Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Begin Again": More Soundtrack Than Film

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Begin Again is the type of film that flies under a lot of people’s radar, precisely because it’s a niche genre film that is perfectly adequate at what it’s trying to accomplish, but isn’t really amazing enough to garner a large following or achieve critical acclaim.  This is a musical drama, where the plot takes a back seat to the music on display, and I’m not a music critic.  I will say that I did think the songs were good, and if watching a 100-minute collection of soft rock music videos is your thing, I’d say that the film and its soundtrack album will likely be right up your alley.  For the rest of us, Begin Again is an alright, if ultimately forgettable, time waster.

The film opens on a performance on guitar by Kiera Knightley (the character names don’t really matter) at an open mic night, and Mark Ruffalo notices her and begins enthusiastically applauding her.  Through a flashback that will ultimately lead up to the open mic scene, we learn that Ruffalo is a recently fired producer who has become estranged from his wife and daughter and is looking for a way to break back into the music business.  And then another flashback shows us Knightley’s humble beginnings as the girlfriend and songwriter for a soon-to-be breakout hit artist, who then non-consensually remixes her songs into pop hits and cheats on her with his producer.  Ruffalo and Knightley decide to team up for an unprecedented outdoor-recorded album, and seek to prove to the world and themselves that they have what it takes to make great music.

This is about as corny as it sounds, but taking the film for what it is, it hits the beats pretty well.  Those who know music will recognize Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s ex-boyfriend, as well as cameo appearances by Mos Def and CeeLo Green, so that’s a nice touch for its intended audience.  However, if I’m going to make some technical quibbles about the film, the extended flashbacks that make up the first act of the film really don’t serve any purpose that telling the story in chronological order couldn’t serve.  I understand that it ties in with the film’s title (beginning the story again, as it were), but if the symbolism doesn’t do anything to further the narrative, I don’t see why it’s necessary.  Furthermore, there is some definite romantic chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightley, which I’m not sure was intentional given that the film never really deigns to explore it.  It may have been meant to come off as a burgeoning friendship, and it certainly works as that, but the slow steady looks and a date-like montage really start to beg a question that the film wordlessly pushes under the rug.

But when all is said and done, the film’s plot really only serves as a skeleton to put the meaty musical numbers onto, and measuring by that metric, the film is largely a success.  It’s not really my cup of tea, but I’m sure someone out there will be listening to this soundtrack on repeat for a few weeks at a time.  Give this one a rental to see if you will too.

Have your own favorite musical drama?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Wish I Was Here": Generation X, Warts And All

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Wish I Was Here walks a really fine line of being likeable and hate-able, often shifting back and forth between the two from scene to scene.  As a follow-up to Zach Braff’s Garden State, it’s fairly underwhelming, partially because of tonal shifts that range from insightful to saccharinely pandering, but mostly because the film seems so much like Braff’s attempts to muddle through his own emotional malaise that it loses the relatability that caused Garden State to garner such a following.  That said, though, I think that when you remove this film from the greater context of Braff’s less-than-noteworthy post-Scrubs career, it largely works on its own terms, even if it wasn’t the second coming that Braff was promising everyone in his crowd-funding pitches.

Aiden Bloom (played by Braff) is a struggling actor, trying to raise two kids with his wife, who supports them by working a soulless job where she is subject to sexual harassment and an unsympathetic boss.  When Aiden’s father announces that he’s dying of cancer, in order to pay for treatment the family has to pull the two kids out of their private Jewish school, and Aiden takes up the task of (rather ineffectually) trying to homeschool the kids.  What follows isn’t so much a storied narrative as it is a series of scenes that culminate in Aiden’s discovery of adult responsibility, gradually earning respect in the eyes of his father while finding purpose in the simple act of raising his kids.

Now this seems like a really good follow-up premise to Garden State, precisely because it takes the resonant themes of that work and translates them to the 30-something settled, married lifestyle that Gen-Xers are gradually falling into.  All that angst that defined their young adulthood needs translation into the working class struggles of middle class America, and this film does a decent job of characterizing that generational struggle.  This is a film about meeting the standards of excellence our parents set for us while still using our own generational identity to pass on valuable lessons to our children.  That’s a bold message to try and convey, and while I find the attempt to be admirable, the conveyance is where the film starts to break down a bit.

It ultimately comes down to Zach Braff’s artistic style, and the backlash of his Gen-X sensibilities is that he ultimately feels derivative and self-important.  His tendency is to take his message and bash us over the head with it through montages set to yester-decade’s indie rock and bizarre dream sequences in which he runs around in a spacesuit.  In trying to capture the plight that his generation’s angst has created, he also captured that generation’s more obnoxious qualities, like the penchant for sitcom-spun sentimentality and non-sequitur stabs at pop culture being mistaken for intelligent social commentary.  There is a scene in which Aiden calls his brother to inform him that their father is about to die.  That phone call takes place while the brother is wearing a spacesuit costume and having sex with a woman in a fursuit.  It’s such a weirdly discordant moment that it’s hard to take the dramatic nature of the phone call seriously, even though the film clearly wants you to be both amused by the absurdity and heartbroken at the imminent death in the family.  This is just a notable example of how this film struggles with its identity.

And yet, I’m willing to still give this film a marginal recommendation.  I found enough to enjoy in its story and characters that I’m willing to give a pass to the stylistic choices of a pretentious Zach Braff.  If you’re looking for a thesis statement on the current Gen-X condition, it may unintentionally show more than it intends to, but Wish I Was Here is a decent enough film to warrant a viewing.

Was Garden State a part of your college DVD collection?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Life After Beth": Comedy Dead On Arrival

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Life After Beth is a somewhat clever title for a comedy about zombies… and that’s about where the creativity and laughter stops.  This film is such a non-starter; it plays out its primary joke about how dating a zombie would be weird in an awkwardly unfunny manner, then tries to supplement its lack of comedy with weirdness that it mistakes for comedy, and tops it all off with an incredibly forced metaphor for losing a loved one wrapped in a sexist clingy-girlfriend trope.  This film is a mess, and a pain to sit through.

Zach’s girlfriend Beth (played by a woahfully underutilized Aubrey Plaza) has just died from a snakebite while hiking alone in the woods.  After getting close to Beth’s parents, Zach is unexpectedly shut out from their lives, and while investigating why, Zach discovers that Beth has come back to life, though she has a few quirks now.  She has short-term memory problems and is becoming increasingly more violent.  Zach must now figure out how to distance himself from a girlfriend who is clearly still dead and zombifying right before his eyes, while trying to discover what is bringing other people back to life as well.

This premise has some potential, but the execution is so flat and (pardon the pun) lifeless.  Between the rapid cuts, cluttered and shouted line delivery, and just plain lack of funny dialogue, the film breaks every rule of comedy, yet consistently pauses in its hectic pacing just long enough to allow its audience’s non-existent laughter.  Some of its jokes don’t even make sense, like the fact that zombies all like attics and smooth jazz for some reason.  There’s no basis for it; it’s just thrown in to be quirky and weird, but it’s not funny.  And let’s not forget an incredibly offensive scene where an attempted rape is played up for laughs, operating on the theory that Beth raping Zach is some sort of wacky role reversal.  Quite frankly, that’s just sick.

But wait, there’s more!  This film has the gall to try to be artsy and about something.  The final scene of the film features Zach moving on, trying to flirt with another survivor of their momentary zombie apocalypse.  And that’s when it all comes together that this whole trying experience was meant to be a metaphor for the loss of a loved one, and how leaving them in the past is harder than we’d like.  If I may make a comment directly to director and writer Jeff Baena: If you are going to make a serious observation about the human condition after the loss of a loved one, DON’T TREAT THE SUBJECT MATTER WITH EXTREME LEVITY BY MAKING AN UNFUNNY COMEDY!  Seriously, the message comes across as forced, just to appeal to festival circuit goers, when really the film doesn’t have anything profound to say on the matter.  Yeah, losing a loved one is hard; end of message.

Life After Beth is one of the worst films I’ve seen this year.  There’s potential for the premise and with Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon as part of the cast, there was potential for genuine comedy gold here.  Unfortunately, it’s a comedy that isn’t funny and is downright offensive in some scenes, and it pretends to be a work of high art when it’s really just the hack work of a first-time director.  Leave this one buried, folks.

Zombies.  Played out?  Sick of them?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Snowpiercer": An On-Track Allegory Takes Classism Off The Rails

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Earlier this week, I reviewed The Purge: Anarchy, a near-future dystopian allegory for the dangers of classism.  Today, I review Snowpiercer, a near-future dystopian allegory for the dangers of classism.  However, whereas Anarchy was an above-average look at what is essentially modern society with one tweak to emphasize where modern trends are leading us, Snowpiercer is a scathing look at modern class structure as framed in a sci-fi scenario that perfectly encapsulates the inherent flaws and horrors of a class-based society.  And it is brilliant!

In order to halt global warming, scientists in the not-so-distant future released a chemical into the air in order to cool down the atmosphere.  However, this backfired to create a global ice age, killing the entirety of the Earth’s population except for the passengers on a perpetually powered train built by an eccentric billionaire who predicted this strange turn of events.  Flash forward eighteen years later, and Curtis is a resident of the tail car, where the poorest passengers lived and are now the underclass in the microcosm of train society.  Curtis mounts and leads a revolt of the underclass so as to reach the front of the train to confront their billionaire overlord and seize control of the train themselves.  This plot is in no ways subtle, but its execution is superb.

See, where Snowpiercer differs substantially from Anarchy is that not only is its premise highly allegorical, but everything about the damn script is allegorical.  The eclectic cast of characters spanning all walks of life, as represented by different train cars, all play their role in what becomes a very compelling analysis of how class intersects with such things as policing, the education system, the distribution and quality of food supplies, drug addiction, and the excesses of the upper and middle classes, just to name a few.  Since all is told from Curtis’s perspective, the film is cynical and oozes with disgust for such gross inequality, an incredibly resonant message in light of not only American inequalities, but global ones as well.

And all of this is built into a beautifully directed film.  Director Bong Joon-ho really knows how to frame a shot, as every scene ends up looking like a well-composed painting.  The use of color, lighting, and object placement really makes every little thing pop out at the viewer, and none of that is diminished even in the incredibly well-executed action sequences.  One would think that the limitations of a scene taking place aboard a train car would make action constrained and hence dull, but Bong turns that supposed weakness into a strength, playing with the crowded nature of the train car to create a catalog of memorable action scenes.

I’ve heard grumblings that the ending was polarizing (heh, cold pun) to some viewers, but I felt that it fit perfectly with the film’s anti-classist message.  Without spoiling what it is, let’s just say that it is the bow on top of a masterfully wrapped present.  Between its intellectual message, strong storytelling chops, frantic action, and beautiful cinematography, Snowpiercer is a film that deserves your attention, and absolutely should not be overlooked.  If you haven’t already, watch this movie.  You won’t regret it.

What are your leaning in the class inequality debate?  Leave your flame war in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"The Purge: Anarchy": Purge Your Low Expectations

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The original Purge film was an unexpected smash hit, likely due to a combination of being released during a slow week at the box office and having a premise that, while never really capitalized on, tricked a lot of people into thinking this generic home slasher was more intellectual than it actually was.  Regardless of the reasons, that film’s success spawn a sequel a mere year later in the form of The Purge: Anarchy.  And the results are decidedly better this time, so much so that I’m actually willing to call this movie good.  It’s still fairly disposable and not really all that memorable, but the political commentary is now front and center in the narrative, which means that the premise is actually being fleshed out to the point where it’s not simply window dressing for a duped audience.

This film follows five characters caught out in The Purge and sees what sorts of intense situations arise when all laws are suspended and everyone has free license to kill and maim as they please.  The characters themselves aren’t terribly deep, and the only one that really gets any development is the main hero, a man bent on going out into The Purge to kill the drunk driver who killed his son.  He’s the action hero of this escapade, defending the other four normal people as they try to make their way to safety through the night.

The characters aren’t so much the focus though as vehicles through which to show the audience different aspects of The Purge.  This includes rich people paying to sacrificially slaughter the elderly and ill, auctioning off the poor to act as prey in human fox hunts, and the government sending out a private army to capitalize on The Purge in order to systematically eliminate the poor and defenseless.  If you see a running theme of the naturally predatory nature of capitalism and the transformation of class warfare into a literal slaughter of the poor, that is by no means accidental.  Whereas the first film used its premise as an excuse to tell a tiredly clichéd horror narrative, Anarchy opts to be a full-on political commentary, and it’s by no means subtle about it.

And as much as I like that this franchise is moving in that direction, it’s greatest strength ends up cutting against it like an ironically double-edged sword.  The franchise has found its calling as a series of political satires, but it doesn’t know what to do beyond being as obvious about it as possible.  Being blunt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the film does feel a little shallow when the depth of the commentary extends to preening rich folks bowing their heads in sacrificial prayer and the lower classes waving guns around proclaiming their rights.  If the first film was hesitant to dip its toe in the waters of political satire, this film has dived in head first, only to discover that it has the depth of a kiddy pool.

That said, The Purge: Anarchy is still a fun ride.  The action is good, and the commentary is cartoonish, but it’s all in the name of entertainment.  And yeah, I was entertained.  If this franchise continues, the main route to improvement now lies in actually tying the setting into telling a character-centric story instead of simply demonstrating the potential this setting has to offer.  Unlike the first film, I’d say that Anarchy is worthy of a rental, and perhaps a third installment will actually be worthy of unqualified praise.

Any thoughts on the trajectory of The Purge franchise?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"The Dance Of Reality": The Return Of The Jodorowsky

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Ever since I saw the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune last July, director Alejandro Jodorowsky has been a curiosity of mine.  I hadn’t seen any of his previous work, and I understand that he has a somewhat cult following, so I’ve wanted to get around to seeing what all the fuss was about.  And lo and behold, the very next month, Jodorowsky’s newest film, his first in 23 years, was to be released on Blu-ray.  The release date came, and I searched everywhere for a rentable copy of the film.  Alas, nowhere was it available short of an internet purchase, and it is not my policy to spend money on buying a film I haven’t seen yet.  I gave up on my search, filled the gap in my review schedule, and moved on to other things, though Jodorowsky still hovered in the back of my mind, beckoning me to him.  And now, nearly two months later, I have found a copy of The Dance of Reality.  And it is good.

To summarize the plot of The Dance of Reality is challenging; if you’re looking for a traditional three act structure or a coherent narrative, this isn’t really the film for you.  This is an autobiographical take on Jodorowsky’s childhood in Chile, approximately in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  There are elements of his struggles to be accepted by his peers because of his Jewish heritage, but the primary conflict comes from his father, who may actually be the closest thing this film gets to a protagonist.  Jodorowsky’s father is a strict man, doing everything he can to toughen his son up against the cruel world that looks down on outcasts and the disabled.  He wants his son to be a beacon of masculine strength and fears the perception that his son will be mistaken for a homosexual.  What at first seems cruel, though, is revealed to be part of a belief system centered on survival, for discrimination against Jews is becoming just as rampant as against other so-called undesirables.  The second half of the film abandons young Jodorowsky’s point of view to follow his father’s journey of self-discovery, and it becomes hard to tell just whose coming-of-age story this really is.

The cult appeal to Jodorowsky’s work is quite readily evident, for he has a very distinct style that I don’t recall seeing replicated too often, and not nearly with such success.  He has a penchant for replacing what could be straight-forward scenes with thematically-driven set-pieces, relying on overt symbolism to propel a scene rather than character interactions or any significant plot developments.  Jodorowsky has a lot to say about the nature of religion, capitalism, his own family, the disabled, and heteronormativity, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to come right out and say it.  The film revels in putting up its barriers to passive comprehension, and the coordinated psychedelic grace that emerges feels like something Wes Anderson would make if high on acid.

Now, this is definitely not going to be a film for everyone, and it’s not perfect.  I found the film slightly overlong with its lingering on Jodorowsky’s father for a relatively simplistic climactic payoff.  However, Jodorowsky has impressed me, and if this is the kind of work that he’s putting out at age 85, he’s definitely perked my interest to see his past works.  The Dance of Reality is a truly unique film that capitalizes on its director’s strange quirks to wonderful effect.  If you’re looking for a little bit of the surreal and strange, give this one a go.

Anyone have any thoughts on Jodorowsky’s previous films, such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain?  Tell me about them in the comments below.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Looking Back At: "The Purge"

The Purge, at surface level, seems to have a really intriguing premise.  In the not-so-distant future, the U.S. Government has instituted an annual night called The Purge, in which all crime, including murder, is legal, and so people are free to cause destruction and chaos with no police or emergency service intervention and no future ramifications.  This, in theory, acts as a catharsis so that crime is eradicated for the rest of the year.  It’s not a terribly realistic idea, but film is inherently fantasy, and if the purpose of the setting is not realism but a form of social commentary or satire, then it can relate back to the real world as a message about our time and society.  The Purge’s sinister undercurrent is that it appears to be an elaborate way to kill off the poor, homeless, and generally defenseless, thereby making society prosperous by culling away the so-called “dead weight.”  There’s plenty of directions one could go with that idea, directions that highlight the socio-political message and refuse to pander to its audience.  And what does the film turn out to be?

Yeah, it’s a panderingly generic slasher flick that neglects to highlight the socio-political message inherent in its premise.  I really don’t understand what the point of creating such an elaborate set-up is if the entire film is going to take place in one house with one generic family being assaulted by a series of masked home invaders.  Now, granted, the reasoning for these circumstances to fall into place does make sense given the setting.  This family’s patriarch has gotten rich from selling security systems in preparation for The Purge, and now the family has locked down their house to ride the night out.  The moralistic son sees a homeless man outside begging for help, and sympathetically lets the man in, effectively locking the homeless man in with them.  This leads to a group of wealthy self-proclaimed patriots coming by to claim their homeless prize in what is essentially for them a fox hunt.

What doesn’t work about this plot, though, is the execution.  None of the characters are fleshed out beyond being the barest of archetypes, especially when it comes to the nameless homeless man who appears to have served in the military, so he’s immediately coded as inherently good and has no other characterization.  Nothing the characters do is worthy of any note, with a large section of the film’s runtime devoted to just wandering around a dark, empty house, waiting for boogeymen to pop out.  Hell, even the villainous leader of the vigilante ruffians, as cartoonish as his monologues and perpetual smile are, is nothing more than a one-dimensional representation of the film’s underutilized social commentary.  Once you strip away the thin veneer of mimed intellectualism, the movie is just another generic family in another generic house being assaulted by another generic team of psychopaths, with poorly-timed jump-scares and lazily improvised home violence to boot.

Like I said, I like the premise of The Purge.  There’s interesting directions that can be taken, and when I watch the sequel next week, I hope that some of those directions are taken advantage of.  However, if I wanted to watch another generic slasher film, I’d watch just about any horror film of the past fifteen years.  The Purge doesn’t do itself justice by stooping to such lazy depths.

In honor of the upcoming Halloween, what spooky scary films are your favorites?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Mr. Peabody & Sherman": Inoffensive Barrel-Scraping

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Was anyone really asking for a Mr. Peabody movie?  Do kids these days even know who Mr. Peabody and Sherman are?  This has always seemed to me like a very odd choice of property to build a feature film around.  The original shorts were prone to witty humor more akin to a radio sketch than a feature length narrative, and the titular characters were little more than archetypes of the self-important brainiac and his bumbling assistant.  And yet, here we are, watching Hollywood scrape the bottom of the barrel for anything with an iota of brand recognition to package as an inevitable success animated picture.  So how did it turn out?  Eh, alright, I guess.

The word “inoffensive” springs to mind.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s anything outright “bad” about the film, but it’s just not a great or very ambitious one.  The film’s opening scenes play out like a modern version of its source material, fourth wall-breaking narration and all.  The way that historical figures are played with is also reminiscent of the whimsical feel of the shorts, but that’s about where the similarities end.  What follows after the opening scenes is a story about how Mr. Peabody, as Sherman’s adoptive parent, must fight to retain custody of Sherman after Sherman gets into a fight at school.  See, Child Protective Services is after Mr. Peabody because dogs shouldn’t be allowed to raise kids, and Sherman’s altercation with a school bully is the perfect excuse to take Sherman away.  This leads to Mr. Peabody inviting the bully’s family over for dinner, and after Sherman shows the bully, named Penny, the time machine and goes back in time, the trio embark on a time-hopping adventure.

The different time periods that the characters visit don’t so much have a connecting plot as they are convenient vignette setpieces for action spectacle, broken up by obligatory character development.  Peabody begins to realize he’s overprotective of Sherman, Sherman feels betrayed that Mr. Peabody didn’t tell him about Child Protective Services, and Penny… well, she’s the obligatory girl character and doesn’t get much characterization.  In fact, she starts out as a school bully, but has a pretty instant change of heart into a scrappy adventurer without much explanation.  Sherman also goes from hating her to falling in love with her at the drop of a hat (or mummified arm as the scene in question would have it.)  All in all, though, the film hits all the plot points it needs to in order to be coherent, but it’s not interested in being very original about it.

The film’s sense of humor is a little hit and miss, relying minimally on Peabody’s groan-worthy puns and instead relying on stretchy, cartoon slapstick that is sure to keep the target audience of seven-year-olds plenty entertained.  Amidst the flashy colors and action, however, there is some noticeable drops in animation quality at some points.  Sometimes characters move stiffly, and a few character models seem grossly disproportioned.  I’m sure it’s nothing the kids will notice, but I found it somewhat distracting.

Overall, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a pretty forgettable children’s flick.  While it’s at least trying to be funny and uses its historical locales to decent effect, the story is simply an excuse to visit those setpieces and the central conflict ends up feeling a bit forced because of it.  There’s some obvious allegory for the right of a gay adoptive parent to raise a child, but that plot point is never really dwelled on enough for the point to hit home.  The parts that are worth watching are the ones that replicate the spirit of the original cartoon shorts, even if they are saturated with cartoon action.  If you have kids, this isn’t a bad one to sit through.  Otherwise, it’s not really worth your time.

What cartoon relic will Hollywood dig up next?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Million Dollar Arm": You've Seen It Before

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Million Dollar Arm is schmaltz at its schmaltziest.  It’s not a horrible film, to be sure, and I’d dare say that it’s a competent one, but my god is it the same generic Disney schmooze that we’ve seen again and again and again from virtually every single one of their sports-themed live-action inspiration-fests.  It falls so deep into the pits of mediocrity that there isn’t even that much to say about it, but I spent two hours watching the damn thing, so I’m going to give the film a full review.

BJ Bernstein, played by Jon Hamm being as Don Draper as he usually is, is a sports agent who is down on his luck and needs a big signing to pull his agency out of the red.  While watching TV one night, he gets the idea to go to India, recruit young cricket fans through a game show called “Million Dollar Arm,” and take the winners and groom them into baseball pitchers.  This would function both as a publicity stunt and open up a huge market to baseball fandom in India.  What follows is a story of taking the two winners to the U.S., along with a quirky wannabe baseball coach, and teaching them the ropes of baseball while getting them accustomed to American life.

Despite the baseball theming, this isn’t really as much a sports drama as it is a coming-of-age story for BJ.  The romantic interest is immediately identifiable by virtue of being the only real character with breasts, and, through her, BJ comes to identify his young protégés as the kids he never had.  As his focus becomes less business-like and tries to relate more to the budding athletes, BJ becomes the patriarch of a symbolically nuclear family.  It’s so cheesily Disney that every major plot point was easily predictable from the first act.

But being formulaic isn’t really a knock against a film, though it is up to the film’s director and producers to rise above conventions to deliver something new and interesting, and this film fails in that respect.  By being exactly the cute, family-oriented sports-themed drama that you expect, it never exhibits any ambition to be something memorable, and ultimately feels like a waste of time.  There’s nothing outright bad about the film, but it’s such a by-the-numbers affair that there’s no way to recommend it over any of the other uninspired denizens of the Wonderful World of Live-Action Disney.  If this is your chosen film genre and don’t mind forgetting everything about it after it’s over, Million Dollar Arm might be worth a rental.  Everyone else shouldn’t even bother.

Coach Carter. Mircale.  Incredible.  The Mighty Ducks.  I could go on.  Have a favorite?  Is it possible to have a favorite beyond just preferring the sport on display?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Obvious Child": That Infamous Abortion Comedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Donna is an aspiring stand-up comedienne in New York City.  Her job at a bookstore is about to be non-existent as that store closes down, her boyfriend just broke up with her to go sleep with a friend, and her life is generally a bit of a mess.  She hooks up with a guy named Max after a comedy set goes horribly awry, and she discovers that in their drunken stupor they had forgotten to use a condom, and now she is pregnant.  She decides to get an abortion, but when he shows up at her work and asks her out again, she realizes that she would like to try going out with this guy.  The only problem is how to figure out how to tell him about the upcoming procedure.

Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room: Yes, this is a romantic comedy about abortion.  Yes, abortion is a contentious issue that many people think should be illegal, and even the mention of abortion can bring about hushed silence in many a social gathering.  No, I am not one of those people who subscribes to that ideology.  And no, Obvious Child is not going to change anyone’s mind about whether abortion is morally permissible or not.  If the prospect of abortion being normalized offends you, this is not, and never will be, a film for you.

That said, I think Obvious Child is a really important film.  It is a comedy, but the topic of abortion is never trivialized for the sake of making jokes or even creating drama.  In fact, a major point of the film is that that sort of drama is largely unnecessary; the film assumes that it should be a woman’s choice to go through with an abortion, and that’s never the issue.  The abortion is a foregone conclusion as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed.  This is a really refreshing approach to a sensitive subject that, really, probably shouldn’t be considered so taboo in a modern, progressive society.

Issue politics aside, what truly carries this film is Jenny Slate’s performance as Donna.  She is instantly likeable and relatable, treating the character’s life as a punchline for a series of dark jokes.  Slate has talent, and I’d like to see her career lift off from this film, because without her, a lot of the film’s charm would have gone to waste.  One of the film’s problems is that, despite the abortion piece, it’s still a pretty barebones romantic comedy tale, featuring an obligatory gay best friend, a sister-like roommate, and quirky parents.  And yet, Slate makes all these side characters believable, if by no other virtue than by stealing the spotlight from them so that we never get to see their lack of dimension.  Unfortunately, though, that lack of narrative meat is a double-edged sword as the film’s final third features some strangely unfunny filler material wherein Donna is attempted to be seduced by David Cross (Arrested Development’s Tobias).  Considering the film is barely over eighty minutes long, these scenes were clearly included only to bring the film to feature length, but they still feel oddly disconnected from the rest of the narrative and don’t really feature any worthwhile material.

Minor faults aside, Obvious Child is a really fun movie with some fantastically progressive attitudes.  Jenny Slate is a talented comedic actress who really knows how to deliver a leading role.  This could have been a disaster without someone charismatic as the face of such a controversial film.  And while I don’t think that it’s an award-worthy piece of cinema, I do think this is an important film by which to measure our cultural attitudes toward an increasingly more socially accepted practice.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"A Million Ways To Die In The West": And One Way To Die Of Boredom

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I want to make one point clear at the start of this review: I don’t really like Seth MacFarlane.  His penchant for pop culture reference and cartoony frat-boy non-sequitur shenanigans was amusing to me when I was a teenager watching Family Guy, but as the years have gone by I’ve recognized MacFarlane as a bit of a one-trick pony.  He’s managed to make a decent career for himself off that one trick, and I don’t find him to really be offensive in any way, so I’m pretty content to categorize his humor as something that just doesn’t work for me.  If you like him, that’s fine; to each their own.  That said, even taking into account my dislike for MacFarlane’s comedic sensibilities, A Million Ways To Die In The West is not a good movie.  It’s more like a single episode of Family Guy that’s has been stretched to a two hour breaking point than a solid movie, and the jokes get old pretty fast once you realize that the movie has shown its hand by the end of the first half hour.

And, unfortunately, this film doesn’t have a strong enough plot to carry it without good humor.  MacFarlane plays a sheep farmer who’s self-aware of the shitty living conditions of the old west and is perpetually the smartest guy in the room in a town full of idiots.  He’s the victim of a nice-guys-finish-last scenario when his beautiful girlfriend dumps him for a manlier archetype, and what starts off as a reclamation-of-his-girlfriend quest becomes one of self-discovery and self-esteem with the help of a new love interest who cares for him just the way he is.  Essentially, this is just a high school nerd empowerment fantasy set in the Old West, and the film hits the appropriate beats exactly on que every time.  In other words, we’ve been there, done that.

The only way such a tired premise could work is if substantial comedy writing takes the brunt of the entertainment responsibilities, and it seems like MacFarlane and his writing associates really phoned this one in.  The film has approximately five recurring gags to its credit, and that’s about it.  They usually are a variation on the theme of “Boy, the Old West really kinda sucked, huh?” sometimes followed by some rudimentary slapstick.  But instead of building on its gags to reiterate its points in new and interesting situations, the jokes simply become repetitive.  For example, there’s a joke about a guy dating a prostitute who won’t have sex with him because she genuinely wants to wait until they’re married.  I see how that can be funny, but the film decides to remind us how funny it is by simply repeating the same punchline on at least four separate occasions throughout the film.  Even if you thought it was funny the first time, I doubt you would think it so after two hours of repetition.

A Million Ways To Die In The West is a pretty unfortunate spectacle, as it genuinely seems to think itself a silly Old West comedy in the tradition of something like Blazing Saddles, yet comes off as something left on the cutting room floor for one of MacFarlane’s animated shows.  Its greatest sin is that it just feels boring and tired, the worst thing for any comedy to be.  Even if you like Seth MacFarlane, this probably isn’t the film for you, because MacFarlane certainly hasn’t brought his A-game.

What are your thoughts on Seth MacFarlane?  Overrated?  Underrated?  Don’t really care?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Willow Creek": Better As Unfound Footage

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I’m so fucking sick of found-footage movies.  They’re just an excuse for amateur filmmakers to make a lazy, poorly choreographed product with minimal special effects and a minimal budget.  All it takes are a couple of no-name actors, a camera and some off-camera sound effects, and bam, cheap film.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  The Blair Witch Project pioneered the genre, but that worked so well because the characters were always emoting and there was a constant feeling of dread throughout.  Cloverfield also works decently well because it doesn’t use the shaky-cam as an excuse to not show its monster, but instead allows us to catch glimpses and build up the sense of wonder for what it looks like as a whole, even if the end-result was a bit disappointing.  However, Willow Creek doesn’t follow those examples.

I was actually really hopeful that this would be a decent film, since veteran television director Bobcat Goldthwait sat at the helm for this one.  Found-footage films are usually the domain of newcomers trying to prove their worth with no money, but Bobcat’s been around for a while, so I’d hoped that he would have something new to bring to the table.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all; this film falls into the same traps that this genre is constantly victim to.  And the worst part is that the beginning shows a lot of potential for it to be otherwise.

The story follows explorers Kelly and Jim in their search to find Bigfoot.  Jim is a believer, and Kelly is a sceptic, because that’s how these plots work.  They’re making a documentary about their trip, and they begin by interviewing locals before going in and camping at the spot where Bigfoot was first captured on film a few decades ago.  The romantic interactions between Kelly and Jim are sweet and they feel authentic, which is good since this is purportedly supposed to be real events.  The interviews with locals also feel hokey and unscripted, and the film gives off a really cute couples’-adventure vibe for about half of its runtime.

Of course, this is all just set-up for when the ax falls and the dramatic tension sets in, and that tension worthlessly falls flat on its face.  The couple begin to get warned off by threatening hillbillies who don’t want them going into the woods, but they’re nothing more than cardboard-cutout harbingers that we’ve seen in every clichéd horror film ever.  When the couple finally get to the campsite, the big dramatic setpiece of the third act is… huddling in the tent motionless as eerie sounds emanate from outside the tent.  This is boring as hell.  It doesn’t even work well as a jump scare, because the sounds that the Bigfoots (Bigfeet? Bigfi?) make is like a mix between a tornado siren and an old man yelling at you to get off his lawn.  There’s no shock value, and the whole production feels cheap and lazy.

The final shots of the film are, of course, a shaky, split-second shot of the monster, accompanied by a shot of the ground and the sounds of the couple being ripped to pieces.  My reaction: “My god, they’re finally dead so I can turn this off!”  This was perhaps the most boring, trite, and pointless film I’ve seen in a long time.  It doesn’t just stick to genre conventions; it wears only the warts of the genre like they’re badges of honor.  It showed early promise in the first act, but when it came time to deliver the goods, I genuinely believe a first-year film student could have done better.  Just move along, folks.  Nothing to see here.

Can you think of any good found-footage films?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Chef": Vanity Is A Dish Best Not Served At All

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Jon Favreau was a small-time actor who worked his way into directing with the indie film Made, and then into popular discourse with films like Elf and the first two Iron Man films.  Now Favreau has tried to work his way back to his indie roots with Chef, a self-produced, self-starring film that chronicles the life of a master chef as he tries to navigate an overly-controlling boss and an unfair food critic.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like Mr. Favreau has some issues he needs to work out.

The film starts out strong enough, with Favreau’s character facing clear struggles against his restaurant’s establishment and inadvertently starting a flame war on Twitter with the aforementioned critic.  It all feels a bit too much like a heavy-handed metaphor for the life of a director within the constraints of the corporate system, but solid characters make the experience tolerable.  Favreau is surrounded by an eclectic cast of interesting characters, including the zany chefs who work under him, the restaurant’s hostess who functions as his best friend, and Robert Downey Jr. being about as Tony Stark as he can be without infringing on Marvel’s copyright.  They’re all likeable characters with some witty dialogue to round them all out, even if they are all a bit sycophantic to Favreau’s supposed genius.

The film’s primary conflict, though, revolves around Favreau’s son, whom Favreau constantly ignores because of his work.  The two only see each other infrequently due to Favreau’s divorce from the kid’s mother, and when they do see each other, Favreau is either distracted with finding ingredients for his kitchen or doesn’t try very hard to relate with the ten-year-old, mostly because he doesn’t know how.  Eventually, this leads to a heartwarming realization that Favreau can connect with his son by teaching him how to cook, and the two grow close by driving a food truck around the American Southeast and selling to avid crowds of hungry fans.

But this change of pace takes place a mere hour into an almost two-hour film, and the remaining hour is a slog of driving the food truck from location to location and absolutely no conflict takes place.  Favreau takes what starts as a solid narrative film with some annoying self-aggrandizing allegory and turns it into a personal wish-fulfillment fantasy.  He and his son get along great and they have no problems communicating anymore; one of his old chefs just up and quits his job in order to work the food truck with him; even his ex-wife starts to appreciate him again.  Jon Favreau spends the last hour of his return to indie film masturbating into the camera, getting off on just how great his life is now that he’s abandoned the corporately controlled film-making business and is making the movies he wants to make.  As compelling as this may be to him, it’s boring for those who have to put up with his ego.

Chef is by no means a terrible movie, but it is one of the most self-congratulatory and narcissistic I’ve ever seen.  Perhaps I’m a little bit biased based on my knowledge of Favreau’s career, but even taking the film as a whole out of context, it still suffers from narrative pacing issues that completely destroy any pay-off the third act was supposed to provide.  If you want to see Chef, do yourself a favor and turn off the film when Favreau finishes cleaning out the food truck with his kid.  It’ll turn a bad movie into a good one and save about an hour of your life.  If that doesn’t sound appetizing to you, this may be a course you’ll want to skip.

Know of any other narcissistic stabs at film-making?  Let me know in the comments so I can avoid them.