Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Shoring Up The Past

There's only one superhero franchise still standing. It's the same one that sparked this 15 year surge of nonstop superhero concepts in the first place... X-Men.
When I think about what FOX has turned X-Men into, I get pretty confused. Because, after the massacres that were The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, one would have assumed they were ready to just start over again like Sony and Spider-Man. And while I must admit I'm glad they haven't gone that route yet, I still find myself at a loss. Days of Future Past, much like its predecessor First Class, attempts to find a way to start over without losing all of the information we already have. The only problem with that is, since that terrible flick (The Last Stand), these movies have been going without their core team. To me, this seems inexcusable, but somehow FOX has been able to sell it to us again and again, each time giving us new hope that these stories can have a purpose and revive our love of the original two films.

Okay, so Days of Future Past was pretty entertaining, all-be-it incredibly convoluted. Literally, there were shots used from EVERY OTHER X-Men flick to help explain what the hell was going on. And while at the end, it did manage to glimpse some bit of a universe that could make sense again, the rules of the majority of the movie seemed poorly explained and too frequently ignored. I know this comes out of the nature of the original book... to some extent. But the other black fact is, these really aren't the X-Men I know or grew up with.

The new cast (the First Class guys) hit their marks as best they can and frequently do succeed (though Xavier and Beast didn't make any sense to me this time around) and it is incredibly fun to witness the original cast getting another go around. But their future feels limp and undefined and the new characters (and even the ones added from The Last Stand... looking at you Kitty) don't really make any sense or have much of anything to do. It's a remarkable conundrum when you consider just how well defined the past is meant to be.

Everywhere you look, plot holes abound. It makes it hard to focus on the story when every rule they give you gets broken. If Trask tells us the sentinels cannot be controlled by anyone but himself, then Magneto comes along and well let's just say what he does makes no sense and doesn't actually connect back to his powers in any way... much like   Wolverine's peculiar adamantium claws which shouldn't exist after the events of The Wolverine. Or Kitty's newly given power to send peoples' consciousness' back in time.
HOW? I'm trying really hard not to sound like an angry fan boy... and believe me, I know I'm failing. But what am I supposed to do in the face of such debilitating ignorance?
Btw, I am totally on board with FOX's version of The Flash... since this probably isn't what Quicksilver's supposed to be like...
All of that ranting aside, the movie as a whole is pretty entertaining. It doesn't capture the same quality of the first two mostly because too much has happened since 2003. But it does try to shore up the issues that have existed since that third film obliterated all hope of us ever getting a real Phoenix movie.
Bryan Singer is really working hard to fix those mistakes. But the more I disconnect from the experience of watching Days of Future Past, the more I realize that is an impossible task. While I am excited about the prospect of an impending Apocalypse film, I do honestly wish this franchise could at last reset, revert to its original creators, and give us a universe wherein X-Men just already exist. That is many years off and Marvel will likely never get these film rights back, but a fanboy can dream.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Attempting, Desperately, To Understand Palo Alto

Do you like to be depressed? Do you like watching modern angsty teens being depressed and making only bad decisions? If you said yes to either of these questions, you'll probably like Palo Alto.
And the weird thing is, I think I do... like this movie. Because for some reason it hit me over the head just enough to make my problems not feel so bad. Oh I was still depressed walking out of the theatre, but at least I felt like the movie was sort of holding my hand and saying "It's alright dude... this shit happens to everybody." To which I responded "I don't actually think that shit happens to everybody, but I sure am glad it isn't happening to me... so thanks for the reminder."

Palo Alto is a film based on a James Franco novel (??) based on some of his experiences having grown up in... Palo Alto. It rings of incredibly interesting half truths, all of which are interesting sheerly from a living legend perspective. But in the end, most of this feels like a much larger collection of people being skimmed down and combined to make one movie where we could connect with just a few. This is not a negative thing, just a great deal of this feels like hearsay rather than actual events from one person's life. Like, "Did you hear what happened to that girl over in West Glen? She had an affair with her teacher." or "I heard Johnny and Tray cut down a protected tree last week." "No way!" You know, stuff like that. But I might be wrong, maybe James Franco was a part of all of this in his own right. I just wonder where he fits in.

That being said, the movie does carry weight... moral and thematic. It moves and I never found myself getting bored. I was too busy getting angry at the characters' poor decision making to get bored. Palo Alto has a feeling to it. Both pessimistic and malevolently beautiful. And I'm not lying when I say only one positive thing happens in the entire movie and it's only positive because it escapes the most sinister and negative thing that happens in the movie. Cryptic, I know, but I guess for some reason I think I want more people to see this movie. So I wanna leave some mystery.
Jack Kilmer (Val's son) does an excellent job here. To me he kind of evokes a darker version of the kid from Almost Famous in a muuuch darker movie. Emma Roberts was borderline perfect as an awkward girl trying to get a sense of herself in a really messy world. Her relationships with her mother, her teacher, her guidance councilor, and her classmates all blend together in this weird hodgepodge mess of a young life. Though it's not without hope, she definitely has a way to go before she starts making good choices. Nat Wolff was fun to watch. He just kept on doing things. He couldn't control himself and that was kind of perfect for the role.
I also really liked Zoe Levin in this one. She had an energy that felt real and consistent. She seemed to not care, but then showed her wounds when it mattered most. And yes, James Franco shows up. He doesn't do a lot, but he's there. It's weird to see him in this older role when there's probably a version of himself written into the other younger characters.

There are a few non sequiturs, like a scene of weird narration that evokes an emotional response but doesn't actually connect back to anything we see on film... and well the ending of the film just kind of happens which I've become more and more okay with as the day has passed. But it is still weird to catch a movie doing this and not really being given a reason why.
Palo Alto is a thoroughly depressing and absolutely cathartic experience. But somehow it's not at all a bad movie. This is Gia Coppola's first writing/directing credit. So I'm hoping to see what else she has to offer in the future.

So Million Dollar Arm Exists

It was cheesy and borderline ignorant, but Million Dollar Arm showed sparks of purpose and menial excitement...
The fact is, this movie won't have any serious longterm fans. It won't set any hearts on fire. And it will not take your breath away. Million Dollar Arm is just another flick to get you out of your house or give you something to do for two hours. But it did very seriously try to have heart and sometimes that is enough to keep what could be a terrible movie off the garbage heap.

Jon Hamm's JB has a legitimate character arc and while it may have felt obvious/contrived, that didn't keep me from believing that a person could change in that way from that experience.
Lake Bell continues to capture my interest because she's got so much quirk (and if I'm being honest, an excellent body). But the real stars of this film... the guys that really keep it from falling into a vomit stained mess, are the Indians... Pitobash, Suraj Sharma, and Madhur Mittal. These guys were too likable to let the movie crash... which is funny because that kind of goes hand in hand with a major theme of the movie itself. Wow Meta.

What the movie does suffer from is the tepid feeling that we've seen this all before in one form or another. Perhaps that comes from the idea that this is indeed meant to be based on a true story, but that doesn't mean it's okay for the filmmakers to insult us with this kind of moment: They tell us the rule that in order for the lefty to win the competition he'd have to throw a perfect strike above (I believe it was) 86 or a wild 93 (I'm paraphrasing because I don't recall the exact numbers)...

now based on the rules they had just given us, and the fact that we already knew ahead of time this kid was going to be one of the leads based on the fact that they only followed two Indians in the entire competition (and from advertising) we can easily assume that he's gonna throw one of these pitches. Then for some odd reason the world slows down as if we're supposed to feel suspense of some kind. I'm sorry, you're not gonna take my breath away be slowing things down... especially when I already know what's coming. Give the kid a chance to act out his emotions in a natural, real time moment and let the actions occur fluidly. I would have been much more excited watching him throw the pitch and then getting everyone else's reactions as they then tell us that's the only thing he could have possibly done to win... and wouldn't you believe it?? He did!

Oh well. This is a Disney sports flick. Probably not the best place to be sending formal complaint letters. The deafness of ears probably doesn't come from a lack of respect for the craft so much as the enormous amount of money rammed down some of these guys ears. I'm sorry, I'm being a jerk.
In reality, Million Dollar Arm wasn't all bad. It had heart and like I said before, that's just enough to keep it from the trash compactor.

Friday, May 16, 2014


This new Gareth Edwards helmed Godzilla is a wonderfully giddy experience.
It breaks formula right from the start and really never allows itself to feel obvious or overly equated like many summer blockbusters tend to do. What Edwards has accomplished with this film is both surprisingly obvious and completely underutilized in other features. Basically, stick to the basics. Cover your ass. Make certain your plot makes sense and the characters within it make their choices because those are the choices they would actually make. And (perhaps most key) don't overdo the effects. Give the audience just enough of the good stuff to make them want more.

When I take the time to look back on the "blockbuster" over the last fifteen years, I see only a slight few successful films that have attempted big CG effects. And a whole lot of just garbage attempts. It's obviously difficult to make it all look good all of the time. So when you know you don't have the time or budget perhaps the best thing to do is keep it small. Something that Godzilla, even with its budget and expectations, masterfully accomplishes.  I mean, Godzilla himself probably doesn't even show up for the first time until 45 minutes in. But I didn't care, because I was so enthralled in Bryan Cranston's mad chase for the truth.
Now that comes from my adult side... my inner child was probably more confused by the fact that every time Godzilla began to fight, the film would cut away to some other event... my inner child was probably saying, "What the hell!?!? I wanted to see that!!!" Okay, so my adult side was saying that too a little bit. All of the wonderful character and plot building aside... all of that wonderful simplicity was all well and good... but I do still wish that Edwards had at least given us one extensive monster fight to sink our teeth into... something that Peter Jackson's King Kong did so well back in 2005.

But no matter what I feel about that, I keep coming back to the realization that the lack of monster fights didn't really effect the film in a negative way for me. I've actually already managed to see it twice, and in some ways it helped me enjoy the film more the second time by recognizing that at heart it was a story about people... and their effect on the world. Action. And reaction. The monsters are only a response to our own growth.

Bryan Cranston is of course wonderful to watch, but be aware, this is NOT his movie... he only plays a part in it. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does a fine job taking the reigns. He's not my ideal Godzilla hero, yet somehow by the end I was practically a hundred percent on his side. Elizabeth Olsen didn't get enough to play with, but she still managed to fill her limited role with an amazing honesty. She has proven to me in a very short time that she has all the chops to be a star for a long long time. Juliette Binoche was also wonderful to watch. But then the one two punch comes in... Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn! These guys are absolute pros and always so interesting to watch. I'm just glad they made it into the film because they brought a vibrancy to a B story (with A intentions) that I don't believe would have been at all interesting without such fine performers filling those roles.
The surprises this film offers are myriad. The cast, exceptional (if not occasionally underutilized). The cinematography, simply amazing. What I suggest you consider before going out to the theatre is... are you ready for the first truly awesome ride of 2014?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Neighbors Has Something To Say... But I'm Not Sure What

Can you remember the last time you went to the movies and couldn't recognize which characters you were supposed to root for or care about?
That was my dilemma when I went to see Neighbors. I felt left in a sort of awkward limbo. On the one hand it seemed like they were trying to make Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne the good guys... just based on structure. But then their characters went ahead and lied and cheated and did just terrible things that honestly hurt a lot of people. So they really didn't seem like the good guys in this story... in fact they looked like terrible horrible parents who would do almost anything to get away from and forget about their baby. And while I have not yet reached that point in my own life, it just doesn't sound like good people to me. After all, if a mother went to a rave one night and got completely messed up, leaving her baby to fend for itself, that would make headlines and we would all be looking down on her. So why are these people different than that story? In the first ten minutes of the film they come within moments of literally taking their baby with them to a rave... Seriously?!?!
On the other hand, we have this Frat that just managed to nab a new house right by their school. So realistically they haven't done anything wrong. This is, as evidenced by the film, a college town where this is easily an expectation. And nobody else in the neighborhood seems to mind what these kids are doing at all. Every time the Frat members are meant to come off as bad guys, they prove that they are not. Almost every negative action they perform in the movie is an act of self defense against this crazy couple who live next door that acted like and even said they were one thing (partying with the kids one night) only to turn their backs without keeping their end of the deal (calling the cops rather than talking to their neighbors as they had agreed the night before).
Maybe it's an age thing, but Neighbors fails to accurately establish the adults who we're supposed to root for to win as responsible, trustworthy people. And that is a massive weakness for the film.

Now that I've got that out of my system, I do have to admit I had a good time going on the journey. Much was forced... some characters were given payoffs that they hadn't earned and didn't deserve... but the comedy did come through when it needed to most. The De Niro party was a pretty funny idea
and there was a very minor message included for the Frat guys about growing up. And ultimately I did leave the theatre feeling alright about seeing the movie. That's obviously not the goal with a flick like this, but if I didn't leave wanting to burn every print in existence, somehow that feels like a victory to me.

If you like movies that feel like an escape and do just enough to keep you onboard... or you just wanna get out of the house for an evening but you don't want to go to that rave your friends keep talking about... Neighbors may be a good fit for you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Jon Favreau's Chef Is A Welcome Metaphor For Industry

I came to see Jon Favreau's Chef because I love food and watching a near-2-hour movie specifically about food traditionally gets me going pretty well.
What I didn't expect to find was a thinly veiled message about Favreau's latest experiences in the film industry. Check this, the plot of Chef: A celebrity chef quits his job because he's not allowed to make the food he wants to make... his boss keeps telling him just to make this one specific menu... one that is getting panned by critics... sound like a studio's relationship with the director? So he goes off and buys a food truck where he can make the food he wants to make whenever he wants... like, I dunno, a production company or something self produced or something?
Jon Favreau got his start with small indy-style movies. He wrote Swingers and directed Made before he ever got the opportunity to do projects like Elf and Zathura. Both of those could be considered smaller studio pictures. The man was working his way up a ladder. And as he went, it seemed he was being given the opportunity to make the movies HE wanted to make. Then, one day, BOOM he gets Iron Man. It's instantly huge for him. He quickly starts working on a sequel. But as open as Marvel Studios is to allowing artists creative control, they perhaps want to add too many elements creating the most convoluted movie in the franchise... suddenly too many ingredients, suddenly too many cooks in the kitchen (sorry). So afterward he says he won't come back for a third attempt. Sounds to me like he was frustrated and wasn't enjoying the process... I mean, who gives up an opportunity to complete their trilogy??
I'm just saying, the plot of Chef certainly speaks to me from the perspective of Favreau's personal career. But enough on that for now.

As a film, Chef aspires to lofty things. The film wants very badly to carry a weighted heart and at many times it succeeds bringing the audience into its world with gusto. But then there are the little moments that feel rushed and unintelligible for a final cut. These are just little moments, but they can cut deep from a film's integrity. That being said, I think it does ultimately surpass these minor issues. I don't want to even mention them as I hope anyone going to see the film might miss them altogether and thus have a better experience.
When you're Jon Favreau, you have a lot of friends. And it felt like... despite the obvious absence of Vince Vaughn this time around... Favreau got almost everyone he knew to show up in his little film. And they all seem to be having a blast. John Leguizamo can still do great things if you let him... and here he's clearly having so much fun that his good side shines through. I really like Bobby Cannavale. He's just consistently good in everything. Scarlett Johansson is solid here even if she doesn't get a whole lot to do. And Dustin Hoffman is always a welcome presence for me. He feels like he's still trying to this day unlike some of his contemporaries... and I love him for that. This is my second positive experience with Sofía Vergara this month and I'm so glad she's on my radar now. Oliver Platt is an immortal favorite of mine, and though he has one of those parts that mostly will get overlooked, he still brings a stark presence to his role that proves to me he was giving it his all. And Robert Downey Jr.'s cameo is pretty amazing... and weird... but mostly just a perfect scene for an audience with such a broad relationship to the man's film career. That scene was strange as all hell, but it left me wanting more.

So what's left to say? Chef is a solid flick that can be viewed from two angles. Either it's a simple road trip movie about food (which is fine), or it's an artist coming out and stating how messy his experiences these last six years have been and trying to prove to us that he's still that same guy we enjoyed making smaller projects with legitimate heart. Well I for one think he's headed in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gotta Admit, I Liked Fading Gigolo

I love being surprised by movies!
I went into John Turturro's Fading Gigolo with not an ounce of hope that it could actually maybe possibly be... GOOD. When he came out with Romance & Cigarettes back in 2005, I admit, I was excited. But then that movie just turned out to feel like a massive heap of rubbish. So why should I have had any positive expectations for Fading Gigolo?

Well because... John Turturro! And Woody Allen! And...
That's why... I was really wrong to doubt their tastes so greatly. It's not that this was a perfect movie, but it was lightyears and lightyears better than the nightmare I was expecting. And it had STYLE.
Fading Gigolo lived and died by its soundtrack. It was Jazz. And the visuals frequently supported just that sentiment. Of course then there was the subplot of Hasidim. That was kind of weird and almost pulled me out, but eventually became an intricate part of what made me so thoroughly enjoy the film.

Now I feel a little ashamed that I had such low expectations in the first place. Granted the reviews were more or less negative, so I have that "excuse." But I've always liked John Turturro's insane personality as an actor. And whenever I've seen him in interviews he always had such a bizarre way of looking at the world. Of course his earlier Romance & Cigarettes was a mess. He was after all just barely getting into directing and probably didn't quite know how to bring his vision to screen. I really think he's grown by leaps and bounds over the last nine years.
I love seeing these two guys on screen and it's fun to see Woody Allen play in someone else's world from time to time. Liev Schreiber did absolute justice to his role as usual. But this movie became a sort of jungle gym for all of the women in it. Vanessa Paradis was exceptional as a woman finally coming back out from hiding. Her growth made the entire film worthwhile. Then there's Sharon Stone  actually proving that she can still be fun to watch on screen. And need I say, Sofía Vergara... va va voom!
What more can I tell you. Fading Gigolo did it for me. It was a pretty entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. And I thoroughly recommend it to... well... any guy I know because I think we all wish we could add a couple of those skills to our list. Am I right? Am I righ-- What? You say you're already that smooth with the ladies? Well... okay. It was good... um... talking to you. Later.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2... Because They Literally Have To Put One Of These Out Every Couple Years

or they'll lose the rights. And Sony ain't losing the rights to Spider-Man... No matter what.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was... well not amazing exactly, but it was alright... passable, if you will. The awkward fact is, we live in a time when these movies will just keep getting made. I personally like big blockbuster super hero movies. But I don't like seeing millions and millions of dollars being wasted on making something that is just filler... which has been the issue with a lot of these of late. But none so much as these new Spider-Man films. While on the surface they look like delicious candy, every time I open up the wrapper it turns out someone left it in the sun and the chocolate is just melted to the point that I don't actually want to eat it anymore. After all, what good is candy without substance?

Marc Webb has impressed me with his versatility. But he's also confused me with his lack of concentration. When (500) Days of Summer came out, I thought this was a guy who had his shit together and completely understood the message he was trying to impart. But ever since he put his hands on Spider-Man I've been scratching my head. If he could make such a clean and concise film as (500) Days... what's getting in the way with his super hero franchise? Well it's probably Avi Arada, but that's a different talk for a different time.

It's true, where the first film failed to do much new or interesting, this sequel did manage to grab me a few more times. The Electro effects in the first half really worked for me.
Though I can't even begin to guess what Jamie Foxx was doing in this movie. Aside from Django (and I give Tarantino the credit for that one) Jamie Foxx hasn't had a good performance since Ray... back in 2004 (????). And unfortunately the trend continues here. Like I was saying, there were Electro moments that really worked. But those were usually not acting moments and mostly just made more interesting with weird industrial/electric music and good effects (when the effects were good... so not the second half of the movie for some reason).
The advent of Green Goblin felt almost as rushed as the Venom thing in Spider-Man 3... which is obviously not a good thing. And the Peter/Harry relationship never got going the way it needed to. Granted I enjoyed Andrew Garfield (when he wasn't awkwardly feeling up his aunt) and Emma Stone was exceptional as usual. But Dane DeHaan was merely passable in a role that needed more teeth from the actor and the writers. Essentially, he was only put in the movie because the Green Goblin haaad to exist in this movie in order for the filmmakers to get away with the ending. Fan boys will not accept the ending they chose without him. That and Sony will be moving forward with spinoffs like the Sinister Six movie, so they needed to build in a couple of those characters ASAP. And the audience can feel it Sony. We get it. But it still feels incredibly unnecessary... so prove us wrong about these spinoffs.

Anyway as the last quarter of the film played out, I found myself considering what Spider-Man's supposed to be. He's not representative of the "American spirit", like Superman... and he's not a dark detective, like Batman... he's not about big business, like Iron Man... and he doesn't have the whole wanting to belong or be free thing that the X-Men have always done. Spider-Man is supposed to be more like a regular kid who goes to school, has a family, and tries to have a social life... even if he does self sabotage on a regular basis. These new movies try to capture that feeling. But they always seem to bury it because there are just too many absurd things going on to really give them the time they deserve. Obviously we should never be forced to watch a D train rise out of an abandoned subway as if it's supposed to be cool, because it doesn't make sense to the story... at all. This is almost as awkward as the cranes in the first one, suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and if you want it to go farther you badly have to earn the audience's trust. Something these writers have failed to do time and time again... Still there was one moment that pulled me back from my contemplative mood at the end there. It nearly justified the entire movie for me. And I really might have walked out of there with a skip in my step if that had felt like the message the filmmakers were trying to go with all movie long. Because a little kid who looks up to Spider-Man really can make a difference...

I do keep thinking about the idea of stakes. Are they high enough? Do we, the audience, feel the danger? And while most of the time in these kinds of movies I would say probably not, this time it was a different story. The writers came in with one event they had to do. I knew it was coming because they had set it up in the first movie and if you intentionally cast your movie to pull at heart strings I think we all know what's gonna happen... one of those strings is gonna get cut. Anyone who knows anything about Spider-Man knows what this movie is here for. I'm glad I've finally seen them be "brave" enough to do it. I was disappointed when they didn't try to switch it up in the original trilogy and do the same thing. But what's odd to me is the filmmakers didn't seem to have any restraint in interviews about it. I didn't just expect the event because of the previous installment... I KNEW it was coming because Marc Webb pretty much told me it was gonna happen. To me, that's a strange way to put out interviews before the movie has made it to it's audience.

Essentially, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is better than the first one, but still doesn't manage to resonate because it's just too convoluted with so many peoples' ideas. As a studio I get the desire to have three screenwriters and four story credits because you really just want to get it right. But I think the message that a majority of these movies have accidentally been imparting is, one or two guys who truly understand their craft and deeply care about the content will make you a better movie. Just a thought.
Oh, btw, there's no tag after the credits... so if you wanna see that weird X-Men thing, just wait a little while and once Mystique is done being weird it's alright to get out of your seat and finally go home.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Let Locke Wash Over You

In a sea of pleasantries, Ivan Locke makes one mistake, but being the man of conviction he is, he has to take responsibility for his actions.
At heart, Locke is a very simple movie. Tom Hardy in a car. For an hour thirty. Driving. While metaphors do abound, the story never tries to push too hard. It's clear what's happening at any given moment and the plot never wanders. The group of characters Hardy speaks to while in the car are each precise and alive in their own way. But Hardy animates them even further with his visible subtleties. As a good friend put it, this film was like reading a novel. You develop a firm picture in your head of each of these characters even though you never actually get to see them.
If you got out to see Buried a couple years ago, this format isn't exactly mind-blowing. Man on cellphone tries to fix his life. One man show. This could easily have been a stage play. But someone was wise enough to put it on screen and pace it in just the right way. And while I felt like some of the road cutaways were borderline cheating, I can easily let that slide since the quality of content from every other moment of the film is so solid.
Essentially, Tom Hardy is a phenomenal performer. He carries this whole thing on his back while doing a character we (somehow) haven't seen from him before. While I don't always think of Hardy as a chameleon, the man certainly can change his voice. And in that one excellent maneuver, it feels as though he sheds his face. It takes real talent to do what he does.

Before the summer really gets going, you should try and catch this one. Believe me, you'll be craving something like it once the big action blockbusters start kicking your butt.