Saturday, May 31, 2014

"About Last Night": About An Inch Short of Being Good

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I’m really tired of seeing Kevin Hart in movies.  I have yet to see him be likeable in anything, and this film is no exception.  He plays a loud, obnoxious asshole, and apparently some people think that’s funny, because he keeps getting work.  That said, the film seems to use Hart as an occasional vessel for a decent message about the functionality of relationships, and I was able to appreciate some of the lines his character delivered in one or two scenes.  However, I don’t think that saves this film.  It hovers right on the line between being a decent film and being a mildly unpleasant one, but I don’t think I’m inclined to recommend this flick.

There’s actually two concurrent storylines in this film that take place over the course of a year.  The less significant one deals with the evolving relationship between Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall), which starts as purely sexual, then venomously spiteful, and then finally turns around to being a stable relationship.  Their seeming dysfunction is supposed to be the comedic center of the film, but if you’ve seen anything these two actors have ever been in, you can imagine that the humor revolves around shouting matches and insults, which get old fast.  The film spends most of the runtime with these two characters at each other’s throats, and when the two finally get back together at the end, it somehow simultaneously feels forced and predictable.  As I said before, Hart does deliver some good lines about how relationships aren’t perfect and how honest, open communication is the way to be with someone, but the film never shows his character exemplifying that behavior.  I appreciate the message the film tried to deliver through the Bernie/Joan relationship, but it rings a little hollow.

The other two characters are Bernie and Joan’s best friends, Danny and Debbie, who hook up, have amazing chemistry, then very quickly move in together, and then start building a life together that crashes down very quickly because they moved way too fast.  These two, portrayed by Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant respectively, are where the film’s true heart lies, and the performances these two give are great.  They aren’t the best communicators, and they’re both all too quick to attack each other’s flaws, but their chemistry feels genuine, and it’s easy to see that they would work well together if they would just stop assuming that everything in their relationship will be okay without any effort.  So yeah, they separate and it’s obvious that they are going to get back together at the end, but I do appreciate that the film’s final scenes are devoted to re-establishing a dialogue, rather than just reverting the two leads into being madly in love again.  

What I don’t appreciate is that the film fails to land any appreciable message about how to make relationships work.  The characters acknowledge their fault, but I wasn’t convinced that they had actually learned anything from their experiences.  Instead, the film’s message seems to be that true love will always prevail, which undermines the deeper message that lies just underneath the surface.  Maybe I just want this film to be more than it turned out to be, but there’s so much potential here to give the audience something thoughtful to ponder as the credits roll, and it never capitalizes on it.  It does better than a usual generic love story because the relationships, while flawed, are fairly realistic if not always healthy.  

Unfortunately, the film never fully addresses why the initial attempts at relationships failed in the first place, which seems to me to be the entire point.  There are worse romance films out there, but in light of reviewing both Her and In Your Eyes this past month, I can’t feel justified in recommending this one.

Know any films that falls short of hitting their thematic mark?  Tell me about them in the comments below.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?": The Answer May Surprise You

Now Available On DVD and iTunes

I doubt many of you have heard about this movie.  Hell, I hadn’t until I noticed that this month’s DVD release schedule was looking a bit sparse.  Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a film about director Michel Gondry (probably best known for directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) sitting down for a conversation with Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist and philosopher.  Gondry then hand-drew some animation to put over the conversation to provide some visual flair to what would otherwise just be footage of two men sitting in a room.  And really, that’s about it.

Writing about this film is turning out to be incredibly challenging, for I feel like the film is designed for a very niche audience of those interested in philosophy.  I’m pretty decently versed in philosophical concepts, as philosophy was my minor in college, but I wasn’t terribly familiar with Chomsky’s work or musings.  I found the film to be a pretty good primer on what he’s all about, though I’m sure I’d have gotten more out of it if I had done a bit of research on Chomsky before watching it.  Regardless, the conversation ranges from being autobiographical, to delving into the meanings of words in relation to our understanding of reality, to the understandable irrationality of faith, as well as various other reflections.  Gondry sometimes interjects with a narration that helps to break down some of the headier concepts, which is appreciated if this is to be taken as an introduction to Chomsky’s work.

However, I felt that Gondry, strangely enough, was the part of the film that most hurt its quality.  Gondry’s interjections, while sometimes helpful, are most often used to demonstrate that he is not on equal intellectual footing with Chomsky, basically letting the audience know that he may look like an idiot over the course of the talk, but that’s only because Chomsky is so smart.  The thing is, that’s just a way for Gondry to save his ego from being hurt and is completely unnecessary.  Chomsky wouldn’t have the reputation he has if he didn’t exhibit an intense amount of intelligence; it’s just that obvious.  We don’t need Gondry constantly reverting attention back to himself, because he’s not the point of the film.  It seems bizarre that the director of such a simple premise could mess it up in favor of his own egotism, but there it is.

As for the animation itself, I really can’t say much for it.  Gondry seems to have done most of the animation himself, which is why the film took three years to produce after the original interviews.  The drawings are crude and the animation methods and looping aren’t at all disguised.  I don’t really see a purpose to these drawings except, at best, to give us something to look at for what could otherwise be a podcast, and at worst, to give Gondry an excuse to show the world his doodles.  At the end of the day, they don’t really affect the experience one way or the other.

So, do I recommend Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?  Well, I think the review speaks for itself.  This is obviously not a film for everyone, and it is definitely not something meant for casual viewing.  If you have an interest in philosophy and linguistics and don’t mind a somewhat *cough* pretentious director, then you may find something here you can enjoy.  If you’re anyone else, well, this is one you can pass up.  Personally, I liked what I saw and don’t regret watching it, but it didn’t inspire me to admire Chomsky as much as I think Gondry would have liked.  But I got eighty minutes of mental exercise, and that’s about all I can ask for.

Do you have any opinions on Noam Chomsky?  How about strange documentaries or interview pieces?  Or is this the type of film I should never review again because none of you could care less?  Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"The Monuments Men": A Monument to Mediocrity

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I really liked the idea of this movie.  The trailer made it seem like Ocean’s 11, but with a set of great, aging actors, and set in World War II.  It seemed like it would be a fun ride, probably with a few anti-war undertones to it.  I wasn’t expecting anything amazing, but I was expecting something coherent.  Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here.  Director George Clooney definitely has his heart in the right place, but unfortunately, he makes some pretty big mistakes in bringing his pet project to the big screen.

During World War II, an art collector named Frank Stokes (Clooney) pitches to the U.S. government that the Nazis are stealing or destroying Europe’s great works of art, and that the government should send in a group of art experts to ensure this art’s protection.  Stout brings together an all-star cast to hunt down these works of art, including John Goodman, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey), and Bill Murray.  You may have noticed that I haven’t bothered to list the names of the characters each of these actors play, and that’s because calling them characters is a bit of a stretch.  The film does a great job of composing scenes that should give us insight into these characters and make us care about them, but it also barely makes the effort to establish the characters well enough to make the audience care.  This is particularly emphasized when the characters split up to different European cities and their interactions with one another are limited.  I didn’t remember anyone’s name or any defining characteristics about them because the film didn’t bother to take the time to introduce anyone.  Instead, it lazily relies on the identifiable faces of the actors, which is a real shame because if the actors had been allowed the chance to really build these characters, this could have been a great ensemble movie.

What this film really lacks is structure.  The individual scenes are very well directed, and the actors do a good job with what they’re given, but looking at the larger picture, everything feels so disjointed.  The film will often spend a few minutes on an amusing, but ultimately inconsequential scene, then cut to an equal inconsequential scene with different characters.  There isn’t much of an act structure to this film other than a bunch of guys wandering around Europe, looking for stolen art, and occasionally getting shot at.  There are a couple of death scenes that in a more cohesive film would have been heartbreaking, but here they come off as cheap attempts to pull at its audience’s heartstrings.  The film does get its act together a little bit toward the end for a phoned-in climax, but by that point I just wanted the credits to roll.

You can tell that George Clooney really cared about telling this story.  His various monologues that he speaks from a script that he wrote are evidence enough.  However, I don’t think he should have been sitting in the director’s chair if he wanted this telling to be successful.  He seems to know how to make an individual scene work, but he doesn’t seem to know how to make the important establishing pieces stand out or even exist in the first place.  And for that reason, despite the good performances and interesting premise, I can’t recommend this film.  There’s just nothing substantial enough to outweigh its faults.

Have a favorite George Clooney film?  Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Stranger By The Lake": Worth The Wait?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

So, I got to about the halfway point of this film, and I was just about ready to write it off as another horrible installment in what has been a really aggravating month in reviewing films on this blog.  It’s slow, the camera has a tendency to stay put on scenery and quiet moments for way too long, and nothing of much importance really seems to happen.  Even something that should be a big deal is quietly ignored for what seems like an eternity in movie time.  I just wasn’t finding anything to like about this film, except perhaps for the gratuitous male-only sex scenes, but even then, if I wanted porn, there’s way better stuff on the internet.

But then, something happened.  And then something else happened.  And suddenly, there was a story in this film, and an engaging one at that.  All the painfully slow plotting of the first forty-five minutes actually led up to something, and I was hooked.  See, this film takes place on a nude beach where gay men go to pick up other gay men for anonymous sex in the woods.  The film follows Frank as he begins to establish two relationships: a friendship with a straight man named Henri who hangs around the beach by himself, and a sexual relationship with a man named Michel who isn’t interested in establishing an emotional connection.  All is fine on the beach until Frank witnesses a murder late one night as one man drowns another in the lake.  What follows is a fantastically riveting tale about succumbing to the wiles of a cunning emotional predator.

It may seem like that last sentence spoils the film a tad, but it really doesn’t.  The film makes no secret of who the murderer is, and it even heavily implies that Frank realizes who is responsible.  What really matters in this film is how Frank chooses to deal with the situation, and those choices have consequences that lead into one of the most chilling final scenes of recent memory.

As I said before, though, where this film really falls flat is its pacing.  For the first two acts I was so incredibly bored, and when the murder finally happened, it made me wonder if I hadn’t just imagined that scene in a fit of stupefied trance.  The film doesn’t even really bother to introduce its main characters by name until way late in the game, which may be a nod to how the anonymity of this beach functions, but not much else is lent to the characters in the way of being otherwise memorable or compelling.  That said, though, for all those incredibly glaring faults, I found them forgivable in light of how the third act ties everything together for a tense and unsettling climax.

It should be known that this is a French film, and it is about as “French” as you can imagine.  It is not shy about showing off the male body, nor is it shy about taking its time to tell its story in a quiet and subdued fashion.  That in and of itself should not disqualify a film from being entertaining, and I think the final act of Stranger By The Lake demonstrates that quite nicely.  However, the first half of the film is a bit too ”French,” even for me.  It comes off as pompous and meandering around the point while using the setting as an excuse to film some softcore porn.  But is it worth the wait for the fantastic conclusion?  Yeah, I think so.  There’s some interesting social commentary to be mined about the sexual dynamics of the gay community, and it does so in an interesting, if an achingly drawn-out fashion.  So if you can get your hands on this one, give it a shot.

Do any French films catch your fancy?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past": A New Challenger Approaches

Now In Theaters
Wow.  Just… wow.

Remember in my First Class review when I said that the X-Men franchise was probably going to be the best contender against Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?  Well, I had no idea how right that statement would be.  Days of Future Past is not only a good movie, not only is it a great movie, but it is easily the best X-Men movie ever made.  Just about everything I didn’t like about First Class has been addressed, and with some very welcome nods that tie the X-Men universe into a cohesive narrative (as well as retcon out some of the series’s dumber notions), Days of Future Past is going to surely end up on many people’s top five lists of greatest superhero films.

The film’s story is a complex one, but here it is in broad strokes: In the near-distant future, indestructible synthetic beings called Sentinels have taken over the Earth in a hunt for mutant kind, enslaving any human sympathizers and eradicating any mutants they find.  The mutants’ only hope is to send someone back in time to 1973 to prevent Mystique from murdering the man who invented the Sentinels, thereby stopping a martyrdom that would jump-start the mass-production of the killing machines.  Wolverine is the only person who would be able to survive the process, so he volunteers to meet up with a young Charles Xavier and Magneto in a quest to change the future.  If this all sounds a bit overblown and silly… well, I won’t lie, it kinda is.  But the film plays its premise so seriously with character performances that emphasize the gravity of the mission’s success, one can’t help but become engrossed.

Speaking of the characters, my gods are the performances in this film stellar.  Director Bryan Singer understands that the characters are what make the X-Men universe so rich, and he focuses on making them as compelling as possible.  Hugh Jackman was born to play Wolverine, McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence all reprise their roles from First Class with style, and the returning actors from the original trilogy make the future sequences anything but filler.  Even newcomer Peter Dinklage as Sentinel creator Dr. Trask is phenomenal in what could have been some paper-thin villain characterization, though I do think Mr. Dinklage’s American accent needs a bit of work.  The film throws so many characters at you, new and old, that it would have been very easy for the film to become an overcrowded mess, but thankfully, it puts the focus directly where it needs to be when it needs it.  Wolverine, Xavier, and Mystique all have character arcs that trade off seamlessly throughout the narrative, and the supporting cast supports in all the right ways.  Some characters serve as needed comic relief (a particular sequence with Quicksilver comes to mind), some characters serve to emphasize the gravity of the future timeline by fighting the Sentinels (and losing fatally), and some characters just lend the film gravitas by their mere presence (both Magnetos and future-Xavier in particular).  Yes, there are a lot of people to keep track of, but so many of them have such limited roles that the film never feels bloated, and none of the characters overstay their welcome.

Just a quick note on the special effects this time around: They are much better than they were in First Class.  The Sentinel designs are fantastic, the mutant powers pop with color and energy, just about nothing looks fake or phoned-in.  The fact that so much detail could be placed in the special effects without sacrificing the brilliant storytelling of First Class is perhaps what makes me the most hopeful for the future of the X-Men.

I must say though that this film is not kind to newcomers.  If you have not seen First Class and do not have some familiarity with the events of the original trilogy, much of the film may seem a bit foreign to you.  The film has so much plot and characters to get out there that expositing the backstory necessary for its foundation would have made the film’s first act much too bloated.  There are some important reminder flashbacks here and there if you aren’t a diehard fan (which I really wasn’t until this film), but that familiarity is probably crucial for the best experience with this film.

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved Days of Future Past.  I may be anticipating this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy with more bated breath than I did this movie, but this is going to be a hell of an act to follow.  When the worst I can criticize a film for is Peter Dinklage’s American accent, you know you have a winner.  If you are a fan of the X-Men, this film is a must-see.  If you aren’t, spend some time with the originals and First Class and then catch this one.  It’s worth the homework, worth the price of admission, and worthy of all the praise in the world.

EDIT: It was pointed out in the comments that Peter Dinklage is, in fact, an American actor.  My assumption that he was British was based on his frequent appearance in British cinema and in Game of Thrones.  However, I think it does beg the question as to why Dinklage's native accent sounds like a poor British imitation of one.  Therefore, I think the point still stands.

What’s your favorite X-Men movie so far?  And why the hell isn’t it this one yet?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Pompeii": Like The Volcano, It Blows

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is an interesting director to say the least.  He’s probably most famous for the string of Resident Evil films that have ostensibly been coming out consistently since 2002.  And yeah, these aren’t good movies, but you know what they are?  Effects-driven eye candy that’s an outlet for whatever fucked-up thing Anderson decides would be neat to render in 3D next.  And people flock to it.  Now, personally, I’m not a huge fan of Anderson’s movies, but I totally understand the appeal.  That just makes his latest film, Pompeii, all the stranger though.  Anderson doesn’t play to his strengths until the third act, instead telling a bloated and boring love story that delivers on the promised destruction too late for anyone to give a damn.

The plot of this film is essentially just a retelling of Titanic.  Seriously, we need to get Avril Lavigne to release a remix, because “he was a (poor) boy, she was a (rich) girl, couldn’t be any more obvious.”  Said poor boy is a gladiator played by Game of Thrones’s Kit Harrington, and none of his acting talent is allowed to shine here.  He’s just a lot of eye candy for the heterosexual female demographic.  The film’s dialogue even goes so far as to blatantly make a sexual object of him, making the pandering even more transparent.  Emily Browning plays said rich girl, and while she’s serviceable at what the script would have her do, all she does get to do is size up Harrington like a piece of meat.  I object to this kind of lazy writing no matter which sex is being objectified, not only because it’s demeaning to the subject of the objectification, but it’s also movie-making shorthand for pandering to a demographic without putting any creativity into the finished product.

The film drags on for an hour, feebly attempting to make us care about the gladiator’s slave status and the rich girl’s sufferance at the hand of a powerful Roman noble with intentions to marry her against her will.  And the film tries hard at making us care for these characters, but the problem is that these aren’t so much characters as cardboard archetypes for the audience to project themselves into the fantasy.  If you are there to see Kit Harrington’s abs or to see some cool gladiatorial fighting, then parts of the first two acts may sustain you until the volcano erupts, but Anderson has never done well with making memorable characters, and this is no exception.

Of course, everyone going to see Pompeii knows the fate of the city and its inhabitants, so that first hour of the film can be a restless one.  I just wanted the film to get on with it already.  When the volcano finally does erupt, the effects are pretty sweet.  Fire rains from the sky, the earth quakes, things explode.  All in all, it’s a fairly decent thrill ride to the climax.  Problem is, none of it is all that engaging when there’s no reason to care about the characters caught up in the calamity.  I watched this movie for the special effects, and it kept cutting back to the main characters in their clichéd struggle for romantic freedom.  Unfortunately, if you cut out all the character drama, the film would only be about twenty minutes long, so it seems the film has no choice but to try to make Kit Harrington to this decade what Leo DiCaprio was to the nineties.

Anderson isn’t the worst director out there.  He knows how to compose a coherent film and usually plays to his strengths by providing computer-generated monstrosities causing people to die and things to blow up.  Problem is, as imposing as a volcano is, it’s still just a largely inanimate mountain blowing up, completely devoid of any animated personality.  Anderson tried to compensate by pumping the film full of character drama, the part of film-making he sucks the most at.  It obviously didn’t work.  Watching the film’s trailer will give you an idea of what effects there are to see here, but don’t watch the first hour of the actual movie in order to see the full spectacle.

Have feelings about Paul W.S. Anderson’s other work?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Godzilla (2014)": The Trailers Lied To You

Now In Theaters

Alright, this review is going to contain spoilers, but I want to devote this opening paragraph to providing a quick opinion for those who still want to see Godzilla.  It’s bad.  Really bad.  And the trailers lied to you.  Bryan Cranston is barely in the film.  Godzilla himself is barely in the film.  There are some good parts in the beginning fifteen minutes and some good parts in the last fifteen minutes, but the other 95% of this film is pure garbage.  That 95% is about as bad as your average Transformers movie.  I strongly recommend that you don’t waste your time and money on this one.  Still want to go see it?  Then stop reading here, because it’s time to get to the details.

The good parts in the film’s opening come down to two words: Bryan Cranston.  Cranston plays a man driven to obsession by the loss of his wife in a nuclear power plant meltdown, which he believes was caused by something other than a natural earthquake.  Of course, he’s right, and just as he begins to uncover the truth, the monster responsible, called MUTO, awakens from incubation and starts wreaking havoc.  Cranston is by far the best actor in this movie, and he could have easily carried the rest of the film’s cast… if he weren’t killed off before the film’s first act is even over.  Seriously, the film spends a ridiculous amount of time establishing Cranston as the protagonist, only to kill him off and shift focus to his much less interesting son.

And let’s talk about this son, because he is emblematic of just about everything else wrong with this movie.  You see, the driving force of the plot in this film is the emergence of two MUTOs that are destroying cities in an attempt to get together and mate.  The son character, named Brody Ford (the most excessively American name I’ve ever heard), is a member of the armed forces and works his way into the operations to take down the MUTOs.  And the focus of the film is on him and his entirely bland personality.  There is nothing interesting about this guy or his motivation of reuniting with his family in the wake of the monster attacks.  It’s the same clichéd thing we’ve seen in every disaster film ever made, and the film brings no character into the picture to keep it feeling fresh.

Instead, we have a film about nameless military dudes showing off their military hardware and ineffectually doing brave military things against giant monsters.  Now, I wouldn’t mind the idea of a military-versus-monsters film except for one thing: THE NAME OF THE MOVIE IS GODZILLA!  Notice how I haven’t gotten around to mentioning him yet?  Well, that’s because Godzilla is pretty much a background character in his own movie.  In light of the MUTO storyline, he feels like an afterthought, only showing up to fight them because… reasons.  The film constantly teases a fight between the MUTOs and Godzilla, but whenever the monsters are in close proximity to one another, the film cuts to the aftermath of the destruction, resuming the boring, military ass-kissing story that ultimately has very little impact on the outcome of the plot.

I do have to say that when the film finally does show the final fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs, for the most part, it’s pretty awesome.  The main problem is that it keeps cutting away to Brody and his all-important quest to do fuck-all, so that less than half the climax is devoted to the monsters.  It feels like a massive cheat.  I normally wouldn’t be upset about not seeing the kind of movie I was expecting to see, but when that movie is so poorly executed, while simultaneously teasing that something better is on the way, and then mostly failing to deliver, I can’t help but feel like I was lured into the movie theater under false pretenses.  I wanted to see a movie about monsters beating each other up.  Instead, I got a military recruitment video with a few monster clips here and there.  Please, do not go see this movie in theaters.  If you must see it, rent it when it comes out on home video.  But I implore you, don’t spend your money at the theater.  That will only encourage filmmakers to cheat us again in the future.

Have a film you were looking forward to that was way below your expectations?  Leave a comment below to tell me what it is.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"I, Frankenstein": I, Stopped Caring

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I’m sincerely happy that some movies are so bad that they’re immediately forgettable.  After all, my brain has plenty of other things taking up space in it, vital things like stuff from school or work or much better movies.  And I am so happy that I, Frankenstein’s offenses to my brain cells will probably be cleansed shortly after finishing this review.  I wasn’t expecting a good film, and I didn’t get one.  What we have here is a generic plot realized through some lazy and misguided screenwriting with no memorable characters or scenes.  It’s precisely the type of bad movie that I hate watching, but thankfully there should be no lasting after effects.

The plot of this film is pretty basic, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the film’s opening.  Adam is Frankenstein’s monster, who has survived to the present day.  Demons exist, and they either want Adam or Dr. Frankenstein’s research so that they can raise an army of demon-possessed soulless replicas of Adam.  It’s up to Adam to stop them.  Pretty simple, right?  Can’t mess that up too bad, right?  Well, apparently you can, because the film’s first thirty minutes, a full third of its runtime, is devoted to establishing a largely unimportant war between gargoyles and demons in which Adam is a reluctant participant.  The gargoyles stick around for the rest of the movie, but so much attention is given to expositing the context of the action that there’s never any time devoted to characterizing anyone, least of all Adam.  By the time we get to the actual main plot of the film, it’s hard to keep caring because the film hasn’t given us anything to care about.

What I did end up caring about, though, was the lack of consistency any of the so-called characters displayed in their actions.  The gargoyle queen seems to constantly go back and forth on whether Adam is a lost soul in need of redemption or a beast that needs to be put down, alternatively helping him and attempting to kill him.  The head demon is so obviously evil that even as he adopts a human corporate persona, I had to wonder how anyone would be naïve enough to think his efforts to scientifically resurrect the dead were benign.  Even Adam has a bizarre shift in mood at the end of the film, going from dark and brooding to… well, still dark and brooding, but with a soul now apparently?  Honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense, and I’m not going to waste time trying to reason it out.

The effects-driven action scenes aren’t anything to write home about either.  The editing is horrible, making it difficult to even tell what’s going on behind all the dated particle effects constantly buffeting the screen.  That’s probably because there’s minimal fight choreography, meaning that the flashy effects need to make up for the lack of anything real happening on-screen.  Furthermore, these fight scenes primarily seem to happen because the screenwriter just didn’t know how to continue or conclude a particular dialogue and instead typed “FIGHT SCENE” to make up for his lack of creativity.

At the end of the day though, the best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s barely ninety minutes long.  It’s a piece of shit from beginning to end, but at least it doesn’t last long enough to leave a bad taste in its wake.  That’s not an endorsement to watch it by any stretch.  I found nothing redeeming about the film itself.  I’m just saying that I’m glad that I’ll easily be able to forget this one.

Can you think of any film’s you’d rather just forget?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Her": Love At First Keystroke

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

When I first saw Her last year, I had extremely mixed feelings as I left the theater.  On the one hand, I felt completely enamored with the depth and reality of the love story that the film presented, astounded at the chemistry Joaquin Phoenix could have with Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice.  However, upon reflection, I noticed what I perceived to be some thematic flaws in the science fiction aspects of the plot that really bothered me, and I really wanted to watch the movie again to determine whether those flaws were something so strongly emphasized in the film, or whether I was only blowing my nitpicks out of proportion.

Her is the story of Theodore, a lonely man in a not-too-distant future dealing with divorcing his wife of eight years, even after a year of separation.  He purchases a new operating system, the first model to ever have true artificial intelligence, who names herself Samantha.  Samantha is essentially a body-less person with thoughts and feelings, and the two start becoming great friends and eventually become romantically entwined.  The way this movie really shines is in the startlingly realistic way the two develop their relationship as the film progresses.  It feels like how a real, healthy relationship develops, and the film even goes out of its way to be critical of relationships that establish a commitment after only first meeting.  This film tells a romantic story where the romance feels extremely analogous to real life and deserves accolades for that alone.

But the story is deeper than that, for it not only is about the development of the two’s relationship, but also is a demonstration that people in relationships can develop independently of each other and eventually grow apart.  A large portion of the plot is devoted to Theodore getting over the departure of his wife from his life, and Theodore’s character arc revolves around finding his peace with the fact that people can grow apart without either party being at fault.  This is an incredibly refreshing theme coming from a film industry that is much too content to conclude that when two people fall in love, their future can be nothing but happiness because love is just enough.  That’s not what reality is like, and it’s nice to see a film recognize that.

My original gripes with this movie had to do with the sci-fi aspects of the plot, particularly with those involving Samantha’s essence as an artificial intelligence.  The film has an undercurrent of showing that people are becoming more isolated from each other due to the advances in technology, and I originally thought that message undermined Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.  However, upon further viewing, I think the film makes an adequate attempt at making Samantha a positive influence on Theodore’s ability to socialize, placing her outside the film’s techno-isolationist commentary.  Furthermore, I originally had a problem with my perception that Samantha’s character development was undermined by a need to progress the plot in the third act, but upon a second viewing with the film’s greater themes in mind, I found myself perfectly alright with how Samantha was portrayed.

So, overall, I find that Her benefits greatly from a second viewing, but that isn’t to say that I found the first viewing all that lacking.  This is a film with great thematic depth, a fantastic script, and two amazing leads that pull off beautifully heartfelt performances while never even being on-screen together.  The nitpicks that I dwelled upon in my first viewing were only so emphasized in my mind because the film is so close to being flawless that I couldn’t help but notice the minor missteps, and even those aren’t so bad upon reflection.  

Regardless of how you feel about the film’s flaws, though, Her is well worth seeing.  It’s a heartfelt love story that is more realistic than any human-computer romance could ever have been expected to be, so much so that it has raised the bar on romantic tales for years to come.  This is easily one of the best films from 2013.

What do you think are the greatest romances of all time?  Does Her rank among them?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Looking Back At: "X-Men: First Class"

Looking at the history of this film’s production, it really doesn’t sound like it should have turned out to be any good.  Disney had just acquired the rights to Marvel, but 20th Century Fox still retained the rights to the X-Men franchise.  In order to prevent the X-Men rights from reverting to Disney, Fox needed to continue production of films using the license, and they needed to do it fast.  The solution was X-Men: First Class, a film that starred nobody from the previous films (save for a Wolverine cameo), was filmed on a minimal budget, and was rushed to theaters on a much shorter production cycle than is normal for a summer superhero blockbuster.  But 20th Century Fox performed a small miracle here.  Not only did they turn out a decent film, they turned out a decent film that was true to the spirit of the X-Men and succeeds at being much more than an ass-covering cash-in.  The film is far from perfect, but it certainly is the best installment in the series since X2.

What really pulls this film together are the lead performances.  The script is at times a bit schlocky, but James McAvoy (Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), and Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw) all perform spectacularly, and their talent really does a great job of communicating the struggle of oppressed mutants in a world that doesn’t know how to deal with their existence.  The differing ways in which these characters grow and change throughout the course of the story to eventually become the people we know from the previous trilogy is really interesting to watch, and I think this was a really smart direction to take the X-Men franchise.  Setting the film in the Cold War was a small stroke of genius, not only for providing a prequel, but also for showing prejudice of human beings against mutants as being largely symptomatic of the mistrust of the unknown that that era naturally engendered.  And going back to the characters, there’s a lot that can be done in future installments by going back to the roots of the Xavier/Magneto dynamic, who are arguably the most interesting characters in the franchise based solely on that relationship.  This film sets the stage for that quite well, and it makes me excited to see what the upcoming Days of Future Past adds to this timeline.

I also like that the film doesn’t feel overproduced, even though I recognize that this is a symptom of the rushed production time.  The special effects aren’t flashy or even up to what were modern CG standards of the time, but most of the time they get the job done.  I like that the film recognizes its limitations and doesn’t try to be an effects-driven spectacle, yet instead pushes the focus on the interactions of the main characters.  It uses a lot of physical effects that are not only effective, but evocative of the special effects in films of First Class’s setting.  That’s smart filmmaking, and I’d like to see more smaller-scale productions for sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero films so that not so much attention is placed on the special effects, but instead on the direction and character performances.  Many a film has been the victim of over-production, but thankfully First Class is not one of them.

But as I said earlier, this isn’t a perfect film, and the film’s weaknesses are actually made all the more apparent by the ways the film succeeds.  Some of the film’s effects aren’t particularly well done, most notably the make-up job done with Beast and the CG version of Emma Frost.  They look painfully fake, and personally it pulled me right out of the experience.  And speaking of the side characters, they are all immediately forgettable.  Sebastian Shaw’s henchmen barely have lines, and January Jones as Emma Frost feels hollow and phoned in.  Xavier’s team of teenage mutants don’t fare much better, serving mostly as blank slates for Xavier to develop his teaching skills on.  While that serves the story well enough, it would have been nice for the kids to have a bit more three-dimensional personalities.

X-Men: First Class is a good film, and though it isn’t perfect, it makes me hopeful for the future of the X-Men franchise.  In the wake of The Avengers, studios that still retain superhero rights are going to try to emulate the multi-film epic storytelling that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe so popular.  If any franchise has the potential to see that through, I think its X-Men.  Let’s see how the upcoming sequel fares.

Look for my review of X-Men: Days of Future Past on the weekend of its release.  Excited for the film?  Want to throw in your two cents on First Class?  Leave a comment below.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Labor Day": A Labor To Sit Through

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Romance movies do not need to be bad.  They really don’t.  The goal is to show two people falling in love and the struggles that entails, and if a movie develops its leads appropriately there’s potential for on-screen chemistry to be put on display and allow an audience to experience their passion vicariously.  Labor Day doesn’t do any of that, and it falls into the same trap that many love stories do.  That is to say that it thinks that it will carry its audience by virtue of the fact that there is a romance happening, but there just isn’t enough going on in this film to justify its two hours of runtime.

Adele is a depressed recluse who lives with her preteen son, Henry.  Frank is an escaped convict looking for a place to lie low.  Frank isn’t that bad of a guy though, and after taking residence in Adele and Henry’s home to lie low for a while, Adele and Frank grow closer over the course of the Labor Day weekend.  This, my friends, is the schlock that romance novels are made of.  Adele is a modern day damsel in distress, and her dragon is her struggle with depression and anxiety.  Frank is the rugged and dangerous outsider that has come into her life to set things right, and the language of romance is spoken through household chores and supposedly shocking sentimentality.  Let’s ignore for a second that the message of this film is that this woman just needs a man in her life to make everything better.  What this film fails to address is the fact that Frank really does kidnap Adele and Henry at the beginning of the movie, and everything that happens from then onward could easily be explained as Stockholm Syndrome rather than romance.  That would be much more believable than what supposedly passes for love in such a short timeframe.

See, I could perhaps forgive the entirely problematic premise if the acting carried the film at all.  With the exception of a couple side characters, almost everyone in this film displays the acting ability of wooden puppets.  Nobody emotes; they just say their lines and perform the actions necessary as their almighty lord The Script tells them to.  I can’t believe any of the drama that the film tries to push on us because I don’t believe that the characters are real.  All the actors display this solemnity to them that encompasses their entire being.  They don’t appear to feel, and as a romance film, this kills any chance the film had at being good.
Furthermore, somewhere in here is a coming-of-age story about Henry, as most of the film takes place from his perspective.  However, the film seems so confused about what it’s trying to say that I have no idea what to make of it.  There’s some stuff about sexual discovery and about being jealous of the new man in his mom’s life, as well as some demonstration of how Frank is a better father than Henry’s actual father.  But what are we supposed to take away from this subplot?  I have no idea.  There’s no point at which Henry pulls any of these threads together to make a cohesive moment of development, and so we as the audience are left to let those threads dangle.

I will admit that the climax of the film does contain some genuinely tense moments, but for all the emotionless and boring tripe you have to wade through to get to that point, I can’t say that it’s at all worth the wait.  There are much better romantic films out there, if only because they actually convey human emotion.  Don’t waste your time on these robots.

Can you think of any romance films that transcend the romance-for-romance’s-sake formula?  My review of In Your Eyes is a great example, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.  Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Escape From Tomorrow": Exploring the Darker Side of Disney Left Me Feeling Lost

Now Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

I don’t understand what the hell I just watched.  I was really excited about watching this one, for it sounded like a fantastic piece of counterculture taking stabs at Disney.  After all, almost the entire film was shot on Disney World property without permits and without Disney’s knowledge.  That in and of itself intrigued me enough to give this one a look.  However, I walked away from this flick disturbed and confused, unsure about the messages the director was trying to communicate or whether he understood them himself.

Jim is a husband and father with his family on vacation in an unnamed theme park, though Disney iconography is clearly everywhere.  After he receives a phone call wherein he loses his job, he begins a journey into madness… I guess.  See, I’m really unsure I can even say this movie has that much of a plot.  The majority of the film’s runtime is Jim taking his kids on rides and arguing with his wife, as the trip is clearly stressing him out.  However, this day in the park will also lead Jim in a multitude of bizarre directions, like stalking two underage girls and repeatedly encountering an obese person on a scooter who he thinks is out to get him.  And while I did get a chuckle out of one or two gags, much of the film’s bizarre black comedy just left me feeling grossed out, particularly the pedophilic glances Jim gives to those teenage girls.  It all comes across as just soul-crushingly sad, but it never really unifies the depressing moments into a cohesive message about how Schmisney World is pushing Jim to this point.  Instead, I grew to despise our protagonist, and even with a ninety minute runtime I was checking my watch to see how long before the film ended.

And then we hit the third act, where I just gave up trying to even comprehend what was going on.  To name just a few of the stranger plot points, Jim gets captured by a scientist who turns out to be a robot, his daughter gets captured by a witch who is a shamed former Schmisney princess, and he contracts a made-up disease that makes him shit out everything in his body and start coughing up hairballs.  I don’t even know what to say about this.  It’s almost like the movie gave up on trying to tell its audience anything of note and decided to just go down the rabbit hole of Jim’s psyche.  I wouldn’t be so disappointed if the mad symbolism ever actually added up to anything comprehensible, but it doesn’t.

I really wanted this movie to be more than it ended up being.  There’s seeds of some truly funny and dark satire of Disney to be had here, but it never fully realizes them.  Rarely, a joke will land or the film will make a sly reference to its own illegality, but these moments are so fleeting that it could only sustain my amusement for mere seconds at a time.  In the end, we’re left with an incomprehensible mess of a film that tries way too hard at being a deeply bizarre commentary and just ends up feeling bizarre.

How do you feel about Disney?  Are they a corporation worthy of critique and criticism?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Request Review: "Iron Man 2"

The following review assumes you’ve seen the film.  If you have any interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you probably already have, so I’m not going to pretend I’m making a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t seen this installment.  Groovy?  Groovy.

Allow me to preface this with a disclaimer: Iron Man 2 is not a bad movie.  However, it isn’t an especially good one, and is the worst of the post-Iron Man Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For being a franchise that has had nine installments as of this writing, the Cinematic Universe has been consistently above average for the superhero film genre, and Iron Man 2 is no exception.  But just barely.  This film is an obvious holding pattern to try to keep the character of Iron Man relevant in the period between the first film and The Avengers, and while it succeeds at being that, it doesn’t succeed at being much more.

To this film’s credit, though, I must compliment it on not opting for making the villain’s goal to attempt conquest on a global scale, but rather works on presenting a revenge tale.  Modern action films usually don’t settle for less than earth-shattering conflicts, so it’s nice to see Marvel willing to take a risk on a more personal story.  That said, though, Ivan Vanko is a really uninspired villain.  For the majority of the film he acts as a straight-man foil to Tony Stark’s annoying business rival, Anthony Hammer, and the few scenes where he does take direct action are brief, token, and inconsequential.  He feels like he’s there as the film’s obligatory villain, but he’s not really developed enough beyond his most basic motivation to be at all compelling.

Speaking of not being compelling, Tony Stark himself turns the clock back on all his previous character development, playing up his egotism to even greater heights in hopes of recreating his charm from this film's superior predecessor.  Robert Downey Jr. does a great job in his role, and I particularly like the developing chemistry between Tony and Pepper Potts (though I still don’t understand how the two kissing can look like “two seals fighting over a grape” as Rhodey so eloquently puts it.)  However, the way that Stark is scripted makes him feel juvenile in light of all the self-awareness he attained over the course of the first film, which is particularly striking in a franchise that has prided itself on its dedication to continuity.  I realize that the in-plot excuse for his behavior is that he’s dying and trying to cover it up through his antics, but all I saw was an attempt to give audiences more of the same antics from the first film when Stark’s character has grown past the point where it’s believable.  Yes, Stark is a narcissist, but he's supposed to be beyond the point where he's hurting others through his narcissism.  That was the entire point of the first film, and this greatly undermines it.

I also found S.H.I.E.L.D.’s presence to be incredibly forced.  They seem to exist here for three reasons: first, to further solidify their presence in the Cinematic Universe; second, to provide some plot-tidying exposition to further explain Vanko’s motivation; and third, to provide Stark with the means to discover his magic MacGuffin element to tie up that particular subplot.  I get the feeling that the original idea was to incorporate S.H.I.E.L.D. more heavily into the then-upcoming Thor, but the screenplay writer decided this would be easier to whip up short notice as his deadline fast approached.  It was a sloppy introduction to the agency that would play such a prominent role in the films to come.

Am I harsh on Iron Man 2?  Yes.  Does that mean I think it’s a bad movie?  Again, no I do not.  But I think it’s a fairly average one, and from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s disappointing, which is why I am so harsh on it.  To be fair, this review is largely in retrospect, as it was the third installment in the Universe, and at that point, Iron Man was the only truly exceptional piece to the puzzle.  But even as a direct sequel, Iron Man 2 just isn’t up to snuff against its predecessor, and almost every subsequent Marvel film blew it right out of the water.

Think any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s installments are worse than Iron Man 2?  Let me know in the comments below and, if you’d like, I’m more than willing to take a second look at any of them for another Request Review.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"47 Ronin (2013)": An Unexpected Not-Disaster

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I had been dreading watching this movie, and I had hoped to get out of the month of April without having to do so.  But there’s a bit of a dry spell coming up in notable DVD releases, so I sat myself down and gave this one a watch.  And you know what?  It’s really not that bad.  Actually, it’s kinda good.  Not great by any standard, but for as dumb as the premise makes this one sound, I found the film engaging and entertaining.  I certainly don’t regret watching it, and while I completely understand why fans of the original 47 Ronin could hate this, as a standalone film, I don’t find it to be too offensive.

The original 47 Ronin is a classic Japanese film depicting the dishonor of 47 samurai after the death of their lord, who then take revenge on the one responsible for their lord’s death and reclaim the honor of their clan.  This 47 Ronin follows the same basic plot, but changes the setting to a more mythologically based Japan where demons and witches exist, and features a sideplot wherein Keanu Reeves plays a half-Japanese, half-European man raised by demons.  As terrible as this sounds on paper, the film doesn’t really make Reeves the focus for extended periods of time, but really uses him as more of an excuse to tie mythological elements into the ronin’s quest.  It transforms the film into a fantasy adventure story, and while some may view this as desecration of a classic, I found the world-building and creature designs to be rather inspired.

Furthermore, I found myself really enjoying the effects-driven action sequences.  In general, they do an excellent job of communicating the flow of a complicated battle scene without relying on exposition or devolving into mindless brawls.  The choreography is smooth, and while I found a couple of the 300-style slo-mo effects to be a bit jarring, the film’s action as a whole is quite well-executed, particularly with regards to some of the CG fantasy fights.  The costuming as well was gorgeous to look upon, making this film a visual treat if nothing else.

Unfortunately, as I said, this film isn’t great, particularly in the acting department.  Keanu Reeves has never been a very good actor, but at least this movie doesn’t let him open his mouth all that much.  The true offenders are almost everyone else in this film, speaking in jilted sentences that seem to have punctuation in all the wrong places.  I suspect that many of the Japanese actors in this film were not fluent enough in English syntax to make their dialogue sound natural.  Either that, or the director wanted this to sound like a poorly dubbed anime.  Either way, the poor acting in the more conversation-heavy scenes can grow almost comical in its absurdity.  There were also a few scenes that seemed really bizarrely edited, either through lack of scene establishment or lack of relevance to the overarching narrative.  It’s nothing that breaks the film, but there were a few moments where I had to ask myself what the hell I just saw, like a random flashback to how the two main villains first met that goes by so fast you could almost miss it by blinking.

Overall, though, 47 Ronin isn’t a huge cinematic sin of a film.  If you can take it for what it is, it’s a competently fun fantasy action flick with a few forgivable missteps.  I honestly think that this film’s biggest sin was calling itself 47 Ronin.  The legacy of the original masterpiece is going to be almost impossible to live up to, but then to add fantasy elements to a story originally grounded in reality is not going to endear this movie in the eyes of the original film’s fans.  If the movie had rebranded itself as something other than 47 Ronin and differentiated the details of the story enough from its inspiration, I don’t think this movie would have been panned nearly as hard by its critics.  I, on the other hand, can appreciate this movie for what it is, and not what I expected it to be.

Ever see a film you thought you would hate and came away pleasantly surprised?  Let me know about it in the comments below.