Monday, December 29, 2014

Angelina Jolie and a Ballsy Theme Help "Maleficent" Play Up

Angelina Jolie acts opposite her daughter Vivienne in Maleficent.
It would be easy to pre-judge Maleficent as just another piece of junk on the increasingly growing list of live-action cash-ins adapted from animated classics. I did that myself when the film came out, but I recently caught up with it on DVD, and while I can't say I think Maleficent entirely works, I was pleasantly surprised by how ballsy an adaptation it turned out to be.

Growing up, I always thought Sleeping Beauty, its villain especially, was dumb. The idea of the villain cursing a princess to an impending deep sleep because she was mad she didn't get invited to the girls christening just seemed lame. The creators of Maleficent seem to have realized this, as they've altered the story to make the title character's decision to curse an infant far more understandable.

Here, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is originally a kind fairy whose actions are motivated by revenge against the girl's father Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a former love interest who, in his power-hungry quest to ascend to the throne, drugs her and cuts off her wings to garner favor with a dying king looking to name an heir. When Princess Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt as a child, Elle Fanning as a teen) is left in the hands of three bumbling fairies, Maleficent begins to covertly care for the girl as a sort of fairy godmother, coming to regret her curse and yet seemingly powerless to stop it.

Despite this being a Disney film, the wing-cutting plays like a metaphor for rape, a fact that Jolie herself commented on in a BBC interview, saying it was a story about "how the abused then have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people."

That's some heavy stuff for a kids' movie, and while I certainly question if it’s appropriate, that aspect of the film works pretty well due to the conviction of Jolie's performance. Although this is clearly a money gig for her, Jolie brings her A-game and single-handedly elevates the movie. The woman is a phenomenal actress, and she’s more than capable of bringing nuance on cue, but there’s something about the playful wit she has on screen that registers especially well here.

Sticking with positive attributes, I did enjoy the twist the film puts on the traditional fairy tale ending, even if it was lifted straight out of Frozen. There’s also brevity to the film that definitely bodes well – Maleficent is the rare film in this genre that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, that is sort of a double-edged sword – there’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing.

All that being said, I have one big issue with the film, and that is how severely it sucks the magic right out of this classic fairy tale. A lot of that starts with character. While Maleficent is fleshed out nicely and Aurora fairs ok (even if she’s basically a pleasant plot device), almost every other character suffers in this translation. This interpretation of Stefan is a disaster, and as much as I’ve liked him in other things, Copley doesn’t deliver here. I’m not sure how much of that is his fault – there’s no dimension to the role – but he’s far too important to the story to feel so blah.

Meanwhile, the concept of giving Maleficent’s raven sidekick occasional human form is interesting but ultimately very awkwardly handled. And then there’s the fairies – the totally tone deaf fairies. These three were a treasured part of the the Disney animated classic, but here they are an annoying afterthought.

Outside of some flourishes by Jolie, there’s just no fun to any of this, and fairy tales, especially ones marketed to kids the way this film has been, should be fun. There's still a lot to like here thematically, but Maleficent is not as fleshed out as it needs to be, and there's ultimately a sense of ambition overreaching grasp. B-

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Draft Day" Wants to Be Football Movies' Answer to "Moneyball," but Falls Way Short of the Goal

Kevin Costner does his best to make Draft Day enjoyable.

Draft Day is to football as Moneyball is to baseball.” 

That’s how I imagine Draft Day was pitched and sold, but while both films focus on the front office maneuvering and domestic issues of general managers, they don’t represent a correlation worthy of a verbal reasoning test. Better to say Moneyball is to a great film as Draft Day is to some ludicrous fantasy scenario with overzealous editing tricks that’s propped up and made serviceable by the charms of Kevin Costner. That probably wouldn’t get put onto any test either, but at least it’s honest. 

Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the GM of the Cleveland Browns who has drawn the ire of fans for firing the beloved long-time coach of the team, a man who also happens to have been Sonny’s dad and who also just happened to die a week before the draft. 

With the seventh pick in the draft, Sonny is debating between Vontae Mack, the flashy linebacker he’d like to take, and Ray Jennings, the running back the fans and current coach of the team (Dennis Leary) want him to choose. Then he gets a call from the Seattle Seahawks with an offer: they’ll give him the first pick in the draft, which he could then use on heralded quarterback Bo Callahan, for his next three first round selections. Despite having a veteran quarterback coming off an injury who he believes in (Tom Welling), Sonny makes the deal because his owner (Frank Langella) has told him to make a splash. Then he spends the rest of the movie trying to convince himself why taking Callahan is a bad idea. 

For most of its length, Draft Day is satisfactorily amiable, even if it goes way overboard with overlapping scene editing and all the damn domestic issues plaguing Sonny on this of all days. That his budget person/secret girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) would tell Sonny she’s pregnant – on this of all days – seems odd enough, but then throw on top of that the fact that his mother would throw a stink about spreading his father’s ashes on the field – on this of all days – and it just comes across as a wee bit much. I mean seriously – on this of all days? 

However, the film really runs into problems with the climax, which takes a look at the far-fetched domestic pile up, and says “You want to get ridiculous? Fine. I’ll get ridiculous. Nothing is more ridiculous about this movie than me. ‘Ridiculous’ is my middle name.” (warning: spoilers coming). 
Draft Day employs a whole lot of overlapping split screens to liven
up what is mostly a series of phone conversations.
Convinced that Callahan doesn’t have what it takes, Weaver goes with his gut and takes Mack. When Callahan starts falling down the draft board, it begins to look like Seattle could end up with the consensus number one pick and Sonny’s next to first rounders – a true boon for Seattle’s GM, who has been getting crushed by the fans for giving up the rights to drafting the league’s next great quarterback. 

That's when the movie starts slinging bullshit. It becomes obvious Callahan will fall to the Jacksonville Jaguars at six, but their rookie GM is shitting his pants, unsure of what to do and nervous to pick Callahan since other teams are passing on him. Sonny calls the guy and offers him a safety valve against making a disastrous selection – trade Cleveland the sixth pick for three years of second rounders. Miraculously, the Jacksonville GM takes the deal, and then Sonny calls the Seattle GM. He offers him the chance to trade for the sixth pick, draft Callahan and calm the vitriol of the Seattle fans, provided he return the three first round picks back to Cleveland. Seattle takes the bait, Cleveland picks Jennings, and Sonny comes out of the whole thing looking like a genius. 

The problem here is that this whole climax is utter nonsense – it’s the type of thing only a genie could make happen, and even then I’m not sure. There is no way in hell the Seattle GM would just cave and give up the picks like that. He’d probably call the bluff, noting that Weaver passed on the quarterback once, and he’d probably do it again. 

And even if the Seattle GM would be spooked into doing what Sonny wanted, there is no way three second round selections would garner a top 10 pick in the draft. And even if the rookie GM was an idiot willing to do that, he’d still have a slew of advisers telling him, ‘No.’ And even if the team in Jacksonville did decide to trade the pick, they’d almost certainly use all of the allotted ten minutes to find a better deal (perhaps with Seattle, who would have all sorts of picks to deal). Instead, they trade with Cleveland before they are even on the clock – an awful decision that occurs solely so the movie can allow Sonny enough time to call Seattle and make a trade. 

Although it was criticized for being too inside-football for mainstream audiences, Draft Day, like Moneyball before it, tries to make things as digestible as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately, while Moneyball opted to focus on the simpler aspects of a complicated system, Draft Day flat out dumbs things down. Although reality isn’t something I really require in my movies, and it’s definitely not something I require in my sports movies, Draft Day is just too damn much to take. C-

Friday, December 19, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Delivers One Final Great Lead Performance in the Brilliantly Measured "A Most Wanted Man"

A Most Wanted Man reminds us (as if we needed reminding) 
that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an acting titan.
The life of a spy is not a glamorous one. It is not a life filled with globe-trotting chases, torrid love affairs and action-packed shootouts between dapper physical specimens, but rather a great deal of clerical work, slow surveillance and back-alley conversations between anonymously ordinary folk. It doesn't get the heart pumping; it systematically devours it. At least that's the approach taken by novelist John le Carré, whose take on espionage features a lot of political maneuvering and frustration, but very little sense of fun and adventure.

While that probably doesn't sound like the best sales pitch for a film, it's most certainly an apt one. And although such an approach might not seem the best for a movie, I can tell you that films based on le Carré's work have been some of the best of the last several years.

That doesn't mean they're for everyone. For instance, while I found Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be one of the more rewarding films of 2011, Candace fell asleep around the halfway mark. It's hard to blame her -- we watched it in the middle of a five-film binge, and, on top of that, it is dry, dense and not easily penetrated (I had a similar experience with Zodiac, another moody, slow burn that I should really revisit at some point). 

I say all this as a lead up to a review of A Most Wanted Man, the latest le Carré adaptation and one of my favorite films of 2014. It's cut from the same cloth as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the story isn't half as sprawling, so it feels more focused. For what it's worth: Candace did not fall asleep.

The story revolves around the efforts of an off-the-books terrorist investigation unit in Hamburg, Germany led by the disheveled and jaded Gunther Bachmann (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Gunther prefers to play the long game, collecting information and making contacts within the Muslim community. This puts him at odds with Mohr (Rainer Bock), the leader or a rival unit with a more aggressive and entirely short-sighted approach, not to mention his superiors, men who allowed the 9/11 attackers to operate a home-base in Hamburg right under their noses and have thus developed an itchy trigger finger.
Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams bring dimension to their roles.
When Chechen-Russian immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigori Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg seeking asylum and a large inheritance of dirty money, he becomes a prime target for both units. However, while Mohr wants to bring him in on suspicions of being a jihadist and go to work on him, Gunther wants to keep Issa free and covertly coerce him into donating his money to a supposed Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) to see if the philanthropist will reroute some of the funds to a shipping company Gunther believes to be a front for Al Qaeda.

The idea is to ensnare the philanthropist then use him to get to the actual terrorists, and a tacit agreement with a string-pulling CIA agent (Robin Wright Penn) buys Gunther three days to do things his way. That's no easy task considering he must turn a banker (Willem Dafoe) and Karpov's human right's lawyer (Rachel McAdams) in time to carry out the scheme. Plus, there's the question of if Gunther can even trust these outside officials to stay out of his way, especially in light of a previous failure in Beirut brought on by such bureaucratic cooperation.

This material fits director Anton Corbijn like a glove, as his last foray behind the camera was the similarly muted and restrained, yet atmospherically textured The American. Like that under-appreciated George Clooney gem, A Most Wanted Man is first and foremost a thoughtful and tightly-calibrated character study of a weary professional in a shady, soul-crushing line of work.

It's also a fitting last lead role for Hoffman. Perhaps the preeminent actor of his generation, Hoffman was an actor of tremendous range, but he specialized in playing bleary-eyed, inward sad sacks fighting against irrelevance. It's clear Gunther has made many personal sacrifices for his work -- for proof, just look at his relationship with his second-in-command (Nina Hoss), a woman with whom he shares a shorthand banter and more than a few longing looks. A scene in which the two share a kiss to avoid blowing their cover is as sad as it is charged, because it hints at the connection both have given up in their commitment to "make the world a better place."

Hoffman is as controlled and precise as he's ever been here, and yet the film grants him one last opportunity to nail blustery rage in his final scene. It's the tonal opposite of the scene that concluded Zero Dark Thirty, but intriguingly still hints at the same thematic point -- the hopelessness and disillusionment inherent in the spy game, a profession that takes and takes, but rarely gives back. A

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Both "Under the Skin" and "Snowpiercer" Prove Memorably Off-Beat, But Earn Vastly Different Grades

Under the Skin has been hailed as a masterpiece by some. Not me.
As I stated in my review of Sex Tape, the more movies I see, the tougher it is to sit through mediocre ones with nothing interesting going on. There’s a lot of cookie cutter stuff out there, films aimed right down the middle that are shot, acted and scripted just well enough to be passable entertainment.

Yet I still watch plenty of movies, and I try my best to review them when I can, because everyone once and a while, a movie hits a nerve or does something really cool or surprising, or, even better, something truly worth remembering or discussing.

That doesn’t always mean the movie is good or that I even enjoyed it. A few months ago I caught a really bizarre flick called Under the Skin. It features Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on young single men in Scotland so that she can take their insides and send them up to the home planet leaving only their skin behind.

The logline sounds cool, and the film is popping up on a slew of end-of-year top 10 lists, but I found the film pretty boring and opaque. It’s just a bit too ponderous for me, but at the same time, I respect the audacity of writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s filmmaking. Under the Skin features some striking imagery and haunting sequences, and it manages to remain intriguing despite the drawbacks of being such an arty endeavor.

Much of the credit for that belongs to Johansson who delivers a nicely calibrated piece of acting that serves as an interesting counterpoint to her stellar vocal performance in last year’s Her (that one was all voice, this one is almost entirely physical). A few years back, when her sexpot ScarJo vibe was at its apex, it seemed like she might be destined to follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Lopez, a gifted actress whose screen credibility was destroyed be her off-screen persona. That didn’t happen, and Johansson has emerged an actress equally at home in big budget action films as she is in these more personal independents.
Snowpiercer has a game cast of great actors.
Of course, I prefer when a movie does something unique, and I actually enjoy it as well. Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of writer/director Bong Joon-ho, is a prime example.

Set in the aftermath of an experiment that brought on an ice age that killed almost all life on Earth, the film takes place entirely on the Snowpiercer, a massive train that continuously loops around the globe and that is inhabited by an elite class in the front and a poor class in the back.

Conceptually, the film is relatively familiar end-of-days tale with the interesting twist of setting all the action aboard a locomotive. It also joins the growing number of futuristic science fiction films that make overt social commentary on the haves and have-nots (see also Elysium and In Time).

But what distinguishes the film isn’t so much the story it tells, but the way it tells it. The film moves along a predictable path with the insurgents moving from the back of the train to the front, but the moments and beats it hits along the way are just so specifically and wonderfully weird. In his review of the movie, pal Nate Adams wrote of the film’s “odd, shaggy loose strands,” calling particular attention to a scene in which the rebels come face to face with a mob of armed opponents who, in lieu of immediately attacking, make a spectacle of ritually gutting a fish.

It’s a great moment, but there are many others as well – like the way both sides in the aforementioned battle (once the fish gutting is out of the way) stop the violence to recognize the milestone of the train completing another orbit around the world, or the oddity of the bald guy pushing a cart full of eggs or the crazy frequency Tilda Swinton is operating on in this thing.

There is just so much interesting stuff going on throughout Snowpiercer that it’s hard not to be entertained. The plot has a clockwork precision to it that impressively becomes clear during the final 20 minutes. But what really seals the deal and elevates the film from “hey, that’s cool” to “man, this is downright transcendent” is the way Jong-ho intermixes the craziness with shockingly good character beats, most specifically the last act monologue by Chris Evans who plays the defacto leader of the train’s poor inhabitants. It’s a moment you won’t easily forget, and it’s definitely a peak moment for Evans, an actor who just seems to be getting better and better.

Due to producer dissatisfaction over the final cut of the film, Snowpiercer barely got much of a theatrical release. That’s unfortunate, but Netflix and Redbox have it, so you should definitely check it out. It’s totally worth seeing, but more than that, it’s pretty damn good too.

Under the Skin C, Snowpiercer A

Thursday, December 4, 2014

David Fincher Masters Multiple Tones in Excellent "Gone Girl"

Gone Girl is one hell of a ride.
It’s extremely difficult to review David Fincher’s Gone Girl without spoiling much of the film’s twist and turns. What I can say is that it’s the type of tale that in lesser hands could easily play like a Lifetime movie, but that with this talented cast and crew is actually one hell of a ride. In many ways it reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, another incredibly engaging, darkly amusing melodrama that was far better than it should’ve been.

Much has been written about Gone Girl already – with its most fervent fans arguing it taps into the zeitgeist, taking a satiric look at American values, idealistic marriages and tabloid culture, while the naysayers argue it’s just trashy fun.

I’d call it all of the above. While it’s clear this is a crackerjack genre piece above all else, Fincher weaves in some really potent ideas, particularly pertaining to gender politics, the importance of perception over truth and the ways quirks in a romantic partner can seem cute at first but then grate over time.

As one expects from a Fincher outing, the below the line aspects are all top notch. The cast is great too, with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike perfectly cast as Nick and Amy Dunne, a seemingly perfect couple with a crumbling marriage. The plot takes off when Amy goes missing and clues begin implicating Nick may have murdered her.

Affleck, so often miscast in traditional hero parts, has always faired best when exploring flaws and humanizing asshole tendencies, while Pike puts her natural screen chilliness, an occasional detriment, to great use here. I’d argue they both put up career best work, hitting each note perfectly in roles that run the gamut from intense drama to dark comedy.

The supporting cast is uniformly great, but special mention should be made of Carrie Coon as Nick’s supportive twin sister (she should really be a player in this year’s Best Supporting Actress race) and, oddly enough, Tyler Perry who, despite his boisterous screen history, totally nails it as Nick’s collected, cut-the-bullshit attorney.

There are some plot holes here that can drive you nuts, most particularly the way in which Amy gets out of a sticky situation with a former flame (there were cameras everywhere!), but I think that maybe that’s part of the point – a way to emphasize how perception and plays at emotion really do trump cold hard logic, sense and facts. This is amazingly illustrated by a late-in-the-game interrogation between Amy and the leader investigator in the film (a great Kim Dickens).

I’ve read some claims that this is a misogynistic film, a nightmare scenario that validates man’s worst fears about getting married, but that’s mostly a crock. While it does play with those notions, the book and script were written by a woman (Gillian Flynn) and Gone Girl has three of the strongest female roles and performances you’re likely to see this year.

Really, Gone Girl is a “have your cake and eat it too” movie – a totally tongue-in-cheek exercise in dark comedy that also manages to be a thrilling and involving drama that gets audiences feeling major sympathy for the wronged party. It’s thought provoking, amusingly horrific and tragically affecting all in one.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Gone Girl. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had with a movie in 2014 and a no-brainer inclusion on my end-of-year best list.A

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I" Changes Up Franchise Formula to Mostly Positive Results

Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in Mockingjay -- Part 1.
In a post Harry Potter world, The Hunger Games series is far and away the best of the onslaught of YA adaptions. I outlined my thinking on this in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but the gist is this: even though the plot here is just as high concept and ludicrous as those found in many of its contemporaries, there is a credibility to the series because it keeps everything on the human scale rooted in a great lead character played by an actress at the top of her game. As this series goes on, it's getting easier and easier to say it -- Jennifer Lawrence is outright iconic.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another winning entry in the series, which is really saying something given all it has going against it. For starters, it doesn't center around a Hunger Games, and so it doesn't have the structure the first two films had. This adaptation was already going to have a meandering quality to it because of that, but then there's the fact that it's also being split into two films, which has only made it worse.

Splitting films has become a thing in Hollywood, but it almost always makes the films feel incomplete and is almost never necessary. At least with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there was a practical reason -- that book was huge and had the responsibility of tying together so many plot strands that making one satisfying movie would've been impossible. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Breaking Dawn, a two-part film in which so little happens, it's amazing they couldn't do the whole thing in about 75 minutes.

Mockingjay falls squarely in the middle of these two extremes. Splitting the book into two films certainly affords the opportunity to explore character in a way one film never could, but I'm pretty confident the narrative would've been better served without the split. Although the total Mockingjay experience is going to clock in at well over four hours, it probably would've worked best as a three-hour epic. At least 20 minutes could have been chopped off of this first part without doing harm (especially the manufactured drama about Prim's cat and the rescue mission that eats up most of the final quarter of the film and was no doubt trumped up from the books as a means to give this film an exciting ending).

But there's no use talking about what could have been. Mockingjay -- Part I is still an involving film, but fans of the series should know that it's definitely a major step back in the action department. While the first two films hinted at political maneuvering, this film puts such manipulations front and center.
Mockingjay -- Part I gives these frequent costars a chance to 
share some scenes together.
Other than Katniss, the two focal characters in this film are Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the games-maker from the last film who conspired to spring Katniss from the arena, and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the militaristic District 13 that is leading the revolution against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In lieu of tournament with kids killing each other, the film spends a great deal of time showing their attempt to unite the districts and incite war with Katniss cast as their troop-rousing mascot. A great deal of effort is put on the PR aspects of war, so, in many respects, this latest Hunger Games film has more in common with something like Wag the Dog than it does with its direct predecessors (which explains why Danny Strong, writer of the political HBO films Recount and Game Change, has been brought on as a a co-writer).

The cast for this series is a huge strength and just keeps getting better and better. Julianne Moore is a solid addition and giving an actor as great as Hoffman more to do is always a great idea. Woody Harrelson gets some new notes to plays as a sober Haymitch, as does Elizabeth Banks as a humbled Effie, who has been added on here in a well-considered streamlining move (her role in the books was filled by lesser characters who had already been marginalized in the previous films).

As indicated above, Lawrence is a dynamo, and it's great to see her do bad acting when filming canned ads for the revolution, only to then see how moving she can be when giving a speech in the heat of battle or singing a soulful and moody song from her youth that is then morphed into a rallying song by the propoganda machine (major props to Lawrence and The Lumineers for bringing those book lyrics to life). Meanwhile, Josh Hutcherson remains the a stealth weapon of the series, conveying a lot of subtext in each of his interview scenes. On the other end of the barely-a-romantic-triangle triangle, Liam Hemsworth remains the weak link in the cast, but I'm not sure how much of that is on him, and how much of that is on the poorly defined character. For what it's worth, he does deliver in his big speech about the bombing of District 12.

Outside of the unnecessary splitting of the narrative, my biggest gripe with the film involves a deviation from the book that definitely rates as as a spoiler (you've been warned). While inter-cutting a rousing victory speech from Coin with Katniss watching a writing Peeta is a fantastic, theme-appropriate way to end here, I'm not a big fan of the overt acknowledgement that Snow allows this rescue mission to occur because of his "brainwash Peeta to hate Katniss" plan (which was more of a safety net in the books where the conversation between Snow and Katniss never occurred). It seems highly unlikely that Peeta would've actually been able to kill Katniss, and I just don't see how a shrewd villain like Snow would take that chance considering how much of a PR victory it would represent for the opposition otherwise. That's especially true considering he didn't bother brainwashing the other two captives. Why not just kill those two if he was going with this Peeta plan? Or, better yet, why not just kill all three? The whole thing worked better when it played like Snow was semi-duped as opposed to actively stupid.

While I'll probably always believe the series would've played best as a trilogy, Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another good entry in an increasingly impressive series of films. B+