Friday, February 27, 2015

"The Equalizer": A Good Movie For Your Dad

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Equalizer is exactly the kind of film that my dad would have liked.  There’s an emerging genre of films that specifically appeals to his demographic, a harkening back to the action flicks of the 1980s, starring an aging male protagonist whose combination of skill, experience, and raw masculinity make him an unstoppable badass capable of taking down armies of bad guys all by himself.  For the epitomous example, simply look to just about anything Liam Neeson has done in the last decade, most notably the Taken franchise.  Denzel Washington is filling the protagonist shoes this time around, and the role of the daughter in need of rescue is symbolic rather than actual, but otherwise, you pretty much know what to expect here.

Robert McCall (Washington) is an ex-black ops agent working as a clerk in a home improvement superstore.  He’s a generally friendly guy, always helping out where he can.  In his nightly ritual of going to a local diner to read, he meets and befriends a young woman who is clearly being used in the sex trade.  After her pimps beat her nearly to death, something snaps inside Robert so that he kills the Russian gang responsible for the young woman’s brutalization.  However, this gang consisted of some big players in the Russian mob, so the top brass sends their best assassin to track down McCall and put him in his place.

What I found particularly interesting about The Equalizer is that McCall seems to have some obsessive compulsive tendencies, and it seems to be implied that those tendencies are what allow him to have such honed killer instincts and reflexes.  This is perfect for Denzel Washington’s subdued and subtle acting, as he communicates most of this non-verbally and without making a show of it.  It’s an interesting character detail, even if it isn’t an accurate portrayal of the suffering people actually experience due to OCD.  However, as the film progresses, this is pushed into the background and never really expanded upon, so even if you were to find it offensive, it’s not actually so prevalent as to ruin the experience.  Personally, though, I thought that it would have given the film a unique identity.

However, the film has some second act pacing issues, where McCall’s helpful nature leads him to enact his own vigilante justice.  The film again hints that this is because he can’t turn this newly reawakened compulsion off, but never quite bites that hook.  Instead, these scenes largely don’t tie into the main narrative.  As the Russian assassin gradually figures out who McCall is and plots to make an example of him, McCall just casually beats guys up to pad out the runtime.  This causes the film to feel a bit overlong, and by the time the third act one-man-against-an-army climax rolled around, I was more than ready to be done with it all.

Overall, though, I don’t think The Equalizer is that bad of a film.  Yeah, it’s formulaic and its most creative elements seem to have gone to waste, but Washington is the perfect leading man for this sort of role, and long-time action director Antoine Fuqua really knows how to effectively burn a dramatic explosion or gunshot into your memory.  If you’re looking for a lazy weekend flick that doesn’t require too many brain cells and a minimal attention span, this might just be the “dad movie” for you.

Have a favorite “dad movie?”  Share your favorite in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Beyond The Lights": A Uniquely Feminist Romance

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Beyond The Lights piqued my interest for one reason: it is a dramatic romance that was critically well-received.  Romances as a genre are notorious for being shallow and formulaic, often relying on little more than the physical chemistry (or imaginations thereof) of the two leads.  If that’s your escapist fantasy, I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s hard to deny that most times romances are made on the cheap and released on box office off-weekends with the hopes of drawing in women and their obliging dates.  So what makes Beyond The Lights so different?  Well, first of all, it seems like director Gina Prince-Bythewood actually gives a damn about producing a powerful piece of cinema, and despite the film still adhering to tried and true genre conventions, she largely succeeds.

Our protagonist is Noni, a budding pop star who has been pushed by her mother all her life to be the best.  Under the pressure of being in the constant spotlight and having to adhere to a staged romance with a fellow performer, she climbs her hotel room balcony with the intention of jumping.  Enter Kaz, a police officer who responds to the emergency call and ultimately pulls her back from the brink.  Through a series of chance meetings and revealing conversations, it becomes clear that the two have a lot in common, with Noni’s mother pushing her into becoming a sexualized pop idol in the name of success and Kaz’s father pushing him into politics, even though police work is how he truly feels fulfilled.  Through their newfound love, they begin to find the strength to overcome their predestined paths and break free of their parents’ control.

Now, this sounds like a fairly typical Romeo and Juliet situation, and from a structural standpoint, that’s all too accurate.  However, what really sells this film is that the two leads develop in such a way that feels realistic, both in its emotion and its pacing.  The film knows to take its time, allowing the couple to learn about and understand each other as normal human beings would.  When the two finally do start becoming intimate and sexual, it’s easy to see the connection between them, because we’ve watched it develop and know that there’s more to this than just lust.  The fact that film takes time to develop the two characters separate from one another in dedicated scenes only strengthens the feeling that these are real people experiencing realistic emotions.

But perhaps what elevates this film beyond just being good is that it communicates an incredibly vital message about the objectification of female pop idols.  In order to get to the top, women of that profession must sell their sexual appeal, their personal and private lives, and their souls to make it to the top of the charts.  To see it portrayed from the singer’s perspective, with adoring fans who know nothing of the real her as they scream for more drama and tabloid performing, it really becomes a small wonder that more celebrities don’t succumb to the pressure and break down.  The film shows all this through Noni's controlling mother/manager and the steps her record label coerces her to take in order to promote her image, and it makes Noni’s plight a sympathetic one, one that a lesser film would have glossed over in favor of providing a fantasy-fulfillment scenario.

Beyond The Lights may have the bones of a romantic film, but the portrayal and thematic meat on those bones truly elevate it to be something special.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a genre great, but when a romantic film is smartly written, well-acted, and subtextually rich, it’s worth taking notice.  If this type of film is up your alley, I recommend giving it a look.

Have a favorite romantic flick?  Share it in the comments below.

Monday, February 23, 2015

"This Is Where I Leave You": Dramedy Spread Too Thin

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

As I watched this movie, I found myself thinking about the word “dramedy.”  I’ve always thought it a little kitschy, taking the genre of dramatic comedies and just combining the words for convenience.  However, as I watched This Is Where I Leave You, I couldn’t help but think there was a bit more to it; perhaps on a symbolic level, perhaps as a logistical distinction, or perhaps just as a clever way I thought of to start off this review.  See, the word “dramedy” seems to imply that the drama and comedy aspects of a film are intertwined with one another, interspersing comedy to add some relief during a film’s heavier moments.  This works well sometimes, especially when the tone would otherwise be too dour for the story the film is trying to tell.  However, This Is Where I Leave You often feels like the drama and the comedy are on two separate planes of existence, making this feel more like dramatic comedy than dramedy.

And this is a shame because this film has a really damn good cast, pulling in great comic TV stars like Jason Bateman and Tina Fey and putting them with the likes of Adam Driver, Corey Stoll and Jane Fonda, all of whom have some great acting chops.  When Fonda’s character’s husband dies, she brings her four children (played by the aforementioned actors) together for shiva, a seven day Jewish ritual of mourning.  Each of the children has their own issue that they’re dealing with, be it Bateman’s cheating wife, Fey’s work-obsessed husband, Stoll’s inability to impregnate his wife, or Driver’s inability to stop sleeping around even when he has a solid relationship.  Bateman is the undisputed protagonist of these proceedings, as he is given a romantic subplot in the middle of all this mayhem, but everyone is obviously pouring their souls into giving the best performances they can with the material they have.

It’s unfortunate then that the material is so lackluster.  As I said before, the comedy and drama have their own distinct scenes in the film to an almost mechanical degree, almost never overlapping in a way that feels organic.  The shifts can be as great as prat-fall physical comedy directly to saccharine sweet remembrances of the family patriarch, and that makes it really hard to find a definitive tone to the film.  When a film can’t seem to decide how it wants the audience to feel, it’s hard for the audience to feel anything, especially when the crux of the story is the emotional turmoil of coming together to grieve a loved one.  The result is a series of comic gags that fall flat and a serious story that’s hard to care about.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the script leaves a lot to be desired.  Despite how much I love the cast and admire the great job they tried to do, the film just has too many characters to maintain any sort of coherent narrative, with the exception being Bateman’s protagonist.  Each of the five family members has scenes of their own personal turmoil and they also have make narrative room for the dysfunction with each other, and while the film is thankfully only 100 minutes long, there just is not enough time to explore all these plotlines to the extent they deserve.  This makes sense, considering this is an adaptation of a novel, but some of these plot threads needed to be left on the cutting room floor, making way for the protagonist to carry most of the narrative weight while everyone else is relegated to the supporting cast.

As it is, however, This Is Where I Leave You is spread way too thin to be worth recommending.  There are plenty of good dramedies out there, but this sure as hell isn’t one of them.

Has Tina Fey ever successfully made the transition to the big screen?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions and Picks

Here they are!  My predictions for the 2015 Academy Awards have arrived.  First things first though, having caught up on many films from 2014 in preparation for the awards, here is a revised list of the Top 15 Films of 2014:
 1.     Birdman
 2.     Guardians of the Galaxy
 3.     The Grand Budapest Hotel
 4.     Gone Girl
 5.     The Lego Movie
 6.     Whiplash
 7.     Snowpiercer
 8.     Nightcrawler
 9.     Selma
 10.   Foxcatcher
 11.   Frank
 12.   Noah
 13.   The Normal Heart
 14.   Blue Ruin
 15.   The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

And so, without further ado, here are my picks for the 2015 Academy Awards.  The actual winners will be announced on Sunday, February 22.  (An asterisk (*) denotes a film I haven’t seen yet.  Furthermore, I won’t be weighing in on the Short Subject categories, as the availability of said shorts is extremely limited and beyond my reach.)

Best Picture
OTHER NOMINEES: American Sniper
                                       The Grand Budapest Hotel
                                       The Imitation Game
                                       The Theory of Everything

Boyhood is almost assuredly going to win Best Picture, considering its place at the top of many other awards ceremonies and critics’ top film lists.  And while it is a damn fine film (the honorary #16 on my above-iterated list), I don’t think it’s so great beyond its technical achievement.  Birdman on the other hand is a masterwork of writing, acting, and cinematography that could possibly upset Boyhood, though I doubt it.  Side note: American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything don’t deserve to be here.

Best Director
LIKELY WIN: Boyhood – Richard Linklater
SHOULD WIN: Birdman - Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
OTHER NOMINEES: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
                                       Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller
                                       The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum

With the exception of Morten Tyldum, all these directors deserve a place on this list, and though Birdman’s Inarritu deserves the award, I predict Linklater will sweep this one up along with Best Picture.  I can potentially see the Academy splitting the baby and giving the award to Inarritu, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Best Original Screenplay
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel – 
                         Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness 
OTHER NOMINEES: Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
                                       Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
                                       Birdman - Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, 
                                                        Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
                                      Boyhood – Richard Linklater

Birdman may have some smartly written dialogue, but that film was made more so by the performances than the screenplay.  The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, is slyly and craftily written, with lines meant to be delivered quickly and cuttingly.  The buzz is that Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness are likely to win this one, and I whole-heartedly support that.

Best Adapted Screenplay
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: Whiplash – Damien Chazelle
OTHER NOMINEES: American Sniper – Jason Hall
                                       The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
                                        Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
                                       The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten

Whiplash’s position on this list is odd, considering that it is an “adaptation” of a short film that Damien Chazelle also wrote, but whatever.  In my opinion, the only other real contender I see here is Inherent Vice, but it is a definite second place.  The Imitation Game has been getting some love from analysts, but that safe and hackneyed script doesn’t deserve the recognition.

Best Lead Actor
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: Birdman – Michael Keaton
OTHER NOMINEES: Foxcatcher – Steve Carell
                                       American Sniper – Bradley Cooper
                                       The Imitation Game – Benedict Cumberbatch
                                       The Theory of Everything – Eddie Redmayne

What a pitiful category this year.  The only two who really deserve to be here are Keaton and Carell, seeing as Cooper is mostly dull and stoic throughout Sniper, Redmayne portrays a disability rather than a character, and Cumberbatch was okay, but his performance is hardly award-worthy.  And while I really want Foxcatcher to receive some love at the awards this year, Keaton takes the cake for his nuanced portrayal of an aging actor past his prime.  If Redmayne ends up beating Keaton as many analysts are predicting, this will be a sad year at the Oscars for the representation of disability.

Best Lead Actress
LIKELY WIN: Still Alice – Julianne Moore
SHOULD WIN: Gone Girl – Rosamund Pike
OTHER NOMINEES: Two Days, One Night - Marion Cotillard*
                                       The Theory of Everything – Felicity Jones
                                       Wild – Reese Witherspoon

Julianne Moore seems to be the favorite, and while I do believe she deserves her nomination, I don’t think hers is the most nuanced or subtle of the nominees.  Witherspoon may have acquitted herself admirably in Wild, but Rosamund Pike deserves the Academy’s love for her complicated portrayal of a troubled housewife in Gone Girl, a film that really merited more Oscar love overall.

Best Supporting Actress
LIKELY WIN: Boyhood – Patricia Arquette
SHOULD WIN: Birdman – Emma Stone
OTHER NOMINEES: Wild – Laura Dern
                                        The Imitation Game – Kiera Knightley
                                        Into The Woods – Meryl Streep

This has to be the weakest category of the year.  I get the feeling Arquette is going to win based solely on Boyhood’s prestige and the necessity that it win something other than Best Picture.  Streep and Knightley feel like filler on the list, and while I’m happy to see Dern get some recognition, she doesn’t deserve the win either.  Of the five, Stone is the one who deserves this the most, if only because she had such great material to work with.

Best Supporting Actor
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: Whiplash – J.K. Simmons
OTHER NOMINEES: Birdman – Edward Norton
                                       The Judge – Robert Duvall
                                       Boyhood – Ethan Hawke
                                       Foxcatcher – Mark Ruffalo

Duvall and Hawke feel a bit superfluous on this list, and as much as I love Ruffalo, I don’t think he’s got the award this year.  I had a hard time deciding whether I liked Simmons or Norton better, but based purely on the intensity necessary to pull his role off, I have to recognize that Simmons deserves his inevitable award.

Best Animated Feature
LIKELY WIN: How To Train Your Dragon 2
SHOULD WIN: The Tale of Princess Kaguya
                                        Big Hero 6
                                       Song of the Sea*

With the shocking exclusion of The Lego Movie, this race became a lot closer.  Realistically, the race comes down to Big Hero 6 and How To Train Your Dragon 2, and I think the latter has the more realistic shot this year.  However, of the films I was able to see in this category, Princess Kaguya is the one that blew me away.

Best Documentary Feature         Best Foreign Language Feature
Citizenfour                                     Ida
Finding Vivian Maier                    Leviathan
Last Days in Vietnam                   Tangerines
The Salt of The Earth                   Timbuktu
Virunga                                        Wild Tales

Many of the films in these two categories have been unavailable either through streaming or in cinemas in my area, so I decided I wasn’t even going to try.  I hear that Citizenfour and Ida are likely to win in their respective categories, and having seen Ida, I’m okay with that.

Best Original Score
LIKELY WIN: The Theory of Everything – Johann Johannsson
SHOULD WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
OTHER NOMINEES: Interstellar – Hans Zimmer
                                       Mr. Turner – Gary Yershon*
                                      The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
There’s been a lot of praise for Zimmer’s score in Interstellar, but quite frankly, I don’t get it.  It felt like he was trying to capture the magic and whimsy of a John Williams score and failing just as bad as Christopher Nolan’s faux-Spielberg direction.  Now, the only other score I really remember from the nominees was Desplat’s work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  However, the buzz seems to indicate The Theory of Everything is likely to take the award, though I honestly couldn’t tell you why.

Best Original Song
OTHER NOMINEES: The Lego Movie – “Everything Is Awesome”
                                       Beyond the Lights – “Grateful”
                                       Glen Campbell… I’ll Be Me – “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”
                                       Begin Again – “Lost Stars”

I initially really wanted “Everything Is Awesome” to be The Lego Movie’s avenue to Oscar recognition, but having seen Selma and realizing just how snubbed it was in the other categories, it really deserves to get at least this award.  And, on top of that, “Glory” is a really good song.

Best Cinematography
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
OTHER NOMINEES: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
                                        Ida - Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
                                       Mr. Turner - Dick Pope*
                                       Unbroken - Roger Deakins

All of these (excepting that which I haven't seen) have gorgeous cinematography, and while The Grand Budapest Hotel is a tempting choice, I have to go with Birdman, which is both gorgeous and meticulously complex.  That isn’t to say Yeoman’s work isn’t, but Lubezki’s is moreso.

Best Film Editing
LIKELY WIN: Boyhood – Sandra Adair
SHOULD WIN: Whiplash – Tom Cross
OTHER NOMINEES: American Sniper – Joel Cox and Gary Roach
                                       The Grand Budapest Hotel – Barney Pilling
                                       The Imitation Game – William Goldenberg

Though Adair’s clever editing gave a grand illusion of the passage of time, Cross’s intense frenetic pacing made me sit at the edge of my seat in a film about fucking drumming.  Enough said.

Best Costume Design
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel
                                       Inherent Vice
                                      Mr. Turner*

The combination of pseudo-European World War and dollhouse sensibilities of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel are more than deserving of the Academy’s love, and fortunately that’s who many experts think will take the gold.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
LIKELY WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel
SHOULD WIN: Guardians of the Galaxy
ALSO HERE: Foxcatcher 
Is this even a realistic contest? The alien transformations of Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan and virtually the entire rest of the cast are nothing short of masterful and inspired.  However, Guardians isn’t exactly an Academy-friendly film, so expect The Grand Budapest Hotel to win this one.

Best Sound Editing
LIKELY WIN: American Sniper
OTHER NOMINEES: Interstellar
                                       The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
So, to be completely honest, this is the category I understand the least about.  However, I don’t want American Sniper to win anything, and there are only two films on this list I think is worthy of any awards, and I only want Interstellar to win one.  Not exactly a professional critique, but there you go.

Best Sound Mixing
LIKELY WIN: American Sniper
SHOULD WIN: Whiplash

Again, I really don’t want American Sniper to win this one, even if the sound mixing was noticeably good in its bland sea of otherwise monotonous tripe.  Whiplash, particularly due to its editing, made me actually tense as drumbeats played the rhythms of achievement and the potential for failure.  The sound mixing is part of what made that film’s climax so damn engaging, and it deserves to be recognized.

Best Production Design
LIKELY WIN/SHOULD WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel
OTHER NOMINEES: The Imitation Game
                                        Into The Woods
                                       Mr. Turner*

To praise the hand-crafted sets of Wes Anderson is a no-brainer.

Best Visual Effects
OTHER NOMINEES: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
                                       Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
                                       Guardians of the Galaxy
                                       X-Men: Days of Future Past

Say what you will about Interstellar’s faults, you cannot deny that it is a gorgeous film, lovingly rendering real-life spatial phenomena as breathtaking spectacle.

So, how do my predictions line up with yours?  Think I’m wrong about who will or who should win?  Leave your predictions in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"The Tale of the Princess Kaguya": Ghibli's Gorgeous Tragic Masterpiece

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Oscar Nominations

Best Animated Feature

It can sometimes be easy to forget that Hayao Miyazaki is not Studio Ghibli’s only brilliant director, particularly when those other directors have infrequent, sporadic output.  Case in point: Isao Takahata, probably best known for Grave of the Fireflies, i.e., the film that destroyed my innocence forever.  Horrifying and utterly heartbreaking, his most renowned work if perhaps one of the best animated films of all time, a testament to animation’s ability to tell compelling and emotionally gripping stories.  And now, over fifteen years since his last film, Takahata has directed and produced The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a tale that only further cements his legacy as one of the greats of Japanese animation.

This story is based on a millennium-old Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, though to use its original title would be misleading as to the film’s focus.  The folk tale’s titular bamboo cutter one day discovers a royal spirit within a bamboo stalk.  It transforms into an infant, which he takes home to raise with his wife.  The infant grows at a vastly accelerated rate, becoming a toddler and eventually a small child in only a matter of days.  Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter discovers gold in another bamboo stalk, and takes it as a sign that he must take the child to the capitol to be raised as royalty, as that is how heaven wishes her to achieve happiness.

If this sounds to you like a tale of wish-fulfillment akin to a Cinderella story, you would only be half-right.  The core of this tale comes from this being the bamboo cutter’s wish, not the child’s, who is eventually named Kaguya.  Kaguya is a victim of her birthright, pulled away from a childhood that was over too soon and forced to grow up amongst a royal society where she is treated as nothing more than an object to be admired and lusted after.  It is a commentary on the treatment of women as baubles, but is also a story of a lonely young woman, pulled away from an emotionally rich and full life to a materially rich and so-called “better” one.  Much of this is expressed wordlessly and visually, and when the film decides to stop building up and deliver its powerfully gut-wrenching tragedies, it could very well leave you on the verge of tears.  (I am not ashamed to admit that I shed more than a few.)

All of this is accentuated by a gorgeous art direction that emulates the charcoal and oil painting artistry of the film’s time period.  In a time when computer generated puppets dominate the animated film industry, it is incredibly refreshing to see hand-drawn animation with such a rich attention to detail.  Every frame is gorgeous, which makes the emotional impact all the more visceral, whether in the film’s highest or lowest moments.

Given that The Lego Movie is mysteriously absent from the Oscar nominees and Disney has a near-monopoly on Best Animated Picture awards, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film lost out to Big Hero 6 at Sunday’s awards.  However, for whatever my opinion is worth, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is undoubtedly the best of the nominees in its category.  Takahata may have a limited legacy, but when he produces something, he ensures that it is a masterpiece.

Did Grave of the Fireflies cause you to tear up just a little?  May more than a little?  Leave your confessions in the comments below.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Force Majeure": Smart Concepts Padded With Fluff

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

A critical darling on the festival circuit, Force Majeure was what many thought a sure thing to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2015 Academy Awards.  Alas, along with many upsets in this year’s nomination pool, Force Majeure was nowhere to be seen.  And, considering that finding available copies or showings of the nominated foreign language films is near impossible, I decided that I’d take a look at this film upon its home video release to see what the fuss was about.  So is it a good film?  Assuredly.  Is it award worthy?  Well…

Taking place in the French Alps, Swedish married couple Ebba and Tomas take their children on a skiing trip.  While dining at their resort’s balcony restaurant, the family sees an avalanche coming right for them.  Ebba ducks to shield their children with her body, and Tomas runs away from the table, grabbing his gloves and phone in the process, leaving his family behind.  The avalanche turns out to have been a controlled run, and all that enveloped them was the residual plums from the snowslide, leaving everyone unharmed.  What follows is an emotional crisis as Ebba tries to rationalize how her husband could have left them like that, and Tomas puts up a front to preserve face and maintain his masculine dignity.

Embedded in this is some really worthwhile commentary about the rigidity and irrationality of gender roles in traditionally heterosexual relationships.  Does a man need to be the protector of his family from external dangers, or is it okay for him to have a flight reaction that would be expected of his wife and children?  Is a woman more instinctually driven to protect her children than her male counterpart, and if so, does that make the man a lesser parent?  The film grapples with these concepts, and while it doesn’t come to any hard conclusions beyond the state of this particular couple’s relationship, it is appreciated that such assumed gender clichés are put under the microscope.

However, I think this film suffers heavily in the pacing department.  At times, the film drags on and on, supposedly to add tension to the conflict between the couple, but it only ends up feeling like filler.  There are also really bizarrely inserted comedic sequences that feel out of place, and mostly unfunny given the lack of tonal establishment.  And then, to top it all off, the film climaxes on a satisfying and resonant note, but proceeds for an extra ten minutes with an epilogue that is baffling as it is unnecessary.  All of these faults amount to a film that should have been much shorter, and possibly would have served better as a short subject rather than a feature film.

There’s some good stuff to be had in Force Majeure, but it’s buried in an avalanche of unnecessary fluff, presumably only there to give it some arthouse cred.  Though I think the film is worth seeing, I completely understand why the Academy passed this one up.  See it for yourself, but keep your expectations in check.

What films do you think would have been better served with content left on the cutting room floor?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Still Alice": Moore Saves From Mediocrity

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Lead Actress - Julianne Moore

Still Alice is not a great movie.  It barely even qualifies as a good movie.  There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but the type of film it is feels like it belongs on the Lifetime channel as a Movie of the Week.  There are no real character arcs or much in the way of cinematic artistry; any attempts to make interesting statements through the medium come off as basic and ultimately inconsequential.  This is a sad film about a woman suffering from a disease, and the film serves its purpose in acting as a by-the-numbers terminal illness sympathy-inducer that isn’t ambitious beyond its casting choices.  And while big names like Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin simply play versions of the same personas we’ve seen them adopt time and again, Julianne Moore as the titular Alice delivers this film from the depths of mediocrity into being a showcase for the range of her abilities.

Alice is a college linguistics professor who starts to exhibit symptoms of forgetfulness, disorientation and confusion.  She goes to see a neurologist and is eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, a rare form of the disease that she learns was likely hereditary and may have been passed on to her children.  And that’s pretty much the breadth of the film’s scope, as we watch Alice’s deterioration over time and her family’s attempts to cope with the changes inherent in that.  The plot is fairly typical, with the film’s high point being in the culmination of a far-gone Alice discovering a video from past self inducing her to commit suicide, but beyond that, there is little in the way of dramatic tension or theming to push the story forward.  The point is that Alzheimer’s is a bad thing, and it is sad to watch someone’s mind be lost to it.  Point made.  The most creative thing the directors decide to do with this concept is place surroundings that Alice cannot remember out of the camera’s focus and use cuts to mask extreme passages of time, but this is about as basic as cinematic symbolism gets and should only seem profound to the theatrically illiterate.

The only thing that actually makes this film worth seeing is Julianne Moore’s Oscar-nominated performance, and I can tell why the Academy latched on to her.  Moore subtly telegraphs her disease from the film’s first scene, long before her character is ever diagnosed, and the transformation she experiences feels gradual and horrifying.  She has her good days and her bad days, and the way she jumps between the two while still portraying that Alice is decidedly getting worse is simply masterful.  For much of the film, she’s still the same old Alice that we’ve come to know and admire for her intelligence and articulate nature, but she gradually loses those pieces that have been the cornerstone of her identity, and by the end of the film, it’s hard to tell if who we are seeing is, in fact, still Alice.  It’s a great performance that deserves the Academy’s recognition.

However, other than Moore’s performance, the film feels rather pedestrian and uninspired.  I wouldn’t have called it a bad film without Moore, but I certainly wouldn’t have considered it noteworthy either.  Ultimately, this functions best as an actress’s showcase, and not much else.  If you’re interested in seeing what the Oscar buzz is about, go ahead and see Still Alice.  If you couldn’t care less, then there really isn’t anything in this film here for you.

Can you think of another mediocre film saved by a great performance?  Leave your remembrances in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"The Boxtrolls": A Good Film Marred By A Problematic Gender Trope

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Oscar Nominations

Best Animated Picture

There’s a lot to like about The Boxtrolls.  It has a wit and charm that is often missing from modern family pictures, which are so neutered of dark themes so as to be inoffensive to the widest demographic that they have become a malaise of the same boorish drivel.  That’s why it’s so refreshing to see films from Laika, perhaps the only major studio that shuns the trend of polygonal animation in favor of traditionally crafted stop-motion animation.  It’s easy to see the love and dedication that goes into their films, and The Boxtrolls is no exception.  And yet, this film has one major, glaring issue that mars what would otherwise be a great family movie: a transmisogynist caricature of a villain.

The story takes place in the city of Cheesebridge, where the upper-class dandies are more concerned with consuming the next variety of cheddar than paying attention to the needs of the populace.  This has allowed an exterminator named Archibald Snatcher to dupe the town leaders into thinking the subterranean Boxtrolls, a friendly race of tinkerers, has kidnapped a small child and eaten him, giving Snatcher leverage to work his way up into the wealthy elite’s inner circle.  Though the Boxtrolls did take a child, they did not eat him, and he grows among them.  As the years go by, their numbers diminish under Snatcher’s tyrannous night patrols, and the child, known as Eggs, seeks to find out who he is and how to stop Snatcher.

Aside from the animation, the thing that makes this film unique is its wonderful reliance on character humor, as most of the human cast is endearing and memorable in their own way.  Winnie, a human child that Eggs befriends, has a bizarre fascination with the morbid, and is persistently disappointed when the Boxtrolls fail to live up to their reputation.  Lord Portley-Rind is a town aristocrat seemingly more interested in cheese than his own daughter.  The best of the lot, though, are Snatcher’s henchmen, apparently self-aware that they are the villains of this story, yet persistently in denial about it.  This are rich and memorable characters, enhanced by their fantastic designs and their hard-working animators.

However, that brings us to the film’s biggest issue: the villain, Archibald Snatcher.  In most scenes, he is perfectly fine, an actually somewhat tragic figure in his lust to join the upper class and yet perpetually unable to.  But the film insists on scenes where he parades through the upper class as Madame Frou Frou, a feminine object of mass objectification and attraction to the aristocracy.  This is played up for laughs, punctuated by a climactic gender reveal at the end where one male character “regrets so much.”  The reaffirmation of rigid gender roles is disappointing in a modern film, where I would hope we could be beyond ridiculing those who act outside of their ascribed gender identity.  What is especially upsetting is that these scenes aren’t even core to the film’s narrative, but are there purely as extra comedic fodder.

Despite that, though, I’m willing to give The Boxtrolls a recommendation.  That glaring issue aside, it is a clever film that is damn funny and gorgeously animated.  If you have kids, though, just make sure to let them know that the film’s portrayal of the man-in-the-dress stereotype is most assuredly not okay, as it demeans those of us who don’t conform to traditional gender norms.

Any other films come to mind that are transmisogynistically problematic? *cough* Ace Ventura *cough*  Leave your warnings in the comments below.

Monday, February 9, 2015

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water": What Took So Long?

Now In Theaters
It’s kinda hard to believe that SpongeBob has been around for sixteen years.  Given that extremely long durability to its existence, especially for a children’s show, it’s even harder to believe that it took ten years from the first feature film for SpongeBob to get a sequel.  And in the midst of all the Oscar hype and controversy about a certain film coming out on Valentine’s weekend (*shudder*), I thought it might be nice to revisit a friend from my childhood.  So, does SpongeBob retain his loveable charm after all these years?  The answer is most assuredly yes.

If you were afraid that your childhood would be ruined when you saw Spongebob and pals CG animated on a human beach in the trailer, you can lay your fears to rest as that only takes up the final third of the film, and even then is used to great effect.  The story begins, however, in good old 2D cartoon Bikini Bottom, where Plankton is once again trying to get his hands on the secret formula for the Krabby Patty.  In mid-heist, the formula magically disappears, leaving SpongeBob and Plankton as the only witnesses to its disappearance.  When SpongeBob defends Plankton from the ensuing mob, everyone assumes he has teamed up with Plankton to steal the formula.  And so, SpongeBob and Plankton must actually team up to find the formula and clear their names.

It’s a refreshing touch to see that Nickelodeon didn’t rest on their laurels and make Plankton the villain yet again.  It takes the film away from being simply an extended episode and fits Plankton’s journey into a character arc that compliments him nicely.  And in the process, the film also retains the humor of the show while pulling gags that would be difficult to pull off in the show’s limited timeframe.  Take, for instance, Plankton’s inability to say the word “teamwork.”  In the show, you could fit that in maybe once or twice in an episode, but here it is reused in various permutations to demonstrate Plankton’s character development.  And it remains consistently funny throughout.

However, to say that the film is consistently funny doesn’t mean that it hits all the right notes all the time.  This is SpongeBob after all, so the humor is going to be fairly hit or miss.  For every scene featuring a time-traveling space dolphin named Bubbles (the film’s hilarious high note), there are strings of bad puns that only inexperienced children will think clever.  And yet, the bad jokes never get so frequent as to be tiresome; you can just groan and move on because the film is paced so quickly.  This works especially well in the final third of the film, where the 3D animation effects enable the kinds of gags that the show’s scale wouldn’t permit, particularly when SpongeBob and company transform into Avengers-style superheroes with some hilarious powers.

Overall, I enjoyed Sponge Out Of Water, though I recognize that one’s mileage may vary given the source material.  As you consider taking a loved one to a movie date this Valentine’s weekend, think about seeing the wacky adventures of a talking sponge, as it will likely be better than what’s going to top the box office.

Did the first SpongeBob movie tickle your fancy?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, February 6, 2015

"The Judge": Reminiscent Of Nineties Grisham

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Oscar Nominations

Best Supporting Actor - Robert Duvall

I wasn’t initially planning on reviewing The Judge, as it seemed to me to be just another average crime drama, albeit one with an impressive cast.  And then the Oscar nominations were announced, with acting veteran Robert Duvall featured prominently in the Best Supporting Actor category.  And so, if I’m going to be a credible judge as to who should and will win the golden statue in that category, I should really consider this film a priority.  And while the film is by no means extraordinary, the performances are what make it a worthwhile viewing, not the least of which is Duvall’s.

This film is one for anyone nostalgic for that time in the 90’s when John Grisham was churning out bestsellers and their adaptations were topping the box office.  This film is also for anyone who loves homecoming stories from about that same time period.  The story here is that Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a big shot defense attorney whose mother passes away, forcing him to return to his hometown for the funeral.  While there, he reunites with his brothers and his estranged father, Joseph, a local judge (Duvall).  The experience is an uncomfortable one, but they get through it with a minimum of drama.  However, just as Hank is about to leave, his father is charged with the murder of someone he had previously sent to prison, and Hank sticks around to act as his father’s attorney, despite Joseph’s protests and resistance.

All the appropriate beats of both the legal thriller and the homecoming genre are hit with almost mechanical efficiency.  Of course there are going to be damning facts revealed that make Joseph appear guilty.  Of course an old love interest is going to catch Hank’s eye and seduce him back to the small town life.  Of course the film will be populated by stock hicks that alternate between quaint and boorish.  The film goes through all these motions to the point of near artificiality; we’ve all seen these tropes before, and the film doesn’t do much to stir the pot.

However, the film shines with its cast.  Downey Jr. is his usual smug self, and yet manages to find some real emotion to push some tender moments with Duvall.  Playing Downey Jr.’s brothers are Vincent D’Onofrio, a performer I always enjoy seeing at work, and Jeremy Strong, who is the cast’s only weak link as a mentally disabled man played up for often offensive comic effect.  But, of course, the real star is Robert Duvall, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the Academy’s choice in nominating him, I do understand it.  Duvall has been around a while, and he knows how to sell a dramatic scene.  Whether it’s navigating the troublesome waters of emotional interactions with Downey Jr., displaying inner emotional turmoil through sheer physical movement, or simply collapsing under the pressure of his character’s physical decrepitude, Duvall really sells a character that seems to have been written with his talents in mind.

So, as is probably obvious, I don’t think Duvall will or should win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the problem is not so much with his ability to perform as it is with the material he had to work with.  The Judge is by no means a revolutionary film, and with a weaker cast it would have likely been a waste of time for everyone involved, including the audience.  However, this cast pulls the film from the dredges of ineptitude and elevates it into the land of recommendable mediocrity.  If legal thrillers are your thing, this isn’t a bad one in light of the dry market for them.

Have a favorite Robert Duvall film?  Share it in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies": Pure Blasphemous Fun

 Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Sound Editing

The inescapable question mark that has always loomed over The Battle of Five Armies was whether it would justify the splitting of Tolkien’s 300 page The Hobbit into three 150 minute films.  And the answer is, to no one’s real surprise, a resounding “No.”  At the end of the day, the extension of The Hobbit from two films into three was just as it appeared: a cash-motivated move to squeeze every last drop of potential still viable in this franchise.  As a result, we get the film that strays the most from Tolkien’s original work while paradoxically still trying to rely on fan-service to keep the diehards from crying too much foul.  And as a Tolkien fan, yeah, I’ll admit that I wish The Hobbit had been done better justice.  However, when I compare this film with its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, I find myself wondering if maybe the finale can at least justify the dragging middle chapter.

I actually quite liked An Unexpected Journey as an adaptation, and while I will acknowledge that Desolation of Smaug is at least a serviceable entry, it left me upset at the nonsensical and straight-up baffling changes being made to The Hobbit’s simple story for the sake of stretching it as much as possible.  However, where The Desolation of Smaug was more self-serious with its bastardization of Tolkien’s work, The Battle of Five Armies takes the gloves off and goes full bore into the territory of ridiculous spectacle.  Prior to Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson was known primarily for his low-budget action horror romps, similar to the likes of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films and no less in need of passion.  Five Armies feels like a return to that point of his career, except instead of buckets of blood, we have whatever CG monstrosities Jackson and crew can conjure with a seemingly limitless budget.

So even though the context for the ridiculous action setpieces feels a little silly and melodramatically contrived, the setpieces themselves are actually really fun to watch.  I think the prime demonstrative example comes in an early scene when Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman take on the nine Ringwraiths in hand-to-hand combat.  Sure, the scene is entirely unnecessary, and the melodramatic speechifying and blatant fan-service make its reason for existing about as transparent as glass, but I’d be lying if I didn’t enjoy watching it.  Jackson knows how to make overblown fight scenes interesting, something he respectably restrained himself from in making the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Here though, it’s clear that he’s just having fun, like a kid with his toys, and I can’t quite fault him for it.

Now, all the action spectacle does start to wear a little thin, given that the film is nearly two and a half hours long, with barely a scene to allow one to catch their breath.  But if I was going to watch one of The Hobbit films again, this would probably be the one: not because it has the best scripting, because let's face it, there are some holes dug by the middle film that are too deep to dig back out.  No, I'd watch it because the shaky plot is secondary to the ridiculous nature of what’s happening on-screen.  It may be blasphemy, but at least it’s a fun ride, and sometimes you just need a scene with a troll with maces for limbs.  All four of them.

Which was your favorite of The Hobbit trilogy?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, February 2, 2015

"Unbroken": No, Wait, Totally Broken

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

If people who know me know one thing about my film preferences, it’s that I absolutely adore the Coen Brothers.  As writers and directors, I think they are some of the most clever and most entertaining content producers working today.  So I was hyped to hear that they were writing another film called Unbroken, even though I was completely oblivious as to what the film was about.  And then I saw that it was co-written with two other guys.  And it was directed by the mostly untested Angelina Jolie.  And then the reviews came out with lukewarm reception at best.  So I filed the film away in my brain to watch at a later date, and lo and behold, the film still manages to nab some technical nominations for this year’s Academy Awards.  And though the cinematography is admittedly beautiful, my initial suspicions about the lack of true Coen influence proved to be mostly accurate.

Based on a true story, the film follows Louie Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete who joined the war effort in World War II.  His unit’s plane goes down in the Atlantic Ocean, and only he and two other crew members survive.  The first half of the film focuses on alternately establishing Zamperini’s Olympic career through flashback and showing the hardship of surviving on a raft for over a month.  In light of the Olympic events having next to no significance in the story aside from establishing his claim to fame amongst the other nameless troops, the flashbacks turn out to be pointless exercises in overly establishing Zamperini as a character, who’s only defining characteristic seems to be his willingness to endure great suffering.

This is only accentuated in the film’s latter half, when he is “rescued” from the raft by a Japanese ship, only to become a member of a POW camp.  The camp’s commanding officer uses Zamperini as an example, beating him senseless for purposely imagined offenses to demonstrate that no one in the camp is special.  The film attempts showing Zamperini as a passive resistor, but ultimately he just comes off as one who can take immense amounts of physical pain.  It’s reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ, where the focus is on the violence rather than the purpose for the violence or the protagonist’s journey to overcome it.

And yet, paradoxically, the film remains safely within the bounds of a PG-13 rating, not even allowing the audience the minimal catharsis of seeing the true extent of Zamperini’s injury and struggle.  Instead, director Angelina Jolie portrays her actors in the most pristine light possible, smudging dirt on them to give them the appearance of pain and suffering but never going so far as to show them emoting beyond simple solemnity.  The film feels like a child posing its toys for scenes that resemble other survivor stories, but lacks the depth of understanding to add meaning or character so as to make a unique and compelling tale.

So how do the Coen’s factor into this?  Well, other than the occasional bit of snappy dialogue, I have a genuinely hard time parsing what their contributions to this project were.  It’s so lacking in their usual creative spark and innovative drive that I’m surprised that they would attribute their real names to this instead of a pseudonym.  Though perhaps an interesting directorial experiment for Angelina Jolie, the film itself is ultimately a failure, a shallow demonstration of form over substance that tarnishes the reputation of two great film writers.  Give this one a pass.

Have a favorite Coen Brothers project?  How about an obscure one where they didn’t sit in the directors’ chairs?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.