Reel Opinions


Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Babadook

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is one of the most unnerving horror films I've seen in a long time.  Most successful horror movies work as a thrill ride, giving you a jolt and making you feel uneasy while you're watching them.  This movie gets completely under your skin, and manages to stay there for its entire running time.  Even more important, it doesn't fade from your mind the instant you walk out of the theater.

The trailer would lead you to believe that this is a supernatural film about a boogeyman who lurks in the dark corners of a little boy's room.  And while there is certainly a dark presence lurking in the home of the two main characters, Kent's screenplay (which is inspired by a 2005 short film she made titled Monster) goes much deeper than that for its thrills.  The movie is also about the pressures of motherhood, and a woman who seems to be at wit's end when it comes to her son.  The mother is Amelia (Essie Davis) who, even as the film opens, looks like she has been awake more or less the past six or seven years that her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), has been on this earth.  What little sleep she does get is usually plagued by nightmares concerning the night her husband died, which also happens to be the day Samuel was born.  The couple was in a car accident while Amelia was in labor and on her way to the hospital, and the husband did not survive.

The mother shows love for the son, but there is also obviously resentment.  The boy has more or less trapped her in her own home, as whenever they are outside, the boy acts out, or is a terror to the other children.  It's gotten so bad that he is suspended from his school.  Now Amelia's sister, Claire (Hayley McElhenney), won't even talk to her anymore, because little Samuel pushed Claire's young daughter out of the tree house after the two kids had an argument.  When the mother and child are alone together at home, things are not much better.  Samuel is clingy, frequently throws fits, and often designs crude yet dangerous weapons to protect both himself and his mother from invisible enemies who he thinks are lurking under his bed.  It's gotten so bad that the boy often won't let Amelia sleep at night.  There is talk of "specialists" helping Samuel to work through his issues, but it almost seems too late for both him and his mother.

The main plot kicks off one night when Samuel asks his mom to read him a book that she does not recognize, or knows how it got on his shelf in the first place.  It's an extremely bleak children's story about a monster named the Babadook who terrorizes children once someone lets the creature inside the house.  Later that very night, Samuel insists that the Babadook is in his closet, waiting for him to fall asleep.  Amelia destroys the wicked book, tearing up its pages and throwing it in the trash.  But then, a couple days later, she finds it lying on her front step.  Someone has not only patched the pages back together, but also has somehow added some new disturbing pages about the titular monster possessing a mother, and forcing her to cause harm to her son, their pet dog, and eventually herself.  It's at this point we start wondering if the mother is losing her mind.  Or perhaps it is the boy.  Of course, there's always the option that this is all very real, and the family is in danger.

Unlike a lot of thrillers, The Babadook does not cheat with its answers, nor does it lose our interest once the movie starts to wind down.  It is smart to keep us somewhat in the dark as to what is really happening.  So much of the film is seen through the exhausted eyes of the mother, we start to wonder what's real, and what is being created by a sleep-deprived mind.  The monster itself represents two things - childhood nightmares becoming real, and the very real frustrations of motherhood.  As the film unravels, so does Amelia's sanity.  She begins lashing out at her son more often, and at times doesn't seem like herself.  Is she being controlled by the monster as the book suggests, or has she simply gone over the edge, and doesn't know how to pull herself back to normal?  The movie leaves us guessing up until the end, which in one light, may be a traditional monster movie ending.  Or perhaps not.  It's all how you choose to look at it.

Kent's storytelling and simple yet gripping visual style would be enough to make this film stand above the usual horror claptrap Hollywood pushes out every year, but it's the performances that really push this material into great filmmaking.  Noah Wiseman, as young Samuel, delivers what can easily be considered one of the most intense child performances ever.  He can be sympathetic, hurtful, hateful, eerie, funny, and sweet - just like a real troubled child.  Essie Davis is just as excellent, delivering a performance that seems constantly on the edge of sanity, and at times beyond it.  Both of these actors are playing characters who are trapped with one another, and are acting out in different ways.  And when it seems that something that cannot be explained enters their already chaotic world, the two actors do a fantastic job of delivering a sense of dread and hopelessness.

The Babadook does so much more than simply put you on edge.  It is just as much a drama as it is a supernatural story, and it is successful on both fronts.  It knows how to tap into childhood fears of the dark and the unknown, yet it also knows how to create characters who are flawed, broken and very human.  There's not a single wrong note to be found here, and it takes its place as one of 2014's very best films. 

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

The problem with Horrible Bosses 2 is that everything that needed to be done and said about the characters was done the first time around, and done well.  Now the same characters and actors are back, and they seem just as confused as we are as to the reason for this encore.  Everyone is obviously trying their hardest, but you can't shake the feeling that they are expending their energy for something we don't even need in the first place.

The movie reunites us with the three friends from the first film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day).  Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's the fact that this movie has different writers, but the characters seem a lot dumber than before.  They're also not as funny as they were last time, but that could be due to the fact that Sudeikis and Day are constantly talking over each other in a lot of their scenes.  The two guys yammer on at the same time throughout most of the film, while Bateman (playing the straight man of the group) more or less is forced to look embarrassed and roll his eyes.  The first movie worked, because the guys created a true sense of friendship between each other, and wound up getting in over their heads together.  This time, Kurt and Dale come across as a pair of blithering morons who drag Nick into their stupidity. 

As the film opens, the three guys have invented a product called the Shower Buddy, which is a shower head that dispenses shampoo and conditioner.  They hope to go into business for themselves, and find a company interested in selling the product.  Despite a disastrous appearance on a daytime news show, the invention gets the attention of a mail order company run by billionaire Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz, woefully underused here) and his son, Rex (Chris Pine).  The company places an order for 100,000 Shower Buddies, and even though our heroes meet the order, Bert backs out of the deal at the last minute and stiffs them.  Enraged, the three friends decide that the best way to get back the money they lost on the deal is to kidnap Rex and hold him for ransom.

Here's a problem I have with the premise - There's not enough of a reason for these guys to turn to crime in the first place.  In the original Horrible Bosses, these guys wanted to murder their individual bosses, because they had been putting up with their crap for years on end.  The movie did a good job of establishing each of the three characters' motivations, and their relationship with each horrible boss they worked for.  We sympathized with them, and we understood that they had been pushed to the edge.  This time, they turn to the idea of crime way too quickly, and without much reason.  There's no build up.  Yes, the guys got shafted and are angry, I understand that.  But I just can't buy that these guys would immediately turn to the idea of kidnapping, especially after everything they've been through in the last movie.  It feels like they're doing it because they know there won't be a movie if they don't.

The movie tries to bring back some good memories of the first one by giving us some return cameos by the A-list cast from before.  Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Jamie Foxx all show up, but none of them create a lasting impression.  Heck, you almost wonder why Spacey agreed to come back at all, since his screen time totals less than five minutes, and gives him nothing to work with.  As for Aniston and Foxx, they are both obviously trying and are at least not phoning their performances in.  But again, the material they're given just isn't as good as before.  Director Sean Anders (who co-wrote the script with John Morris) just can't give the movie the energy it needs.   He even attempts to recreate some of the successful gags that worked before, but this time, they just create silence.  The timing, the energy and the momentum is all off.

Horrible Bosses 2 is not the worst sequel I could imagine, but it simply has no reason to exist.  It's the kind of film where the cast has come back because of contractual obligations, not because of the material.  Whenever that happens, the results are always less than inspired.  This movie continues that streak.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar

The opening moments of Penguins of Madagascar are so vibrant and funny, they betray the rest of the movie, which is frantic yet strangely leaden.  This attempt to turn the four scene-stealing espionage penguins from the Madagascar movies into leading characters who can carry their own movie is a miscalculation.  It does little to expand the characters or their world, and is never as clever or as funny as the opening scene would like us to believe.

The scene I found so enjoyable occurs right at the beginning of the movie, which is set up as a nature documentary, complete with Werner Herzog narrating.  Set "some time ago" (as a subtitle helpfully tells us), the scene informs us how the four penguins broke from their flock, decided to defy their place in nature, and become covert operatives who have the ability to break into Fort Knox in a scene just a little while later.  The team includes all-around leader Skipper (voice by Tom McGrath), the brainy Kowalski (Chris Miller), the wild and destructive Rico (Conrad Vernon), and the gentle and timid Private (Christopher Knights).  The penguins themselves are more or less interchangeable, with Private getting the most screen time, because his brothers don't feel he's that much of an asset to the team, and he wants to prove them wrong.  As supporting characters in the Madagascar films, the penguins are frequently funny.  But when they're forced to carry a 90 minute movie on their own, they come across as being thin and lacking in personality.

If someone were to quiz me on how to tell the penguins apart, I would probably flunk the test.  One talks a lot, one spews a lot of data and technical jargon, one communicates through a series of grunts, and one is cute.  Not exactly the kind of traits that you can build a story around.  The filmmakers try to keep things interesting by giving the penguins a rival, an octopus named Dave (John Malkovich) who has been holding a grudge against our heroes for years.  Turns out Dave was once a popular attraction at the Central Park Zoo, until Skipper and his brothers moved in.  Feeling rejected and blaming the cuteness of the penguins for being shunned, Dave has decided to take revenge by gathering an army of his octopus brothers, and disguising himself as a human scientist named Dr. Octavius Brine.  With access to the human's technology, Dave has managed to invent a weapon that can transform cute cuddly penguins into grotesque monsters.  Don't worry, the plan doesn't make that much sense in the movie, either.

As Dave sets his plan into motion, the penguins find out that there's another team of covert animals who apparently have access to high-tech technology like jet-propelled ships, rocket packs and tracking systems.  They call themselves the North Wind, and are comprised of a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch), a polar bear (Peter Stormare), a seal (Ken Jeong) and a snow owl (Annet Mahendru).  The North Wind team intrigued me, as I wanted to know where they get their funding for their high-tech operation.  They seem to work for the government, though the movie doesn't say.  Actually, the movie tells us nothing about these characters, so they end up adding nothing to the film.  Even the amazing Cumberbatch is reduced here mainly to shouting silly puns ("Nobody breaks the wind!") or arguing with Skipper over what the best plan is to go after Dave.  The North Wind team often comes across like a failed concept for a toy campaign that somehow got haphazardly shoehorned into this movie's plot.

Penguins of Madagascar is brightly colored, and features a lot of frantic action sequences that whiz by at a moment's notice, and leave little impression on the audience.  Instead of being fast and fun, these scenes come across as hyperactive and targeted at a short attention span.  Kids up to a certain age may find this approach kind of fun.  Really little kids, I suppose.  The filmmakers were obviously at a loss at how to expand upon the characters, so they threw in a lot of action to compensate.  There's just simply no investment here.  The images flash upon the screen, but nothing sticks or stands out.  The end result is a rather joyless experience that generates few laughs, and ultimately feels like a cynical experience on the part of the filmmakers to see how far they can stretch the flimsy and undercooked material.

To be honest, while I did not think Big Hero 6 was anything great, it at least held my attention and is much better than this.  That's the movie to take the kids to this holiday weekend.  Of course, if you want to see a really special animated film, you'll have to track down a theater that's playing Princess Kaguya.  That's a movie filled with charm, drama, wit and imagination.  Penguins is a corporate product that's as synthetic and processed as the cheese puff snacks that its heroes like to munch on.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

The latest and final entry in The Hunger Games series has been divided into two parts.  This has been a popular move with franchises ever since Harry Potter and Twilight divided their final installments into two parts around the same time.  For the studio, this means an extra opportunity to milk their precious cash cow.  For the fans (at least in this case), it means a dragged out set up for the second half, which is set to hit theaters this time next year.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 has about an hour of plot stretched to two hours.  It's also easily the most visually drab entry in the series so far, as a majority of the film is set in an underground bunker, or smoldering ruins.  Even as someone who was not particularly fond of the previous two films, this feels like a step down.  At least the last one, Catching Fire, had me interested in where the story was going.  Here, I felt like I was constantly waiting for the plot to get going, and when it feels like it's about to, the movie ends.  The movie has an intriguing idea behind it, as it's built mostly around a propaganda war between the evil Capital, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and a band of rebels who have been building resistance underground and undetected up until now.  The idea of both sides of the war manipulating their people to rally behind them intrigued me, but the movie plays it safe.  The rebels are entirely good, and the Capital is pure evil.  Wouldn't it have been more interesting if the movie developed a more gray moral code, and really looked at how the rebels are sometimes being just as manipulative as the Capital?  Or maybe show some Capital citizens doubting the information that they are being fed by their superiors?

That's not what the fanbase wants, of course.  They want to find out what happened to young Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after the last film ended on an effective cliffhanger.  After being rescued by the rebels at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss learns that her home district has been bombed by President Snow's forces, and that her love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is now a captive within the Capital, and is being forced to do propaganda-laced interviews supporting the Capital that are broadcast on TV.  Katniss is now living amongst the rebels in an underground bunker, led by their leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right-hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final screen appearances).  Alma wants to use Katniss is a series of propaganda videos of her own, in the intent of rallying the people against Snow's forces.  Katniss eventually agrees to cooperate, but only if the rebels can guarantee that they will rescue Peeta, and that he will be pardoned of his crimes for helping the Capital, as she is certain he is being forced against his will.

Instead of moving the story forward, or setting up exciting possibilities, the narrative here often seems to be stalling for time.  We are reunited with some old faces from the past entries, such as Elizabeth Banks' outlandish Effie, and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, but neither of them are given much to do.  The new faces to the cast, particularly Julianne Moore, also seem underused.  You would think that with this film taking a less action-heavy approach than the last two that there would at least be more time for character development.  Sadly, the characters came across as being just as uninteresting and underdeveloped as they have in the past.  Donald Sutherland has the potential for making a smooth, yet chilling villain, but he is given so little screen time here, you wonder if some of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.  The most interesting thing about his performance is how the filmmakers have kind of made him look like what would happen if Santa Claus somehow became a fascist dictator.

Since the characters on both sides of the war are so lacking in personality, it's hard to have any feelings for those involved.  In particular, Katniss, the character we're supposed to get behind, often comes across as a crushing bore.  There's no denying that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the more exciting young actresses working in Hollywood today.  But the material here does her no favors, and never allows her to develop into a truly interesting character.  We don't truly learn how she feels about being a pawn in a war, a propaganda tool that's used to rally the people.  Surely she would have some kind of take on everything that's happening to her, but she remains mostly fixated on her love triangle between Peeta, and the equally good-looking and fairly bland Gale (Liam Hemsworth).  By the way, those in the audience who do care about the developing love triangle will most likely be disappointed, as the relationship element gets little screen time, other than a kiss shared between Katniss and Gale that generates few sparks.

Mockingjay - Part 1 essentially feels like a set up for bigger things to come.  I guess we'll know for sure a year from now.  All I can say is that the charms that have sucked in millions of readers with the original books, and now millions of viewers with the film series, continue to elude me.  To those who have been sucked in, you'll probably enjoy this.  But then, you also probably already know how the story ends, so I don't know how effective all this build up will be for you.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To

Watching Dumb and Dumber To is a lot like attending your high school reunion, and being reunited with two of your best friends from your teenage years that you used to think were hilarious, and learning that while you've grown up, your friends have not.  They're still the same, and they're still telling the same jokes they used to.  You smile, maybe you even laugh once in a while.  But as the night wears on, you start to wonder what you saw in these two guys during your younger years in the first place.

I was 17 when the original Dumb and Dumber came out back in 1994, and I remember finding it funny.  Revisiting it recently, its charms have faded somewhat, though it still has some laughs.  The sequel had much the same effect on me.  There are some big laughs, surrounded by long stretches that don't work quite as well.  At the very least, those who still hold the original film close to their hearts will not be disappointed.  Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels may not look as young as they did 20 years ago, but they still display the same boyish charm that they did in the first.  In fact, it's impressive that they still have the energy to pull off these characters.  The movie has been tailor made for people who still view the first movie as something special, which should immediately tell you whether or not you are the right audience for it. 

As the film opens, we catch up with the two halfwits, Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Daniels), and learn what they've been up to for the past 20 years.  Lloyd has been locked away in a nursing home, as part of an elaborate prank on Harry, pretending that he's been in a catatonic coma for the past two decades.  He suddenly decides just now to let his friend in on the gag, which leads to a scene where Harry must yank out Lloyd's catheter. (The first of many jokes in the film built around bodily fluids.)  As for Harry, he still lives in the same apartment the two shared in the first movie, only now he shares it with a stray cat he calls Butthole, and a meth cooker named Ice Pick (Bill Murray, in a very short cameo that could have and should have been expanded on).  It's around this time we learn that Harry has some news to break to Lloyd.  He needs a kidney transplant, or else he is not long for this world.

In their search for a donor for Harry, the guys come across an old flame named Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner), who informs them that she had a daughter whom she gave up for adoption years ago, and she believes that Harry was the father.  Since the daughter is the best bet for a genetic match for Harry's kidney, they travel cross country to track her down.  The daughter in question is Penny Pinchelow (Rachel Melvin), and she seems to share the same I.Q. as her dim-witted dad.  She resides with a noted scientist (Steve Tom), whose life is in danger, because his gold-digging wife (Laurie Holden) and her adult son (Rob Riggle) are poisoning him to inherit his fortune early.  Naturally, Lloyd and Harry will get wrapped up in this plot, without a clue of what's going on, or even possibly how they got involved in the first place.

Like a lot of sequels, Dumb and Dumber To expands upon a lot of ideas from the first film.  Remember the most annoying sound in the world from the first movie?  Now we get introduced to the second most annoying.  The fantasy sequence Jim Carrey had the first time around where he got in a kung-fu fight protecting the woman he was in love with?  Now it's an even more elaborate fantasy built around ninjas and superheroes.  It's common to go bigger with sequels, but it's also common to go so big that it overshoots the joke, and that happens a lot here.  The movie is at its best when it's just allowing Carrey and Daniels to be their likably goofy selves.  They still have these characters down, and it's great to see them together on the screen again.  But that sense of nostalgia of seeing the characters again can only go so far, and this is a very bloated movie that runs for almost two hours. 

In a lot of ways, my experience watching this movie was similar to that of when I was watching Anchorman 2 almost a year ago.  It brings back fun memories, and there are laughs to be had, but the filmmakers seem to be kind of at a loss when it comes to where to go with the characters for their encore.  For every joke that does work, there's at least three or five that don't.  And if you've never seen the original, you're going to miss out on the call back jokes, such as when we catch up with Billy, the blind boy whom Lloyd memorably sold a dead bird to in the first one.  This is essentially a movie built for a very specific audience.  If you know you are part of that audience, go and have a great time.  You'll probably love it.  I enjoyed it part of the time, but thought it ran a bit long, and ran out of steam long before it was over.

I'm not sorry I saw Dumb and Dumber To.  It brought back some fun memories.  Of course, watching the original on TV would have the exact same effect, and would also save money on the ticket price.  For me, that would be enough.  It may not be for you.  If it isn't, then this is the movie for you.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interstellar

You walk out of Interstellar a little dazed, maybe even confused.  The latest film from Christopher Nolan is overflowing with emotion and ideas, and when it's done, you feel kind of overwhelmed.  It's a movie built around big visuals and long, wordy passages of dialogue that come close to crushing the film with its rambling thoughts on science, the universe and quantum physics.  It may not stay with you days after you've seen it, but it sure is a rush to watch.

This is more or less Nolan's tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which just happens to be the first movie the filmmaker saw as a child, and inspired him to make movies.  You can spot some subtle references to Kubrick's classic throughout, along with some not so subtle ones.  What sets this film apart from the earlier film is that this is a much more emotional film.  While they both share a wonder about the universe and discovering what lies within, at its heart, Interstellar is really a personal story between a father and daughter.  In a way, Nolan seems to be combining the cold science of Kubrick's vision, with the crowd-pleasing elements of Spielberg.  This is something Spielberg himself attempted with mixed results in his 2001 film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Nolan's attempt at mixing the styles creates similar at times brilliant, and at other times frustrating results.

There is no denying that Nolan is a masterful director, able to create some stunning visuals.  However, there is also no denying that in order to watch one of his films, you have to wade through some very dense patches of dialogue that only a writer could love.  There are lengthy periods where the characters stop the action to engage in long and complex conversations about quantum physics, wormholes and time relativity.  Don't get me wrong, it's great to see these kind of ideas expressed in a mainstream Hollywood movie, but Nolan doesn't know how to make the dialogue presentable.  We feel like we are suddenly attending a science lecture, and the movie completely stops.  Clearing up some of the dense clutter in the dialogue would have gone a long way to trimming the film's nearly three hour run time.  I was never bored watching the film, but there were times I did find myself ready for the movie to move on to the next scene, and the characters were still just standing around, reciting science jargon.

At the same time, I admire Interstellar greatly, because it is something we seldom see in the movies these days - A Sci-Fi film with a positive look on the future, and a sense of hope.  So many films paint the future as a dark, cold place where people are covered with dirt and mud and hover around dying flames.  Here, even with humanity on the brink of destruction, there is still a sense of hope for a better life.  The movie takes place in the near future, where Earth is slowly being covered with massive dust storms, rendering the air toxic.  Four astronauts, led by former Air Force pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are tasked with the mission to find a new planet that humanity can inhabit.  He is joined in the mission by a trio of scientists, the main one being a woman named Brand (Anne Hathaway).  They will travel through a wormhole near Saturn, and come out the other end to explore three possible worlds that could be a new home.

This is not the first time such a mission has been attempted.  One mission from 10 years ago resulted in messages from the astronauts about possible worlds.  Now Cooper's team must visit these worlds, and see what the previous team has found.  For Cooper, this is a chance to explore the universe, and provide hope for his two children.  However, it also means that he will be away from them for what could be many years, as an hour on one of these new plants could equal over 20 years on Earth.  Cooper's daughter, Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain), fears for her father, and tries to keep hope alive the many years he is away on his mission.  Cooper has a son also, but the screenplay forgets about him for long periods of time, and he doesn't even seem all that broken up about leaving him behind, just his daughter.  This does create an odd disconnect, since this is supposed to be an emotional and heartfelt story, but I digress.

The heart at the center of Interstellar is a little too calculated and mechanical for my liking.  The movie is obviously aiming to tug at our heartstrings, but it tugs a little too hard, and gets manipulative and sappy at certain moments.  This is not so much the fault of the actors (who are all very good, and handle the material as well as anyone could), but again Nolan's lack of ability for writing genuine or honest-sounding dialogue.  He is a master showman, able to create unforgettable images, such as the first time we see the planet Saturn.  But when it comes to the heart of his characters, he is obviously trying a little too hard.  The movie is at its very best when it is trying to create a sense of awe within the audience, which fortunately is most of the time. 

Nolan has given his movie a grand sense of scope, which really does make it stand out from just about everything else out there.  Mostly, this is a wonderful thing, as he treats us to some stunning visuals.  Most of all, there is a sense of wonder and exploration here.  The effects are at the use of a screenplay that truly appreciates and wants to explore them.  But there is one way that the movie's grand intentions go wrong, and that is with the bombastic music score by Hans Zimmer.  There are moments where the score actually drowns out the dialogue, leading us to initially miss out on some crucial information at times.  I can appreciate the huge scope of the project, but there were certain areas where I wish they had dialed down just a little.

Interstellar is a movie that's easy to admire, and can be quite the experience to watch.  It's only when you find yourself in the quiet, not surrounded by Nolan's grand visions and manipulations that the cracks in the film's surface begin to reveal themselves.  This is still a must see for anyone who still believes in the majesty of the movies.  If anything, this feels like Nolan is warming up for even bigger things in the future.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Hero 6

I want to stress up front that I did enjoy Big Hero 6.  It's funny, well-drawn, and has some very nice moments.  The reason why I want to stress this is that I'm afraid this review may slant a little negative at times.  It's enjoyable, but also heavily flawed, the key flaw being that there's just nothing that really stands out about it.  In the shadow of seeing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, this movie comes across as being nice, but kind of standard.

This is the first animated feature collaboration between Disney and Marvel, and given their track record with live action films, you immediately expect big things.  Unfortunately, what we get here is a fairly standard superhero origin story that follows a pretty rigid formula, where a young man suffers a personal family loss, and with the help of his friends, decides to use his talents and gifts toward fighting evil.  You would hope that given the freedom of the animated art form, that the writers would be willing to dream up some big ideas, or at least turn some of the ideas present in all origin stories on their head.  The only new idea to come out of the film is Baymax (voice by Scott Adsit), a lovable inflatable robot who kind of resembles the Pillsbury Dough Boy if he for some reason decided to bulk up and become a superstar wrestler in the WWE.  He gets the biggest laughs, and has been designed so likable, he's practically a merchandiser's dream.

The story is set in a futuristic city that merges the styles of East and West called San Fransokyo.  The initial shots of the city are stunning, and immediately stir our imagination with the possibilities, but instead of allowing the audience to explore the setting, it's mainly used as forgettable backdrops in various action sequences.  Our young protagonist, named Hiro (Ryan Potter), is a 14-year-old whiz kid who is wasting his mechanical genius in underground robot fights, until his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) takes him to college one day, and shows him what some of his friends and him are creating under the guidance of the wise robotics teacher, Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).  During his visit to the school, Hiro meets Tadashi's friends, including the no-nonsense Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), the sweet natured chemistry expert Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), the big and equally big-hearted Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and the goofy and comic book obsessed Fred (T.J. Miller).  Tadashi also shows his brother the robot he's been working on - the previously mentioned Baymax, whom Tadashi has built as a healthcare robot to help people in need.

Hiro falls in love with the college, and with the creations that his brother and his friends are working on, and decides that he must apply there. (He graduated from high school at age 13.) In order to get in, he must build his own robotic design and impress Professor Callaghan.  He does so with his genius microbot invention - tiny robots that can fuse together to form just about anything.  Before Hiro can celebrate his victory in getting accepted however, a mysterious fire breaks out in the science hall building, killing both Tadashi and Professor Callaghan.  After a lengthy mourning period where Hiro shuts himself away from everyone, he soon begins to suspect that the fire was not an accident, and that his brother was actually murdered.  Not long after that, a mysterious supervillain wearing a kabuki mask is seen around the city, using Hiro's microbot invention for his own evil purposes.  This inspires Hiro to gather up his friends and the Baymax robot, and create a team of superheroes, using his mechanical skills to create super powered suits and weapons for all of them.

The ad campaign for Big Hero 6 is mainly emphasizing the lovable Baymax robot, and for good reason, since he seems to have been built to sell toys.  But at it's core, the story really is about the bond between the two brothers.  One nice aspect to the screenplay is that the death of Hiro's brother does actually impact just about every decision he makes during the course of the film.  The death is not just used as a plot device to get Hiro on the path to fighting crime, and then forgotten about.  There are also some very nice and funny moments between Hiro and Baymax.  The robot has been designed as a sensitive and caring nurse robot, and when Hiro tries to reprogram him to be a flying and fighting superhero, there are some hilarious moments with the robot trying to come to grips with his new program.  The other characters who make up the superhero team (Tadashi's college friends) are woefully underdeveloped.  They mainly exist to race around during the action scenes, showing off their new powers, throw out some one liners, or add exposition to the plot.

That was my big issue with the script.  Outside of Hiro and his robot companion, nobody gets to be all that interesting.  We learn early on that Hiro's parents died when he was three years old, and that he now lives with his Aunt (Maya Rudolph).  But, shortly after she is introduced, she is pretty much forgotten about, and serves no purpose.  Likewise, the villain who is supposed to be behind all the trouble never comes across as someone we can truly hate.  His motives are all but non-existent for a majority of the film, and when we finally learn his identity and his intentions, they are shoehorned in with a last minute plot revelation.  The movie seems far more interested in the action sequences that are big and grand, but also kind of loud and nonsensical.  The action is well-drawn and executed, but it doesn't have any "wow" factor, nor does it feature anything we haven't seen in the glut of superhero movies that have come about lately.  You would think that the animators would try to create some original or new sequences.  After all, there hasn't been an animated superhero action film since Pixar's The Incredibles 10 years ago.  That should be more than enough time to dream up something new.

Big Hero 6 is enjoyable enough as it is, but because it feels so familiar and underdeveloped at times, it just never comes across as being special.  I don't know if there's enough here to make a franchise, but I'm certain that Baymax toys will be popular this Christmas, and I have a sinking feeling that's all the Disney Studio cares about.  This is a movie that feels like it was somewhat creatively grounded because the filmmakers had the marketing people breathing down their necks the entire time.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Birdman

I'm not sure how audiences will respond to Birdman.  It's a dark, odd movie about a washed up actor who is trying to reinvent himself by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Calver's short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  It's being marketed as a comedy, and yes, there are some big laughs here.  But it's also a very bitter and biting movie.  Not only that, it's notable for having some of the best performances I've seen in any movie so far this year.

The actor at the center of the story is Riggan (Michael Keaton), who was once a box office king for starring in a series of films about a comic book superhero named Birdman.  He decided to quit the franchise after the third film, and focus on being a "serious actor", but a series of costly flops crushed that dream.  Riggan's personal life hasn't been much better lately, with a critical ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and an adult daughter (Emma Stone, fantastic here) who has been floating in and out of different rehabs the past few years.  Riggan's entire career is riding on this play succeeding, and the mounting pressures are starting to take a toll on the guy's sanity and view on the world.  It doesn't help that his co-star in the production is an insufferable Broadway legend (Edward Norton, also fantastic and very funny) who is impossible to work with.

With this simple premise, director Alejandro Gonzalez (Babel) has made a bold film that looks at a man trying to hold everything together as everything around him flies apart.  He achieves this with a stunning filmmaking choice, by hiding almost every single edit and making it look like we are following the main character in one long, uninterrupted take.  Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), this approach is not only fascinating to watch, but it really does let us get inside the jumbled head of its lead character.  This is important, as the movie basically is about Riggan's gradual mental breakdown.  It starts with him hearing the voice of his fictional Birdman counterpart, ridiculing him for leaving success behind, and trying to find a new career.  Eventually, he starts seeing his costumed alter ego following wherever he goes.  Riggan's mental fantasies become more elaborate as the film goes on, and by forcing us to follow his every move and step, we feel like we are trapped in his head along with him.

Birdman (which has been subtitled or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is such a tense film at times that its moments of humor almost seem out of left field.  Yet, there are some big laughs, chief amongst them being Riggan's interactions with his co-star, and a hilarious scene where he finds himself locked outside of the theater during a performance.  But more than the humorous moments, it is the performances that keep us invested.  Keaton, an actor who has been woefully underused for the longest time, reminds us of his range here, as he gets to be quiet and gentle, funny and charismatic, and angry and passionate in various scenes.  Some of his best moments are the ones that he shares with Emma Stone, playing a daughter who holds a lot of resentment toward him, as he often put his film career ahead of her when she was growing up.  Also impressive are the scenes where he has to more or less work against himself, as his former celebrity self appears before him to torment him.  We haven't gotten to see Keaton express this much range in a film in years, and it really does make you realize just how valuable of an actor he can be.

The entire cast is as on top of their game as Keaton is, ranging from Zack Galifiianakis as Riggan's overworked agent, to Naomi Watts as a somewhat insecure actress working in the play.  Everyone up on the screen deserves some kind of special recognition, but when it gets closer to award time, I hope that Keaton, Stone and Norton will not be overlooked.  As for the film itself, I personally loved it, but I can also see how it will not be to everyone's liking.  It is more or less a bizarre salute to art, and how the struggle for art can lead to madness.  There are some fascinating behind the scenes moments surrounding the New York theater world, and it probably added to my enjoyment of the film that I actually happened to be in New York while I was watching it, and sitting in a cinema only a block or two away from the St. James theater, where the film is set. 

Personal viewing situation aside, this truly is a fascinating film - Deeply felt, funny, and often angry, but never so much so that we feel turned off by the film.  Lots of movies have depicted a descent into madness, but few have done it in such a way that we feel like we're there for the entire journey.  This is a strange and original film, and Gonzalez obviously sees this as being deeply personal, especially with how he shows us all the work that goes into the making of any production.  He doesn't just go into the lives of the actors, but also the people going about their business behind the scenes.  He even goes into the world of theatrical critics, which is always a tricky target for any piece of fiction to go after.  For once, it doesn't feel like the filmmaker is taking jabs at or getting back at his or her own personal critics.  It's simply a wonderfully scripted and acted scene where Riggan must confront a particularly vicious, and somewhat truthful, critic about the nature of celebrity itself.

Birdman is a daring film, and one that won't be forgotten by anyone who watches it, regardless of what their final opinion is.  A lot is being made of Keaton's own past screen history, and how he was never quite able to find a huge success after he hung up the Batman cape and cowl in 1992.  I'm more interested in the fact that this is a great performance by an under appreciated actor in a wonderful film.

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