Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"The Legend of Hercules": A Herculean Rip-Off That Spartacan't

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Have you seen the Starz show Spartacus?  It’s actually quite good, combining some stylistic action with some fairly in-depth character development.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend giving it a look.  And then, when you’re done with that, never, ever, watch The Legend of Hercules.  This film quite liberally steals some of the major plot points of that show, attempts to condense them into a poorly written script, then tries to simulate the epicness of that show with fight scenes that pale in their choreography and impact.  Sitting through this movie felt like work, more so than any other film I’ve reviewed so far on this site, and after Grudge Match, that means something.  Something horrible.

Let’s get one thing straight here.  Despite the title and the name of the main character, this is NOT the legend of Hercules.  This story bears little resemblance to any mythological story of Hercules.  The closest we see is a scene of Hercules killing the Nemean Lion (with some laughably bad CG and prop work), but then we embark on a tale of Hercules entering gladiatorial slavery only to fight his way to freedom so that he may reunite with his lost love.  Spartacus fans, sound familiar?  However, when we get to the third act, the story adds a messianic twist.  Seriously.  Hercules is tortured publicly and calls upon his father Zeus to imbue him with the strength to escape his bonds.  Push forward to the climax, and a pointless Zeus ex machina shoots down from the heavens and wins Hercules’s war for him, completely removing what little dramatic tension the film had built up to that point.  It doesn’t help that no event feels like it’s an epic battle or emotional character moment; the film is content to treat its plot like a formulaic checklist, moving from point to point without stopping to allow a single scene’s alleged impact to soak in.

Almost none of the performances help this film either.  I can picture almost every single actor watching their payment check being waved just off-screen, for every line of horribly expositional dialogue is uttered with about as much emotion as a concrete block, though to what little credit I can give them, the script doesn’t give them much to work with.  Every line only serves to provide backstory or advance the plot, and the film’s characters are worth absolutely nothing except to play their archetypal roles.  The only actor I saw who actually seemed to give a damn was the one who played Hercules’s best friend and lieutenant, Sotiris.  He was played by Liam McIntyre… who also played Spartacus in the aforementioned TV show.  If anything convinced me of this film being a lazy cash-in on the void that show’s finale has left, it’s that.

The all-important fight scenes aren’t even up to snuff.  Presumably in order to retain a PG-13 rating, there is almost no blood in this film, which makes all the fight scenes feel hollow and without any stakes.  Furthermore, the cinematography makes almost every fight scene incredibly confusing to watch as two stuntmen keep their faces away from the camera so that I can’t tell which character is supposed to be winning in any given encounter.  I will admit that I got a minimum of pleasure from watching Hercules swing stone slabs attached to chains in a very God of War-like scene, but that was mostly because it reminded me of the fun times I had playing that game and not because I appreciated the film itself.

Ultimately, that’s the biggest problem with this movie.  There’s nothing original or likeable about anything it shows us.  It takes elements of 300, God of War, and, most blatantly, Spartacus and tries to lazily throw them together to make something that has none of the creativity that made its forebears any fun to experience.  Don’t watch this movie.  Don’t even look at it.  Pick up the first season of Spartacus instead, and see what you think.  It does everything this movie attempts and doesn’t attempt to do with the gladiator concept, and it does it infinitely better.

If you’ve seen Spartacus, what do you think of it?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Request Review: "In Bruges"

In Bruges is a movie that took me by surprise.  When I read the synopsis before watching the film, I thought that I was in for a good dark comedy with some passable action scenes.  And while the movie is funny a truly bizarre way, I found myself engrossed in the film’s dramatic scenes more than anything.  This is a film rich in character, themes and symbolism, and it was a very welcome surprise to see such a good movie develop from what appears to be such a benign concept.

Hitmen Ray and Ken are sent to Bruges, Belgium to lay low after a hit goes wrong.  Ray killed someone he was not supposed to, and now the two hitmen must wait to hear from their employer to find out what their next move is.  Ray is young, brash, and perhaps the rudest person to ever walk the face of the earth, but Colin Ferrell’s portrayal makes him loveable nonetheless.  Ken is a more experienced and refined professional, interested in seeing the sights of Bruges and taking in the culture.  Of course, Ken acts as Ray’s comedic foil, though surprisingly enough, he isn’t present for many of the film’s funnier moments, like the scenes where Ray insults American tourists or goes on an awkward date.  The film isn’t content to rest its laurels on being a buddy comedy.

Instead, this film delves deep into concepts like guilt, honor, and loyalty throughout the course of a deeply emotional and thought-provoking story.  I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m vague on the details, but none of the twists are worth spoiling to tell how brilliantly implemented they are.  Just believe me when I say that you will be on the edge of your seat, and you’ll still get a few good laughs along the way.
The relationship between Ray and Ken is fantastically realized.  Ray drinks excessively and does drugs, but this is largely a ploy to distract from his own guilt.  Ken tries to be there to mentor the poor rookie, but is equally frustrated by Ray’s incessant childish antics.  The two together have a very strong on-screen chemistry, and it’s hard not to care about how their fates will resolve, especially when their hilariously insane boss enters the picture.  Speaking of, bravo to Ralph Fiennes for his role as said boss, Harry, for every scene he is in he exudes a feebly attempted level of professionalism that only barely hides a whiplash temper and a painfully absolute code of honor.  It’s a remarkably subtle, yet boisterous performance, and his presence is a fantastic addition to the film’s third act.  All three main characters are wonderfully unique and a joy to watch.

There’s also a surprising amount of subtext about purgatory, hell, and punishment for one’s sins, and it is more than welcome how the film takes advantage of its historic setting to play up those literary factors.  The climax in particular calls back to an earlier scene in the film through some fantastically surreal imagery, and it ends the film on a perfect note.  That’s not to say that the film is perfect, though.  I won’t say that I particularly cared for some of the film’s more vulgar jokes, but considering the vulgarity of the particular characters spouting them, I can let it slide.

Overall, In Bruges is a film well worth your time and Netflix subscription.  It’s smartly written, funny as hell, and impossible not to get emotionally invested in.  It’s great choice for an evening alone with a beer and some popcorn.

This was my first Request Review post!  If you have a film that you’d like see reviewed, please post it in the comments below, leave a comment on the PBF Facebook page, or email pretentiousbestfriend@gmail.com!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Big Bad Wolves": Shamelessly Comparing It To Tarantino

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Like me, you probably had never heard of Big Bad Wolves.  However, as I was researching this week's DVD releases, I noticed something... there weren't any.  Except for this one Israeli flick that Quentin Tarantino proclaimed to be his favorite film of 2013.  So I thought to myself, "Alright.  I like Tarantino.  And I could use any excuse possible to put off studying for finals.  Let's give this a shot."  And you know what?  I liked this one.  I question why Tarantino thought so highly of it, for it certainly doesn't shine with polish anywhere near as brightly as any of his films.  However, I can see that Tarantino was a big influence on this film's creators, and the notes they take from him make this a worthwhile flick.

There's a murderer and pedophile out there, torturing young girls and leaving their bodies for the police to find.  However, their heads are missing.  Enter our three main characters: the teacher who everyone believes is the murderer,  though he perpetually and heartfeltedly  professes his innocence; a cop obsessed with the prospect that this teacher is, in fact, the murder, and is willing to beat a confession out of him; and the father of one of the victims, who sets up a torture chamber in the basement of his house so that he can pull the location of his daughter's head from the teacher's bloody lips. 

The majority of the runtime feels a lot like Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, relying on the interactions between these three characters in order to tell an intensely subdued thriller.  Thankfully, though, as interesting as the characters are, the film doesn't rely entirely on their dialogue.  For the first act of the film, there's actually very little explanatory dialogue, and you have to piece together the plot as you watch.  It's refreshing to see a film that expects its audience to pay attention enough to piece together its plot, and its clues are subtle and masterful in a way that make the first forty minutes a puzzling, but fulfilling, experience.  Then, when the film finally does ground itself a bit, it exposits the main plot points with finesse, using snappy dialogue and a fantastically bizarre sense of humor juxtaposed with the brutality of tortuous violence.

Unfortunately, I feel like the violence is where the film loses some of its charm.  I don't want to give away any of the details, but there are times where it felt more like a low-budget snuff flick than a Tarantino-inspired film.  I recognize that it's trying to evoke the spirit of those snuff flicks, much like Tarantino does, but the difference is that Tarantino usually uses violence in a greater story-telling context than for its own sake.   Even though the violence isn't excessive, it does feel like the purpose of the more tortuous scenes was only to show us someone suffering.  There were also a few scenes with what seemed to be an entirely superfluous character showing up on a horse and... doing nothing.  Huh.  That was weird.  For every inspired moment of directorial quirkiness, there's an uninspired element that prevents the film from achieving greatness.

I'd like to see more from directors Aharon Kashales and Navot Papushado in the future.  They have the potential to make something truly great if they can learn from their mistakes.  However, I can't say I loved this particular movie.  I liked it, but it's nothing spectacular.  If you like Quentin Tarantino, I think you'll like Big Bad Wolves.  It's obviously inspired by his work and enjoyable enough, even though it's inferior to anything it's muse has produced.

Have a favorite Tarantino movie?  Let me know in the comments below!

Monday, April 21, 2014

"In Your Eyes": Joss Whedon's Cyber-Psychic Surprise

Now Available For Digital Rental at www.inyoureyesmovie.com.

This movie took me completely off guard.  A film written and produced by Joss Whedon that premiered April 20, In Your Eyes was released for digital rental the same day as it’s film festival premiere.  For five dollars, you can stream the film from Vimeo, and let me tell you, that is a five dollars well worth spending.  I have a few nitpicks here and there, but on the whole, this is a film that’s going to stick with me for a while.

Dylan and Rebecca have a connection, and yet they have never met in person.  They are able to see what the other sees, hear what the other says, and feel what the other feels.  They are two people that, based on appearances, couldn’t be more different.  Dylan is an ex-convict who is smarter than almost anyone gives him credit for, scraping by on dead-end jobs in New Mexico.  Rebecca is the wife of a distinguished doctor, living a life of luxury that isn’t quite fulfilling for her.  After a hilarious scene in which the two become aware of one another, they start forming a fast friendship, finding that they complement each other perfectly, which eventually leads to fantastically realized romance.

I absolutely love how genuine the relationship between these two characters feels, even though the two are never in the same room.  I have to applaud Michael Stahl-David and Zoe Kazan for some amazing performances, for they have to convey a vast array of emotions while carrying on a conversation with someone who isn’t even on set.  They both portray deep characters that are by no means perfect.  Character perfection is a trope romance stories fall into all too often, and the humanity of these two only makes their chemistry work all the more.  It’s easy to see why they belong together, and the bizarre psychic nature of their relationship is a really neat plot gimmick to connect two characters who would have never known about each other.

The writing is Whedon’s particular mix of witticism and dramatic tension, and it is simultaneously hilarious, touching, and in one scene in particular, simply heartbreaking.  It’s really great to see him devoting energy to smaller projects even while working on the Avengers movies.  That being said, though, I can’t help but feel that the film’s ending is somewhat lacking, for it leaves a few too many questions unanswered when the credits roll.  Maybe we as the audience are supposed to be satisfied by the resolution of just the central conflict, but there were a few too many elements of the climax that would have benefitted from a proper epilogue.  Also, just to nitpick at the direction a little bit, I feel like there’s perhaps one or two excessive montage scenes.  However, the music that plays during them is good, and director Brin Hill is more than competent for the majority of the film, particularly in the aforementioned scenes with the two leads and the crosscuts during their conversations, so violating one of my pet peeves is pretty forgivable.

On the whole, though, I thoroughly recommend In Your Eyes.  This unconventional love story is one of the most sincere I’ve seen on screen, rivaling even last year’s fantastic Her.  It’s smart, funny, emotionally engrossing, and overall just a great piece of cinema.  It’s worth five dollars for the digital rental, and I strongly urge anyone who likes Joss Whedon or even just a good love story to give this one a shot.

Have a favorite piece of the Whedon-verse?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty": Bizarre But Still(er) Mediocre

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Sometimes a movie is really hard to comment on.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those movies.  It falls into that weird little nook of film-dom where there’s nothing really painfully wrong with it… but it doesn’t really do anything fantastically right either.  As a consequence, I can’t really decide whether I liked it, and maybe that’s its biggest failing.

Walter Mitty, everyday schmuck and perpetual daydreamer, works for Life magazine developing photographs.  As his company makes the transition to closing its doors in order to become an online news source, Walter is placed in charge of developing the final cover photo from a legendary photographer.  However, that photo was missing from the roll, and so Walter breaks out from his mundane life to search for it.  The story is actually pretty cute in how it follows Walter’s transformation from introverted daydreamer to rugged adventurer, and though I found some of the major twists to be a bit predictable, I can’t say that I was disappointed in the script.

However, I think the biggest problem comes from Ben Stiller.  There needs to be a rule in Hollywood, something I’d like to call the Wiseau Principle: if you are directing a film, you shouldn’t cast yourself in the starring role.  It distracts the director from making scenes work the way they are intended to, and self-directed acting rarely works well.  Ben Stiller isn’t a superb actor to begin with, but he can carry a funny scene with some good direction.  He can even manage to competently direct when he's playing to his comedic strengths.  However, much of the humor in this movie comes off as awkward and flat, and while I appreciate that the film was going for more everyday sort of dialogue, it tends to come off as more boring than endearing.

Furthermore, the tone of the film just feels off at times, like when Walter receives random calls from some dude who works at eHarmony so that Walter can brag about his adventure, or particularly when Walter daydreams.  Those daydreams mostly consist of over-the-top CGI action scenes (as well as a bizarre Benjamin Button parody) where Walter is larger than life and impressing the girl from work.  I suspect these scenes were meant to be played for comedic effect, but they mostly seem jarring and out of place.  Thankfully, though, there aren’t too many of them, and the film becomes a bit more grounded as Walter begins to take his real-life adventure.

And really, that’s part of the film’s purpose: to show that taking a real adventure and living a full life is more valuable than the ridiculous escapades we can dream up.  In that respect, I appreciate what the film is trying to show us.  I can even forgive the overuse of hackneyed inspirational montages that document Walter’s journey.  However, the awkwardly executed humor and bizarre tonal shifts also keep this film from being consistently enjoyable.  While it’s certainly not a horrible movie by any measure, I can’t really bring myself to recommend it either.  If you find yourself looking for a cute film to eat up two hours of your time and no other options strike your fancy, I’d say Walter Mitty isn’t the worst film to you could rent.

For those who don’t know, the Wiseau Principle is named after Tommy Wiseau, writer, producer, director, and lead actor in one of the worst films of all time, The Room.  Can you think of any other films that fall victim to the Wiseau Principle?  Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Ride Along": Thanks, But I'd Rather Not

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Buddy cop flicks are such a tired concept.  By this point, they're so formulaic that I could probably write one in my sleep, and I offer no claim to any ounce of creativity.  Ride Along is one of those films, and it was actually a huge financial success when it was released in theaters last January.  So maybe I was expecting a bit more from this one; perhaps there was something about this movie that audiences thought elevated it above the mold....

I give the average audience too much credit.

Ice Cube plays a tough-as-nails cop, and Kevin Hart plays the goof-off moron who is dating Ice Cube's sister and wants to enter the police academy.  (I didn't even bother to remember the characters' names.  Would you?)  Hart wants to prove to Ice Cube that he's worthy of the girlfriend's affections and of being a cop; Ice Cube wants to scare the excitable idiot away from entering the force.  So Ice Cube lets Hart ride along for a day on the job.  Wacky shenanigans ensue that eventually lead to the two working together to take down a crime boss.  Like I said, I could write one of these in my sleep.

What has to carry a film like this is the interplay between the two leads, and to the film's credit, Hart and Ice Cube do have some decent chemistry.  Ice Cube is a cool straight man to Hart's antics, and, quite frankly, he reacts as any reasonable person would to the little dweeb.  Here's the main problem though: KEVIN HART ISN'T FUNNY!  He's spastic, shrill, and the antithesis to what our culture considers tough and masculine, but continually mocking those traits is not funny.  Hart is to this movie what Chris Tucker was to the Rush Hour movies.  Sure, sometimes he can pull off a bit of physical comedy, even if it is contrived, but whenever he opens his mouth I want to take Ice Cube's gun and shoot the little shit.  Ice Cube embodies my despise for Hart throughout most of the movie, but it's painful to watch the inevitable turnaround in his disposition toward such an annoying character.

I might even be able to forgive the film if Hart's character had actually had any sort of arc.  He continually screws up and reacts in ways that make me wonder exactly how long it would take for the police academy to boot his ass.  Furthermore, the situations that Ice Cube puts Hart in become escalatingly more implausible so that I can feel my brain cells committing suicide as I watch.  Add the fact that some scenes are only held together with a glue of incredibly convenient dialogue, and this is a film that relies on its audience's mindless attention.

And that's exactly what this film is: mindless.  I saw potential in the first few scenes that provided some fun and over-the-top action.  However, that quickly gave way to stupid jokes that only seek to further an stupider plot.  If you're easily entertained by spastic flailings of loud, shrill man, this might be the film for you.  I, however, have a degree of pretentious credibility to maintain.  Here's hoping the already-announced sequel isn't just a rehash of this rehash of an all-too-rehashed genre.

Have a favorite buddy cop movie that transcends the genre, or perhaps defined it?  Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Philomena": Place Your Faith In This One

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Rare is the film that centers itself around religion without glorifying it or demonizing it.  It's an easy trap to fall into, as filmmakers interested in tackling religious topics are generally doing so out of their desire to promote their own opinion through their work.  However, Philomena is that rare film that addresses the debate between faith and skepticism without doing either any injustice, nor does it encourage the audience to pick a side.  This is all told through a touching story about two vastly different people trying to find a long lost son.

Philomena gave birth fifty years ago to a son.  Because she was a teenager, her family disowned her.  She and her son lived in a Catholic convent, where she would work endlessly to repay the nuns for taking her in.  Then, one day, the nuns sold Philomena's son to an American couple, and she never saw her son again.  The story picks up with Philomena as an old woman, played by Judi Dench, when she decides to finally tell her daughter about her missing son.  Philomena's daughter brings this story to the attention of Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, a cynical journalist who has recently lost his job, and generally considers human interest stories like this to be beneath him.  However, something draws him to the case, and the two begin an investigation to find Philomena's son.

The real heart of the story comes from Philomena's and Martin's interactions.  Philomena is a devout Catholic who wishes to see the good in people, but is also somewhat naive.  Judi Dench gives an amazing performance, ranging from being obliviously funny to heartbreakingly depressed, all while retaining the persona of a simple woman dealing with some complex emotions.  Martin, on the other hand, is a much more educated person, and he thinks himself superior to Philomena because he doesn't have blind faith and finds comfort in reason.  He's also a realist, and isn't afraid to be rude if he thinks a situation warrants it.

The interplay between these two characters is at times funny, awkward, touching, or sometimes even tragic.  Martin is often the straight-man to some of Philomena's more ridiculous lines, but he's also a reluctant emotional support to her as more pieces of the mystery come together.  What really struck me, though, was the way religion is addressed through their conversations.  These are two characters that have vastly different outlooks on faith, more specifically Catholicism, and the film doesn't shy away from the two of them clashing over it.  However, what the film does so well is treat both outlooks on life as entirely valid, and both characters learn something from one another.  Philomena and Martin present their cases, and both are sometimes humbled by what the other has to say.  It's a refreshing look at faith when most art is content to address it in either a positive or negative light.

My awe at the handling of faith aside, Philomena is a fantastic film that was entirely deserving of making the Best Picture nominee list for the Academy Awards.  Dench gives a stellar performance in one of the most emotionally touching films I've seen in a long time.  The script is brilliantly written, and it's something that should appeal to both the high-brow Martins and the less critical Philomenas of the world.  Give this one a look.

Where do you lie on the spectrum of faiths, non-faiths, and philosophies?  Can you think of another film that addresses faith so neutrally?  Let me know in a comments!  (Seriously, I'd love to see some.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Grudge Match": Let's Get Ready To Bumble!

Now Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Sometimes an idea is so stupid, Hollywood executives can't help but pounce on it.  Grudge Match is the child of one of those ideas.  Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro duke it out in a boxing match that only exists to remind the audience of much better movies that showcased their sports-acting abilities.  Problem is, this fan-service comes about thirty years too late.  Furthermore, in order to pad out two hours of run time, we're treated to some poor attempts at comedy and side plots that serve no purpose but to take up space on the DVD.

Let's start with the "comedy."  Most of it is just people throwing insults at each other.  Stallone and DeNiro's characters hate each other, and whenever they're in the same room, yelling is pretty much all they do.  There's a backstory about why they despite one another, but their conflict with one another never gets built up or satisfactorily resolved.  They show up, call each other old and fat, throw some punches, and then they separate for a few scenes before doing it all over again.  It's not funny and not fun to watch.  And the mean-spirited nature isn't just limited to those two.  Almost every character in this movie spouts some disgusting or insulting joke, and they get spouted so fast that there isn't any time for audience reaction.  Sometimes, we're even treated to a scene just to provide us with a sickening punch line, only to cut to another unrelated scene before we even have time to process it.  It's as if the director realized that the jokes weren't funny and decided to fire them off as fast as possible in hopes that we wouldn't notice.  That is, except when he finds a joke so funny that its necessary to repeat the same line of dialogue over and over again in order to convince us how funny it is.  It's painful to watch, especially when the hilarity is based on sexism, homophobia, molestation, and rape.  Har dee fucking har.

But that isn't all this piece of crap offers us.  The majority of the film consists of two concurrent plotlines, one in which Stallone tries to rekindle a relationship with his old girlfriend, the other in which DeNiro tries to establish a relationship with his estranged son and grandson.  This is all such filler, and it stretches the movie to unbearable lengths.  DeNiro remains an asshole throughout the entirety of the film, and he realizes the importance of being there for his family only because the Hollywood Law of Happy Endings demands it.  Stallone, on the other hand, does have some decent chemistry with his lady love, but it all becomes undermined when he decides to continue the fight against her wishes.  She's against the fight because he has a medical condition that could put his life in danger should he continue with the match.  But he gives a short speech and suddenly she's okay with the whole thing!  The script consists of such awfully poor and convenient writing, seeking mostly to waste nearly two hours of our time to bring us to the match.

Of course, once we get to the match, suddenly the two men realize the value of good sportsmanship and their character arcs take the bullet-train to conclusion town.  I really have to question the motivations of the filmmakers.  Who was this movie made for?  It seems to pander to fans of boxing and boxing films at every opportunity, even going so far as to give Stallone a token black factory-worker friend.  However, the movie is disgusting when it's trying to be funny, boring when it's trying to be serious, and by the time it gets to the actual fight, all sense of catharsis is lost.  I'm not sure that fans of a fast-paced sport like boxing would necessarily have the attention span to sit through all the filler.  If you want to see Stallone and DeNiro box, watch Rocky or Raging Bull.  Let this disk gather dust.

Which boxing film to you prefer more: Rocky or Raging Bull?  Or is that comparing apples and oranges?  Duke it out in the comments below.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"August: Osage County": Prefers To Pain Rather Than Entertain

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

It's good for a movie to convey a message.  In fact, that's what separates a great film from a bad one.  It's also what separates the more literary films from the more mindless ones.  Not that there isn't a place for both types of films, but I'm definitely someone who likes to think a bit more while watching a movie.  However, one thing a less sophisticated action flick or comedy can have going for it is it's pure entertainment value.  Sure, I may not need to exercise much brainpower to appreciate a superhero movie, but if the movie knows what it is and it entertains through good action, then I think we can call the movie a success.  But what if a film is of a more cerebral variety, but it's not very entertaining?  That's the conundrum I come away with after watching August: Osage County.  There's a fairly well thought out story here with a deep message, but the film itself is somewhat painful to sit through.

This is the story of a family mourning the loss of its patriarch.  The role of the matriarch is played by Meryl Streep, who gives a stellar performance as a pill-abusing and emotionally abusive woman who is both a product of her upbringing, her grief, her abandonment issues, and the deluded state her drug habit puts her in.  I can see why the Academy deigned to nominate Streep for Best Actress, for it truly is one of last year's best performances.  The rest of the cast is also quite well acted, with Julia Roberts shining in a fantastic supporting role as Streep's eldest daughter.

The message the film gets across is largely one of generational emotional abuse, passing the pain caused by the characters' upbringing on to those the characters love.  It's pretty well done, too, showing how different members of the family deal with the complexes the older generation passed down to them, just as their parents did and continue to do.  But while I understand the point of the story and appreciate the emotional impact that it has, the film itself is frankly quite uncomfortable.  Most of the dialogue consists of characters yelling at each other.  I get it that these characters only really come together out of a sense of familial obligation at the loss of a mutually loved one, but the hatred they exude eventually gets to a point where its unrelenting and I didn't find myself enjoying the experience.  I know that this was intentional, but maybe it was too good at what it was trying to accomplish.

See, the film makes the point it's trying get across fairly evident early on.  But if a film is going to do that, it needs to develop past that point and make its characters grow.  If I understand the moral forty-five minutes into a movie, the movie needs to recognize the intelligence of its audience and show its characters growing and evolving in some way to provide a feeling of catharsis.  This film fails to do that.  Instead, the film batters at the audience, using the characters' hatred for one another as a proxy.

I appreciate what this film was trying to be, and I also recognize that the characters' failure to grow is part of the tragedy of the story.  However, the redundant discomfort that pervades the film is unforgivable.  I applaud the actors involved for some fantastic performances, but the film itself isn't saved by their efforts.  In the end, this is a good story, but it's so painfully delivered that I can't recommend it.

What are your thoughts on what makes a good story?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug": Or Everything Wrong With Current Blockbuster Films

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

It's a common critique of Hollywood that they have run out of ideas.  I don't personally subscribe to that idea, but I do think that the corporate executives of the major studios recognize trends in ticket sales and are willing to give people more of what they've bought before.  Unfortunately, that also means that much creativity and artistic vision can be compromised in favor of appealing to the lowest common denominator.  That's what The Hobbit trilogy is shaping up to be.  Over a decade ago, Peter Jackson revolutionized the film industry by bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen.  It was a critical and financial success.  It is now a part of our pop culture, and LotR's pervasive popularity is what spawned a prequel trilogy ostensibly based on one three-hundred page book.  Not only is that excessive, but it makes the middle installment incredibly insubstantial.

Since The Hobbit was originally supposed to be only two movies, in order to provide enough content for a trilogy, this film resorts to a painful amount of padding.  We follow Gandalf for a few scenes, where he confronts a dark force that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but only serves to foreshadow the events of the actual trilogy.  We also follow Legolas and an elven woman who has a painfully contrived romance with one of the dwarves.  Not only is that an obvious checkbox ticked on the "Necessary For A Hit Film" list, it ultimately harms one of the most memorable relationships in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Legolas and Gimli initially hate each other in those films based on racial bigotry, but their friendship was the ultimate symbolism of their people's uniting against a greater evil.  Now we have another relationship preempting that, and Legolas is witness to it!  I'm not a purist when it comes to translating a written work to the screen, but this movie has completely undermined its universe's mythos in favor of appealing to the broadest demographic.

Beyond that, this film does nothing to recapture the feeling of the original trilogy.  Everything feels so strangely dark in what is a much more lighthearted tale than LotR, and the action is all computer-generated.  While it doesn't look bad, it feels like the same action scenes we've been seeing since LotR that have sought to emulate it's immensity.  The reason The Lord of the Rings was so successful in creating epic action scenes is that it was showing fantasy battles on a scale that hadn't before been reached on the big screen.  But that revolution is over, and now director Peter Jackson isn't just falling back on that previous success, he's lazily trying to do the same thing through artificially created animation.  Computer generation was a young art in the original trilogy, and it was only used when necessary.  In The Desolation of Smaug, it's a short-cut, substituting well-conceived fight choreography for pixels and polygons.

As I wrap up this review, I realize that my critiques are much more aimed at the film industry than at this specific movie.  As far as movies go, The Desolation of Smaug is pretty average, with some decent action and something that can appeal to just about everyone.  But that's what's so frustrating about it.  This film feels like it was designed by committee, making sure all the ingredients are included on the recipe for making a popular film, right down to the obligatory poop jokes.  That isn't what the legacy of The Lord of the Rings should be reduced to.  It's an insult to the source material and an insult to the original trilogy.  Let us only hope that it ends with the upcoming There and Back Again; to see a dumbed-down version of The Silmarillion would be too much to bear.

Do you look forward to There And Back Again?  Do you see any redeeming qualities in The Hobbit trilogy?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel": Grander Tales Are Rarely Told

Now In Theaters

Personally, I'm a big fan of having a bit of strange in my cinematic diet.  If a director is capable of affecting some ludicrous dialogue with some fantastically surreal visuals, you can consider my ticket purchased.  That's some of what we have here in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  This is a film that is delightfully witty, completely visually distinct, amazingly heartfelt, and uniquely memorable.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks as perceived by current owner of the Grand Budapest, Zero, as he is interviewed by an author interested in his life story.  In this story, Zero is a young lobby boy under the tutelage of Mr. Gustave, a kind relic of times gone by whose decorum only thinly veils a vain, perverse, arrogant, but ultimately immensely lovable man.  The interplay between these two characters is the heart of the tale, and watching them grow close through an odd combination of fiendishly silly hi-jinks and constantly interrupted poetry is a delight to see.  The film's plot revolves around the murder of one of Gustave's patrons, as well as the inheritance of a prized piece of art.  As benign as this story sounds, it's anything but, featuring a cast of immediately memorable characters that both thicken the plot and fall victim to it.  It's a wonderfully unique tale in its quirky execution, if not in its originality.

And that execution is simply beautiful.  Scenes are framed with a breathtaking amount of precision.  The sets are vibrant and bizarre, yet still reminiscent of Europe at the dawn of the second World War.  The character designs are archetypal so as to be instantly recognizable, yet completely unique due to their strange mannerisms and costumes.  The actors' performances of those characters is always fresh and often quotable.  The whole production seems to fall somewhere between a stage performance and an adult cartoon, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  The cinematography is stellar, the acting is superb, the dialogue is witty and immensely funny, and there's even an undercurrent of melancholy as a fascist Not-zi army threatens the existence of the Grand Budapest Hotel.  Even though the film is a comedy at heart, and a damn good one at that, it still manages to pluck at some heartstrings along the way, and quite effectively at that.

So do I recommend The Grand Budapest Hotel?  I was laughing throughout the whole thing.  I was in awe at the cinematographic tricks director Wes Anderson used to frame his shots.  I geeked out at the fact that the freakin' aspect ratio changed when the story cut from interview to flashback.  I found it difficult to wipe the giddy smile from my face even after leaving the theater.  This is a film where a smart directorial vision gives us an incredibly bizarre and funny film that both doesn't take itself seriously and delivers its lack of seriousness with a professional and artistic polish.  Do I recommend this film?  I can't recommend it enough, dear readers.  Not nearly enough.

So what are you waiting for?  Get to your local theater and see it before it leaves the big screen.  Then leave a comment below and share your favorite moment.

Friday, April 4, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier": The Hero (Movie) America Deserves

Now In Theaters

I went into Captain America: The Winter Soldier excited, but with some reservations.  The first Captain America was a fun enough flick, but it didn't do anything really interesting or new.  I was intrigued with how Marvel planned to integrate the Cap into modern society, but I was afraid it might come off as campy as the original.  Thankfully, those fears have been assuaged.  More than that, I was thoroughly impressed by what could have been just another generic superhero movie.  Instead, we're treated to a tense and thoughtful thriller that is not only really fun, but actually contains some literary subtext that transcends a genre that's becoming increasingly more defined by its mindless action.

The story centers on SHIELD, or, more specifically, the fact that not everything is right within SHIELD.  Not everything is what it seems, and, unfortunately, that means I can't really reveal much of the plot without this review spoiling the ride.  However, I do want to comment that it's quite invigorating to see a superhero movie that doesn't just show us an antagonist and then pit the hero against them.  This feels much more like a spy thriller dressed in a Captain America costume, and it's an interesting and completely believable take on his character in the modern era.  The only downside is that the mystery plot gets resolved much too quickly in a giant dump of exposition, and even though that doesn't destroy the suspense the film had been building to that point, it does cheapen it slightly.  However, throw in some fantastic fight scenes and a remarkably well thought out allegory for American foreign policy, and this movie excels at being much more than just another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Speaking of the fight scenes, can I just say how refreshing it is to see superhero action scenes performed by real people?  Sure, there's still plenty of explosions and CGI effects, but they all play second fiddle to the fantastically executed fight sequences, almost all done with actual stuntpeople.  It makes the stakes of each battle much more grounded in reality, which is much more relatable that the endless cacophony of flashes and bangs that many movies take to be good action.  The Winter Soldier's fight scenes are almost all a joy to watch, and sometimes they even have some literary significance beyond the events of the battle itself.  If a movie rewards you for having a brain not only with its plotting, but with its action, that's immediately in its favor.

If I have one small gripe with the film, it's with the Winter Soldier character.  His presence in the movie is what provides the literary subtext I mentioned earlier, but when I look at the plot as a whole, his presence isn't really necessary.  This is odd, considering, ya know, his name is in the freakin' title!  That said, he doesn't detract at all from the film, and he is the focus point of most of the film's action scenes, so I don't think I can blame the choice to include him.  He's still a welcome addition to Marvel's world-building efforts, and his presence makes me excited to see what other characters from comic mythos Marvel is prepared to bring to the screen.  If they were handled as faithfully as the Winter Soldier, I think we have some good things in store.

So, as you can probably already tell, I loved this movie.  It is the best Marvel movie since the original Iron Man, potentially even on par with it.  It transcends the superhero formula that has been quickly growing stale and would have been a smart and entertaining movie even without the Marvel branding.  It's well worth the price of admission, and I look forward to seeing it again with the Blu-Ray release.

Did you find The Winter Soldier as stimulating as I did?  Or do you see some problems that I'm overlooking?  Let me know your thoughts in the comment below!  (Just please don't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues": It Certainly Does

Now Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Anchorman 2 is a film that really wasn't necessary.  It's already been over ten years since the original film came out, and it would be impossible to entirely recreate its fresh, nonsensical charm with a sequel.  But here we are with Anchorman 2, and inevitably it has to be asked: Is it as good as the original?  The short answer is no, but that doesn't mean that this movie isn't really funny in its own right.

The plot is actually pretty genius.  Ron Burgandy, the dumbest newsperson to ever get behind a teleprompter, is the founder of the type of newscasting now popularized by 24-hour news networks.  It's a page taken right out of The Daily Show's playbook, and it works perfectly at satirizing that entire genre of news.  The majority of the film's laughs come from seeing just how the Action News Team establishes the tropes that make 24-hour news so mockable, and it's a joy to watch.  However, the film does recognize itself as an Anchorman sequel as well, and it spends a lot of time re-establishing the Action News Team and what they've been up to since the events of the first film.  While this stuff is funny at times, it feels like it takes forever to get to the satire, which is where the heft of the movie's comedic gold lies.  The third act also drags a bit after some events put Ron out of commission, but it's fairly forgivable when taking in the movie as a whole.

Speaking of the comedy, the movie is thankfully not just a series of references to the jokes that made the previous film so great.  It actually comes up with some original material to tell an originally funny story, as well as, oddly enough, Ron's personal journey to become a better father.  I think Will Ferrell has been taking notes from Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, because the film's tone is also much more awkward than the first film's was.  Long pauses, strange interruptions, and uncomfortable statements are much more prevalent.  Usually, this works amazingly, particularly in the sub-plot about Brick finding love.  Believe me, Steve Carrell and Kristen Wiig have some of the most hilariously strange on-screen chemistry, and not only is it fun to watch, but it's actually a believable romance.

However, the film does have its failings.  First of all, though the film doesn't rely on them, there are some poorly executed attempts to reclaim the first film's glory, particularly in retreading Brian Fantana's sexual advice jokes and having another jazz flute scene.  They're still funny scenes, but it feels a bit too much like the movie can't escape its predecessor's shadow.  What isn't funny, though, are some really offense attempts at humor made a few times throughout the film, including a transphobic rant and an incredibly ableist blindness joke that lasts for way too long.  However, I'm willing to forgive the film as a whole for these faults, especially considering the amazing climax the film puts together.  I won't give it away, but trust me when I say it is hilariously epic.

So Anchorman 2 doesn't really capture the success of the original, but I think you would have to be pretty naive to believe that it would have.  For the most part, the sequel does try to be its own animal, and I do have to applaud that experimentation.  It may fail in some respects, but that's the nature of trying new things, and this film doesn't fail so much that I can't recommend it.  So go ahead and enjoy a good sequel to a great movie.  You're sure to get some well-deserved laughs out of it.

How do you think Anchorman 2 compares to the original?  Can you think of any comedy sequels that were as great as their forebears?  Let me know in the comments.