Posted in Labels: stuff
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
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Posted by Dirk Belligerent at 11:59 PM
Posted in Labels: oscars
Monday, February 23, 2015
It's that time again for the collected tweets I fired off @DirkBelig during the Academy Awards.
- Lupita N'yongo's dress makes her look like the Mr. T of pearls. No necklace? Missed opportunity. /s
- Patricia Arquette sounds as stoned as Ethan Hawke did. She's gonna be great getting her Oscar. Get her a comb.
- So-so opening on
#Oscars2015. Weak jokes. OK song. J.K. Simmons wins the first foregone conclusion award.
- Boy, NPH is really foundering. The jokes and bits are really labored, requiring explanations and tap dancing.
- I liked this Maroon 5 song better when it was called "Puberty Love" in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. 22 mins in only 1 award.
- OK, the "armored ride when the revolution starts" joke was the first LOL of
#Oscars2015. More of this, please. #Oscars2015 is officially a boring trainwreck. Terrible pacing. Even "Everything Is Awesome" can't save this, that was this year's "Happy."
- Can you imagine if they didn't waste so much time on painful schtick so the winners could finish their speeches?
- Did Goop steam-clean her vajoo before putting on her
#Oscars2015 throwback Nolan Miller dress? Couldn't they get a bigger mic for McGraw?
- Jesus? #Oscars2015
- And the 1% of the 1% attending
#Oscars2015 go crazy for Patricia Arquette's braying for wage equality, something that's a liberal LIE!
- Remember, the
#Oscars2015 LOSERS are getting $167K in swag, which is 4X the ave family income. H'wood underpays actresses, so heal thyself.
#Oscars2015 just jumped the effing shark! Interstellar wins Best VFX over any of the competitors, esp. Dawn of Planet of Apes. BULLSH*T!
- Seriously, Interstellar was a TERRIBLE movie, but the VFX were barely competent. Transfomers wasn't nommed for this crap?
- I liked Big Hero 6, but The Lego Movie should've been in the mix.
- The Prez of the Academy is telling the Hollyweird stars to stop being
nasty to non-liberals, right? Free speech without fear, right?
- 2nd time using "Lift Us Up Where We Belong" as a walk-on cue. What's that about? Couldn't license more tunes?
- Cheevo shouldn't have won last year for Gravity because it was 90% VFX. They need to split Cinematography in two.
- Another year comes & goes w/o
#Oscars using Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" for the In Memorium reel. Instead J.Hud reminds us we diet fail
- Samsung ad reminds me I need to get back to watching Key & Peele. I'd totally watch Found!
- Naomi Watts wanted to wear a tube top or gray apron - decided to wear
both. Bernadette Cumberbund is serving drinks at Guv Ball.
- The two best things about Whiplash have won, so it can go away now.
- The way they're announcing
#Oscars2015 presenters as "Oscar nominee" because of PAST nominations is confusing. Terrance Howard WTF?
- And now the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" LIE of Ferguson is given the full
#Oscars2015 production number treatment. This spits on King's dream.
- Wouldn't it be great if after that tear-inducing performance that "Everything Is Awesome" won? There's be a riot in the
- Tonight we learned that John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn have been working under fake names.
#Oscars2015 Now they tell racialist lies. Fun.
- Hey, John Legend, ever think that the reason so many black men are in prisons is that they've committed crimes? How about you board them?
- There's no way this show is going to wrap up at 11:30 with all the lame
schtick and social justice BS punctuating the boredom of
- Wowsers! Lady Gaga just salvaged
#Oscars2015 with that KILLER Sound of Music medley. Julie Andrews is the cherry on the moment.
- I'd like to believe Birdman's Best Original Screenplay win bodes well for it's overall
#Oscars2015 chances. Boyhood MUST NOT win. Period.
- Imitation Game writer shows how to make an
#Oscars2015 speech about something personal not self-indulgent rage-mongering. Good job, sir.
- WTF is up with the massive turquoise necklaces like that mess yoking Cate Blanchett's tasteful black
- Eddie Redmayne wins for the imitation game; all he did was imitate a living person. Michael Keaton should've won
#Oscar for creating a role.
- As we pass the 3-1/2 hours mark for
#Oscars2015 we return to the locked case for a weak payoff of the gag. #SoNotWorthTheTimeWasted
- Whew! Birdman wins Best Picture. Too bad Keaton got robbed, but so glad Boyhood (aka 12 Years A Movie) didn't win a damn thing.
#Oscars2015 a terrible show. NPH was a disappointment. Too much libtard BS. Gaga ruled. Time to watch Walking Dead. Buh-bye #DropMic
Saturday, February 21, 2015
My original theatrical review is here and on second viewing, it still stands. It's just not as much fun and labors when it should flow.
As a Blu-ray, the transfer is good, considering the stylized look. On the audio front, the surround mix is hella booming and active; it will scare the pets if you turn it up to your usual volume setting.
The extras continue Robert Rodriguez's really disappointing sparsity of recent releases. No 10-Minute Film School, no Cooking School, not even a commentary track. Compared to the jam-packed Blu-ray for the original Sin City, it's a massive letdown with only one nifty feature present again: The "All-Green Version" in which the movie is run at high speed with none of the virtual sets in place, revealing it was pretty much shot with actors in an empty green warehouse. Otherwise, it's just a handful of brief EPK interviews with a few of the actors and a trailer for the original film. Weak.
Score: 7/10. Rent it.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Let's get something out of the way immediately: Richard Linklater's Boyhood (or 12 Year A Movie as I'm gonna call it) is an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Shot in drips and drabs over 12 years from May 2002 through August 2013 with the core cast of Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater (his daughter) and Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the titular boy, returning every year or two to shoot for a few days, it's release prompted jaw-dropped astonishment over how it was made. Linklater made eight other films during this stretch including School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Bernie and Hawke and Arquette had kept busy with their careers, so the fact no one seemed to know this project was ongoing takes the concept of flying under the radar to new lows.
That said, though, Boyhood is simply not a very good movie and I find the universal acclaim and potential it could win a Best Picture Oscar in a couple of day baffling, but then I realize that everyone is grading on a curve that resembles a small sphere because of the way the movie was made. Simply put, it's the trick that's impressing everyone. However, if you take away the making-of story - imagining it was shot in 45 consecutive days with three separate actors playing the kids and hair and makeup aging the parents - and just look at the story told and it's clear that Boyhood has very little under its shallow surface and people are mistaking the trick for substance.
It reminds me of the drooling acclaim for The Kids Are All Right - the 2010 film involving an older lesbian couple - which was praised for it's "bold and progressive portrayal of a modern family" but if you stripped out the gimmick and imagined the leads as a straight man-woman couple, it became clear that they were boring people with a boring story to tell. If your movie's story can't stand without a gimmick, it's not a good movie. Period.
Problem number one with Boyhood is that the way it was made required an ad hoc approach to the script - it didn't really have one as Linklater would make up the next sequence based on where Coltrane was at - and the limitation of his lead. For most of the movie, it could've been called Mommy Has Terrible Man-Picking Skills because the "plot" frequently involves her meeting some guy who seems nice, but in the next sequence after they've married is revealed to be a drunk a-hole, physically and mentally abusing, leading to the family moving and being alone until she rinses and repeats the cycle. Hawke's absent father figure drops in sporadically to show what arrested development looks like until he's tamed and driving a minivan with a new wife and baby.
Throughout a long 2-3/4 hours (which goes down easier if you break it over two nights viewing and frequent pauses to do something constructive with one's time) Mason simply is a prop being dragged from one lousy situation to another with no agency until he's a teenager and able to hang with classmates, smoking weed, getting drunk, and generally being a blank slate of unmotivated slackerdom until he's magically an artistic photographer, he goes to college and takes drugs with the cute friend of his new roommate's girlfriend. Deep. Not.
Here's where I think the people suckered by Boyhood are fooling themselves about beyond what the production backstory provides: Because we see Coltrane age from 7 to 19-years-old, they've convinced themselves that they're watching a documentary as if the cheesy and trite Lifetime abused divorcee stories aren't happening. But it's not a documentary, it's a fictional movie where the actions of its characters are dictated by Linklater. It's not "a meditation on aging and childhood" as I've seen some contend because despite its length there's remarkably little story or character development other than Arquette's mother who actually evolves as a person despite making terrible choices for reasons we can't fathom.
There's a scene near the end where someone she encouraged to go to school encounters her and thanks her for the advice because his life improved, but there is no equivalent from her own children. There's a line from Hawke about she did a good job raising Mason, but we've never seen any evidence for anything she (or he) contributed to their development because we dip in on these people with years of assumed events happening off-screen. It's like we get to watch them do the most boring things because the cameras weren't around for the interesting stuff. One scene has Hawke giving Mason Jr. a mix CD set of solo Beatles tunes; a scripted movie would either have the son react with appreciation because he loves the Beatles or resentment that the old man is shoving his old people music on him. But Mason just sort of takes it with the same disconnected manner he has for almost all situations whether it's a stepfather smashing a glass next to him or a boss yelling at him slacking or a teacher yelling at him for slacking or his parents chiding him for slacking. (I'm sensing a theme here.)
While Hawke and Arquette have snagged Supporting Oscar nods (she's favored to win; he doesn't have a prayer against J.K. Simmons and really doesn't belong here) there's been little acclaim for Coltrane's performance because he's inconsistent at times and frankly adrift without anything to play. There are so many scenes which could've given him something to do - push back at Mom's latest abuser; express some actual angst about his life; anything - but Linklater just has him stand there. I have no idea if the kid can act because most of the movie is him standing there while the grownups emote their drama around him.
A fundamental rule of screenwriting is that no scene should be retained that doesn't advance the story or characters, but Linklater spends so much time on scenes that do neither. If you trimmed the inconsequential material down I suspect the movie would've run 80-90 minutes and that's much too short for a Really Important Cinematic Statement. Bullsh*t! He was hamstrung by the production gimmick in that he was always stuck with whatever he did in prior years. Movies frequently go back and reshoot bits for clarity and amplification of details, but you can't do it when your lead doesn't look anything like he did five years ago. (The change in voice and physique is so dramatic in a couple of spots that it's as if the role had been recast.)
So we get multiple musical performances by Hawke. We get repeated digressions to rub Hawke and Linklater's unbridled hatred for George W. Bush as Hawke's first scenes include telling the kids (who are a decade away from voting) to vote for "anyone but Bush," a later scene having the kids putting out Obama signs (and stealing a McCain sign), and a veteran talking about serving in Iraq, summing up that the locals thought we were there for the oil. What does any of this have to do with the story of Mason? A: Nothing, but that's what Linklater felt was the Most Important Thing to shoot that year and now it plays like a diary of a Democrats political obsession jammed into a supposed tale of a boy's maturation. (It's like how Judd Apatow has made a habit of larding on unneeded reels of movie showcasing his wife and kids. Leslie Mann is wonderful, but it's not relevant to the plot, Judd.)
While it's appropriate to admire the tenacity needed to make Boyhood - kudos to IFC for basically handed Linklater $200K per year in the hopes of getting something a decade later (the cast couldn't even been signed to contracts because it would've been illegal) - the inconvenient truth is that the sum is barely the sum of a few of its parts. It's too long and too meaningless and ultimately unworthy of the praise it's garnered. People need to get a grip.
Score: 4/10. Skip it.
ICYMI, my girlfriend Hermione's review is here.
Saturday, February 14, 2015
I hated The Theory of Everything. Period. It perfectly encapsulates the raging mediocrity which garners awards love because of everything it is other than actually being good. Ooooh, it's historical, it has a crippled lead character, and it's English, oh gawd, it's English and we all know British movies are inherently superior to the crap redneck Muricans like. That's why we tell everyone we watch Downton Abbey when we're really watching The Walking Dead.
There is so little of substance to The Theory of Everything that I really fear for the mental well-being of those who say they enjoyed it. How little? Here is the entire plot: Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge who meets Judy (Felicity Jones), who falls so deeply in love for some reason that even his diagnosis with ALS with a two-year life expectancy (Hawking is still alive, 52 years later) doesn't scare her off. They marry and have children even has he degenerates into a gnarled mess. She meets a nice church choir director (Charlie Cox, the new Daredevil in the upcoming Netflix series) who volunteers to be an aide to the family. Hawking pretty much gives Judy permission to shag this bloke, but she doesn't until later when Hawking dumps her to roll off with his nurse. What a guy.
There's a little talk of science and whether his theories eliminate the possibility of a Creator, but rather than discuss the lack of science in a movie about a scientist, they should've discussed the lack of substance on the script's pages. We never know what Jane sees in Hawking and when you're dealing with such a seriously crippled person - a megawatt mind trapped in a dead bulb body - this lack of initial connection makes all that follows it unengaging. When she turns up pregnant with her 3rd child, it briefly hints that the choir guy is the baby daddy, but that's slapped down; apparently she was true to her husband until he dumped her, which makes her sticking around even more sad.
Redmayne is heavily favored to win Best Actor and frankly I'm not cool with that. I've long been annoyed by Oscar's habit lately of awarding portrayals of real people because it frequently comes down to hair, makeup and mimicry more than creating a character from the ether. All but one of this year's nominees are for real people and that's just pathetic. While Redmayne does a fine job contorting himself into a twisted slurring knot with the aid of makeup, doing most of the acting with his eyes, his pre-illness character was little more than a goofy grin and lopsided eyeglasses. Sorry, Eddie, but Daniel Day-Lewis did it better in My Left Foot. Jones is up for Best Actress and I have no idea why because all she does is be stoic.
The Theory of Everything also continues the maddening practice of not telling the audience what effing year it is as if we're supposed to know how time has progressed by how large the children are or something. (American Sniper did this as well, telling what tour it was, but not what year.) It starts in 1963 and that's the last we're told. A Brief History of Time came out in 1988 and he dumped Jane in 1995 after 30 years of putting up with his illness, but you'll never know from the movie or the happyish ending they give his life story.
At the end of two pointless hours, The Theory of Everything is really The Movie About Nothing.
Score: 3/10. Skip it.
Friday, February 13, 2015
Add on the disgraceful exploitation by race hustlers and Leftist politicians of the events in Ferguson, MO and NYC which led to riots in the streets and chants for the deaths of cops which ultimately led to two NYPD officers assassinated while sitting in their car and it wouldn't be hard to wonder what happened to Dr. King's dream.
Into this poisoned atmosphere comes Selma, the dramatization of King's protest which led to the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which received only two Oscar nominations (Best Picture and Best Song, which perpetuates the damnable lie about Ferguson which is "Hands up, don't shoot.") prompting yet another round of race-warrior exploitation as Al Sharpton demanded an audience with the Academy under threat of his leading a riot at the ceremony. In this environment where everyone seems to have an axe to grind what's been sadly overlooked is that Selma is actually a quite good movie that most people won't see because they resent being bullied by the Leftist race-warriors who will never in a million years get within sight of King's ideals. (I'm sure Dr. King is looking down at this nation and thinking, "I died for this? That President? That wicked preacher? All that violence and division?")
Rather than do the full-life biopic thing, Selma just concentrates on the few months in 1965 leading to the march on Selma, Alabama which led to the Voting Rights Act. King (a should've-been-nominated David Oyelowo) and his sidekicks are looking for specific town where the conditions would be right for the local racist idiots to take the bait and Selma's sheriff is just the guy for the job. Beatings and deaths ensue, but justice is attained.
What I found most interesting about Selma's portrayal of the events is something I haven't seen mentioned in all the hoohaw over the Oscars: That King was using the media to provoke outrage to the conditions blacks were enduring in the South. In one scene he asks the local organizers if the sheriff was like one in Albany (Georgia, I presume) who gently carried away protesters on stretchers for months or like Bull Connor, the Birmingham lawman who turned dogs and fire hoses on the protesters and made the media, the point being that King sought to get his followers abused on camera. When they make their first march on the courthouse, he and the leaders stand behind those getting their heads cracked, flinching, but never interceding.
It's also refreshing to see the others involved in the movement and their opinions about strategy given time. Rather than make King out to be Infallible Black Jesus to whom all looked for guidance, there are frequent doubts as to whether his strategy and tactics are appropriate, even from King himself as people start dying. His philandering is addressed in a scene where it's made to look as if LBJ ordered J. Edgar Hoover to send Coretta wiretaps of King's antics, which has been challenged for authenticity in the specifics, while the general fact of King's womanizing has been downplayed to protect the myth.
While there have been the usual criticisms of historical accuracy - most critically the idea that LBJ was dragging his feet when transcripts of phone calls showed he was very supportive of King's goals - the overall tone of Selma rings fairly true. The uproar over the "snubs" is more a matter of racial entitlement (X amount of nominees MUST be of color) and grievance-mongering than acceptance that not everyone gets nominated (HALF of the Best Pictures didn't have their directors nommed starting with Clint Eastwood) and the director, Ava DuVernay, simply didn't finish the film in time for screenings. No one is outraged over Angelina Jolie's genetically-engineered-for-Oscars Unbroken being passed over for all but a few technical categories.
Finally, what's with all the English actors? The top roles - Oyelowo, Carmen Ojogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. George Wallace), and Tom Wilkinson (LBJ) - are all Brits making this the most non-Southerners-playing-Southerners thing since True Blood.
If you've been avoiding Selma because you're tired of the race warrior agitation that we've been pounded with for over a year, you're denying yourself an above-average biopic which manages to avoid the cheap shots and leftist tilt (other than the terrible song) that has encrusted its awards prospects. Check it out.
Score: 8/10. Rent it.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Powered by a should-be-Oscar-winning performance by J.K. Simmons and some sharp editing, Whiplash manages to convince some viewers that there is a deep, meaningful movie about jazz drumming inside when it's actually little more than a wind-up monkey toy.
Miles Teller is a freshman at an elite New York music conservatory when he is plucked from his class to be part of Simmons' elite Studio Band. There he is subjected to the capricious tyranny of Simmons has he berates, humiliate and physically abuses the musicians. This is the first red flag Whiplash puts up: Why are these young people enduring this abuse? Does graduating from this band lead to fame and fortune? Has Simmons groomed a Buddy Rich, a Charlie Parker, a Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis? We never know, but apparently it's So Very Important that they be in this band that they'll practice until their hands bleed, auditioning to perform a song for five-hours until their sweaty, trembling wrecks.
Outside of the rehearsal room, Teller is a blank. While Simmons asks how he came to want to be a drummer considering his parents weren't musical, he doesn't really have an answer. We see that his relatives aren't impressed as they fawn over their jock and NHS kids, but when he dumps his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, soon to be TV's Supergirl, in a nothing role) because he feels she'll be a distraction to his musical pursuits, he doesn't come off as dedicated, but a dick.
The red flags eventually burst into flames in two passages which simply wouldn't happen in reality. The first is an insane series of events involving Teller trying to get to a competition that culminates in his bloody, battered butt being kicked out of the band. The other is the finale which simply couldn't happen because it involves totally career-ending unprofessional behavior from Simmons and the ridiculous premise that all will be resolved with a big wanky drum solo. (I wish I was kidding about this.)
There's a lot of pretension about how Whiplash examines whether genius needs nurturing by any means necessary and whether Simmons' dictatorial musical director is merely misguided in his best intentions, but in the words of Morrissey, he just hasn't earned it yet, baby. A pair of scenes are meant to humanize Simmons, but they're revealed to be wildly false. And that ending....whoo, yeah, no. It would've been more realistic if someone had shot the other than what happens.
So why the acclaim? Because Simmons absolutely KILLS IT as the tyrannical overlord. Simmons has been a long-respected character actor in various roles like his hilarious J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, but he just delivers the goods with such darkly humorous ferocity that we don't notice just how ludicrous the scenarios are. Teller is buttermilk, but fakes the drumming well enough, but this is Simmons show. The editing by Tom Cross is kinetic, but coherent. Great editing makes directors look good; half of Scorsese's accolades should be shared with Thelma Schoonmaker, for instance.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle supposedly based Whiplash on his experiences as a jazz drummer with a mean teacher, but like so many movies about music, he doesn't convey what drives musicians. For some weird reason, movies about musicians made by musicians never seem to capture the vibe of being a musician. Prey For Rock & Roll, the Gina Gershon-starring movie about an all-female band, was written by Cheri Lovedog (guessing not the name on her birth certificate) and it comes off as a Lifetime movie while Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do somehow NAILS the band dynamic despite, as far as I know, Hanks having no musical background.
Whiplash isn't a terrible movie like many of this year's wildly overrated Best Picture nominees are, but it's not that exceptional beyond the aforementioned performance and editing. Just like drumming in general, there's a not of banging going on here, but very rarely does it sing.
Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
The Imitation Game is this year's The King's Speech for the Oscars: A well-made, well-acted, veddy British historical drama which manages to make interesting people and events utterly forgettable.
Bernadette Cumberbund plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician hired by British Intelligence to crack the code of the Enigma machine, a Nazi device which the Brits managed to get a unit of, but can't use because the initial settings are changed daily. It doesn't matter if they somehow guess the proper code out of 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 possible settings combinations because the next day, the code would change.
Since it would be impossible for humans to run through all the combos, Turing proposes building a machine - which would become considered one of the first electronic computers - that would automate the process, but even that's not enough until a lucky epiphany gives them the key to cracking the code. Ironically, they can't use this knowledge to its fullest extent that they could because if the Germans noticed the Allies were suddenly aware of their doings, they'd change the method and the good guys would be set back to square one.
Bracketing the war effort scenes are sequences set after the war and from Turing's childhood concerning his homosexuality which was super not allowed back then with supposedly tragic consequences. (More below on that.) These scenes are tangential to the story and seemed tacked on to provide a soapbox for gay rights preaching when the way it effects the main war-time story is just as effective. (i.e. Turing discovers a Soviet spy, but doesn't turn him because the spy threatens to out him back.) The chaste "romance" between Turning and a brilliant female on the team, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn't get respect because woman is OK but typical sexism-of-the-era stuff which also fuels Marvel's Agent Carter.
Bandersnatch Cumquat is quite good as Turing, though the character is written as the usual Brilliant A-Hole With Zero People Skills Whom Others Grudgingly Accept Because Genius trope. At least we don't think of Sherlock or Khan 2.0 while watching him. Knightley is also OK, though I'm not sure if she's Oscar-grade. However, Charles Dance, as the boss of this operation, seems to have thought he was still playing Tywin Lannister.
As is the usual with Hollywood's depictions of real events, there's plenty of dispute as to the accuracy of the film but while the substitution of Knightley for the mortal-looking Joan Clarke isn't so bad, the claimed reason and timing for Turning's death really casts suspicion on the agenda of the filmmakers; you shouldn't imply as fact what's clearly not. Also, they never explain in the least how the massive code-breaking machine works - it's just this huge clacking contraption that makes magic.
Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.
Guest review by my life partner who goes by the pseudonym of "Hermione" on Culture Vultures.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater was one of the first batch of independent filmmakers to break out of the scene in the early Nineties with his Generation X movie Slacker, a plot-less film that followed individuals around for one day in Austin, Texas. This movie put him on the ones-to-watch map and from there he went on to make the '70s high-school dramedy Dazed & Confused - which featured a young Matthew McConaughey in his first movie role - and his trifecta series Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight.
Although he has received accolades, nominal film nominations, and minor awards throughout his film career, it is his 2014 magnum opus Boyhood that has attracted the most attention and garnered him major nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay and has appeared on more critics' annual "best-of" lists in 2014 than any other film released that year. But some critics disagree, including me.
Let me preface this review to say I've enjoyed his other work especially his Before series, I feel that this movie was more about the production than the plot. While I give kudos and agree that the actual making of the movie has never been done before, it is this story has been told over and over. Boyhood was shot over a 12 year period from 2002 to 2013 featuring the same cast. It follows the life of character Mason Evans Jr. from his youth until the age of eighteen and chronicles his fictional family's turmoils along the way. Unfortunately, this movie about his lifetime is more akin to a Lifetime movie.
Ellar Coltrane plays the lead role and is surrounded by a cast that includes Linklater's go-to actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette - both whom have acted in his other features - and his own daughter Lorelei Linklater. Although the coming of age movie is based on his character's childhood transition into adulthood, he acts like an observer to his own life rather than an active participant. He let's his life happen to him rather than actively live it.
On the other hand, the other actors give their characters a life of there own even though the story has been told many times over: single mom tries to provide for her family, goes back to school, marries and divorces two drunks, and is the nag while once-a-week "real" dad is the cool one.
Patricia Arquette's role as the mom stands out here and she received an Academy Award nomination for the role and a Golden Globe win for Best Actress. While her character never really grows throughout the twelve years and keeps repeating the same mistakes, at least she is making decisions be them good or bad and it is her physical transformation over the course of the film that captures the scope of the time.
Ethan Hawke plays Ethan Hawke, he is also nominated for his role as Mason Sr. but doesn't bring much to the film other than you understand why the fictional couple never married. He realizes he's not getting any younger and trades in his hot rod for a mini-van and attempts to live his life the way he should have in the first place and by then you just want to smack the snide grin off his face.
Versions of this story can be seen just about any night on any movie on the Lifetime channel. After two hours and forty minutes it seemed like Linklater was unsure on how to conclude the film. It ends abruptly on a psychedelic mushroom induced comment about seizing the moment or letting the moment seize you and living in the moment. All I could think of was how I wasted 165 of my moments watching this movie.
Score: 2/10. Skip it.
Friday, January 23, 2015
Jason Schwartzman made his acting debut - not just big-screen, but any screen as you can hear about in this interview or the Wikipedia entry on casting - as Max Fischer, a 15-year-old simultaneous over and underachiever at the private Rushmore Academy. He's the president or founder or captain of a slew of extracurricular activities and clubs while getting such poor marks he's on the verge of being tossed out of school. Why the poor grades? Because all the other stuff he's doing.
He's also smitten with a new teacher, a young widow played by Olivia Williams. She gets increasingly creeped out by Max's affections and shoos him along. When Max tries to impress her with the help of an alumni millionaire (Bill Murray) he gets booted from Rushmore and leaves Murray a clear shot at wooing the widow himself. When word gets back to Max, a nasty little Spy vs. Spy war of vandalism ensues.
While I don't have an axe to grind against Anderson's films, I've never quite seen what the film nerds worship so fervently about him. I liked The Royal Tennenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wanted to punch Moonrise Kingdom to death with its excessively cutesy smug whimsy. While Rushmore has a pile of bits that are individually good, the whole is much less than the sum of the bits. I'm writing this less than 24 hours after watching it and had to look up a synopsis to remind myself of several plot details.
It doesn't help that Williams, while adequately attractive, doesn't really offer much to support the thesis that kids and millionaires will do anything to be with her. This movie supposedly helped Bill Murray cross over into "serious acting" (read: Wes Anderson movies and Lost In Translation because he made a TON of crap, too, like TWO Garfield joints), but I didn't find much particularly interesting and too many Murrayisms. Schwartzman, though, is top notch and even if Anderson and Murray provided him with extensive coaching, he's quite up to the task of hauling Anderson's whimsical construct on his back.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.
Monday, January 19, 2015
I figured the reality of American Sniper's quality would lie somewhere between liberal critics bashing and conservative pundits overpraise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture meant little because the Oscars are such a mess most years that the Golden Globes were invented to build a credibility floor underneath them. What I found was my suspicions were correct.
For those totally unaware, American Sniper is an adaptation of the autobiography of Chris Kyle, America's most lethal sniper with over 160 credited kills in the Iraq War. It opens with Kyle on the verge of his first kill, a gut-wrenching decision involving a young child and a grenade that may be headed for a squad of Marines he's providing overwatch on. The insane rules of engagement our soldiers faced over there adds another layer of tension as his backup reminds him if he's wrong about his decision, he'll be sent to Leavenworth for murder. Nice work if you can get it.
The movie then jumps back for nearly a half-hour crash course on his life, beginning with his childhood protecting his little brother from bullies to his days as a rodeo rider through his decision to join the Navy SEALs after the twin African embassy bombings in the late Nineties. Along the way he meets, courts and marries Taya (Sienna Miller) with their honeymoon cut short as his squad is activated to go to Iraq after 9/11. Caught up for 25 minutes, we return to where we started and he makes the call.
What follows is a familiar structure of war movies lately. We see the soldier gradually worn down by the horrors of war and what waging it requires of those pulling the triggers alternating with Stateside sequences where they can't connect with their concerned loving families. While American Sniper doesn't make Kyle a thrill jockey unable to function at home like Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, there's no mistaking the toll PTSD is taking while his need to protect his men draws him back to Iraq.
While the first half moves swiftly and tautly, the second half dragged somewhat for me as the here-there-rinse-repeat pattern became evident. (FWIW, my girlfriend didn't think it lagged at all.) An overarching plot thread involving an insurgent sniper nicknamed "Mustafa" seems cribbed from dueling sniper movies like Enemy at the Gates. A soldier chattering about buying an engagement ring could be call-signed "Goose" (from Top Gun) or "Dead Meat" (Hot Shots). The climatic battle seems choppy and disjointed compared to the spare urban warfare sequences before it like when Kyle's unit encounters The Butcher (who lives up to his nickname) and Mustafa and the final scene before Kyle's death is as cliche as they come.
The bedrock that American Sniper is built upon is Bradley Cooper's transformative performance, packing on 45 pounds of muscle and a reportedly spot-on Texas accent. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who was the sensitive reporter on Alias and the bullying a-hole from Wedding Crashers. I've always thought that he's been sort of marginalized because he's just so damned handsome (People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 2011), but as he racks up his third straight Oscar nomination (following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) there's no doubt he's more than just blue eyes and a pretty face. (Dammit!) Though the script gives him little more to do than "be a resolute protector" and "be haunted by the killing" he makes the whole movie seem more significant. Miller is good in the thankless role of the Wife Tending The Home Fires. Eastwood's spare direction doesn't attempt to glamorize or demonize war, in fact forgoing a musical score when most directors would crank the Hans Zimmer Bombast Knob to 11.
While it's tempting to lash back at the haters of the Left by praising American Sniper as a instant classic, honesty precludes me from hopping on that bandwagon. While well-made, exceptionally-acted and a story deserving telling, I just couldn't escape the feeling that Standard Hollywood Structure was being applied to the true story. I haven't read the book or followed the biased media ankle-biting over it and the movie, so I don't know how accurate the story is, but movies must stand on their own merits and if this was exactly how it went down, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall should've found a way to make it seem less familiar and more evocative.
Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.
Monday, January 12, 2015
I made one of my usual futile attempts to read (I'm REALLY slow at slogging through fiction for some reason) this discount Hunger Games knock-off back in mid-2013 ahead of the film's release, but got bored of the simpy protagonist's hot cheeks (if you've read this thing, you know what I mean) and set it aside about 2/3rds read. Then the movie came and went and I figured I'd catch it on video, but after watching the Honest Movie Trailer and Cinema Sins beatings (posted below), I was even less enthused. However, it was the only thing my girlfriend wasn't adamantly opposed to this evening, so it was time for Discount Hunger Games, er, Divergent.
In a world (heh) called Chicago after an unexplained war which has left the city a ruined dystopia where society has been carved into five distinct factions/cliques: the Farmers (aka Amity), the snooty Brainiacs (Erudite), the Honest (Candor), the Amish Martyrs (Abnegation), and the Cool Kids Who Have All The Fun (Dauntless). Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley, whose big neck makes her head look too small) takes the test to determine which club she should join and is informed by the worried test giver/tattoo artist Maggie Q that she appears suited for three cliques and that makes her....wait for it...weird. Just kidding. She's DIVERGENT!!!! and she'd better keep it to herself or bad things will happen. (If you're thinking she'll start lipping off and attracting attention to her defiance, give yourself a nonfat soy mocha latte!)
She chooses the Kool Kidz (Dauntless) and heads off to their Honeycomb Hideout to discover it's not all parkour and cool leather clothes, but brutal (and occasionally deadly) training to avoid being cut and ending up on the streets. Of course there's a cute trainer who digs Tris' fat neck and blah-blah-woof-woof fight the power, yawn. People die, society is cast into turmoil and we're not supposed to wonder why the El train runs into the Cursed Earth where the sequels lie. Just shut up and marvel at the love, kids!
Since Divergent is a direct ripoff to The Hunger Games series, it's not unfair to judge it against that juggernaut. Hmmmm, it fails across the board starting with the premise that the solution to war is to cram people into rigid behavioral castes and then stomp out any free thinkers. The Districts of The Hunger Games were geographic. (Both of the spoof videos also riff on the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter and the One with the Sorting Hat.) From then it follows a rote, checklist path of bringing the book to life for the illiterate or those lacking imagination.
Director Neil Burger helmed my favorite movie of 2011, Limitless, and previously did The Illusionist which was pretty good, but without an imaginative script, there's little for him to do here. The best aspect of Divergent is the seamless VFX to create the post-Apocalyptic Chicago, which presumably wasn't rebuilt after the Decepticons attacked in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The performances are functional, but unremarkable. When the usually meat-headed Jai Courtney doesn't suck, that sets the level. Kate Winslet is playing the Donald Sutherland part, but doesn't really spark to the trashy slumming she's doing; she doesn't twirl her mustache enough. And as for Woodley, she ain't no J.Law in any dimension. I hear she's popular with the tween girls for her TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I don't see anything that leads me to believe she'll transcend her roots as Claire Danes did going from a dewy ingenue in My So-Called Life to the unraveling CIA agent in Homeland.
Score: 3/10. Skip it and watch Catching Fire again.
Friday, January 9, 2015
Lake Bell was a virtual unknown to me beyond her bodypainted nude New York magazine cover and some scene from the HBO series How To Make It In America where she appeared topless, so I was intrigued by In A World... which was written and directed by her to star in. Savvy actors have a long history of generating their own projects to showcase their talents - Stallone with Rocky; Damon and Affleck with Good Will Hunting; Nia Vardolos with My Big Fat Greek Wedding; lying child molester Lena Dunham with Tiny Furniture and Girls - but Bell's sweet satirical comedy is an eye-opener.
Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Bell plays a vocal coach and voice artist who's trying to break into the Big Boys Club of movie trailer work. She's been living with her father, a legend in the voiceover biz, who doesn't think much of his daughter's ambitions and tosses her out so he can move in his much younger girlfriend. Bell crashes on the couch of her sister, a concierge of a fancy hotel. inadvertently triggering problems in her marriage.
Taken individually, the pieces of In A World... are familiar and perhaps a bit trite, but Bell has wrapped them in some genuinely sharp and unexpected observations which really elevate the material. It would've been easy to just make it the story of a plucky girl fighting the patriarchy, but there are other angles examined, especially at the end. I don't mean to make it seem overly deep, but where it could've taken shortcuts, it actually attacks things head on.
I started watching Childrens Hospital after this and I see that half of that show's cast (which Bell was a lead player) shows up here and they're all good. Bell also takes a very self-deprecating position on her looks (she dresses like a slob and has one guy comment on how "rough" her face is when she's kind of a cross between Mariel Hemingway and Alexandra Daddario) and plays her role as a bit of a goofy mess. Geena Davis and Cameron Diaz have cool cameos as well as Eva Longoria, who's featured in a trailer.
Based on In A World..., I think the world could use some more Lake Bell-made movies in it.
Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Amazon Prime shows it in the proper aspect ratio; Netflix has it cropped down.)
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Tom Clancy's storied protagonist Jack Ryan has had quite the checkered cinematic career as Alec Baldwin, who fronted The Hunt For Red October, was replaced with Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger before getting replaced by Ben Affleck for the political correctness-damaged Sum of All Fears which replaced the novel's Islamist bad guys for generic Euro-trash villains because political correctness. After a dozen years on the bench, Hollywood attempted to reboot the franchise with Chris Pine (Star Trek's Captain Kirk) in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and judging from the results, it may take another dozen years for anyone to care if they try again.
The reboot retcons Ryan's origin story by beginning with him as a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford when 9/11 happens. Like many patriots, he enlists in the War on Terror and gets seriously injured in Afghanistan when his chopper is shot down. While undergoing arduous rehab Stateside, he meets a pretty doctor (a worryingly thin Kiera Knightley) and is tapped by a CIA agent (Kevin Costner) to go back and finish his doctorate and work on Wall Street to sniff out the funding for terrorists.
While there he discerns irregularities in accounts between his firm and their Russian counterparts, so he's dispatched to Moscow to meet with in-no-way-totes-the-bad-guy Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) and hijinks ensue as Ryan tries to unravel a plot to crash the world's economy by shorting the dollar after a terror attack.
While there are a few moments of tricksy spycraft shenanigans, overall Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit plays as a 2nd-string generic spy thriller with little of the intricate intrigue that marks Clancy's novels. It's not egregiously bad, just dull and not engaging. Pine is a charming fellow, but he's doing too much Kirk schtick here and it doesn't fit.
Score: 4/10. Skip it.
One note about where to watch it on streaming: For some reason Netflix has a cropped 1.78:1 version like you'd see on HBO instead of the OAR of 2.40:1. Fortunately, if you have Amazon Prime, they have the correct version.
Thursday, January 1, 2015
The hook of The Skeleton Twins is to see SNL funny folks Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in serious roles, but while they do well in their performances, they are undercut by a thin script without full confidence in its story.
Hader is Milo, a gay man in LA who, after a breakup, attempts suicide by cutting his wrists. Wiig is Maggie, who lives across the country and was contemplating taking a handful of pills when the call comes in about Milo. She decides to go get her bro and bring him back home to stay with her and her husband, Luke Wilson in the role Bill Pullman used to play in the Nineties as the decent guy who gets crapped on by an ungrateful significant other.
Rapidly the twins get into bad situations due to their depressed natures. Milo tries to reconnect with a former high school teacher (Ty Burrell) whom he had a relationship with when he was 15. Maggie starts shagging her hunky scuba instructor. There's a visit from their terrible New Agey mother and lots of catching up on the past decade they've spent apart.
While the performances are good - Hader is more a surprise than Wiig, who's done good film work before - the story is annoying because self-defeating people are bad enough when we understand their motivations, but when they just seem to be making bad choices for the purpose of the story, bah. But the worst is when it seems like they realized people really want to see madcap antics from the funny people so they have a painfully contrived scene where they lipsync Starship's kitschy "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Weak.
Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.
We had an international incident over this? Really? Such silly times we live in.
Unless you're more detached from reality than the average bear, you've heard about the massive leak of emails from Sony Pictures in which trash talking emails, personal information, unreleased movies, etc. have been flowing onto the Internet. The alleged cause for all these antics is North Korean hackers enraged over The Interview, the latest bromedy from Seth Rogen and James Franco which is about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Apparently it's rude to make light of killing real-world foreign leaders or something. (If you're thinking about that fake documentary and other works fantasizing about the assassination of George W. Bush during his time in office not getting any backlash, join the club.)
As the movie was pulled from release, then partially put into theaters, then streamed online to allow everyone a crack at pirating it, it was sometimes touted as one's patriotic duty to see this movie, because screw terrorism. Or something. Again, silly times. Of course, the usual suspects made the usual noises about how terrible it was because of the patriotic marketing angle - leave it to the liberal media to hop onto anything they can to stroke their oikophobia - but all the surrounding noise just elevated/denigrated the movie itself and whatever merits it had.
Franco is Dave Skylark, the host of Skylark Tonight, a frothy chat show peddling celebrity news like Rob Lowe being bald (another great self-deprecating cameo in line with his DirecTV adverts) and Eminem admitting he's gay, the best bit in the movie. (Pay attention to the Chyron's with things like, "CLEANING OUT HIS CLOSET; FINDING HIMSELF?") After his producer (Rogen) runs into an old college classmate who's a producer for 60 Minutes and disses their trivial production, Rogen seeks and finds an opportunity. It seems Kim (Randall Park) is a fan of Skylark's, so he reaches out to get an interview with the reclusive dictator which is accepted.
With a trip to North Korea booked, CIA operative Lizzy Caplan approaches them asking that they "take out" Kim because they'll have a rare opportunity to knock him off. They're not to psyched on the idea - particularly the part about how they'd escape a country whose leader they'd just murdered - but agree to take on the task. Of course everything goes wrong because they're basically gringo Cheech & Chong and not particularly brilliant. Complicating matters is that Skylark is taken in by the facade of happy, well-fed people in front of well-stocked stores and a day spent bro-ing out with Kim makes him believe that killing him would be a mistake because he's just a nice guy with bad PR problems.
Because of all the geo-political tensions surrounding the release, The Interview has been scrutinized waaaaaaaaaaaaay more than it merits. At its core, it's another collaboration with Evan Goldberg with whom Rogen co-directed This Is The End (they also wrote Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Watch and The Green Hornet) and how you like those movies is a good indicator of how you'll appreciate (or not) The Interview. It is lowbrow dudebro humor with plenty of gay jokes, drug humor, slapsticky ultra-violence - you know, all the things you look for in a Jane Austen adaptation. (Wait, what?)
One of the tidbits from the leaked Sony emails were complaints about Franco's performance and it shows that some Hollyweird studio weasels may have a clue because he's pretty awful. However, it's almost funnier because it's bad, but maybe I was just feeling charitable for the holidays. He's pretty bad. Rogen is Rogen; nuff said. Randall Park's Kim is interesting and Diana Bang (not a porn actress!) as the North Korean minder is amusing.
As I write this review a few weeks later, it's hard to remember what the big deal was about The Interview. It's just a dumb movie that caught some unneeded heat.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are Nick and Amy Dunne. They met in New York City where they were magazine writers, though she also was the basis for her parents' passive-aggressive series of children's books called Amazing Amy. They met cute, fell in love, got married, lost their jobs in the recession and eventually moved back to his Missouri hometown to care for Nick's dying mother. After her passing, they're stuck in a McMansion with no spark in their marriage. Nick runs a bar - meta-named The Bar - with his twin sister Go (short for Margo, played tartly by Carrie Coon) while Amy, who is so NYC that she probably thinks of anything west of the Hudson as "Indian country", is clearly bored to death.
On the day of their 5th anniversary, Nick returns from his usual morning check-in with Go at The Bar to find the front door open, signs of a struggle and a smashed glass coffee table and Amy gone. He calls the cops and as time goes on he finds himself to be the prime suspect because the husband always does it, right? He stumbles into a couple of situations which make him look like a bounder and this doesn't even count the ex-student mistress ("Blurred Lines" video hottie/Victoria's Secret model Emily Ratajkowski) no one initially knows about. Eventually, despite the lack of a body, he is charged with Amy's murder. Except...
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
She ain't exactly dead. But you probably suspected that, didn't you? (We did, voicing our suspicion about 30 seconds before it's revealed.)
*** END SPOILER ***
Since the back half of the movie is off-limits for recapping, it's to play What Works/What Doesn't. Rosamund Pike got an Oscar nomination for her performance (I'm writing this several weeks after viewing) and I don't think it's that exceptional. Sharon Stone was better in a similar Hitchcockian murder blonde role (hint, hint) and I didn't get much of an Oscar-worthy vibe off her.
Affleck is OK, but I kept thinking about what makes his performance work is what made the normally laughable Denise Richards so effective in Wild Things (beyond her big champagne-drenched boobs) - she was playing a dumb girl who thought she was smart and thus it seemed spot on, though more by fortunate accident than deliberate portrayal. Affleck gets bad-rapped for his acting a bit much (he was quite good as the doomed Superman George Reeves in the middling Hollywoodland), but I never felt he was being deliberate as Nick.
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid with, as you may've heard, Tyler Perry(?!?!?) totally killing it as a superstar defense attorney hired to flack for Nick. Seriously, he rules and it's time for him to hang up his Madea dress. Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris as a pair of Amy's exes, Kim Dickens as the lead detective, Patrick Fugit (the kid from Almost Famous all growed up!) as her "he's guilty" sidekick and Missy Pyle as Nancy Grace in all but name round out the cast.
I wasn't crazy about Fincher's too-dim compositions which leave faces in near shadow as they're primarily backlit and I don't think Flynn's script (adapting her own novel, which I started, but didn't get far into) nails the media circus and marital commentary angles they seemed to be going for. There are several big logic gaps and a scene towards the end begs us to scream, "Why haven't they bathed all the blood off?!?!?" The Honest Movie Trailer (posted below) describes it as a big Lifetime movie, but Fincher never gets the pot boiling enough. Trashy material needs some tawdry heat and Gone Girl never escapes the chilly waters of the Mississippi which flows by.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.
If you've seen the movie (or don't care about tons of spoilers), watch this; it's a hoot:
Friday, December 26, 2014
When The Lego Movie rolled around a year ago, I dismissed it as just a cheap toy commercial for the kiddies. Then I started seeing reviews that said, no, it's not that but rather a sharp intelligent animated movie. My Culture Vultures co-host, Otto the Autopilot, said it was surprisingly good, so when it was a Black Friday deal for $4 on Blu-ray(!!) I figured I'd take a peek at what's happening in the brick yard. It turns out, the hype was right.
Chris Pratt voices Emmet Brickowski, an average Joe with no real creative impulses who accidentally becomes "The Special" by discovering the Piece of Resistance which can thwart the evil Lord Business' (Will Ferrell) scheme to use a super weapon called the "Kragle" (the reveal of what this is is a hoot) to freeze Legoland in place forever. Along with Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who Emmet is smitten by only to learn she's dating Batman (Will Arnett), and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), they cross the various Lego realms on their quest with Emmet naturally screwing things up most of the way.
What makes The Lego Movie click is the frequently brainy and meta visual and verbal gags it slings. Executed with computer animation that deliberately mimics the limitations of the figures (if they had endless time, money and manpower, it could've been stop-motion animated) and little details like the fingerprints on the figures (hint, hint), it's a visual joy. But it's the occasionally randomish bits and cameos that blast buy (which I shant spoil lest I deprive you of the fun) that keep things kicking. Pay attention to the credits to see who Superman and Green Lantern are. Heh.
There's a reveal foreshadowed which I didn't expect to manifest and take so much time at the end, but it made me think of Toy Story 3 and the irony of an elaborately-made computer-animated movie which ultimately argues that the most fun you can have is to take physical toys - not video simulacrums - and imagine your own adventures with them beyond what the instructions direct.
What's most shocking about The Lego Movie is how it was totally snubbed for the Best Animated Feature category* despite being a smash hit and the relentless earworm anthem, "Everything Is Awesome," garnering a Best Song nom. Come on, Oscar!
The Blu-ray looks and sounds fine and the extras delve somewhat into the production aspects showing the filmmakers visiting Lego headquarters in Denmark and how every piece in the movie is based on a real-world equivalent; you could pretty much build anything that's shown onscreen.
Score: 8/10. Rent it.
* Review written 1/20/2015, after the Oscar nominations have been announced.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Back when Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or as I called it, Rise o' da World o' da Monkees) came out in 2011, I thought it was a better-than-expected reboot of the franchise powered by the performance captured performances of Andy Serkis and company driving Weta's realistic CGI monkeys which managed to gloss over the somewhat trite story and poor human casting. (Whomever thought James Franco would make a plausible scientist needs to go sit on the Group W bench with the person who though Liv Tyler would be a plausible doctor in The Incredible Hulk.)
Flaws aside, it made money so Hollywood did what Hollywood does when it sees the opportunity to milk a cash cow, it unsurprisingly made a sequel, San Francisco Monkey Planet, er, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the real surprise is how the story makes as big a leap forward as the visual effects do. In a year where Transformers: Marky Mark Goes To China Edition managed to dumb-down the already brain dead fighting robot series, it was refreshing to see what could easily have been a one-sided "Apes GOOD! Humans BAD!" movie attempt complexity and subtlety while still delivering the money shot of a monkey on horseback dual-wielding machine guns.
It's 10 years after the events of Rise and as the pre-title montage explains, the human race has pretty much been killed off by the "simian flu" - aka the chemical that gave Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his pals advanced intelligence. The apes are living in the forests north of San Francisco and have built a community where they're teaching language and minding their own business. Of course, a damn dirty human (Kirk Acevedo) manages to screw things up when he encounters a couple of young chimps and shoots and wounds one of them.
Seems the humans, led by Jason Clark (the interrogator from Zero Dark Thirty, soon to be the next John Connor in Terminator Genisys), were in the neighborhood looking to start up a hydroelectric dam to get power flowing back the the human survivors encamped in the city. They've been using generators to keep the lights on, but fuel is running out and within a couple of weeks, they'll literally be back in the dark ages. Caesar orders the humans out of his woods, never to return, and then scram. Concerned that they may not take the hint, he saddles up the horses and leads a large group down into the city to make it clear to Clark that he means business and to stay away or it could lead to war.
The community's leader (Gary Oldman) is worried about the electricity running out and is prepared to arm up and go kill the apes, but allows Clark a few days to go back up and see if he can reason with Caesar to allow them to get the dam running, which he reluctantly agrees to. The humans and apes appear able to coexist, but naturally stupid human manages to botch things up badly and it all goes to hell.
What is unexpected, though, is that while there is some provocative action on the human side, there is some heavy palace intrigue happening in Apeville as Caesar's trusted lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell, who is the new Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four reboot), who was abused by medical testing in the lab, feels Caesar is too sympathetic to the humans because he was raised by one and wants to take a more aggressive tack with dealing with the human threat. (Read: Kill 'em all.) More monkeyshines ensue.
What Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does that's so unexpected is to provide shaded motivations for both sides of the man-ape divide. While there are a few obvious tropey moments of human dumbassery (mostly Acevedo's one-note jerk), it doesn't go for the lazy, cheap Dances With Wolves stance that white people, er, humans ruin everything in nature. Here, the apes can be just as intolerant a-holes as the humans typically are. Both sides just want to survive and Dawn is sympathetic to the humans' needs in a way Avatar couldn't be bothered to. Just as Magneto wasn't totally unjustified in his perspective, Koba's malice is understandable even as his methods cross the line.
While Dawn's human cast and story is superior to Rise's thin tale and caricatures, the real stars again are Serkis and Weta's stunningly realized apes. It's hard to believe the same ones and zeroes that made the hard, flat polygonal images of Tron were used to make a living, breathing army of monkeys who are rained on, muddy, bloody, scarred and weathered. Every so often a shot will look a little shiny, but 99% of the time you won't believe you're looking at a totally fake animal. The expressiveness of the performance capture is translated seamlessly; you feel what they feel.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) takes over the director's chair and delivers the goods with clearly shot action sequences and good character beats. The production design is also a standout as the overgrown post-human world is richly rendered. Of course, Weta delivers the goods on the VFX side.
Technically, the Blu-ray looks wonderful with a rich, colorful, clear image and good sound reproduction. On the extras side, I haven't listened to the commentary track from Reeves, but the featurettes are pretty good with a good look at the technical details and challenges of obtaining performance capture in the woods of Vancouver in the rain with 3D cameras to turning a parking lot into the apes home and downtown New Orleans into San Francisco. (It could've been nerdier, but I'm always wanting more techy stuff.)
One quibble: Shouldn't the first movie have been Dawn with the second being Rise? Just makes more sense that way, amirite?
Score: 9/10. Buy it.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Missing here are the other memorable parts: Barbara Crampton's boobs, which actually only present their joy globeness twice, but hey when you're 18 years old when the movie came out, boobs.
It's schlocky and cheesy and more Evil Dead II than SCARY scary, but it's some fun in the good parts (makeup effects, boobs; they spend the money properly) which almost makes up for the long patches of dull bad acting.
Fun Fact: Creepy Jeffrey Combs would go on to play nine(!) different characters on various Star Trek series (most notably the Andorian Commander Shran on Enterprise).
Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
This documentary provides a tidy overview of the man and he's career, though it makes the usual documentary stumbles like forgetting to tell us when he was born (1922) despite explaining his real name was Stanley Martin Lieber and he converted his first name into its popularly-known form because he thought he'd only be writing funny books for a while before becoming a Serious Writer.
In addition to the copious amounts of archival footage, photos and testimonials, a good bit of time is spent on his personal life with his sassy English wife of 68 years (that's years married, not old!) and their only surviving daughter. She's a pip.
While hardcore comic nerds may know all this stuff already or quibble about Jack Kirby deserving more attention - I think he's properly represented in this context - With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story is a breezy profile of one of the most prolific and influential voices in 20th Century American (and global) culture. Nuff said!
Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Viewed on Netflix)
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Knoxville, buried under Oscar-nominated makeup is Irving Zisman, a Nebraska widower whose daughter is going to jail leaving her son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) alone. The boy's lowlife father in North Carolina agrees to take the kid (for the welfare money he'd get), so it's road trip time as the dirty old man and freakishly precocious kid find an escalating series of highjinks along the way.
Using a series of hidden camera bits and some stuff that's probably more scripted than they'd care to admit, the movie meanders from bit to bit with generally humorous to downright hilarious and occasionally terrifying effect. (Set pieces in a black strip club on ladies night and in a bar full of bikers veer close to "someone's gonna get killed here before anyone can explain it's a movie" terrain.)
Even though much of it is supposed to be "shocking" low-brow gross-out humor, the presence of Nicoll acts as a brake on what were probably even worse impulses the crew may've had, which may make it a tad safe (as far as a movie with prosthetic testicles danging down a foot can be safe) but still satisfies. The ace in the hole is Nicoll who has some man-on-the-street interactions where even if he was being fed lines via earwig, he still sells the bits hard. (I wondered if he was someone like Andy Milkonis who looked 14, but was 29; no the kid's actually that young.)
Someone "bad" has become a all-purpose prefix that indicates misbehaving main characters beginning with Bad Santa leading to Bad Teacher and some Bad Judge TV that's on know from what I've heard, so I suppose Bad Grandpa falls in line. But overall, it's not bad at all.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
About 7 minutes into co-writer/director Noah Baumbach's (The Squid and the Whale; co-writer of a couple Wes Anderson flicks) Frances Ha, I turned to my girlfriend and said, "This is like the pilot for the new HBO series, Girl," referencing the ridiculous Lena Dunham's oddly watchable series Girls, which is about a quartet of self-absorbed millennial ninnies living in Brooklyn. Unlike that show's multiple story lines, Frances Ha (the name is explained in the final shot of the movie) follows co-writer Greta Gerwig's titular character, a 27-year-old apprentice dancer, as she meanders through life after her bestie decides to move in with her boyfriend, leaving Frances struggling to make ends meet.
With addresses flashed onscreen as title cards, she bounces from place to place, having arch discount Woody Allen-esque conversations about nothing, managing to offend many people and basically being an unrealistic twit lacking self-knowledge until the end when she suddenly seems to grow up a bit, though after 80 minutes of self-defeating randomness - she takes a weekend trip to Paris on a credit card she got in the mail and does nothing much but accumulate debt - for her to suddenly clue up felt like a reel of transition got cut.
Shot in Manhattan-wannabe black & white, it's not that Frances Ha is a terrible film as much as a loose sequence of vignettes about a not-particularly-compelling protagonist as she copes with impulse control lack. It's unavoidable to compare to Girls because as lame as the the girls are, Dunham somehow manages to make some cutting observations about her characters - especially hers, who is the most reprehensible of them all - though I'm not sure if that's intentional or if she somehow thinks she's writing them as "deep" and it comes off as "look how vacuous they are." I never really cared about Frances' fate because she didn't seem to have the self-knowledge to worry either. Maybe that was the point, but why should anyone spend time with aimless people for entertainment. This smacks of NYC self-importance. No one cares west of the Hudson, folks.
Miscellaneous observations: The iconic pose on the poster above? Never happens in the movie. The uncharacteristically awful cover on the Criterion release (linked below) is a frame grab from the film, but is pretty bad. Baumbach apparently left his wife, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, for Gerwig. Not trading up, buddy. Her plane Jane bestie is played by Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter, who was the doomed hooker Katja in Low Winter Sun and looked nothing like her here.
Score: 4/10. Skip it.