Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

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Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

Adult World (2014)

MV5BMjIzNDY1NjgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzMzMDEwMTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_People often celebrate independent films as an oasis of creativity in comparison to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that populate Hollywood. However, indie film can have just as many formulaic, half-baked, cookie-cutter films that waste your time. Case in point, the indie comedy Adult World, a movie that feels out of time and place.

Amy (Emma Roberts) is a recent college graduate who has big dreams of being a poet. Her idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), even lives in town, giving her ample stalking opportunities. But Amy only seems to get rejection slip after rejection slip in the mail. Her parents cannot afford to bankroll her lifestyle, and so Amy sets off on her own, shacking in with a transvestite, and gaining a job at Adult World, a small mom-and-pop porn store. Amy holds onto hope that she can become a great poet with Rat’s mentoring.

adult-world-movie-stills-ff8a8e06cf485219The movie feels overly quaint, like its premise, and much of the character interplay, came from a script from 1996 that was lost until now. The entire enterprise feels painfully dated in scope, humor, and its sense of peculiarity. I don’t even know why the filmmakers decided to set the movie in modern times. The excuses they devise for why a mom-and-pop porn store exists in the world of 4G wi-fi Internet never come close to working. Yes, we still have the traditional brick-and-mortar porn stores to this day, but those have a wealth of selection. This is like a tiny store with a few walls of movie titles, movies that people rent and return. Remember those, video rental stores? Again, dated. The very existence of the porn store disrupts the credibility of the film; not to suggest it would be perfect without this one plot element. There’s such a dated sense of titillation having a desperate woman land a job at a porn store. Oh no, she’s out of her element! The problem with the porn store is that they never do anything with it. There are perhaps four jokes directly related to the fact that it is an adult novelty store, but beyond that it would have been the same if they just sold toasters (note to self: look into potential market for adult novelty toasters). At no point does it prod our heroine along her journey or really have any larger impact besides the place where she meets her eventual love interest. The mom and pop that own the store are never seen again after their introduction, meaning the film even abandons one of the easier comedic scenarios of the elderly, folksy pornographer.

The entire storyline of a would-be poet slumming it at a porn store, learning some hard lessons, and finally finding her footing, well the whole thing just feels so much like a byproduct of 1990s filmmaking, when the broader commercial impact of indie film was being explored. The middle-class suburban girl being pushed out of her comfort zone by a band of quirky misfits in a fringe setting, well it just feels so dated. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this kind of story setup will flounder. Under the right care, even dated material can succeed, but Adult World coasts on the supposed outrageousness of its premise and characters. The trouble is that these people are more of less indie film cartoon characters with no real depth to them. Amy is mostly a brat but we never seem to go beyond the surface of her oversized ego and sense of certainty in her talent. Her relationship with the self-loathing Rat is meant to open herself up the harsh realities of the world, the rude awakening of every post-grad. Except he’s really just a jerk that treats her like garbage and eventually humiliates her. At no point do you get the impression that either character is really having much of an impact upon the other, beside general annoyance or frustration. Then there’s the character of Rubia, a transvestite Amy meets on the bus and within ONE DAY Amy asks if she can move in with this total stranger. Again, the idea of the kindly transvestite who becomes the heroine’s roommate, doesn’t that feel so dated too, so desperate to be edgy? Rubia is also ill defined and one-note. I’m surprised the filmmakers had the restraint to not give Rubia a tragic back-story.

ADULT-WORLDWith all that said, the movie is never as funny or as interesting or as edgy as it seems to believe it is. I may have laughed once or twice for the entire movie. I certainly wasn’t attached to the characters by any means. There’s a segment where Amy and Rubia discover Rat driving through town, so they hop on a bike and pedal after him. It’s played out like it’s supposed to be this stroke of comedy, complete with backbiting comments from Rubia, but it’s never funny and it just continues to play out, never altering to possibly become funny. Here’s something that is funny: after Amy’s parents tell her they cannot afford to pay for her poetry submissions, she runs away from home. The funny part isn’t her decision-making or the act of running away itself. The real funny part is that we don’t see or hear from Amy’s parents again for over an hour. Did her mother and father not care that their only child has disappeared? Are they secretly relieved? Amy doesn’t even refer to her parents, so we’re left wondering if there may be a missing person’s report floating around somewhere. It’s details like this, and the lack of taking advantage of the comic possibilities of the porn store setting, that showcase just how terribly Adult World goes about developing its shoddy story.

Then there’s the overall sludgy look of the film itself. Filmed on location in Syracuse, New York during a wintry period, it’s as if director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) wanted to communicate the misery of his characters with a visual style that made you feel their pain. This is one of the crummier looking wide releases I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is just dreary but without any strong sense of visual composition. I know this was a low-budget effort but Coffey and his team do such little work to hide the limitations; the set dressing is pathetically bare when it comes to locations, like the porn store. Every shot, every scene just reminds you further that Adult World just didn’t have the money, or the right people for the money. Coffey’s other sin is his mishandling of his actors. Roberts (We’re the Millers) and Cusack (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) are two very capable actors but they seem abandoned here. Cusack is just a misanthrope who treats every moment with annoyance, and it gets tiresome. Roberts is all over the place, needing a gentle tug to help bring her histrionic character back to a suitable reality.

I cannot think of any reason a person should take useful time out of their day to watch Adult World. The film isn’t funny. The characters are bothersome and lacking depth. The essential premise, the hook of the movie, is incidental and inconsequential. There is just a general malaise about the film, a lack of development that saps the characters and the story. Oh sure, things occasionally happen, or characters will magically reveal insights, but it’s always in the most hasty, inorganic fashion. Even the title is so on-the-nose to be annoying absent further examination. By the end of the movie, I think we’re left with Amy realizing that she might not be as talented as she thought, but hey, at least she has an arty boyfriend now. If this is a late blooming coming-of-age tale (a la Frances Ha) it misses all the necessary elements that push our heroine to grow. Instead, we’re saddled with a crummy looking movie with poorly developed characters, a nascent sense of comedy, and a plot that feels quaintly dated at every turn. If this is what growing up looks like, take it from me and skip Adult World.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Divergent (2014)

MV5BMTYxMzYwODE4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE5MzE2MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.

In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.

divergent-movie-stills-tris-maggie-qHaving not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.

There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.

SHAILENE WOODLEY and THEO JAMES star in DIVERGENTWhere the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.

I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.

There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.

divergent-movie-fan-reviewThe actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show).  As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.

Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Son of God (2014)

son_of_god_movie_poster_1Safe to the point of unyielding boredom, Son of God is a film that is too fearful to be anything but bland. It’s a resuscitation of the life and times of Jesus Christ, but it’s so static because it’s a collection of the Jesus Greatest Hits checklist. This is more a jumble of scenes than a movie, with little room given to flesh out the man who asked others to eat of his flesh. If anything, the one takeaway it presents is a more rounded and surprisingly empathetic perspective on why the leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus. There is nothing here that stands out, that separates it from the glut of Biblical dramas of the past, beyond a penchant for reaction shots of an anguished Mary (Roma Downey, a producer as well). Son of God is shot and acted with the limited vision of a TV movie, and it’s easy to see why. The movie is actually partially culled from footage of The Bible miniseries that aired on the History Channel in record numbers. With that context, it’s easy to see the movie as a crass brand extension. I almost fell asleep at several points chiefly because I knew exactly what was coming and had little engagement with those onscreen. Just because you got Jesus up there doesn’t mean to get to slack when it comes to characterization. Even Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ brought the cinematic spectacle. This is just a bland movie that only preaches to the converted.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Mr_Peabody_&_Sherman_PosterSurprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Veronica Mars (2014)

rs_634x945-140110122132-634.veronica-mars.cm.11013More people know the name Veronica Mars now than probably combined from its short-run on TV from 2004-2007, and that’s squarely because of its record-breaking haul brought in through the fundraising site, Kickstarter. Within hours, the project had already raised two million dollars, on its way to over five and a half million, enough for a long-awaited movie that fans have been teased with ever since the series cancellation. Creator Rob Thomas and his actors were beside themselves in gratitude to their fans (dubbed “marshmallows”). Fueled by the eager hopes of its fans, the movie went into production and is now available for digital download to many of its donors and in a handful of theaters.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has left behind her hometown of Neptune, California. She’s on the verge of signing with a major New York law firm, and an old friend comes calling. Veronica’s former flame, Logan (Jason Dohring), has recently lost his pop star girlfriend, also a Neptune graduate. He’s suspected of being the killer but he swears his innocence. With the promise of her assistance only lasting a few days, she flies back home and reunited with her old friends (Mac, Wallace, Weevil, Dick) and her father, private investigator Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni). Veronica should go back to New York with her boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), she should accept the job offer from the firm, but she can’t help herself fall back into old patterns. She misses the danger, the intrigue, and maybe enough, Logan himself.

VERONICA MARSThe curious case of Veronica Mars: The Movie is that it was truly made for the fans, those 90,000 people who contributed to their Kickstarter goal. It’s not made for the casual moviegoer who has no foundation with the television series. That’s not to say that Thomas doesn’t try and make the film more inclusive. The neophyte could reasonably follow along, and there is a fast-paced prologue to catch the audience up on the major developments of the series, though almost all from season one. A non-fan could watch this movie but I have no idea what they would get out of it because they would be missing all the connections and context that provide the depth. In a way, this situation reminds me of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Unless you were a fan of Lynch’s iconic thought short-lived TV series, there was no way you were going to follow along or be interesting in following along. It was a movie made for its fan base, and there’s nothing wrong with that though it always helps to provide enough entertainment to prove to the newbies why they should be fans in the first place. I don’t think the Veronica Mars film is able to achieve this. Sure, I enjoyed myself but that was because of my pre-existing fan club and my years-in-the-making desire to finally see proper closure to the characters I came to care about. I feel like someone without that devotion would watch the 105 minutes of Veronica Mars and question what all the fuss was about.

That’s because at feature-length, Veronica Mars is really more of an extended episode of the TV show, and not one of the top tier episodes. As a debut film director, Thomas does a serviceable job of recreating the series noir visuals. The mystery is sufficient if a little dull, lacking a strong sense of urgency throughout most since Logan is already walking around free of charges. The real anchor of the story is bringing Veronica back to Neptune and bringing her back into the family business. The class injustice was a hallmark of the TV series but it’s merely one more slightly malnourished storyline cluttering up the narrative. There are no real reasons to check in on so many characters beyond the fact that it provides resolution for fans. A ten-year high school reunion seems engineered just for this purpose, allowing the new old faces to all reappear again and catch us up. There are characters that appear in near-cameo form (though the surprise celebrity cameo is quite amusing). Even the romance feels mostly grafted onto the story because the core audience demands Veronica and Logan reunite, in all senses. It just becomes a matter of time waiting for the inevitable, as it is with all romantic comedies, except the romance is sidelined here until it isn’t. As a film, it doesn’t feel organically handled that Veronica would leap back into Logan’s arms, and so soon, unless, of course, you are one of those fans (I know MANY) who have been waiting seven years for that moment. Fan service is one thing but it shouldn’t detract from the internal logic of the featured story.

vm3What does still work are all the hallmarks of the TV show, even if they are less effectively showcased for first-timers. The plucky, sarcastic nature of Veronica still turns her into a heroine worth rooting for, a force of will that has her flaws as well. Bell (Frozen, TV’s House of Lies) can just about do it all, from goofy to heartfelt to ferocious. It’s clear how much she adores this character she helped bring to life ten years ago. The father/daughter relationship is warmly affectionate without dipping into sappy territory. The dialogue is still snappy, though having late twenty-somethings saying it rather than high schoolers has dulled some of the edge. There’s also the sleazy addition of older men hitting on Veronica now that she’s officially out of high school, so hooray. The season-long mysteries of the series, while satisfying and twisty, were secondary to the characters, and watching the overall jovial camaraderie of the cast, is a reminder at how much fans adore these people.

I can objectively critique the faults in the film, as I’ve tried to do for a couple paragraphs, but this is a movie where I set aside my critic hat and merge with the fans. I too contributed to the Kickstarter because I’ve been dying for a sense of closure for one of the best TV shows in the mid-aughts. The finale of season three left much of the show in doubt; Thomas was not counting on cancellation. While fan fiction can run rampant in these circumstances in order to cater to fan demands, it doesn’t compare to the creator being given a reprieve to tie up as many loose ends as possible. That’s the greatest accomplishment of the Veronica Mars movie is that it feels like a genuinely satisfying sense of closure for the fans. While not every storyline is wrapped up, like for instance Weevil’s path, it ends on a point where you can reasonably guess where the characters would continue from here onward if we were never to check in with them again. This is a good resting place. But given the runaway success of the Kickstarter campaign, maybe Warner Brothers could be convinced there are more stories to be told here. I’m cautiously optimistic but really Thomas has already given the fans just about everything they could want, unless they were the Veronica/”Piz” minority of shippers.

Whatever you think of the final product, Veronica Mars: The Movie has changed the way movies can get financed. Smaller boutique films with a passionate fanbase can now get the ball rolling, putting their money into a down payment on seeing their dream movie becomes a reality, convincing studio heads to roll the dice with less risk. I invite all newcomers to watch the series, since that is where it was best. As a film, it’s enjoyable enough and satisfying for the fervent fans, supplying needed closure. However, for people that don’t already have connections to these characters and this world, I don’t think there’s enough going on in the movie to attract a larger discipleship.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nebraska (2013)

nebraska_xlgNebraska is a slow burn, wryly-funny character study of understated proportions, highlighting Midwestern culture rarely given its big screen due. So, in essence, it’s an Alexander Payne movie.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man convinced he has won a million dollars and all he needs to do is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his loot. It’s one of those mass mailings really meant to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody will not be stopped, sneaking out to walk all the way to Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana. David (Will Forte) is in a rut himself. He’s recently been dumped, his job is going nowhere, and his father refuses to accept his million dollars isn’t real. There’s a question of how lucid Woody is, and so to placate his old man, David decides to drive his father to pick up his winnings, to humor him before his mind may be gone for good.

Nebraska film stillDespite the overtly sitcom machinations of the inciting incident, which even the characters dismiss, the film is really a drama about the relationship between a father and son and the culmination of our life choices. Woody and David are not close by any conventional means but over the course of their road trip, David begins to see his father in a different light; the old wounds are not forgotten, but David is learning about who his father is through others. He’s been so mad at his father for so long that it was the only identity he had for the man. Now in his deteriorating mental state and physical fragility, his father has a sense of vulnerability that brings about decidedly mixed emotions. In his fragile state, is he the same man or at least the same man David remembers? Then there are all the family revelations springing out from the situation. With a genuine millionaire in their midst, the family is coming out of the woodwork clamoring for their own pieces for all the unpaid assistance they’ve given Woody over the years. Initially, it makes Woody look like he’s been stuck trying to find his footing his whole life, as we learn about the lingering post-traumatic stress effects from his war service. Was he lazy, undiagnosed PTSD, or, as another character surmises, too ashamed to say no when others asked for help, and so he was taken advantage of in the guise of assistance from unscrupulous friends and family. The question remains who is Woody?

This is one of those observational slice-of-life films, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your threshold for the taciturn types. These are the strong silent types who keep most of their feelings to themselves. There’s a very funny sequence where Woody and his aged brothers have gathered around a TV, and to listen to the dry mostly car-related conversation bounce back and forth like a dead, floating wiffle ball, is a great comic moment but also a nice insight into an older generation and their communication. Given the perspective of the film, it’s hard to deduce whether the plainspoken people are being satirized or whether it’s a loving send-up of a specific culture. With Payne’s involvement, I lean more on the affectionate tweaking rather than a mean-spirited ridiculing of small town folk and their small town ways. There are funny situations, like David and Ross teaming up for some misplaced justice, and there are characters more broadly drawn for laughs, particularly Woody’s wife (June Squibb), but the overall interaction of the characters, their speaking vernacular, and how they viewed themselves, that is what made me laugh the most and appreciate the script. You feel like you’re dropping in on these people’s lives; every character feels like they could be a real person, not a stereotype. And boy does money really bring out the worst in people.

With Woody and his son visiting his old haunts, the movie inevitably becomes a reflection of a man taking stock of his life, regarding the choices he made and did not make. The pit stop in town opens up the character and David learns far more about his father, with old girlfriends, old business partners, and old rivals. What I appreciated further is that Nebraska doesn’t try and soften Woody; he’s not going to be some old curmudgeon who over the course of 90 minutes has his icy heart thaw and comes to realize the errors of his ways. Nope. Our views on the old man may soften when we get a fuller picture of who he is ad the life he’s lead, but the man himself is the same. He’s readily belittled, insulted, looked down upon, even by his own family members, especially his sassy wife. It’s easy for him to retreat into alcohol and wonder what if. As the family picture broadens and becomes more clear, the film approaches simply yet touching revelations about the family and the nature of legacy. There’s a father/son examination, but there’s also the discussion of what to do when your parents become too ill to take care of themselves. It’s not exactly The Savages, but there’s a circling sense of burdensome decision-making that provides an extra level of pathos to the sitcom setup. By the end, Nebraska squeezes out some earned sentiment without losing its edge or sense of identity. There’s a lot more going on then just some send-up of rubes.

20131110-DERN-slide-KFYJ-articleLargePeople have been raving about Dern (TV’s Big Love, Django Unchained) ever since the film’s Cannes premier, where the man earned top acting honors. The man deserves every positive words penned. He’s simply fantastic. The character vacillates between outward hostility, spacing out, and general Midwestern emotional reserve, and Dern is able to sell you on every emotional beat without breaking character. He’s unrepentant and demands to be taken for who he is, and his matter-of-fact bluntness has a certain charm to it, like when he admits to David that he never had any plans for kids. He just liked to “screw” and their mother was a Catholic (“You do the math”). I even appreciate that Woody would use the term “screw,” which seems more appropriate. As a two-man show, it’s a shame that Forte (TV’s 30 Rock, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t exhibit the dramatic chops to keep up with his onscreen pop. It’s nice to see him attempt something so different but his limitations are too evident; it’s just another gear that’s not present. At no point would I call Forte’s performance bad but he’s just unable to keep up. Squibb (About Schmidt, Meet Joe Black) is a hoot though the character seems to be permanently stuck in “wacky” mode. She’ll crack you up with her unrestrained commentary, but you may wonder if there’s any more to this character than saying outrageous, curt comments.

This was the last Best Picture nominee I’d failed to catch up with, and while it’s entertaining, funny, and unexpectedly touching thanks to terrific acting and a sharp script, but it also might be the weakest Alexander Payne film yet. This is the first film that the Oscar-winning director hasn’t written himself. Bob Nelson’s screenplay may never have even been glanced over by Payne had it not been for the state of its title (Payne’s films general take place in Omaha). It’s got Payne’s stamp, as would any film he directs, but it also feels like it’s missing something ephemeral, not to get too pretentious. This is a quality study of a cracked group of characters that, upon further review, aren’t as cracked as we may think. They’re just flawed people trying to get along as best they can. Even amidst the snide and antagonistic conversations, there’s gentleness here about the value of family that resonates above the din of the shouting. By film’s end, what started as a cockeyed sitcom transforms into a film that has more meaning and emotion, never betraying its guarded sense of self. When I say the weakest Payne film, this is not an insult but merely an observation. Even the weakest Alexander Payne film is going to be so much better than just about everything out there.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Hungover Games (2014)

69b558d1-9d95-4af2-a202-e4e17b7118bc_Hungover-Games-Poster-2-With so many dimwitted, half-baked, and often comically inept entries, it’s hard to remember when a spoof movie was actually something to be enjoyed. We’re beyond the era of Airplane and The Naked Gun, but even some of the early Scary Movie films had some merit, and then Walk Hard, Black Dynamite, and Wet Hot American Summer are shining examples of the best the comedy subgenre has to offer. We’ve become used to the Friedberg/Seltzer style of spoof, a machine-gun rattle of pop-culture references with no thought given to comedic instruction, just the soon-to-be-dated reference. With all of that established, I could not hate The Hungover Games. It doesn’t work well enough to recommend, but the joke-to-laugh ratio is higher than I would have thought, with about every one in five jokes landing, a few had me cracking up. Plus there’s actual critical content here, parodying the sources rather than just dull repetition. In the future, the public rises up against Hollywood because we have become sick to death of all their remakes, reboots, and unoriginal crap. And so, the twelve districts of Hollywood genres duke it out for our bloodthirsty entertainment (there’s a Johnny Depp district where even they have Depp fatigue). It’s a sharp contrast to Friedberg/Seltzer’s own inferior spoof, The Starving Games. The pacing is slippery, the content can be questionable, but with lowered expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised, or at least mildly less irritated with the results. The actors onscreen also do credible work, particularly Ben Begley, playing the Ed Helms Hangover role. He has nailed down Helms’ speech patterns, mannerisms, and he even looks like Helms. This guy deserves a better movie. With an R-rating, the film is afforded the opportunity to go weirder and dirtier than the lame brained spoofs from Friedberg/Seltzer, like the Gratuitous Nudity district or when they keep reminding us that Katniss is underage. Look, I haven’t hit my head all of a sudden; this still isn’t a good movie by conventional standards. However, spoof movie standards have gotten so low that The Hungover Games is passable. Again, grading on a curve.

Nate’s Grade: C

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

103752_galIn 2007, the gory, shouty, beefcake-y action flick 300 came out of relative nowhere and took the world by storm, earning over $400 million worldwide and launching the careers of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen). The movie burrowed itself into pop culture, readily mocked and parodied along with its highly stylized action. So where to go next? Also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, though one that is incomplete as of release, 300: Rise of an Empire is a return to the same stylized excess that made careers. Except now seven years later, what once dazzled seems empty; visually alluring but hollow by all accounts.

Following the brave stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is pushing forward with his plans to subjugate the city-states of Greece. Long ago, Themistokles (Sullivan Stepleton) killed King Darius during Persia’s first invasion attempt. Xerxes has sworn vengeance since, goaded into action by his second-in-command, general Artemisia (Eva Green). She commands Xerxes’ mighty naval fleet, and she looks to “dance across the backs of dead Greeks.” The many city-states of Greece are squabbling over an appropriate response; Themistokles argues they should unite, while others contend for surrender to Xerxes. Themistokles rallies what armies and ships he can to meet the Persians on the sea and prevent the overpowering invasion.

114934_galThe difficulty with a follow-up to 300 is that Snyder’s highly stylized original has been copied and pasted so many times by cheap imitators, so what’s new? The film’s visual style follows the original closely, all those gauzy panoramas and human bodies lovingly showcasing in slow-mo the ugly beauty of bloodshed and violence. The rippling muscles, the glistening sweat, the geysers of blood; it’s all here and in displayed in fawning 3D detail. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I noticed that every campfire scene was littered with annoying floating embers. However, Rise of an Empire manages some pleasant surprises because a majority of its action takes place at sea. This is a movie devoted to ancient maritime combat, and that’s pretty interesting. The scope of the action is much larger this time, with far more than 300 soldiers in play. The naval battles are brought to life with Hollywood excess but they’re still fairly exciting and fun to watch. The action is well orchestrated, usually easy enough to follow, and suitably thrilling, with each sequence differing from the last. The pumping score by Junkie XL works as a strong driving force with pounding percussion and horns (check out “History of Artemisia”). There are also less nutty monstrous evil henchmen this go-round as well, which helps bring a needed sense of internal reality to all the fantastical action. There are no goat people and blade-handed executioners this time. I don’t think anybody is going to take the movie to task for historical accuracy, but it’s appreciated all the same. Though who’s going to hire Blade Hands now? The guy has a very limited skill set for a workplace.

Plot-wise, the first 300 film was an underdog tale, a group of proud warriors fighting against overwhelming odds eventually giving their lives for the cause. It’s an early chapter in the Noble Lost Cause storytelling playbook, meant to inspire. It’s a Greek Alamo. The problem is when you pick up the story after the Noble Lost Cause. Now the Greeks have to fight the whole of Xerxes’ mighty forces with their own, and while it’s still an underdog story at its core, watching one huge army fight a huger army doesn’t have the same entertainment value. That may be why the film also works as a prequel. There are three flashbacks to fill out the first act’s worth of table setting: the initial war with Persia, Xerxes, and Artemisia. We get storylines happening concurrently with Leonidas and his men, though Gerard Butler declined to reappear in the film. You definitely miss his animalistic fire and screen presence. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s much of a story here besides a big-screen version of Stratego, where the Greeks move, then the Persians, now everyone is dead or defeated. That’s a glib oversimplification, yes, but the plot boils down to an increasing series of episodes on how the Greeks repel the Persian invaders. Without greater characters and storylines to populate the downtime, it all becomes soulless exercises in CGI bloodshed and the vapid chase after whatever is cool looking.

The big problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, despite the ever-present sameness of it all, is that the heroes are bland and the villains are charismatic, which makes it easier to root for the bad guys, which I heartily did. The heroes are chiseled from the blandest of hunks of one-note characterization, with only three real characters being formed. There’s Leader Guy a.k.a. Themistokles, who wants to unite Greece into one power. There’s Father, a.k.a Scyllias, who has a slight scar on his jaw to better identify him, and then there’s his Son, a.k.a. Calisto, who wants to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, that is it, which is all you get when it comes to your heroes. What a shameful pittance. There aren’t even flamboyant supporting characters in their ranks. The heroes are boring, and the father/son storyline plays out exactly as you’d expect, which is a reverse from the original 300. These are not characters you’d follow into uncertain danger. These are characters leftover after all the good ones have been prematurely slain. These are some lackluster leftovers.

114953_galNow, let’s take a look at the enemy camp, namely with chief antagonist, Artemisia. It helps leaps and bounds that she is played by the wholly gorgeous Eva Green (Casino Royale, Dark Shadows), and it’s even more helpful that Green gives it her all, sinking her teeth into the campy villainy. Artemisia is a fierce sword fighter, no-nonsense general, and overall badass supreme. She kisses decapitated heads, is not above fighting topless, and wears wicked outfits with spikes and all sorts of goodies. Every time she departs a scene, you’re left counting down the minutes until you see her again. She’s so delightfully entertaining, chomping at the bit for vengeance and Greek blood. She’s also a woman commanding warships in 500 BC, not exactly a time that recognized women as equals. Another wrong move on the filmmakers’ part was illuminating Artemisia’s back-story. We learn via flashback that Artemisia watched her family get raped and slaughtered by the Greeks. She was sold into sexual slavery at a young age, imprisoned in the bowels of a Greek ship, repeatedly raped for years. Then when these horrible men had had their fill, she was dumped onto an anonymous road and left to die. After seeing this sequence, what person isn’t going to welcome Artemisia? Does she not deserve her vengeance? I was emotionally engaged with her from that moment onward, and so I rooted for her to burn Greece down and vanquish our lame heroes.

The rest of the actors on screen are rather terrible. The beefy men on screen could have used some extra work on their underutilized acting muscles. Stapleton (Gangster Squad, TV’s Strike Back) is absent any notable charisma to distinguish him from the stubbly-bearded pack of screaming male heroes. Santoro (The Last Stand) has a certain dour intensity to him, though he spends much of the film watching from a distance. The rest of the cast doesn’t even merit mentioning because the film treats them like featured extras rather than genuine characters. Only Lena Headey’s (TV’s Game of Thrones, The Purge) handful of scenes will grab your attention. It’s ironic that a film that glorifies the heroics of male soldiers, as well as the their chiseled physiques, and the only two women in the entire film are easily the most memorable and entertaining people. Dump the dudes.

While it offers enough thrills and visual power to satisfy a trial viewing, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too empty a spectacle to warrant anything beyond a cursory glance. Director Noam Murro follows Snyder’s blueprint to the best of his abilities, soaking the screen in blood, rippling flesh, and visual grandeur, but the movie goes into convulsions when somebody is forced to talk without kicking people in the face. The plot amounts to little more than a series of attacks played out like stages in a video game. While the original is no masterwork, at least it had characters that we could gravitate toward. Absent any hero worth rooting for, it’s no wonder that Green and her memorable villainess reign supreme. She is excellent, sexy, and has a reasonable motivation for her vengeance. If it had been her movie, 300: Rise of an Empire might have developed into a worthy spectacle anchored by its fiery heroine. Alas, the actual movie is just a Saved by the Bell: The New Class of half-naked men going off to CGI battle, and that’s just not enough.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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