Monthly Archives: January 2015

Project Almanac (2015)

projectalmanac-posterI’m going to take a stand right now and declare that Hollywood should simply stop making found footage movies. I don’t hate the subgenre itself, and in fact a found footage approach can be rather interesting if given proper attention and care, but that is just not happening nearly enough. Too often Hollywood execs view found footage as a hook and slap it onto a story that does not need to be told in this limited style. There’s no reason that a perfectly fine buddy cop movie like End of Watch needed a found footage angle, except that’s probably how it was sold. If you’re going to do found footage you better have a god reason why your characters are recording every moment, and most do not. You better stick to the principle that the only viewpoint is from the camera, and most do not. And you better stick to the limitations of this viewpoint, meaning who is editing these things after the fact and adding popular music to make montages? Found footage is too often underdeveloped in approach, a lazy selling point because “the kids” today like documenting themselves doing everything. But really, can you name the last found footage hit? The Paranormal Activity franchise is on the downturn and the last critically lauded one was 2012’s Chronicle. Don’t just stop making found footage movies because they’re too often lackluster; stop making them because the public has grown indifferent. Now, with all that being said, the time travel flick Project Almanac proves once again to be a film that never needed to be found footage to work. As far as January releases go (usually a dumping ground for studio bombs) it’s better than most, but the poorly titled sci-fi drama wastes its premise on the myopic doldrums of youth.

PROJECT ALMANACDavid Raskin (Johnny Weston) wants to get into M.I.T. but his hard-working mother doesn’t have the money to make this happen. He discovers an old video of his seventh birthday party and is shocked to see an image in the background that resembles him as a teenager. He and his friends, Quinn and Adam, investigate the video. They enter the basement lab that used to belong to David’s father, until he died in a car accident shortly after that birthday recording. There they find plans for a time machine and the boys busily go to work assembling it, perfecting it, and charging it. Jessie (Sophia Black-D’Elia), a popular girl at school, stumbles into their first experiment and becomes part of the group. They have to keep this a secret and they must only travel back as a group. The freedom and possibilities are exhilarating, but soon enough David discovers a spiral of consequences that are difficult to correct without scrapping everything.

From a structural standpoint, this movie gets pretty lopsided and completely misuses the possibilities it established even as it arbitrarily throws its own rules out the window. Project Almanac takes far too long to get the time machine working. The teens discover the manual but it takes almost the complete first act before they successfully travel in time. Why do we have to wait a full 30 minutes and watch trial after trial? It’s not exactly like the audience demands a sense of scientific accuracy. Once the teens do travel through time, they set their sights very low: pass a test, get revenge on a bully, win the local lottery, and go to Lolapalooza. There is the limitation of only going back three weeks into the past, which eventually disappears, but could these kids not aim higher in their goals? When they do go to Lolapalooza, the movie drags and drags, and it’s here where I started to theorize what became of this film (more on that below). Once we come back from the festival, David decides to jump back alone to stop himself from blowing his opening with his crush, Jessie. However, there are disastrous consequences stemming from this and he has to debate whether to undo his good fortune with Jessie. Want to know what those consequences include? Seventy-seven people dying in a plane crash. Our main character seriously agonizes about keeping his new girl or the lives of seventy-seven people. And what would he lose? It’s not like he can’t be suave around Jessie ANY OTHER TIME. All he has to do is say something and kiss her. The hesitation and struggle over this is comically absurd, but the struggle illuminates where Almanac could have gone. These teens could have used time travel to save lives, but I guess that’s not as fun as seeing Imagine Dragons backstage and dancing.

Another problem is that, from a time travel standpoint, this stuff doesn’t really follow its own rules. The gang goes back at several points to repeat the same goal, but at no point do they run into different iterations of themselves. If they keep going back to fix things, and fail, and then go back again, that’s a continuation of one ongoing timeline, not a do-over. Time doesn’t reset. With every time travel story there’s the nagging nature of paradoxes but Project Almanac just ignores them, hence the lack of doppelgangers. At one point, Quinn even seeks out his past self to pull a prank, which sounds really stupidly dangerous from a space-time continuum standpoint to me. The movie ignores paradoxes… until it doesn’t. The entire third act is about the consequences of paradoxes, and now all of a sudden it matters. That doesn’t work. The main third act conflict is David not wanting to lose his girlfriend. He keeps jumping back to fix this and fix that but it’s all to save his girlfriend, which is pretty dumb, as I‘ve pointed out already that Jessie could still decide on her own at any point in the future to be his gal. Then there’s the conclusion, as we all know that we have to get back to that birthday party at some point. I consider myself a smart man but the end doesn’t make any sense because (spoilers to follow) it invalidates the timeline that we witnessed. David makes it so the events will not happen and the machine will not be constructed. But why is there evidence? Why is there still a tape detailing this whole process? It should be wiped.

Requisite found footage griping: why do they record every damn thing in this movie? The gang even breaks into their high school to steal hydrogen canisters from a locked science lab. Why would you record your crime spree? Why would you record people just driving in cars or walking up to school? Why would you record any of this? How do you clearly pick up audio from two people at a distance, mind you, at a freaking outdoor concert with lots of noise to cancel out any discernible dialogue?

maxresdefaultThere are moments that I really liked, flashes that show how much fun or even clever Almanac could have been under other circumstances. One of these moments involves Quinn going back to save his grade. Originally he failed his chemistry presentation, so he thinks he’ll easily pass thanks to the foreknowledge that time travel offers. He goes back, lists the first ten elements on the periodic table, and then his teacher asks him another question he wasn’t prepared for. He goes back, prepared for the two, and then the teacher asks another he wasn’t prepared for. Over the course of going back, he is actually forced to study to prepare for this presentation, and so even though he thought he would use time travel to be lazy, it forced him into doing what he should have done in the first place. When they go back to win the lottery, they accidentally write down one wrong number, so their first jackpot prize isn’t the full amount. They bicker about going back, whose fault it was, and then the film cuts immediately to them holding the full amount in a novelty check. All the characters are devoid of excitement, because that excited moment of revelry already happened, and now this is just an exercise to get over. The photographer chides them to be more excited. That is a fun moment. The characters are rather likeable. There’s another moment where Jessie realizes that David went back to fix a slip-up so they would end up together. And she reacts exactly how she should, wounded and mistrusting. How can she trust what he says now? How can she not doubt every moment being carefully pre-programmed for a desired result? She was manipulated. This confrontation was missing from About Time where Rachel McAdams would have learned that her charming husband traveled back in time dozens of times to perfect his courtship, thus manipulating her own sense of choice. Poor Rachel McAdams never finds out, which seems like a completely blown dramatic development, and lives in cherished ignorance instead. At least Jessie gets to know the truth and behaves naturally. There are other little moments that are fun but they are distractions from what could have been.

Allow me to do some serious speculation about Project Almanac’s own past. This film was originally supposed to come out a year prior hence why every date is referenced as 2014. MTV Films expressed some interest in the movie and it was shelved and likely retooled. Except with time travel films, retooling can be pretty monstrous with its carefully placed plot beats. Here’s what I think happened. Originally, the third act was all about David going back to save his father from dying in that car crash. He likely does but there are dire consequences, and so he keeps going back to try and mitigate the negative repercussions while still keeping his father. Doesn’t that sound like a much more emotionally involving storyline? He’s got far more personal stakes in this scenario than simply losing his girlfriend who he can regain. He can’t regain dear old dead dad. It seems preposterous to me from a screenwriting standpoint that they would introduce a deceased parent and not use time travel to save said parent. It’s the ultimate setup. Instead, with MTV attached, we got to keep things lighter and more appealing to the carefree fun of youth, and so the gang goes to Lolapalooza instead where they can watch rock bands. I think MTV came in and jettisoned the third act and the direction of the script, imposing the festival, and reminding people how music is essential to being young and free and alive. I can’t say whether it’s MTV’s influence or producer Michael Bay, but there’s a slew of product placement from start to finish as well. I have no proof of any of this but I think there’s something to my conspiracy theory.

If you needed any other example of how close Project Almanac would uphold to its own sci-fi rule system, a character asks a good question about how they can understand something, and David says, “I’ll tell you later.” Hey, you want to know something important, just wait, where it won’t be answered. The found footage aspect brings nothing to the film, is poorly integrated throughout, and just plain unnecessary. The plot is too underdeveloped and lacking ambition, using the miracle of time travel to party in such limited ways. The concluding half feels too low in stakes and obvious in conclusion. Time travel is all about the untold possibilities, and Project Almanac will ultimately fall in that territory, a somewhat amusing but mostly unfulfilled sci-fi film that should have gone back to the writing stage a few more times.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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The Interview (2014)

Well, so maybe you’ve heard something about this little movie, The Interview? Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (This is the End) weren’t intending to spark an international incident with their comedy about a pair of idiots trying to assassinate North Korea’s glorious leader, but after a few crazy turn of events, this little movie became a quixotic symbol of American patriotism. How dare North Korea get to dictate what Americans can and cannot see! Well, now The Interview is widely available in digital markets and we can agree that the fervor was for naught. The film is most shaky in the beginning, setting up Rogen as a TV producer and James Franco as the obnoxious talk show host. Once the boys get tangled up with the CIA, and especially once Kim Jong-Un comes into the picture (played by a much better looking actor, might I add, North Korean readers) the movie starts to even out and find its comic rhythms. While the ending is a little ho-hum, there are nice payoffs for several jokes and a poison strip has a wild and very funny comic development. I also enjoyed the emerging bromance between Franco and Kim Jong-Un that danced around with being subversive. However, there are two problems with the film. It doesn’t get risky enough (too many penis jokes) and James Franco. He’s been a capable comic actor but always in supporting or as a foil. Franco is not a comic lead, and his performance is much too amped and broad, needing to be dialed down to feel less desperate in overexcitement. It’ll be more a footnote in history than comedy, but The Interview is a fairly innocuous comedy that does get better as it chugs along, though clearly hits a ceiling. It’s certainly not anything worth going to war over.

Nate’s Grade: B-

John Wick (2014)

MV5BMTU2NjA1ODgzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTM2MTI4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_John Wick hits you like a breath of fresh air. The plot isn’t anything new. Once again a semi-retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) is pulled back into the fray. Once again Russian mobsters are the primary villains, a popular adversarial force in the fall of 2014. What makes Wick an enjoyable throwback is its dedication to action staging that is crisp, balletic, but most importantly, clear and engrossing action. Reeves may not be as agile as he once was when he first learned kung-fu, but the man still has some serious moves, and the action choreography and stuntwork of Wick allows him to display them in long takes with lots of decisive movement. It’s no Raid 2, but it’s well ahead of most American action films of late. There’s a nice variety of action along with lots of casual headshots, which seems only natural for a trained hitman. Then there are the small touches that add intrigue and help it stand from the pack, notably a hotel with an exclusive clientele of hitmen and women who must abide by a set of rules while on “safe ground.” It’s just enough to make a well-worn genre start to feel different again. The problem with John Wick, however, is that it runs out of steam too quickly, peaking right at the beginning of Act Three. There’s a whole other twenty minutes where the film has to establish a new antagonist to get us to the finish line. It just feels like John Wick accomplishes his goal too quickly and the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do after. The conclusion of several storylines feel clumsy, drawn out, and anticlimactic. But when it’s working, John Wick is a stylish and bloody action thriller that is fun and with the right sense of macabre humor to halt it from ever getting too laboriously serious.

Nate’s Grade: B

Big Eyes (2014)

big_eyes.15ce0090408.originalLike most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.

In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.

Big-Eyes-1Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.

To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.

There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.

big_eyesAnother problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?

Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.

Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

transformers__age_of_extinction__2014____poster_by_camw1n-d7i1moaFour movies in, at this point you can either fall back on the old criticisms of Michael Bay as a filmmaker or simply let down your guard and look for any simple pleasures offered by the Transformers franchise, a series mostly known for chaotic plotting and action. Age of Extinction is probably the best Transformers film since the first one (take that for what you will) but it still has all the hallmarks of the obtuse and convoluted plotting, absurd and obnoxious characters, juvenile humor, intense product placement, and often incoherent action. Gone are the characters from the first three films and in their stead is Mark Wahlberg (upgrade) as a Texan inventor named, get this, Cade Yeager. He and his teen daughter come into contact with Optimus Prime and are on the run from multiple forces. Apparently a bounty hunter is looking to target Prime. The U.S. has a black ops team tracking down Transformers in hiding. And Stanley Tucci plays a business tycoon who wants to make his own Transformers via their magic substance “Transformium.” Reading all of that, you realize the pieces still don’t really make sense, and that’s before the robot dinosaurs come into play. And yet Bay and his team have fine-tuned the entertaining aspects of the franchise and better consolidated them in the fourth film. A badass alien bounty hunter/collector is a great addition, adding the government as an adversary, Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost) as a cocksure special agent, Tucci as a corporate blowhard, and robot dinosaurs, it all sort of works on its own terms. Again, if you try and logically connect the pieces, it won’t happen. By this point, if you’re not a fan of the series, there’s no real reason to continue watching, but if you’ve found any semblance of enjoyment then there should be enough to keep your attention with the fourth film, robot dinosaurs and all.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Boxtrolls (2014)

FIN03_Monsters_1Sht_FM_345Another delightful film from the creators of ParaNorman, the whimsical Boxtrolls is another stop-motion treasure that plays just as well for children as it does adults. The fanciful world follows the industrious title creatures that have wrongly been demonized as villains. Snatcher (a tremendous Ben Kingsley) has much to gain by stirring up boxtroll fears, and if he captures them all he’ll finally be allowed to join the town’s inner circle of muckity mucks. We follow “Eggs” a boy who has been raised by the boxtrolls since he was a baby and his re-emergence with the world above ground, notably with the help of a morbid little girl, Winnie (Elle Fanning). The world building is confident and well developed, the storyline finds nuanced ways to be touching and deliver serious messages about peer pressure, assimilation, and the ways which we judge ourselves and whether those are even of merit. But the main draw is the glorious animation, so fluid, so lively, and a landscape that makes full use of color and light and shadow. It’s an immersive experience that your eyes don’t want to blink for fear of missing something. The plot is droll and expertly sequenced with its variety of character and comic asides. The vocal cast does a terrific job, notably Kingsley and a hilarious Tracy Morgan. The film can get a little spooky for young children but should still be comfortable viewing. The Boxtrolls is further proof that the animation house Laika is operating at near-Pixar peak levels of brilliance and deserve the benefit of the doubt with any future films.

Nate’s Grade: A

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