Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

* out of ****

The A Capella themed comedy Pitch Perfect, gained a following in 2012, which slowly grew after it was out of theaters. Despite my appreciation for singing, attractive girls, and things that are supposed to be funny, the movie never clicked with me. It wasn’t terrible, but its sequel, which currently dominates the U.S. box office, is. Pitch Perfect 2, like Oceans Twelve, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, or even D2: The Mighty Ducks is just an unfocused messy continuation of something that kinda’ worked once. If it had a humble beginning, its success allowed it to come back as a product with a brand name from owners who know you’re buying, regardless if it works or not.

Like the first film, the pitch is not perfect. As a comedy, it’s tonally all over the place, unsuccessfully blending down-to-earth character-driven sincerity, with outlandish slapstick. The movie still doesn’t trust its audience with the limits of the human voice, choosing to dynamically mix the character’s performances to the point of sounding as phony as the pop-crap they’re covering. The joke writing is even cheaper this time and the funniest performances are from comedians and celebrities in small supporting roles. To its ultimate detriment, this sequel is over-stuffed with subplots, giving it a pretty rocky sense of passage.

Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld joins the cast as a freshman and legacy pledge for the Barden Bellas (the singing group in these movies) -and is most likely pledging to be the lead in another sequel when Anna Kendrick naturally moves on. Kendrick is still that college girl with big dreams, a great voice, and a passion for music production - but whenever she's given something funny to say, the delivery is a little off. Rebel Wilson, as Fat Amy, is still trying to thrive from being an awkward overweight girl, who is immune to embarrassment. Maybe that schtick will get interesting if she does a John Waters film. Brittany Snow is still the only cast member who seems to possess good comic timing, but her character has so little to do.

The continued improvisational exchanges between John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as competition commentators - barely captures the Christopher Guest vibe they're trying to imitate -and feels like another tonal deviation to these confused comedies.      
Banks - an actress I like very much - was behind this sequel in her directorial debut while co-producing. I was very hopeful that she might elevate the material, but there's no real signature to her work here, aside from the various comedic cameos, who are undoubtedly her friends from all the years in the business. The movie is so conventional, I can't tell if Banks is a hopeful director for the future, but she took on a big responsibility with this lousy screenplay.

I guess you don’t need me to tell you any of this. Chances are, if you wanted to see it, you’ve already seen it -or will see it in the form of a bonding experience with friends. The level of this movie’s quality will be about as noticeable as an appetizer platter at Applebee's when everyone is laughing, munching and chatting. Just don't be surprised if you go to bed that night feeling mysteriously terrible after a "good time."

I Am Big Bird

*** out of ****

I am a pretty big Muppet fan, but I never gave much thought, in my adult life, to the Sesame Street characters that captured my imagination when I was little. Big Bird was one of those characters. Compared to most children’s entertainment, Sesame Street creations had a lot of thought put into their personalities, taking child psychology into consideration.

In the new documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Spinney, the puppeteer who gave that large character life, reveals that its earliest incarnation was played more goofy and dumb, attempting to earn some easy laughs with children. When he put more thought into the thing he was playing, he decided he was “a kid.” Big Bird is clumsy and silly, but he has the curiosity of a child, constantly inspecting things and learning from them.

The documentary follows the career and life of this talented man as he discusses the origins of his success and friendship with the great Jim Henson. Beyond behind-the-scenes archival footage, there’s a lot of visual coverage of this to be seen, as Spinney and his wife loved to document their lives with home movie cameras. We get plenty of interview footage from Spinney’s family, Sesame Street co-stars and fellow puppeteers, including a full breakdown of the mechanics inside the Big Bird puppeteered suit.

It’s most important to remember that Spinney was not only responsible for Big Bird’s optimism. He was also responsible for Oscar's trashcan-dwelling pessimism. However, seeing Spinney’s personality in the interviews would never lead me to believe they would consider titling the film “I Am Oscar the Grouch.”

The documentary is professional, yet rather formulaic, which is really made noticeable by the score, which pushes that standard epic-triumph movie music sound in a way that collides with the humble personalities of the film’s subjects. Still, nothing changes the fact that filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker found a subject that was more interesting than I expected. For someone of my generation, it was like going back in time and getting the real background of a glorified mentor.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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

I can't express the relief I feel that George Miller is the first George to prove that you can return to something you created decades ago and own it! Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly what it's supposed to be: A balls-to-the-wall two-hour action experience. It gets away with a simple plot and a lack of any overt character development because the production design, costumes, stunts, explosions, fights and chases are all captured on a level of attention and quality, which outdoes most modern movies striving for the same thing. 

Compared to the color-drained CGI dominated snore-fests that are most action films today, most of what you see in this movie is color-boosted CGI enhanced footage of amazing things actually happening in front of the camera lens. This movie is hyperactive on a level I would never expect from a seventy-year-old director. 

Like some of the best fantasy fiction, Miller's post-apocalyptic landscape and its inhabitants come dressed with so many eccentric details, utilizing the leftover junk of the old world, for which the audience has the freedom to project their own theories as to what they mean. Like The Road Warrior, the best in the Mel Gibson series, Max (Tom Hardy) is a damaged wanderer, who encounters good heroic people he reluctantly chooses to help despite his faithlessness that there is any hope in overcoming the barbarism, which has plagued a desperate world 

In this film, it's Charlize Theron as Furiosa - and her struggle - that is the heart of the movie as she attempts to liberate the sex-slave breeding wives (all played by beautiful models dressed in white sheets) of a self-proclaimed god who controls all the resources of the wasteland. Max is one of his prisoners and winds up in a predicament where he is forced to ride along in the giant tanker with the women being pursued by the warlords. 

It's hard to figure out if Miller intends this film to be part of the last Max's chronology, or if we are dealing with a remake, combining essential elements from the previous films. While I found just some of its action to get a little redundant and some of its plotting to lack a level of refinement, I still have to hand it to the competence of a veteran filmmaker with the guts to go nuts. This was a very fun time at the movies!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The D-Train

**1/2 out of ****

I don't know how I feel about The D-Train. I don't think its as funny or insightful as it wants to be because its a rather conventionally styled comedy, with a typical Jack Black performance. However, it has the courage to subvert our expectations by venturing from its goofball premise to uncomfortable territory.

It's the story of a family man (Black) who as head of the high school reunion committee, works diligently in denial of his longtime lack of popularity. After discovering that one of the most popular members of his graduating class (James Marsden) is an actor living in L.A., who just landed a national television commercial,  he believes bringing him in town for the twenty-year reunion may fulfill a lifetime void.

Desperately fabricating a business trip that he knows his computer-illiterate boss (Jeffrey Tambor) will fall for, he flies out to meet the popular guy on company money, befriending him with fascination, oblivious to the fact that he's a shallow loser. Soon enough, he becomes obsessed with their new friendship.

I'm not sure what this movie is trying to say, but Black's performance seems to work for and against the film. By giving his standard routine, it makes the films twists and turns seem less expected. On the other hand it also dehumanizes the character. Unlike the flamboyant greatness we got from him as Bernie, he's tasked with playing a person who could stand to be more pathetic and less amusing.

To me, it's not a good movie, but it's also thankfully unpredictable.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

**1/2 out of ****

When I saw the first trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I felt nothing. When the final theatrical poster was issued, I felt nothing. This didn't worry me. Joss Whedon's career has been based on projects, which look generic on the surface, but are elevated by good writing (a rare thing in movies these days). Surely the final film would get a grip on the material involving The Avengers going up against an unstoppable robot trying to destroy humanity. I saw it... and... nothing. I saw it again... nothing.

It's not bad. It's just an exercise in more of the action we got the last time around. Sadly, action isn't Whedon's greatest strength. I only enjoy action scenes in his TV shows and movies, because I'm involved with the characters and I care what happens to them. This time, I'm not involved on any kind of passage of discovery regarding the characters or their relationships. Whedon continues his ever-dependable witty exchanges and character moments, yet I've never seen them run against the grain of the plot like this. It's a bad sign, that the best scene in an action film is a party scene at its beginning.

James Spader is a welcome charm of a villain as Ultron and I appreciate how nonchalantly he provides his voice, giving a very human personality to a dangerous hunk of metal. I've gotten around to writing about this movie long enough after its release to feel it's safe to mention what a pleasant addition it is to finally see Paul Bettany in-the-flesh as The Vision.

The real trouble with the movie is that this time around the stage is set, regarding our heroes, so we're paying a greater amount of attention to the plot and its conflict -which are sadly less compelling. 

Other annoyances:

Color-drained grading -After the colorful first Avengers movie, Whedon and Marvel mysteriously got on the no-fun-allowed bandwagon currently used by the DC Universe - and many other movies made today - by giving us a less-green Hulk, a less maroon Iron Man and a less-blue Captain America. Nothing has a very natural look.

Why change aspect ratios? I know this is nitpicking, but the last one was a refreshing reminder that not all big movies require wide composition. This one - unremarkably - feels that it does.

Did I miss something? Perhaps Whedon wanted to forego the typical roundup opening, but most of the Avengers are not where we left them in their respective previous movies. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Age of Adaline

**1/2 out of ****

The Age of Adaline is a romantic fantasy, where the beautiful title character (Blake Lively) has a secret: She hasn’t aged a day since a bizarre accident in 1930s. After her condition attracted the interest of government agents in the fifties, Adaline went into hiding, beginning a process of starting anew every decade – only informing her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn) as to her identity and whereabouts. 

Adaline makes friends carefully, and doesn’t make strong emotional attachments. Every romance has resulted in her heartbreaking decision to move on, unwilling to risk the possibility of her condition being rediscovered by curious authorities. In present-day San Francisco, she has just met a wonderful man (Michiel Huisman) for whom she gradually falls –with resistance. Once again torn between keeping a secret and having love in her life, she makes a discovery about the young man, which re-opens an old chapter of her past.

A good chunk of the film finds itself taking place at a weekend visit to a house in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, involving a performance by Harrison Ford, which is so surprisingly emotional, I found myself wishing the entire story had been told from his perspective.

Director Lee Toland Krieger creates a generally pleasant tone with his cinematographer, David Lanzenberg, who captures vistas gorgeously. Blake Lively also does wonders working with such a vaguely defined character, bringing subtle hints of a troubled old soul beneath a young modern beauty. Sadly, the magical realism concept doesn’t manage to gain much substance.

However, in an attempt to do so, it misfires through the seldom use of third-person voice-over narration, which needlessly tries to justify the magic in the film with pseudo-scientific explanations. I don’t care if it seems like I’m watching “Cosmos.” My eyes are still rolling.

Just as Adaline is torn between love and safety, I’m torn between congratulating a watchable melodrama and scolding it for being so superficial. I happen to love The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which The Age of Adaline will surely be compared. Adaline is thankfully shorter, simpler and is not based on any previously written material; but it shortchanges us on the beauty of a journey through life and gives us a pandering story about cosmic forces guiding lovers to one another.

Side Note: Isn’t it unusual that Ellen Burstyn is playing a woman who ages faster than her parent only months after she did the same thing in "Interstellar”?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

While We're Young

**** out of ****

Like many independent filmmakers, Noah Baumbach’s film career has typically strayed away from the sensational characteristics associated with the genre he’s working with in any given film. He mostly makes bitter dramas with dry comedy or dry comedies with bitter drama. In his latest film, he re-teams with Ben Stiller, with whom he worked in Greenberg, to make a much more conventional comedy –and it may be my favorite of his films.

Stiller and Naomi Watts play a childless couple in their forties, struggling to relate with the rest of the world, as they’re losing the support of their yuppie peers, who are now parents. Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker, stuck on a project, which is boring and has no end in sight. While teaching at the university, he is approached by a young documentarian (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) who express respect for his past work.

A friendship blossoms between the two couples, as the modern ironic hipster trends displayed by the young couple become a new interest for the older couple. What follows is a very funny movie, which functions as a love/hate letter to hipsters from an older generation.

I’ve often been critical of Baumbach for being another New York auteur, who embraces the motto, “write what you know” to an alienating degree. This film may still be aimed at white privileged people, but it has more broad appeal than films he’s made about self-destructive intellectual artists.

A lot of movies have been made about adults who think they’re “cool” –until they wake up on that dreadful day when a younger generation has redefined the word again. “Neighbors” is said to be a recent example of this, but this movie, possessing a similar rapid-fire humor delivery system, is a little more grounded by focusing on ideas, saving its only overt sight-gag for last. I really enjoyed it.