Sunday, March 29, 2015

Life Itself: It's Just Good

I think everyone can agree that Life Itself is a damn fine film.
Life Itself is the 2014 Roger Ebert documentary that, so aptly named, covers his entire life and miraculously gets you in and out in two hours. That's a lot of information to cover in such a short time... and to cover so damn well. If I'm being honest, I was pretty much a blank slate when it came to the man's life before this film. Sure I knew about his show and had some small awareness of his later life troubles and blog. But this film really took me on a journey... It opened my eyes to this incredible human being that I unfortunately didn't give enough of my attention to while he was still alive.
It's a strange feeling to go through such an incredible journey with a person that you thought you knew and come out with a completely different perspective on them in the end. And I'm just thankful that Steve James managed to finish this project.
Life Itself is streaming on Netflix right now, so I suggest you catch it if you haven't already.

Let's Talk About Get On Up

I had always intended to catch Get On Up, the 2014 James Brown docudrama, in its first weeks of release. But as I worked through the opening weekend and heard little worth repeating on the film, I pretty much just let it go. Was this the wrong thing to do? As I continue down this rabbit hole of film criticism that has become such a demonstrative piece of my life, I've begun an inner struggle between the merits of spending literally all of my time at the movies in an impossible attempt to catch everything, or allowing myself to not go to films that seem to be missing some aspect that would make me truly love them.
Get On Up, for the record, is very good and vastly underrated. It tells the James Brown story (it's about damn time) in a more kaleidoscopic manner than I am used to. The events of Brown's life swirl around and try to attain clarity while being represented hand in hand with other decades. What Brown represents and what he learns are not linear ideas... and the film picks up on this and allows the heavy questions to resonate across his life in a fashion I had not witnessed before.
Essentially what I'm trying to say is, Tate Taylor directed a very interesting film that actually affected me. Chadwick Boseman and Nelson Ellis (his leads) gave excellent performances that both encapsulated an understanding of the people they played and the time which they so bombastically inhabited. These guys managed to make a film of quality, and while certain aspects of James Brown's life may draw snickers from many people, there is still a clear message that this is in fact just a man, like any other man... he makes mistakes from day one. He is imperfect. But for a brief time on this earth, he did manage to make something fresh and new... something that no one ever expected to hear... something beautiful.
Now I sit here wishing I had caught this flick a long time ago, because I could have fought for it in conversations. I don't know what the naysayers of Get On Up saw, but it clearly was not the same film I watched that unequivocally kept my interest from start to finish and consistently had me thinking, "that was perfectly done" or "that was impeccably acted." For any negative review or lack of award consideration that may have kept you away from this film, I'm here to tell you, I really liked Get On Up.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It Follows: Looking Forward

Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell's second feature has been receiving a great deal of positivity from critics, which is surprising given the nature of the film and particularly its genre: Horror. However, in the limited time It Follows has been in theaters, it has failed to make much of a mark on the box office. This may change in the coming weeks as a more intense ad campaign has been rolled out given the films critical success. But let's analyze what the hell is going on with this thing.
It Follows has a great jumping off concept. This is that dark childhood nightmare that there is some nameless thing that will always be walking towards you... personified in a feature film. Yet for all of Mitchell's attempts to give credence to the lack of knowledge we would have about such a being, he still chooses to play with those old tropes that the Horror genre has frequently tripped on over the course of its existence; running up the stairs instead of out the door, running in heels rather than kicking them off, a big final battle in an indoor pool... Yet these are part of the film's charm and don't directly take away from its overall quality or enjoyment.
I think, for me, It Follows' weakness lies in the creature itself (an old argument, but still quite valid). Such a creature could or should eventually show up in whatever its true form is. This film is a monster movie after all. One would be hard pressed not to desire some monster to appear by story's end. The transformative human nature of the creature is certainly fun, but it is not enough and likely will not get the job done for mainstream audiences...
Hence the lack of box office draw thus far. The trailers for this thing have been weak at best, and I can see an obvious lack of interest from mainstream America given that there is no proof or even real promise of any kind of creature. Don't get me wrong, mainstream America is not really the goal for a quality Horror flick, and this film likely did not hope for such an elaborate reception. This is simply food for thought.
More importantly, I think, is that the ads need to gather up an element of the film's actual nature... which in a rather critical sense is that of a very dry Dark Comedy. It Follows embraces certain cliches in the hope that they will bring us back to the days of 70s Horror and the like... the heyday of Horror as an art from. It's a cool concept and actually very well done. The pacing is on point (something that is frequently ignored in Hollywood) and the film doesn't simply live on jump moments as many of its like have failingly done over the last twenty years.
It Follows is surprisingly fun. It's not perfect, but it's the kind of stone in a river that perhaps can change the water's trajectory given enough time. If the studio finds a way to market this thing and it begins to pick up sales at the box office, we may be headed towards more intellectual Horror films in the future.

The Wrecking Crew Seriously Lacks Focus

The more I see these Kickstarter funded documentaries the more I begin to realize what it takes to get enough people interested in helping to fund a smaller project like this... You need a huge reaching idea. Unfortunately, if you're crowdfunding such a big idea, you most likely will not actually receive enough money to give said subject a truly thorough treatment. The subject is too big.
The Wrecking Crew is just the most recent crowdfunded documentary to come out. We'll see many more like this since crowdfunding isn't going anywhere. Though hopefully people start to recognize what ideas actually have clarity and which are farther removed from a central focal point. But in theory Denny Tedesco made this flick sound like it did have that center... until you learn the reality of what "The Wrecking Crew" was. Rather than a small group of 5 to 10 people, it's something like 30 to 40 different musicians that were brought in to do all of the studio recordings for over a decade's worth of rock and roll (The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Bing Crosby, The Mamas and The Papas, Sonny and Cher, The Monkees). Essentially, these guys were playing the band's parts... inventing the bands parts... and playing them better than the band themselves.
If there were an actual story at the heart of this thing, it could be very powerful. But the film succumbs to its oversized, globular, ever-changing center. This was not one band doing all of the work as the ads seemed to imply. It was an entire industry of inside musicians. It's a film that tries to be about too many people. And that's where it fails to grasp the necessary focus to become a truly compelling movie.
I don't mean to knock it too much however. The Wrecking Crew tried to pay these musicians their due. And they clearly deserve some recognition for what they created back in the day. It just falls flat whenever something interesting could be brought up. Tedesco's film really plays like an overextended infomercial for a record that never gets a chance to breathe and play out since so much is being crammed into it. Ultimately I'd say, wait for it to come out on Netflix. These guys already got your money a long time ago.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I Don't Get 20,000 Days On Earth

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard made a very interesting "documentary" last year. It's called 20,000 Days On Earth and it tells the story of writer/musician Nick Cave. But there's a catch. This film is a reenactment of sorts... with the actual people rolling through a fictitious "day in the life" scenario.
The film looks beautiful and this quality of camera work and lighting could only be achieved in a predetermined sequence. But it still strikes me as odd. For each of 20,000 Days On Earth's positive qualities, there are several negatives that seem to interfere. For instance, the scenes that take place in Cave's car where he is interviewing ghosts from his past may seem surprisingly open and direct in their subject matter. But of course one could not get negative personalities from Cave's life into such a car, so the conversations had within always grapple with too much lightheartedness. And if I'm being totally honest... the music (which is the main subject of the film) does nothing for me.
Now this flick was nominated for a BAFTA which is the only reason I wound up watching it. But I tend to disagree with the British Academy's choice. This film is not, in my opinion, eligible for the label of "documentary." 20,000 Days On Earth is a very interesting film... but I personally don't get what purpose such an exercise in vanity can achieve. This flick will likely always exist in my mind as a strange kind of mystery. A puzzle without a solution.

This New Cinderella Has Consistency

I haven't been in much of a filmgoing mood this last month. I suppose that's a sign of the season more so than anything else. Films in February and particularly March are usually the final backwash of the previous year... the stuff the studios felt didn't have a shot in hell at winning awards or making much money. However, Disney did find it worth their while to put out a live action adaptation of one of their most respected classics...
Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is a surprisingly accurate adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story... well, minus the blood and the birds pecking peoples eyes out and all that. It doesn't suffer from the ridiculously painful flaws that sent Maleficent astray. The fact that Cinderella sticks so closely to the original story works highly to its advantage. For instance, the aesthetic is so vibrant and joyful... and the viewer can actually focus on this element as the classic story sort of lazes down the river. Harris Zambarloukos' pallet is so significant in its leveling of sheer beauty that the eyes are struck with a mad sort of giddiness.
Yet I would be remiss if I did not comment on the film's surprising weakness. It comes in the form of action, and it is the only real action in the whole flick. The carriage scene at the end... after the stroke of midnight... feels rushed, awkward, and unnecessarily stuffed into a film without need of such a moment. So I am left wondering who thought this scene needed to exist in said format. The old Disney animated movie felt no requirement to include a potential drop off a cliff or anything along those lines. So why try to falsely pull a sense of dread out of an audience that's guaranteed to know what's going to happen regardless?
Lily James is an excellent casting choice. Her smile makes me happy and she proves that she's got some acting chops as well. You'd better have a few tricks up your sleeve if the majority of your scenes are set against Cate Blanchett... who by the way (I know you're SO surprised) is wonderful in this film. Richard Madden is also pretty good, though he doesn't have a lot to do here. My greatest note about him in this film comes more as a commentary on Lucy Bevan's decision to cast him in the first place... You're casting Robb Stark in a film where his character makes the same decision that ultimately gets him killed in rather disturbing fashion in that other very well known fantasy series. It just feels like an odd but laugh-worthy choice.
Cinderella is a good enough film to stretch your legs in during the slow season. It's just enjoyable enough and all of the moving parts tend to work more often than not. If you've got any love for classic Disney and you want that magic feeling, you'll probably find it here for a brief time.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Kingsman Rocks!!

While everyone was flocking to theaters to see a movie I hope never to have to sit through on Valentines Day, another film came out to appeal to the more sensible audiences of world.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is the latest by Matthew Vaughn of Kick-Ass (just the first one) and X-Men: First Class fame. It's the classic spy thriller story taken up a notch to fit in with this over-actioned comic book heavy film parade we've grown accustomed to over the last decade and a half. But this time, that old spy thriller takes a few extra (I'm not gonna say unexpected, cause they were still pretty obvious) turns in much the same fashion as that first good Kick-Ass movie.
What Kingsman really has going for it is an excellent cast and a very entertaining style of quirky yet hard-nosed action. Colin Firth finally plays the action hero role he was born for... and does so with the utmost of style. Taron Egerton holds his own against some of my favorite actors and still manages to make an impression, which is a very impressive feat for someone with so few credits to his name. He proved he'll be someone to watch out for in the future. Sophie Cookson was also a welcome new face. She took what little part she had to play with and made a meal of it. But then you add on these names: Mark Strong, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Caine... and no one can deny just how much star power this film carried.
There's not a lot more I can say about this film. It was thoroughly entertaining. It took the villainous plot to a different level and allowed its audience to revel in the insanity of said plot. And it proved to be just the right kind of ride to help take the edge off another otherwise excruciating start to a new film year. But films like this give me hope that studios may still come around about releasing quality products during, what they have deemed "dead seasons."
Kingsman is an excellent action adventure with a nice dose of comedy. I'd definitely recommend it.