Sunday, August 31, 2014

Looking Back At: "Thor: The Dark World"

This next month sees the arrival of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Blu-Ray and DVD, so naturally, there’s a bit of a gap in my usual review schedule, seeing as I reviewed that film back in April for its theatrical release.  So, I got to thinking, which Marvel franchise haven’t I looked at yet for this site?  And, of course, the obvious answer is Thor.  Now, the reason I decided to take a look at the sequel is because I think it’s worthwhile to note that, while The Dark World is certainly the weakest of the Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two films, it isn’t actually a bad movie.  It’s a solid fantasy action flick that doesn’t lack for imaginative designs and some stellar fights.  However, what this film can be is a weak storyteller with some problematic character representations and not enough momentum to carry its franchise forward.

We pick up where The Avengers left off, with Loki imprisoned at Asgard, Thor off fighting to preserve peace in the Nine Realms, and Jane Foster being sad because she doesn’t have a man.  (More on that later…)  Jane accidentally comes across a power called the Aether, which consequently infects her.  The Dark Elf Malkieth wishes to use the power of the Aether to conquer the Nine Realms, so it is up to Thor to protect Jane and find a way to remove the Aether before its power kills her.  All in all, if this sounds a bit generic, that’s because it kinda is.  Most of the plot feels very by-the-numbers; Malkieth is bland and is truly a waste of actor Christopher Eccleston’s talent, and Jane is here mostly as an obligatory love interest.

Well, that’s not entirely true, for my biggest gripe with the film is its treatment of its female lead.  See, for being present for the majority of the film, Jane has maybe two lines throughout the entirety of the second act.  She becomes a prize to either be won or protected, and the plot is only concerned about whisking her from location to location so as to keep her safety in suspense.  But through all this, she has no character or even thoughts of her own, just blankly going along with whatever her big, strong boyfriend thinks is best.  I’m fairly certain that comic relief character Darcy gets more lines and characterization than the supposed female lead.  There just feels like this overwhelming sense of obligation to her presence, and I’d rather have seen her written out than to tortuously drag her along in a story that she’s barely relevant to.

That said, though, where the script lacks development for Jane (or even Thor, now that I think about it), it is bursting with great character moments for fan-favorite Loki.  And really, his character is the main reason why the film doesn’t slip into dull monotony.  Whether it’s his snarky witticisms or the revelation that he still has a love for his mother and respect for his brother, Loki proves once again to be the villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While I will admit that his presence does largely constitute franchise-building sequel establishment, the film’s plot would have been much too generic and soulless without him.

Despite my criticisms, though, Thor: The Dark World is still a decent enough movie.  The visual design of the film looks spectacular, showing off Asgard as a combination of medieval mysticism and futuristic mechanization.  These designs lead to some stellar sci-fi action sequences, including a dimension-hopping climax that doesn’t disappoint.  I only wish that the plot didn’t feel like an act of tired obligation, a reminder that Thor still exists while we all wait for The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  We can only hope that the third installment can find its legs again and tell a less forgettable tale.

It’s somewhat astounding that Marvel has yet to make a bad Cinematic Universe movie, even if they have come close a few times.  Do you think they can hold this streak indefinitely?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"The Double": An Adequate Imitation

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Does anyone have Terry Gilliam’s number?  I think some film student may have crushed him into a fine powder and snorted him and used his subsequent trip to make film starring two Jesse Eisenbergs (which is already pretty terrifying when you consider how Eisenberg is already a clone of Michael Cera.)  All joking aside, The Double is a surreal little trip that is perhaps a bit full of itself and its ever-important message, but once it moves beyond its self-important world-building, there’s actually something worth thinking about wrapped in an abstract, existential nightmare.

The central conflict of the film isn’t even introduced until about a third of the way in.  The first thirty minutes of The Double is spent showing the day-to-day happenings of Simon James (Eisenberg), an average nobody in all senses of the word.  Nobody at work remembers him or the hard work that he does, and he is surrounded by the elderly in a job that clearly doesn’t offer him opportunity to advance.  Dull oranges and blues hover forebodingly in almost every scene, betraying a sense of oppression and gloom that Simon can’t seem to escape from.  Even suicide is treated nonchalantly as an everyday occurrence.  In short, the film is basically shouting at us that this is what being a young adult in the modern world is like.  It’s pretty ham-fisted when you get right down to it, and if that’s all the film were trying to convey, it would have been a pretty shallow, if visually appealing, experience.

However, things pick up when Simon James’s exact double begins work at the same place; his name is James Simon.  (Well isn’t that clever…)  James is essentially the polar opposite to Simon.  He lazes about and convinces Simon to do all his work for him, yet gets all the praise that Simon not only deserves for doing James’s work, but the work that Simon had always been doing up until that point.  Eventually, it becomes clear that James is out to take over Simon’s life, and what follows is an exploration of the nature of individuality and what makes us more than working-class drones.

The film delves into some pretty abstract territory by the time the third act rolls around, leaving much of what happens on-screen up to interpretation.  Your enjoyment will largely be dictated by how willing you are to hang on for a trip that has little in the way of narrative hand-holding, but I thought it was worth sitting through.  The film is short enough at ninety minutes that its eccentricities never overstay their welcome, but as much as it’s obviously inspired by Terry Gilliam’s body of work, it doesn’t quite capture the same level of depth or surreality that permeates films like 12 Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

This film may be a little bit full of itself and may be a bit too obviously trying to show off its cinematic storytelling smarts, but for the time spent watching it, I feel like I got a pretty good experience.  This isn’t a film that’s likely to garner popular praise anytime soon, but I can easily see a cult following emerging now that the film has a DVD release.  Go ahead and give this one a shot!

So, will Jesse Eisenberg ever escape the Michael Cera comparison?  Leave your thoughts below!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"The Normal Heart": Very Deserving Of Its Emmy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

A made for TV movie is one of the best movies of the year so far.  Let that sink in for a moment…  Made for TV movie.  Best of the year.

Has the gravity of that sunk in yet?  Good.

Obviously, I watch a lot of movies.  I can usually see where a plot is going or understand why something works well or something doesn’t.  And when I first heard of The Normal Heart, my initial reaction was “Great. Another fucking AIDS movie.”  This is in no way to diminish the plight of those infected with HIV or AIDS, but these films always have the same plot about the protagonists fighting against an uncaring system and ultimately watching everyone around them die to the disease.  I’ve gotten the message hammered in so much after so many of these damn things that anything new just seems redundant.  And yeah, The Normal Heart still follows that same basic outline, but it’s distinguished by two things, the first of which is Mark Ruffalo’s fantastic performance.  More importantly, though, it perfectly captures an aspect of the AIDS epidemic’s beginnings that is rarely adequately covered, and that is the all-encompassing fear that permeated that era.

The film follows the life of Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), an openly gay activist for gay rights in the early 1980s.  He’s somewhat a pariah in the gay community because he is radical in his desire that all gay men come out of the closet and demand social acceptance.  The gay community of that era was in the midst of a countercultural movement that emphasized that their sexual pleasure with one another was not something to be ashamed of, so sex was the primary focus of the gay community’s inner politics.  When the “gay cancer” started to make its way through its first unsuspecting victims, Weeks started a movement to stop anonymous sexual activity to prevent the spread of the disease, much to his colleagues' chagrin.  As the years went by, Weeks’ organization grew through grassroots campaigning and awareness-raising in order to assist those dying of the disease, but it was ultimately still an insular organization fighting against a disease that the greater straight hegemony had no interest in assisting in.

Meanwhile, Ned’s personal life reflects his struggles with the organization, for he is a man who at first struggled with personal intimacy, then found the love of his life, and then watched that love slowly die to the very disease he was trying so hard to eradicate.  Ruffalo’s performance is nuanced and heart-breaking, portraying a man who not only is desperate to fight for a cause he believes in, but doesn’t know how to handle it when it starts to affect him personally.  He’s constantly frustrated with the fact that his fellow campaigners refuse to make their identities public in order to spread awareness, and his desperation leads to tactics that ultimately alienate him from the very community he’s trying to protect.

And that’s the film’s greatest strength; it isn’t just about a fight against a disease or against a society that rejects homosexuality.  It is about a fight against the internal struggle of every gay man over whether to reveal his identity to straight society, and face the social ostracism that comes with it.  For almost everyone in the film, that fear is greater than their fear of death at the hands of AIDS.  Ned is constantly villainized for wanting to take steps that would force those in power into action, for wanting to stand up as a group of several million homosexuals and force society to recognize their existence as human beings.  Alas, fear won out in the end: the gay mens’ fear of coming out; straight society’s fear of alternative sexualities; the fear that nothing would be done until straight people also started contracting the disease.

I cried during this film.  This is a very rare thing.  I watch a lot of movies with a lot of sad moments, but this made me tear up.  This is more than just another made-for-TV movie or just another movie about AIDS.  This is a film that is well-made, emotionally-gripping, and does a great job of portraying one of the great American tragedies of the 20th century.  It deserves its Best Made-For-TV Movie Emmy and Critics Choice Awards and whatever other accolades it has coming its way.  It is well worth seeing.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"The Railway Man": A Dull History Lesson

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Does a film get a free pass if it’s portraying a historical tragedy?  Some people seem to think so, for the tragedy itself is what sticks in people’s minds, not the portrayal itself.  And The Railway Man does a good job of letting people know of a particular tragedy that happened in World War II, a tragedy that I myself as a historical layperson wasn’t aware of.  But does that excuse the film for a largely dull depiction?  After all, the point of narrative cinema is generally to entertain, not to educate.  I think The Railway Man misses the mark on that front, and that makes what should be a story worth paying attention to into a lecture on why Japanese imperialism was bad.

Eric Lomax, played by Colin Firth, was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia, forced by the Japanese to help construct a railroad in terrain where men were enslaved until their inevitable death by exhaustion.  In the 1970s, Lomax attempts to establish a happy life for himself, marrying a woman he met on a train, but ultimately distances himself from her as PTSD starts to consume him.  The first half of the film focuses on Lomax’s wife, played by Nicole Kidman, who investigates the events that led to Lomax’s breakdown, and the second half focuses on Lomax’s confrontation with one of his former captors, a Japanese interpreter.  The main story arc is about Lomax’s self-healing after years of bottled hatred, but it would be understandable why that could be lost on a casual viewer watching the film.

When the main set-piece conversations take place, the film flashes back to the events that led to Lomax’s torture at the hands of the Japanese.  However, when it does so, the events portrayed don’t so much show us examples of Japanese brutality as just tell us that they're there.  Eventually we see Japanese soldiers mistreat the British prisoners, but it ends up feeling token after the film does such a poor job establishing their villainy.  Furthermore, none of the characters in the flashback scenes have enough established personality to make them memorable or empathetic.

The present-day (by which I mean the 1970s, but the film treats as the present) scenes don’t fare much better.  The main characters of Lomax and his wife are at least distinguishable by gender, but don’t emote much beyond tortured anguish and loving concern.  While Firth and Kidman do admirably at conveying those emotions, they don’t exhibit much range here, and the lack of emotional resonance becomes wearisome much too quickly.  It doesn’t help that most of the present-day sequences consist entirely of people just sitting around having calm conversations, with one notable exception toward the end, and even that quickly dissolves to a simmer.  It makes it really hard to care about the emotional struggles of a person if there’s no encouragement for the audience to feel as they do.

I really appreciate what The Railway Man is trying to do here.  This is a tragic tale of war crimes and a man’s struggle to overcome his emotional trauma, but the direction of this film seems so devoid of emotion that it’s hard to see this as much more than an artfully told lecture.  And lectures by their very nature tend to be quite boring.  Don’t give this one free pass, but pass up on it altogether.

Any historical films tickle your fancy in a way this one didn’t for me?  Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Only Lovers Left Alive": Another God Damn Vampire Movie

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Only Lovers Left Alive is what should be, in theory, a good movie.  It made vampires somewhat interesting again, which in current popular culture is a noteworthy feat all on its own.  The film features great performances from talented actors, and the dialogue features some interesting commentary from eternal beings’ views on the human masses, colloquially deemed as “zombies.”  However, Only Lovers Left Alive seems to lack one key element, and it really only hit me as the credits rolled: this film doesn’t really have a plot.  I found the experience enjoyable as I was watching it, but is that enough to justify this film’s existence if there isn’t enough thematic or dramatic substance to tell a cohesive story?

Let’s start with our two main characters, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton).  Pointlessly allegorical nomenclatures aside, these two characters are very intriguing takes on the vampire and eternal life mythos.  Adam is a natural loner who only seems to truly care for Eve.  He broods and creates music with an impressive array of instruments, but seems weary of life and the idiocy of the human race.  He proclaims his love for the great scientists of history, but mourns how humanity has again and again destroyed them personally through imprisonment and ridicule.  Eve, on the other hand, is the yin to his yang, a lover of literature and history who loves Adam for his artistry and isn’t quite so cynical about the world.  Hiddleston and Swinton have a beautiful gothic chemistry together, never elevating their voices beyond soft tones and rarely moving faster than a relaxed slothliness.  It’s easy to tell that these characters are in love and why they love each other, and that love is never brought into question.

I further really enjoy how the film treats vampires as a “society” of isolated loners, pushed to the edge of extinction by the contaminants that humans continue to pump into their bloodstreams.  And yet, when the vampires partake of their stock of pure blood, the result is euphoric, demonstrating that their food source is just as much a drug for them as, say, heroine would be for a junkie.  It’s a rather novel take on the vampire, for they are now a monster that belong in simpler times and struggle to survive in a world where everyone’s identity is easily traced and it’s impossible to devour a victim without someone investigating their disappearance, nor is it desirable for their general health and well-being.

I only wish that the film had actually taken one of its ideas for a plot and actually run with it for the entire runtime.  Instead, the film feels like three separate first acts with very quick resolutions.  The first plotline follows Adam’s and Eve’s initial separation and coming together again while Adam struggles with a suicidal depression.  But that depression is dropped within minutes of Eve’s arrival (even if his characteristic melancholy remains intact).  The second premise revolves around a visit from Eve’s over-indulging party-girl sister, but that too is promptly wrapped up with little consequence.  The final plotline follows from the second, but is resolved with the final shot of the film, and without much fanfare.

I’ve decided to be intentionally vague about the details of the last two plotlines because I’m going to give this one a very narrow recommendation.  The performances are quite good, and the way these characters interact with their world is intriguing in its interpretation of classic vampire mythos.  However, I don’t think this movie is quite as fresh as it’s pretending it is, because under its succulent aesthetic is nothing but a hollow husk, sucked dry of any cohesive narrative arc.  Take a bite of this one for a decent treat, but just don’t expect it to taste as good as it looks.

What’s your favorite take on the vampire mythos?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2": A Fatally Flawed Improvement

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

A couple weeks ago, I posted my review of The Amazing Spider-Man, a mess of a reboot that seemed like nothing more than a lazy cash-grab for Sony’s only viable blockbuster franchise.  Needless to say, I did not have high hopes for the sequel, and actually dreaded today’s release of the Blu-Ray, feeling ill at the thought of having to review another one of this franchise.  But then I started watching.  And, yeah, in some ways it’s still pretty bad.  However, it’s still an improvement, and one that I found much easier to sit through.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 deserves a lot of flak for what it does wrong, but I think credit needs to be given where credit is due.

First of all, the characters of Peter and Gwen exhibit marked improvements over their iterations in the first film.  Peter is finally consistent in his behavior, ditching the Michael Cera-wannabe act and going into full smartass mode, a version of Spidey that I’m much more on board with.  Gwen is also fleshed out more and given her own story arc about her love for Peter and her struggle over whether to go to college in Britain and leave him behind.  The chemistry between actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone is tangible in this film, and any scene where the two banter on-screen together is very entertaining.

I also found the plot with Electro to be interesting in its own right.  Jamie Foxx plays a revenge-based villain from modest, slightly deranged beginnings, and while it may not be very true to the comics’ conception of the character, it works well, and if his character arc had been the central focus of the film, it would have been a much better movie.  However, this film did not learn from the mistakes of Spider-Man 3, and it actually made worse mistakes with its handling of its three major villains. 

Though Electro gets center-stage for the first third of the film (with a damn good fight scene with a really nice electro-screamo-dubstep soundtrack), he drifts into the background in the second third to make way for Harry Osborn and his origin story as the Green Goblin.  This doesn’t so much play as a second act to the film as it does a second first act for a completely different film.  And that film’s ending has not been released or even made yet.  The Goblin shows up for the final ten minutes of the film after a redundant final showdown with Electro to deliver the film’s “real” climax, but it does nothing to resolve Harry’s character arc and only tries to serve as a gut-punch for the audience.  While that punch is effective, it would have been nice to see the Goblin-centric build-up more subtly integrated than in a blatant set-up for future installments in the Spider-Man franchise.

And finally, we come to The Rhino, another villain that I think symbolically represents the film quite nicely.  See, The Rhino only shows up in two very short scenes: the first, and the last.  There isn’t really a reason for him to be here except to promise that he’s going to show up in the sequels, but he’s here nonetheless, and the film’s advertising sure let you know it.  And that’s the main problem here.  If the film had just stuck with the Peter/Gwen relationship and incorporated Electro as the villain with bits of franchise establishment littered throughout, this would have been a much stronger film.  However, by forcing Harry Osborn and The Rhino into the film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out feeling bloated and pandering.  It may be a vast improvement over the last film, and I do predict an upward trajectory in quality from here on out now that the overly-elaborate sequel plotting is done and over with, but this Spider-Man is still pretty far from amazing.

This film has become pretty divisive among moviegoers and Spider-Man fans.  Which franchise do you think is turning out better: the Sam Raimi trilogy, or the Amazing trilogy?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"The Trip To Bountiful": Down Memory Lane

Now Available on DVD
Well, it is Emmy season, and so I decided to take a look at the made-for-TV movies up for awards to see what struck my fancy.  After all, the theatrical releases making their way to DVD this month aren’t stimulating my interest much, so I figure looking to the small screen will be a good diversion.  So as I looked at the nominees, this film jumped out at me for one reason: it aired on the Lifetime Network.  If Lifetime is known for one thing, it is not for producing high-quality programming!  So, needless to say, I was intrigued.  I rented The Trip to Bountiful to see what the fuss is about, and I have to say that I found a surprisingly solid film held together by one amazing performance.

This is the story of an elderly woman named Carrie Watts, played by Cicely Tyson in this remake of a 1953 teleplay and a 1985 feature film.  Ms. Watts lives with her grown son and daughter-in-law in the city of Houston, yet is increasingly frustrated with her son’s unwillingness to stand up to his controlling wife.  She pines to see her hometown again, and one day decides to sneak out and see her childhood home.  The film then mostly becomes a series of nostalgic monologues from Ms. Watts, delivered to whomever happens to be around to listen.

Now, I tend to think this is the type of story that’s better told on stage than on the screen, for it’s the type of story that doesn’t capitalize on the visual capabilities of editable film.  The scenes tend to linger in one location for longer than is usually acceptable in modern cinema, and the script is mostly just Ms. Watts reminiscing and pining for her lost home.  That said, for what this film is, it does a pretty damn good job of delivering.  Cicely Tyson gives an outstanding performance, portraying a wide range of subtle emotions that don’t rely on the script to carry their meaning.  When she delivers her lines, there’s a glimmer of romanticized remembrance in her eyes, and it’s hard not to pity this old woman who just wants her life to go back to the way it once was.  The film is at its best when Ms. Watts finally reaches the town of Bountiful, and the tragedy of time’s passage smacks her right in the face.  The various stages of her acceptance are very well portrayed, and I found myself wishing this kindly old woman could have the simple life that she’d been forced to leave behind.

And there really isn’t too much to say about The Trip to Bountiful.  It was probably a better experience to see on Broadway when it was revived last year, but barring more performances this film is probably the only way to see this cast perform it right now.  I thought it was worth the rental, and Cicely Tyson’s performance alone is enough to put it in the running for this year’s Emmys.  If you want a bit of home theater, check this one out.

Have a favorite play-turned-film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Locke": Pompous Premise, Expert Execution

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Locke has a premise that just screams that it’s an artsy, independent film, the type of concept that seems like it was thought of before the plot and would subsequently suffer for it.  Ivan Locke is the only character that appears on-screen and the entire film consists of him driving while talking on the phone.  Film ideas generally don’t sound more pretentious than that.  But you know what?  This film actually works.  It works quite well, in fact, and it works well primarily through the performance of Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke.  If Hardy or someone of comparable talent had not been portraying the lead character, the entire production would likely have fallen flat and would have just been another forgettable arthouse flop.  Instead, we get a piece of independent cinema done right, and it’s much more engaging than the premise might suggest.

For you see, Ivan Locke is not just out for a midnight drive.  His son is being born in London, and the mother is not his wife.  The phone conversations jump between the soon-to-be mother, the hospital staff, his distraught wife and oblivious children, and his job which he is obsessed with.  Locke hasn’t told anyone about his coming offspring, and springs the news to his family over the phone.  His late night excursion also puts a major work project in major jeopardy, adding some tension to a situation that is already awkward and unsettling.  And yet, that added stress sums up Locke quite nicely as the man who puts his self-imposed obligations before the effects his actions will have on the people he cares about.  He’s willing to put his entire life in jeopardy because he wants to do right by the child he helped bring into the world, and watching him struggle with that is precisely what the film’s all about.

And Tom Hardy portrays that struggle admirably.  From calmly explaining to his wife that he understands his mistakes and is trying to make them right, to frustratedly talking an underling through a work crisis, to ranting monologues to his own absent father whom he imagines in the back seat, Hardy paints Ivan Locke as a complex, tortured, and ultimately very human and fallible individual.  The actors on the other end of the phone conversations do their part well, but Hardy steals the show, and rightly so.  It’s frankly quite astounding that anyone managed to take eighty minutes of film as the only face on-screen and make it as compelling as Hardy did here.

Locke is a film that shouldn’t work, but thankfully does.  Its premise may sound shallow and pretentious, but the execution is anything but.  If you like independent, unconventionally narrative film, then give Locke a shot.  It may surprise you just how good a pretentious art flick can be.

As nebulous as the term “indie film” is, do you have a favorite?  Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Muppets Most Wanted": But Not Quite The Movie I Wanted

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I love The Muppets.  Jim Henson’s lovably unbelievable creations were a joy both in my childhood and my adult life.  Their over-the-top antics and tortuously gratuitous celebrity cameos work precisely because of the unreality of the Muppet experience.  After all, we have to suspend our disbelief enough to personify characters that are clearly made of nothing more than felt and plastic, yet are more real in their cinematic universe than anyone else.  And that’s precisely why I loved 2011’s The Muppets so much as a revival of the seemingly-dead franchise.  Essentially, that was a fan-made film that made us remember exactly why the Muppets were so much fun, and it was carried along with some fantastic music and some very silly writing.  So I had high hopes for the continuation, Muppets Most Wanted.  And those hopes were… not quite satisfied.

Don’t get me wrong, Muppets Most Wanted is still a good, funny movie.  However, when drawing the inevitable comparison to its predecessor, it assuredly comes up short.  The opening number of the movie is called “We’re Doing a Sequel,” and there’s a line that sums up my feelings about this film quite nicely: “We’re doing a sequel.  That’s what we do in Hollywood.  And everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good.”  See, The Muppets was a nostalgic trip that played off the Muppets’ strengths for nonsense and whimsy.  While those factors are still present in Most Wanted, they’re played down for a more coherent plot that is reminiscent of the Muppets’ less fantastical theatrical outings.

A criminal mastermind named Constantine has broken out of the Russian gulag, and he seeks to become the world’s greatest thief by stealing the royal crown jewels.  Conveniently, Constantine looks just like Kermit the Frog, so with the assistance of the Muppets’ new manager Damien Badguy (played by a surprisingly not-obnoxious Ricky Gervais), Constantine replaces Kermit in the Muppets and leads the group on a European tour to gather artifacts he needs to hack the crown jewels’ security system.  Meanwhile, Kermit is shipped off to the Gulag, where he struggles with the realization that no one realizes he’s missing.

While this set-up does work well for some mistaken identity and mirror-image gags, the writing doesn’t venture too far out of that safe territory.  There’s some great stuff with Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell acting as competing cops in trying to catch Constantine, and there is the occasional bit of self-referential meta-humor that will keep Muppet fanatics satisfied, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.  Even the musical numbers, with the exception of “We’re Doing a Sequel,” feel phoned in and uninspired, which is a shame coming from Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords), who did so well writing songs for the previous installment.

However, these criticisms come more from a feeling of disappointment than from dislike for the film.  This is still the Muppets, and they’re still just as silly as ever.  I just saw the potential that this franchise had to move in new directions from 2011’s brilliant revival, but instead I see the Muppets spinning their wheels, unable to venture beyond a comfortable, no-risk regurgitation of old whimsy.  Muppets Most Wanted may not have been the film I wanted it to be, but it’s still worth seeing, and I can only hope that the next Muppet adventure doesn’t continue this downward trajectory.

Have a favorite Muppet movie or episode?  Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Looking Back At: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

Spider-Man is the other major Marvel property besides X-Men to get a quickly and cheaply made sequel (or in this case reboot) in order to preserve whatever franchise viability its retaining studio had.  The Amazing Spider-Man is what came out of that financial necessity, and unfortunately, it shows.  I’m not talking about the cheap special effects or the fact that the film’s cast consists of actors who clearly aren’t asking for as much money as the the Raimi trilogy’s surely would have.  No, I’m primarily talking about the rushed, lazy and often non-sensical screenplay that acts as a rehash of the first Spider-Man while simultaneously cluttering the over-long runtime with shallow attempts at world-building, sequel establishment, and high school melodrama.

In fact, the first hour of the film is devoted purely to just that, establishing Peter Parker and new love interest Gwen Stacy as high school flirtations while Peter dwells on the mystery of his absent parents.  Now, I normally wouldn’t have a problem with taking that much screentime to develop the two leads; after all, this film came out a scant five years after Spider-Man 3, so making some effort to differentiate this film’s universe from the previous trilogy’s would have been a smart move.  Unfortunately, that really only works if your characters have any depth to develop, and this film’s characters are sorely lacking in personality.  Peter is a sexy rebel who skateboards to wicked montages, but beyond a few nice wisecracks doesn’t really establish himself as anything more than a bland, generic hero archetype.  Gwen, on the other hand, may take a more active role in this story than Mary Jane ever did, but she still primarily exists for Peter to pine over, and if you know anything about Gwen from the comics, that's pretty much the only purpose her character has ever served anyway. 

I think my biggest gripe, though, has to be with The Lizard, for his presence is representative of the laziness of this entire film.  What is The Lizard’s motivation?  He starts the film as a well-meaning scientist, seeking to restore his lost arm through reptile genetic manipulation.  However, by the end of the film, he’s seeking to turn everyone into lizards, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what the train of thought that got him to that point is.  I suppose one could go out on a limb (ooh, unintentional pun…) and say that the genetic manipulation drove him insane, but the film doesn’t properly establish that transition, nor does it make us care for a character that should be more sympathetic when his struggle takes a tragic turn.  Instead, the film opts to make The Lizard just another mad scientist in a scheme that seems eerily similar to the climax of 1999’s X-Men.

And that right there is the main problem: the script either relies on contrivances to move from scene to scene, or it blatantly rips off elements of films that came before it.  Many of Peter’s web-slinging goofs are just rehashes of the same jokes used in the first Spider-Man, and the loser-turned-hero-in-high-school schticks have been done a million times before in a million better movies.  On the subject of contrivances, however, the film has them in spades.  The subplot about Peter’s parentage is pretty roughly dropped after it leads to Peter meeting The Lizard.  The event of Uncle Ben’s murder is almost an afterthought in light of the events already in motion, and it only seems to be there in order to confirm that, yes, this is a Spider-Man origin story.  Perhaps most fatally, the climax relies on a lot of convenient changes-of-heart and random happenstance to pull itself along, making the whole experience feel as phoned-in as it likely was.

The Amazing Spider-Man is not the worst superhero movie ever, but it is at best disappointing.  It’s a blatant example of what a lack of effort and care can do to a franchise, and I’m hoping that there’s something salvagable when I review its sequel in a couple weeks.

What’s your favorite Spider-Man movie?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Dom Hemingway": I Really Wish I Liked It

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Dom Hemingway is a movie that I feel like I should like.  It’s an incredibly stylized couple of days in the life of a supreme asshole, a Mr. Dom Hemingway, played by Jude Law, a damn fine actor.  I had a very good feeling when the film opened up to Dom giving a long and in-depth monologue about the world’s greatest piece of artwork: his cock (which incidentally was in someone’s mouth.)  But after a while, the film kinda fell apart.  I eventually realized that the film loudly proclaims itself to be a big bloody deal, but much like its protagonist, doesn’t amount to much in the end.  Dom Hemingway is the very definition of style over substance, but unfortunately its style isn’t original enough to make up for its failings.

Dom Hemingway is a felon convicted of safe-cracking who just spent a twelve-year stint in prison.  He gets out to make his way through adventures with the mob boss he went to prison for, his estranged daughter, and a former rival who wants to cut off his dick.  Most of these scenes are entertaining, and many are decently funny, thanks to a stellar performance by Jude Law.  Dom Hemingway is a man with an anger problem, yet ultimately is a victim to his own good nature and his belief that there’s a karmic order to the universe.  He’s a man who thinks himself the greatest man alive for taking the shit life has given him, but when he comes calling on the universe to pay its due, the universe is just as ignorant to his pleas as it is to the rest of us.  Watching Jude Law bring us through Dom’s jubilation at seeming turns of fortune, only to have the rug repeatedly pulled out from under him is a dear joy to watch.

However, as entertaining as the scenes can be, they don’t really assemble into anything coherent.  Most of the movie is just Dom fumbling about, working his way from one stupid situation of his own making to another.  But when it comes time for Dom’s character arc to come to a close and he must face his own misconceptions about reality, the film doesn’t quite deliver.  Instead, there’s a half-assed emotional reunion with his daughter and a petty revenge against someone who wronged him earlier in the film.  And that’s it.  Movie over.  And so I feel unfulfilled.  The film lacks a cohesive narrative arc, and consequently, it feels amateurish.  The use of bright colors and the inventive dialogue may be enough for some to call this a good enough film, but I just feel like I’m sleeping on the wet patch after I didn’t even get to a climax.  (You see, it’s clever because the film doesn’t have much of a climax!  Doesn’t explain this wet patch though…)

This isn’t the worst film I’ve seen lately, but it’s nowhere near good enough to warrant a solid recommendation.  If you like Jude Law and think it would be fun to see him act like an asshole for ninety minutes, you probably won’t regret a rental.  I, on the other hand, need a little bit more before I can say I like a film.  It needs to show me its raison d’etre, and I just don’t see a reason for this movie to exist.

Have a favorite Jude Law film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Divergent": Should Have Been Titled "Generic"

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Divergent is a perfect symbol of the stagnation that plagues the young adult fiction genre.  It’s so rife with cliché and painfully obvious symbolism that it’s very hard to take seriously.  It falls into all the trappings of a genre that was popularized by Harry Potter and hasn’t been as well executed since.  Worst of all, though, because the writing is so lazy and the plot so banal, it makes for a very long, very boring movie, and it’s sad to think that money and resources are going to be spent to make a trilogy out of this (which of course means three more movies when the last installment gets split into two parts, because that’s how money happens.)  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s go through the young adult fiction checklist, shall we?  Dystopian future where people are split into factions based on a single personality trait?  Check, complete with color-coordinated outfits!  A female protagonist whose sole defining characteristic is that she’s an inexplicably gifted individual?  Check, for main character Tris is a Divergent, someone who doesn’t conform to your society’s rules, man!  (Not that she has any personality beyond being a cypher for the audience’s demographic to project themselves onto.)  A dog-eat-dog education system where our protagonist starts at the bottom and pushes through by virtue of her determination and newly budding gifts?  You better believe it!  And of course, let’s not forget an ending that leaves things wide open for future installments and doesn’t resolve any major character arcs, as minimalist as those arcs are.

See, this is all a very obvious allegory for high school, right down to a clique-y cafeteria scene and an instructor who’s out for blood.  If you feel different than everyone else and think your flourishing personality sets you apart from all the two-dimensional drones that populate your classes, then guess what?  You’re special and this film is just the empowerment fantasy for you!  Tris feels just how you would feel in any of these situations, because you can see yourself in her.  And, frankly, that’s lazy and manipulative writing.

I wouldn’t even be that hard on the film if it did anything interesting and new with its premise.  Instead, we’re plopped right into Generic Dystopian Future #723, with dull grey concrete acting as the backdrop for almost every scene.  The villains of the film seek to wipe out Divergents because they threaten social order and stand in the way of their own domination, which is the same crap we’ve seen a million times before, perhaps most notably from Saturday morning cartoon villains.  Hell, even the love interest is really only there as eye-candy for all the Tris-wannabes in the audience.

So is this the worst that young adult fiction has to offer?  No, definitely not.  Twilight is going to be hard to top in that respect; at least Divergent is an empowerment fantasy, not a submissively abusive one.  But at best, Divergent is bland.  At worst, it’s a lazy attempt to garner a franchise following.  I recognize that I’m not the film’s target audience, but I think teenagers can be smarter than this if you don’t pander to their insecurities.  This film does nothing new with a very tired premise and clearly emotionally manipulates its audience by targeting the vulnerabilities in their emotional development.  Divergent isn’t worth your time, especially with a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes.  Just watch almost any of the Harry Potter films to get a much better example of young adult fiction done well.

See how I said almost any Harry Potter film?  Can you guess which one I exclude?  Take a guess in the comments below.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Rio 2": Why Do I Do This To Myself?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I recently told a friend that I was planning on reviewing Rio 2, to which she responded “Why do you do this to yourself?”  I told her that I feel like I should give all movies a fair chance, despite how they may seem.  After all, I have been surprised before, liking films that have received horrible reviews and hating films that are universally acclaimed.  I may not have liked the first Rio all that much, but that doesn’t mean that the sequel has to follow in its footsteps.  Unfortunately, though, it does, and it starts a downward trajectory in quality for this already middling franchise.

The plot of Rio 2 is a bit of a mess, combining elements of Ferngully, Meet the Parents, and any family vacation film ever made.  Blue and Jewel have three children now, all shallow archetypes of the nuclear American family: the surly teenager, the brainy girl, and the rambunctious youngest brother.  They all discover that there may be some more blue macaws living in the Amazon, so they decide to fly down to investigate.  (The supporting cast of the first film tags along as well for no discernable reason other than to provide an excuse for a filler subplot about finding performers among the Amazon’s residents.  That particular thread goes nowhere.)  They find the macaws fairly quickly, and they turn out to be Jewel’s long lost tribe, and Blue must try to prove himself to be just as wild as they are in order to fit in.

There’s also a threat from a logging company, and this is where I think the film breaks down.  Instead of resolving the conflict between Blue’s urban nature and the tribe’s naturalism, Blue simply becomes the leader in a climax against the loggers, and all previous conflict between Blue, Jewel, and Jewel’s tribe leader father gets swept aside in favor of happy endings.  The loggers are as boring and generic as they come, without so much as a name to anyone’s credit, so there isn’t even any enjoyment to be had from villainous antics.

The closest we get to that is the return of Nigel, the film’s first villain, played once again by Jemaine Clement.  While you can see that Clement is trying to make the performance entertaining, the script doesn’t give Nigel much to do outside of making continuous foiled attempts to kill Blue.  Even when the final confrontation between the two does finally happen, it has zero impact on the story as a whole, and Nigel’s entire storyline could easily have been cut in favor of expediting this tortured experience.  The only reason I can think to bring the character back is that Clement’s performance in the first film was about the only thing that made the film bearable, and realizing the same deficiency in this film, the writers attempted to replicate that same magic.  However, it doesn’t work, and feels forced and unnecessary.

Ultimately, this film is exactly what it appears to be: a low-effort cash-in sequel.  The first Rio was the type of film that would only appeal to the youngest of audiences, and this installment isn’t any different, descending even further into inanity and banality.  Your kids may like it, but it’s even less worth your time than the first one.

Why do I do this to myself?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below!