Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Virunga Is An Incredible Achievement

Damn, Netflix hit it out of the park with this latest documentary. I love how, over the last few years, the company has managed to bring documentaries to the forefront of their business model. Last year in particular, it became clear that they were willing to find pieces that had serious intentions and legitimate award potential. Virunga is the next step in their process of becoming a legitimate studio.
But obviously that thought should be secondary to what the film Virunga stands for. Because this movie has an incredible message and it builds its point in an impeccable way. Yes, it is a documentary. It is also heart wrenching, exciting, tragic, and legitimately important to our worldview. This is the real life story of a brave group of park rangers living in Eastern Congo. Their only goal is to protect their national park and the animals that live within... most notably, the exceedingly rare mountain gorillas that reside in Virunga. But as a new rebel sect moves in, and with the discovery of oil beneath the region by SOCO, tensions become high and danger becomes imminent.
Orlando von Einsiedel (Director) is maniacal in his capacity to capture the increasingly dangerous events that have been taking place in the region. And I can honestly say I feared for the crew's lives throughout the film. Yet it is not just for the danger they put themselves through to capture these things that I praise them, but for the professionalism they showed in doing so... the high level of quality to which they reached. Virunga is an Oscar contender... and I can only hope, in gaining such a high level of press, the film can actually make a difference to the situation in Eastern Congo.
Catch it on Netflix as soon as you can.

30 For 30's Playing For The Mob Takes A Light Approach To A Heavy Subject

I really enjoy 30 for 30. I think ESPN's continued interest in keeping this documentary series alive proves that people will watch and be interested in well made, informative tv... though I wonder if a few of these documentaries, if promoted differently, couldn't be considered in the best documentary category at the Oscars... all you need is a premier and limited run in a theatre or two in the LA market.
Anyway, this brief article is about Playing for the Mob... a new 30 for 30 about the point shaving controversy from Goodfellas. It's an interesting topic to be sure, but the guys looking back on it seem to think it was all just a big kind of joke... which I find weird. That something so stupid as trying to fix a bunch of basketball games for money can so thoroughly ruin so many peoples' lives... and then they can come back with this bizarrely lighthearted attitude just baffles me. Obviously, the filmmakers have no control over this, but it seems to hurt the prestige of a documentary when all of the parties involved act like they're just happy to be back in the limelight... no matter what the reason.
Playing for the Mob is definitely no where near the strongest of the 30 for 30s, but if you're at all interested in the subject, you can catch it on Netflix right now.

Foxcatcher Lacks Focus

What a bizarre story.
Foxcatcher is one of those surprise award contenders that seem to show up at just the right time with little serious press before. It's the true story of two world class wrestling brothers who were taken under the wing of the far too wealthy John du Pont back in the 1980s. It's director, Bennett Miller (who'll probably get an Oscar nod), is world class having brought us previous Oscar contenders; Capote and Moneyball. And it heralds three of the better acting performances of the year between Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.
But the positives don't press far beyond that. The pace of the film is absolutely fine with me, but everything seems to falter on the script. It's not that there aren't wonderful moments scattered throughout, rather the film is just poorly broken up between the three main characters and the resolutions to their stories lack much in the way of... well... resolution. There are moments where the point seems to come forward only to be completely ignored and denied in later sequences. Until, by the end, you're left feeling like you witnessed less than a third of what you expected and cared just as little. This one overwhelming weakness seems to seep into every facet of the film and endanger award prospects across the board.
So let's go back to the actors briefly. While I was impressed with both Carell and Tatum, Mark Ruffalo turns out to be the most compelling actor in this thing. If he gets a supporting actor nod I would not be disappointed... but that's the most confusing thing. While all three of these actors seem to be lauded as leads, none of them get enough screen time to warrant a leading actor nomination. I could see all three potentially given a supporting nom, but the films overall lack of focus really hurts some of their award chances. Not that this is all about awards. Indeed, there is pure merit in allowing the story to flesh out naturally. But then I get back to my earlier point, that the film doesn't have good enough resolutions across the board. Usually I'd welcome just one good resolution that was so compelling the others could be left up in the air. But the one you'd expect to be that good, fails to carry enough weight and essentially drags the rest of the film down with it.
And rather unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave didn't get nearly enough screen time and Sienna Miller had practically nothing to do.

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman wrote some incredible scenes, but ultimately let their cast and crew down. Yet there is a very very bright spot that should not and will not be affected. Makeup! This film is going to be nominated for makeup. And it deserves to be just for those nose prosthetics. They believably transformed the cast to the point that I occasionally forgot that I was watching Steve Carell or Channing Tatum... guys I've seen a million times before. I'm not sure if that goes to Bill Corso or if Mark Nieman would get recognition... probably the whole team. But these guys really brought it. Great job!
Anyway, Foxcatcher lacks the necessary focus to get it anywhere near my top ten for 2014. But it's still rather interesting. A bizarre piece about a lesser known and incredibly confusing historical event. And I'm still very glad I saw it. There was a lot of practical expertise on display here. Just... when things need to all come together, they seem to fall further apart. Sometimes the medium of film can be so fickle.

Dumb And Dumber To Is Just Too Dumb

At first I was excited to know I was gonna get a chance to experience the continued adventures of Harry and Lloyd... The original Dumb and Dumber is (in my opinion) one of the greatest comedies ever made. Not only is it exceedingly clever, but it also withstands the test of time. It's still funny!! So I'm sure you can imagine my disappointment when the final product turned out to be little more than a get together and money grab.
Okay, it's not just that. The right people returned to this project for what seemed like the right reasons. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels relive their early career success and it's fun to remember that in many ways this is where they started. And the Farrelly brothers came back to direct... but they didn't write it, which is weird but not surprising. I get the feeling a studio wouldn't have trusted them with the script at this point given their many recent failures... but then why would the studio still trust them to direct? The trouble with the Farrelly brothers isn't that they didn't have potential. In fact, their first two flicks seemed to show only upward trajectory. But these guys just never seemed to learn to be better. After There's Something About Mary, things just seemed to get crasser and crasser, and the quality of the work just fell and fell. Dumb and Dumber was lightning in a bottle. It worked so well because it had two up and coming actors playing so perfectly off of one another in a scenario that felt truly hilarious. If the film felt cheap, the grain and concept allowed for that and kept the movie rolling. But this modern sequel came too late. Technology has taken away the graininess that helped mask the Farrelly brothers' inadequacies. And their choice of lighting and camera work (and this is not a new revelation for these guys) just came across as lazy.
But I'm gonna stop ripping on the directors for a minute while I question other aspects of this bizarre misstep. The script doesn't work. You'd think after twenty years, some fanboy somewhere would've taken pen to paper and come up with a legitimately awesome idea for a sequel. When Lloyd discovers the briefcase at the airport in the first film, the setup is just clever enough to get the audience involved... because these guys have no clue what they're doing or how the world works. But the kidney setup of this sequel just isn't pulled off with the same tact. Then there's the secondary storyline of the conniving wife of the rich scientist... and honestly nothing about that works even a little bit. It feels lazy, cheap, come up with any number of words to say that this was poorly conceived. But the most surprising failure... and one that probably could've been rectified with better directors and a better script... is Jeff Daniels' performance. What the first Dumb and Dumber accomplished so well was two actors acting at two different levels of stupidity. Jeff Daniels felt far more down to earth than Jim Carrey and somehow everything worked. But in this sequel, Jeff Daniels seems to want only to play up to Carrey's level of zaniness. It's really disheartening because he is a really good actor. But the ham level here just ignores every factor of what made him so good originally.
On that note, I'll leave you to decide. Is it worth watching your favorite characters from the early nineties get impaled on a spike of mediocrity? To be fair, there are some good fun moments, but they are really far and inbetween. And indeed, the audience I saw the movie with on opening night cackled their heads off in a horrified and depraved kind of enjoyment. But that doesn't change the truth of what this movie fails to be. Enter at your own risk.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I Still Don't Know What The Signal Was About...

Back in January, a lot of buzz was coming out of Sundance about this weird sci-fi movie, The Signal. But then it never came to my theatre and I totally missed any chance of catching it. Well I was able to rectify that just this week... and I'm left wondering if it was worth the effort.
It's the story of three friends (Nic, Haley, and Jonah) following a hacker deep into the heart of Nevada. But when they finally stumble on the house they believe to be the source of his signal, everything goes wrong. Nic wakes up in a quarantined hospital bed with no control over his legs. And things only get worse from there.
The only problem is, the movie seems intent on asking a million questions simply to mislead you... or rather they never find a balance between giving enough info and making a movie that is compelling. The nonsensical nature of the film becomes a burden and when the final moments at long last play out... sort of giving answers... mind you, to questions that were never asked in the first place... I found it difficult to care one way or the other. Now for a film of this size, the effects were pretty cool. But clearly those were only budgeted for about three scenes out of the whole movie, and then awkward steps are taken to give the illusion that they are still there.
However, I don't have a problem with what William Eubank, the director, has done here. I think it's really cool that a camera guy can come forward with a completed feature film... and one that does look and seem pretty cool... if we just ignore the lack of a story, this is a pretty great movie. Unfortunately, I can't ignore that personally. But I do think, from a film school perspective, this could be a good teaching lesson for anyone who wants to prove their own abilities... kind of like Monsters. It's good enough to prove that this guy can make something bigger for a studio.
So while I say congrats to Eubank I really don't think this flick is for everyone... or rather, most people. It's not exactly something to watch for entertainment's sake... but it is a teachable lesson... if that makes sense.

Big Hero 6 Is Big Fun

Sometimes things come together at just the right time and place to make something special. I can't imagine Big Hero 6 even existing in this form if Disney hadn't bought out Marvel. But this is a sign of the kinds of things the two studios can accomplish as a team. It's really quite exciting.
Big Hero 6 is the story of Hiro, a young genius living in the great city of San Fransokyo. When he loses his brother (and best friend) to a fire, Hiro falls into a depression. But his brother's greatest achievement, Baymax (a cuddly medical robot) awakens to help revive the boy's joy of life. They form a super hero team... and it's awesome.
The animation is wonderfully stylish. The characters, compelling and distinct... and very well rounded. And the plot balances just on the edge of feeling too adult and feeling too kiddy. But the ingredients work, and the final product is a very entertaining ride. Though there is one particular criticism that I believe may be affecting some peoples' experiences. The sound mixing toward the middle to second half of the film tends to drop away and leave what could be exciting, big action scenes feeling less spectacular than they should. The best comparison I have for this is The Iron Giant, where the sound design frequently gets in the way of what's otherwise a very interesting, heartfelt story. Though in all honesty, Big Hero 6's sound problems are in no way as offensive as The Iron Giant's. Just something to consider though, in spite of this fault, Big Hero 6 still manages to entertain through the very end of its runtime.
If Disney is interested in making a feature adaptation of something obscure like Marvel's Big Hero 6, I can only imagine what's coming down the road. I would personally love to get big animated productions of some of Marvel's more renowned characters. Even with the live action ones still coming out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Force Majeure Asks All The Right Questions

You'd be hard pressed to find a film that more directly touches on the dynamics of relationship than Force Majeure.
A new Swedish flick from director Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure tells the story of a family staying at a ski resort in the French Alps. When out to lunch one day, they are confronted with the real life horrors of being buried under an avalanche only to come out the other side unscathed... well physically unscathed. The family dynamic is completely turned upside down after the event, and new questions about commitment and human nature fester like open wounds.
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are mesmerizing to watch. And Kristofer Hivju brings an element of unexpected comedy and grounded humanity to the piece. When you consider the emotional torment these characters have to climb through, it becomes an impressive feat... like everyone is scaling a mountain though they cannot see their own hands through the mist.
I only use so many metaphors in this review because the film itself so freely takes advantage of metaphor to get its message across. Ie. The avalanche represents so many tumultuous possibilities over the course of a relationship. What would you do in the same situation? If you ran, could you justify your actions? And what steps could possibly be taken to regain the trust you had lost?
The pacing is exceptional as a sense of whimsical dread takes over... you never feel afraid to experience the next step, but you always wonder if something terrible may be just around the bend. I'm fighting desperately not to say too much, but Ruben Östlund can be proud of this film. It's not your ordinary piece of cinema... and I'm left wondering wether we may ever see something like this come out of America. I absolutely give Force Majeure my stamp of approval. If it shows up in a theatre anywhere near you, I suggest you catch it.