Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "There Will Be Blood"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of There Will Be Blood, which I originally reviewed in January of 2008. It’s a masterful film with a towering performance and a number of memorable scenes and quotes. Reading the review now, it’s hard to believe I made no mention of milkshakes.

There Will Be Blood is a gorgeously shot film.
Paul Thomas Anderson loves to dazzle. As a director, he usually accomplishes this feat with interesting color saturations and long tracking shots. As a writer, he calls upon fantastic moments (i.e. frogs raining from the sky) or odd deus ex machina (i.e. little pianos). However, with There Will Be Blood, Anderson has turned a corner. Although he’s still a dazzler, the writer-director has (mostly) abandoned his parlor tricks, limiting himself to the bare essentials in creating a mesmerizing character study that ranks alongside Citizen Kane in terms of pure ambition and scope.

Interestingly enough, Anderson opens the film with his lone embellishment—a nearly wordless 15-minute stretch in which he convincingly establishes the turn of the century setting and the fervor for oil. Functioning as the movie’s prologue, the sequence introduces Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and surveys his ascent to success, so that by the time dialogue sets in and he proclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman,” we know he’s not kidding.

Accompanied by his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Plainview addresses these statements to a community that has discovered oil in its area. In trying to gain the people’s trust, Plainview realizes they have become too excitable, and he abandons them; they’re all wolves out for their fair share, and Plainview’s looking to deal with sheep.

By this point, Plainview is a successful man, with one strong strike paying him $5,000 a week and several other promising wells to boot. But it’s not enough for him, because he’s got a competition in him. He disdains paying for shipping and begrudges Standard Oil. He’s looking for a big score that will enable him to create his own oil empire so that he can, we later learn, retire from the society he hates with such fervor.

He eventually finds the ideal situation—an “ocean of oil” underneath the home of a bunch of sheep—but complications keep getting in the way. Some come on the business end—setbacks at the well and the invasive presence of Standard Oil—while others are more personal, like an accident at the oil field that leaves H.W. deaf or the arrival of long-lost brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor).

Despite all this, the biggest thorn in Plainview’s side continues to be the preacher Eli Sunday (an excellent Paul Dano), a self-righteous con-man who presents himself as a pious prophet. The interplay between these two emerges as a strong plot element, and also conjures themes of capitalism vs. religion.

However, through it all the backbone of the story remains that of a father and his son. Many critics are referring to Plainview as evil incarnate, and although I see the logic in this, I don’t buy it. The character that Day-Lewis and Anderson have created is too layered to be classified so easily. Plainview is a downright nasty guy, but he’s definitely more complex than the film’s most ardent critics are suggesting.

At times, he is shown to be tender with H.W. and then outright malicious; regretful for wrong treatment, while displaying a refusal to change. The relationship is drawn obtusely, and is left open to interpretation. My belief is that Plainview has feelings for H.W., but that he’s too emotionally retarded to act appropriately. The drive inside of him, the overwhelming hate he possesses, makes it impossible for him to do so. However, his desire for family (as seen in Plainview’s conversation with Henry) is evident.

For his part, Day-Lewis nails the intricacies of the role. Taking his memorable Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York to the next stage, Day-Lewis disappears into the character to deliver one of the best performances of the decade. Whatever your feelings on the film, it’s hard to deny he’s a powerhouse. Although the film's perfect from top to bottom, Anderson’s greatest masterstroke was to get Day-Lewis into th role.

Everything about the film, from Anderson’s brilliant script to Robert Elswit’s photography, is spot on. That said, special mention should be made of Johnny Greenwood’s majestic score. Taking a break from his regular gig as lead guitarist for Radiohead, Greenwood has perfectly echoed Plainview’s soul with a score that is both classical in structure and yet refreshingly experimental and discordant.

There Will Be Blood is not for everyone. Although it’s far more accessible than some of the more recent big studio art films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, it will undoubtedly irk conventional moviegoers who are looking for a light, fun night at the movies. A+

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"The Lego Movie" Is Awesome

The main protagonists in The Lego Movie recall those in The Matrix.
The Lego Movie is the best film based on a toy or game since Clue. In and of itself, that doesn't mean much – the likes of Battleship, Dungeons and Dragons, and the Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises don’t set the bar very high, and stretching the concept to include films based on video games doesn't help raise it any.

It’s more telling to say The Lego Movie is a good film period, but it’s worth comparing the film to these other toy-based entries. Doing so helps spotlight the accomplishment of writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street), two guys who have made a habit of churning out the unlikeliest of good movies.

This could’ve easily been an awful endeavor, but Miller and Lord clearly put a lot of thought and hard work into making a movie that doesn't just feature Legos, but that gets at exactly what makes them so popular and then develops a worthwhile story around that. Lego sets come with directions, but anyone who played with them as a kid knows the best part was mixing up the pieces, joining pirates with knights and star fighters and using your imagination to create something original. The Lego Movie starts with that idea and then expands upon it.

As odd as it might seem to believe this, The Lego Movie is a film with a lot on its mind. Overall, it’s a critique of everyday fascism and a treatise against conformity, a film that stresses individualism, creativity and thinking for yourself. At the same time, it functions as a critique on counter culture movements, suggesting that individualism doesn't mean isolationism, that marching to the beat of your own drum is great but that teamwork is needed to affect change.

I know it sounds pretty heady for a kid’s movie, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had here. The film has a very witty and funny script, and the main story is the type of adventure a child might dream up. It focuses on President Business (Will Ferrell) and his evil plan to end the world with the help of an overzealous henchman Bad Cop/Good Cap (Liam Neeson, having a blast) and a weapon known as The Kragle.
Batman is Emmet's romantic competition. He's also a bit of a douche. 
Lacking an understanding of imagination and creativity, President Business has slowly indoctrinated the masses in his town of Bricksburg to always follow the directions, using mindless entertainment like the hit tune “Everything is Awesome” and the hit TV show “Where Are My Pants?” to lull the populace into becoming complacent consumer drones not that far removed from the characters in The Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Standing in opposition to President Business are the master builders, Lego people who believe in freedom, being unique and using your imagination to build whatever you want. They are led by wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and badass babe Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), but their numbers also includes Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and countless pop culture references like Shaquille O’Neil (Shaquille O’Neil). They wait in the shadows for the emergence of The Special – the smartest, most talented, most interesting person in the world – a Lego person who will find the mysterious object known as the Pièce de résistance and defeat the evil overlord once and for all.

Stumbling into the middle of all of this is Emmett (Chris Pratt), a mediocre, run-of-the-mill schlep who gets the Pièce de résistance stuck to his back and is assumed to be The Special. Parents will be reminded of The Matrix (comparisons between the two films can be found here), but kids may be thinking more about Kung Fu Panda. Either way, the film turns the whole “chosen one” trope on its head, suggesting anyone who believes in themselves can be special, that there is no one chosen one.  For a great examination of this idea and the troubling gender politics of it all, check out this thought-provoking read.

As if the film wasn't already overflowing with ideas, a third act twist that recalls a similar development in Happy Feet adds even more thematic dimension. (If you are the type who doesn’t want spoilers, it’s best not to read the next three paragraphs).
Professor Business means business.
After Emmett sacrifices himself to save the master builders, the film transitions to live action, and it is revealed the entire adventure has all come from the imagination of a little boy who is playing with his toys.

Scratch that; he’s playing with his dad’s toys. Ferrell plays the dad, and if that doesn't make it clear enough that he is the boy’s inspiration for President Business, the father’s insistence that his son keep away from his toys and not imaginatively build whatever he wants certainly does. To the father (known to Emmett as The Man Upstairs), Legos are not toys, they are a “highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system,” and he is in the process of gluing them together like he would model planes (The Kragle is actually a tube of Krazy Glue with a few letters scratched off). The entire thing plays like an indictment against a generation who look at toys as collectibles to be looked at but not played with.

This section also flirts with some interesting notions about imagination and creativity, about how stories and characters can begin to take on a life of their own. Although most of the film would seem to take place inside a child’s head, there is the fact that Emmett jumps off the table. It’s all very Pirandello, and while it’s not the focus of the story (as it was in the wonderful Ruby Sparks), it is in there.

Serving this many ideas so well goes a long way toward making me, as a viewer, OK with the fact that the whole movie is basically one long commercial. I’m naturally inclined to dislike this type of all-consuming product placement, but when woven so well into the fabric of the story, it’s hard to be all that annoyed. Plus, I mean, come on. Lego’s are super fun.

I’ve gotten this far into this review without mentioning the zippy animation, and that’s just ridiculous, because as dense as this film is thematically, it’s even more so visually. The frame is constantly packed with visual splendor and the animators have a lot of fun populating the world with all sorts of nostalgic nods. Of particular note is the way this team has so hilariously rendered Lego water and fire.

In addition to being the best toy-based movie since Clue, The Lego Movie is the best animated film since Wreck-it-Ralph, and flat out one of the best films of 2014. It’s really funny, crazy beautiful and absolutely brimming with inventiveness and ideas. I’m tempted to say those adapting toys to movies should take note, but really anyone making movies should do that. This is great entertainment for all ages. A  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Blades of Glory"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

This time out I’m posting a review of Blades of Glory, which I originally reviewed in March of 2007 under the headline “Anchorman 3 Hits Theaters.” At the time, I hadn't yet fully embraced Ferrell’s outlandishness and broad approach. His films tend to get better with repeated viewings (as Blades of Glory does), and I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for the wave length on which he operates (which is why I gave a positive review to the ridiculousness that was Casa de Mi Padre).

Still, even by my new standards of judgment, Blades of Glory remains one of Ferrell’s weaker efforts. Here’s my original review:
Remember when Jon Heder headlined major movies?


After taking a dramatic break with the whimsically charming Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell has returned to familiar stomping grounds with Blades of Glory. While this will likely please pre-teen boys everywhere (and the comedian’s more ardent fans), it isn’t a triumphant return. Blades of Glory may have tonal similarities to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, but it falls short in achieving a similar level of laughs.

That’s not to say the film is bereft of comedy. There’s several humorous gags, one outright hilarious one, and some of the movie’s sillier lines of dialogue are destined to be repeated ad nauseam by adoring fans (i.e. “mindbottling”… trust me, you’ll be hearing it soon enough).

Still, as far as Ferrell comedies go, Blades of Glory isn’t as funny as Talladega Nights, which wasn’t as funny as Anchorman, which wasn’t as funny as Old School. Coincidentally, each film has also gotten more cartoonish than the last, to the extent that they are now beginning to resemble extended SNL skits. That’s fine if the film’s as funny as Anchorman, but this film’s humor is far too scattershot to be so broadly drawn. Blades of Glory’s premise is simple enough: arch rivals Chazz (Ferrell) and Jimmy (Jon Heder), the two hottest competitors in men’s ice skating, are banned from singles skating due to a petty fight that tarnished the sport’s image. Several years later they are forced to put their differences aside and skate in the couples category in the hopes of another chance at a gold medal.

Joining forces proves difficult for the two men, as they are as mismatched as one might expect for a film of this ilk. Chazz is basically Ferrell’s patented egotistical/dumb macho man, but with a twist (he’s a sex addict), while Jimmy is a girly, prudish man-child. Complicating things further are an odd brother and sister skating duo, Franz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), who have ruled supreme in couples skating for quite some time and will stoop to any low to keep Chazz and Jimmy from stealing their limelight.

Throw in a few awkward skating routines for the two duos, several cameos (from the likes of skating legends and a frat packer) and a tacked on romance between Jimmy and Katie (Jenna Fischer), Franz and Fairchild’s baby sister, and you’ve got the movie.

To his credit, Ferrell does his best to keep the film from veering too far onto thin ice. He has fun with the sex addict angle and adds mightily to some ho-hum jokes with great line readings. Still, the role’s a total caricature, so I wouldn’t call it a stretch or anything to rave about. Heder gets far fewer laughs than his partner, but he manages to more or less overcome his monotonous persona to give a solid performance as Jimmy.

Arnett and Poehler, who are married in real life, manage to steal every scene they’re in with their morbid, off-the-wall deliveries and expressions. Meanwhile, Craig T. Nelson, William Fichtner and Nick Swardson provide able support, while Fischer essentially plays a weirder, sexier version of her Pam Beesly character from The Office (no complaining here, but one wishes she had more to do).

In the end, the film is plagued by the same bug that infects many of Ferrell’s comedies — there’s no rooting interest. No character or relationship is developed enough to garner much attention, and so in the end, there’s not much to care about. Furthermore, with the exception of the sex addict material and a hysterically violent video clip, there isn’t much worthwhile comedy either. C-

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Larson Makes a Play for Leading Lady Status in Magnificent "Short Term 12"

Brie Larson shows what she's capable of in Short Term 12.
Short Term 12 is one of those indie darlings you hear about during Oscar season, the type many critics say deserves to be a big awards player if not for the politics and money involved in the process.

Having seen the film, I can understand why. Short Term 12 is vital filmmaking. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting – a chicken soup for the soul experience, but not in a corny or melodramatic way. It's a nuanced, authentic and involving human drama about neglected, anti-social youths and the staff members who try to offer them stability. Although it flew under the radar, it stands as one of the best films of 2013.

One of the best things about Short Term 12 is that it understands there are no easy solutions for the personal issues these kids face. Bright spots and breakthroughs are possible, but they aren't cure-all turning points. All the staff members are trying to do is keep these kids safe and try to make the good, self-affirming moments outnumber the ones overcome by anger, confusion and destructive tendencies.

The film focuses on Grace (Brie Larson), the staff supervisor at a short term group home that is meant to keep troubled teens for no more than a year but often keeps them far longer than that, making the inevitable separation from the home even harder. Like many of the kids under her care, Grace had a rough childhood, something she has buried in the past but that bubbles to the surface for three reasons – her father’s impending release from jail, the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenager facing similar abuse issues to those Grace experienced, and the discovery that she is pregnant with the child of her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another staffer at Short Term 12.

John Gallagher Jr. and Larson share an easy chemistry in the film.
The film serves its ensemble well. Dever and Gallagher both do fine work fleshing out characters that in a weaker film with lesser actors would be pure plot devices in Grace’s story. Dever is a raw nerve and Gallagher  makes the too-good-to-be-true nice guy interesting (he’s practically the Jim Halpert of the group home) by digging deep and becoming this goofy, lovable guy.

Keith Stanfield also gives a great performance as Marcus, a long-time resident who is turning 18 and about to be forced out of Short Term 12. In one scene, Stanfield delivers "So You Know What It's Like," an original and powerful rap song with the refrain “Look in my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” It’s one of the more memorable moments in the movie, played beautifully by Stanfield and Gallagher, and it’s a shame Oscar voters didn't notice the song.

That may be a shame, but it’s downright crazy Larson didn't garner their attention. I get that Meryl Streep and Judi Dench are institutions, but the fact that Larson, Greta Gerwig (for Frances Ha) and Julie Delpy (for Before Midnight) were all ignored by the Academy is simply mind-boggling.

Larson's been acting since the late '90s, but the 24-year-old has grown increasingly recognizable in recent years, popping up in a number of critically acclaimed TV shows and films (United States of TaraCommunityGreenbergThe Spectacular NowRampart). She's probably best known for playing Jonah Hill's love interest in 21 Jump Street, but Larson has taken a big leap forward into leading lady territory with Short Term 12. As Grace, she teeters on the edge, coming across as strong and commanding and yet fragile and insecure. It’s a revelatory performance that brings to mind the way Jennifer Lawrence launched herself to stardom with Winter's Bone.

Given the strength of the film, I’m looking forward to whatever writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton does next. The guy has credits on IMDB dating back 12 years, but it appears that he began gathering steam a few years ago following the short film Short Term 12, which later inspired this movie. I’m hoping he takes the next step the same way Neill Blomkamp did after he parlayed the successful short film Alive in Joburg into the full-length District 9. However, there’s always the chance he goes the way of Phil Morrison, another filmmaker who finally got a fantastic humanist film made after a long career as a director (that would be Junebug), only to then return to obscurity. 

Time will tell, but, based on his marvelous work here, Cretton definitely deserves the opportunity to make a second feature. A


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Away From Her"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

First up: a review of Away From Her from October of 2007. As readers of this blog may have deduced by my reviews of Take This Waltz and Stories We TellI’m a big fan of writer/director Sarah Polley, so this seems as good a review to start with as any.

Julie Christie received an Oscar nomination for her
work in Away From Her.
In her first venture behind the camera, Sarah Polley, an acclaimed Canadian actress recognizable for lead roles in Go and the Dawn of the Dead remake, didn't take the easy way out. Despite being just 28 years old, she took on a film about a man who learns to redefine what it is to love his Alzheimer's-striken wife when her fragmenting memory causes her to leave him and their 44-year marriage behind. A difficult task no doubt, but Polley rose to the challenge and crafted Away From Her, one of 2007’s best films.

Based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Polley’s screenplay (yes, she also wrote the screenplay) is relatively faithful to its source material, making only slight additions to flesh out the characters. Building upon those additions, the perfectly chosen cast is so good that they are able to not only translate but enhance Polley’s levelheaded take on the topic.

After 44 years of marriage with Grant (Gordon Pinsent), Fiona (Julie Christie) has begun to lose her memory. She begins to forget little things at first, such as putting a frying pan in the freezer. However, as her condition worsens, she decides she must move to a care facility, despite Grant’s desire to care for her at home for as long as possible. She decides on Meadowlake, a nursing home with a strict policy that says a resident can have no visits or phone calls during their first 30 days.

After the 30 day spell is up, Grant travels to the nursing home to discover he has been all but forgotten and that his wife has forged a close bond with her fellow resident, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Although he is jealous, Grant does not resent Aubrey, but is instead saddened that another man has replaced him. In confiding with a friendly nurse (Kristen Thomson), he wonders if the whole thing isn't a show, if his wife isn't punishing him for an infidelity in his past. However, after learning a great deal of patience, he proves his love for his wife by making the ultimate sacrifice.

The cast really sells the story. The Oscar buzz swirling around Christie is warranted. At 66, she’s as radiant, witty and nuanced as she’s ever been. Meanwhile, the relatively unknown Pinsent (an actor of note in his native Canada) anchors the film. Playing an insular man, he expertly epitomizes the guilt and grief that consume his character. Never ringing a false note, he delivers a resonate performance that sells the movie. It’s impossible to view his performance here and not want to see him on the screen again.

The supporting cast is also solid. Murphy isn't given much to do, but Thomson is a spunky live-wire who both judges Grant and sympathizes with him at the same time. Additionally, Olympia Dukakis impresses as Aubrey’s wife, an abrasive woman who nevertheless feels a desire to be close to someone.

In talking about her film with the New York Times, Polley indicated she believes our culture has a hard time with love after the first year: “It is difficult, and it is painful, and it is a letdown. [But] that first year is so much less profound than what happens when you’re actually left with each other and yourself in an honest way. It was interesting to me to make a film about what love looked like after life had gotten in the way, and what remained.”

On that count, Polley succeeds with flying colors by showing a flawed relationship that can adapt and change because of the years of love invested. In Grant’s final decision, Polley asserts a true affirmation of love that is both tenderly uplifting and utterly heart breaking. A

Anderson Does His Thing and Does It Well With "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

An apprentice relationship is at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
In my review of Moonrise Kingdom, I floated the idea that writer/director Wes Anderson had reemerged as a critical darling after several years of stark criticism for his particular stylistic choices. I argued that he had done so by, oddly enough, leaning even harder into his supposed shortfalls – things like fussy production design, affected tone and stilted emotionality.

Well, you can double down on that notion with his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which focuses on the screwball consequences and whimsical violence that result when an elderly rich woman (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves an invaluable painting to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), her frequent lover and the concierge at the lavish Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave is aided by his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), all the while a fascist government rises in the background.

Once again, Anderson has been universally heralded for a film that very much dives down the rabbit hole. It’s simply amazing to me that people who found so many issues with underappreciated gems like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited would so readily herald Budapest, a production that is overwhelmingly concerned with artifice for artifice sake.

I don’t say that as a criticism – I greatly enjoyed the film, and am glad the critical consensus has come back around on (or, perhaps, finally caught up with) one of my favorite filmmakers. However, this is an odd movie for previous Anderson haters to love, because what starts out as a madcap crime caper evolves into mournful meditation on the lost appreciation of ornamental extravagance. Yes, I understand how they might appreciate that Anderson has found the perfect thematic match for his patented approach, but I would expect naysayers would scoff at such a message.

F. Murray Abraham shines in his first Anderson outing.
Budapest is as detached as any film in Anderson’s oeuvre – characters are murdered without pause and, in an epilogue, we learn of the terrible fates of several of our heroes with what amounts to a shrug. And yet, one could argue it’s the most personally reflective work of his career, one that acknowledges the obsessive fussiness and trifling airs, but ultimately concludes there is beauty in such accouterments. It's almost as if Anderson has heard his critics, and this is his response.
 
At a late point in the movie, one of our narrators – there are several narrators, organized like nesting dolls, because, well, why not – says of Gustave, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” It’s hard not to apply those words to Anderson himself, considering how out of time and place his work seems.

Budapest features a number of Anderson’s repertory players, but the main roles are awarded to newcomers like Fiennes, Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law. Some of his regulars are cast to inject personality into smaller roles (Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Jeff Goldblum), but countless others (Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) turn up in gratuitous cameos that seem intentionally designed to enhance the decorative excess on display.

The cast does a nice job, but, despite the big ensemble, this is mostly a two-man show between an older and younger man. In that way, it’s reminiscent of Anderson’s masterpiece Rushmore, but the dynamic is so different that it’s really its own thing entirely.
Anderson uses a lot of miniature models in the film.
As the grown up Zero, Abraham is a standout, and I’m happy to report Dafoe and Goldblum provide the biggest gut busters, just as they did in Life Aquatic (for some fun, here are short clips of Dafoe and Goldblum from that one). But the movie orbits around Fiennes, a versatile actor who proves more than worthy of Anderson’s greatest character since Royal Tenenbaum. Gustave is a prissy fop that is overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and formality, but he also possesses an unmistakable charm and honor. Fiennes absolutely owns the role, and fans of In Bruges won’t be surprised at just how funny he can make an expletive.
 
Per usual, Anderson incorporates immaculately worked-over production designs. For many of the external shots, he returns to the world of miniature models he explored so expertly in Fantastic Mr. Fox, creating some really breathtaking imagery that adds to the embellished nature of the piece (for more on this, check out this article).
 
Budapest moves at a breakneck pace, and it serves as one of Anderson's zanier entries. It’s not quite at the level of a Rushmore or a The Royal Tenenbaums, but it does represent the work of an auteur at the top of his game. At one point in the film, Gustave defends his proclivity for bedding old ladies by saying something I think applies well to Anderson’s recent output, most especially this film:  “When you’re younger it’s all fillet steak, but as you get older you have to move on to the cheaper cuts, which is fine with me because I like those — more flavorful, so they say.” A

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Edge of Tomorrow" Provides Fun Commentary on Gaming Experience

Edge of Tomorrow plays with the time loop concept previously seen
in the likes of Groundhog Day and Source Code.

Edge of Tomorrow is Tom Cruise’s latest foray into science fiction. In the film, he plays Major William Cage a smarmy, army publicist who pisses off the wrong general leading to his getting thrown on the front lines of a battle against an invading alien force. Ill prepared for combat, Cage dies within minutes, but somehow he winds up in a time loop, forcing him to relive the experience again and again.
 
Cage’s situation enables him the opportunity to learn his environment, improve his skills, and, potentially, take down the seemingly unbeatable aliens (called mimics) once and for all. It also allows him to grow close to Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a celebrated war hero who understands what he’s going through because she experienced the same thing earlier in the war.
 
Watching a film like this, it’s hard not to immediately draw parallels to other films, which neatly ties into thoughts from my last piece, a review that touched on how it’s impossible to judge films in a vacuum. A lot of people are labeling Edge of Tomorrow as Groundhog Day with action (an idea given extra relevance by the love interest having the name Rita), but Next and Source Code are even better comparison points given their genre trappings.
 
Director Doug Liman gets a lot of mileage out of the premise, using many of the same tricks employed by Groundhog Day and Source Code to not only avoid monotony, but also to provide a great deal of exposition, humor and depth. As happened in those films, our lead begins to fall for the girl, but, unfortunately, although he has developed feelings and gotten to know this woman over weeks, years, decades or more, she can’t know him at all.
 
There is a great scene set on a farm in which Cage tries to stall their next step, because he just wants to live in the moment with Rita and knows that, no matter what he does in this setting, she will soon take action in a way that ends her life. However, the script tells a lot more than it shows, and I would’ve preferred an additional scene or two showing Cage and Rita’s developing bond. Cruise deserves credit for doing a lot of heavy lifting to overcome that issue.
 
This is yet another science fiction movie that boils down to taking out
a central hub to neutralize an alien threat.
One major positive to having an clued-in love interest in a film like this is that Rita is aware what Cage going through, which at least helps circumvent the “if you think about it” issue that plagued the other two films. For instance, in Groundhog Day, I was always amused by the fact Phil (Bill Murray) is finally able to land Rita (Andie MacDowell) on the day he barely spends any time with her at all (since he’s so busy helping out the townsfolk). Spending an entire day romancing the woman gets him nowhere, but building himself into a local legend and sculpting one ice sculpture makes her willing to not only sleep with him, but to drop everything in her life, marry the guy and move to Punxsutawney as well.
 
That’s not enough to kill Groundhog Day – it’s actually my all-time favorite movie, and it’s not like we haven’t gotten a chance to see that relationship develop – but it is one of the best examples I can think of when a movie goes “forget the logic – all that matters is that it works for the audience” (another example: the whole “T-Rex pushes the car over the cliff that wasn’t there” thing in Jurassic Park). At least in Edge of Tomorrow, Rita knows they must have formed a bond and is able to judge Cage and react to him based on that knowledge.
 
Beyond the inclusion of a strong, in-the-know female, Edge of Tomorrow also distinguishes itself as a clever commentary on the video gaming experience. Cage is dropped into a very Halo-esque scenario each day, and when he dies he respawns back where he started, ready to learn from his mistakes and advance. The film has a great deal of fun with Cage’s exasperation related to his failures. Even though Liman edits the film so that we aren’t seeing the same things over and over again, there’s an underlying understanding that Cage is going through the motions each day to get the his last point of death. Cruise humorously translates the frustration every gamer has felt as the film wears on and he fails to make progress – one training scene even has him try to convince Blunt he’s good to continue despite having broken his leg just so he doesn’t have to go through the motions of getting to this point again.
 
The film is pretty great from start to finish, but it really crackles in the middle third. I was somewhat annoyed it devolves into the typical mission concerned with blowing up a central hub, which, if you recall, also occurred in Cruise’s last sci-fi vehicle Oblivion (Why do so many damn movies resort to this plot point? The only trope more popular in the action genre seems to be the powerful object that falls into the wrong hands). It’s a little more forgivable here given that this movie is intentionally aping and commenting on what it’s like to play a video game, and, well, that’s a pretty common endpoint in alien invasion first-person shooters.
 
The film concludes with a questionable denouement that arbitrarily betrays the established logic of the film. It’s sort of cribbed right from Next, but not as annoying as it was there, because it feels more earned (I’m trying not to ruin either movie here, but if you’ve seen both, you’ll get what I mean). Regardless, as with Groundhog Day, the ending isn’t enough to hurt my view of the film. Edge of Tomorrow is an enjoyable, smart and well-drawn actioner – the kind it would behoove Hollywood to make a lot more of. A-

Friday, July 4, 2014

Processing "The Croods," "Frankweenie" and "Frozen" as a New Dad


The Croods plays like your typical DreamWorks Animation film.

Film criticism is not a science. We can try all we want to be objective about it – to talk about things like plot structure, character development, stylistic choices or technical ingenuity – but it all really boils down to how a film makes us feel.
 
Some of that derives from the aforementioned elements, but a lot of it has to do with personal bias, preferences and past experiences. That’s why someone like me can dislike an accomplished and critically-adored film like 2001: A Space Odyssey while enjoying a flawed and largely dismissed one like Hook. It’s also why opinions toward movies can change. Some movies will be diminished by repeated viewings (i.e. Crash), while others improve each time out (i.e. Step Brothers).
 
It’s a dynamic process – one that leaves little room for certainty and makes it impossible to judge cinema in a vacuum. That’s actually one of the things I love about movies, and, really, all forms of art.
 
For that reason, I try to judge films on their own terms, but that only works to an extent. I know that even when I attempt to judge movies on their merit or intent, my previous history with film and my own personal baggage still manages to play a big role in my reactions.
 
I mention all of this as a preamble to a joint review of three animated films I watched recently – The Croods, Frankenweenie and Frozen. My reason for doing so? I’ve come to realize that becoming a father has altered the way I gauge these movies, putting emphasis on the simple question "Would I be cool with my kid watching this?"
 
Concerning The Croods, the answer is a definite yes, which is odd, because I found it to be little more than a passable film overall. DreamWorks Animation has done a great job launching distinct animated franchises, but I’ve rarely loved anything they’ve done. Excluding the first two Shrek films (which were pretty great) and the last two (which were pretty blah), I’d classify everything they do as "good... enough." Even their better offerings, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, have failed to really move the needle for me beyond muted appreciation.
 
The Croods, which focuses on a caveman family with an overprotective dad (Nicolas Cage) and an adventure-seeking teenage daughter (Emma Stone), is the poster boy for how I feel about DreamWorks Animation as a whole. I appreciate the impressive visual display of interesting creatures and color schemes, but the film is a middling effort with a routine plot and a lot of thin characterizations.
 
Still, there is something to be said for a film that hits its marks, and it's hard to deny the film manages to be an emotionally effective enterprise. In terms of quality, it actually reminds me a lot of Night at the Museum – not good, but competent and cute with a decent message for kids. And, of course, that’s the big takeaway for me, now that I’m a dad. It basically repackages the father-daughter dynamic from Little Mermaid in a way that’s fair to both the father and the daughter, and I like that ultimately, the story is just a vibrant jaunt about cherishing and understanding your family.
Frankenweenie has that recognizable Burton animation style.
 At the opposite end of the spectrum is Frankenweenie, a film I expected to love, but found a chore to sit through. Even though I feel like he’s gone off the reels in most of his recent work, I love Tim Burton’s twisted sensibility and style, and I’m also cool with films that are just as much about paying homage to earlier classics, as they are about telling a story. However, Paranorman did that whole thing and did it better, while also including an array of worthwhile characters to boot.
 
Frankenweenie revolves around Victor Frankenstein, a little boy whose love of invention and science comes second only to his love for his dog Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor brings him back to life using electricity, and he’s mostly the same, besides a need to be plugged into an outlet for charging every so often.
 
When the other kids in Victor’s science class find out what he’s accomplished, they worry he will win the upcoming science fair, and so they decide to follow suit and bring their dead animals back as well. But since their animals aren’t brought back with love (or something like that), they come back as evils monsters and begin assaulting the town.
 
The film is a little boring and hard to connect with. We can identify with Victor’s love for Sparky, but beyond that, there isn’t much here to gravitate toward. There are a variety of child characters, but beyond the one modeled off of Igor, their personalities are practically indistinguishable. Well, that’s not entirely true – the casual racism revolving around the Asian kid is very distinguishable.  
 
And if racism wasn’t enough for me to not want my kid to watch this, Burton seals the deal with the film’s message. The idea of doing an animated feature that deals with the death of a beloved pet is a solid concept, and it could potentially make for a valuable film for children, a sort of aid in the development of coping skills. For much of its runtime, Frankenweenie seems like it will be that type of movie, and then there’s an exchange between Victor and his dad at the end after Sparky has died for a second time. Victor says “I thought you said I had to let go,” only for his dad to reply “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”
 
Umm, what?
 
On its face, I don’t mind an animated film going in that direction. The Croods, which I just admitted to being totally fine with, gets a whole lot of mileage out the dad character needing to change his tune. But having this line in this context is ridiculous. It basically tells kids, “Hey, if your pet dies, don’t get over it. Cling on forever. Oh, and, umm, parents are dumb for saying otherwise.” This film is mediocre as it is, but throw in that kind of lesson and some racism? Count me out.
Frozen is basically the story of two sisters who overcome bad parenting.
Meanwhile, Frozen is certainly the best film of the three, and offers further proof of how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come the last seven or eight years. After its 90's resurgence, the studio fell into a major rut and quickly became the ugly stepsister of the more beloved Pixar. Lilo & Stich and The Emperor's New Groove were both nice products, but the early 2000's were some pretty dark times overall. Fortunately, Disney began reestablishing a consistent level of quality, starting with the likes of  Meet the Robinsons, The Princess and the Frog and Bolt before advancing to superior works like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph (which, to me, is easily the greatest animated film since Wall-E) and now Frozen.
 
There's certainly a lot to like about the film. It's seriously gorgeous – what they accomplish with snow effects is just awe inspiring. The soundtrack is filled with some great original tunes, including the Oscar-winning "Let It Go." And the central focus on the power of sisterhood is pretty damn cool.
 
At the same time, there's some stuff in here I have issues with. The film focuses on princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), who are an inseparable pair when we first meet them. Elsa possess magic powers that allow her to produce ice and snow at will, and at the beginning of the film she accidentally hurts Anna while playing.
 
In response, the girls' parents have Anna healed by a troll king and then wipe her memory of Elsa's powers. They then isolate Elsa from Anna, a move that was probably only meant to be temporary until she learned to control her powers, but that becomes permanent when the parents die in a boating accident.
 
So right off the bat, the film starts with some crazy bad parenting in which a king and queen decide to deal with their daughter's issues by taking away her one support beam instead of, I don't know, just telling her not to use her powers when playing. Meanwhile, daughter two is left totally in the dark, feeling all sorts of rejection. Really makes me second guess my issues with that “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about" concept.
 
Since Anna has no parents and has been shut out by her sister, she becomes so desperate for love that she swoons at the notion of any man showing interest in her. I respect this complicated state of mind as a concept, but in execution, Anna just plays as a very weak role model for young girls. There's a song in the film called "Love Is an Open Door" that is meant to be ironic, but I'm not sure how well that comes across to little kids. The song trivializes what love really means, and, I suspect, these aspects of the story will be fleshed out and play very well in the inevitable Broadway adaptation. However, in the film, it's a troublesome thing, a jaunty exercise that kids will take at face value.
 
The film ends in a good place, with the girls reuniting and Anna learning about what love is, so in many ways I'm probably making a mountain out of a mole hill in my critique. But something about the thing really bugs me, even though I can acknowledge this is a pretty good film.  Like I said, so much about film is about how it makes you feel, regardless of attempts at some sort of objectivity.
 
The Croods C+ / Frankweenie C / Frozen B+