Friday, September 26, 2014

Give The Boxtrolls A Chance

There's something so wonderfully quirky about the dirty world of The Boxtrolls.
The guys over at Laika Entertainment have made another thoroughly entertaining family film full of whimsy, intrigue, and some dry humor that may be a little wetter than you'd expect... at some points it can be downright hilarious. And there is a pretty great message buried not too deep within... sure, be yourself, but everyone has the ability to change their nature. I think that's a cool principle to incorporate into a family film. Just because you're seen as one thing, doesn't mean you have to stay stuck in that "box" forever.
All of the voice actors are wonderful, the direction is slick and precise, and the creative team behind the stop-motion figures do an exceptional job. I especially like the way certain human characters look grosser than certain boxtrolls simply because of the choice of skin pigments and veins. That takes knowhow, something the crew at Laika has proven to have time and again... at least since Coraline back in 2009.
Laika as a production company gets me excited because they are working diligently to keep good stop-motion film alive. And it's crucial that we continue to have smaller companies come forward in the family film marketplace. Children deserve as many quality film options as adults... and the parents certainly should be given a product that they can actually sit through along with their kids. It's one of the most consistent audiences out there, and sometimes the content can be just dreadful. So the existence of a studio like Laika is absolutely critical to keeping the big animation companies on their toes. That's how quality content continues to thrive; through competition.
So, yes, I'm saying I liked The Boxtrolls. I'm an adult who doesn't have any kids and I enjoyed this movie. So take that for what it's worth.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Beware Of Tusk

Tusk was... excuse me while I clear my throat... a massive train wreck.
Kevin Smith was trying to do something, but he couldn't help himself. It feels like he couldn't figure out what to do with the 'A' storyline and accidentally made two completely different movies. I wouldn't have quite as big a problem with this flick if it maintained the same level of quirk it inherited in the last third, throughout. But Tusk begins as sick horror fantasy and rapidly tumbles into a world of awkward, poorly delegated black comedy.
I'll come out and say the concept is lackluster at best to begin with. But usually we aren't asked by a filmmaker to sit down and actually watch such a piss-poor concept once the script is completed (if the script is completed) because most filmmakers would've thrown it in the trash long before an audience could ever get their hands on it. Look, I was never a fan of the idea that The Human Centipede put into our collective heads. And watching Tusk, I have to wonder why Kevin Smith, a guy who I actually like and who's films I frequently enjoy, would feel it made logical sense to make a poor ripoff of that concept...
Tusk is a bad ripoff with a weird attempt at a surprise in the second half, just as the budget seems to drop out. The walrus suit makeup is a bad joke at best. And while I think there are some solid acting performances and actually a few really well designed shots (particularly early on), I never once wanted to laugh or felt comfortable even being in the theatre for this, because at the end of the day Tusk is just garbage. Some people may disagree with me on this final statement, but Kevin Smith can do a lot better than this.

Finally Got To See The Railway Man

Back when it came out in April, I couldn't seem to find a good time to catch The Railway Man. Fortunately, I was able to rent a copy of it yesterday. And I gotta say, this is a damn good movie.
Eric (Colin Firth/Jeremy Irvine), an officer of the British Army in WWII, is forced into captivity as a POW in Japan. Many years later, he seeks out one of his former captors (Hiroyuki Sanada/Tanroh Ishida) to try and rid himself of his demons once and for all. But this is a true story, and what comes to pass is nothing short of amazing.
So let's start with the obvious. Colin Firth makes this movie. His performance is breathtaking and painful. And I know there are a lot of performances still to come as we shift gears into awards season, but I would not mind in the slightest if this movie got him a few nominations. Nicole Kidman gives what's probably her best performance in years. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of ridiculous anti-aging makeup and effects that have been added to her in other recent endeavors, but I felt she brought a real lovingness to this role that I haven't seen from her in... well a very long time.
I do wish there would have been more Hiroyuki Sanada in this film, because what little we got of him was just excellent. But at the end of the day, this is not his story. Jeremy Irvine and Tanroh Ishida as the younger versions of the two soldiers really do play their counterparts well and carry the flashback sequences with ease.
This is a film with great direction (Jonathan Teplitzky), an excellent screenplay (Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson), several great performances, and cinematography (Garry Phillips) that will make your heart melt. This is the kind of film we've been sorely missing since David Lean stopped in 1984. And if you get a chance to check this out, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You... A Little Too Crowded...

I'm not gonna dance around the issue, This is Where I Leave You is not really an ensemble film. But it's cast as if it is one.
Shawn Levy put together an interesting film contemplating life, death, and family. He created an element of heart and meaning, and got some pretty fun albeit rather forced performances from his cast. So in my estimation, he didn't fail with This is Where I Leave You. He just made a film with too much going on... to such a degree that I as an audience member didn't really know what to care about or focus on at any given time.
Shortly after Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) discovers his wife has been cheating on him with his boss, his sister (Tina Fey) calls him up to tell him their father has died. Talk about a bad month. So Judd goes back home for the service and his mother (Jane Fonda) springs it on him that his father wanted all of the siblings to sit shiva... seven days with your dysfunctional family... sounds like fun, huh?
In truth, the only real constant is Jason Bateman. And that's because he is absolutely the lead of this film. Which is strange given the massive cast Levy surrounded him with. Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, and Dax Shepard... You should know all of these names pretty well at this point. And while I do really like Jason Bateman, I was left wondering why more attention wasn't paid to other cast members... or more importantly, why were they all there if it was so clearly meant to be a Jason Bateman vehicle?
I think that This is Where I Leave You's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. An all-star cast can sometimes be a burden on a production. And in the end, the weight of too many bigger-than-life performers was too much for this movie to bear. This is not to say I didn't enjoy the movie, rather I think it could have been a much stronger film than it was if only it had been pared down a bit. One character less would honestly have helped... Two and this may have even been on par with The Big Chill... probably the best film in this particular sub-genre.
That being said, I wouldn't turn you away from This is Where I Leave You. It's good enough and you'll probably have a good time... Just recognize it's not going to be a perfect movie... which is fine. That's a pretty rare thing to find anyway: a perfect movie.

The Lunchbox Is Quite Refreshing

Ritesh Batra took something mundane and gave it a strength I bet most Hollywood studios would be interested in. Because The Lunchbox found an interesting way of telling a love story without the main characters ever actually having to meet... and it seemed to only need the same four locations. Yet somehow it was always interesting and never took the subject matter for granted.
Essentially, the movie is based on a very efficient crowdsourcing service that has existed in Mumbai for years now: the lunchbox service. But one day a woman's lunchbox for her uncaring husband is accidentally sent to the wrong person. But this person actually takes a liking to her cooking, and they begin to hide notes in the lunchbox.

Now that concept in and of itself doesn't blow me away. But the film that was built around it is very interesting. Irrfan Khan has proven to be nothing short of a joy to watch. You may recall his excellent performances in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi most notably. But here, he adds to his extensive resume something a little more grounded... here we actually get to watch him grow as a character... learn something about life. And that, simply put, is a joy to experience.

Nimrat Kaur impressed me as well. She has a very clear voice and her character became rather interesting as she seemingly walked a tightrope through her repressed life, only to find a thread of a glimmer of hope when she needed it the most. Her part is particularly interesting in that she almost never leaves her apartment (so no extra sets needed) and the second most important character in her storyline, Auntie, literally never appears on screen. So Nimrat is left with the very crucial task of carrying her scenes with almost no support. She manages this feet with a tact and maturity well beyond her years. The third lead, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, also proves to be a joy to watch as we slowly peel back the onion of his character and discover that he is nothing of what he seemed at first glance.
I suppose this movie is so exciting to me because it is, plain and simple, a breath of fresh air... a step away from the studio system (or lack-there-of) we somehow seem to coddle here in America. This movie could have just been a small indie based out of Mumbai, but it somehow made its way over to us. And it had a worthy cast. And a team of quality artistic thinkers making it into a whole lot more. And while it may not crack my top ten for the year, its spiritual presence will surely keep me thinking into future moviegoing experiences.

You can rent it for 99 cents on iTunes right now.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby Is Not What I Expected

The trailer for Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is not a promo for the film that came out in theaters last week. It turns out, Ned Benson wrote and directed three films. The trailer uses pieces from all three. Which is odd because the idea stated in that 3-minute clip never actually comes to fruition in what is apparently titled "Them".
The concept for Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was two perspectives of a romance. The trailer emphasizes the idea that we will witness both sides of that... in the same movie. The trailer lied.

But now that I got that out of my system... this version of the movie was pretty good. Albeit, hard to watch. I really enjoyed how honest this story felt. These people and their decisions all make a sad sort of sense. And once everything is revealed and you really know why things went the way they did, there's a beautiful kind of tragedy within.
Between Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, any film would be in good hands. But this feels like the right project for them. Both bring an overwhelming level of sorrow and desperation to this picture. And it feels good to get such equal performances on either side (which is what must have been necessary for the additional two films to exist... and I would like to see those at some point). And then there's the supporting cast... an amazing group of veterans all bringing their A-game. Viola Davis, Bill Hader, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, with Jess Wexler, and William Hurt! What a superb cast they make.
If I had one complaint, it would be the use of the name Eleanor Rigby. Every time the characters discussed the name's origin it felt forced... like Ned Benson so badly needed an excuse to use it he had to write a couple one-liners to keep us on board. But honestly, I felt as though everyone already was on board. So it became unnecessary. The song is about lonely people... this film is about those people. It shows us where they come from. Point made. So really, I suppose my thinking is, those one liners could have just been left on the floor... the name itself wasn't the problem and at the end of the day it probably informed the story with a fun little pop reference.
So, I guess what I'm saying is, despite everything... I do like this movie. I'd recommend it even. Just recognize that it's not quite what the trailer tells you it is. To get all of that would require further viewing.

What Did I Think About Frank?

Frank is a weird movie.
It's absolutely a comedy. But it exists in a bizarre plain, straddling some very dark ideals, and ultimately forces its audience to consider their own honesty in a way I'm not really used to. I really like this movie. It surprised me. Mostly because I was hearing such negative things about it. But now I'm left wondering what it was those people I spoke to so completely disliked. Because there's an obscure morality to this thing that just left me blown away.
Domhnall Gleeson's been doing great work for a while now. And he really is the driving force to this film. Which is amazing when you consider that Michael Fassbender is the titular character. But then, Fassbender's got that head on the whole time and his character is more a force of nature... an inspiration that the other characters must pull their madness from. So Gleeson does an admirable job playing the guy that unknowingly opens our eyes to the haphazard realities of Frank's band... and quite accidentally reveals his own rather obese failures. Maggie Gyllenhaal is totally insane here and it's incredibly fun to watch. And Scoot McNairy inhabits this subtle madness that just kept me on the edge of my seat.
Leonard Abrahamson should be proud of making such a strange, but fulfilling, feature. He's definitely put himself on my "directors to watch" list. Likewise, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan created an incredibly interesting and surprisingly dense screenplay that allowed the rest of these artists an exceptional amount of room to play.
Franks surprised me. It could just make it into my top ten this year.

The Drop Misses To A Strange Degree...

...but still manages to be an alright movie.
The oddity of this flick is, I felt the performances were mostly excellent. I thought there was something interesting to the story. And the cinematography was truly great. But something got lost in the dialogue. Particularly when characters would, for no good reason, focus on one subject (a dog or a mini statuette of an angel) incessantly. It felt as if every character at one point or another commented on the same mundane thing... just so we, the audience would know it was sort of important to the plot.
Let me take a step back here. This was James Gandolfini's last movie. And he did a fine job in it. I'm not about to make light of that in any way. He really did bring his A game. But I cannot call a sort of mediocre move great just because of this context. The internal flaws of a bad script will always irk me. Tom Hardy was great. Noomi Rapace was serviceable. But that didn't really matter until the climax hit. Then the writing took an upswing for literally the most important scene of the movie before dropping back down to bleh to bring us into credits. Matthias Schoenaerts did a swell job too. But his part was so obvious. And then John Ortiz kind of made me wanna stop watching because he just couldn't maintain the same quality of performance as everyone else. It felt like the worst elements of the script would frequently erupt from his mouth.
Maybe I'm being a little too intense on this thing. But Dennis Lehane has never exactly done anything to give me confidence. And this being his first real screenplay... I guess he just lost his way in the dialogue department. I'm just saying, this script could've used a really good polish.
But at the end of the day, there was enough good in this movie to make it a worthwhile watch. If you ever enjoyed a Gandolfini performance, you'll probably get a kick out of his limited screen time. And Tom Hardy is always worth a watch. Just don't go in expecting the best picture of the year.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Skeleton Twins Is An Awfully Good Time

Let's start with probably the most interesting aspect of this film. It's a drama (sort of) starring SNL's Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. That alone is worth the price of a ticket... just the oddity that is these two making a film about such serious themes as suicide, pedophilia, and general promiscuity. But The Skeleton Twins manages to go beyond that.

It does have laughs. With these two actors, how could it not? But the laughs are grounded in the real world. They feel honest and completely unforced. And Wiig and Hader never let themselves slide too far from the darker aspects of their characters. It's actually very exciting to watch such comedic people walk this tightrope. It ain't a given that they'll reach the other side. So I really appreciate Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson for giving them a vehicle to experiment so within.

And that gets me to the writers. I was fortunate enough to catch them for a Q&A this last week and was very pleased to hear how important this movie was to both of them. It's not by any means a traditional Hollywood flick. And it took them ten years to get it made, so clearly they HAD to get this thing done. I really like how they managed to take so many ridiculous themes and make something endearing and recognizable out of them. Everyone in the audience I attended with seemed onboard and nothing seemed to stray too far beyond anyone's comprehension. It really goes to show that "Hollywood formulas" are not by any means the only way to go. Something that's obviously been proven many times before, but execs tend to ignore the evidence.
In any event, The Skeleton Twins is good. Definitely worth a watch. And maybe even a rewatch if you enjoy the "dental hygiene" sequence as much as I did.

Love Is Strange Was Delightful

The most epic casting of the year comes here... in Love is Strange.
Someone stood up at a meeting somewhere and made that choice to cast Alfred Molina alongside John Lithgow as a loving couple. You get two actors of that caliber to state your case and everyone 's gotta be on board. Right?
And boy do they shine. Each of them gets their time to shine with some truly incredible albeit quite subtle moments. I was just sitting back in awe of their performances all movie long. And I'm grateful to have had this experience during what is often a very questionable month for film.

But let's step away from those two actors for just a moment. Love is Strange was just an interesting film to me in general. The message is an important one and the flick itself creates a seemingly level playing field for conversation to anyone willing to sit down in the theatre and watch. Because the message is simply: Love. And Love no matter the boundaries. That everyone can and should be allowed to experience it and not be condemned for that. Love is personal, and learning to love is quite hard. So to witness two people, no matter who they are, who have discovered the essence of that, is just a magical thing.

Love is Strange moves slowly, but in the best possible way. It allows the story to wash over you in a rather beautiful manner. And it doesn't hit you over the head with unnecessary editing. Rather, it plays to its strength... the actors.

This is, in my opinion, a must see.

I Wanted To Like The Two Faces Of January...

...but I just couldn't get on board.
The thing is, I really like the people involved with this thing. And I don't necessarily think any of them did a bad job. Just, somehow, the basic premise was flawed from the start and nothing could really get going from there. At every turn it felt as though the script just copped out.
Relatively good performances by the three leads (Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac), not terrible direction by Hossein Amini, and pretty good camera work seemed desperately overshadowed by a general lack of planning on the part of... well Hossein Amini sort of shot himself in the foot by writing this script for himself to direct. And his choice of locations generally felt unfulfilling and distracting to everything else in the story. I could never tell where the characters were at any given time. So maybe it does fall on direction...
And I suppose this is a more flawed film than I initially wanted to let on. But it's the little mistakes here and there that could easily have been fixed to make a solid Third Man type of flick. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it feels less like that wonderful piece of cinema, and more like a compilation of weird cellphone pictures from a rather disjointed vacation with a few celebrities in them.
I don't want to say you shouldn't see this... but it generally missed the mark for me.

Unfortunately, Catching Up With Pompeii

Believe me, I would not have watched this movie if it wasn't one of the few options I had on a thirteen hour flight.
And sitting there, trying to keep my focus on the movie still managed to be tough because... well... it was really truly awful. Legit. Pompeii is a molten (pun absolutely intended) pile of steaming shit. Paul W.S. Anderson is still making movies somehow. And they are not ever going to get better. I think he's made that clear at this point.
The awkward thing is, this director (the guy responsible for Alien v Predator) still manages to get some interesting B and C list actors to join his projects. I love Game of Thrones, so of course I wanna see Kit Harrington succeed. But he certainly didn't do anything to warrant my affections here. Similarly, Emily Browning just didn't have any presence in this flick. I like the energy she's brought to other films, though I'm starting to wonder if I haven't been brainwashed by how much I enjoyed her in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is another one of those guys I want to like, but every step of the way he seems to throw a wrench in it. Like when he quit Lost to go write, direct, and star in his own life story. How'd that work out for you dude? And then there's Kiefer Sutherland. Why did he do this movie? He certainly doesn't need the money. Yet he seemed rather content to put up one of the most abysmal performances of his entire career... for what?
Ugh. In my estimation, all of these actors are better than this. But that's just the power of a bad filmmaker. Paul W.S. Anderson needs to stop making movies. And I'd advise everyone to just not even go to the theatre when these things come out. It's not worth your money just because you may be a little curious.