed it in the “adapted” category. Whiplash was an incredible battle of wills, begging the question “what price greatness”, and creating the most memorable villain in recent memory (J.K. Simmons).

Best Adapted Screenplay
Actual winner- Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Preferred winner- Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
*Rationale- No disrespect for Mr. Moore, whose acceptance speech was incredibly courageous and important. However, watching Inherent Vice was a complete trip, and there is no way I’m NOT quoting it five years from now. That’s the mark of brilliant writing, and what PTA adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel.

Best Foreign Language Film
Actual winner- Ida
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Ida, or any of the foreign language film nominees this year.  Ida is readily available on Netflix, however, and I’m keen to watch it.

Best Documentary
Actual winner- CitizenFour
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the nominated documentaries this year.  I did see a number of other excellent docs however, including the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. The acceptance speech given by Laura Poitras, CitizenFour’s director, was another poignant moment, warning us to always guard our freedoms.

Best Cinematography
Actual winner- Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman
Preferred winner- Bradford Young for Selma
*Rationale- Birdman was certainly a genius cinematic achievement, and the camera work was something special.  However, I understand cinematography as the film that truly looks the best.  To me, Bradford Young’s work on Selma was unmatched this year, cloaking the film in an almost sepia tone, taking us back 45 years into one of the United States’ darkest hours.  Nothing against Lubezki, a true master and Oscar winner from just last year, but Young’s work deserved more notice.

Best Production Design
Actual winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Preferred winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
*Rationale- I may not have enjoyed the film, but Stockhausen’s production design was a standout, for sure.  From the pink hotel to the red-lined elevators and postcard-esque exteriors, I admit that the clearly painstaking detail that was put into that production’s design was the high point of the film.

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Mini Film Reviews (Moon, The Hurt Locker, How To Train Your Dragon)

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Moon role models the hurt locker

Note- the following mini film reviews were from 2010 on a different blog that I no longer run.

Role Models (***1/2)-  This is one of those movies I said I wouldn’t see (because penis and boob jokes usually bore me), but I watched it to appease friends that insist I’m a movie snob.  Admittedly, this isn’t too bad, and in parts, I laughed heartily.  I also appreciated how the geek culture was both roasted and praised at the same time, as well as the skewering of the ‘energy drink’ industry.  I recommend this with a caveat:  I want comedies to stop being so formulaic (i.e. immature/lazy characters get drunk/high, lose/almost lose their forgiving girl, turn the corner, make a big mistake, and then go to great lengths to make everything better).  I hope the next comedy involving Paul Rudd isn’t so telegraphed.

Step Brothers (*1/2)-  Aside from the occasional humorous line (one delivered by a little girl, and one that you can only find in the DVD’s deleted scenes), I’d have to say I was really disappointed with this.  Adam McKay (Anchorman– my #3 funniest film) directs, so where does it go wrong?  Well, even in silly comedies, I still expect some semblance of sense.  This is a jumbled mess that extends a 5 minute idea (Hey!  We’re 40 and live with our parents!  How sad is that?!) into a feature.  I split this up into two viewings and still almost dozed off the second time around.  There are two types of Will Ferrell movies: Good, (Anchorman, Stranger Than Fiction, Elf)  and really bad (Superstar, Semi-Pro, Talladega Nights).  This falls into the latter category.

The Hangover (**1/2)–  For all the hoopla, I’m ultimately left wondering what the big deal is.  Sure, there are random funny moments (mostly the scenes stolen by Zack Galifianakis), and it wasn’t terrible by any means, but is this all we get for the top grossing comedy of all time?  I shouldn’t expect much from director Todd Phillips (‘Road Trip’, ‘Old School’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’), and this is definitely his best effort, but for the praise this one gets, I’m kind of bummed that this wasn’t funnier.  There’s too much Mike Tyson (one scene was enough), and I’m worn out with the whole ‘what happens in Vegas’ schtick.  Debauchery is only funny the first hundred times.  I really wanted it to be legendarily funny.

Tron (**)  In anticipation of the Christmas 2010 sequel ‘Tron Legacy”, I wanted to bone up on the original.  I had to remind myself that in 1982 this was something of a groundbreaking film in the area of visual effects (from what I’ve read).  However, in contrast to other sci-fi flicks that HAVE stood the test of time (Star Wars), the effects in this film are extremely dated…and it’s also a rather dull movie with dull characters, centered around the idea that computer programs can interface with real people, or ‘users’., and one such self-aware program wants to ‘rule the world’ or whatever.  The whole ‘computers taking over’ thing may have originated here (I’m not sure), but the ‘Terminator’ franchise has beat that idea into submission, along with countless other cautionary tales of technology.  I saw this when I was younger, but I never clamored to watch this like the other classics of the time, and I think I know why now.  The trailer for ‘Tron Legacy’ is far more interesting than any 2 minutes of this film.  It was probably way cooler back in 1982, but good movies always stand the test of time, shoddy effects or not.

The Hurt Locker (*****)- The most recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a truly great movie.  I say that even though I, like others, have grown tired of the slew of Iraq war movies in recent years.  I’ll also admit that I was apprehensive because I hadn’t been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work.  However, there’s not a moment that I wasn’t on the edge of my seat.  It’s cliché to say that, but I’m not kidding; this is an intense film.  I think we all understand by now that ‘war is Hell’, but this film doesn’t concentrate on that.  For some, adrenaline is addictive, and for the lead character, played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, the adrenaline rush war provides is a drug.  If there can be such a thing as a ‘fresh perspective’ on war, this film offers it, and does so in great fashion, following a bomb squad on various missions.  On a side note, I’m incredibly pleased that this won Best Picture at the Oscars over Avatar.  I enjoyed that, but only in the area of technological innovation was it superior to The Hurt Locker.  It’s good to know that using politics to sway voters during Oscar season this year didn’t work.

Bruno (***)-  Right after I watched this, I commented on Facebook that I’d never been so entertained and appalled at the same time.  I think that pretty much encapsulates this movie.  Sacha Baron Cohen, as the faux Austrian fashion guru, does everything he can to shock the viewer, and succeeds in that arena.  Occasionally, the gratuitous nature of the movie was a bit much, but at other times I was in stitches- not ‘Borat’ stitches, but still.  Afterwards I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t as entertained by this as I was ‘Borat’, but considering the bar that Cohen set for himself, anything short of that was going to let me down.  Slight spoiler alert:  the scenes with the reforming minister and the large crowd at the end are a little too real to be funny.  It’s unfortunate how pervasive bigotry can be.

Drag Me To Hell (***)-  Full disclosure- I can’t stand the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, or Army of Darkness, the supposed legendary starter films for director Sam Raimi.  However, he has made really good movies since then (A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 2), so I know he’s capable.  Keeping that in mind, and knowing that Alison Lohman was the lead (big smile), I figured I’d watch this with mild expectations.  I had also heard that this was somewhat ‘light’ on the horror and occasionally humorous- which ends up being the case. Lohman’s character is your average girl, trying to ‘make it in this world’, and thus takes a risk that ends with a curse being placed on her.  This film takes the curse very seriously.  The lengths her character has to go through in an attempt to rid the curse make this an entertaining, and at times, mildly scary film.  I’d have preferred that Raimi drop the amusing moments altogether and do a more ominous straight-up horror flick.  I think that would have capitalized on the real strong points of the movie, the scary moments.  (SPOILER ALERT): I was surprised to have enjoyed it, and was particularly taken aback by the ending, which was timed perfectly…not too much time in between the climax and the end, and thus we aren’t sure if there’s more coming or not.  The look on Justin Long’s face in the final shot is one I can imagine myself having.

Moon (*****)- I was so excited to see this little independent sci-fi film that I rushed to the computer to see which one of our theaters was going to carry it when it released.  Alas, NEITHER of them did.  Very, very disappointing.  I’d have thought that a film starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey’s voice would be somewhat attractive.  Of course, there must not have been room for this film when theaters had to have 10-15 showings of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen each day.  (Sigh)  Moon concerns astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell), who is nearing the end of a three-year mining shift on the Moon when he comes across an odd occurence while out in a rover: himself.  Kevin Spacey voices the robot GERTY, who runs things at the moon base, including the medical functions.  This is a deeply engrossing film that is part sci-fi, part character study.  I’m stunned Sam Rockwell wasn’t nominated for Best Actor; if you see the film, you’ll understand specifically why it must have been a difficult role to pull off, and he was fantastic.  Not everyone can show patience with films like this (sci-fi ‘thinking’ movies), but if you can be, it’ll be rewarding.  My only beef is with the typeface used during the trailer and credits, which is again the same unoriginal drivel that everyone uses to ‘appeal to a certain demographic’ (sigh x 2).

The Spirit (no stars)-  This will be short, mainly because it only warrants a short review.  This is an evil, terrible movie, with no direction and no value whatsoever.  Even Samuel L. Jackson yelling isn’t the least bit satisfying.  I had better check out one of Will Eisner’s comics to see if the source material is better, because this just sucks.

Gone Baby Gone (****1/2)-  Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a well-acted, emotional thriller that basically forces the viewer to examine some of their own thoughts.  Based on the book by well-known author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a visceral film that deftly runs the gamut from child abduction to police corruption.  No scene is wasted, especially those involving Amy Ryan, who plays the drug-abusing mother of the abducted child.  After seeing her in ‘The Office’ first, I couldn’t help but be slightly shocked each time she swore or did something despicable.  Ed Harris is brilliant (again) as a cop with a unique perspective on justice, and Casey Affleck is surprisingly effective as the street-smart private detective that has to make the tough choices once he’s in over his head.  I looked back to see what was nominated for Best Picture the year this film came out, and both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are films I consider on par with or better than this, but I cannot believe this didn’t get at least a nomination over ‘Juno’, which I couldn’t stand.  I’m not sure I should feel comfortable quite yet, but based on this film, I admit I’m looking forward to Ben Affleck’s next directorial venture, The Town, which seems to have a nice little cast.  (*note- I’ve since seen both The Town and Argo, and they’re both brilliant)

Zombieland (****)-  I like my post-apocalyptic films to be a bit more serious, so I can really get a feel for the desolate nature of a world on the brink of extinction.  However, this was just plain fun.  It follows two, then four, survivors of a virus outbreak that has, as you guessed it, turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies.  The zombie thing is incredibly overdone, but this film isn’t concerned so much with the zombies as it is with the characters, and how they’ve learned to survive.  Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland’ is the main character, who suffers from a lack of self-esteem, but has made a list of ways to survive in Zombieland, a list that brought a smile to my face.  Woody Harrelson is the gun-loving redneck (no WAY) that has a soft side, and Emma Stone teams up with Abigail Breslin as con-artist sisters.  Zombieland is effective in part because it knows not to take itself too seriously.  It also has some fun set pieces, like the mansion of a celebrity (I won’t give it away), a grocery store, and an amusement park to play with the zombies.  I imagine that if ‘The Sims’ and ‘Resident Evil’ software joined together, we’d probably get something similar to this film.

Iceman (1984) (****)-  An effective film starring Timothy Hutton as an anthropologist who tries to connect with a 40,000 year old thawed out prehistoric man.  This could have been silly, but the performances are superb, especially John Lone as ‘Charlie’, the ‘iceman’.  I think anyone that can make a 40,000 year old person seem realistic deserves some kudos.  Also, there is actual science used and discussed throughout the entire ‘thawing’ process, not just a montage of scenes to move the plot along.  Look for Danny Glover in a role as a gamekeeper, and the principal from the Back To The Future films, James Tolkan.  I used to watch this often when I was younger, and I just revisited it a couple of weeks ago as a streaming file via Netflix online.  The film quality was incredibly poor, but I’m hoping that someday Universal will remaster it on Blu-Ray, and I’ll surely pick it up then.

Bolt (****)-  I’ve had the benefit of getting to know this movie’s ins and outs VERY well, as my son wants to watch it…A LOT.  Bolt is one of those rare Disney animated films that isn’t in the category of The Lion King or Toy Story.  I remember being intrigued by the trailer, which, as it turns out, contains the best jokes from the movie.  It’s an easy to digest movie for kids, and interesting enough for adults.  Bolt is touching without being forced, and I was able to appreciate the subtle humor.  Similar to the ‘Madagascar’ penguins, some quirky pigeons show up for comic relief as well.  You won’t mistake this for the Pixar movies, but it isn’t too far behind.

Love Happens (1/2 star)-   Why did I watch this?  Although I knew everything that would happen based on the trailer, I suppose I got sucked in by the Goo Goo Dolls song playing in the background.  Silly me…  Anyways, Aaron Eckhart stars as a self-help guru that (big surprise) isn’t quite as strong as he seems.  Jennifer Aniston continues to waste screen time as a flower shop owner that makes ‘bad decisions’, even though she OWNS A FLOWER SHOP that is thriving in a big city (Seattle).  But I digress- you can tell what happens based on the title of the movie, and nothing interesting is in between.  Eckhart continues to confuse me- he’s pretty good in some things (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich, In The Company Of Men), and appears miscast in LOTS of stuff (Thank You For Smoking, The Core, Suspect Zero).  That might be the definition of mediocre, I suppose.  I also want Aniston to go away.  I hope that isn’t too harsh.  Do give you an idea of how predictable and bad this is, I had the ‘finger gun’ pointed at my head about a dozen times while watching this.  I’ll state the obvious…sh*t also ‘happens’, thus we have this film.

Pandorum (***)-  It’s really, REALLY hard to find good science fiction films to watch these days.  Usually a film advertised as sci-fi turns out to be a ‘boo’ movie, where things just jump out at characters in between quickly edited shots. Pandorum is a film that I’d generally ignore based on plain old intuition- it has Dennis Quaid in it (strike one), gnarly-looking monsters just to have some (strike two), Paul W.S. Anderson as a producer (strikes three, four, five and six), and the same dreaded, overused, unoriginal typeface for its’ multimedia and credits as countless other movies (strike seven, and I’ll get to the typeface/font thing in another post).  Imagine my surprise when I was halfway through the movie and thought ‘wow, this doesn’t suck’.  That’s a victory in itself, but the film goes further.  To summarize quickly, two confused astronauts/’space military guys’ are on a ship travelling to an Earth-like planet called Tanis with the intention of settling after Earth has crumbled away, (awesome name for all you Raiders Of The Lost Ark fans) and are abruptly brought out of ‘hypersleep’ having to piece together what has happened.  They try to accomplish this all while dealing with monsters that have a curious secret behind their existence.  There are moments in this film that are genuinely creepy, and some occasional dumb moments that do a disservice to the overall intrigue the story has.  When all was said and done, I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  I even purchased it, maybe because if a sci-fi film shows any promise at all, I’m so excited that I think it’s better than it is.

Away We Go (****1/2)-  This might be the most unassuming good movie I’ve ever seen.  John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as 30-somethings who finally decide to get serious about settling down once they learn a baby is on the way.  They travel to various locations across the continent in search for a good place to raise their child, hoping that being around friends or family will ease their fears about parenthood.  What they discover instead makes this film a worthwhile watch, and dare I say, a great watch.  I was surprised once the credits rolled to see that Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) directed.  This had such an indie-film quality to it that I didn’t envision the heir to the James Bond franchise as its’ helmer.  Some critics have called this a snobby movie that imitates indie films in order to attract a certain crowd.  I can see that to an extent- Alexi Murdoch tunes are spattered throughout the film, and the ending was a bit over-played (the only thing keeping it from a straight ‘A’ rating from me), but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it has some important things to say about being a parent and a grownup.  I look forward to seeing this again as soon as possible, and I’d really like to see Maya Rudolph do more dramatic roles.

Inglourious Basterds (****)-  By now, I think we know what to expect with all Quentin Tarantino films, and this time around, we aren’t left wanting.  I wasn’t able to discern whether or not the film had any truth to it (according to history), and even though I doubt it, it doesn’t matter.  Set during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the film centers around a group of Jewish American soldiers charged with the task of killing as many Nazi soldiers and officers as they can, a task for which their enthusiasm has no bounds.  As is the norm for Quentin, smaller stories are intertwined and come together towards the end.  Also, there are some trademark Tarantino graphic scenes, but I will say this- it appeared to me that he held back just a bit on the graphic stuff, and I appreciate that, because I do believe the movie as a whole benefits.  Great performances are abound, but in particular, Christoph Waltz (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) was as deliciously evil as any character you’ll see.  All this said, I’m honestly not sure I liked this as much as Pulp Fiction, or either Kill Bill film.  I suppose that because it isn’t as quotable, it may not be as memorable for me.

9 (***)-  No, this isn’t the recent musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis, or The Nines starring Ryan Reynolds.  This is an animated film from last year that I suspect very few people saw.  I had been intrigued by the trailer, which showcased a post-apocalyptic world with little canvas-stitched ‘beings’ running around.  The trailer also prominently mentioned Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) as executive producers, which didn’t really do anything for me other than convince me that it would be weird.  First off, the animation is brilliantly done, and there is a great deal of character in the ‘beings’.  Many well-known actors gave voices to the ‘beings’ (Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, etc), further adding to their charm.  One may gather while watching this that there are subtle ‘anti-war’ and ‘machines might take over’ messages, and we’ve gone down that road before (see ‘Terminator’ franchise).  There are also evil ‘machines’ that may remind some of the sentinels from the ‘Matrix’ franchise.  Even with recycled messages and machinery, though, this movie works, at least on the visual level.  I applaud director/creator Shane Acker for broadening the scope of his visionary student film, and even if the story isn’t anything new, it’s one of the most fascinating movies I’ve viewed in some time.

How To Train Your Dragon (3D) (****1/2)-  Released last Friday, DreamWorks gives us another CG-animated movie in the spirit of Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens’and Shrek.  Well, almost.  I admit that I haven’t seen the first two, but I have seen the ‘Shrek’ movies, as well as  Madagascar and Over The Hedge, so I have a good idea about what kind of movie DreamWorks animation offers.  I consider them far inferior in comparison to the offerings of Disney/Pixar, even though they are enjoyable.  How To Train Your Dragon belongs in the upper echelon along with the Pixar films.  I found it to be visually striking, humorous, touching, and, at times, even unnerving.  We’ve seen movies before about a boy and his dragon (Pete’s Dragon), and even a man and his dragon (Dragonheart), but somehow the material seems fresh.  There are vikings, dragon training arenas, cool warships, even cooler ‘dragon powers’, and a plethora of ‘fun’ moments.  I never felt that the movie talked down to kids or adults, and nary a ‘corny moment’, typical of kid-themed films, was found.

Without giving up major plot points, I’ll try to summarize: a village of vikings has been at war with various dragons for many years, and one boy, the son of the ‘king’, isn’t really enamored with the prospects of becoming a ‘viking slayer’.  In fact, he’s considered too much of a wimp to ever be considered.  What he does do is manage to corner the most vicious and legendary of the dragons, the ‘night fury’, and what follows turns out to be one heck of a movie.  This was the first film that my son enjoyed in the movie theater, and I can gladly say it was a good choice.  At 3 years old, he (mostly) sat still, even while wearing 3D glasses, and managed to deal with everything well.  Occasionally, the 3D is distracting (I’m still trying to get used to it), but at other times, it’s brilliant.  Also, I mentioned there were ‘unnerving’ parts- I felt there were a few scenes that were a bit too scary for younger viewers, and one in particular that, even in the fantasy realm, was more than I wanted my son to see.  On the whole, though, this is a great movie- no surprise once I saw the credits and noticed that one of the co-directors was Chris Sanders, who gave us Lilo & Stitch.  Those who have seen the ‘Stitch’ character will undoubtedly see some design similarities with the ‘night fury’ dragon.  Highly recommended.

Film Review- Jupiter Ascending (**)

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Yes, that's elf-eared Channing Tatum "air-skating" with Jackie on his back.
Yes, that’s elf-eared Channing Tatum “air-skating” with Jackie on his back.

 

Jupiter Ascending  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy

Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski

 

History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t.  Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying.  Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film.  It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.

Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past.  This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’.  His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen.  Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts.  Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role.  Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.

It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however.  The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her.  Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way.  If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’.  Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense.  What is his problem, really?  If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing?  If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth?  Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?

Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth).  Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife.  Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right?  Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth.  This ‘harvest’ I speak of?  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity.  Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful.  The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.

Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will.  Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here.  They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however.  When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself.  I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus.  Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film?  Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film?  Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema?  Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired?  Maybe he had little to inspire him?  Likely.

Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great.  The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing.   The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received.  At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity.  I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities.  I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction.  After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.

Film Review- ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (*)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the world's most boring naked people.
Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s most boring naked people.

Fifty Shades of Grey  * (out of 5)

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay Harden, and Luke Grimes

Written by: Kelly Marcel (screenplay), based on the novel by E.L. James

Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson

 

The high point (or low, depending on how you see it) of my evening with Fifty Shades of Grey came when I slammed my fingers in a car door following the show.  My shooting pain was coupled with a dose of adrenaline, followed by a not-so-subtle ‘tingling’ sensation.  What a serendipitous event, for it was a stark contrast to what I just saw.  The infamous novel-turned-film left me about as bewildered as one could possibly be after exiting a theater, but one thing was stark in its’ clarity- when an injured middle finger creates more excitement than a film about sexual dominance and submissiveness, you’re doing something wrong.  Should not the ‘global phenomenon’ that is the novel be considered at least a little transcendent to be such a ‘phenomenon’?  Should not the stars of said ‘phenomenon’ be likable, or at least grab our attention?  Should a film adaptation of a novel linked with female sexual empowerment at least dabble in empowerment?

I’m clearly no expert on female sexuality, but if this film is it, the proverbial straw that stirs the drink, then I’m even more perplexed than I already was.  Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, while possessing a clear understanding of how the film should look, has created a very poor final product that only toys with the idea of sexual intimacy.  Taylor-Johnson isn’t bold enough to show us more than brief glimpses of (to be honest) relatively tame sexual encounters between two of the “dumbest smart” characters in recent memory.  One of the stars (Johnson) does what she can to bring the frumpy, precocious Anastasia Steele to life, in spite of how the character is written, and the other- Christian Grey- has the charisma and charm of a sloth (Dornan).  Wait, I’ve seen some mighty enigmatic sloths.  Correction- he has the charisma of a celery stalk.  What does it say for their casting choice when I found myself pining for another wealthy yuppie with perverse tastes (American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman)?  I blame myself for getting caught up in the hype machine, but alas, Fifty Shades is simply a confusing, dreadful film.

Christian Grey is a self-made billionaire, dabbling in something vaguely resembling publishing or business.  By chance, Anastasia Steele (these aren’t REALLY their names, are they?) gets to interview him, and she’s so very intimidated that within five minutes, she’s asking pointed questions.  Christian begins to contact her/stalk her until she relents/agrees, and their odd dalliance begins.  Why would I say odd?  It is clear that she is attracted to him, but he intimidates her.  She seems to enjoy what he’s doing, then she’s turned off by it.  She seems to understand the figurative pool she’s wading in, then seems shocked when it’s water.  It’s clear that he wants her, but despite his multitude of sexual conquests, and a ‘strict adherence’ to the rules, he breaks them.  Dornan’s dull performance would have been far more palatable if his character stuck to what he said or stayed consistent throughout the film.  Are his various ‘shades’ a purposeful choice?  Perhaps, but more than anything, I just want these characters to pick a lane.

Christian and Anastasia continue to beat around the bush (no pun intended) until a fateful moment that I won’t spoil here.  My confusion still lingered, with questions like “Why would she push him to do things he stated he doesn’t do?”, and “Why would she request something and then be angry when he does it?”, or “Why do they have safe words when they don’t bother to use them?”, or “Why am I watching this when the internet gives this stuff away?”.  The film ended abruptly, with a lack of absolution.  Whereas I should have found relief with the end of my frustration, I fantasized about throwing something at the large cineplex screen.  The film’s summary is to not summarize, to drag us on another frustrating adventure two years from now with the inevitable sequel.  In a way, it ended as it began- without purpose, existing to provide cheap water-cooler conversation and collect our dollars.

Most importantly, I wonder how can this be the ‘it’ thing for the sexual zeitgeist and not be very sexy- in fact, paling in comparison to the occasional late night Showtime and Cinemax serial.  E.L. James may have written the erotic coming-of-age tale of our time, but if this is a literal translation, I’m immensely disappointed.  How can this not bother to be all that daring?  What boundaries are actually stretched in Anastasia and Christian’s romps?  I felt going in that I might be torn from my comfort zone, which I welcomed.  I wanted to be a part of a reasonable, progressive discussion about stretching the acceptable limits of sexuality, needs, wants, and desires.  Instead, I’ve never felt such a letdown from such a supposed controversy.  This film isn’t interested in that discussion, at least not without inventing something that truly isn’t there on-screen.

This might actually be the very antithesis of risque- for if it isn’t breaking new ground, how is it an ounce different from the thousands of Fabio-laden tales that preceded?  I concede that this may have worked as a novel, for one is inspired to fill in the gaps with the erotic center of their imagination.  Women, however, do not seem to be as inspired by visual stimuli (or so I’ve experienced), so a film like this would need to succeed in capturing the spirit of what aroused them in the first place.  Does it succeed?  I’m not the audience nor the gender to answer that, but no one can tell me this is a brave film.

If the film has anything to hold onto, I would count Anastasia and Christian’s first entanglement as a plus.  Christian recognizes the moment, and treats it with dignity and passion.  The film allows this to be genuinely thoughtful and almost touching, especially in the way he follows up with her the following morning.  After that, their relationship is simply a conundrum.  They have a rapid buildups of intensity, followed by the agreement to draw up a ‘contract’, defining what is and what is not allowed in their sexual exploits, then spend the rest of the film confusing us.  There is something to the discovery mode of Anastasia’s wants that I wish the story had the nerve to explore.  Sadly, it doesn’t.

Through all of the conjecture on social media over recent years, I developed something of a Christian Grey ‘complex’, wondering if deep down, every woman truly wanted their man to be just like him, or at least have a part of him inside.  That worry and pure insecurity was for a character that turned out to be a gargantuan snooze-inducer.  Perhaps I’ll rest easier now knowing that I have nothing to continue worrying about.  Let’s simply agree that this is simply a series of banal scenes amongst a plethora of erotic encounters.  In other words, I’m placing it on too high a pedestal, and it is simply softcore porn.

What an enormous missed opportunity this film is.  As Fifty Shades of Grey the novel captured the attention of so many, the film could have been something, perhaps the defining film about sexuality in our time.  Instead of the immature giggling surrounding this film and novel, we could have moved forward, truly examining ourselves and asking the real questions about what we’re attracted to, and what we desire.  Maybe the novel has something further to say about the draw for either character to need BDSM in their lives, something that enriches the reasons for it being a huge part of the story.  Maybe Anastasia has an inner dialogue in the book that fills in the gaps that the film offers.  The fact that the film was released on Valentine’s Day weekend is a perfect parallel to the consumer-driven farce that is the holiday.

Call it false advertising, call it hype, call it my heightened expectations, but I desperately wanted to see the film that social media told me I would see. The film fails in its’ inability to present the audience with an honest discussion piece about the merits of its’ subject or introduce any new material regarding the current state of sexual politics.  It doesn’t want to be NC-17, so it cheats by holding back and not presenting the sex in a more visceral, honest way.   If, in fact, this is the tale that jolted the loins of millions- this vapid, tame, cowardly tale, then I can only blame the bedroom partners of those millions for not being their own inspiration.  Lovers of the world- be attentive to your partner.  Learn what pleases them.  Open your minds.  Whatever it takes, I beg you to please your partners so the populace won’t feel the need to celebrate this wooden coward of a film.

Film Review- ‘American Sniper’ (*****)

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Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) reflects after his first combat casualty.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) reflects after his first combat casualty.

American Sniper   ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller 

Written by: Jason Hall (screenplay); based on the book American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Difelice

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

 **POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT**

“In this world, there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”.  That quote, used in the first five minutes of American Sniper by Wayne Kyle, the father of Chris Kyle, is the type of worldview that speaks only to certain people.  I knew nothing of this soldier, and I cannot identify with that ‘alpha male’ type of code, so I began on the wrong path with this film.  Well on my way to labeling it “Right Wing: The Movie”, I paused about ten minutes in, realizing that I was about to despise it for the absolute wrong purpose.

The moral of the story?  Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an irrational, biased view of this film.  A multitude of irrational opinions have already come out on American Sniper, and they are based on the same kind of irrational thought.  The film is simply about a man, and how his unique skills led him to be uniquely affected by a unique conflict.  There are no grandiose political statements in this film, no force feeding of patriotism, and no obvious judgments on who is right or wrong.  Simply, director Clint Eastwood has crafted an interpretation of what made the ‘most lethal sniper in U.S. history’ tick, and what four tours of duty did to that decorated soldier. Eastwood strips away most of the political pretense, and does his best to focus on what made Chris Kyle who he was.  This is one hell of a film– not a work of propaganda.  It manages to satisfy as both an action film and as an emotional roller coaster.

Chris Kyle was clearly affected by the terrorist activity here in the US.  He dropped what he was doing (riding the rodeo circuit), and signed up to be a Navy SEAL.  It obviously takes an extreme amount of dedication to become a SEAL, or at least that’s what I’ve heard (I’m certainly not up to the task).  So we know what type of human being is capable of that extreme training- driven, maybe slightly arrogant, extremely patriotic, and possessing a modicum of natural ability.  The film shows us that from an early age, Kyle was gifted using a weapon, and that’s where he specialized- as a sniper.  We can see even from the film’s trailer the extreme amount of concentration it takes to lay still, sometimes for hours, in the pursuit of a sniper’s mission.  Even then, the choices one is required to make are mind-boggling.  How does one aim at a child, even the child of your enemy, even if it means saving your comrades? (Even if that kill didn’t actually take place)  Wouldn’t that make anyone with a conscience struggle?  Those decisions, which every soldier must make, inevitably create the possibility for a disconnect with reality- or at the very least a disconnect with normalcy.

Eastwood showcases Kyle’s personality by framing the story through his four tours of duty.  Each time he deployed, his situations appeared slightly more dangerous than the previous, and his disconnect appeared to grow along with them.  The more he succeeded at his job, the more notoriety he received amongst his fellow combatants and enemies alike.  The movie seems to indicate that Kyle relished the notoriety, proud to flash his ‘Punisher’ style symbol on his gear and vehicle, marking his territory and giving away his position.  One might say he was pride embodied, toeing the line between brave and brazen.  At the same time, the film showed him as humble in the face of his peers, careful to accept too much praise.  That careful balance Eastwood carries with the film gives the audience the chance to create their own interpretation of the man.  From my perspective, the dread of seeing ‘Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3, and Tour 4’ may be a parallel, on a much smaller scale, to how his wife felt, or what Kyle himself felt. Bradley Cooper gives an incredible, transformative performance here as Kyle. Not only does he undergo the necessary physical transformation, but he somehow one-ups his prior performances on an emotional level here, making us believe in Chris Kyle as a leader of men.

I struggle with the idea of attempting to get inside the head of a soldier, having never had to make the types of serious decisions that they are required to make.  I struggle as I wonder if he was a selfish man for leaving his family over and over.  Did he give in to his competitive urges in his desire to eliminate a rival sniper (a character inspired by various Al Qaeda operatives)?  Was his sense of duty and idea of patriotism so strong that he felt he was the only one to complete the mission, and he felt obligated simply to complete his job?  Did he enjoy what his job was, or did he just see it as a job?  These are the questions that the film asks us to ponder about the man, which brings me to the conclusion that he was very much a complicated man.  I’m torn, for it appears that the right answer involves a little bit of everything.

The pinnacle of the film finds Kyle with a tactical team on a roof as an impending sandstorm lurks in the distance. At that moment, I found myself slowly gripping the arm rests, not sure how to place the anxiety I felt, not knowing how Kyle died, and being certain that something awful awaited him.  That’s the type of tension this film cultivated. I was exhausted at the end, and I don’t feel as though I need to experience it again. The majority of the packed theater I was in stood during the finale, enthusiastically clapping, as one might do a hero returning home.  Seeing the reaction to this film has been like witnessing a cultural phenomenon, especially in how we as a society process and interpret information and entertainment.  It speaks to the divide most of us have about how to process war in general, and how to mend our veterans upon their return.

There isn’t a point of view criticizing this film that really works.  The negative thoughts are all coming from the wrong angle.  It is possible that other veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom experienced a different war than what Chris Kyle did?  Certainly.  It is also possible that various parts of this story have been exaggerated, or in some cases, fabricated?  Most definitely.  Does the film achieve an emotional and tension-inducing level that most films cannot replicate?  Absolutely.  For those filmmaking achievements alone, American Sniper is one of the year’s best films, and may just end up winning best picture.  As for Kyle, the man?  I’d say we’re free to debate what his life was about; the mark of this great film is that it hasn’t decided for us what that is.