Friday, January 30, 2015

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I saw the first act of Amazing Spider-Man 2 on one of those little screens on the back of an airplane seat in business class.  All I could think about was how fake the CGI looked.  I saw the second and third acts on my nice tv at home.  All I could think about was how lame the story was.

Here’s the movie in a nutshell: it begins with Andrew Garfield breaking up with Emma Stone (who is wonderful in everything.  I’d watch that woman burn toast.).  So right off the bat, we know he’s an idiot.  Soon enough, we meet proto-villain Jamie Foxx.  Foxx plays a nerd as only a jock can play a nerd:  a complete loser, a barely functional basket case who just happens to be an incredible genius.  Soon enough, the nerd turns into a super villain and the movie loses me for good.

Why?  Because Jamie Foxx is an Academy Award winning actor, and the movie doesn’t trust him to show us how he’s feeling.  Instead, it gives us a horrible voice-over of his supposed inner monologue.  It’s a waste of his talent and an indication of just how simplistic and condescending The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really is.

But wait- there’s more!  This film boasts an Emo Harry Osborn who (a) doesn’t dance, and (b) should be wearing a t-shirt reading “B Story.”  He’s there solely to pad things out and provide an additional villain.  This makes no sense.  The movie’s already over two hours long.  They could have cut his entire arc and still had a ninety-minute movie.  

There’s still more!  The climax plays like it was written by some guy working from an outline provided by some other guy who not only lazily Xeroxed a page from some screenwriter’s manual, but is actually stupid.  I mean, the whole thing hinges on the audience’s willingness to believe that you can punch electricity.  There’s a subplot about airliners in danger that feels like it was added in post to generate extra tension, and that doesn’t even make any sense to anyone who knows the first thing about air traffic control.  There’s a needless death that, while well handled, eliminates the only reason I can think of to see The Amazing Spider-Man 3.  And there’s a denouement that suffers from a shockingly bad performance by Paul Giamatti, embarrassing effects rendering by the F/X department, and unearned emotional manipulation that just feels cheap.

Oh, this movie.  While Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 still stands as a high-water mark for the genre, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like something hastily cobbled together by people with no investment in the material.

I even liked The Amazing Spider-Man.  If Sony decides to have another go with this creative team, it’ll take one heck of a critical reception to get me to so much as stream it on Instant.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’ve had it with Wes Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel looks marvelous, represents a unique vision, and tells its story with wit and creativity.  I hated it.  It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of movies.

Its love interest has a birthmark the exact shape of Mexico running down her cheek because – whimsy! 

Its one honest and noble character meets a horrific end because – unpredictability!

Its paragon of class and carriage is a vulgar buffoon because – honesty!

It concludes with an image suggesting an entire nation living in grateful wonder at its story because – self-indulgence!

I swear to God, I half-expected this movie to pull out a ukulele and improvise a tune about the wonder of dewdrops.  Up yours.  Entertain me.  Blow up a car.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Worst of 2014

I’ve been putting off writing this post.  I only see movies I think I’m going to enjoy, and I take no pleasure in dissing any particular film.  After all, it takes incredible chutzpah to release any kind of creative work, hanging your creation out there for all to see.  I respect anyone who makes anything, and especially respect anyone with the combination of talent, skill, leadership ability, and business sense required to make a feature film.  Nevertheless, anyone can misfire.  Here are the misfires I saw in 2014.

10.  Elysium:  Possibly the ugliest film I’ve seen in years, Elysium dares tell the world that rich people are bad.  This is particularly brave, given that this is a major studio production.  Somewhere in Hollywood, rich studio executives, a rich director, and several rich movie stars all decided that telling the world they’re bad people was a good idea.  Oh, what’s that?  They meant *other* rich people?  I get it.  Well, at least they served up their hypocrisy with a serving of ‘splosions.

9.  Silver Linings Playbook:  This film got accolades during last year’s Oscar season.  I don’t get it.  90 minutes with people who know how to communicate only by lying or shouting is 89 minutes too long.  I couldn’t get to the credits fast enough.

8.  Ted:  A 10-minute sketch stretched into a 90-minute feature, this film's premise wears out its welcome less than a third of the way through.  I don’t understand how anyone could have read this screenplay and said, “This is a film I want to make!”

7.  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone:  Another failed comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is based on the assumption that audiences enjoy watching hateful characters treat one another poorly.  If I wanted that, I’d see Silver Linings Playbook again.  At least that movie doesn’t pass itself off as something trying to be funny.

6.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug:  This big-budget action-adventure actually put me to sleep during its climax.  At least numbers 10-7 on this list kept my attention, in a train-wreck kind of way.

5.  Room 247:  This amateurishly made film about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has absolutely nothing to say.  It’s like being stuck with the crashing bore at a party.  I’m fascinated by The Shining and was looking forward to learning about its production.  Instead, I got conspiracy theories and stock footage.  Ugh.

4.  Robot & Frank:  Here’s another film that failed at its most basic function: to entertain.  I fell asleep roughly halfway through this film about a disagreeable man doing bad things.  When I woke up, I realized that I had missed absolutely nothing at all.

3.  After Earth:  I couldn’t even get through this one.  I’m sure Jaden Smith is a nice kid who’s trying to make it in the family business.  Unfortunately, he isn’t ready yet.  He lacks screen presence, and I just couldn’t get invested in his character’s journey.

2.  The Heroic Trio:  Such a sad waste of the talents of the queens of mid-‘80s Hong Kong kung fu cinema.  Not even Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggi Chung can enliven this poorly shot, amateurishly choreographed, laughably bad movie.

1.   Pain & Gain:  As I understand it, this film was Michael Bay’s pet project, a low-budget comedy that, presumably, came from the heart.  Michael Bay’s heart must be a cold, dark place.  Pain & Gain revels in stupidity, cruelty, and a pervading cynicism that made me feel like a terrible person just for watching it.  The world is a worse place for the presence of this film.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best of 2014

I don't see as many films as I used to when I rode the Metro to work every morning, but I still see more than the average bear.  That said, here's a list of the ten best movies I saw in 2014.  You may quibble with my ranking, but I don't think you can go wrong by spinning up any of these wonderful pictures.

10. The Bridges at Toko-Ri:  Forget Top Gun.  If you really want to know what it's like to be a naval aviator, this is your film.

9. Interstellar: Tense, beautiful, and thought provoking, I loved every minute of it.

8. Seven Psychopaths: Such a great script, and so well performed. I don't understand why this wasn't a big, big hit.

7. The Raid: Redemption: Pay no attention to the paper-thin story. The stunt work in this picture is the best I've seen since Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior.

6. Gravity: Stunningly beautiful and masterful in every way, it'll look great sitting on my shelf next to Interstellar.

5. 3 Idiots: I'm a sucker for singing, dancing, life-affirming pictures that give me a window into another culture. Aal izz well!

4. Edge of Tomorrow: The most underrated film of the year, and the one I most look forward to seeing again. Creative, exciting, and featuring a brilliant lead performance, this is everything you could want in a summer action movie.

3. A Separation: A thoughtful, compassionate, yet devastating film, A Separation takes us into another culture and crumbling marriage with care and love. This is a heartbreaking, absolutely necessary film.

2. Chef: When I wasn't laughing during this charming film, I was sitting with a big, dopey grin on my face. If you relish the idea of spending 90 minutes with good people trying to do the right thing, all while making you laugh, this is the movie for you. I'm smiling just thinking about it. Smiling and craving a Cuban sandwich.

1. After Life: I think about this film every day.  It makes me a better person. I hope I think about it every day for the rest of my life.

Monday, January 05, 2015

47 Ronin

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can get behind a movie like 47 Ronin, and those who make me sad.

47 Ronin is set in a mythic, legendary Japan.  It tells the story of 47 samurai who, though outcasts following the dishonor of their master, hatch a plan to redeem his honor and set the world to right.  It’s steeped in a heightened, storybook version of Japanese bushido culture, and it’s wonderful entertainment.

Keanu Reeves plays the financing necessity – no, wait.  That’s unfair.  While Reeves was, most likely, the key to a financing and distribution deal, he’s perfectly fine here as the half-European, semi-mystical outcast and audience identification character.  Yes, he’s a bit wooden, but that plays well in a story set in a rigidly controlled, hierarchical society.  Beyond that, he’s game for whatever the movie throws at him, and he doesn’t embarrass himself or the production.

I could name check a couple of Japanese actors whose names would be familiar to movie buffs, but all you really need to know is that this is a beautiful production, professionally acted and directed.  Yes, much of the monster-related CGI is dodgy, but so what.  This is legend.  Roll with it.  More importantly, the story makes sense, the action sequences are a delight, and my 14 year old and I rocked along with smiles on our faces throughout its running time.

All this for a movie I saw reluctantly.  I’m currently polishing my annual Best/Worst post.  Though this film won’t make either list, it certainly counts as my biggest surprise of the year.  I’m delighted to report that 47 Ronin is a winner.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Interstellar, Dark Shadows, and others


I’m a father who loves his children.  I’m a pilot who spends an enormous amount of time on the road.  I still own the copy of ­Black Holes and Warped Spacetime I ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1982.  Interstellar could not have been more calibrated to my sensibilities if it had been coded to my DNA.

Here’s the setup: Earth is fast becoming uninhabitable.  In the first act, scientist Michael Caine tells hero Matthew McConaghey that his children will be the last generation to live to old age.  The solution?  A journey to another solar system, via wormhole, to find a habitable planet.

That’s a great setup for any number of films.  You could go thriller, horror, hamhanded political screed, religious allegory – you name it.  Interstellar blends aspects of exploration adventure and introspective head trip to create a film that evokes Kubrick’s 2001 while maintaining a sense of desperate tension.  All that, and it provides the best exploration of time dilation in popular science fiction since Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  There’s even a snappy android played by Sesame Street’s Mister Noodle.

Really, what more could you ask for?

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows has all the elements of a solid horror-comedy: a classic vampire, a vampy villain, ghosts, and werewolves.  However, it never quite comes together.  Its hero is a genuine monster, making it hard to root for him.  Its villain has clear motivations that make no sense, its plot is muddled, and its climax says “to heck with it” and departs even from the rules of its own fantasy world.

And on and on and on.

One gets the feeling that some producer decided to exploit his or her rights to a nominally familiar horror franchise, called Tim Burton, and handed him a sack of cash.  Burton did his thing, complete with a real live Corpse Bride, but the movie spent too much time in production and not enough time in the word processor.

Ah, well.

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady combines a fairly risible story (once you think about it) with one catchy production number after another.

I like catchy production numbers.  I’m still humming “Ascot Opening Day.”  I’ll watch this any time it comes on.

The World’s End

The World’s End is lovely.  While hampered by a rocky first act, the picture gets to swinging once the world actually begins to end.  It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s a winner.

Much Ado About Nothing

Meh.  There ain’t no Beatrice and Benedick like Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh’s Beatrice and Benedick.

The Heroic Trio

Oh, what an abomination.  Stupidly plotted, poorly choreographed, badly shot, and amateurishly dubbed, The Heroic Trio is a sad waste of the talents of Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and Anita Mui.  Give it a pass.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver is a propaganda film, pure and simple.  Its prologue reads, “This story of an average English middle-class family begins with the summer of 1939; when the sun shone down on a happy, careless people, who worked and played, reared their children and tended their gardens in that happy, easy-going England that was so soon to be fighting desperately for her way of life and for life itself.”  Its epilogue:  “AMERICA NEEDS YOUR MONEY BUY DEFENSE BONDS AND STAMPS EVERY PAY DAY.”  (Source: IMDb)  

The film (directed by William Wyler) introduces us to The Minivers, the aforementioned average middle class family.  It tells us that they’re an average middle-class family, but it lies.  They’re well above average.  In fact, I’d call them rich.  They live in a beautiful home and have servants.  Their oldest son is away at Oxford, and he woos the granddaughter of the local noblewoman.  Mr. Miniver owns a yacht, Mrs. Miniver splashes out on ridiculously expensive hats, and the couple drives a car that’d cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 today.

Over the course of the film, we see the Minivers overcome adversity, do their duty, spread joy, and generally be happy.  When the Blitz wreaks havoc on their cozy village, we in the audience are supposed to feel compelled to buy war bonds to –what?  Help these nice rich people keep being nice and rich?  To preserve an ideal of an England that never was?

I’m not quite sure, but here’s the kicker: it works.  I liked the Minivers.  As played by Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver is a saint – and a pretty one, to boot.  Mr. Miniver does his part at Dunkirk and helps to bring the boys home.  Young Oxford Miniver, despite his intellectual pretensions, grows into a fine fellow and just the man for the noblewoman’s practical and intelligent granddaughter.  I laughed.  I cried.  I noticed a subplot brazenly plagiarized by ‘Downtown Abbey’ decades later.

So, yes, Mrs. Miniver is a propaganda film.  That’s not the point.  The point is, it’s a good propaganda film.  Now, where can I go to buy some bonds?