Thursday, January 30, 2014

American Hustle - **1/2

David O. Russell is a guy who obsesses over the details. Most great directors do… It’s necessary to create atmosphere in a film, or really anything else for that matter, considering filmmaking is creating something out of nothing. Props, costumes, sets, everything: chosen specifically. So having an eye for detail is nothing new; it’s a necessity, expected, and not really worth mentioning. David O. Russell really obsesses over details, which has generally produced some truly amazing and unique films in the past. But in his latest, American Hustle, Russell loses the forest in the trees, focusing so intensely on getting every tacky prop and every bad hair piece just right, that it feels more like a retro fashion show we’re meant to gawk at and applaud for its bold styles than a narrative film in which we can really immerse ourselves.

A loose retelling (“Some of this actually happened”, we’re told at the start) of the ’70s Abscam scandal, American Hustle is an ensemble period piece that reunites Russell with virtually every actor he’s ever worked with, as well as a few new additions. It’s a marvelous cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; the list goes on. It’s a who’s who of Hollywood’s best and brightest, and they all lose themselves in their parts, creating beautifully nuanced characters with brilliant performances (Russell also has a way with actors).

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Secretly Awesome - The Ninth Gate (1999)

Release Date: December 24, 1999
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, Roman Polanski, based on the novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner
Box office: $18,661,336
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%

Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate has it all. It's a globe-trotting supernatural thriller full of mystery, double-crosses, bad vibes, secret agendas, and sexy femme fatales. It's sort of what Raiders of the Lost Ark might have been, had it been R-rated and inspired by noir films from the 40s. It's maybe a little uneven, with an ending that lacks punch, but it's wildly eccentric, beautifully shot, and directed with wit, making it a blast to watch, despite whatever imperfections there might be.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Quick Thoughts - Urban Legend (1998)

12/18/13: I was eleven years-old in 1998, young enough for my dad to tell me Urban Legend would probably be too scary for me to see. He was wrong, for it lacks the modicum of quality necessary to engage viewers enough to potentially scare them. Scream fooled filmmakers and audiences alike into thinking that asinine premises involving douchy teenagers could be interesting again, and so set off a horde of imitators like this, which took this set-up seriously rather than poke fun at it, resulting in a witless bore of a film. 1/2*

Quick Thoughts - Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

12/13/13: Though it features some outstanding production value, Rare Exports is a B-movie at heart. Re-imagining Santa Claus as a piece of folklore in which he is an evil, demon-like beast who eats naughty children, it follows an archeological dig to uncover him, as seen through the eyes of a few rural villagers. It probably would have worked a lot better as a short, expediting some of its lengthier stretches which become a little stale now and then. But even so, it's an original premise, at least to those of us who don't surf Netflix for low-budget Christmas-themed horror films, and it has some solid suspense filtered through a lens of curiosity which I found refreshing. Not a Christmas classic by any means, but certainly has an oddity that is worth a look. ***

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Quick Thoughts - Jack Frost (1998)

12/12/13: Jack Frost is the kind of cheeseball family film that benefits immensely from its Christmas theme, ensuring that people will only watch it around Christmas, a time when they are in the precise mood for cheeseball family films. The key to its success is its overlong first act, in which we see Michael Keaton bonding with his pre-pubescent son. The characters are likable and their love feels genuine, lending these scenes a heartwarming quality that, is hard to resist, no matter how great the urge to poke fun at its hokiness may be. all of this despite the fact that these scenes are drawn out and almost redundant, which renders them nearly pointless until Keaton dies and is re-incarnated as a snowman next year, and we realize these scenes are there to build up good will with the audience. Yes, Jack Frost crashes and burns, but the flames are fun to watch, and we're treated to a host of dated CGI effects. **

Quick Thoughts - Jingle All the Way (1996)

12/12/13: Having somehow missed this film when I was its target audience almost twenty years ago, I've always had a strange desire to see it. Boy, what a let-down. Failing to be entertaining on even a level of out-dated charm, Jingle All the Way is a complete bust. Telling the story of a crappy father trying to find an elusive toy to make up for not being there for his kid, the film shoots for the heartwarming sentimentality of the Christmas season through its very inverse, bringing us boring characters in search of superficial fulfillment. In its attempt to lampoon the annual "hot toy" craze, Jingle All the Way only celebrates it, making it tacky, though to its credit it at least creates a fictional toy rather than serve as a ninety-minute advertisement for an existing product. *1/2

Quick Thoughts - EdTV (1999)

12/5/13: EdTV is the poor man's Truman Show, a film that employed the same themes and a similar premise. Both films sniffed out the onslaught of reality television when it was still in its infancy. And while both successfully send up the idea, EdTV actually feels more relevant now, fifteen years later, as it's premise is exactly what TV has turned into (though Truman is still a better film). EdTV also got right America's obsession with celebrity as the film follows Matthew McConaughey's rise from an aloof everyman to conversational fodder for tabloid junkies everywhere. Aside from eerily accurate social commentary, EdTV actually manages to be a solid romantic comedy, pulling laughs from its cast of (mostly) colorful characters and what at the time may have been considered an absurd idea. Probably benefiting from a little bit of distance from its release and the accuracy of its predictions, EdTV is nevertheless a solid entry to the rom-com canon. ***

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - Her/Bible Movies

On a new episode of The Cinematic Tangent podcast, Chad and I clear up some confusion brought on by the technical difficulties in the previous show. Our hodge-podge of second-rate equipment failed us, forcing us to lop off most of our positive comments about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which we re-iterate here, before criticizing it again and launching a discussion about egregious product placement in movies. After that, a rare instance of total agreement as we sing the praises of Spike Jonze's Her, which may be the best film of the year. And then... Bible movies! Chad and I ponder the meaning of all of these goddamn religious-themed movies that 2014 is spitting out at us.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Quick Thoughts - Before Midnight (2013)

12/12/13: Nine years is a long time to wait for an update on a pair of beloved characters, but then again, so was the eight years between the first two films. In all fairness, my opinion might be skewed by my having come in on the second film in the series, Before Sunset, which I consider nearly perfect. Waiting nine years for the next installment in the lives of these characters is a tall order, and may have proved too much, possibly due to unrealistic expectations. Before Midnight takes a long time to settle in on its primary characters, the ones we've been caring about about for 10-20 years, depending on when you came in. The first act highlights a whole group of characters who, while terribly interesting, just were not what I was tuning in to see. Fortunately, the last hour of the film gets back to what made this series the brilliant character study that it is, and shows us the next stage in the relationship of Celeste and Jesse... And it's as poignant and heart-wrenching as ever. ***1/2

Monday, January 13, 2014

Quick Thoughts - Upside Down (2013)

12/1/13: Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst earn our sympathies, stuck in this asinine excuse for a movie. Clearly writer/director Juan Solanas crafted this film as a reason to play with its premise, which involves two planets on top of each other, which are obviously separated by class, and again, obviously the one above is wealthy while the one below is poor, and they're not allowed to interact. But... when considering the physics of it, which is really above and which is below? How does this system actually work? It's one of those high concept movies in which the first ten minutes feature expository narration that explains the film's rules, which barely make sense, even if you really want them to. Lacking the character development to make its love story truly compelling, Upside Down is an exercise in stylistic futility, failing on every front, producing a film that puts cool conceptual visuals ahead of storytelling, resulting in a thoroughly stupid cinematic experience... Fortunately I was drunk. 1/2*

Quick Thoughts - The Fly (1986)

11/29/13: A notch in the argument for remakes being different than the original, David Cronenberg's take on The Fly is nothing short of brilliant. It's perhaps his most straight-forward film, though it's not without the usual Cronenbergian themes of mind and body, and the flesh, and he certainly doesn't skimp on the body horror achieved using great prosthetics and puppeteering. And amidst all of the gross-out scenes is a heart-breaking love story that is slowly winding down to a devastating inevitability that the part of you that likes happy endings in which people pair up dreads, while the other part of you that craves a more complex emotional dynamic can't wait to see. And it's all set to a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore that haunts you long after the credits roll. One of the best in the filmography of a truly incredible filmmaker. ****

Friday, January 10, 2014

Out of the Furnace - **

Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper's follow-up to the mostly good Crazy Heart, is full of the same visual richness as that film was. Set amongst low-lifes and good folks with bad luck in an impoverished mining town. It gets right what a lot of Hollywood films get wrong; Christian Bale plays a normal guy with a welding gig without making a big deal of it... Rather than 'designing' a costume for him and fashioning his hair just-so, it looks like the filmmakers just sent him to a thrift store to grab some clothes off the rack and wear them for a few days straight while letting his hair grow. It's a small detail, but important in registering the film's authenticity. Cooper and his crew nail all of these details, and though the direction felt a little stale, the film still managed to look fresh because of them.

Unfortunately Furnace features the laziest screenplay of the year, complete with the third-act cop-outs that almost ruined Crazy Heart. Bale plays Russell Baze, an honest Joe who briefly goes to prison for killing a few people in a drunk driving accident, an interesting turn in the film that essentially goes nowhere, adding nothing to the character or themes. Russell was on his way home from covering for his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), paying off a scumbag loan-shark (Willem Dafoe) who has Rodney throwing underground fights to pay off his debts, scenes which contain more superfluous plot construction than is necessary and which isn't properly utilized. Eventually the film has Russell out for revenge after Rodney and the loan-shark are killed for no apparent reason by some crazy hillbillies who run the New Jersey chapter of this underground fighting ring, but not before one of them butt-dials a buddy with his cell-phone, leaving a voicemail of the murder... Ugh.

There's so much more that is crammed into Furnace's two-hour run-time, but it's impossible to briefly contextualize all of it, mainly because Cooper and his co-writer can't even find a way to contextualize any of it in the film itself. There's a sub-plot with Zoe Saldana as Russell's ex-girlfriend who left him while he was in prison, and another featuring her new boyfriend, a thankless role filled by Forest Whitaker, who I swore was Saldana's father for most of the film due to a lack of clarity and the fact that they barely ever look at each other, let alone touch. It's a confusing dynamic in a pointless sub-plot, only one of several in the film, which together pull so much focus from the story Cooper is trying to tell that it could only barely be said that he tells one at all.

What's worse is that what little there is that is cohesive is riddled with bad dialogue, cardboard characters, narrative convenience, and what can only be described as a lack of umph. It's obvious where every scene is going as soon as it begins, and too many of them are over-the-top or under the mat, completely lacking the edge that it needs for the suspense it wants to build. Fortunately, a top-notch cast delivers all of this with enough conviction to make enough of Furnace compelling enough, even when it's misfiring, so when Russell runs into Woody Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, the leader of the psycho hillbillies and says, "You got a problem with me?" and Harlan replies, "I got a problem with everybody," only a piece of us laughs at such one-dimensional absurdity, while the rest of us shrugs it off and moves on. And that's pretty much how it goes in Out of the Furnace.

Quick Thoughts - Dutch (1991)

11/28/13: Dutch is an underrated holiday classic written by John Hughes, following the typical "I'll be home for the holidays" wacky road movie formula, note for note. Hughes contributed another great entry to the canon a few years earlier with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and amazingly, still manages to make a completely different film here, even while working with the very same ingredients. I'm not the biggest Hughes fan, but he had an indisputable knack for writing characters who were perfect foils for each other, and though he put them in fun, escapist scenarios which few of us have probably ever actually experienced, they're completely relatable. As written by someone else, Dutch would have turned out as hokey and predictable as it actually is: blue collar Ed O'Neill agrees to drive home his fiance's pretentious, upright son (Ethan Embry) from his prep school... Hijinks ensue, and the two learn a lot from each other. But buried beneath the formulaic surface is a lot of heart and sincerity... And wit. It helps that the gags are actually entertaining, but where Dutch really succeeds is in the development of the relationship that forms, which feels so genuine and real that we push down our instinct to scoff at such predictability and instead root for it, because Dutch reminds us why this premise became formulaic in the first place: it has the potential to be brilliant. ***1/2

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Quick Thoughts - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

11/26/13: The follow-up to Guy Ritchie's asinine Sherlock Holmes is pretty much more of the same, albeit slightly less boring (I nodded off a few times in the theater while watching that one). But that could just be chalked up to an even more convoluted plot that takes more attention to follow. If that sounds like praise, let me clarify that "requiring more attention" doesn't equal the adjective "interesting". While I didn't doze at all, I did glaze over a few times during Ritchie's over-the-top action sequences and lame fist fight scenes in which Holmes analyzes each move of the fight while Ritchie shows us each thought in slow motion, right before showing us the exact same thing at normal speed, (which annoyed me immeasurably in both films), and so I missed what were probably key clues and twists... Oh well, so are the hazards of watching things like this. Still, not altogether intolerable. **

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - ***

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is exactly the film that Ben Stiller set out to make, for better or worse. It’s incredibly uneven, takes forever to take off, and is unexpectedly bogged down by an excess of seemingly unnecessary plot exposition, but there’s passion infused in every frame, and there’s something wonderful about that which makes most of the film’s flaws forgivable, if not lovable.

Stiller plays the title character, a tenured, unappreciated photo lab grunt at Life Magazine, who loses an important photograph by the famed recluse photographer, Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn in a cameo so good I almost wish the whole film had centered around him), expected to be the cover shot of the final issue of the magazine. Lost, lonely, and lovelorn, Stiller’s Walter Mitty sets out on an adventure to find O’Connell and infuse his life with meaning. He also hopes to win the affections of a new payroll clerk in his office with whom he’s been trying to connect via an online dating website; however, the site restricts his access due to an incomplete profile left blank because he’s never been anywhere or done anything noteworthy.

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