Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Well The Judge Exists...

You can probably tell from the title of this article that I really didn't care all that much for The Judge; the latest confusing attempt by David Dobkin.
The Judge is the story of a big city lawyer returning to his small rural home for his mother's funeral and being reminded of all the reasons he left... and the few reasons he may have wanted to stay. Yeah, it's pretty Lifetime in nature and carries all the patented cheese you'd expect from one of their programs. But this movie was released in theaters with a big cast and serious aspirations. And honestly I'm surprised at all of the people they managed to get on board with this project.
Obviously, this movie would not exist without Robert Downey Jr. ... He's listed as Executive Producer, though I don't know why he would choose something like this to flex his power on. He's a really fun actor most of the time, but roles like these I tend to feel like he could do without. But then, maybe he just wanted to work with Robert Duvall, who does a very quality job in a role that asks for less than I was expecting. The one thing I was told before walking into this movie was that Duvall could be a front runner for supporting actor at this years awards. After the viewing, I'd be very surprised if anything from this flick made so much as a whisper come Oscar season. That's not to undermine Duvall's performance... he did great. It's more to say, this film doesn't say or do anything we haven't seen a thousand times before. It's classically unoriginal and sorely lacking in the department of creativity or legitimate insight.
Vera Farmiga was excellent as usual... though in very very limited time. And I enjoyed Leighton Meester and Billy Bob Thornton... but, again, for a movie that goes so overwhelmingly beyond its necessary run time (2 hrs 20mins), these actors definitely deserved more screen time.
The Judge confuses me because I don't really understand why it was made. David Dobkin is a rarely successful comedy director working with Robert Downey Jr who we all know now as a big budget box office master... but perhaps that's all there is to it. These guys just wanted a change of pace, so they made something no one would expect from them... just to switch it up. No one really needs to see this movie, because they've already seen it. But The Judge is not a terrible film. It's just so-so. It's just there to pass the time.

What Is The Book Of Life?

As you're probably aware, I'm a big proponent for quality animated cinema. So I try to check out every animated feature I can. This week's installment: the Jorge R. Gutierrez helmed The Book of Life.
This is a story of competition, love, and the struggles between life and death... it's about what it means to be remembered and how tragic it is to be forgotten. But mostly it's about two suitors vying for the hand of one woman... and the insane lengths a pair of gods will go to to decide the love triangles' fate.
It's a family film. So it's simple... easy to understand... and for some reason riddled with pop culture references in the form of your favorite songs (and some of your not so favorites) of the last twenty years... repurposed for Mexican style musical sequences. It's weird. But the confusing decision not to write original songs doesn't detract from a lot of positives that this movie does manage to accomplish.
The animation is whimsical and easy. The character and set designs fun and functional. And the voice performances, mostly serviceable. But the highpoint of this project is the curiosity it seems to place on the single idea that to be forgotten is a great and overwhelming tragedy. It's a strange thing for a family film to focus on, but it also carries some weight and poignance that I think would work surprisingly well on a younger mind. We live in a time when older generations are being ignored and disrespected... in many cases the disrespect is actually warranted as old ideals become less and less useful to a populace intent on connecting with everyone everywhere all the time without exclusion. I think there's a thought in this film that really tries to touch on something important... we cannot forget the past, even if we're recalling the mistakes of those that came before us, it is absolutely necessary that we at least know that history. No one should ever be forgotten.
Of course I'm drawing a lot of conclusions right now. The movie its self doesn't go that in depth on the topic, but I do think that if it gets children to think about their grandparents... their great-grandparents... where they come from, it'll be a successful film.
Anyway, The Book of Life is good enough to bring your kids to if you've got em. It's mostly a middle of the pack kind of flick, but it has its moments.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pretty Sure You're Gonna Like Birdman

Have you occasionally thought, "There may be a few too many superhero movies these days"? Do you ever wonder how this Hollywood madness all started? Well Birman's gonna sort of cover that... While also being a really good movie with just a wonderful cast of characters and a very intricate chip on its shoulder.
Certainly it helps that at least three of the leads have ties back to major superhero franchises but are no longer a part of that world. But that fact only informs the already meta nature of Birdman that existed in the first place. Michael Keaton (Batman) is Birdman... or rather he used to be. But now he's gone on his own path. He knows that he has ability, but everyone keeps pigeonholing him back into the Birdman corner. His life feels like a mess, but he's really not a bad guy. When all the chips are on the table, he's only ever wanted to do the right thing... he's just painfully ignorant as to what that could be. Enter his daughter played by Emma Stone (of recent Spider-Man lore). She's got her own troubles which are only excellerated by her father's lack of focus and the appearance of Edward Norton (the one time Incredible Hulk)... though neither of their characters have ties to superheroes in this flick...
Am I confusing you? Well I shouldn't be. Actually, I don't wanna break the plot down for you any further. I want you to go and experience this movie. Because that's what Birdman is: an experience. Within Alejandro González Iñárritu's expert vision, an amazing world is able to take shape... one that allows for each of its components to thrive and soar. Cinematography is sharp, precise, and at many times alluringly entertaining. The score is an absolutely unabashed love letter to a profoundly misunderstood and frequently underutilized instrument. And between all that, the writing and the acting, there's really not a single bad moment in this film.
Michael Keaton proves exactly what his character wants to... that he is an excellent actor with range. But he also shares the limelight well. You get a sense that every actor in this film is afforded the right to thrive in whatever special way they know how. Emma Stone does a bang up job playing an intentionally less charming character than we've come to expect from her short but very pleasant career so far.
And Edward Norton just seems to blow the doors off every scene he enters. He, much like Keaton, receives a great deal of jokes pertaining meta-specifically to himself... though I don't wanna ruin any of that. Zach Galifianakis fills a very critical hole with his presence, and does so with gusto. And with Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan (especially Amy Ryan) all filling out very crucial niche roles I honestly can't imagine a better cast for such an undertaking. Everyone seems to want to bring their best for this project, and in my opinion, they do just that.
Birdman does a hell of a lot right. It talks about something that most films aren't willing to discuss. And it never apologizes. The unrelenting nature of this film is something I don't think I've ever witnessed through the thousands of movies I've seen in my life. And it is absolutely worth your time and money to catch it on a big screen somewhere.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury: The War Film You Never Knew You Wanted

Fury is a tank movie!
No... wait a second. I don't mean Fury tanked. I mean, Fury is literally a movie about a tank gang in WWII. And as far back as I can remember, we've never had a war film so well informed by the linear nature afforded us when we watch a group of five guys rolling through Germany in one tank for two hours.
My usual criticism of war films doesn't apply to this one... because there's never a moment of confusion about who we're supposed to pay attention to or care about. Fury is war. But it's war as we should witness it on film... gruesome, but linear. Characters and their choices make sense and don't seem to come out of some random order. Strategies make sense and, yes, horrible things happen... but they happen for the right reasons. This is war and it ain't pretty. And Fury understands that.

David Ayer made an exceedingly good movie... I think his first actually good one. And I'm surprised and overwhelmed by his growth since... End of Watch only a few years back. Where that flick felt sloppy at best, this one feels well concentrated and threateningly tense.
Brad Pitt is just damn likable as Wardaddy. He may be playing something similar to his role in Inglorious Bastards, but this time he feels far more grounded. Shia LaBeouf managed to not annoy me. And that's saying a lot. Logan Lerman is passable with moments of great subtle quality. And Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal managed to keep me entertained... But at the end of the day, I don't know if this movie is as much about the cast as it is about the concept.
I say it's about damn time we got a movie about a tank squad. And fortunately, Fury is a damn good example of what that should be.

Kill The Messenger Feels Like Another Unfortunate Misstep For Renner

Jeremy Renner has been billed as Hollywood's newest leading man for the last six years. But every chance he's gotten to prove he can carry a movie, it's gone bust. Kill the Messenger is just the next example of this very explainable anomaly.
SPOILERS I GUESS
Kill the Messenger is a true story about a small-time reporter catching a metaphorical tiger by the tail. Unfortunately for him, this tiger really does have teeth, and while he's completely new to this level of reporting, the CIA (or the tiger) is not. When it becomes apparent that the reporter isn't going to give up, the CIA ruins his life.
Not to give anything away, but that's literally the entire movie. And that's really the problem. Yes, the point exists in there... the messenger does get destroyed and those receiving the message don't really... can't really do anything with the information other than know that it happened. But the movie itself does not have enough content to warrant a full feature. Yes, the story is tragic, and people should know about it. But there needed to be another act in order for a feature to exist. And while the point probably lies somewhere within that fact, it doesn't excuse this final product's lack of content.
END SPOILERS I THINK
But let's get back to the first thought I had. Jeremy Renner has been surrounded by all sorts of quality here and in other flicks... and unfortunately, the more quality that's brought in to support him, the more it becomes obvious he's the weakest link. A movie starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta should not be boring. But because none of those actors is afforded adequate screen time or any kind of particularly interesting role... thanks to Renner's down-your-throat, screen-hogging Gary Webb (no offense to the real man), boring is exactly what this movie becomes.
Don't get me wrong. I actually think Jeremy Renner is a very talented individual... when given a minor role like we saw last season in Louie. His drug dealer performance in just a couple episodes of that show may actually be the best thing he's ever done... because he didn't have to carry the whole story by himself. When he is asked to be the next Jason Bourne, it fails because the movie requires too much of him. So ultimately I've come to the conclusion that Jeremy Renner is the most overhyped leading man who should actually be handling supporting roles. I think if studio execs and the creative community took a step back and recognized this, everyone would be better off. Renner movies wouldn't have to be just Renner movies, and audiences wouldn't have to suffer through them as they've been asked to do so many times of late.
So... this technically still being a Kill the Messenger review, I'm gonna end with this thought... Kill the Messenger misses the mark. It's still a story everyone should be aware of, but I would not recommend going to see the actual film. If you get a chance to read Gary Webb's original article (book), Dark Alliance, that's probably the way to go.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Go See Whiplash!!

Finally, a good movie!
Whiplash is the kind of mind-blowing, though provoking movie I can't believe no one's ever thought to make. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young drummer trying desperately to be the best in his craft. When Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) sees him practicing, he invites him to join his competitive studio jazz band... and of course Andrew wants to take that next step, so he joins. However, Fletcher's teaching methods are rather... controversial. And Andrew's world goes from exciting opportunity to living nightmare.
The tension Damien Chazelle has managed to create in only his second feature outing, is nothing short of amazing. I can't think of the last time a movie wound me up like this. Perhaps he just got great performances from his stars, but there's something else going on here. Chazelle understands the relationships between people and instruments. He doesn't shy away from giving us just the drum set when it's necessary. He allows us to witness a performance without breaking away to someone's reaction... unless it's J.K. Simmons' because, well, the audience just isn't going to have J.K. Simmons' perspective. It's too crazy. But for a young filmmaker to already know how to trust his audience to formulate their own opinion without needing the forced obligatory crowd reaction takes guts... it takes knowhow. And Damien Chazelle has both of those qualities.
Miles Teller is great as a not necessarily likable character. In many ways he makes himself the victim without needing help from Simmons. But in many ways I feel like that leads back to the greater purpose of the film. J.K. Simmons is electrifying in this movie. I'm just so glad I had a chance to see him give a performance like that, so distant from anything else he's every done, but so well communicated.

Whiplash is extraordinary. The soonest chance you get to see it, DO. If I'm being frank, this movies already in my top ten for the year. I don't care what else comes out. This is in.

Dracula Untold: I Weep For Universal's Monster Project

Dracula Untold is supposed to be the beginning of a new line of Universal Monster movies. I say "supposed to" because this flick destroys all confidence I had in anything of quality coming out of that stream.
Dracula Untold tries to tell the story of Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) after his years at war. He comes home and soon learns that Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), his emperor wishes to force all of the young boys of his country to join his army. Well that ain't cool. So Vlad seeks out a power that will help him to take on an army that is far too massive for his own meager forces.
This movie's biggest issues come out of a lack of pacing and purpose. If this is truly to be an origin story it needs to start earlier to get us involved in the world. I would love a sprawling Vlad the Impaler war epic that returns back home for its third act... But studios don't know how to make that kind of movie anymore because they're too invested in common tropes. The kind they think get larger appeal from audiences, but really just dumb down movies until they become rather easily forgotten in the annuls of history. Dracula Untold eschews a meaningful first act thus forcing onto us several annoyingly useless plot points that could have been avoided had the film not been in serious jeopardy of coming in under its necessary run-time. 92 minutes for an epic Dracula origin story? Are you kidding me??
This flick does however host a number of very bright up and coming actors. Luke Evans is a really solid choice for the role of Dracula and does his damnedest to make this script sound somewhat meaningful. Likewise, Sarah Gadon has been proving herself of late. Her performance in Belle earlier this year definitely outshines this outing, but she still affords the role of Mirena far more quality than the script deserves. The greatest disappointment here is Dominic Cooper. I have enjoyed him in one or two films, but this cheeky Mehmed comes across as meh as the character's name. Easily one of his most forgettable roles to date. I like Charles Dance, and for a moment he pulled this movie away from its more tedious segments almost proving there is life after Game of Thrones...
But the ending left my jaw on the floor. That Universal thought this conclusion made any sort of sense or was at all good enough to start a massive serialized franchise bewilders me to no end. Dracula Untold is a failed experiment. It's abominable that a studio intends to make more productions of lacking quality like this or could ever set out to make something of this mediocre quality in the first place. Long gone are the days of David Lean, and with them, that epic quality that used to make films of an older world great. I'd love to see a Vlad the Impaler movie in the epic style of Lawrence of Arabia. I'd love to see that much effort put into the production. But this crap will not sate my appetite for good movies. It won't even come close.