Aloha *** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, Danielle Rose Russel, Jaeden Lieberher, and Bill Murray
Written and directed by: Cameron Crowe
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
A common thread running through the films of Cameron Crowe is the flawed hero. Whether it’s Lloyd Dobler awkwardly pursuing his future plans, Jerry Maguire fumbling through his professional and love life, or Drew Baylor contemplating life and death, we know what to expect from a Crowe lead. We can only speculate as to whether this reflects his own personality and challenges, or is simply derivative of where his mind goes to find a story. Unsurprisingly, Aloha has much of the same DNA as his other films, flawed hero and all. It’s because of that DNA that we recognize where Crowe wants to go with this latest entry. I accept and applaud Aloha in spite of continued problems with character development and focus from the director, and love the handful of scenes in which the film works. It is a film whose characters resemble the ‘realness’ we love about other Crowe movies, but places them in odd, unclear situations at times, without allowing them to breathe. Amidst problems involving the studio and leaked emails, the supposed trouble surrounding Aloha leads me to believe that Crowe had something, but may have lost most of it in the shuffle.
Bradley Cooper and his baby blues star as Brian Gilcrest, a “contractor” for the military. I have no idea what that means, and the film only shows him as a “contractor” for a brief time. What we do know is that people make fun of him for flubbing a past assignment in Afghanistan, and that he sustained a lasting injury as a result. He’s managed to get a second chance “contracting” under the watchful gaze of Carson Welch (Murray), one of the world’s wealthiest men. Welch has a penchant for aerospace engineering, too. Think Richard Branson without the music, or Elon Musk with less philanthropy, then insert everything we expect from a Bill Murray performance.
This new “contracting” gig is in Hawaii, of all places. For 99% of us that means absolute joy, but for Brian, this is a painful homecoming of sorts. His escort en route to the local Air Force Base is John “Woody” Woodside (Krasinski), a hot-shot pilot that just happens to be married to his former love Tracy (the always radiant Rachel McAdams). Awkward! She doesn’t know he’s coming, so when he arrives, the jolt of emotion is enough to throw her out of whack. We’re sure this is bound to cause issues because 1) Rachel McAdams was cast for a reason, and 2) she’s so flustered upon first seeing him that she ends up extending a dinner invite.
We also see that the Air Force has assigned an escort to Brian in the form of pilot Allison Ng (Stone). Allison is an energetic, no-nonsense woman whose presence seems to encourage the positive side of Brian’s otherwise cynical personality to emerge. Being a ‘quarter Hawaiian’, she’s also in tune with the history of the islands, and what natives consider to be spiritual. That’s a big help for Brian’s first “mission” in his new job. He is to get “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself), a native considered the heir to the throne of the lost Hawaiian crown, to ‘bless’ the site of a new base for a joint Air Force/civilian project. This project will launch satellites above Hawaiian airspace, a delicate subject considering how sacred these skies are to native islanders. These scenes with Bumpy’s clan are much of the film’s heart, and reveal both Brian and Allison’s true natures and ideals, not just as officers filling a post.
What follows for the remainder of the film’s story cannot be easily summed, for it is a wee bit rushed and at times hard to follow. Brian must deal with his conflicting feelings for Tracy and Allison, try to mend his reputation, stay true to the promises he made to “Bumpy”, perform in his new job (whatever it is that he actually does), and come to terms with the conflict inherent in each. Aloha loses points here in this second act by rushing to the conclusion, in spite of strong singular moments. It does seem odd, though, coming from a director known for letting moments ‘breathe’, that his latest film seems hurried. So odd, in fact, that I wonder if it was really a choice he was had to make.
It does appear as if the theatrical version of Aloha is an abridged version of the film, made to satisfy the corporate souls that financed the film instead Crowe’s devoted, established audience. Much has been made about former Sony president Amy Pascal’s disdain for the film, as witnessed in the leaked emails back in 2014, but after seeing the film, I’m unsure which party is at fault. After all, the romance between Allison and Brian simply feels rushed, not forced. The plot appears incomprehensible at times, but how much of that is a studio trimming? If it sounds like I’m making excuses for Crowe, well, I am. Other than the manically unfocused Elizabethtown, I’ve known nothing but positive experiences with his films. His characters are almost always interesting, and they are in Aloha too- it just doesn’t appear they were allowed to ‘breathe’. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the studio meddled with the final product.
The film has also come under some heavy fire for casting Stone, a Caucasian, in a role for someone described as part Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. In most cases, I fully understand complaints of whitewashing, and sympathize with how damaging that can be to a population. Aloha seems different, however. The film doesn’t ignore the traditions of the native people, and in fact, seems to wholly embrace them as the most honorable of all involved. I already mentioned Bumpy Kanahele’s role, one I feel is important in pointing out what I feel is not exploitative on Crowe’s part. He has since apologized for the casting decision, but does he need to? The problem with crying ‘whitewashing’ in this case is that the accusers assume they know what an individual of Chinese, Hawaiian, and white heritage should look like, and then they place that assumption on the role. I’m happy to hear the other side of the argument, but knowing a bit about Cameron Crowe, and knowing that he based the character on a real-life person he knew seems to speak against the uproar in this case.
The final word on Aloha is, well, incomplete. If any film in the past five years deserves a director’s cut, I’d vote for this one. The performances are quite strong, the emotion is real and deserved, and as usual, the music of a Crowe film stands out. It simply doesn’t play like a full idea realized on-screen. Cameron Crowe still delivers a modicum of sensible adult interaction, romance, and humor that is accessible for everyone from teenagers to seniors. I don’t mean that to say Aloha is ‘gentle and pleasant’, but like most of his films, it connects with the audience. His characters have emotions that run deep, and they often wear them on their sleeves. We root for his flawed heroes, and for the well-rounded characters that usually litter the screen around them. I liked this film for its’ warmth, its’ honesty, and for some unexpected character moments that are just out-of-bounds enough to keep the film from being predictable. That being said, let’s hope for an “Untitled” version of this, to fully grasp what Crowe wanted to say. It’ll complete you.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper
Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner (screenplay); Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, & James Vanderbilt (screen story). Based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Directed by: Marc Webb
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
It would be perfectly understandable for audiences to feel cynical about the ‘Spider-Man’ films. After all the time, money, and emotional investment both the filmmakers and audiences shelled out for Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Sony “rewarded” everyone by hitting control-alt-delete on the franchise simply out of laziness and rights retention issues. Coupled with the obvious fact that the first “Amazing” entry did little to deviate from the previous films, the whole saga has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.
Now cometh the latest entry, hastily produced to capture whatever unique need we might have had for Marvel’s teenage hero. What are we to make of this latest incarnation, and should we even care? Absolutely, we should. I’m pleased to report that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has most everything I never knew I didn’t have in a Spidey story. Sure, this film exists in a familiar world, but it also offers enough new material and thrills to the point of reinvigorating my interest in the character, errors be damned. It was a monumental task that could just as easily have fallen flat, but director Marc Webb and crew somehow constructed the most enjoyable web-slinger adventure thus far.
Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, whose world has settled a bit after the events of the first film. He’s grown into and loves being Spider-Man, he’s rekindled his romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), and seems to be headed in the right direction on the cusp of high school graduation (let’s ignore that Garfield is 30 years old). In contrast to Raimi’s trilogy, where being a hero seemed such a burden on Peter, he seems to genuinely enjoy his role as hero now, carrying the right balance of braggadocio and humility. Dare I say it, Spider-Man is a heck of a lot of fun in this film.
Part of that comes from perhaps the best pairing of a superhero and love interest on-screen to date. As cliché as it sounds, Stone and Garfield absolutely have great chemistry together. It’s clear to me that they want to kiss each other, and their emotion never seems forced; the fact that they are dating off-screen does add a specific resonance to the fates of both characters. It nearly seemed like these two had already been together for an entire trilogy. Gwen Stacy is simply a worthy partner to Spider-Man’s greatness in every way- she’s self-sufficient, ambitious, resourceful, and so darned understanding of what Peter’s duality is. Garfield himself is far more natural in the role the second time around; he played it oddly in the first, with what I can only describe as emo-twitches.
There is a loose end to tie up from the first film- Peter’s parents. After all, they apparently left forever when he was a young boy, and The Boy Who Would Be Spider-Man has been left to doubt himself and wonder why. That inner battle with his self-doubt is the driving force behind the film’s emotion, and even drives the plot. Peter’s father, a brilliant scientist in his own right, may have been partially responsible for some rather devious experiments while working alongside magnate Norman Osborn (Cooper). This leads to an entire subplot involving a ‘special projects’ department at Oscorp, and the introduction of Norman’s son Harry (DeHaan) and Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Foxx).
Brief as it may be, the dynamic between the elder and younger Osborns is interesting and unexpected. The duality between the two intentionally mirrors that of the Parker father/son duo, and it becomes very clear why Harry is slightly unhinged. He’s trying to become his own man in the shadow of an awful father and a sprawling family business. He’s been in boarding school for a decade. He’s unbalanced. Dane DeHaan pulls off unhinged and unbalanced with ease, and his unconventional delivery, though it may seem odd, serves him well in this role.
Foxx’s Max Dillon is another interesting character, and his story also makes sense. He’s a loner, so much so that he idolizes with extreme prejudice (especially Spider-Man). When he eventually sheds that feeling and reaches his breaking point, it’s logical that he becomes Electro. Electro is a character with some gravity, for the previously powerless Max is granted enormous power, and does not execute that power with great responsibility (see what I did there?). Plus, he’s a dangerous dude, also a little unhinged. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gives us a villains that align out of necessity and are in lock-step with logic. As a result, it feels more satisfying and less forced. It’s ‘logical villainosity’ as I see it.
By my last count, there are many more villains in this film, some not fully realized yet, some perhaps lurking in the darkness. The wise move to focus on just two, however, helps this film stay clutter-free, unlike the famously flawed, overflowing “Spider-Man 3”. On the other hand, merely introducing the idea of additional baddies, gives the architects of this cinematic saga the leeway to plug and play if necessary. It’s a smart move that should satisfy both hardcore fans (put that villain in there!) and casual viewers (that’s not logical!) of the series.
It’s necessary to praise the look of this film as well, for it’s the strongest part. Those that groaned about the special effects in the earliest trailers (myself included) quite simply owe the effects team an apology, for this film is brilliantly rendered, with a vibrant palate that keeps from becoming too colorful. The 3-D effect here was immersive, adding the depth required of a character swinging through the air via webs, or with electricity bounding in all directions. For the first time, Spider-Man doesn’t look like Gumby when he’s CGI gliding in-between skyscrapers. Even New York becomes NEW YORK here, realized better that any film in the series.
My chief complaint with the Raimi films was the ‘stodginess’ of the stories. At nearly every turn, we found some character waxing poetic about power and responsibilities, mixed with Kirsten Dunst turning her head ever-so-slightly followed by another set of maudlin dialogue, and peppered with awkward, forced emotion scenes. To be fair, there are a number of positive aspects of the trilogy as well, but to be honest, I find it forgettable, and something of a chore to watch. On the other hand, Marc Webb has managed to pull off a highly difficult task, creating a technically brilliant film that should satisfy both the die-hard comic fans and the thrill-seeking crowd, all while having to make difficult editing choices and making something seem relevant and not simply setting up another film.
I won’t detail the actual finale to this film, but bold would be the best word to describe it. It’s visceral, and doesn’t cheat; it’s simply there to digest, brilliantly realized without any pulled punches. I found myself liking this so much that I even forgave mishaps like the unfortunate ‘Rhino’ and Ravencroft psychologist characters. With this entry, Webb has made his saga stand apart from Raimi’s, for this is bolder, fresher, far more fun, and less awkwardly operatic than any of the previous four attempts. It ends with a specific momentum, that seems correctly on-track to become something larger. To butcher Dickens’ prose, “it is a far, far better thing that Webb does, than he has ever done” with this sequel.
There was palpable, actual danger in this film, and the stakes just seemed higher. The story’s events led me to believe that they weren’t interested in the same choreographed story line of most superhero films, and the jarring nature of the ending created a tension not present in these films until now. It’s exciting. I actually like Spider-Man a whole lot more than I did before this film, and I’m looking forward to an expanded take on the character and what I presume to be a vast array of nemeses. Bring on Green Goblin. Bring on Vulture. Bring on Dr. Octopus, or Venom, or whomever this creative team decides to throw at Spidey next; it’s no longer a chore to watch him.
*Note- If you’re like me and have become accustomed to waiting until the end of the credits for a specific scene to set up the next film, don’t bother. If you’re interested in a non-sensical, contractually forced teaser clip for rival Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in the middle of this film’s credits, then by all means stay. It was an unfortunate coda.