Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Catching Fire Is So Much Better Than Its Predecessor

I did not expect much from Catching Fire.
After all, The Hunger Games had managed to take an interesting concept and make it utterly boring. Before the film was first released, I actively wanted to sit down and read the books. Then I saw what had made it to screen and felt the novel couldn't possibly be as good as everyone said. But Catching Fire has inverted that disposition. Now I'm back on board. I wanna read all three. I really do.
There was something about this film that was just so much more compelling. Granted, the information had to be there from the first one. But this time around it just felt as though the filmmakers managed to hit all of those little notes that the first one skipped over. Characters were more relatable, relationships seemed more consistent, the world felt clearer... pretty much anything that could have been better, was.
Well minus some of the effects, but even most of those were passable.

The thing that worked the least for me about the first one was the foreknowledge that almost everyone you met was going to die (something that's never a problem in Battle Royale by the way).
Oh, they're all gonna die.
This was made worse by the casting of a slew of no-names with little to no shot of ever being recognized for their five seconds of screen time... Once again, Catching Fire fixed that.
In adding actors like Jeffrey Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman (a huuuge upgrade over Wes Bentley), and Jena Malone in supporting roles it felt like the filmmakers were actively making decisions about how big this franchise could be.
I know there's only one left, but perhaps that one can be the biggest and best.

Catching Fire is simply a better movie than I anticipated. And I'm glad. I mean, who likes to waste their time on a bad movie?

Disney's Frozen Is Not At All What It Seems...

...And I'm so relieved.
When the first teaser came out for Frozen, I thought it looked... well, bad.

Then the trailer came up.

I really felt I couldn't get a solid grasp on what kind of movie this would be. So I wrote it off. And I honestly didn't care to research any further. Let me be clear, Disney did a piss poor job advertising this movie. But... they also made a really great animated feature.
First, let me appeal to all of the Disney fans out there... this is a musical. You hear that? The trailers somehow managed to snip and dodge any of the musical moments (which take up maybe 65% of the thing) and that's why they felt so all over the place. Now most of the songs were a bit too pop for my taste, but that didn't hinder my enjoyment. And while I was a big fan of Tangled, their last epic fairytale musical, I think Frozen is better. Why?
Well, it's just so damned refreshing to have two... count 'em... two real and relatable female leads. And a little bit of that Disney magic certainly doesn't hurt. In seeking story concepts from classic fairytale authors like Hans Christian Andersen, Disney is managing to stay true to their core fanbase. This is something I would have denied a few years back. But they are still managing to make movies that remind me of my childhood.

I think this movie is a success for Disney in a place where Pixar failed drastically. When Brave came out, I was excited but scared. After all, Cars 2 had just flumixed me into submission and suddenly I wasn't sure I could trust the studio anymore. Then Brave utterly destroyed my perception of Pixar as an unbeatable creative machine. It was just so incredibly flawed. The worst element being that this was supposed to be their mother-daughter story...??? So here comes Frozen a few years later with an actually compelling sister-sister relationship that not only drives the film, it is the film. Great Job Disney!
However, I could have done with less of that snowman.

Does Delivery Man Deliver?

Delivery Man is a somewhat annoying movie. In some scenes it wowed me with legitimately authentic human moments while in others it just went for cheap laughs and somehow managed to fail at those. It's a schizophrenic, middle-of-the-pack movie with an excellent heart and concept. It's just too bad the team couldn't figure out that they weren't really making a comedy.
Vince Vaughn was fine. He didn't do too much of the Vince Vaughn thing, though whenever he brought it out I did want to call foul. What was most surprisingly disappointing was the performance by Chris Pratt. I've come to really enjoy his choices over the years. So to see him come off so fake was difficult for me. But then I honestly believe he was poorly cast in that role. At no point did I agree that he could have four kids and be a lawyer (albeit a second-rate one).

Essentially, the meat and potatoes of Delivery Man get lost in weird and unnecessary ad-lib type scenes. And in the end this constant flaw blocks it from being a good movie. I guess I need to watch Starbuck now to see if it's any better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Awesome Gravity Tie-In... Aningaaq

I love this!
That the Cuaróns thought to show us this little bit of someone else's story that directly connects to Gravity. It's even cooler when the connection is made that this person exists on Earth, but their situation is also maddeningly frustrating. Beautiful that Jonás and Alfonso Cuarón found another compelling way to work together.
They are a very exciting father/son tandem. And I dearly hope to see more from the two of them.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lonesome Is The Best Way To Describe The Grays Of Nebraska

It's interesting to see how Alexander Payne chooses his themes. After his big time success with the "paradise isn't paradise" theme in The Descendants, he turned his focus to middle America and a location that has never once been referred to as a paradise of any kind.
Nebraska was a weird but engrossing journey. At the outset, it seemed as if the majority of the characters were going to be rather stubborn, intensely unlikable people. But as the film delved deeper, I came to understand at least two or three of those people and why it is they had become the way they were and lived the lives they had lived. There was a clearcut separation in my mind of what was a good person in this world and what was a bad person. And there seemed to be an incredibly painful, but awkwardly fulfilling message buried just below the surface that this place will take everyone sooner or later and there really is no getting out, but if you can hold on to who you really are, perhaps in the end you'll be rewarded with a more caring family than you thought you could know.
Granted all of this takes time to develop and I may be reading farther into this than what is necessary. But Nebraska flowed so strangely and gave me a lot of time within the stillness of its frames to ponder why the filmmaker wanted me to see these moments. While there seemed nothing but intense loneliness in the beginning something blossomed from that feeling. Something almost beautiful.
This was a strange role for Will Forte. Strange in that he didn't play strange at all. Usually I expect to see him do something out there and crazy, so it was nice and different to see him take a turn at something more down to earth and sincere. Bruce Dern was excellent and after seeing this it's uncanny to me that I haven't gotten to see him in a starring role in my lifetime. But when you're the guy who killed John Wayne in a movie... what do you expect? June Squibb was fun to watch albeit, we don't get as much of a chance with her character. She seemed to be more loudmouthed than anyone else in the film, yet I can honestly say I believed her. I've known of people like that. And I was happy to see Bob Odenkirk in limited time. Once again, it was strange to see him playing such a withdrawn character. Lastly, Stacy Keach did an excellent job as the silky terrible antagonist.
Alexander Payne's a strange director. I feel like every one of his films has been made with the intention of drawing as much awkward tension out of the audience as possible. Yet, somehow, I find myself appreciating that. His films are almost always great and they always seem to be making a point that is, at heart, greater than any one film can be. So I commend him for that.
Nebraska creates a black and white, wishy-washy world filled with vistas of unrecognized beauty.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Some Basic Problem Solving In The Event You've Already Read Some Other Free Birds Reviews...

Yup. I finally caught Free Birds because I like animated films and I had a small lingering hope that it wouldn't be as bad as the critics said it was.
Funny. It wasn't so bad. Sure there were a few jokes here and there that didn't work. But there were just as many that did. And I know for a fact the movie kept kids interested.

I guess the most annoying thing was the useless repetition forced in for the Jake character. Yet on the other hand, the president's daughter kept spouting hilarious zingers... The concept felt fresh enough for Thanksgiving. And this was one animated film that felt like it wanted to incorporate a nostalgia from the 90s without being overly topical. Essentially what I'm saying is it didn't fall into the traps that say early Dreamworks flicks like Shrek frequently would. I think there's an offbeat chance kids could continue watching this in November as a rare event movie for a holiday that almost never gets recognized by Hollywood.

Now onto the problem solving:

One critic called the title unoriginal. Well I'm sorry. That's just looking for problems. In fact, the title Free Birds seems to fit this film perfectly. Consider that these Turkeys... an American staple... are looking to get themselves off the menu. They have grown up essentially behind bars and simply want their basic turkey rights.
Another critic decided to create a mountain out of a mole hill by stating that the turkeys of the past were more or less racially insensitive since they wore old school tribal war paint similar to Native American patterns of the time. Well that's just ridiculous. These turkeys are native to America. And since they are in a war with the new settlers, the choice feels natural. If I were writing a script about Turkeys back during the first Thanksgiving I can honestly say my mind would jump to that conclusion as well... Native American turkeys would probably make it into the script.

For all the hooing and hawing the critics are shouting, Free Birds really isn't a bad film. It's not perfect... and I sure hope it doesn't stop kids from wanting to join their families for Thanksgiving dinner. But it is fun. There are enough things about it that work not to warrant the 18% it's been given on Rotten Tomatoes. And quite honestly, the voice cast is awesome!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Darren Aronofsky's Noah Heralds In The Return Of The Biblical Epic

Isn't it funny how the film industry always seems to move in patterns? How 3D came and went and came and went and finally came again? Well it looks as though this trend will be forthright with the Biblical Epic in suit.

Noah appears to be the first such flick to bring us back to the heyday of the 1920s and later the 1950s. It comes at a time when I don't know if it's the kind of film anybody was expecting. But there is a great history of quality Biblical Epics from the titular The Ten Commandments (1956) to one of the greatest films of all time, Ben-Hur (1959). Such films always seemed to break the mold and go for bigger and grander ideas... and budgets.
What's so interesting to me this time around is the subject chosen by Aronofsky. Noah, to my mind, has never had a truly big budget interpretation on film. And up until now I suppose I can understand this. The concept of Noah is one of questionable decisions. It creates a fearful idea of what a god could be while also allowing its main character to make incredibly questionable decisions. If I remember the story correctly, Noah is chastised in the end for not further questioning his god's choice to kill everyone on the planet.
So I get why no one really wanted to pick this project up back in the 50s when religion was still seemingly in control of the vast majority of the population. Between Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky has proven himself to be a great filmmaker. And even with the stumbling of his The Fountain, that film was still quite beautiful and, were he given the budget and cast he had initially begun it with, had the potential to be great. I'll trust him with this material. In fact, between these two trailers I think he's already proving the story has much more depth than I initially would have assumed.

I think you'll see me there at the theatre on opening weekend.

Parks & Rec May Be Following The Office Into Questionable Territory

You know, I've come to enjoy NBC's Parks and Recreation far more than I ever enjoyed The Office. It managed to escape the initial first season's awkward Pam-and-Jim-like relationship and build on it's own cast and concept.

So now, it's with a certain pain that I come to recognize that it is beginning to fall into the same traps that ultimately destroyed The Office for me. I never really cared about the politics of that show, but week after week, the writers always found a new way to shove that down my throat. I could care less that the paper company was going out of business... or that a printer company was taking over... or the whole plot about which branch was going to survive. After all, that storyline only wielded one true mainstay character. Events like that always feel like a cop out to me. The genre of The Office didn't call for it. And once the leads began to get other gigs and slowly depart the show, the quality clearly sagged into oblivion.

I'm about to watch the most recent hour-long episode of Parks and Rec... and I'm trying to hope. But I'm very much aware of the potential blow that's coming.

Within the next few episodes, Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones will be leaving the show. Couple that with Chris Pratt's consistent absence due to bigger jobs (Guardians of the Galaxy), and you have an incomplete show. Parks and Rec is at its best when it feels like a complete ensemble piece. So losing three of its biggest players feels like a heavy blow.

Potential Spoiler if you are a couple seasons behind...
Then the new subplot kicks in... Pawnee and its neighboring town are merging which is supposed to add new character depth and continuing plot motion. Okay... this sounds familiar (see paragraph two, line five). While I thoroughly enjoyed Leslie Knope running for political office... and was impressed by the fact that they actually let her win (a sign that the format of the show would be changing)... I can't help but feel that this new plot line is a massive step backwards.
End Spoiler

While it's hard to imagine Parks and Rec ever getting as bad as The Office did in its final seasons, the future is looking somewhat bleak. If I'm right about this (and believe me, I hope I'm not) I guess I have to just be glad that there were about three seasons of just plain excellent tv.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It's About Damn Time I Saw About Time

As silly as it may sound, I've been trying to see About Time for the last three weeks.
And for one reason or another, it just kept falling through. Well today I finally managed to see it and I'm certainly glad I did.

This would have to be classified as the quintessential date movie. Something girls and guys would equally enjoy and something that would make them think about their own relationship and what it is they could do better for each other and the other important people in their lives.

If you don't know the concept, it's about a guy who, on his 21st birthday, is told by his father that he can travel in time. Not to the future or anything, just to events that he's already experienced. This seemingly silly ability turns out to create a myriad of consequences (though less than I would have expected). While at points the time travel element seems to stop making sense... and the rules of the ability seem to convolute themselves... it still allows for some overall interesting and entertaining exchanges.
I was not at all surprised to find that the cast was excellent across the board. Domhnall Gleeson is great in the leading role. But for me it's all about the supporting cast. Rachel McAdams can honestly do anything and I'm surprised more people haven't considered trying to give her dynamic new roles. But she captures a great awkwardness here that I found quite believable. It is funny that she did this after having done The Time Traveller's Wife. But I like both movies, so who cares? Bill Nighy rocks my socks. It doesn't matter the movie or the role... Bill Nighy is just one of the most fun performers currently living.
Honestly, it's no surprise that this came from the writer of Love Actually. Richard Curtis excels in this genre. He sets out to ask questions about the importance of life experiences and how they can subjectively effect relationships. And quite frequently, I feel, he succeeds.

About Time was a fun little picture. Even though I do wish they had established and grounded the rules of time travel a little better, I still feel like it's not a discrepancy worth disparaging a film of quality like this one. In the end, I found myself trying to imagine similar events in my own life that I would have liked to change... and I had to wonder, would it really be worth it? Or would I be better off just recognizing that that's how life works...? That things happen and while at first they may seem bad, perhaps they are part of a greater picture that is ultimately far more dense and colorful.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

While I was in Florida I got a chance to see Thor: The Dark World.
And while the dramatic side of it didn't really resinate, the comedy was closer than any other film I've seen to what would actually appear in a comic book. This is really quite a cool revelation in the grand scheme of things. Marvel is managing to give Thor's movies a different color than the others, a fact that bodes very well for the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Anyway, the cast was quite solid in this movie... and I am ever increasingly surprised at the number of recurring characters that exist in Thor's stories. That being said, I found the general concept of the villain to be somewhat lacking...
rather, let me put it this way, at no point did I find Malekith even remotely threatening. I suppose his existence played second fiddle to everything else that will continue to blossom in the franchise's future. And that character could never hope to contend with Tom Hiddleston's Loki.
Now there weren't many emotional moments that surprised me. But there were plenty of things that I would never have expected to see appear on screen. Particularly an excellent cameo in a walk-and-talk scene between Thor and Loki. That little moment, and well... Thor's Hammer!! When you see the movie you'll know what I'm talking about. Just one of the quirkiest action sequences I've ever seen.

I really liked Thor: The Dark World. And I'm so glad Marvel is continuing to push the boundaries of their massive universe. No wonder Hollywood's been making so many super hero movies... there's just so much existing material to play with.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Haha... Oh, Last Vegas

Well I wasn't planning to go see it... but somehow I wound up in the theatre for Last Vegas...
And I had a great time!
Everybody was clearly enjoying themselves during the making of this movie and when you've got a cast like this... Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Michael Douglas... Mary Steenburgen... uh, Jerry Ferrara (who was surprisingly solid here), and Romany Malco in supporting roles... really good things happen.

The movie has a vibrancy to it that made me want to relate to my friends like that.
Whatever "that" is.

Sure it gets very silly now and then, with Morgan Freeman's luck at the blackjack table and the room they get in the hotel being so outrageous (amongst other things), but that all feels like a natural piece of that world.

Jon Turtletaub makes hit and miss flicks. But that won't stop me from being damn glad I made it into this theatre. I really needed something light like this to ease my mind.

Dallas Buyers Club

I really appreciated what Dallas Buyers Club was going for.
The injustice of the FDA and the legal system that protected it back in the 80s is at times a shocking reality that for obvious reasons is hardly ever discussed. And while Dallas Buyers Club did dig the conversation back into relevancy, it still managed to leave me confused as to what point they were actually trying to get across.

Perhaps it was the awkward way in which it ended, though I believe that was more a symptom of some rather baffling, blink-and-you'll-miss-it, editorial decisions. Blame the writer, blame the director, blame the editor... blame whoever you like, but in the end Dallas Buyers Club failed to establish its metaphor for the situation we as a people are still struggling through with that other big disease... cancer.

Oops... politics aside, this movie still impressed me. It kept me interested and managed to allow me to enjoy performances from a group of actors I have, over many years of watching, not exactly thought of as superior performers. I think that was the strangest asset of this film for me...
that I finally can say I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor...
that Jared Leto's time on screen was not greeted by groans...
and that even Jennifer Garner could not derail the momentum. To me that's a damn big feat.

So my hat's off to the whole team. Despite a rather unsatisfactorily sloppy ending, Dallas Buyers Club is still a film of quality. One that I will not be surprised to find in Oscar conversations in the coming months.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Does Ender's Game Live Up To Expectations?

In a word... No.
But it does try. I am an avid fan of Orson Scott Card's novel and can honestly say the film did hit more key points than I thought it would.

The problem is, Ender's Game, still to this day, is too big a story for just one film. And I'm ignoring the many sequels and potential franchising with this article because this needs to be just about the stand alone story that is Ender's Game.
Since I first heard about the potential for an Ender's Game film adaptation I've been trying to figure out how it could be done. And the best answer I could come up with is... it's not a movie. But it could be a GREAT video game.

Still the movie now exists.

What worried me first and foremost about this, was the mind game. In the book it keeps us in touch with Ender's psyche while at the same time delivering some surprising and shocking images. True they used two of these scenes in the film, which is two more than I expected. But without those other sequences of the Wolf Children and the Playground, the Giant and the Castle lose their foundation.

I don't mind the excising of the majority of the Peter and Valentine story lines. Though it does lead me to wonder what they plan on doing in a potential sequel...
If they do Speaker for the Dead, I can only imagine it'll be completely reworked. Kind of sad considering how good a novel it is in its own right.

What I didn't anticipate, was the disregard for the crucial building blocks of strategy. I know it's just one movie (which is kind of the point) but our evaluation of how Ender gains the knowledge he does in order to come to that climax is legitimately the most crucial element to the story's success. Because within that strategy building we also learn who Ender is and what he truly wants to do. We learn how he sympathizes. And one line, repeated multiple times, can never come close to bringing us that kind of bond with a character.
Anyway, Asa Butterfield does an alright job here. I think a better script could have afforded him a greater opportunity for success, but at the same time I felt he lacked similar depth in Hugo as well. Harrison Ford was better than I thought he'd be. And Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, and Moises Arias (all in limited time) certainly brought a deeper life to this film.

At the end of the day, I guess it comes down to this. As a fan of the book, the movie teases just enough of the stuff I cared about to remain semi interesting. To a complete outsider, I don't think the appeal would exist from the outset because the movie provides no real foundation for their emotional journey. Therefor, in both capacities, it is a failure. A two-to-three star film based on a five star book that could've made a five star video game.

Because Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs Needed A Sequel

So apparently the folks over at Sony Animation really thought Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs needed a second visit.
Anyway, I went to see it and the majority of its hour and thirty minute run time is a waste of space. Pretty much every single food pun you could think of gets utilized and then strangled to death in an impressively short amount of time. But there is a slight bit of heart lost somewhere deep within that well of anti-humor.
The mega-corporation that serves as this films easy villain feels like a metaphorical Apple.
And there are some parallels to the reality of how Steve Jobs probably treated the "friends" of his that originally helped him to found that company. Still this film feels like it's picking on that reality and completely alienates the potential truth of that man's personality.

A great family film will connect with kids and adults alike. A piss-poor family film will miss the mark and go for cheap laughs, cheap thrills, and generally speaking miss every mark a filmmaker needs to invest in understanding. So as I see it, Cloudy 2 is an okay family film. It mostly lacks any creative insight, but probably still connects very well to at least half of its audience. I can only assume children eat this up and there is just enough there to get the parents through it. But it is the kind of film that is unsustainable. Just a quick buck that will mean almost nothing to anyone in about ten years.

So, while I like the original very much, Cloudy 2 is not a must see. If you're really bored one night and you need something easy to watch, you can give it a chance... though I can think of at least fifty movies off the top of my head that would be better suited to that scenario.

I Saw Blue Is The Warmest Color

Three hours later and I think this was an afternoon very well spent.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of those films that leads you in with a perverse expectation but brings you out with the exciting realization that you may have honestly learned something important.

True, this film is rated NC-17.
But (and I'm not saying it wasn't explicit) at no point did I feel the extensive sex sequences were overly gratuitous. In fact, quite the opposite. The sex in this film plays a secondary role to the emotional journey of Adele... and only exists for the purpose of absolute honesty. I think that is remarkable. To walk in expecting sex and to walk out with a better understanding of the human condition.

What I think impressed me the most was the subtly evocative way in which many of the scenes of this film would emotionally turn on a dime. Yet it was always inherent in the writing and acting... At no point did I feel confused or disillusioned with the emotional choices.
Adèle Exarchopoulos was incredible in the leading role. She had an impeccable way of always being honest to her audience. Likewise, Léa Seydoux did a beautiful job portraying a life-loving, free-wheeling artist. What the two of them share on screen is unparalleled in legitimate filmmaking and perhaps that is what makes the choice of using real sex feel so complexly correct. Certainly this is not a film for prudish types, but then, why are we allowed to see someone's head getting blown off if we're seventeen (with an R rating) when a movie like this which is simply about the way people are in loving relationships is forced into the annals of NC-17?

Abdellatif Kechiche did a wonderful job of bringing this vision to the big screen and now I believe I have to go back and discover all of his older works.
If you like good movies, you have to give this one a shot. After all, it only won the Palme d'Or.