Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

*1/2 out of ****

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to the 2010 movie called Alice in Wonderland, which was already a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s book of a similar name, even though Carroll wrote a sequel to that book called Through the Looking Glass. Confused? It doesn’t matter.

I’m sure that Walt Disney Pictures had some important business in bringing that property to the big screen again and after what turned out to be one of Tim Burton’s worst movies, we now have a sequel from director James Bobin (The Muppets).

With saturated colors and new whimsical creations, this movie’s aesthetics are a great improvement over the previous one, but the effect of those visuals still lack the impact of a movie that commits to either photorealism or stylized animation.

These Disney “live action” adaptations are strange because they don’t really fit the definition of “live action.” They feature real actors imposed into computer-generated environments that manage to be high quality without seeming real at all. To be fair, I’ve seen this approach work well in some movies but it’s very tricky to put a finger on the difference between the effectiveness of different eye candy shows.

I do know that Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton returns to this material to continue the misguided attempt to turn Wonderland into a place like Oz, Narnia, or Middle-Earth: A place that’s zany and magical but still has some level of structure when it comes to finding navigation or trustworthy friends.

The story essentially picks up where we last saw Alice when she returned to the real world of oppressive Victorian England to overcome the limitations imposed upon her by assuming the command of a trading vessel in her father’s company. Now, after years of exploring the world in adventures that rival just about anyone else’s, she returns to England to learn that the twit (Leo Bill) whose hand in marriage she declined is making deals with her family’s estate, which will take away her treasured ship.

Fearing a return to the normalcy of restrictions imposed on women, Alice is coincidentally summoned back to Wonderland by the Absolem the butterfly (with the voice of the late Alan Rickman) through a looking glass, which may be the only commonality this film has with the Lewis Carroll sequel.

After arriving, Alice learns that Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is dying from distress over his supposedly dead family. The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) informs Alice that she may have the option of traveling through time to change the fate of the Hatter family and… I hate describing this plot already.

Time, in Wonderland, is a dark, strange a man (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is the king of the castle when it comes to the fate of others. Alice steals a device from him, which allows her to go on a Bill and Ted style time traveling journey where she learns that the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) plays a big part in the Hatter’s story too.

Wolverton’s continued error in imposing character arcs, structured narrative, and other Screenwriting 101 devices on material that’s supposed to be outlandish simply doesn’t work. It’s nearly impossible to have an emotional investment in the characters Alice meets in Wonderland, but the movie is trying so hard to humanize Lewis Carroll’s bizarre abstractions. In 1951, Disney’s animated version had no trouble being an entertaining movie without trying any of these things.

My pet peeve of incessant dramatic scoring is expectedly at play again here too. Danny Elfman’s boy’s choir riffs give every turn of the movie the same dramatic value as the last. Wasn’t this composer once the king of quirky scores?

The movie has a few funny exchanges and beautiful qualities, but it’s quickly a tiresome bore of an experience that has me dreading what the “live action” results of Beauty and the Beast may be like. Disney’s doing so much great stuff, but their continued mission to trample on their most timeless properties is making me rather angry.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

*** out of ****

If there’s anything wrong with comic book movies today, it’s their leading influence in serializing big-budget cinema. Captain America: Civil War is no exception. I will be surprised if anyone can follow this movie without having seen all the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. All I can say regarding this issue, is that the movie is very rewarding towards those who have been keeping up. No matter how lengthy and complex the plotting, I was miraculously able to follow it and feel invested in what is an excellent third “Captain America” entry –even though it feels more worthy of having “Avengers” in the title instead.

Just as the abysmal Batman v Superman rightfully addressed being part of a franchise following a trend of thoughtless collateral damage in the context of non-tragic popcorn spectacle, Captain America: Civil War tackles this theme – except it commits.

Since the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D., the world has viewed Captain America (Chris Evans) and his operating members of The Avengers with skepticism, considering the disasters that surround their heroics. The Secretary of State (William Hurt) gives The Avengers the option to continue only if they’re willing to operate under the oversight of the United Nations.

Given their wealth of extraordinary abilities, all the Avengers feel sorrow for their failure to prevent further loss of life during near world-ending events, but after the espionage antics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap isn’t prepared to take chances with another corruptible institution. His validated righteousness and the now-humbled Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) wish to comply to the demands of world leaders creates an instant divide in the organization. Things are worsened when another disaster strikes and Captain America’s best friend, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is presumed to be responsible.

Against the wishes of the other half of The Avengers, Cap wants to take responsibility for bringing his friend in unharmed, knowing that he can’t be held responsible for the decades of brainwashing that turned him into a villain. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) all split off to assist Captain America and wind up recruiting Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) along the way (which results in some new coolness).

Meanwhile, Iron Man finds alliance with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), the spontaneously well-established Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and now – as the trailers promised – the recently acquired Spider-Man (re-invented by young actor Tom Holland). This allows an endlessly crammed movie to take an unnecessary detour so that Robert Downey Jr. can visit the kid in his Queens apartment and flirt with a rather young and attractive version of Aunt May played by Marisa Tomei. Only You, anyone?

Whew. That was a lot of basic plot to cover. I even left out Daniel Brühl’s villain character, but his motivation is best left to be found in the film. At least I can assure you that he isn’t some super-terrorist trying to destroy the world again. If that kind of plot element were in place, the movie might as well be called Captain America: World Police.

The continuation of direction under the versatile Russo Brothers allows for energetic storytelling and clear character motivation. My gripes with the Russo’s tendency to go “shaky-cam” with certain action scenes still stands since I prefer graceful action in escapist cinema. I also continue to wonder how the movies that star The Avengers developed an allergy to saturated colors, now that they prefer a somewhat gray aesthetic in contrast to the vividness of the first Avengers movie, Thor, and the three Iron Man flicks.

As with all the MCU movies, I don’t ever feel that the stakes are high. No one’s death is necessarily permanent and whenever characters are confronted with a no-win scenario, there’s always a life-saving contrivance hiding somewhere. But as usual, the tone is blessedly only semi-serious and under the quality regulation of another division of Disney who are prepared to deliver that cinematic Big-Mac, Happy Meal, McGriddle or whichever McDonald’s guilty-pleasure simile works for you.

These movies don’t take the big risks that excite me but, like a lot of other Disney properties, they do make me feel connected with masses of people who like them – unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. However, like all major action blockbusters with the PG-13 rating, you can expect to see people bringing little children to the theater for two-and-a-half hours of subjection to perilous gunplay, explosions, and expositional dialogue. Maybe The Avengers should fight over this issue next time.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

***1/2 out of ****

I’ve always been under the impression that Richard Linklater is a director who usually gets what he wants. He continues to get modest-budget studio films shot and released even if such endeavors are losing their niche audience in theaters. When he makes a crowd-pleaser gig like School of Rock or Me and Orson Welles, it doesn’t look like a big compromise considering that he seems to enjoy the material while getting the studio respect necessary to do passion projects such as the true-crime comedy Bernie, the trippy sci-fi A Scanner Darkly, the twelve-year Boyhood project or his “Before” series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight).

At the risk of using an oxymoron, Linklater is the most casually ambitious director I can think of. He approaches any given project like he’s effortlessly following through with a dare and not much more of a thought than ‘Let’s see what happens.’ His second feature, Dazed and Confused had the audacity to follow in the footsteps of George Lucas’ American Graffiti as an all-in-one-night-teen-hangout movie with no famous faces –but with less story conflict and more fascination in the simplicity of observing a place and a time.

What’s amazing is that people dug it and it developed a cult following. The writer/director’s nostalgic communion of teen life in 1970s Texas connected with a lot of people.

In his new film, Everybody Wants Some!! the auteur quite deliberately – and successfully - hits all the same notes in his reflection of college life in the early eighties. The movie achieves an atmosphere similar to Peter YatesBreaking Away and you can expect historically accurate hair and clothing styles that range between cool and hideous. The soundtrack selections are on point too.

The only difference is that this premise is less likely to win the interest of the average viewer. Dazed had the benefit of reminding people of their teen years. Only a certain percentage of people have been to college and only some of those people were in a fraternity-like setting - and most people hate frat boys. Well… at least I do.

The movie is unapologetically steeped in the world of young jocks competing with one another, getting drunk and chasing girls as it follows a charismatic freshman enduring informal rites of passage with a house of college baseball players over the three days leading up to the first classes of the semester.

As with Dazed and Boyhood, Linklater uses the film to share his identity as a people-person who may conform to ritualistic behavior in order to fit in and make friends but still finds fascination in people who couldn’t be more different from those in his assigned tribe.

Each day in the film is marked with a visit to a different gathering representing a different kind of crowd, whether it’s at a country-western-themed bar or an underground punk club. The film expresses an interest in the variance of human factions, the individuals hiding within them and their respective philosophical outlooks, even if it’s all seen from the perspective of men engaging in obnoxious behavior.

With barely any actor who I found recognizable, I was satisfied with the fresh-faced cast in this film. I don’t think that Linklater has spent his career provoking the most realistic performances, but he’s a master of staging realistic situations, finding deep satisfaction in just watching his characters exist and experience life without imposing superficial situations. This movie is a party themed around an exclusive crowd, but as always, everyone is invited.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MY TAKE ON: Rogue One and More Star Wars Stories to Come

The trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has me very excited, regardless if it fails to be a great movie. Its director Gareth Edwards doesn't have the resume to guarantee the vast potential of Rian Johnson helming Episode VIII, but as I keep saying to prequel apologists everywhere, George Lucas' non-involvement will only make for a better Star Wars movie.

The content in the trailer does something very important: It shows me footage of the prequel that I was never given. You see, it took a little bit of retrospective realization that the biggest mistake of Lucas' prequel trilogy was that it didn't work as the first three episodes in a six-episode saga. Episodes I - III give away all the big secrets of Episodes IV - VI. 

If Lucas had been more clever, he might have invented all new characters who represent good people of the Old Republic and are told to turn to the Jedi for help. Eventually, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker get involved as mystical supporting characters but never divulge details about how their powers work. Eventually, it is implied that Anakin Skywalker has been killed, the Empire rises and a scary Sith Lord named Darth Vader is leading massacres of the Jedi -and any people who will not bow to the new Emperor. We never see what Yoda looks like; the Emperor is barely shown; there certainly isn't a cartoonish unfunny character intended as comic relief for infants; but above all, the films atmosphere of costumes and technology appropriately lead up to the limited production style of the original.

Rogue One looks to be the closest thing to such a vision coming true. Its detachment from the Skywalker family and its invention of all-new characters who exist in a time that appears as if it could lead up to only the minutes before the first grand shot of the first Star Wars movie. 

If there was anything that I appreciated about the 1997 Special Editions of the original Trilogy, it was the use of modern tools to recreate the film's spaceships and show them doing a little bit more. I could delve further into my opinion of those re-issues and the concept of digitally doctoring classic movies in general, but I'll save it for another entry. I'll just say that thanks to this trailer I've seen a dozen Star Destroyers surrounding the Death Star as it receives its finishing touches and I'm very stoked. 

Edwards and his co-writers (which interestingly includes ILM digital pioneer John Knoll) are likely to make a self-serious movie lacking the light-hearted element that made The Force Awakens work for me, but it's still more than likely be more effective at doom-and-gloom melodrama, digital cinematography, and special effects than Lucas' attempt at doing the same with Revenge of the Sith

I have yet to see Felicity Jones as anything more than a one-note actress with a pretty face, but this movie may not require a lot of emotional range from her character. Forest Whitaker looks over-the-top, Mexican actor Diego Luna looks a lot like Biggs Darklighter but doesn't speak in the trailer, Genevieve O'Reilly gets a second chance to shine as Mon Mothma (and not wind up on the cutting room floor of an inept prequel) and the briefly-seen Ben Mendelsohn is sure to be excellent.

Alexandre Desplat is among the best composers working today and demonstrates more versatility than any I can think of. I am very exited to hear what unique touch he has on the film's atmosphere.

I'm hoping that Disney/Lucasfilm choose to stylistically liberate themselves from the other Star Wars films in the "Star Wars Story" series. They could exercise the right to utilize the normally scarce cinematic techniques of the existing seven movies (Slow-motion, flashbacks, etc). I'd also be very happy if they don't use the Star Wars Theme and opening crawl at the beginning of any of them, reserving Williams' most famous piece for where it counts. 

I'm running out of metaphors for how Lucas wronged his own creation, so I won't use any. The beauty in what's happening now is that even when a subpar filmmaker is given a Star Wars project, if they really love Star Wars then I guarantee you that they love it more than George Lucas does and it may inspire their best work.

Midnight Special

*** out of ****

Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special is a science fiction film with a relentlessly dark tone that is only likely to engage hardcore fans of the genre - such as myself. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays against type in this thriller about a father on the run with a child, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who possesses powers that have captured the interest of a religious commune and the government.

It’s funny that in my review of Nichols’ excellent previous film, Mud, I jokingly compared it to E.T. because Midnight Special feels like a dark extended version of the third act to Spielberg’s classic movie.

Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Sam Shepard, and Kirsten Dunst all make excellent supporting characters in a story that may be escapist, but stays true to the southern, rural, blue collar atmosphere, which is a constant in Nichols’ work.

Another constant in his work is also short-spoken dialogue and an expectation for the audience to make connections. With this kind of character work on top of a heavy sci-fi mystery, I can’t deny that I found some of the film’s passages to be long and frustrating in their lack of emotional foundation. 

This is the kind of project that could have easily been developed into a TV show, but I’m glad that filmmakers like Nichols still believe in the self-contained form of a single movie as an experience, which one may want to re-experience if only to better understand it.