Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rebel with a Cause: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” Lacks the Energy of Its Predecessors

“Mockingjay – Part 1” is flawed; just look at its title (the “Part 1” portion). This is one half of a movie, and like the last Harry Potter and many other young adult film adaptations, the movie-going public is forced to pay to sit through a movie that’s half finished. That would be fine and dandy if this first half of “Mockingjay” had a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It’s more of a really long beginning and some of a middle. Besides the structural issues, the movie is dank and bleak as was heavily implied by the dour cliffhanger ending of the outstandingly entertaining last entry. There’s nothing particularly wrong or bad about “Mockingjay – Part 1” but it essentially lacks the spark (no pun intended) of last year’s “Catching Fire.”

I get that the film would have Hunger Games survivor and District 12 heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, who could play this role in her sleep by now) riddled with survivors guilt and suffering from post-traumatic stress. But the closing shot of “Catching Fire” showed a face ready for retaliation. Instead, we’re given cowering Katniss who must be coaxed into becoming and being marketed as the symbol of the rebellion. But hasn’t she been that for the last two movies? Ever since volunteering for her younger sister it has become the catalyst for the uprising. So I expected some more actual uprising. Instead we trod into the depths of the mysterious District 13 which is almost run in a similar police state by steely President Coin (Julianne Moore) but without the couture of the Capitol.  Of course, this place isn’t nearly as bad as actually being ruled by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his malevolent regime who insist on murdering members of the districts on live TV who show the slightest attempt at revolting. District 12 was destroyed but we’re only shown the aftermath.

The film’s plot is basically “let’s train Katinss to be the voice of rebellion – the Mockingjay, if you will – by hiring a propaganda film crew to follow her every move and intimidate the Capitol.” Some familiar faces show up to help including Jeffrey Wright’s tech guru Beetee, a sobered up Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and former gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Luckily, self-proclaimed refugee Effie (Elizabeth Banks) shows up to brighten things up a bit even if she’s forced into wearing grey rags. The emphasis in this third outing is definitely the love aspect which always felt quite shoehorned in this series anyways. Katniss does love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) but she’s also quite concerned about Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) as he’s been captured by the Capitol and completely brainwashed. It’s also a shame the movie can’t find anything interesting to do with Finnick (Sam Claflin) who was such an interesting character the first time around. And seriously missing is Johanna, also captured by the Capitol, who was also fascinating in “Catching Fire.”

The problem here isn’t director Francis Lawrence whose second entry improved immensely upon the already pretty great first film, but the script by Danny Strong and Peter Craig who fill the movie with so many political statements and allegories that it forgets to have any fun whatsoever. The suspense and excitement is replaced by stillness and exposition and waiting to see when the heck the final battle will actually begin. There are some fleeting moments of revolting and tension (as entertaining as bombings can be these days), and we get to see Katniss take out a bomber jet with her bow, but it’s all essentially just a tease. Even if the film exists as a setup for the ultimate conclusion it at least has a reason to exist, we just have to wait a little bit longer for the good stuff. It’s a decent appetizer for what is sure to be a delicious main course.  GRADE: B- 

Trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stupid is as Stupid Does: “Dumb & Dumber To” is Terrible

“Dumb & Dumber” is not even close to being a cinematic classic. It is, however, a terrifically funny silly comedy. And a lot of people love it, including me. It’s also undeniably dumb. The thing is though; it’s not a poorly made film. It’s simple, but it’s not simple-minded. It’s raunchy and juvenile, but you can feel that the people behind it knew what they were doing. You’ll hear it time and time again in Hollywood, comedy is really hard to do but it’s probably the least respected. Why that is I’ll never really know. “Dumb & Dumber” was special, probably because it hit right at the right time, and because it was one of several movies released that year that introduced the world to the brilliant, comedic talents of Jim Carrey. For anyone who fell in love with the comedy duo of Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) seeing them reprise their roles twenty years later is a proposition almost impossible to resist. The problem however is that seeing old Jim Carrey and old Jeff Daniels repeat the same goofy, slapstick humor is just sad and depressing, and surprisingly unfunny.

Yes it’s true; “Dumb & Dumber To” is a complete disaster from beginning to end. There’s nary a standout funny moment in its nearly two hour runtime. That’s just sad since the first film functioned on an “Airplane!” let’s see how many of these jokes and gags stick level. It’s twenty years later and I still find myself quoting lines from the film in everyday conversation. No one will be quoting the sequel, even months from now.

Bobby and Peter Farrelly who branded this type of silly goofy comedy back in the 90s (and for the record, haven’t made a good movie since 2005’s “Fever Pitch”) seem oddly distant from the material this time around. It really shows: the film feels sloppy, hastily put together, and has no real comic timing or rhythm, and it goes on seemingly forever. Something is just off. Perhaps it’s the six writers’ “attempt” to come up with any kind of story for these two characters that could possibly sustain another full length film. The end result is a terrible SNL sketch drawn out to feature length.

The plot is promising enough: Harry needs a kidney, and also finds out his has a long-lost biological daughter.  And the pair head out to find her in hopes she’ll donate her kidney. It’s a good idea to get these guys out on the road – a premise that worked extremely well in the first film – but the movie has way too many bumps along the road. The first film featured a serious kidnapping plot with an interesting MacGuffin that was the perfect counterbalance to the goofy goings on with Harry and Lloyd who stumble upon it. Here it’s too forced and feels almost too convoluted and overly complicated. And worst of all, you never care about this story or how it’s going to turn out. And it wastes the talent of the actors involved. Expect for the terrible actress  - who I won’t even name - who plays Harry’s grown up daughter who has no actual talent Her performance is just awful and it’s a major insult to all other actresses who could have played the part.

There were exactly two jokes that I found even remotely funny. One involves Harry and Lloyd ending up at the wrong address and another involves a throwaway reference to Asperger’s. That’s all. There is too much of an emphasis on silly sight gags with no payoff. How about, a meth cook as a roommate. Ok. The cat licks the crystal meth. Ok, where is this going. Then the cat… hangs from the chandelier. That’s all? Let’s not even mention the poorly throughout “mistaken identity” plot that takes over the film’s final act. Only two things in the entire movie that’s funny? Not worth the time or effort.

To think hundreds of people worked on this film for such little payoff. The most fun thing about the movie is counting all references to the first movie. Even the end credits, displaying shots from the original, reminds the audience that what they just watched was a subpar version of the movie they fell in love with decades ago. I’m not sure why anyone, Carrey and Daniels especially, felt this script was worth shooting considering the expectations of people waiting twenty years for a proper sequel (no, “Dumb and Dumberer” doesn’t even count). Yes the movie is dumb, we all know it would be, but unfunny? I don’t like it a lot.  GRADE: D+

Trailer for Dumb and Dumber To on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Revenge of the Nerds: The Hilarious “Big Hero 6” Flies Animation and Super Heroes to New Heights

Super hero films have become so over-saturated in the movie marketplace it’s almost borderline annoying. At least most of them that come out are actually good. It’s just becoming sort of difficult to tell them all apart. They even come out in animated form as evidenced by Disney’s new action-comedy “Big Hero 6.”It’s sort of refreshing that Walt Disney Animation Studios have been diversifying their animated films as of late and it’s worked wonders for them. They can go back and forth from making princess movies to action comedies and haven’t taken a misstep since before “Tangled.” Hot off the success of the phenomenon “Frozen,” Disney gives us a something completely different yet just as fun, fresh, and beautifully animated. Sure there aren’t any musical numbers or magic, but they do deliver one of the most delightful Disney characters since Dory in “Finding Nemo.”

“Big Hero 6” takes place in a fictional amalgamation of San Francisco and Tokyo appropriately called San Fransokyo. Our young hero is appropriate named Hiro (Ryan Potter) who is a some sort of robotics genius 14 year-old who takes part in back alley robotics fights. He’s urged by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to apply to the robotics program at his college. He invents these amazing microbots that he can control and morph into various objects and shapes with his mind, which obviously attracts lots of attention, but before you can say “every Disney movie needs a tragic family death” something traumatic happens in which the only thing left behind is a lovable, medical robot named Baymax  (Scott Adsit) made by Tadashi. Baymax, who senses that Hiro is hurting emotionally is activated and becomes his personal healthcare companion. Baymax is simply one of the most amazing animated characters in quite some time. Together, Baymax and Hiro form a typical bond found in movies like this (think “E.T.” or “How toTrain Your Dragon”) and eventually happen upon something quite sinister lurking in San Fransokyo.

The film is actually based on a little known Marvel comic book series. Having little knowledge of the comic, it can be said that the film at least is quite a success. The rich characterizations are quite something. Hiro doesn’t just feel like any kid who has experienced loss. And the bond between him and Baymax is simply a pleasure to watch. It’s funny and everything about these two feel genuine. Nothing here feels forced. Eventually Hiro and Baymax form a super hero team with his nerdy college-aged friends who are all super geniuses too. The group is diverse and every character feels memorable and is given something to do and there’s even a memorable villain on top of everything else. Don Hall and Christ Williams have taken an almost worn out genre and crafted a really great film that could easily become its own franchise with plenty of good characters to go around. 

“Big Hero 6” is a delightful family film. It’s a complete 180 from last year’s “Frozen,” but it’s every bit as good. It’s certainly more in the vein of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “The Incredibles” but it may be even better than those. The animation is really amazing (the microbot sequences in particular), Henry Jackson’s score is as exciting as the action and the humor in Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordon Roberts’ script works really well. The entire concept of Baymax is really outstanding, from his physical design (he’s described as a gigantic marshmallow at one point which feels accurate) to the terrific voice work. I was really blown away by this really funny, moving, and exciting animated film. It was a blast. GRADE: A- 

Feature Trailer for Big Hero 6 on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Galaxy Quest: The Audacious “Interstellar” is a Mind-Bending Intergalactic Journey

I don’t think I have a high enough brain function to ever fully understand everything that was going on in “Interstellar.” And that’s how you know you’re watching a great Christopher Nolan film: the amazing visuals outweigh the technical jargon and perplexing plot elements. My best approximation for describing “Interstellar” would be a cross between “Contact” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” filtered through “Inception.” Ok, so it’s basically “Inception” in space without the whole heist thing. It features crazy, top-notch photography, great performances from its Oscar alumni-heavy cast, and a fascinating story that seems to be polarizing audiences everywhere. No doubt about it though, this is a film worth seeing on the big screen and discussing for days on end.

The basic premise of “Interstellar” (which originally had Steven Spielberg’s involvement) isn’t anything particularly new. In the near future, Earth is no long able to provide a place for people to live. Dust storms ravage the land and people are forced to eat nothing but corn-based products. And like all great sci-fi films the only hope is to explore the possibility of leaving Earth and finding another place that can sustain human life. Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a former NASA test pilot who lives on a farm with his teenage son, young daughter Murph, and his father (John Lithgow). Murph believes some kind of “ghost” is haunting her, leaving a Morse code message which turns out to the coordinates of a top secret NASA facility where a mission to explore other galaxies in the hope of either transporting the Earth’s population or Plan B: repopulating a new planet with fertilized eggs leaving everyone on Earth to eventually die. The scientists have discovered a wormhole near Saturn, which they believe was placed by otherworldly beings, which would therefore make traveling such a far distance feasible.

The film’s setup is simple enough. Cooper is distraught about leaving his family behind, especially Murph, but he chooses the space mission in hopes that he can one day, even years in the future, return to his family on Earth. He’s joined by Dr. Brant (Anne Hathaway) and two other crew members, in addition to AI robots one of which is named TARS. Jessica Chastain plays Murph as an adult and the film spends much of its duration cross cutting from the devastating moments on Earth with the intense space sequences which are sometimes just as devastating.

To say anything else about Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan’s sometimes hokey script would ruin the fun. But let’s just say the film – like “Inception” – has a fun time playing with the concept of time and how in this film’s case, time is relative to your location in the galaxy. It’s certainly an audacious concept, and while one could easily find it farfetched, I really dug it. Most of these elements are based on real scientific fact and theories at least. It’s really the film’s final act that is most divisive as the film becomes truly bizarre and “out there.” But if you can make sense of “2001” then this film should go down easily enough.

The real reason any film fan wants to see “Interstellar” is for its amazing - non-3D - visuals. The cinematography is simply stunning. Nolan’s longtime DP was busing making his directorial debut and critically trashed “Transcendence” and was replaced by “Let the Right One In” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema who shot a lot of scenes with IMAX cameras, one of which was reported mounted onto the tip of a Learjet. The sound design is appropriately loud and intense, though like last year’s “Gravity,” the film plays a lot with the fact that there is no sound in space. And Hans Zimmer provides another terrific score, not quite as bombastic, he was definitely going for something different here with some almost 80s sounding music queues that fit the visuals quite nicely.

It’s easy to want to compare “Interstellar” with last year’s “Gravity” but the whole films couldn’t be more different. But films are some of the most amazing movie set in space you’re bound to see. “Gravity” was simple, realistic space thriller. “Interstellar” is a much larger film on a such a big scale that it takes place in more than one galaxy! It has honest themes about family, time, and life that are truly impactful and there’s a surprisingly strong emotional core which I found particularly moving. Did I get everything that was going on at every moment? Heck no. However, Nolan certainly set out to give us something we haven’t seen before, and while there are plenty of elements gleaned from other films, he does give us a unique vision that was simply a pleasure to watch. Even if it’s not the nail-biting experience that was the swiftly-paced “Gravity,” this film certainly feels like another glorious giant leap forward for the movie going experience.  GRADE: A- 

Theatrical Trailer for Interstellar on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Lens with Benefits: The Astounding “Nightcrawler” Features Newsworthy Performances and Suspense

Where the heck did Jake Gyllenhaal go? He looks all gaunt and squirrely, almost as if he’s wasting away, in his latest crime thriller “Nightcrawler.” It’s a scathing media satire and crackling crime thriller from first time feature director Dan Gilroy. The actor with his black slicked back hair and stark dark eyes almost fades into the background of the creepily shot scenes of wee hours Los Angeles where he begins as an amateur cameraman trying to get footage of accidents and crimes moments after they occurred so he can get paid by a local news channel who is struggling in the ratings. Gyllenhaal has given one outstanding performance after the next in challenging material be it “Prisoners” or “Enemy” and here he has found his Travis Bickle role with a performance that is sure to be remembered for years to come.

Any questions of whether Gyllenhaal is playing an immoral character is vanquished in the film’s first few moments when he assaults a security guard and is later seen wearing the guy’s fancy wristwatch. He’s a scavenger. Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom who begins the film turning in scrap metal for cash. But then he witnesses amateur camera guys filming a car crash aftermath and decides to try it out for himself. In the film’s first half we witness the trials and tribulations of Lou becoming a “nightcrawler” - those pesky camera guys who are always shoving their lenses in the faces of innocent victims of crimes or accidents and freelancing the footage for local news stations. And then Lou almost perfects it.

Lou sells his increasingly graphic footage to a local producer Nina (Rene Russo channeling her inner Faye Dunaway) whose morning news show is the lowest rated in the city. Both Nina and Lou seem to bond over this creepy footage and Lou especially becomes obsessed with pleasing Nina’s outrageous quest for high ratings and his increasing need for more money. Of course he goes about it in the craziest ways possible whether that means moving a body to get the perfect shot or withholding photographic evident from the police to further his career. You can only feel bad for Lou’s naïve apprentice Rick (Riz Ahmed) who he hires as his “intern.” This is a film that forces us to follow along with a morally empty character who makes increasingly unethical decisions. And the film’s suspense is shoved into overdrive in the film’s last act when Lou makes some of the boldest and insane decisions imaginable.

“Nightcrawler” works like a modern suspense thriller version of “Network” much of if functioning as if were Michael Mann’s post-“Collateral” crime actioner. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shots the film as if it were a dirty, urban 70s noir. He captures the crime riddled LA nightscape with breezy intensity.  The movie, shot on actual film, captures the grainy cityscape perfectly, including an incredibly intense car chase that pits the viewer in the middle of the action. James Newton Howard’s electronic, almost rock-like score feels as strange as the film itself and works perfectly. Like Gyllenhaal’s character it’s odd but charming. In fact, Gyllenhaal’s scraggly, amoral but cordial (and arguably insane) character could be an evil distant cousin of his similarly rogue and heroic cop character from “Prisoners.” Both men are wholly solitary and strange individuals with completely different motivations.

“Nightcrawler” is compellingly watchable and that’s because Gilroy’s script and direction are top notch. Facing double duty, this guy makes the right decision at every possible time, resulting in a perfectly paced thriller with appropriately suspenseful sequences, impeccably shot and timed action, and a captivating morally bankrupt character at the center. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. The idea of satirizing the news media is not even remotely a new thing, but this film makes for one fascinating experience and is as relevant as ever.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Nightcrawler on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Birdman Cometh: The Darkly Comedic “Birdman” is an Impressive Cinematic Achievement

How do you even describe the film “Birdman” to someone? I guess you can tell them it’s a black comedy about a former super hero movie actor who tries to reinvent himself as the writer, director, and star of a Broadway play while going through the wackiest midlife crisis imaginable. Oh and the guy who plays the former super hero movie actor is played by none other than former super hero movie actor Michael Keaton. And did I mention the film is gloriously shot to simulate taking place in one single, unbroken take. Think “Rope” meets “Death of a Salesman” meets “Noises Off!” If that isn’t the weirdest combination of movies imaginable I don’t know what is. In other words, “Birdman” is a triumph; it’s an entertaining, perfectly executed cinematic achievement with outstanding performances from its wonderful ensemble and mind blowingly amazing camerawork.

Michael Keaton is Riggan. Decades earlier he had played the title character Birdman in three Blockbuster films. But in his current form he’s just a washed up actor. Though he still has fans coming up to him on the street asking for photos and autographs. He’s plan for a career revival is writing and directing a Broadway play and starring in it as well. His friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is producing the show. And the play also stars first time Broadway actress Lesley (Noami Watts channeling her "Mulholland Drive" character a tad), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and last minute replacement and cocky Mike (a delightfully loose Edward Norton). There’s also Riggan’s daughter/personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone) who happens to be a recovering drug addict. The film follows Riggan in and around the theater during the last few days of previews before opening night including bizarre talks with his former Birdman persona.

What seems like a simple story is anything but as director Alejandro González Iñárritu, known for such dramas as "21 Grams" and "Babel," has decided to shot the film as if it were done in one single unbroken take. There is some digital editing trickery going on here to the watchful eye, but otherwise the film is chock full of long unbroken takes that are simply stunning to watch. It almost makes you feel as if you’re watching a play, and yet the film never feels stagey or stagnant. It’s wholly cinematic. And let’s not forget the utterly crazy good script with hilarious dialogue. It’s a scathing satire of Hollywood, celebrity, criticism, etc, which is certainly nothing new, but the craft here is impeccable. It feels like it was so expertly handled it’s as if Robert Altman came back from the grave to make it. And let’s not forget the amazing subtle aspects like, for instance, the minimalist drum score that goes from non-diegetic film score to source music within a single shot.

Sure the film isn't quite going to be for every taste. For every film nerd who will sit there at awe at the clever handiwork of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, there will be plenty who find the film’s more “out there” fantasy-like elements either over-the-top or downright confusing. And let’s not even mention the bizarre, what just happened ending, that will most likely get audience members into long film geek discussions after the credits begin rolling. Iñárritu, masterfully balancing both the comedy and drama, and his actors are in top form and they have all helped craft an utterly original and fascinating movie that is certainly one of the year’s best.  GRADE: A

Teaser Trailer for Birdman on TrailerAddict.