Sunday, July 27, 2014

Magic In The Moonlight Takes Me Back

Now this is more my style. I've watched a lot of classic film in my day. And clearly so has Woody Allen.
Magic in the Moonlight is, perhaps, not Woody's best. But it is still quite entertaining. It brings back memories of Noel Coward with a slight brush of Billy Wilder, all while still telling a story that is, at heart, very Woody Allen. This is not something new. Woody's frequently pulled from the annuls of film history in the past. Sleeper was Keaton, Bananas was Chaplin, and he's done more Bergman attempts than I can remember. So it seems fitting that he would step over to a slightly different piece of film history, especially since he seems set on doing as much work in Europe as he can for the time being... and Europe itself is so rich with history. Why not make a flick that takes place in the south of France in the 1920s?
Magic is the story of the grumpiest person on the planet, Colin Firth... trying to unmask the most likable person on the planet, Emma Stone, as a fraud. It's quite simple in it's telling and not at all unpredictable, but still rather entertaining in the way that those old romantic comedies from the thirties and forties can still keep you chuckling late on a rainy evening. And I genuinely love it for that. It doesn't try to be more than it is, tells you everything that you need to know, gets you in and out in just over ninety minutes, and leaves you with that wonderful feeling that you have just watched a good classic. There's nothing quite like that feeling for me.

Colin Firth is, of course, a joy to watch. He lacks all form of subtlety and to me that's exactly what this character needed. Emma Stone, likewise, kept me glued to the screen. She's really come into her own... though sometimes it feels like she was just born with that perfect quirkiness. Hamish Linklater also caught my attention because his character was so well defined and so perfectly opposite to Colin's grumpiness. And Jacki Weaver's over-excited nature brought a vibrance to her scenes that I really hadn't expected. I truly enjoyed all of the performances in this one.
Say what you will about Woody Allen as a man... but the guy knows how to make a good picture. And Magic in the Moonlight is no exception.

Wish I Was (Not Watching This Movie) Here

I liked Garden State when it came out back in 2004. And Scrubs holds a special place in my heart as one of the few sitcoms I can still watch (probably not the later seasons). So I was borderline excited to find that Zach Braff had managed to crowd-fund a new movie.
Wish I Was Here is the story of a dude who's still struggling to be a working actor despite having two kids and a wife who's working way too much. He has a bad relationship with his father, and a brother that lacks all form of communication skills. And despite it all, he can't seem to let go of this fantasy that he is doing the right thing for all of the people in his life... because honestly, he's not. He's really pretty useless as a person. I apologize if my opinion's taking over this little bracket, but Zach Braff's Aidan Bloom doesn't even try to find another way. He never searches for a night job, an obvious step if he needs to put food on the table, and he constantly repeats this obnoxious line about how he and his brother used to pretend they were superheroes, but thinks that maybe they're just the normal people... "the ones who need saving." If that's really the point of this movie, there's a reason nobody wanted to make it. But what's worse is, that idea has practically nothing to do with the story Zach and his brother Adam chose to tell. Every step of the way, Aidan could take a personal step to fixing his own life. He doesn't actually need rescuing... nor does he ever seem to get it.  What depresses me most is this idea that everything can end happily ever after without ever dealing with the real issue. Kate Hudson's Sarah is too understanding and it feels like she would let Aidan get away with murder if she thought it would help him have "passion" again. But she's the one most affected by Aidan's laziness. Maybe there's some hyper-truth in this, but it feels like they take her enabling to a mad extreme here.
I'm not knocking the performances. Actually I think the cast did really well considering what they had to work with. Joey King, who played Aidan's daughter Grace, did a really great job. At 15 years old, she's already got a ton of experience and really let that shine through. Pierce Gagnon was fun to watch as well. And as mean as he's said to be, Mandy Patinkin is still a very quality actor. But Josh Gad had practically nothing to do in this movie, and really didn't do anything with the screen time he had. I'm still trying to figure out how this guy has a career, but that's probably a little harsh. He just hasn't given me a performance that I can actually sink my teeth into and after 36 (count em 36) projects in the film and television industry, one would assume there would be at least one performance of note. I'm not exactly a huge Kate Hudson fan either, but her performance (even being the complete enabler that she was) was pretty good. Even Zach Braff had slight stirrings of emotion (which is rare given the kind of part he usually plays).
But none of this was enough in the end. Because the script wasn't up to snuff. There were some fun one-liners. But at the end of the day, that's practically all the movie was. Every moment seemed like it was trying to be THE moment. And that's a failing formula. Your audience absolutely needs to breathe between big epiphanies. And wit can only take a script so far.

Wish I Was Here really shouldn't exist. And I'm sorry for all of the people who helped Zach to crowd-fund the project, because the product they were expecting is absolutely not what made it to theaters. And I would absolutely not recommend that anyone go see it because it didn't do much of anything for me. I'd still see a future Zach Braff project, I would just have to pray it was a lot more like Garden State and a lot less like this.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

So Planes Got A Sequel...

I didn't think the first Planes actually did enough to get itself a sequel... not that I hated it or anything, I just didn't see the kids coming out in droves the same way they do for other animated properties. But still, the Disney machine found a reason to make another one, so here it is... Planes: Fire and Rescue.
I actually wound up liking the premise for this one. Basically, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) discovers he can't race anymore or his engine will seize (Wow! That's some pretty tough stuff to throw at a bunch of kids). So he has to look for something else to do with his life. And through the brilliance of movie magic, he is practically forced into the world of firefighting. It's a somewhat romantic idea that the great celebrity racer has to grow up one day and learn to do something that actively helps society. But there's one problem. If his engine would seize under the strenuous conditions of racing... it'll probably seize under the even more strenuous conditions of firefighting. Weird that no one would take the time to mention this... until it actually becomes an issue... at least I find that weird.
But let's ignore that for now. The voice work is pretty solid. I really liked Ed Harris' performance as Blade Ranger. Yet there's still a major disconnect (like in Cars) watching vehicles living in what otherwise looks like a human world. Especially when we get to the campfire sequence and realize everyone has to drink their beverages out of straws because literally none of them are capable of picking the cups up for themselves. At some point that just begins to feel lazy. I'm sure they could've found a better way to do that scene without that bit of awkwardness... unless the crew working on the movie just thought this was some hysterical little joke. Sorry to say, I'm not on board with that.
Regardless, there were several quality moments in the film and the recognition that we can't be cutting the budgets to our most crucial public services helped to keep me on board with the movie. But then the movie ended... and Dusty hadn't learned any real lesson about his body. He had worked himself beyond his limits and I think there was a really interesting lesson that could have been taught there. But laziness completely took over the final sequence of the movie... it felt like the filmmakers were saying, just keep doing exactly what you've been doing and eventually everything will just fix itself. And for that alone I will likely never watch this movie again. It's a shame too, because like I said before, there were a few surprisingly genuine moments. Just not enough to keep the boat afloat.

Does The Purge: Anarchy Work?

After watching the first The Purge, I felt a kind of emptiness about the movie. The concept was fun and potentially interesting. But the script had obviously been written for an extremely low budget. Really all the first movie got right was that it made people aware of the premiss. But it ultimately failed to show off what made that premiss entertaining or even watchable to tell the truth.
So I was curious about The Purge: Anarchy. On the surface it seems to fix those problems. It's the same idea, for one night out of the year murder is legal... okay. But it actively gets us out into the city to see the action on the streets. It should be a war out there. It should be. But the streets are oddly emptier than the original would have led us to believe. Not that there aren't terrible things going down, I guess there are just a lot fewer. Which surprisingly does serve the movie. So in that respect this is a better movie than the original.
Yet James DeMonaco fails to create many compelling characters (not that there aren't "okay" performances), and even worse, he uses death as a side note. Not a single death in the movie (much like the original) actually made me react. Not a single death really affected the momentum of the story... nor did it really service the plot in a respectable way. After so many years of seeing Game of Thrones get death so right, it's just annoying to sit down in a movie and watch the writer completely misuse it.
To me, The Purge: Anarchy is a better movie than the original. But that's not saying a whole lot. It's a disjointed war movie pretending to be a horror flick... and it fails to effectively become a complete film.

Netflix's New Doc: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

I really like what Netflix has been doing lately. The original content that's been steadily coming out over the last couple years has been on par with other premium networks... they just make it easier to access without the necessity of buying a whole bunch of channels you're really never gonna watch. So I was excited to hear about this new documentary...
The Battered Bastards of Baseball starts off slow, but it really caught (no pun intended) my attention by the end. There was an odd sort of vanity quality to the project which was bizarre to see. And some of the interviews felt a little forced. But the story itself was quite compelling. It could actually make a really solid movie in its own right, but there was all of this really interesting footage out there, so I'm glad someone took advantage of it.
Essentially, The Battered Bastards of Baseball is the story of major league baseball (an organization actually sanctioned by the government to monopolize an entire industry... are you kidding me??), and one very compelling man's struggle to prove to the world that there was a better version of the sport that was being suffocated by the money sharks up top. It's really very cool to see somebody make the moves Bing Russell made to try and fight such a giant. And it certainly connects back to some of the struggles we're seeing in sports today. If another football league opened up in Spring, I would likely watch, but every time someone tries, something comes along and wrecks the whole thing.
If you like sports at all, this is a fun and quirky picture that you'll want to check out. Chapman Way and Maclain Way did a solid job and while I don't think it'll make any splash come awards season, it's still worth a look.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Linklater's Boyhood Captures Lightning In A Bottle...

...for twelve straight years!!
The gimmick alone is worth the price of admission. Richard Linklater took his core cast and shot a little bit at a time for twelve years so we would actually be able to watch these guys grow. How cool is that?
But let's look beyond the gimmick... which the more I think on it feels less and less gimmicky and more and more natural. I wish we could get movies like this on a regular basis. Anyway, Boyhood actually captures something else across the years. A complete and well structured movie with some genuine insight into human existence and the nature of relationship.

Linklater's been doing such interesting work lately, and it's because he's never been afraid to experiment, mix things up, and try new things. I mean, this guy made a trilogy out of conversations on boardwalks (Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight). He put animated cells over live action film... twice (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly)! He's shot in pseudo-documentary style on multiple occasions and intentionally made a studio set feel like a low budget hotel room that he just happened to rent one night. This feels like a natural step in his filmmaking career and its so incredibly interesting to see him play around with the foundations of filmmaking.

His cast clearly trusts and respects him as well. Ethan Hawke has worked with the director at least half a dozen times. And those films have enriched his career in a way most actors can't even begin to hope for. Patricia Arquette turned in one of her best performances in this movie. And to witness the performances he managed to pull from Ellar Coltrane and his own daughter, Lorelei over such an extended period of time is a somehow magical thing to experience.

I know it's like three hours long and that can seem like a trek for many filmgoers, but Boyhood is worth the sacrifice of half an afternoon. And I'd be surprised if it didn't rear its head come award season.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes May Be The Best Film Of The Summer...

...And it's almost definitely the smartest. Believe me, I always walk in to a Planet of the Apes movie with a certain level of fear. Maybe they'll miss the mark. Maybe they'll try to make this an action movie a la J.J. Abrams' Star Trek... which believe me, would NOT work for this franchise at all. So stepping into Dawn... I had to hold my breath for a bit because it could so easily have gone wrong.

The advent of Rise was surprising enough as it was. See I didn't think there was a whole lot more anyone could do with the Planet of the Apes franchise after the original series had essentially brought us full circle... and then Tim Burton had just decimated the property. But somehow it worked again in 2011. I guess broad social commentary in an epic post-apocalyptic sci-fi world will always have some level of appeal. But beyond that, Dawn is just a really intelligent movie. It actually takes the time to ask genuine questions and it goes through a process to try and effectively answer them. So what we get as an audience is a big budget sci-fi film that allows us to think... which, in all sincerity (and believe me I still enjoy the new Star Treks... at least the first one), is what has been so sorely missing from other major rebooted sci-fi properties of late.
I'm so incredibly relieved to see what Matt Reeves has done with this movie. Because he obviously gets what Planet of the Apes is. He effectively found a way to jump into Rupert Wyatt's Rise setup without missing a beat. From the writers' room up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a true successor to Rise... and it, in fact, overcomes the negative shortcomings of that earlier film (like subpar human performances), allowing it to break through to the next level. This is one of those movies I'm gonna be talking about for a long time to come.
Flawless CG combined with an exceptional story of two cultures trying desperately not to make the mistakes they know they are prone to, amounts to the best of the best in filmmaking.
Literally, the only negative I can draw from this movie is, there wasn't enough Gary Oldman. That's probably because I think Gary Oldman is too good an actor for the role he was given. But consider this, Andy Serkis as Caesar is the star of these films. The humans involved have always been secondary. And somehow, these flicks have made the audience 100% okay with rooting for another species. They make us actively compare ourselves to that species and understand them... perhaps even better than the mess of humans that could represent us after such a disaster.
I can't praise Dawn of the Planet of the Apes enough. It accomplished everything I wanted it to while still allowing the opportunity for another film to flourish in the near future. And I'm so glad Matt Reeves is signed on for the next one. I just hope nothing slows the production on this third installment because I would love to see another Apes movie in 2016!

Grand Piano Is Too Much Fun

Do you remember that time, you sat down to watch Speed with your friends... and someone made an asinine comment like "how cool would it be if they took this premise and did it on a piano?"... and everyone just stared at them for a while? Because what kind of mind would think of such a ridiculous idea... actually what did your friend even mean by that?
Well your friend was actually totally a genius. Because Grand Piano is epic beyond belief... and its tagline should absolutely be Speed... ON A PIANO!!
Now what does that mean? It means Elijah Wood is a great concert pianist who's finally coming back to the craft after five years away just to play this one last show. I know what you're thinking, "this already sounds like an action movie." But seriously, hold back your snarky remarks until the end. As Elijah sits down and begins playing, he comes across a message hidden (well not exactly hidden) in the pages of his sheet music. Yes! The message reads, "Play one wrong note and you die!"
Oh man. This movie just got awesome! See, the brilliant thing about setting an action thriller at a concert is, the intense musical cues are literally built in. He can't stop playing or he's gonna die. But he can try to do other things. He is, after all, a piano genius. He knows the easy parts well enough, and he has a cellphone... so he can...
I actually think you should watch it yourself, so don't let me ruin anything else for you. It's not perfect, in fact some of the secondary actors are just downright awful, but Eugenio Mira and Damien Chazelle crafted a very fun movie here. It's something I'd absolutely consider rewatching in the same way that a movie like Speed is rewatchable... just... how did they think of that moment? How did they keep the bus going that whole time? How did they keep the plot moving like that? At first it seems impossible, but somehow it works. Check it out on Netflix today!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Begin Again Is A Welcome Relief

This summer's been a bit hard to stomach movie-wise. So it's nice to get a little relief from the overbearing Hollywood blockbusters. I didn't need to go far to find Begin Again. But I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did.
It's the kind of movie that has a language all its own. In the silence there are still words being spoken. 
There's a charisma emanating from Mark Ruffalo's relationship to Keira Knightley, and it's so specifically structured, like a great building. I've gotta say, it was also refreshing to not be watching a love story. These are just two like-minded people who actually understand each others' desires... musically.

John Carney knows what he's doing. As a writer/director he's really carving out his own little niche in the industry. After Once it seems it would have been fairly easy to walk away from music and push a career as an all-around good filmmaker, but he seems set in his ways and I for one appreciate getting his multiple takes on the world of music. The cast was excellent as well, between Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley it's fairly obvious these days you're gonna have some quality performances. But add Mos Def to the equation, Hailee Steinfeld, and Catherine Keener with... Adam Levine (?? Doing something similar, but less silly, to what Justin Timberlake did in Inside Llewyn Davis)... and you've got a really interesting movie.
And honestly, don't knock the Adam Levine casting. It is a music movie after all. And he did a more than serviceable job playing a sellout. His character had a surprising final moment as well that I really think was a brilliant piece of filmmaking. That may have been John Carney getting it more so than Adam Levine getting it... but regardless, his casting was surprisingly the right decision for this picture.

I guess my only negative thought on the movie falls during the credits. For some reason there were two additional scenes designated to occur after the real movie had ended. And while the first of these scenes makes sense as a statement about what the music business "should be"... the second one practically destroys the entire movie in a single line. It's really confusing to have witnessed that moment. And at the very least, it should not have been the last thing we saw of these characters... especially when the actual ending of the movie was so fulfilling and concise. Oh well. You can't win 'em all.
Begin Again is one of the best things in theaters right now. So give it a chance. You'll be glad you aren't watching Transformers, I promise.

Earth To Echo Ain't E.T., But It Ain't Bad Either

After Super 8, I kind of figured E.T. "remakes" were done. Super 8 seemed to prove to me that the magic of E.T. was really just a one time thing. Because it had never been seen before, E.T. hit audiences in just the right way and left them thinking about family and other life in the universe in a way movies hadn't really done before that. And Super 8 just didn't manage to capture my heart in the same way. So I was surprised to be getting another "sort of" attempt with Earth To Echo.
Well, it didn't exactly fail. Earth To Echo was a good family movie. Kids will definitely like it... especially boys... for it's attempt at creating a fun video game-esque puzzle. And parents will most likely be able to tolerate it because it has just enough heart and momentum to not be boring the entire time. But it's not E.T. Attempting to recapture that magic feels like a pipe dream.
Regardless, the concept for Earth To Echo is pretty fun. Let's make a found footage movie that kids can enjoy. What with the way the sub genre has taken off over the last decade I'm honestly surprised this idea hadn't reared its head sooner. And the cool thing about it is, despite all of the gimmicks that people can never seem to let be with found footage, it does work in a kids film. Or at least, it doesn't negatively impact the movie. I do wonder though if the gimmicky nature of some of the dialogue would seem false to children... something I usually wouldn't consider in a kids film... if the youngest generation is growing up with technology at their fingertips from such an early age, is it compelling to them to see a bunch of kids running around with cameras... what's actually special about that these days (ignoring, of course, the alien aspect of the film)?
But I digress. Earth To Echo was good enough for what it was. And the young actors did a pretty good job considering they had to carry a movie. In that way, it does bring back memories of other 80s flicks. Because somehow these kids definitely understood everything they had to do which really makes me respect first-time feature director Dave Green for getting those performances out of Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig, and Ella Wahlestedt.
Earth To Echo is a good enough distraction for the kids. And sometimes that translates to good enough for parents as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Thankfully Snowpiercer Was Awesome!

This is more like it! Man it's been a rough couple of weeks for movies. Fortunately this new Joon-ho Bong flick hit theaters just when I needed it the most... when I had begun to lose all hope for this summer.
Snowpiercer is just plain interesting. It's thoroughly entertaining all the way from the source concept: the last remnants of the human race, stuck together in a constantly moving train...
sociological and scientific metaphors abound. And it's just damn fun to watch... from beginning to end. It reminds me of older films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover or City of Lost Children... that kind of art house film that somehow managed to get bigger than life. This is a BIG art house flick in the best possible way. And it's the kind of outlandish perspective we've been missing in bigger Hollywood movies that somehow seem smaller despite their massive budgets. Not that Snowpiercer had a small budget, but when you compare it to that of expected blockbusters, it's at least half the price.
But enough of that. This movie had an exceptional and often surprisingly cool cast. Chris Evans was clearly having a blast and it's so interesting to see how excited he gets about making movies like this. I hope he continues to choose such solid projects in the future, now that he has some amount of movie star clout to throw around.
Kang-ho Song is amazing as usual. He constantly proves to me that Korean cinema can provide a platform for good actors to be big and entertaining. Ah-sung Ko was also wonderful to watch! I love how much of The Host (2006) made it into this movie. And I love that Bong clearly still trusts these actors. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the epic talents of John Hurt here as well. He's just too damn good. I could list off the rest of the cast, but I really don't want to ruin any of those surprises. Just be prepared to catch a glimpse of a whole bunch of awesome actors you know and love doing their damnedest to make a good movie. It's really quite cool how many people wanted to be a part of this.
Snowpiercer is the antithesis of the studio summer blockbuster. It shows what a big idea can be if it is allowed to flourish. And it proves that two writers working together on an idea is better than an entire stable of producers trying to get their ideas stuffed into one movie. It never wavers from its path and at every turn, the stakes get higher until by the end of the movie I was just so happy I got on the train with these absurd characters.
If you're as sick of movies like Transformers 4 as I am... check out Snowpiercer. It's so much more what Sci-Fi is supposed to be.

Why Did Michael Bay Get To Make Another Transformers??

Well that was the longest 2 hours and 45 minutes of my life... You probably know this by now, but that's the ridiculous runtime of Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Why is that runtime so disorienting to me? Because, when I was sitting there in the midst of it, I realized that the movie had no content. I can't even begin to imagine how someone wrote a script as long as that without writing in any character development or emotional arc... or plot for that matter. Age of Extinction is just a bunch of weird action combined with unnecessary vanity posses.
It felt as though every scene was specifically made with the hopes that it could make it into one of the trailers at some point down the line. And in many respects, that's what happened. If I had grown up on Transformers the way I grew up on so many other properties, I'd be freaking out right now calling for the studio to just start over, to release Michael Bay and say "we're so sorry to have put you through this agony for the last decade... please forgive us." Because the only even remotely good one is the first one and at this point, seeing what this franchise has become, I think even that is stretching.

Odder still, it turns out the studio was lying about the movie's success for some weird reason. And that is not cool. To try and convince everyone that they had the first $100 million flick of 2014 seems particularly petty. After all, they did manage to rake in a hefty sum... something to the tune of $96 million. But that doesn't change the fact that they tried to intentionally lie to the movie public. I work in a theatre and can personally attest that we did not hit any of the numbers we would expect for such a large opening. At this point I think Paramount should be apologizing for a plethora of things.
Essentially, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a terrible mess and the worst example of what "big sci-fi" can be. I wouldn't waste my time if I were you.