Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Winter's Tale": The Greatest Terrible Movie Of The Year

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Every once in a while, a fantastic movie event comes to us, a perfect alignment of acting, writing, and direction what creates a perfect storm of cinema, providing great entertainment that we will remember for years to come.  Winter’s Tale is one of those movies.

And it is terrible.  And it is hilarious.

This is a movie where everything seems to go wrong, and the result is not only a mangled mess of a film, but is so mangled in all the right ways that you have to wonder who in their right mind would have signed off on making this film a reality.  That said, Winter’s Tale does seem to target the love-for-love’s-sake obsessed Twilight demographic, so maybe this film’s producers couldn’t be bothered.  All in all, though, if you’re a fan of horrible cinema, Winter’s Tale may just fill your WTF quotient.

Colin Ferrell plays a man named Peter Lake, who finds a magic horse while running away from a gangster named Pearly, played by Russell Crowe, in early 20th century New York.  The horse then takes him to meet a woman dying of consumption who he immediately falls in love with because of destiny or some bullshit.  Pearly turns out to be a demon bent on preventing miracles from happening, and he goes after Peter and his lady love to prevent him from performing a miracle and saving her life.  But then, the girl dies, and Pearly kills Peter.  Or so Pearly thinks!  Because Peter’s alive, but has amnesia, and lives until the present day without aging, and then suddenly doesn’t have amnesia, and saves a little girl with cancer, and turns Pearly into a snowman.  Yeah.  This movie makes just as much goddamn sense as that synopsis would lead you to believe.  The plot is all over the place, offers little in the way of explanation that isn’t just vague gibberish, and its pacing goes right out the window about two-thirds of the way through.  And I can’t help but laugh at it.

The performances in this film feel so genuine too, which only adds to the comedy.  To see Colin Ferrell weep over his ill-defined character of a love interest feels like it belongs in a much better film, but here it comes off as over the top and silly.  Russell Crowe absolutely chews up the scenery as the villain, and he’s clearly having fun just being the two-dimensional villain that he’s written as, spouting nonsensical exposition about miracles and angels and stars like saying it in a gravelly voice will somehow make it able to be taken seriously.  The only one who truly seems to realize just how much a shit show this production is turns out to be Will Smith as Lucifer, who lives in a sewer and disappears when you turn out the lights.  Watching him say his lines with a bored expression and a cartoon Satan shadow dancing behind him is about as apt an image as this film deserves to represent it.

I wouldn’t even mind the silliness if any of it made any sort of coherent sense.  Everything in this film ostensibly takes place in the real world, yet Pearly runs around with a demon face and a legion of henchmen, a horse grows fairy wings and flies around, and Peter lives for a century without growing old, and NOBODY SO MUCH AS RAISES AN EYEBROW!  It’s impossible to take any of this fantastical imagery seriously if it has no impact on the characters or the world they inhabit.  A film needs to ground itself in some sort of relatable framework of cause and effect, or else nothing that happens in the film will feel part of a cohesive world.  So instead, here is a film that amounts to a cinematic equivalent of an infant's hanging mobile, supposedly enthralling us with the pretty images dangling in front of our noses, but with little context, substance, or interconnectivity between them.

And yet, I found myself chuckling at just how stupid this film turned out to be.  It’s trying to be a story about true love, but instead doesn’t know what it’s about, stumbling over its own mythology like a pre-schooler telling you about a movie they saw while half awake and dreaming of unicorns.  I can’t wait for the guys over at Rifftrax to take a stab at this one, because it is that caliber of bad.  It’s not exactly the next The Room or Troll 2, but if you’re looking for a new film to build a drinking game around, Winter’s Tale may fit the bill.  Otherwise, stay away.

Have a favorite terrible movie?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Enemy": The Stupidity of Surrealist Spiders

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Despite the name of this blog, I don’t actually think of myself as pretentious.  Pretentious means that you think you’re saying something profound when really it is pedestrian.  I only try to share my opinions so that you as a readership can make informed viewing choices about films.  A film like Enemy, however, is the exact definition of pretentious.  It is a film that is an accumulation of mildly interesting parts that don’t add up to anything of substance, and the Lynchian mood the film tries to evoke falls flat on its face because of its own red herrings.  I have no idea what to make of this movie, and though I think that may be what the director’s intention was, I don’t think that makes for good film making.  It only makes for a waste of ninety minutes on what should have been clever writing leading to a twist-ending, but instead focuses on shock value masquerading as surrealism.

I’m going to spoil some of the plot elements of this one, but seeing as the film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway, I don’t think that’s much of a problem.  However, you have been warned.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays two identical men who discover one another through a series of chance circumstances.  One is a history professor with a girlfriend, and the other is a bit movie actor with a pregnant wife.  Clues are gradually revealed that the two men share more than just appearances, as no one else ever sees the both of them at the same time, they share identical self-portraits and scars, and yet have diametrically opposed preferences toward blueberries.  The film heavily implies that the two are the same person and that whoever is the real one is mentally unstable.  However, the timelines of the two protagonists don’t line up so that that’s actually a possibility by the end of the movie.  The film seems to revel in its own contradictory nature, forcing the audience to keep guessing throughout the entire experience.  And this would be fine, if only the film offered any sort of closure, a satisfactory resolution, or even a hint as to what counts as real in the film's world, and the film's bizarre cutaways only exacerbate the matter.

See, there’s also this weird fascination with giant spiders throughout the film, with shots devoted to CG creations of arachnids wandering a cityscape just kinda showing up for a few seconds, while I just sit there and wonder “What the fuck am I seeing?”  And it all comes to a head where, when you finally think that maybe some closure is just around the corner, the final shot of the film is of a giant spider screaming at a confused Gyllenhaal.  I just don’t know what significance that’s supposed to have.  I turned off my Blu-Ray player and just stared blankly at the screen, trying to figure out what the hell the film was trying to tell me.  I have nothing.  The pieces of the puzzle don’t add up, and I’m left feeling confused and angry.

And maybe that’s the point.  The film persistently has a dour and disturbing air about it, so that you feel this ominous sense of foreboding, even as you question whether the twist is really as obvious as it seems (even though the real eight-legged "twist" is straight out of left field).  I think the intention of the film is to evoke a feeling from its audience, and it’s not actually about providing a coherent narrative.  However, that begs the question: Why present an avant-garde piece in the guise of a narrative?  There’s only so far a director can betray the expectations of their audience before overstepping the line into pretentious self-congratulation for pulling one over on us.  This film crosses that line.  Don’t waste your time on Enemy.  I’ve already spoiled the "twist" ending for you, and if that doesn’t convince you that this is a waste of time, I don’t know what will.

Have a favorite example of surrealist film done well?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"300: Rise Of An Empire": Attack Of The Feminist

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

300 seems like a really bizarre film to make a sequel to.  It is a fairly self-contained story about the fall of the forces of Sparta against the invading Persian Empire, and it was some decent action fluff.  A lot of criticism has been brought against the film for being little more than an ultra-stylized hyper-masculine power fantasy, but for what it was, it succeeded.  I never really thought it was a great movie, but I do think it is Zack Snyder’s second-best film, for what little that compliment is actually worth.  So, going into 300: Rise of an Empire, I had my expectations of what I was getting into; not something particularly smart, but probably with some good computer-generated action to keep me entertained for ninety minutes.  And for the most part, that’s about right.  However, I found this film’s story to be much more problematic in its subtext than its predecessor was, and I think Rise of an Empire suffers greatly for it.

The film takes place before, during, and after the events of the original 300, following the tale of Athens’s commander, Themistocles.  Athenians are not a warrior people like Spartans, so Themistocles instead relies on a ragtag team of farmers and craftsmen to man an armada of warships against Persia’s naval fleet.  So, essentially, replace the Spartan army’s small numbers with vast inexperience, and the hand-to-hand on-land warfare for naval ramming and maneuvering, and you essentially have a rehash of the original storyline.  There isn’t much to say for it except that Themistocles is a much more understated protagonist than Leonidas, and because of this he doesn’t really have much of a character to him other than his motivation of taking down the Persians.  At least Leonidas had some personal establishment as a king who cared for his people and his family.  Themistocles really only gets established as a mythic hero who killed Xerxes’s father, but that doesn’t really tell us anything about him as a person, so it’s hard to care for his struggle a whole lot except in the context of the evil he faces.

And that evil villainess is my main problem with this film.  I want to make one thing clear, first, though: Ava Green gives a stellar performance as Artemisia.  She’s vile, cunning, and sexy without any of those traits conflicting with one another, and she’s incredibly sympathetic and, in a weird way, likeable.  But the way her backstory is written is incredibly problematic, going so far as to be blatantly anti-feminist.  Say what you will about 300’s romanticism of the so-called masculine ideal, at least it never went so far as to villainize women.  Artemisia turns out to be the corrupting influence that placed Xerxes on the throne, manipulating him from being a proud bearded masculine figure into a bejeweled pretty-boy.  Her role as a villain is centered around the theme of her feminine influence being a threat to the masculine values and power-structure that are in place.  She’s even established to have a rape-revenge motivation, going so far as to blame all Grecians for her treatment by a few Greek men.  This undermines any sort of credibility she has a leader and symbolically turns her quest for dominance over Greece into a feminist seeking to take down all men because some men are bad.  When I said earlier that Artemisia is sympathetic and likeable, I meant that only in the sense that Green makes her so with a great performance.  The film’s script, on the other hand, clearly places her in the role of a villain with no chance of redemption or tempering, which is a problem when that creates a thematic undercurrent that femininity seeks to wipe out masculinity and that men must protect themselves from its corrupting influence.  This could have been a much better film told from Artemisia's perspective, with her role as the villain painted with more shades of gray.  Alas, instead we get a great performance in a problematically-written role.

EDIT: A Facebook comment asked me to clarify why I use the term anti-feminist rather than anti-female, which they thought my description of the film implied. The reason I would use the word anti-feminist is that I don't think the film is consciously anti-female, for it does attempt to make Leonidas's wife a prominent character presented in a positive light (not very well, mind you, for she acts primarily as a supporting role to masculine strength, but still). It may be anti-female in its execution, but my bigger criticism is of the purposeful promotion of masculinity's natural place as superior to femininity.

So, yeah, I didn’t really like 300: Rise of an Empire all that much.  Admittedly, some of the action is pretty cool, but it’s not really quite on the same level as the original film, even if the nautical setting does provide some pretty cool set pieces.  However, the story it’s trying to tell ends up being even more problematic than the first one, and even if you overlook the plot, there isn’t much here beyond an unnecessary cash-in on a franchise that didn’t really need a continuation.

How’d you feel about the original 300? Love it or hate it, leave a comment below.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"Ernest And Celestine": An Artist's Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

You may have heard of Ernest & Celestine because of its status as an Academy Award nominee for Best Feature Length Animated Film.  At the time of the awards, as the only nominated film I’d seen, Frozen was the only informed choice I could make in my Oscar predictions, and frankly, given the film’s immense popularity and Disney’s virtual perpetual lock on the category, it was a solid bet.  However, this little French film now has an American Blu-Ray release, and I watched it.  My gods, this film is lovely, and while I think Frozen is a good film, Ernest & Celestine is a fantastically charming picture that probable deserved the award more.  It tells a simple story with a powerful message, and it looks gorgeous while doing it.  This is a film that is incredibly relevant to our world today, yet remains timeless in its themes and presentation.

Imagine a world populated by two sentient peoples: the bears and the mice.  The bears live above-ground and resemble modern urban life.  The mice are subterranean dwellers who have crafted a world through the power of their incisors, cutting through the dirt and rock to create a fantastical metropolis.  Both races have an inexplicable hatred of one another, born mostly out of folk tales, prejudice, and irrational fear.  Celestine is a mouse who only wishes to draw and paint, yet her society pushes her to conform and become a dentist.  Ernest is a bear who lives in poverty outside of town because he wants to be a musician and entertainer, and his rundown circumstances are a consequence of pursuing that dream.  Through some odd and comical circumstances, Ernest and Celestine form a fast friendship and must fight to stay together against the will of their respective cultures.

The film promotes two major themes, both of which are probably fairly obvious from the previous paragraph.  The first is cultural tolerance, and though the theme here is obvious, the film does not underestimate the intelligence of its audience by bashing us over the head with it.  The story moralizes enough without any unnecessary exposition cluttering things up, and while it makes for a relatively short film at only 80 minutes, it feels like a tightly constructed experience without unnecessary fluff.

The other theme revolves around artistic freedom.  Both main characters are artists, and they find that they can only really be themselves when around each other.  The weight of their societies’ expectations of them and the ostracism that comes with not meeting those expectations are heavy burdens to bear when they are alone, but together, being themselves becomes effortless, and the film does a fantastic job of showing that rather than just blatantly telling us.  That’s because this is an artist’s type of film, using the visuals and clever writing to tell a story, rather than relying on tired plot devises and unoriginal designs.  Every scene looks like a moving watercolor painting pulled right off a storybook page, and it is animated gorgeously.  The score is fantastic in the wonderfully realized chase scenes, and the more fantastical dream sequences and musical sections are quite a sight to behold.

All in all, Ernest & Celestine is a fantastic film for people of all ages, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in animation give this one a go.  It’s smartly written, touching in its way, and simply gorgeous to look at.  It may not be as musically catchy and mainstreamingly princess-oriented as Frozen, but in my humble opinion, Ernest & Celestine is the film much more worthy of award recognition.  I know I won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

What’s your favorite animated film of all time?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Joe": Ability Let Out Of Its Cage

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Nicholas Cage is a bit of an oddity in the acting world.  He started out as a serious actor and somehow ended up getting cast in cheesy action films where he just overacts like there’s no tomorrow, and suddenly he’s a quirky nutball who can’t cut past the tape his action film persona confines him to.  Yet lo and behold, we get Joe, a serious drama starring Nicholas Cage.  And he’s still got the acting chops, given that he has a good director to work with.  And Joe is well directed.  It is a good example of novelistic storytelling brought to the big screen, combining literary motifs with cinematic aesthetics to make a damn good tale of finding a way to do some good when all you’ve ever known is how to do wrong.

Cage takes on the role of Joe, an ex-convict who contracts some guys to cut down trees during the day, and spends his nights by himself.  He drinks, smokes, and resorts to hookers, but not really because he gets satisfaction out of any of them, and not to abuse himself into a stupor.  No, this is self-medication.  Joe is a violent man, and he tries desperately not to be.  Enter a 15 year old boy named Gary, a drifter living with his family in a condemned house.  Gary wants to find work for him and his father, and though Gary is a hard worker, his father is a drunk intent only on being lazy, blaming everybody else for his shortcomings, and doing whatever it takes for his next drink.  Joe sees this play out, and sees a kindred spirit in the kid, acting as a friend where the kid has none.  The events that follow are subtly dramatic and at times shocking, and seeing Joe watch aspects of himself be reflected in both Gary and his father is something to behold.

The performances in this film are fantastic demonstrations of believably human characters acting in realistic ways while still acting as thematic archetypes to portray a greater message.  Cage’s subdued dramatic tones are usually a result of bored underacting in a role he clearly doesn’t care about, but that’s not what’s going on here.  Joe is a character that allows Cage to brood and sulk without having to be bored with it, because the script shows there’s a lot more going on with Joe than any single line of dialogue can demonstrate.  There’s depth to this character, and Cage knows how to run with it.  The supporting cast does a great job of providing on-screen chemistry for his performance, but Cage is really the one who steals the show.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by some serious pacing issues in the first half.  It takes a whole forty minutes to establish the main conflict of the film, and I think enough background information and characterization could have been accomplished in half the time.  Much focus is put on Joe’s job and Gary’s home situation, but it dwells on these things for too long when it has already made its desired points.  I was frankly quite bored at first and didn’t quite see where the film was going, and if I weren’t committed to writing these reviews, I might have turned off the movie before it got past the establishment and into the actually interesting plot.

However, when you get right down to it, Joe is still a pretty good movie.  It has a high bar of admission with some boring establishment taking up way more of the film than it has any right to, but once you get past that there’s a good film just waiting to be appreciated.  The story is solid and the performances are magnificent, particularly Cage’s.  Give this one a look if you see it around.

What’s your favorite Nicholas Cage movie?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"The Lego Movie": Everything Is Awesome!

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Lego Movie is a fantastic film.  It is smart, funny, surprisingly poignant, and just damn fun in the way it’s animated.  It’s a movie that should by all rights be just a cynical cash-grab by Warner Brothers Studios and the Lego Corporation, but instead, this film goes off the rails in a subversive way addressing the conflict between rigidity and creativity in both surface-level and meta-critical ways.  This is a powerful message and reaches beyond itself and becomes about how we as a people view our own popular culture and the treasured memories of our childhoods.  And I REAAAAAAALLY want to tell you all why.  Unfortunately, much like the issue with last week’s review of Non-Stop, going into a full analysis of the film would be telling too much, and I want everyone who sees this movie to get the full benefit of the experience.  So I’m going to touch a bit on some of the more superficial elements of the film, and hopefully that will get you to watch it if you haven’t already.  But when you get to the film’s final scenes, think back on this paragraph, which ends with the words “I told you so!”

Emmet is a Lego person living in the orderly Lego City.  He follows the instructions every day, and goes to his job like everyone else, listens to the same music everyone else does, and is an all-around excessively average guy.  But then, destiny sweeps Emmet up into a league of renegade Master Builders, who use their creativity to take on the overlord of the realms of Lego, President Business.  Business wants to bring eternal order to the world through the use of a MacGuffin known as the Kragle, and Emmet is the Special, the only person who can stop him.  If this sounds like the overly-done “chosen one” narrative you’ve heard a million times before, well, yeah, you’re right.  But this film is well aware of that and plays it for laughs, using a tongue-in-cheek sensibility to its storytelling that contributes to much of the film’s humor.  Along the way, Emmet will encounter many awesome characters, including a hardcore girl who’s more complex than she first appears, an eternally happy kitty with a unicorn horn, a spaceship-crazed astronaut from an 80s playset, and, of course, the goddamn Batman in what is perhaps the greatest parody of the Dark Knight’s persona ever put to film.  The dialogue these characters have is both symbolic and comedy gold, and the frenetic pace the film moves at is fantastic.

And that pace is accentuated by the brilliant use of animation that purposely looks like real Legos in motion.  Though the film is clearly computer-generated, the art style of the film makes everything look like Legos, including people, vehicles that can transform at will, water, fire, lasers, smoke, you name it.  The jerky animation of the characters feels like a stop-motion film of days long gone, and this only adds to the comedic timing that goes with their exaggerated movements.  It’s a gorgeous movie to watch, and there’s nothing else that looks like it, including the animated specials Lego’s in-house studio produces.

Alas, this is where the review must end if I’m to restrain myself from giving away the movie’s biggest surprises.  I obviously adore this film, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone.  It’s hilarious and fun, and when you break through the surface there’s some surprisingly deep commentary to go with the jokes and slapstick action.  This is a must-see.

Do you have fond memories of playing with Legos?  Or perhaps those memories aren’t so far removed from the present.  Let me know in the comments below!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit": A Character Out Of Time

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a strange movie to see come out in 2014.  Jack Ryan is a Tom Clancy character that achieved some fame in the 1990s as a post-Cold War espionage figure that foiled those nasty Ruskies who were up to no good.  In the decade those movies were made in, they worked mostly because the American audience they were made for was still paranoid that Russia was just waiting around the corner for its chance to strike.  But now, in light of more recent conflicts against folks other than Russia, Jack Ryan feels a bit antiquated, and quite frankly, I’m really not sure why this movie was made.

Our title protagonist, played by Chris Pine, is a financial analyst who works undercover for the CIA in hopes of tracking terrorist funds so that he can prevent the next 9/11.  His investigation leads him to Russia, where a plot is underway to stage a terrorist attack on U.S. soil so that a Russian businessman can flood the market and cause a second Great Depression or something, and now Jack must be the one to put a stop to it.  If that sounds like gibberish to you, it does to me too, and maybe I’m not doing the film justice due to my incredibly inept understanding of economics, but this plot just sounds a bit silly and overdone.  That would be fine if the film didn’t take itself so seriously, but it does, so it isn’t.  Furthermore, the film doesn’t really bother to give us that wonderful Cliff Notes explanation until the very end of the first act, leaving the audience entirely in the dark as to what the hell is going on for the first thirty minutes of the film.  It purposely withholds information from the audience in order to give the illusion of suspense, and it comes off as confusing more than thrilling.

Speaking of botched manipulation of the audience, Kiera Knightley plays the role of Jack’s girlfriend, who serves as our all-purpose plot device.  She shows up in Moscow to stalk Jack on his mission for reasons that feel completely contrived, then becomes the centerpiece of an operation in which she must distract a bad guy with her feminine whiles, then becomes a clichéd damsel in distress, all at the mercy at whatever role the plot dictates she fill.  Knightley is trying her best to make the performance work, but the screenplay doesn’t give her much to work with.  She's only there to force the plot to move on its artificial path, and the makers of the film hope we won't notice because Knightley is so damn pretty.

Chris Pine, on the other hand, is bland and forgettable, bringing zero charisma or machismo to a role that seriously demands it.  His character also conveniently changes from scene to scene, ranging from nervous rookie, to hand-to-hand badass, to tactical genius with zero breathing room in between.  He’s the guy with the skills to take down the bad guys, and since his name is the title of the movie, he has be a Jack (Ryan) of all trades and believable as none.  The action and chase scenes he’s in are decently directed, offering some suspense and tension when the film needs it, but Pine isn’t the one bringing any excitement to them.  A mannequin would do about the same amount of emoting as he does in this film.

At the end of the day, this film is action fluff at best, xenophobic fear mongering at worst.  I can’t really recommend the film, and that’s not even because it’s especially bad at what it’s trying to be, though it is still pretty bad.  Rather, I have no idea who I would recommend this film to.  Jack Ryan is an action hero from another time, what James Bond was to the 1960s and Jason Bourne was to the 2000s.  This reboot doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, and after over a decade of not having been on screen, something new was needed.  And acknowledging 9/11 does not count.

Have a favorite action hero that you’d like to see rebooted?  Think Hollywood would do a good job?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Alan Partridge": What The Hell Does Alpha Papa Even Mean?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Alan Partridge is a character from the mind of British comedian Steve Coogan, who has brought Partridge to life through multiple venues, most notably British television.  The film Alan Partridge (subtitled Alpha Papa outside the U.S.) is an attempt to translate the character to the big screen and potentially find an American audience.  I can’t say with any certainty how well the film fares with either of those goals, for I don’t know how faithful it is to the source material, nor have I heard much from American audiences about its reception.  However, I do know a funny comedy when I see one, and despite some character establishment issues, Alan Partridge is a film worth seeing for its clever writing.

Partridge is a DJ at a radio station that has recently been bought out by new corporate management.  Fellow DJ Pat (played by Colm Meaney, whom you may remember as Chief O’Brien from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) has been fired due to his show’s relatively low ratings, which drives poor Pat a bit mad.  Pat takes the radio station under siege with a shotgun, Partridge takes the role of hostage negotiator, shenanigans ensue.  There’s obviously a message here about the heartlessness of corporate takeovers, but thankfully the film does not belabor the same point we’ve seen made in countless other films.  The focus is on the witty dialogue and well-conceived physical comedy, and while I would never say it’s gut-bustingly hilarious, I was consistently entertained by whatever was coming out of Partridge’s mouth.

Your mileage is going to vary depending on your sense of humor.  Steve Coogan’s comedy seems to revolve around a few key factors.  Partridge has a huge ego, and while we as the audience see him as a bumbling idiot who is clearly overcompensating for his lack of intelligence, this is further complimented by the fact that everyone else is dumber than he is.  Nobody really stoops to the level of being unrealistically stupid, but everyone seems to be a few IQ points lower than real-world human beings.  This justifies Partridge’s ego, which allows him to keep being ridiculous with few consequences, so the jokes just keep coming as rapid-fire.  And the jokes are mostly wordplay, so as long as you pay close attention and have a quick wit, Partridge’s humor shouldn’t be lost on you.

The one thing I will say against this film, though, it that it seems to assume that we already know something about a few of the film’s side characters.  No one except Partridge and Pat get much of an introduction, yet there seem to be some ancillary character arcs for characters who don’t much affect the story at all, namely Partridge’s… assistant/housekeeper?  She’s barely introduced, and the time spent on her feels wasted without proper context.  Some other side characters, like a crazy old man and a love interest, are just thrust upon us without any introduction, and I only wish that I knew more of the Alan Partridge lore so that I didn’t feel so out of the loop.

When all’s said and done though, Alan Partridge does its job as a comedy.  It’s smart, funny, and knows exactly how not to overstay its welcome with a ninety minute runtime.  If you’re a fan of the character or are just looking for a good comedy, I’d say you can’t go wrong with this one.

Fan of British comedy?  Share your thoughts on your favorite British comedy moments in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Non-Stop": All Play, Maybe A Pause For A Bathroom Break

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Yeah.  Not bad.  Not a movie that’s going to blow anyone’s mind or anything, but as an enclosed space dramatic thriller, the film works.  If you’re expecting non-stop action, this isn’t the movie for you.  If you’re expecting non-stop suspense, your mileage will fare better.  I suspect that the final twist at the end is going to catch some people off guard with how topical it is, and I’m really unsure exactly what the film is trying to say about its subtext.  I personally thought it only partially works as a conclusion, but I can see valid arguments for why the ending makes sense.  I only wish the film had done a bit more development in getting there.

You may wonder why I’m starting at the ending and being so vague about it to boot.  Well, the problem with reviewing a suspense thriller, particularly one that I enjoyed and am trying to recommend, is that telling you much of anything is going to spoil the plot twists that essentially make this movie what it is.  And because I liked this movie, I don’t want to do that.  So this review is basically going to touch very lightly on some stuff that doesn’t delve into spoiler territory, mostly things that I think the film could have done better.  However, my criticisms are only offered in light of an engaging mystery plot that kept me interested until the very end.  Just because I’m not talking about the good stuff this time doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, only that telling you about it would make the film less entertaining to watch if I did.

So, Liam Neeson plays an air marshal that gets on a plane, as they do, and becomes embroiled in a plot where an unknown passenger is threatening to kill someone every twenty minutes unless he has $150 million transferred to a trust account.  And that’s about all I can tell you about the plot.  What I can tell you about, though, is the main character.  Neeson is pretty much a blank slate for two-thirds of the movie, and while I do appreciate that the film tries to do a slow reveal as to some of his more reprehensible qualities, I think the film reveals some information too late, making some of Neeson’s motivations seem logical in retrospect.  These aren’t so much twist reveals as hastily added exposition to make the plot make sense.  Also, co-star Julianne Moore plays a love interest/exposition sounding board for Neeson, but that’s about all there is to say about her.

As for the aforementioned climax on which this whole experience relies, I’m still not 100% sure all the mystery threads tie together in a satisfactory way.  The film reaches its climax just fine, and whether you find the final reveal acceptable will be up to you, but I’m just not sure that some of the elements of the mystery are adequately explained once the bad guy is revealed.  It’s a moment that could have used an explanatory flashback montage, because I’m not sure this film is quite good enough to encourage multiple viewings.

And that’s about it; anything else would be telling too much.  Non-Stop is a pretty decent thriller.  Not the best I’ve ever seen, but I would definitely recommend giving this one a look.  Neeson has really been reveling in the serious alpha-male action thriller roles for the past decade or so, and he seems to do it because he’s pretty good at it.  If he wants to ride out his career on movies of this caliber, I see no reason not to support him.  Have fun!

Have a favorite suspense thriller?  Let me know about it in the comments below!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Lone Survivor": Title Kinda Spoils It, Huh?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Lone Survivor  is not what I would call a particularly bad movie.  I think the word I could best use to describe it is “exhausting.”  See, this is a war film, and war films are generally about showing the stories of the men and women (but let’s face it, usually just men) who have fought, been injured, and died in the name of American conflict.  Some war movies exist to show the atrocity of war, while others exist to demonstrate the heroics of the soldiers stuck in the theater of battle.  Lone Survivor seems to fall a bit into both camps, reveling in the imagery of the former, while attempting to provide a story thematically closer to the latter.  What comes out of this is a film that works, but by no means transcends the genre like, say, Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker.  What you come away with is an appreciation for the suffering that the men in this particular operation endured, and unfortunately, not much else.

The story here is about a team of SEALs on an operation to kill a Taliban leader, and when their location is discovered by some local goat shepherds, they must decide whether to kill them so as to keep their location secure, or let them go and opt not to commit a war crime.  Their decision ultimately leads to a firefight that takes up the majority of the film, and as far as war cinematography goes, it’s not bad.  However, it feels like its war choreography for a different type of movie than the one that’s presented here.  The characters are all set up nicely beforehand with some humanizing backstory, but as the title gives away, only one of them is going to come out of this alive.  This means we get to watch each one die in very heart-wrenching ways, but not before seeing them horribly brutalized in the process.  Every bruise, cut, bullet wound and death is dwelt upon at great length, and it becomes tiresome after a while.  It feels more akin to a horror film than a war movie, with the army of Taliban taking the role of Jason Voorhees.

I can easily see how some might find view that as a fatal flaw in the film’s presentation, and while I don’t think it’s the best choice of direction, I see why director Peter Berg made the choices he did here.  I may say the film is exhausting, but really, I think that’s the point.  Berg wants to demonstrate the pain and suffering these men went through in the cause of fighting against terrorism.  And he does a very good job of making the audience feel just how brutal war can be on good men, and just how much training and resolve it can take to endure that pain.  Is this a particularly deep message?  No, not really, and there’s a lot of potential to show off the individual heroism and strategic insight of these men that’s never quite capitalized upon.  But I don’t think that makes this a bad movie either.

That said, Lone Survivor is not a movie I would ever watch again.  It’s not a high point of the war genre, but, while a bit odd in its choice of focus, I wouldn’t qualify it as being a bad movie either.  If you are interested in the story of Operation Red Wings, I’d say that the film doesn’t do a bad job of giving you an engaging version of it.  If you’re interested in a film with something profound or interesting to say about the nature of war and the people who fight in them, that’s much better stuff out there.

What is your favorite war film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, June 6, 2014

"Edge of Tomorrow": The Alien Groundhog Day

Now In Theaters
When reviewing Edge of Tomorrow, I think it’s worthwhile to make a comparison to last year’s Pacific Rim.  Both films are summer sci-fi blockbusters, strangely not interested in producing franchises, but instead focus delivering a solid movie-going experience on their own merits without the benefit of instant name-brand recognition.  Pacific Rim succeeded in this endeavor by being an effects-driven wonder that’s not particularly intellectually deep, but incredibly fun to watch.  Edge of Tomorrow succeeds at being its own animal entirely, also not very intellectually engaging, but is a very good character-focused drama revolving around one man’s transformation into a worthy soldier.  I don’t think Edge of Tomorrow is going to raise as much of a stir as Pacific Rim did, but taking the film for what it is and what it’s trying to be, it succeeds at being an entertaining, sci-fi action flick that doesn’t pander to its audience.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a military spokesperson who is responsible for recruiting the majority of the military forces now engaged in a defensive war against an invading alien threat.  Cage is a major in title only, having never seen combat before, and, through a sequence of admittedly contrived circumstances, Cage is dropped into a warzone as a private, with no training to his name and no idea how to use his equipment.  Cage dies that day, but not without being covered in special alien blood, which allows him to reset time when he dies.  No one believes Cage has this ability, so with the help of a soldier who also formerly had this ability herself (played by Emily Blunt), Cage seeks to train himself and memorize the battle he lives again and again so that he can destroy the alien hive mind and save humanity from its imminent destruction.

The first act of the film is largely spent watching Tom Cruise die in a multitude of creative, hilarious, and stupid ways, and my gods is it gratifying to see this egotistical ass (of a character) snuff it over and over again.  And he just keeps coming back for more, like some big screen version of Super Meat Boy.  But as he keeps dying, something changes in him, and the film transitions accordingly to a more serious tone to accommodate him.  Major Cage begins to care for people other than himself, and seeing the same people die again and again hardens him into the soldier that his title should have implied that he was.  The film shifts here from focusing on his deaths by ineptitude, but instead looks at his life, making you ask yourself just how many times he's lived this hell by now.  It’s a solidly done character arc, and because the film focuses on Cage without any deviation, the film works as a pretty good character study.

Special mention must also be given though for the alien designs, which are some of the most interesting I’ve seen on film in recent memory.  They’re called mimics, and googling a picture of one is not going to do it justice.  It’s the way these things move that strikes me.  The CG animators really pulled out all the stops on these guys, making them move somewhere between a slither and a liquid ooze, sped up to be immediately threatening and deadly.  For the purposes of the plot, these aliens could have really looked like anything, but this is a well-done design that deserved recognition.

I do have a few nitpicks about the plot, primarily that the circumstances by which Cage gets pushed into soldierdom seem a bit contrived, serving only to push the film forward into its main premise.  It’s forgivable because the rest of the film is so solid, but I would have liked to see a bit more thought put into Cage’s background and the consequences that would have on his reduced status.  Furthermore, Emily Blunt’s character seems a bit stuck in the role of spouting exposition for the first half of the movie, and while I recognize that there needs to be a lot of ground-work laid in relating a story about otherworldly beings and time travel, a bit more showing and a bit less telling would have been appreciated.  Even a cut-away to past events with Blunt’s narration would have sufficed, but I guess it wasn’t in the effects budget, so we’re stuck with Blunt’s super-serious face instead.

All in all, though, Edge of Tomorrow is a very solid movie.  Its aspirations aren’t high, but it succeeds at telling a good story with good acting and good effects.  I wouldn’t say that it’s as fun or mind-blowingly awesome as last year’s Pacific Rim, but if you’re looking for a sci-fi flick this summer that doesn’t have Marvel’s name stamped on it, Edge of Tomorrow is worth the time and money to see it in the theater.

Have a favorite sci-fi flick that isn’t franchise bait?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"RoboCop (2014)": Wouldn't Buy That For A Dollar

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

So let’s get this out of the way: Is the remake of Robocop anywhere near as good as the classic original film?  No.  No it is not.  There’s quite a few flaws in this version, many of which stand independent of comparison to the original.  But did I enjoy watching it?  No!  This movie is nowhere near as intellectually engaging as the original film, nor is it as gratifyingly violent, and though I found myself somewhat entertained by the blunt political commentary, I wasn’t entertained enough to feel like my rental was justified.  The more I think about it, the sourer the memory seems to become, and since this film seems to encourage at least a little thought from its audience, that isn’t a point in its favor.

In the near future, OmniCorp is a company that produces drones that conduct military operations outside the U.S. so that human beings don’t have to put their lives at risk.  However, when it comes to domestic policing, the U.S. government is debating whether to legalize the use of robots to hunt down criminals.  The public is primarily against such a measure, so OmniCorp takes a recently blown-up cop and uses their technology to augment him into RoboCop.  RoboCop must then come to grips with his gradual loss of humanity at the hands of the evil corporation and eventually solve his own murder.  This sticks pretty closely to the original, and the updates to the premise in order to modernize the tale aren’t unwelcome.

What is unwelcome is the redesign of the RoboCop suit.  The sleek blackness of it makes it seem so generic, and it ruins the icon of the original.  And the man inside the suit isn’t much better.  Prior to the assassination attempt that almost killed him, Alex Murphy is a bland nothing of a character, and as the scientists in charge of maintaining the suit slowly drain away his ability to feel, I almost couldn’t tell the difference.  And just like all the cops in this movie, he is a two-dimensional, walking cliché, spouting much of the same dialogue we’ve heard in a million other cop movies.

The action is also pretty mindless, which was decently entertaining when it actually tried.  The CG fights are handled pretty well, though there are few of them and I wouldn’t call them especially memorable.  However, when the film goes for shooting sequences, it seems to confuse action choreography for video game camera placement.  Seriously, the main inspiration for the camera work is over-the-shoulder Gears of War and first-person Time Crisis.  All the bad guys even shoot their machine guns in the air with the same motion like there was only one animation for their character model… except these are real people being actively directed to do the same motion.  It’s kinda embarrassing, to be honest.

What I did find entertaining was the blatant riffing of Fox News and the stranglehold corporate America has on political commentary.  Is it a pretty dumbed down version of what the original Robocop did to shine a light on commercialism in the 80s?  Yeah, but you can call me a sucker if you want, because I eat this stuff up.  It doesn’t hurt that Samuel L. Jackson plays the political pundit, who just makes the scenes entertaining purely through his presence.  And let’s not forget Michael Keaton as the cartoonishly evil head of OmniCorp, which is a huge step down from the original film’s very human businessmen antagonists, but because Keaton carries the role so well, I’ll let it slide for the sake of being dumbly entertaining.

However, the commentary just isn’t enough to save this film, mostly because it isn’t even all that enlightening or original commentary to begin with.  On top of the flaws I listed earlier, many elements of the plot never really tie together in a cohesive way, at one point even resorting to substituting science with pseudo-religious plot-convenience.  I’d be willing to write off a lot for the sake of dumb fun, but the problem is that the political commentary clearly doesn’t want us in that mindset.  I liked RoboCop a little when I saw the credits roll, in a shallow sort of way, but as I sat down to write this review, all those little problems seemed to worm their way to the surface until they congealed into a mess of a movie, making me realize just how vapid and forgettable the whole experience was, which is a shame from a remake of such a classic.  There’s a lot worse things to see out there, but I can’t say I give this one high marks.  Go watch the original instead.

Fan of the original RoboCop?  Tell me about it in the comments below.