Sunday, November 30, 2014

And Why Penguins Of Madagascar Doesn't

I really like the Madagascar series! It's disjointed and odd at times, but the humor comes from such a wonderfully bizarre place, and the characters are such wonderful caricatures of the actors who voice them. So what happens when you take out all of the insane, moving cogs of a clock save one? It stops working.
Suddenly Dreamworks throws us into a world where the only characters we know are those weird, wacky penguins... characters that work in a secondary capacity because there are so many other characters to sort of ground them. But now the penguins have no safety net. If their gags and crude antics aren't working, there's nowhere else to turn. The penguins are it.
Forget for a moment how piss-poor the movie's setup is (they walk into Fort Knox undetected to steal a bag of puffy cheese snacks only to get captured by an octopus who poses as a human... who was apparently waiting there and expecting them to go into the employee break room all along?????) and recognize just how baffling it is that these characters were given a movie all to themselves in the first place. Not one of them is voiced by a big time celebrity (not that that should be the main focus here) and most of the time, their personalities seem to overlap to the point that you'd get them confused with each other if the writers didn't try so hard to prove to you they were different.
I've been liking what Dreamworks has been doing lately (they did have How to Train Your Dragon 2 earlier this year)... but this one feels like a mistake. No, it's not on par with the catastrophic anti-film that was Cars 2, and I feel like it will do a lot less to hurt the studios' cred with adults than that one did to Pixar. But it feels like filler, during a year when we desperately needed someone to step up and take hold of the animation category.
In the end, it seems The Lego Movie will have to sit on the 2014 animation mantel almost completely by its self.

Why Mockingjay Part 1 Works

As much as I love the Harry Potter series, there was always something awkward about splitting the final book into two separate movies (something that's apparently becoming quite a popular move for studios these days). The first half of that seventh book is easily the most boring and frustrating segment of the entire franchise... so giving it its own movie when parts of books four, five, and six were so awkwardly breezed over seemed almost criminal at the time. Still Harry Potter was good enough. So when Lionsgate came out and said they were going to do a similar thing with the final Hunger Games book, I groaned. It felt like just another money grab.
But Mockingjay is very different from The Deathly Hallows. And walking out of this movie, I felt like they actually did find enough material and import... Mockingjay Part 1 made sense. Despite the awkward cliffhanger ending (which if you'll recall also existed in Catching Fire), there was a legitimate through line. The characters seemed to develop in the way you'd hope for an individual feature. Plot was given its due to the point that the movie never felt like it was just treading water. In short, the split of Mockingjay into two films seems to be working.
Combine that thought with the chance to see Philip Seymour Hoffman at least one more time on screen and I gotta admit I'm a little excited for the final piece of this series.
Now I'm honestly not as big a fan of Jennifer Lawrence as the rest of the world seems to be. I generally feel like she gets more credit than she deserves because her personality outside of the movies feels like the opposite of the kind of celebrity attitude we've come to expect. But she did have some solid moments here. She did just enough to keep me on board and at the end of the day, that's all you can ask for. Donald Sutherland seems to be having a blast throughout this franchise, and I really like to see that. When good actors are having fun, you know good things are gonna happen. So between Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci it became apparent that the studio understood this methodology and truly spared no expense in getting such high caliber actors for their big time book franchise.
Mockingjay Part 1 works. It's as simple as that. And I won't be one to argue with Lionsgate or anyone else about their choices as far as this franchise is concerned. The first Hunger Games was so-so, but since then it's all been up hill.

And Slaying The Badger Kicks Some Serious Ass!!

Another good 30 for 30. See a trend?
Slaying the Badger is the story of the only American to officially win the Tour de France, Greg LeMond. His struggles are surprisingly intense, and not at all what I would have expected from the sport of cycling. Not only did the man have to contend with cyclists from all around the world... his own teammate seemed intent on outperforming him. It's a bizarre little piece of history to watch these two men (LeMond and Hinault) go from being the best of friends and trustworthy companions to bitter enemies over the span of two years. And it's really cool that everyone was still around during the filmmaking process to give their own personal two cents... just as impressive that they would want to... given how the coach seemed to connive, one would expect him to be less than interested in talking. But he seemed to take sheer delight in reliving the experience... as will you.
John Dower paints an awesome picture of the competitive nature of professional cycling. I'd be surprised if the guy didn't make many more high quality documentaries in the coming years.
Yet another easy recommendation from the ESPN docu-series!

Requiem For The Big East Asks Some Great Questions

And 30 for 30 puts out another really high quality sports documentary.
Requiem for the Big East is not like other 30 for 30s. This is the full life story of an entire college basketball conference. It spans more than three decades and argues the merits and plunders of an entire business model over that span. But, as is usually the case with a film like this, the most interesting pieces are those focusing on individual coaches, owners, and teams. It's the human element that has kept documentary filmmaking... and filmmaking in general... an institution. 
This movie manages to take a very big subject and scale it down when necessary to keep the viewer interested and informed in a practical way. It asks as clearly as it can, how something so obviously marketable like The Big East could falter after so many successes and analyzes the people responsible for its meteoric rise and dreadfully slow demise. And in the end we're left with Ezra Edelman's surprisingly concise interpretation of some otherwise very foggy events.
If you've ever enjoyed a 30 for 30, this is a good one now streaming on Netflix.

I Can't Say I Liked A Letter To Momo

I can't particularly argue for any of its merits. There's something about this film that seems like it really wishes it was something else. The style of animation reminds me mostly of big time action films set in crazy Japanese futures, while the story invokes some of the slower, more stylistic films about reconnecting with nature and meditation.
A Letter to Momo is about a young girl who has recently lost her father. Her mother decides to take her back to the town she was raised in for a little peace so she can go back to school. But Momo has difficulties with the change of scenery, the change of life style, and well, the changes going on with herself. However, the town seems to harbor a strange secret... a group of goblins that are intent to monitor her every action.
Particularly in the world of Japanese animation, I've already seen this story played and replayed with slightly different character concepts thrown in... and varying styles of animation. This feels like a much lesser version of My Neighbor Totoro. But without the level of excellence Miyazaki always managed to bring to his films. The director, Hiroyuki Okiura, needs a little more work on his story concepts before he tries to write and direct again. He's an interesting animator, but has not yet figured out the rest of the elements that are necessary to make a great film.
So all that being said, I can't really recommend A Letter to Momo. It's always worth a level of applause whenever someone comes along and tries to make an animated feature film... it's so hard to do. But something like this just proves that not every combination will work.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Give Jon Stewart Credit, Rosewater Works!

Jon Stewart, it seems over night, has become an accomplished director. True, Rosewater is only his first film, but it's certainly good enough to make that claim.
Rosewater is the true story of Maziar Bahari... a guy who went on The Daily Show and made a couple jokes with one of their journalists only to later find himself detained by the Iranian government and interrogated for 118 days.
The relevancy of this story is potent. We live in a world that is more connected than it has ever been before. Yet there are still people out there who have so little education... have never been allowed to experience that connection in a real way... who easily... and it seems willingly... get it confused in the name of some ridiculous cause or another. What Rosewater says first and foremost is: if you are an educated and free man, you have the advantage... even when you are physically being held prisoner. If you know the truth and can learn to understand your enemy's version of the truth there is a way out.
I walked into Rosewater with the expectation that I would be watching a comedian try to make an overly serious prisoner film. But I underestimated Jon Stewart... something I have never done in the past, and don't plan on doing again. He knows his strengths (of which there are many) and takes advantage of them. Rosewater is not really a drama as the trailer seems to claim. It actually gets really funny. And by the end I was just impressed that a movie like this could exist at all. It breaks all genre tropes. And it's a true story. It's kind of amazing to see something with such a positive message coming out of such a ludicrous reality.
While Gael García Bernal is most definitely not Iranian... or Canadian for that matter... he is just too good an actor to ignore. And I know it won't bother most people anyway, but I thought it worth noting. Bernal has been putting out amazing performances one after another for the last fifteen years, and I'm beginning to wonder if the Academy will ever actually recognize his talents. I'd at least call for him to get a nomination this year... though Best Actor is beginning to look more and more like a very crowded category.
Gotta say, Jon Stewart impressed me with his first directorial attempt. And Rosewater is gonna resonate with me for a good long while.

The Theory Of Everything Only Covers A Very Small Fraction Of The Known Universe...

...But it feels like enough.
Given the subject matter of this Stephen Hawking biopic, it could be very easy to lose sight of the man's many great achievements in favor of his debilitating disease and some times confusing relationships. After all, the flick is based on a novel written by Hawking's ex-wife, Jane. But it seems James Marsh (director) and Anthony McCarten (writer) were intent on not allowing the disease to take over the movie. This is not My Left Foot or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This is Stephen Hawking. And his superior intellect cannot be ignored.
Eddie Redmayne as Hawking does a good job in losing control of his functions. But the majority of his performance seems particularly well informed by directorial decisions and camera work. Early on, Marsh managed to capture a sort of dread in the knowledge that Hawking's body was going to fail... and Redmayne's physicality hit just the right beats to create said dread. That being said,  Felicity Jones is my favorite part of this movie. Her role is a strange one, in that it's hard to understand what she's going through from most peoples' life experiences. Yet she manages to capture a truth in it all. Indeed, the role of Jane is one of a very intellectual person trapped in extremely unfair circumstances. And Jones manages to straddle those elements to perfection.
Though ultimately, The Theory of Everything is forced to focus on the human elements, it cannot be considered a let down to the scientific community. This is, after all, a film. And a pretty good one at that. Unless Hawking's discoveries could be shown firsthand in accurate CG (as Interstellar briefly attempted to do, playing with the concept of a Firewall on a Black Hole) in accordance with a story, this is the most we can get out of a Stephen Hawking movie. But don't be fooled. His accomplishments have made their way into many sci-fi films... just likely without your awareness of the man who discovered them.
I think Marsh and McCarten really managed to do something special here, however unrelated to the science it may be. These guys are able to show a relationship of trust and understanding... and when the going gets really tough, and the couple in question gets tested to their limits... they also show just how conscientious and honest such an intelligent couple could be. Sometimes, knowing it's time to go... and figuring out how to do so amicably is just as crucial to happiness as figuring out how to get into it in the first place.
So, while The Theory of Everything may not be my favorite film of the year, it really does manage to impress. I'd say it's worth a watch.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Virunga Is An Incredible Achievement

Damn, Netflix hit it out of the park with this latest documentary. I love how, over the last few years, the company has managed to bring documentaries to the forefront of their business model. Last year in particular, it became clear that they were willing to find pieces that had serious intentions and legitimate award potential. Virunga is the next step in their process of becoming a legitimate studio.
But obviously that thought should be secondary to what the film Virunga stands for. Because this movie has an incredible message and it builds its point in an impeccable way. Yes, it is a documentary. It is also heart wrenching, exciting, tragic, and legitimately important to our worldview. This is the real life story of a brave group of park rangers living in Eastern Congo. Their only goal is to protect their national park and the animals that live within... most notably, the exceedingly rare mountain gorillas that reside in Virunga. But as a new rebel sect moves in, and with the discovery of oil beneath the region by SOCO, tensions become high and danger becomes imminent.
Orlando von Einsiedel (Director) is maniacal in his capacity to capture the increasingly dangerous events that have been taking place in the region. And I can honestly say I feared for the crew's lives throughout the film. Yet it is not just for the danger they put themselves through to capture these things that I praise them, but for the professionalism they showed in doing so... the high level of quality to which they reached. Virunga is an Oscar contender... and I can only hope, in gaining such a high level of press, the film can actually make a difference to the situation in Eastern Congo.
Catch it on Netflix as soon as you can.

30 For 30's Playing For The Mob Takes A Light Approach To A Heavy Subject

I really enjoy 30 for 30. I think ESPN's continued interest in keeping this documentary series alive proves that people will watch and be interested in well made, informative tv... though I wonder if a few of these documentaries, if promoted differently, couldn't be considered in the best documentary category at the Oscars... all you need is a premier and limited run in a theatre or two in the LA market.
Anyway, this brief article is about Playing for the Mob... a new 30 for 30 about the point shaving controversy from Goodfellas. It's an interesting topic to be sure, but the guys looking back on it seem to think it was all just a big kind of joke... which I find weird. That something so stupid as trying to fix a bunch of basketball games for money can so thoroughly ruin so many peoples' lives... and then they can come back with this bizarrely lighthearted attitude just baffles me. Obviously, the filmmakers have no control over this, but it seems to hurt the prestige of a documentary when all of the parties involved act like they're just happy to be back in the limelight... no matter what the reason.
Playing for the Mob is definitely no where near the strongest of the 30 for 30s, but if you're at all interested in the subject, you can catch it on Netflix right now.

Foxcatcher Lacks Focus

What a bizarre story.
Foxcatcher is one of those surprise award contenders that seem to show up at just the right time with little serious press before. It's the true story of two world class wrestling brothers who were taken under the wing of the far too wealthy John du Pont back in the 1980s. It's director, Bennett Miller (who'll probably get an Oscar nod), is world class having brought us previous Oscar contenders; Capote and Moneyball. And it heralds three of the better acting performances of the year between Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.
But the positives don't press far beyond that. The pace of the film is absolutely fine with me, but everything seems to falter on the script. It's not that there aren't wonderful moments scattered throughout, rather the film is just poorly broken up between the three main characters and the resolutions to their stories lack much in the way of... well... resolution. There are moments where the point seems to come forward only to be completely ignored and denied in later sequences. Until, by the end, you're left feeling like you witnessed less than a third of what you expected and cared just as little. This one overwhelming weakness seems to seep into every facet of the film and endanger award prospects across the board.
So let's go back to the actors briefly. While I was impressed with both Carell and Tatum, Mark Ruffalo turns out to be the most compelling actor in this thing. If he gets a supporting actor nod I would not be disappointed... but that's the most confusing thing. While all three of these actors seem to be lauded as leads, none of them get enough screen time to warrant a leading actor nomination. I could see all three potentially given a supporting nom, but the films overall lack of focus really hurts some of their award chances. Not that this is all about awards. Indeed, there is pure merit in allowing the story to flesh out naturally. But then I get back to my earlier point, that the film doesn't have good enough resolutions across the board. Usually I'd welcome just one good resolution that was so compelling the others could be left up in the air. But the one you'd expect to be that good, fails to carry enough weight and essentially drags the rest of the film down with it.
And rather unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave didn't get nearly enough screen time and Sienna Miller had practically nothing to do.

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman wrote some incredible scenes, but ultimately let their cast and crew down. Yet there is a very very bright spot that should not and will not be affected. Makeup! This film is going to be nominated for makeup. And it deserves to be just for those nose prosthetics. They believably transformed the cast to the point that I occasionally forgot that I was watching Steve Carell or Channing Tatum... guys I've seen a million times before. I'm not sure if that goes to Bill Corso or if Mark Nieman would get recognition... probably the whole team. But these guys really brought it. Great job!
Anyway, Foxcatcher lacks the necessary focus to get it anywhere near my top ten for 2014. But it's still rather interesting. A bizarre piece about a lesser known and incredibly confusing historical event. And I'm still very glad I saw it. There was a lot of practical expertise on display here. Just... when things need to all come together, they seem to fall further apart. Sometimes the medium of film can be so fickle.

Dumb And Dumber To Is Just Too Dumb

At first I was excited to know I was gonna get a chance to experience the continued adventures of Harry and Lloyd... The original Dumb and Dumber is (in my opinion) one of the greatest comedies ever made. Not only is it exceedingly clever, but it also withstands the test of time. It's still funny!! So I'm sure you can imagine my disappointment when the final product turned out to be little more than a get together and money grab.
Okay, it's not just that. The right people returned to this project for what seemed like the right reasons. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels relive their early career success and it's fun to remember that in many ways this is where they started. And the Farrelly brothers came back to direct... but they didn't write it, which is weird but not surprising. I get the feeling a studio wouldn't have trusted them with the script at this point given their many recent failures... but then why would the studio still trust them to direct? The trouble with the Farrelly brothers isn't that they didn't have potential. In fact, their first two flicks seemed to show only upward trajectory. But these guys just never seemed to learn to be better. After There's Something About Mary, things just seemed to get crasser and crasser, and the quality of the work just fell and fell. Dumb and Dumber was lightning in a bottle. It worked so well because it had two up and coming actors playing so perfectly off of one another in a scenario that felt truly hilarious. If the film felt cheap, the grain and concept allowed for that and kept the movie rolling. But this modern sequel came too late. Technology has taken away the graininess that helped mask the Farrelly brothers' inadequacies. And their choice of lighting and camera work (and this is not a new revelation for these guys) just came across as lazy.
But I'm gonna stop ripping on the directors for a minute while I question other aspects of this bizarre misstep. The script doesn't work. You'd think after twenty years, some fanboy somewhere would've taken pen to paper and come up with a legitimately awesome idea for a sequel. When Lloyd discovers the briefcase at the airport in the first film, the setup is just clever enough to get the audience involved... because these guys have no clue what they're doing or how the world works. But the kidney setup of this sequel just isn't pulled off with the same tact. Then there's the secondary storyline of the conniving wife of the rich scientist... and honestly nothing about that works even a little bit. It feels lazy, cheap, come up with any number of words to say that this was poorly conceived. But the most surprising failure... and one that probably could've been rectified with better directors and a better script... is Jeff Daniels' performance. What the first Dumb and Dumber accomplished so well was two actors acting at two different levels of stupidity. Jeff Daniels felt far more down to earth than Jim Carrey and somehow everything worked. But in this sequel, Jeff Daniels seems to want only to play up to Carrey's level of zaniness. It's really disheartening because he is a really good actor. But the ham level here just ignores every factor of what made him so good originally.
On that note, I'll leave you to decide. Is it worth watching your favorite characters from the early nineties get impaled on a spike of mediocrity? To be fair, there are some good fun moments, but they are really far and inbetween. And indeed, the audience I saw the movie with on opening night cackled their heads off in a horrified and depraved kind of enjoyment. But that doesn't change the truth of what this movie fails to be. Enter at your own risk.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I Still Don't Know What The Signal Was About...

Back in January, a lot of buzz was coming out of Sundance about this weird sci-fi movie, The Signal. But then it never came to my theatre and I totally missed any chance of catching it. Well I was able to rectify that just this week... and I'm left wondering if it was worth the effort.
It's the story of three friends (Nic, Haley, and Jonah) following a hacker deep into the heart of Nevada. But when they finally stumble on the house they believe to be the source of his signal, everything goes wrong. Nic wakes up in a quarantined hospital bed with no control over his legs. And things only get worse from there.
The only problem is, the movie seems intent on asking a million questions simply to mislead you... or rather they never find a balance between giving enough info and making a movie that is compelling. The nonsensical nature of the film becomes a burden and when the final moments at long last play out... sort of giving answers... mind you, to questions that were never asked in the first place... I found it difficult to care one way or the other. Now for a film of this size, the effects were pretty cool. But clearly those were only budgeted for about three scenes out of the whole movie, and then awkward steps are taken to give the illusion that they are still there.
However, I don't have a problem with what William Eubank, the director, has done here. I think it's really cool that a camera guy can come forward with a completed feature film... and one that does look and seem pretty cool... if we just ignore the lack of a story, this is a pretty great movie. Unfortunately, I can't ignore that personally. But I do think, from a film school perspective, this could be a good teaching lesson for anyone who wants to prove their own abilities... kind of like Monsters. It's good enough to prove that this guy can make something bigger for a studio.
So while I say congrats to Eubank I really don't think this flick is for everyone... or rather, most people. It's not exactly something to watch for entertainment's sake... but it is a teachable lesson... if that makes sense.

Big Hero 6 Is Big Fun

Sometimes things come together at just the right time and place to make something special. I can't imagine Big Hero 6 even existing in this form if Disney hadn't bought out Marvel. But this is a sign of the kinds of things the two studios can accomplish as a team. It's really quite exciting.
Big Hero 6 is the story of Hiro, a young genius living in the great city of San Fransokyo. When he loses his brother (and best friend) to a fire, Hiro falls into a depression. But his brother's greatest achievement, Baymax (a cuddly medical robot) awakens to help revive the boy's joy of life. They form a super hero team... and it's awesome.
The animation is wonderfully stylish. The characters, compelling and distinct... and very well rounded. And the plot balances just on the edge of feeling too adult and feeling too kiddy. But the ingredients work, and the final product is a very entertaining ride. Though there is one particular criticism that I believe may be affecting some peoples' experiences. The sound mixing toward the middle to second half of the film tends to drop away and leave what could be exciting, big action scenes feeling less spectacular than they should. The best comparison I have for this is The Iron Giant, where the sound design frequently gets in the way of what's otherwise a very interesting, heartfelt story. Though in all honesty, Big Hero 6's sound problems are in no way as offensive as The Iron Giant's. Just something to consider though, in spite of this fault, Big Hero 6 still manages to entertain through the very end of its runtime.
If Disney is interested in making a feature adaptation of something obscure like Marvel's Big Hero 6, I can only imagine what's coming down the road. I would personally love to get big animated productions of some of Marvel's more renowned characters. Even with the live action ones still coming out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Force Majeure Asks All The Right Questions

You'd be hard pressed to find a film that more directly touches on the dynamics of relationship than Force Majeure.
A new Swedish flick from director Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure tells the story of a family staying at a ski resort in the French Alps. When out to lunch one day, they are confronted with the real life horrors of being buried under an avalanche only to come out the other side unscathed... well physically unscathed. The family dynamic is completely turned upside down after the event, and new questions about commitment and human nature fester like open wounds.
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are mesmerizing to watch. And Kristofer Hivju brings an element of unexpected comedy and grounded humanity to the piece. When you consider the emotional torment these characters have to climb through, it becomes an impressive feat... like everyone is scaling a mountain though they cannot see their own hands through the mist.
I only use so many metaphors in this review because the film itself so freely takes advantage of metaphor to get its message across. Ie. The avalanche represents so many tumultuous possibilities over the course of a relationship. What would you do in the same situation? If you ran, could you justify your actions? And what steps could possibly be taken to regain the trust you had lost?
The pacing is exceptional as a sense of whimsical dread takes over... you never feel afraid to experience the next step, but you always wonder if something terrible may be just around the bend. I'm fighting desperately not to say too much, but Ruben Östlund can be proud of this film. It's not your ordinary piece of cinema... and I'm left wondering wether we may ever see something like this come out of America. I absolutely give Force Majeure my stamp of approval. If it shows up in a theatre anywhere near you, I suggest you catch it.