Thursday, October 23, 2014

ANTICIPATION: Fall/Winter 2014

Now that the mostly-unsuccessful summer lineup is finished and the compellingly sinister experience of David Fincher’s Gone Girl has just started the fall season with great success at the Box Office, I have to wonder what other movies will be worth our while in the months leading up to the closing of 2014.

It is safe to assume that the new science fiction, Interstellar will be an amazing cinematic experience through visionary Christopher Nolan’s sincere lens. One has to wonder how the film’s terrifying theme of humanity facing realistic endangerment will work with audiences seeking sensationalism.   

I feel a strange combination of excitement and skepticism regarding The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and The Hunger Games:Mockingjay –Part 1. Both feel like desirable returns to their fantasy worlds and both are needlessly augmented products of what I feel to be the least interesting stage of their respective stories. I simply hope that their filmmakers have found good ways to put a clever spin on their potentially trite experiences.

I think The Bible has so much movie-worthy drama that I’m surprised the Cecil B. DeMilles of today’s Hollywood don’t try to cash on it more. Sir Ridley Scott is quite adept in productions on a grand scale and I’m surprised that Exodus: Gods and Kings is his first Biblical outing. Though, he may be a little too traditional here. Those sure are a lot of white people playing Egyptians.

In the area of non-fiction, there will be quite a few interesting selections. While the The Theory of Everything has a chance of moving audiences through the telling of Stephen Hawking’s life story, I’m going to be very wary of this one. More often than not, biopics leave me wishing that I’d just watched a documentary instead. I believe that serious biopics about important people are challenging and I am turned off when the filmmakers simplify complex material with the glamor of attractive players while focusing on a romantic angle in order to pander to viewers. Let’s hope that’s not the case here.

The Immitation Game is the second big-screen movie (to my knowledge) about the Enigma code breakers during World War II and looks to be a good vehicle for Benedict Cumberbatch in a leading role. Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer's Club) will be bringing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir to the big screen in Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon about a woman whose life-crisis inspires a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest trail.

Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s (Moneyball and Capote) award-winning film at Cannes, will find distribution this November. It stars Channing Tatum and Steve Carell -in unusual form. It’s based on the true story of an Olympic wrestler (Tatum) whose paranoid schizophrenic sponsor (Carell) brings about a terrible event in his life.

In the area of dark fiction with a deep artistic drive, there is Babel director, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, which takes place in a Times Square theater where we follow an actor (in what will appear to be only two long continuous takes) trying to make a comeback, appropriately played by Michael Keaton, as his perception of reality breaks down.

There is also Nightcrawler –starring Jake Gyllenhaal about shady crime journalism and Whiplash –about an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) pushed to painful extremes by a psychotic teacher (J.K. Simmons). Let’s not forget about P.T. Anderson’s newest film, Inherent Vice, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel -with Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin and an extensive all-star cast. The trailer makes the film look intolerably excessive. Still, it is P.T. Anderson.

As far as family films for the holidays go, I’m thinking that the animated Big Hero 6 may be delightful. For the new version of Annie, I’m sure that Quvenzhané Wallis is perfect casting, but I’ve never liked this musical.

In the way of comedies, we’ve got plenty of sequels. Horrible Bosses 2 and Dumb and Dumber To may have some faithful fans ready to throw away money on a movie ticket. Let’s get real. No matter how funny you thought the first one was or how long-awaited the sequel is, comedies rarely grow better when they become a franchise. Rarely! I will seek psychiatric help if Nightat the Museum: Secret of the Cash-in is worth a damn to anyone this Christmas.

As always, I’ll try and review every one of these films and stay sane in the process.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone Girl

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

Gone Girl is based on Gillian Flynn’s critically acclaimed mystery novel about a seemingly perfect couple who cause a media frenzy when the gorgeous wife vanishes and the charming husband starts to lose his charm with a skeptical community in suburbs of Missouri. Is it good? Well, the screenplay duties were assumed by the Flynn herself. Her knowledge of cinema should be rather infinite, given her experience as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is directed by the meticulous David Fincher with a moody atmosphere enhanced by his dependable collaborators; cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth and musicians, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Are you getting the idea?

No? Are you one of those people whose disdain for Ben Affleck hasn’t allowed his comeback to win you over to a film in which he stars? Without wasting space, ranting about my belief that star-power is the most superficial aspect to observe when estimating a movie’s quality, I will tell you that Affleck is great for this movie.

There’s a significant point in the film when his character, Nick Dunne stands before the press and the people of his community in order to dispel rumors suggesting his responsibility in his wife’s disappearance. As he wins over some of the crowd, we see two teenage girls. One whispers that he’s hot and the other cringes, arguing that he’s a creep. It is a moment where it seems clear why Ben Affleck, a celebrity who has been loved and hated, took this role.

This is a story that is heavy on drama and contains some implausible twists that work only because they are conveyed through such poetic scenarios and flavorful narration by Affleck’s co-star, Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne.

Let me stop to say that I love this woman. Her acting career hasn’t demonstrated a lot of range, but to call her screen presence stunning would be an understatement. Pike and Affleck have a tough job in this film. They both need to win our sympathies at some point and they need to betray that sympathy at another.

Like most Fincher films, we are given a lot of atypical casting choices that payoff, including Neil Patrick Harris as a sinister ex-boyfriend, Casey Wilson as a gossiping housewife and Tyler Perry as a big-name criminal attorney. Notable choices in the cast are Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as local detectives. These are two actors who had probably missed out on the attention they deserved due to the understated performances of their careers. The big find for this movie, however, is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, who steals a lot of scenes. I had not seen this actress before and hope to see more of her.

As always, I encourage you to see this movie in a dark theater on a large screen with great sound. Fincher films always have a technical power that is in best form at a movie theater. He harnesses so much potential energy through details to seek out in the dim imagery and the surround sound mix. 

Earlier this year, when I got around to binge-watching all eight episodes of True Detective, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be seeing any new mystery movie, anytime soon, that could rival its intrigue and quality. I’m not sure if David Fincher matches the power of that amazing TV show, but it feels pretty close. Like True Detective, Gone Girl has a structure similar to that of a miniseries. Its two-hour and thirty-minute runtime is utilized quite well to deliver more than three acts. There are multiple scenes where a mind accustomed to movie viewing is expecting things to wrap-up and when they don’t you still sit there wondering, with endless curiosity, as to where things are headed.

Gone Girl is essentially a horror movie. Not for its violence and gore (which is brief), but for its psychological journey, similar to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence” where the idea of a private life doomed to unsettling uncertainty haunts us. This movie is dark, cynical, absurd and strange. Is it good? You bet.

For a spoiler-filled criticism from a fan of the novel, check out this interesting AV Club Article.

Need for Speed

** out of ****

This movie is so close to horrible, but unlike a lot of B-movies with A-budgets, it delivers the goods. The story is dumb and never had me invested, no matter how many melodramatic manipulations it used... But damn, it had some great car chases.

No matter how much expensive CGI Disney chose to use in this movie, the car stunts look to be the genuine element on the screen. Aaron Paul and competent co-stars like Imogen Poots and Rami Malek humanize the story to a certain degree and Michael Keaton's Skyped-in hammed-up role varies between funny and lame.

This is potentially a guilty pleasure. If you have a good sound system at home, crank-up the volume and turn your brain down. You will be investing in over two-hours of loud moronic high-speed nonsense. Anyone with a moral compass should question the attempt to portray illegal car-racers as righteous. The best movies in this genre, embrace the amoral sleaziness of that world -even through the protagonists. Its the only way to justify people who have little regard for the collateral damage they cause.

Also, the motivations of the characters are always connected with a problem that could probably be solved more practically by some other means than a high-stakes car-race challenge. Need for Speed has something going for it, but lacks the courage to embrace its characters' illogical deviance and wastes time in a pathetic attempt to rationalize it.

Still. Great stunts.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


*** out of ****

I hope stop-motion animation never goes away, though I won’t be surprised if it does. As long as companies like Laika Entertainment continue utilizing a process, which is almost as old as cinema itself, we can expect a little more life from its unique essence. The special-effect value of stop-motion animation lost its place in live-action movies the day Jurassic Park hit theaters. Since then, it has maintained its traditional value in the realm of fully animated shorts and features where choppy motion is acceptable.

Laika (formerly Will Vinton Studios) has made vast improvements in the profession using new technology to improve the handmade process for smoother animation consistency in their films; such as, Coraline, ParaNorman and now, The Boxtrolls. I’ve oftentimes observed that handmade art is about the challenge of polishing while digital art is about the challenge of blemishing. The Boxtrolls has stop-motion so well realized, that its quality meets its opponent at the halfway point with the deliberately clunky digital animation of this year’s wonderful, The Lego Movie.

The story follows a boy raised by bug-eating, junk-collecting yet well-meaning trolls. They dwell beneath the streets of an otherworldly town built on a tall steep hill. The town has a hierarchy of class identified by hat color. The bigwig “white hats” share a love of fine cheeses. A despicable troll exterminator is determined to rise to their status, which he believes will be granted if he hunts down all the Boxtrolls. As his hunt thins out the trolls’ workforce, their adopted boy goes to the surface on a mission to find the missing workers.

The town Lord’s neglected daughter, with a dark obsession for all things grim and dangerous, notices the boy. After learning where he comes from, she helps him under the assumption that he will lead her to see the creatures she has been raised to believe are fascinating vicious monsters.

Based on the children’s novel, Here Be Monsters, Boxtrolls is delightfully strange, channeling the whimsy of old European children’s tales. Some visionary filmmakers made family films like this when I was a kid. Speaking from experience, this is the kind of stuff to which I was exposed during childhood, but grew to like much more in my teens.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression when I say that this is a kid’s flick with adults in mind, but I felt like I was getting more out of this movie than the children in attendance. I laughed quite loud during a couple sequences when the only child reaction I heard I heard was, “Eeewww!” This was probably out of disgust for the overt grotesque horror that the film’s villain displays when he has allergic reactions to cheese. I was slightly reminded of Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and couldn’t contain myself.

The movie is a fun-spirited story about good ways and bad ways of establishing one’s identity. The bumbling British caricatures are creatively modeled with plenty of personality enhanced by a voice cast that is best left for discovering during the movie’s entertaining end credits (seriously, stick around).

This is an animated movie aimed at a particular niche audience and there is no guarantee that they will help it make a decent box office return. It’s a hard sell to show a family film that most little kids or overprotective parents may not like but its only appropriate that innocent, yet deranged, material should be delivered through the outcast method of stop-motion. I’m happy that this movie exists.

Blue Ruin

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

Here is an independent thriller with a surprisingly humble background. Every now and then, you hear about childhood friends who make movies and eventually rise to have great opportunities. Blue Ruin is a rare example of when artists find the right level of financial support, just as they’re coming into mastering their craft after years of practice.

The movie is simple, low-budget but professional and inventive in every admirable way. The protagonist is played by Macon Blair, lifetime friend of the film’s writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier. Blair’s face is not what you’d expect from the lead in a revenge thriller. His awkward nature and expressive eyes do not assure us of any kind of invincibility. The actions he takes in the film are all the more intense because he looks so vulnerable.

The best thing about movies like this is how they tell a story that big studios would gladly tell with big names attached, but this one has no recognizable faces. As much as I appreciate the talented work of famous actors, it is so refreshing to enjoy a story without the distraction of their presence. The more familiar we are with an actor, the less concern we feel for their character. We bring an unconscious comfort that they’re just playing a part and we lose concern for the consequences that their character may face. This character is an intriguing stranger to us and he needs to be.

He is a wandering vagrant, only skilled at sneaking in and out of people’s homes to stay fed, clothed and clean. Upon hearing about a man’s release from prison, he takes measures to commit a murder. What’s unconventional in this revenge movie is the way that the revenge is at the beginning, while the rest of the film is about learning the purpose of the revenge and its dreadfully ugly aftermath.