Tuesday, December 31, 2013

McConaughey Solidifies His Resurgence as a Great Actor in "Dallas Buyers Club"

Dallas Buyers Club

Movies like Dallas Buyers Club can easily become preachy, weepy messes.  A true story about the early days of the AIDS crisis.  Amazingly, the film ended up being informative, touching, and entertaining.  Everything about the film combined made it one of the best of the year, but the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto truly set it apart.

Leto has received the bulk of the praise thus far for playing the transgender Rayon, and he deserves it, but it's McConaughey who gives the most impressive performance.  As Ron Woodroof, the rodeo hustler turned AIDS medication activist, McConaughey gives the best performance of his career.  It's easy to point to the physical transformation he went through as evidence of his commitment, but it's much more than simple weight loss that makes this performance.  Looking the part is only part of it.  McConaughey is believable both as a homophobic cowboy and as a sympathetic, caring activist.  You're sickened by him early on, but you come to love this character.  A bit of that is writing and the true story of it, but a lot of it is in the performance.  

The true story of it all is a major selling point, too.  Ron Woodroof's partying, promiscuous life left him infected with AIDS at a time when a lot of the world thought only homosexuals were susceptible to the disease.  That misconception has, of course, been laid to rest.  Something from the early days of the AIDS scare that might not be apparent (at least it wasn't to me, maybe because I was a toddler during the time period of the film) is that the early treatment for the disease could potentially be more deadly than the disease itself.  Woodroof found this out through his own experience and also figured out a way to turn a profit from it.  The film covers his fight with the FDA as people sought medication in Dallas.  

Dallas Buyers Club was certainly informative for me, but, more importantly, it was entertaining.  Perhaps it's because I expected a true story involving AIDS would be more somber, but I was very surprised how fun this movie is.  Maybe "fun" isn't the right word.  The point is that Dallas Buyers Club could have been some preachy/sobbing downer of a movie, but instead it kept things realistic.

The film has a realistic look to match the tone.  There are no grand shots.  A shot of McConaughey suddenly in Japan is presented in the same way as a shot of him in a parking lot in Texas.  It's how life is.  Just as there are no perfect set scenes in life or dramatic speeches, there are none to be found in Dallas Buyers Club, and the film is all the better for it.  The amazing performances may be getting all the attention, but there's so much more to this great film.

This film gets a: 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review Roundup - "Prisoners," "The Wolverine," "Captain Phillips," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Machete Kills," "In a World...," and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

I've been severely lazy when it comes to movies lately, so it's time for me to do a quick rundown of some recent (and not so recent) films I've seen as I get closer to making my year end list.  So in no particular order, here are my thoughts on a few movies.

Prisoners was probably the most pleasant surprise I had at the movies this year.  The previews made the film look like misery porn with grieving parents sobbing and screaming about their lost, possibly dead, children.  Who wants to see that?  Thankfully, the marketing was deceptive.  Prisoners does have multiple scenes of distraught parents, but it is not some Oscar bait movie in which actors see who can fake cry the most.  It is actually an engrossing mystery of a film that kept me extremely interested throughout.  It's also one of those movies that just needs to be watched rather than read about.  So if you skipped it because it looked depressing, consider giving it a chance.  

The Wolverine
I really wanted to love this movie, but I ended up just kind of liking it.  I realized that the film had failed for me when I started to write a review months ago, and couldn't get past the first paragraph.  There's nothing truly wrong with the film, and it is better than the first standalone Wolverine film, but it was also a bit boring.  I have never been a fan of characters who want to be rid of their powers, and this film has Wolverine hiding out in the woods being reluctant and whatnot, and I don't want to see that.  Then Wolverine starts to lose his powers and he's basically a regular human for the bulk of the film.  I don't want to see Wolverine get nursed back to health for an hour.  Yes, there are some action scenes, a few of which are decent, but overall this film just left me bored.

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass is a director known for details, so he is a great choice to film the true story of a commercial freighter captain and his ordeal with Somali pirates.  The film has a documentary feel to it, and it features some truly suspenseful events.  Tom Hanks is great as the titular captain, but it is Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the Somali pirates who steals the show.  He humanizes what could have been a very one-note character. You don't hate the pirates; you feel sorry for them.  It's a hard line to walk.  How do you create sympathy for what would traditionally be the villainous role without inadvertently turning them into the hero?  Thanks to the writing and the performance this tough task was accomplished.

The Place Beyond the Pines
I watched this film a few months back when it came out on video and really enjoyed it.  Normally, I would just not write anything about it, but this one might crack my Top Ten this year, so I felt the need to address it. I was not a fan of writer/director Derek Cianfrance's previous film, Blue Valentine.  It was a well-made film that juggled non-linear storytelling nicely, and it featured great performances, but the subject matter just depressed me.  I know it was meant to be depressing; it just wasn't for me.  That's why I was glad to see his second feature, while very character-driven, involved a bit more action.  

This sprawling film is unique as it shifts from one character to another.  It defied my expectations, and that is something I always like to see.  This is one of those movies in which I couldn't accurately predict what was going to happen from one moment to the next.  Add the elements of Blue Valentine to a story like this and you have one of the best films of the year.

Machete Kills

I guess this was a one-note joke for most people as this ridiculous sequel received both poor reviews and box office returns.  I liked it for all its insanity.  The cast is great, and it's very dumb fun.  The first one was more enjoyable because the joke was fresh, but this film is just as entertaining.  Not much else to say for this one.  Check it out if you liked the first one and feel like seeing some crazy crap.

In a World...

First off, I'm not sure if the poster is meant to be an homage to The Lives of Others, but it reminded me of that amazing film, so I'll be watching that again soon.  So there's that.  In a World...is the feature writing/directing debut of Lake Bell (Adult Swim's Children's Hospital) about voice over artists.  In particular, it's about the lack of female voices in that world.  There's a lot going on in this film, perhaps too much, but it was an interesting and funny movie at times.  Everything about it is okay, but nothing stood out to me.  I expected a few more in-jokes about the industry and the ridiculousness of movie trailers.  Instead, it was a lot more about personal relationships.  The drama with all of that was decent; it just wasn't what I was expecting.

Here are the two posters so you know what I meant with that first sentence:

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
This movie never really found much of a release, and it's easy to see why.  That is not a knock against this film, as it already has a bit of a following.  It's just one of those movies that is never going to be very popular.  Many will refer to it as a hidden gem.  I am not one of those people.  Although I loved the cast, I found this to be too much like a Terence Malick film.  I like Malick, but I only want to see movies like his if they are actually made by him.  But truthfully, there's nothing really wrong with the film.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The 2013 Indiana Film Journalists Awards

The critics' group I belong to has released our annual year-end awards.  I've included the release in its entirety below, but I wanted to weigh in on some of the selections up here first.

12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, and I am completely okay with that selection.  I thought 12 Years was one of the most effective films of the year (I gave it a Vader), and it was #2 on my ballot.  My #1 was Mud, a film I consider a new American classic.  I was glad to see Mud made it on the top ten list.  My #3 was Dallas Buyers Club, a film that did not make the top ten, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I have yet to write a review for that film (I'll get to it soon), but trust me, it'll be a glowing one. 

As far as the rest of the top ten, I don't have any issues.  There are some on there that I didn't like as much as the rest of the group, but there is not a single film on that list that I think is a "bad" movie.  And I was very happy to see that I'm not the only one who enjoyed Prisoners.  That's a film that I feel is getting less and less attention as the year ends, though it deserves more and more.

Chiwetel Ejiofor won Best Actor, and that's another choice I can easily support.  Once again, Ejiofor was my #2 selection, with Matthew McConaughey as my #1 choice (he was runner-up).  So many good performances this year, and I think we got the top two right.

As for Best Actress, we went with Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue Is the Warmest Color.  This, along with our Supporting Actor award, will turn the most heads.  I have to be honest, I abstained from this and the Best Foreign Film category because I did not get around to seeing Blue, but I am proud of our group for making a unique selection.  And I look forward to watching the film so I can latch onto the group and take credit for making the selection as well.

The Best Supporting Actor award is another one I am proud of (and I had a slight hand in this one!).  Barkhad Abdi, the first-time actor who portrayed a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips, won top honors for a performance that could have easily been one note, but ended up being the most compelling actor in the film.  (No offense to Tom Hanks, who was also very good in the film.)  Abdi was actually my third choice (I did say a "slight" hand in the decision), with Michael Fassbender at #1 and Jared Leto at #2.  I doubt that Fassbender gets much recognition in this crowded category this year, but his performance really put 12 Years a Slave over the top for me.  As for Leto, I think we'll be seeing his name more than Abdi's as more awards roll out.  I'm fine with that, as his performance was great.  

The Best Supporting Actress category went to Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  I was more interested in the the runner up, June Squibb in Nebraska.  She had some great moments that stole the show in the second half of that sad, but funny film.  And that's saying something as Bruce Dern and Will Forte did a fine job in that movie.

That's about all I have to say about the awards this year.  Once again, hats off to the IFJA for making some good, interesting choices.  I'm just glad to be a part of it, hopefully doing more harm than good to each category.  Anyway, here is the write-up and full list of the 2013 Indiana Film Journalists Association Awards.

"12 Years a Slave" wins top honors from Indiana film critics
The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of writers dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is proud to announce its annual film awards for 2013.
"12 Years a Slave" won top honors, taking the prize for Best Film and earning a total of four awards. Chiwetel Ejiofor won for Best Actor, Steve McQueen won in the Best Director category and Hans Zimmer took the prize for Best Musical Score.
"Her," which was the runner-up for Best Film, made a strong showing with Spike Jonze earning the award for Best Original Screenplay. It also won the Original Vision Award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking. Eight other movies were named Finalists for Best Film.
Adele Exarchopoulos took Best Actress honors for "Blue is the Warmest Color," which also was awarded the prize for Best Foreign Language Film. Jennifer Lawrence earned the Best Supporting Actress award for "American Hustle," while Best Supporting Actor went to Barkhad Abdi for his work in "Captain Phillips."
"Frozen" won Best Animated Feature, and "The Act of Killing" took Best Documentary. In their third cinematic go-round together, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize for "Before Midnight."
The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with roots in Indiana, or a film that depicts Hoosier State locales and stories, went to "Medora," a documentary film directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart.
IFJA members issued this statement with regard to the Hoosier Award: "In chronicling the plight of a hapless high school basketball team from a tiny, economically depressed Indiana town, Cohn and Rothbart managed to tap into the way Hoosiers are transfixed by their hoops obsession, as well as explore the harsh choices Indiana teenagers often face. In many ways, the film stands as stark counterpoint to the seminal "Hoop Dreams." These players aren't vying for a spot in the NBA, but to win a single game and lay claim to their dignity, both on and off the court. It is a quintessentially Hoosier story told with craftsmanship, unique insight and uncommon grace."
The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film
Winner: "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: "Her"
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically):
"All Is Lost"
"Before Midnight"
"Captain Phillips"
"Frances Ha"
"Spring Breakers"
"The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Animated Feature
Winner: "Frozen"
Runner-Up: "The Wind Rises"
Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Runner-Up: "The Grandmaster"
Best Documentary
Winner: "The Act of Killing"
Runner-Up: "Stories We Tell"
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Spike Jonze, "Her"
Runner-Up: Peter Morgan, "Rush"
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, "Before Midnight"
Runner-Up: John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Director
Winner: Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Spike Jonze, "Her"
Best Actress
Winner: Adele Exarchopoulos, "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Runner-Up: Brie Larson, "Short Term 12"
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Runner-Up: June Squibb, "Nebraska"
Best Actor
Winner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"
Runner-Up: Jeremy Renner, "American Hustle"
Best Musical Score
Winner: Hans Zimmer, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Hans Zimmer, "Rush"
Original Vision Award
Winner: "Her"
Runner-Up: "Gravity"
The Hoosier Award
"Medora," Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, directors
(As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)
About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Catching Fire" Proves That "The Hunger Games" Has More To Say Than Other YA Franchises

Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman - Rated PG-13

Much like the unfortunate deputy, the Capitol has no idea what's about to happen.

The first Hunger Games movie was a welcome departure from the usual young adult adaptation fluff.  Typically, a young adult (or YA) series is either skewed too specifically to its young audience (the Twilight series), or its world is too complicated, or wacky, for the non-readers (insert any of the failed YA franchises here).  The Hunger Games worked because it had something for everyone, and the setting was recognizable.  You had the love triangle business for the tweens, but you had the social satire for the adults.  Sure, the satire wasn't very subtle, but it left you with something to think about.  Plus, there was a strong cast that made you care about the characters.

Catching Fire doesn't simply continue the story of The Hunger Games, it enhances it.  The appropriately titled film (and book) takes the injustices hinted at here and there in the first installment and puts them at the forefront.  Heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) can no longer be the quiet pawn in the government’s game.  She has become a symbol, and it’s impossible for her to keep a low profile.  Because of this, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has to push Katniss back into the spotlight, so he can destroy her and any hopes for a revolution that she might represent. 

This is a fairly basic story as far as dystopian films go.  An impoverished populace must fight their rich overlords.  What makes it different is that this is not a film about planning.  Katniss is truly a game piece that each side uses, often without her knowledge.  Since she is kept in the dark, the audience is as well, for the most part.  The film diverts from the book (which is told only through Katniss’s perspective) with a few scenes with Snow and the new head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but the bulk of the film is told through Katniss’s eyes.  This is important because it leaves some mystery to what could have been a very boring story.  Katniss is an unwilling symbol of freedom that needs to see firsthand the atrocities being committed throughout society.  Instead of boring secret meetings in which plans are hashed out then performed, we get to see Katniss react to the extreme poverty gap.

The Hunger Games is a series that requires you to suspend disbelief and accept that this world, in which the nation’s youth are forced to kill each other for entertainment, exists.  As a free society, the audience may find it hard to believe that humans could ever let things get so bad, but historically, it happens (some would argue it’s happening right now).  Some might think, “How is Katniss so gullible?”  But she is the product of the world she was born in.  There is no grand revolution to celebrate because it hasn’t happened yet.  In fact, it was attempted years ago, and the district that rebelled doesn’t exist anymore.  So her frame of reference for revolution is the opposite of, say, an American’s.  To Katniss, revolution means everything you know and love will be destroyed.  So it’s important for her to see the discontent firsthand.

Director Francis Lawrence, writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (credited as Michael DeBruyn, for some reason), and author Suzanne Collins have done a fantastic job of showing the divide.  Collins, of course, laid the groundwork, and Beaufoy and Arndt focused on the best examples, but Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer) should get most of the credit for presenting it all in a very effective way.  He sticks with the first film’s style by following most of the characters from behind as they walk into scenes, but he has improved upon the original.  Perhaps it’s only because there was more money available, but Catching Fire simply looks better than the first film, which means that the differences between the rich of the Capitol and the suffering of the poor are that much more realistic and powerful.  The staging of most of the film in general is quite effective with the characters small in the frame and the surroundings towering around them.  It created a feeling of the world bearing down on all of these characters.

Who cares about the world bearing down if you don’t like the characters, though?  Thankfully, Catching Fire has enough talent for you to get on board with most of the characters involved.  There are some great actors involved with this, including two Academy Award winners (Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and two more nominees (Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci).  These four acclaimed actors are joined by returning stars Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, and Liam Hemsworth, to name a few, and a few newcomers in Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Lynn Cohen.  The fact that there are even this many roles to be filled by recognizable actors shows that this is no throwaway movie for tweens.  Because of the size of the cast, however, most of the roles rely on screen presence alone. 

Most of the actors are given at least one scene to show off a little bit, but there’s not enough for them to do to stand out in any way.  But it is certainly nice to see the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer in small roles.  The most high profile new addition would be Philip Seymour Hoffman.  His character takes the place of Seneca Crane, aka the guy with the crazy beard, from the first film.  Hoffman looks pretty much like he does in any other movie, but he gets to play up the ruthlessness in this role.  Hoffman is perfect for any role that requires him to seem indifferent to characters around him. 

As for the returning stars, nothing much is going on with them.  Lawrence and Hutcherson both do fine in continuing their fake romance while realizing how bad things are around them.  Banks is still pretty much a walking costume, which is kind of the point with her character.  And Harrelson is still the comic relief as the constantly drunk, but wise, former victor.  If there is a slight fault to the film, it is that his character’s alcoholism is treated so lightly, but laughs are hard to come by in the bleak world of the film, so it’s not a terrible transgression.

Catching Fire, despite the love story and social commentary, is still a bit of an action film, as well.  Since the focus is more on the problems with society than it is on the titular Games, the action is pretty scant until the last hour or so.  But that last hour is filled with plenty of tense moments.  Once again, this might be because of a larger budget, but the action looked better this time around, especially the special effects.  Director Francis Lawrence has used computer effects to his detriment before (I Am Legend), but that may have been simply because the technology was not yet up to snuff.  Either way, it looks great now, as nothing in the Arena segment seemed overly fake or manufactured.

Overall, Catching Fire improves upon the original and solidifies the series as something more than the passing fad that other series were.  There are some big themes about society and life in general behind the blood and love of the story.  Will the tweens focus more on the love triangle and pick which “team” they are on?  Probably.  But for those of us who don’t care who Katniss ends up with, there is a seriously enjoyable movie beyond that love story. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Is Miserable and Hard to Watch, but That's No Excuse To Miss This Amazing Film

Directed by Steve McQueen, written by John Ridley, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Fassbender - Rated R

A suffering Vader seemed appropriate for this one.

Slavery is a topic ever present in many historical films, but it is rarely given center stage treatment.  Even last year's phenomenal and fun Django Unchained was more of a revenge fantasy than it was a movie about slavery (the fact that it can be described as "fun" should tip you off that it's not a serious take on the institution of slavery).  If Django was fantasy, then 12 Years a Slave is the miserable reality.

12 Years a Slave is the first film in a long time to deal with slavery head-on.  Slavery can be a tricky subject for a film because it can easily delve into a preaching, hackneyed affair.  Another problem with slavery on film of late is the seeming need to include the white perspective of the time period.  It seems that many filmmakers feel that guilt over slavery is so inherent in our culture that they must include some white character in the proceedings to help save the day.  For what would have happened with Django without Dr. Schultz?

12 Years a Slave rises above these problems with ease.  First off, it's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free family man in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Since Northup wrote about his account, the film must follow things from his perspective.  There are still the stereotypical elements of a slave story, such as whipping and sympathetic whites, but it's different because of the perspective.  A story told from the slave's point of view is not an easy story to follow.  It's disjointed and confusing, which is the point.  Solomon Northup became a slave in utter confusion and remained uncertain of his future throughout his ordeal.  In fact, it's unfortunate that he named his account as he did because it gives the audience the knowledge he never had: that he would one day be free again.

Chiwetel Ejiofor handles the uncertainty of Northup's situation perfectly.  Ejiofor is great for all the normal reasons an actor receives praise, but in the quiet moments of the film he truly shines.  12 Years is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), a director who embraces the awkward, quiet moments in life and allows them to play out on screen.  What this means is that the long moments of waiting or thinking that normally are implied are instead shown.  Ejiofor has to perform through his eyes and his overall expression for many long, tense moments to convey Northup's situation, and he's a natural at it.  His sympathetic eyes not only convey his dire situation, but also make him one of the most sympathetic characters in recent memory.

As easy as it is to root for and get behind Ejiofor's Northup, it's even easier to abhor Michael Fassbender's Epps.  The character of Epps, a drunken, brutal slave owner, is inherently unlikable, but Fassbender brings such realism and deep ferocity to the role that it becomes more than just your standard mean racist.  Fassbender has this look in his eyes throughout the film that you cannot trust.  You know that at any moment he could lose control, and a man in his position is doubly dangerous in such a state.  Both Fassbender and Ejiofor deserve all the awards they will most likely receive.

Another name that should come up for awards is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey.  Patsey suffers a terrible existence on all fronts, and Nyong'o conveys the strife in a powerful way.  Her performance could easily just be loud sobbing, but, once again, the expression on her face is what makes it stick with you.  You can see misery in her eyes, and that speaks much louder than any sob.  Sarah Paulson as Patsey's torturer (and Epps's wife) does a great job, as well.  The cold hatred is written all over her face.  She is almost as detestable as Fassbender.  Almost.

Performances aside, McQueen contributes in some very important ways.  His shot selection is effective throughout.   Beautiful shots of nature are juxtaposed with the unnatural circumstances of slavery.  The conflict of beauty in nature and hideousness of humanity is constantly present.  This goes for the use of music, too.  Northup is a musician, so he is requested to play the fiddle many times during the film.  During some of these sequences the diegetic sounds coming from Northup's fiddle, which are jovial, are overpowered by the non-diegetic score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), which has a much more foreboding sound.  The conflicting sounds express the mood of both the time and the film itself.  A good score is supposed to go unnoticed (or so the saying goes), but a brilliant one, when used properly, is not only noticeable, but intricate to the mood and theme of the film.

Despite the conflict expressed in the sound design of the film, the actual world presented was unfortunately normal for the time.  Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film (I suppose this counts as a SPOILER) consists of Northup struggling to breathe after a lynching was halted.  Northup is left trying to keep his feet on the ground while the owner is fetched.  You expect someone to cut him down soon after the lynching is stopped, but the scene goes on for an excruciatingly long time.  As we wait and watch Northup fight to breathe, life goes on.  Kids play; slaves go about their work.  This is "normal."  McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have captured the utter absurdity of a slave-owning society.  A society in which a human life can hang literally by a thread, and hardly anyone seems to notice.  It's upsetting to imagine what can become "normal" in daily life.

Because of the disturbing ideas about humanity and the brutality of slavery, 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch.  It is a film that needs to be watched, however.  Slavery is all too often glazed over in history.  It's the cause of war, and it's awful, we're told, but how often is it truly thought about?  Of course, a documentary can help you remember the evils of slavery.  Emotion is what makes 12 Years a Slave so great.  This film will not only remind you how terrible humans can be, it will also give you hope.  Solomon Northup mentions many times that he will not "fall into despair" because terrible things cannot last forever.  There is always hope.  It's impossible not to feel something as you watch a man witness and be part of such brutality, yet remain hopeful.  12 Years a Slave is a history lesson, a statement about humanity, and an emotional onslaught all rolled into one.  It is also one of the best films of the year. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Who Needs the Avengers When You Have Thor, Loki, Elves, Spaceships, Lasers, a Sort of Hulk Monster, a Hammer, and All Kinds of Other Cool Crap?

Thor: The Dark World - Directed by Alan Taylor, written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, and Tom Hiddleston - Rated PG-13

This gets a Kurgan simply because if the Kurgan showed up in the middle of a scene, no one would bat an eye.

Thor is certainly the strangest character in the mainstream Marvel universe (or at least he is for someone like me, who is not well read when it comes to comic books).  He is equal parts Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and, well, superhero. Because of this, Thor's standalone films can be quite different from the other Avengers' more Earth-related adventures.  This is a good thing because in a film like Iron Man 3, you wonder just what all the other Avengers are up to as the world comes to the brink of annihilation.  In Thor: The Dark World, Earth factors in very rarely, so it's conceivable that the other Avengers wouldn't even be aware anything was happening until it was too late.

The new Thor movie is entertaining for many more reasons than simply its setting.  The first film was surprisingly, and appropriately, comedic as it was essentially a fish out of water story.  This film retains that comedic spirit while not relying on the same gags from the first film.  To be fair, there are still some easy jokes made with Thor's scenes on Earth, but the majority of the humor is earned through character moments, especially those between Thor and his brother-turned-nemesis Loki.

Loki steals the show as one of those villains you love to hate.  During his first appearance in the first Thor movie, Loki didn't seem all that amusing or menacing.  Somehow that changed with his role as the main baddie in The Avengers.  He still seemed a little bland as far as super villains go, but credit Tom Hiddleston for breathing some real life into the character. His constant smirk and witty banter make him an honestly likable character, despite his goals of world domination and whatnot.  Apparently his role was initially smaller, and Hiddleston was brought in later for some additional scenes.  That turned out to the correct move as he is one of most enjoyable parts of the film.

The focus on Loki doesn't mean that the titular character is any less fun.  Chris Hemsworh picks up right where he left off as Thor.  He's a bit more somber in this film, since his love interest is stuck on Earth, so there are fewer fun scenes with him this time around.  The performance is fine; it's just that the character required a quieter performance, which is why Loki picked up the comedic slack.

As for the rest of the cast, all the returning players perform admirably.  It was nice to see Idris Elba, as Heimdall, get a few more scenes this time around, although he is still the most underutilized aspect of the franchise.  The new faces are few, but serve the film well.  Chris O'Dowd produced a few laughs in his few scenes.  And Christopher Eccleston is decent as the villain, though that was more of a prosthetic performance.

Of course all of these characters are involved in a plot, but that doesn't really matter in the Marvel universe, does it?  Some strange being is threatening to use some vaguely described powerful substance to destroy the world for even vaguer reasons.  That isn't meant as too much of a dig against the film (or entire Marvel universe for that matter), but let's face it, these plots are mediocre at best.  It's a good thing the characters are so great because the stories for these movies just keep getting more and more nonsensical and boring.  Not to mention the fact that shadow of the next Avengers looms over everything as if to say, "This is all well and good, but just wait until you see me!"  It dramatically lowers the stakes of all the standalone films  because you know the real threat and all the coolest stuff is being saved for the group effort.

Thor manages to rise above all of that, though.  The movie works on its own and is just as entertaining as the first.  As action movies go, Thor should keep you happy.  The beginning was a little on the weak side, with a lot of exposition and bland battles, but it picks up in the middle and has a thrilling climax.  Director Alan Taylor (of HBO's Game of Thrones fame) turned out to be the perfect fit for the franchise, providing a straightforward action movie devoid of all the random Dutch angles (which I actually liked, despite their randomness) of Kenneth Branagh's previous entry.  Although it would certainly be interesting to see what Taylor would have done if he had been allowed to be as graphic with this film as he is with Thrones.

Thor: The Dark World is yet another solid movie in the Marvel franchise.  It doesn't take any risks with the storytelling or anything, but it doesn't really need to.  Thor satisfies the craving for that specific character (and a few of his friends and enemies) that will keep you sated until Thor teams up with the rest of the gang again.  It is a bit troubling that the film feels less important now that the Avengers are around, but the movie is just fun and outlandish enough to make you forget about those other guys for a little while.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Gravity" Might Make You Puke...in a Good Way.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and Ed Harris - Rated PG-13
This might not look like much of anything, but this is a Darth Vader.  That's him hurtling through space after the Death Star blew up.  Thought it was fitting...

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón caught my attention with Children of Men, my favorite film of 2006. That criminally under-watched film was science fiction at its best: realistic, suspenseful, and meaningful. Also, I was beyond impressed with Cuarón’s complicated long takes. These takes, which go on for minutes with intricate stunt work happening throughout, are not just gimmicks; they immerse you in the film. You almost have to hold your breath as you watch a film like that, which makes Cuarón the perfect director for a film like Gravity.

Gravity, one of the most effective films I’ve seen in recent memory, is a great vehicle for Cuarón because it’s basically a survival story set in outer space. And the best way to present a survival story is to make the audience feel like they are part of it.

Without giving away too many details (not that the previews haven’t set the film up anyway), Gravity is about newbie astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her disastrous first mission working on the Hubble Telescope. The film is a series of (nearly literally) breathtaking and often beautiful events as Ryan tries to survive.

The experience of the film overshadows any story, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ineffective or trivial plot.  The film is about more than just survival.  As with most serious sci-fi films, there are undertones and themes at work.  The most dominant theme of Gravity involves rebirth after a tragedy.  There is also religious imagery scattered throughout, so the film leaves you with something to think about after you watch it, which is much more important than simply looking and sounding pretty.

Themes about survival, religion, and moving on are great, but it is important to actually care about the characters, too.  Gravity, through minimal background information and great performances, makes you care about the two main characters even though we only know them as they go through an extreme situation.  Even though most of the film is about getting problem after problem solved, I still found myself connected with Sandra Bullock’s character.  She is identifiable to the audience because she is new to space.  She is not all that calm and collected at the beginning, much like most of us would be if on our first trip.  More than that, Bullock is a likable presence.  She’s never annoying, and her reactions to the disaster around her felt real.  This is not the loud performance that won her an Oscar for The Blind Side.  It is simply her best performance.

George Clooney is the only other character that we get to see (or hear) for more than a few seconds.  While he’s not breaking new ground, there’s no one better to play the cool, collected astronaut who treats the dire circumstances with a matter-of-fact certainty.  He’s basically just being George Clooney in space, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It was also great to hear Ed Harris as the voice of NASA command.  It brought back memories of Apollo 13, and Ed Harris just sounds like someone who should be working the radio at NASA.

Now on to what is getting Gravity all of its praise: the experience.  First off, this is one amazing film, visually speaking.  Cuarón has said that roughly ninety percent of the film is computer-generated, which is remarkable.  I’m not saying you’ll ever think this was actually shot in outer space; you might forget that every now and then, though.  At no point did I feel like I was watching some overly animated action film.  When things explode or break apart, it is incredibly detailed.  The fact that hardly anything goes “BOOM” adds to the beauty of it.  Since the film takes place in outer space, which has no oxygen through which sound can travel, the film has to rely on great visuals, slight vibration noise, and a musical score.  It all comes together to create perfectly tense moments.

Gravity is more about making you feel like you’re there than it is about making you say, “Wow.”  I watched it in IMAX 3D, and I feel confident saying that is the optimal way to see this.  The 3D actually matters in this film, as a sense of distance and depth is integral to the struggle.  (And just when I had given up on 3D…curse you, Cuarón!)  But the large screen, dizzying camera movements, lack of gravity, and the 3D can be a recipe for an upset stomach.  I heard someone a few rows away fight off vomiting for a few minutes, and I felt my stomach do a flip or two during some scenes.  Normally, that would be a red flag (and I’m sure it still is for many people), but that reaction is not accidental.  When that person near me started to retch, it was during a moment in which Sandra Bullock’s character was fighting the same urge.  If that’s not placing you in the film, I don’t know what is.  There are certainly more pleasant ways to involve the audience, but it’s still effective.  (For the record, the person was fine, and it sounded like dry heaves more than anything.)  None of this is to say that the film cannot be enjoyed in regular theaters.  Any sci-fi fan should check this out however they can.  It’s just that the IMAX experience is pretty extreme.  A truly tense film will be tense no matter the screen size or 3D.

Any film that attempts to put you through a harrowing experience and accomplishes that gets my highest marks.  I always feel stupid when I praise a film this highly, though.  The cruel internet film culture demands that anything that is critically or publicly acclaimed (or both, as is the case with Gravity) must be nitpicked to the point that a person must be ignorant to flat out love a movie.  I still have a love of film, despite the toxic online environment surrounding the culture.  A lot of the vitriol is from fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Apparently, you can’t love a film set in space unless you also make it clear that it sucks compared to 2001.  I like Kubrick’s film, and I still find it to be a beautiful and impressive experience.  Is Gravity better?  I don’t know.  It’s different, that’s for sure.  They are not attempting to do the same thing, so I find the comparison moot.  As for the technical side of the films, both are impressive, and I imagine both will influence film for years to come.  2001 influenced so many filmmakers that I find it hard to imagine Gravity will have the same effect, but who cares?  I just need to stay away from the IMDb boards…

Regardless of all that, the impressive work of Cuarón is hard to deny.  It’s unfortunate that he chose a project so time consuming, but it was worth the wait.  I just hope he makes something a little simpler next time so I’ll have a new film to watch in less than five years.  All of his work has paid off, though.  If it wasn’t clear by now, Cuarón has definitely solidified his role as a premiere director, and he should be mentioned quite often during the upcoming awards season.

Cuarón deserves so much praise because he has made a film that is harrowing, breathtaking (breath-holding, I should say), sickening, and entertaining.  Gravity will put you through an experience, and you’ll be glad you went through it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pain & Gatsby

*Pain & Gain entered and left the theaters without much fanfare, but now that it's out on video (along with The Great Gatsby) I wanted to compare the two films.  Major SPOILERS for both films follow.

Something occurred to me as I was watching Pain & Gain on DVD: the Michael Bay-directed Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson movie is surprisingly comparable to The Great Gatsby.  I don't simply mean the Baz Luhrmann overly stylized Gatsby, either.  I mean the actual novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  (For my purposes, however, I will include that recent adaptation because it helps my argument.) 

Let's start with the American dream which Wahlberg's character, Daniel Lugo, talks about in the film (ironically telling a judge that there are no shortcuts to it).  Also, the tagline of Pain & Gain is "Their American Dream Is Bigger Than Yours."  In my initial review, I compared Pain & Gain to Scarface because of the drugs and blatant criminality of most of the characters along with the perversion of the American dream (and Lugo mentions Scarface as a personal hero).  I still think that comparison is apt since both stories are essentially about how wrong you can go in your pursuit of what you think the American dream is.  Gatsby fits in because that story is about the death of that dream. 

Jay Gatsby is a character that rises from nothing and makes a fortune through illegal means.  His pursuit goes beyond finance and into unreachable territory as he strives to recreate a past love with Daisy that has moved on.  He sees a green light as a metaphor for this unreachable dream.  His failure to reclaim what was once a beautiful moment shows that the American dream in general is unachievable when it becomes an idea rather than a tangible goal. 

Daniel Lugo is not after some lost love in Pain & Gain, but his downfall is just the same.  He simply holds money and status in such a high regard that he is incapable of sustaining it.  Becoming the man on the riding lawnmower was his tangible goal, but once he reached it, he realized it didn't really give him what he wanted: a feeling of legitimacy.  It seems cheap to make the comparison (but get used to it, this is going to be filled with cheap comparisons), but Lugo's green light was a riding lawnmower.  Once Gatsby had Daisy, he seemed to realize that the green light represented nothing now that he had seemed to achieve his dream.  As soon as Lugo, now Tom Lawn, gets on that lawnmower, he should have been content, instead he wanted more.  The lawnmower had become, simply, a lawnmower.

The similarities between Gatsby and Lugo don't end with the American dream.  Both characters get their money illegally, Gatsby through bootlegging and Lugo from fraud.  They both change their names when they gain their wealth.  James Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby.  Daniel Lugo becomes Tom Lawn.  Say what you will about Lugo's improvised name, at least it's vast departure from his real name, unlike Gatz to Gatsby...  They also seem to be equally charismatic.  Lugo may be much more obviously full of crap than Gatsby, but he seems to easily fool the people onscreen. 

Step aside, DiCaprio...let Marky Mark handle this.
If Lugo is Gatsby, then who is Nick Carraway?  Since Nick acts as the storyteller of Gatsby, this is difficult as nearly every single character in Pain & Gain serves as narrator at some point.  If you look to Nick as the moral compass of Gatsby, though, then I suppose Paul (Dwayne Johnson) fits best.  He appears to be the voice of reason early on ("You can't just kidnap a guy and take his stuff! That is so illegal!") and becomes corrupted by Lugo.  As an ex-con, he is much more susceptible to corruption than Carraway was, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he is somewhat seduced by Lugo's charm and friendship only to end up being used, just as Gatsby used Nick. 

This is where the film version of Gatsby helps out a bit more.  In that adaptation, Nick is telling the story from an asylum, apparently suffering a breakdown caused (at least partly) by alcohol addiction.  Paul is a recovering alcohol/drug addict who falls off the wagon because of his association with Lugo.  So Gatsby turned Nick into a drunk, and Lugo nudged Paul back into addiction. 

Paul is a much easier fit as Nick when you factor in his newly found faith.  His gullibility and well-meaning attitude is a dead ringer for Nick.  Religion does not play much of a factor in Gatsby, but Nick is certainly seen as the slightly innocent character among a crew of despicable people.  (Of course, he's telling the story, so he comes across as the good person.)  Paul seems that way, too...at first.  And finally, there is one more side comparison with Paul as Nick.  In the novel, Nick has a drunken evening and at one point ends up bedside with a photographer.  It is not clearly explained, and some have speculated a homosexual interpretation to the passage.  Paul has his run-in with homosexuality, as well.  His priest/landlord hits on him, and Paul seems enthralled by all of the homosexual sex toys in the warehouse.  Sure, most of the stuff in Pain & Gain is played for juvenile homophobic laughs, but it makes sense on a story level when compared to Gatsby.
Yup, dead ringer for Tobey Maguire.

The wheels don't fall off of this comparison once you move past the similarities between the two main characters, but it definitely starts to get low on gas.  But I'll continue anyway as I did find a few interesting similarities.

Lugo as Gatsby and Paul as Nick keeps things nice and neat, but when trying to find other character crossovers, it gets messy.  I suppose Victor Kershaw could be Tom and his money could be Daisy since Lugo is at odds with him and tries to take away what is his.  And Myrtle could be the stripper that Lugo "gives" to Paul, but that doesn't really work since she should be with Victor in that comparison...and who's Wilson?  See what I mean?  But there is a clear commonality with cars.  In both stories, a character gets hit by a car near the end: Myrtle in Gatsby, and Lugo in Pain.  They are different circumstances and characters and all, but still...

The point of both Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, however, is quite clear and nearly identical.  Pain warns the audience of seeking the fast way to the dream and shows that the dream isn't what it's cracked up to be anyway.  Gatsby is about the death of the dream in very much the same way as Gatsby dies in his pursuit, and Nick is left jaded (and committed, in the movie). 

Putting an end to this rambling comparison, I just found it interesting that a film many people have found forgettable, pointless, offensive, or simply awful can quite easily be compared to what some call the great American novel.  Both Pain & Gain and the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby nearly stylize the point out of each story, but it's still there.  And while Pain & Gain will never be considered a great work of art, at the very least Michael Bay's latest deserves a second look, which is more than can be said about his Transformers series.