The 2015 Oscars

I didn’t do a traditional recap this year because I was at a friend’s party. It was a fantastic time.

Anyway, The Oscars and me have a very bizarre history. It’s the one day of the year where I become downright evil. I suppose it can be compared to what Super Bowl Sunday does to some people. I watch for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But this year I was not enthusiastic about the ceremony as I’ve been in years past. There were some great films nominated, but they were overshadowed by the number of snubs and poor choices.

I recognize that “snub” is a bit of a malapropism. No one is really snubbed because no one has a right to or “deserves” an Oscar. It’s based on a vote by AMPAS members and is entirely at their discretion.

But if AMPAS is supposed to celebrate excellence in film, then they failed on so many levels even before the ceremony began. And they continued to fail as the evening dragged on.

Jake Gylenhall was the best actor of 2014. Life Itself was the best documentary of 2014. The Lego Movie was the best animated movie of the year. Gone Girl had one of the best screenplays. Mark Mothersbaugh wrote the best score of 2014.

And none of them had any chance of walking away with a statue.

And that’s not even getting into the winners. We saw The Imitation Game win for Best Screenplay, even though the screenplay was confused and tried to do too much. Eddie Redmayne beat Michael Keaton, even though Redmayne just gave one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a while (in Jupiter Ascending). Somehow, “Glory” beat “Everything is Awesome” for best original song.

How on earth can AMPAS accomplish its mission if it’s making such mistakes? The only winners I were excited to see were Patricia Arquette…and actually that’s it. I did not feel like I was really seeing excellent work being rewarded.

I was surprised to see Birdman win the top prize. Actually, I was sort of pleased. Birdman is great, but it’s also very experimental. That usually makes the conservative Oscar voters shudder.

But that’s another problem – there’s been a rallying cry that AMPAS is so out of touch with the public that they are not in a position to judge the best films. I don’t agree with this, mostly because I don’t agree that the “best of” anything is a popularity contest.

But I’m starting to think that maybe they have a point. I keep hoping that winning an Oscar will cause people to seek a film out. That’s happened before (The Shawshank Redemption bombed in theaters but did great business after picking up a ton of nominations) but it now seems to be the exception. People are not going to see these films.

I’m not sure what the balance is or if anything can be done. But considering the ratings were down compared to years past, AMPAS may be getting scared. And that is not a good place for the future of the Oscars.

THE SHOW

I did like Neil Patrick Harris as a host, but at times he seemed a little too subdued. The opening number was fabulous, as was his recreation of Birdman’s famous scene. I also liked the bit about the seat fillers.

But other jokes were just odd. What was the point of that magic trick with the briefcase? That was just a bizarre gag that went on to long at the expense of Octavia Spencer. And that Edward Snowden joke was tasteless. There have been worse Oscar hosts, but Harris won’t go down as one of the greats.

The stand out was Lady Gaga and that Sound of Music tribute. I’ve made my feelings about that movie perfectly clear and don’t understand why it’s still being praised 50 years later.

But Gaga’s medley was sublime. I keep forgetting how great a singer she really is. It made me almost…almost…change my mind about the songs in The Sound of Music.

And then she got to that dumb lyric about bright copper kettles and I snapped back into reality.

Another great stand out was the performance of “Everything is Awesome,” which didn’t end up winning. Most songs that are nominated are dreary affairs. Not this. Everyone was just so pleased for this opportunity to perform that they threw caution to the wind. It’s the most fun I think I’ve ever seen an Oscar performer have. I also want one of those Lego Oscars.

But, those few bright spots didn’t feel like enough for me. Although a three hour show consisting of a few bright spots brought down by dumb choices is pretty much what the nominees meant to me.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

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A Review of Jupiter Ascending

Oh boy. This is going to be a challenging review to write.

Despite all the nasty things I’m about to say, I found Jupiter Ascending to be very compelling. The Wachowskis were onto something here – something that was an original idea and not a retread of an old property designed to set nostalgia goggles off. I think Jupiter Ascending should still be celebrated for being a gamble. I would rather see filmmakers try and fail. It’s better than not trying at all and remaking, say, Starship Troopers just because people have heard the name before.

I hope that comes across in this review.

Now then, let’s get to it.

Ever since the release of the first Matrix movie sixteen years ago (Jesus.) the Wachowski siblings have been in a bit of a conundrum. With the exception of V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced, but did not direct) they’ve been playing to a diminishing audience and most critics are dismissing them as washed up has-beens that can’t tell a coherent story. It started with the release of the Matrix sequels and the huge audience backlash against the conclusion and continued with what was supposed to be big blockbuster events like Speed Racer.

But there are people who still celebrate their works as being visually arresting and at least challenging. Count me among them. The Matrix sequels are not as bad as their reputation (the same narrative problems and goofy sequences were present in the first Matrix, but no one seems to care). Cloud Atlas was among the best films of 2012. I haven’t seen Speed Racer, but it looked like a great attempt to create a new visual world. That’s becoming rare indeed. And Ninja Assassin - OK, that was awful, but they didn’t direct that.

The Wachowskis seem to be focused on science fiction tropes and examining why they affect us in the way that they do. It means that, sometimes, their films come across more as stoned post graduate essays than narrative films. This is going to alienate some people, but that’s something worth thinking about.

Jupiter Ascending fits into that tradition at its basic level. It’s a gorgeous looking film that examines virtually every single science fiction trope in existence.

But that’s the first of many flaws in Ascending – it’s almost in love with its complexity. I can’t begin to describe all the plot points of the film. I think it’s about the fact that the Earth is actually a gigantic farm for human cells that are sold to wealthy humans on other planets so that they can live for tens of thousands of years. This company is lead by the Abrasax family, who are considered royalty. Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, a person on earth who happens to be the exact genetic replicant of the Abrasax’s siblings mother. (This is because the genetic code only has a finite number of sequences, so such copies are treated as reincarnations of the original.) She is thus legally entitled to own the earn the earth. This sets up a great conflict with the Abrasax siblings – one seeks to kill her and one seeks to marry her. She’s being protected by a man named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who I think is a human crossed with a wolf.

After that, you’re on your own.

The film keeps introducing elements of this world throughout the entire run time. We don’t get an explanation about Jupiter until at least an hour into it (and even then it’s rather flimsy), and we don’t hear about the villains’ plans until the third act.

This is a problem. It’s basic story telling – all stakes must be laid out in the first act. Introducing new points that late is a distraction from whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

And the villains are not that interesting anyway. Eddie Redmayne gives the worst performance of his and several other careers as Balem Abrasax. He barely speaks above a whisper and has no emotion in any of the delivery of his lines. His motivations are confused and he’s about as threatening as a small child with a water pistol. He probably just cost himself an Oscar.

Jupiter herself is quite a bland character. That worked in The Matrix, because it emphasized Neo’s transformation from an everyman into a messiah. I never get the sense of Jupiter’s arc though. She also fails to become a strong female character, hopping at the chance to kiss Caine at the first moment. This romance subplot makes no sense in the context of the film. Jones never becomes a strong female character the film so clearly wants her to be.

Again, the whole idea that has kept the Wachowskis afloat creatively is the fact that they know these tropes and these ideas. If they make mistakes with them, then their approach will stumble. That’s what happened in Jupiter Ascending. They had these great ideas about space opera Some worked, but others did not. The Wachowskis were just throwing things and seeing what stuck. That’s not going to make for a real cohesive whole. Maybe what they needed to do was turn it into a TV series. That would have fleshed out the characters more and, perhaps, given audiences a more complete experience. Right now, it almost feels like I’m watching a clip show to some cult sci-fi series.

So what works? Well, the action sequences are fantastic. The gravity boots that Caine wears are a particularly nice touch. They serve as a great reference to The Matrix without being a direct lift of the bullet time. There are also several funny moments in the film, which may represent the Wachowski’s first attempt at comedy. Terry Gilliam makes a cameo during an extended tribute to his Brazil, and most of the “bad” dialogue that other critics have commented were deliberate jokes. Also, when the space opera elements did work, they worked incredibly well. To me, it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was meant to be a deconstruction of science fiction. Jupiter Ascending’s plot is no more complex than Dune’s, and features equally bad dialogue.

So, there are many things to like about Jupiter Ascending. But I just can’t get over the terrible performances and some of the most pointless set pieces. It’s going to alienate a lot of people – and, indeed, already has. The Wachowskis are smarter than this, so I’m not sure why these elements were not corrected.

But, there are so many good ideas present in Jupiter Ascending that I still enjoyed it. Hopefully, they Wachowskis will learn from their mistakes and give us a full experience next time. Hey, aren’t they developing a TV show for Netflix?

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A Review of The Blair Witch Project

I remember when The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999. It was considered one of the most revolutionary horror films in a generation. Everyone who didn’t see it (like me -I was 11) still recognized the iconic shot of the eye crying into the camera, apologizing for everything. It grossed the GDP of Albania and seemed to signal the next wave of independent cinema.

But since then, no one seems to care. Part of this dismissal has to do with the fact that its supposedly groundbreaking techniques weren’t actually that groundbreaking. I can kind of see that now.  That found footage aesthetic certainly was groundbreaking – in 1980 when the infamous Cannibal Holocaust did it. That idea of making the film a seemingly true story was also incredible – when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did it in 1974. And that handheld aesthetic certainly leads a certain realism to the film is original. That’s why people like Lars Von Trier started the ill-fated and pretentious Dogme 95 movement.

Once people realized how original The Blair Witch Project really was, interest tapered off. No one had a career launch from it and the directors used their talents to do practically nothing afterwards.

It’s a shame, because I think the biggest problem with the film was that it was released almost TOO early to have it’s real impact. Like Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project taps into that post 9/11 fear of the unknown and of the people that live outside of what we would call “civilization.” And its aesthetic is less “arty film style” and more “teenager with phone posting to YouTube.”

Watching it after 16 years, I can imagine why it took hold of the popular imagination. Most people had never seen anything like this, and it managed to be a horror film that could be horrifying without pandering to your worst tastes. Best of all, it’s short enough not to overstay its welcome.

But then after it was over, I kept thinking to myself, ” Hang on a minute. So much of that didn’t make sense.”

Look at that trailer again. Did you see how most of it is built around the discovery of the footage and the quest for answers about what happened to the kids? Well, forget it. That doesn’t play any part in the film. The Blair Witch Project is presented as edited footage of three college age kids looking to make a documentary about the mystery of the Blair Witch and a serial killer in the 1940s.

Apparently, a man living in Burkittsville, Maryland in the 1940s murdered a number of children. Local legend said that he would kidnap a kid, force his or her friends to search for him, and then kill his friends while his back was turned. When he was caught, he claimed to have been possessed by the spirit of Elly Kedward, who was hung as a witch in the 18th century (a little past the witch-hanging craze, but we’ll go with it.) The kids are out to see if there is anything tangible to the legend.

Of course, we never actually discover anything for ourselves. Most of the tension revolves around the kids becoming hopelessly lost in the woods, apparently being stalked by an unseen entity who leaves bizarre symbols and dolls at their campsites.

Sounds silly, right? It actually works very well for the way it’s presented. Showing ghosts and spooks puts any film into the realm of fantasy. The threat of being lost in the woods is something more realistic and something that feels like it could happen to anyone.

It’s also why the found footage works for the film. It’s not just a gimmick – it enhances the tension. The whole point seems to be “this could be you.” Even the actors work, despite Heather Donahue’s Razzie nomination. They’re scared kids that yell at each other rather than try to think their way out of the situation or have some stock character that knows all about the Blair Witch and how she can be dispatched. (If she actually exists.)

This is why the film worked for its large audience. It was a very realistic depiction of horror and did not insult anyone with its convoluted slasher premise. It was a film that was not only shocking but seemed like something anyone could make. That’s what an independent film should be for its vaping, hipster audiences.

Sometimes, I to ask myself, “Does a film accomplish what it set out to do?” And after watching the film, I thought the answer was yes. The film is tense, the methods used to make it work, and the performances were great.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the plot doesn’t hold up.

First, if this is supposed to be a true story, how was the footage discovered? What was the result of finding the footage? Did law enforcement solve the mystery or was it still a question? This is something easy that could have been solved with a title at the end. But The Blair Witch Project doesn’t end, it stops. There are so many questions left unanswered. Maybe it would have been better if someone was watching the footage, but such possibilities weren’t even addressed.

The only films that should focus completely on realism are documentaries. The Blair Witch Project is a fictional film. The filmmakers had a great idea but weren’t quite sure what to do. They came very close to succeeding, which makes the lapses all the more frustrating.

It’s a great idea that seemingly has great execution, but the more you think about it, the more the film collapses under its own weight. Say what you will about the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust, but that was so convincing that it got the director arrested.

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A Review of Birdman

The Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman tied for the most nominations of the year. 

I had not seen it prior to the nomination announcement, so I was quite shocked. It seemed unusual for a film like Birdman, which has been disguised as a simple parody, to be thrown the number of nominations that usually go to a film like The Last Emperor. And slapstick actor Michael Keaton was nominated for Best Actor? That almost seemed like a parody in itself. I had to see what the fuss was about.

Turns out, most of them are deserved. Birdman is a wonderful film. It’s a sort of 8 1/2 for the comic book film era. And despite my worries of stunt casting, everyone is perfect for their role.

Michael Keaton has always, for me, been an underrated actor. His opening monologue in Beetlejuice is among the closest times anyone has come to equaling Groucho Marx. His Bruce Wayne/Batman (which Birdman pays tribute to) is superior to Christian Bale’s. Keaton understood the duality of the role and played Bruce Wayne as separate from Batman.

Now, in Birdman, he plays the role only he could play. Riggan is an actor who once played the comic book superhero Birdman for three films. (He declined to do the fourth.) Birdman was a character who could fly and had telekinetic powers. Of course, his star has long faded and some of his sanity has with it. Riggan still hears Birdman’s gravely voice mocking him and at times seems to imagine that he has the same powers.

He’s also trying to win a comeback by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. He’s also trying to put up with prima donna costar Mike (Edward Norton) and reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who just left rehab.

Keaton has said that this character is entirely unlike him, which is what makes the performance work. Keaton naturally inhabits Riggan to the point where Keaton’s natural charm and humor is gone. It’s been replaced by complete hatred for himself and a delusional ego that makes him think he can fly.

But it’s not just Keaton. Every actor seems to be firing on all cylinders. Norton plays a parody of himself. Mike is a spoiled brat that is impossible to work with. When he actually attempts to have sex with an actress on stage (despite her repeated objections) he claims his erection is artistic. He even fights with Riggan, who gave him the opportunity in the   first place.

But my favorite performance besides Keaton’s was Naomi Watts. She’s an aging actress who is still wondering if she will hit the big time on Broadway. One monologue has her breaking into tears as she recounts her dreams of stardom. It’s a wonderful performance – so of course AMPAS ignored it. But that’s another article. Emma Stone also does wonderfully as Riggan’s daughter, talking about how he’s no longer relevant as an actor.

I’d also like to talk about the editing – it’s amazing. I normally don’t get into that sort of discussion, but Birdman’s technical achievements merit it. The film is put together in a single continuous take like Russian Ark. We seamlessly go around the theater and the characters as they move and rehearse their upcoming work. We also see the people in Times Square gawking at Riggan (one scene finds himself walking around in his underwear after he is locked out of the theater) and the successful shows like Phantom of the Opera (the poster actually serves as a bit of foreshadowing) taunting the actors.

Why was it shot this way? Perhaps it was to create the opposite effect of the quick cuts that are present in every superhero blockbuster. But it also makes Riggan’s world look very small. No matter how much he tries to expand his world with his art, it’s going to be contained in that theater. Even when he “flies” over the cars, it’s over a certain radius around the theater. Riggan is trapped in his world.

I think this film is going to become more relevant for actors as time goes on. These days, there are no stars. People go for the characters they play and not the actors themselves. It must be very frustrating for them to see their stardom evaporate so quickly when they decide to challenge themselves. Birdman is the first film to acknowledge this trend. It serves as a warning for people like Robert Downey Jr.

It’s amazing that AMPAS recognized a film like this. It’s very unique, with an important focus on the world’s new love for genre pictures. All of the actors are at the top of their game and are not afraid to make fun of themselves. And the editing is incredible. Birdman would have been on my top ten of the year list if I had seen it in time. I hope more people are driven to check it out.

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A Review Inherent Vice

After the film festival premiere of Inherent Vice, one reviewer stated that the film was formatted as a stoner comedy and he couldn’t understand what was happening.

“A stoner comedy with an incomprehensible plot?” I remember thinking. “That sounds like an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel to me.”

I quite like Thomas Pynchon. I’ve read several of his books (including Inherent Vice) but I would be unable to summarize any of them if you put a gun to my head. Still, there is something about each of his works that is incredibly addictive. I always feel like the joke is on me when I read his works.

All of them are marked by a nerdy obsession with the popular culture of the time they are set in. It doesn’t matter how “high” or “low” the culture in question is. Pynchon is equally likely to reference an exhibit at MOMA and The Chevy Chase Show. I’m convinced that Gravity’s Rainbow is actually an adventure serial from the 1930s that a London audience is watching as an escape from the actual looming war – which makes it ironic when the theater they are watching it in is bombed. Against the Day is a giant tome that parodies every style of 19th century literature Pynchon could think of. His most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, describes a street corner in New York as being “the only street corner where Law & Order hasn’t filmed.”

Bleeding Edge has one of my favorite quotes in it as well: “The past, hey no shit, it’s an open invitation to wine abuse.” Did I mention he won a MacArthur Genius Grant?

That’s just the details. All of his works are marked by paranoid characters who believe, despite all rational evidence, that they are the centers of massive controversies and that secret societies are targeting them. This, despite the fact that the characters are usually either completely normal or far too crazy to have any real impact on the world. The fact the plots are so incomprehensible is part of the point. It’s what the characters build up in their minds to explain circumstances they don’t understand and never will.

Before Inherent Vice, the only real Thomas Pynchon adaptation on the screen was the legendary cult classic The Big Lebowski. That film has the same sort of complex plot, a fascination with an American subculture (bowling), a character who has no chance of understanding what’s happening, characters who are introduced and quickly forgotten, and an ending where nothing is really resolved.

But now we have an official adaptation of a Pynchon novel – the first one in a writing career that has lasted fifty years. But the most important thing about Inherent Vice is that it’s a great film on its own. Had I not been familiar with Pynchon, I would have assumed he was some pulp author that director Paul Thomas Anderson had found and decided to use to deconstruct noir cliches. Anderson was, maybe, the only person that could have made this film.

Once again, I would be unable to summarize what happens in this film in the same way I would be unable to summarize what happens in the novel. It has something to do with a private eye named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigating the disappearance of a huge real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts, in case you care). Doc takes the case because Mickey stole his girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) away. He finds that it’s somehow connected to a massive smuggling ring, the Golden Fang, which may be run by California dentists or may be run by a former client of his. Nevertheless, Doc is determined to get to the bottom of it, no matter who much resistance he encounters from LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wishes he were an actor and hates the fact that he is a cop stereotype.

I haven’t even explained all the characters involved and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of everything that happens. That’s part of the point. It’s deliberately incomprehensible so audiences can see just how silly Doc’s case is.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Doc. One of the marvels of Pynchon’s characters is the fact that they don’t drive any action. They simply exist and are forced to watch bad things happen to them. Doc never has a moment where he is in control. Phoenix plays Doc as someone who is content to only exist. He often mumbles the dialogue and has no important quotes.  When he answers the phone to receive the next important plot point, he can hardly even say “hello.” That doesn’t stop Phoenix from pretending like Doc’s important. He tries to take control of every question and answer session he’s in, even when he’s stoned out of his mind. Even his attempts of blending in are doomed to failure. One scene late in the film has a character requesting the typical hippie Doc dress in a jacket and tie. So, he wears dream catcher around his neck to comply with the request. Everything about Doc is completely wrong but also completely correct for what the film needs to accomplish.

And what impressed me most is how Anderson only uses Pynchon as a starting point to deliver his own message. The narration seems to be a word for word recitation of the novel (I’d have to double check) but the best moments in Inherent Vice are moments that could never exist in a novel. For me, the funniest moment involved Bigfoot eating a frozen banana while Doc looks on. It’s a static shot that depends entirely on Doc’s reaction to Bigfoot and he notices the obvious phallic imagery of the ultraconservative sticking the banana deep in his mouth.

But Katherine Waterston impressed me the most. There’s a monologue late in the film where she shows up at Doc’s house and proceeds to sexually taunt him while swearing that they will never get back together. It’s a great scene, as Waterston’s voice gets deeper and she crawls on Doc. The camera barely moves, emphasizing the voyeuristic nature of what we are doing. And, as with the example above, it would have been impossible to accomplish in a book.

I’m glad that Anderson demonstrated what an adaptation can do for the material. He made it his own. The film is profoundly funny, with the sort of visual flair and meditative tone that is a trademark of all Anderson films. And, like Pynchon, Anderson used the film as an opportunity to eviscerate the cop and robber shows that were popular at the time. There is no resolution to anything in Doc’s story. The bad guys escape, there is no confession, and Doc is such a terrible action hero that when he does manage to fire a shot, he has to call out and ask whether or not he hit anyone.

These are great moments, but you have to think about them after the fact to realize the impact they have. Anderson isn’t someone who congratulates himself on film. He barely regards these moments at all. Like The Master, he wants us to come to our own conclusion.

Inherent Vice demonstrates why Paul Thomas Anderson is considered one of the finest American filmmakers. He’s not afraid to tackle any material, even if it’s a novel by one of the most celebrated American authors. Inherent Vice also demonstrates what an adaptation of a novel should be. Anderson takes Pynchon’s work but doesn’t commit himself to it. Instead, he wants to accomplish the same goals the author had in a different medium. That’s the approach everyone should take when turning a favorite novel into a film.

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A Review of Big Eyes

Big Eyes is what Tim Burton needed to make. He hasn’t made a great movie since 2003’s Big Fish and hasn’t even made a passable movie since his adaptation of Sweeney Todd.

It’s easy to see why he was attracted to the Keane story. Like Margaret Keane, he made a fortune by lying about his talents. But also like Margaret Keane, he was frustrated by his circumstances and wanted to demonstrate to audiences why he was special in the first place.

It makes the first two acts of Big Eyes to be great examples of honest filmmaking. While watching it, I was reminded of the works of Douglas Sirk. Sirk, you’ll recall, spent his time in America exposing the limitations of the 1950s and the way that women would not find happiness as housewives. This is so blatantly obvious now, but at the time Sirk was a revolutionary.

Big Eyes works by exploring those themes in a way that will connect with everyone who has grown up post first wave feminism. Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is a talented artist who paints her ingenue subjects (mostly variations of her own daughter) as big eyed ingenues. This image resonated with a post war audience who found innocence in a world that was defined by paranoia and strict social constraints.

But those same social constraints deeply affected the artist. Margaret met a man named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who painted street scenes from his time in Paris. They marry and he displays the two people’s works in restaurants. When his wife’s work becomes more popular, he begins to take credit for it. Margaret goes along with the scheme because of the money their raking in, but Walter becomes more obsessed with saving “his” reputation and starts to abuse Margaret when her work isn’t “good enough.”

These first two acts are great. Burton’s usual visual flair is kept to a minimum. With the exception of certain dream sequences where the people have the big eyes Margaret paints, there are practically no special effects.

Burton also uses none of his stock players. This allows him to experiment with new performances. Waltz is well cast as the slimy Walter Keane. He has a talent for playing characters like that, at least for an American audience. Unlike Hans Landa, though, the cracks begin to show in his personality as his lies keep piling up. He can appear smart at parties but in private he is truly a terrible man.

But Amy Adams is the person who challenges herself the most. With her daughter, she is meek and unable to claim the spotlight that comes so easily to Walter. It’s easy to see why she would go along with the scheme, which would be the hardest thing for today’s audiences to accept.

That’s probably the biggest thing Big Eyes had to overcome. Such a film would be easy for people to emotionally connect to. We would sympathize with Margaret, but we would not understand her plight from a modern perspective. Why would any woman allow a man to walk over her in the way Walter does? Why doesn’t she fight back? Big Eyes solves this by being less about feminism and more about what artists go through when they sell out. Margaret lives a life of luxury and does, at times, seem happy. Her concern is lying to her daughter, which she is told (by a priest, no less) is not necessarily the wrong thing to do when situations are complicated. And after all, this is what her husband wants.

Most people lose interest in an artist when they make it big. I’ve stopped counting the number of times a hipster yells at a band for daring to make the Billboard charts. But on the other hand, is the band happy with that? I think Big Eyes is the first film to really explore that side of an artists’ work. Most films unveil the big masterpiece as the finale, but Big Eyes starts there and works up.

And it does so without ever boring us. Does a film about painting sound even remotely watchable? Big Eyes is. We move effortlessly from Walter selling paintings on the wall to opening his own gallery. (Across from a gallery owned by Jason Schwartzman, whose only role in the film is to click his tongue and condemn the Keane paintings as low art.) And, in one of the best cuts, we see him creating a story about what inspires him to painting the kids – only to seem him recite the same stories on television as women tear up. Even the transformation of Walter into an abusive monster is done well. It builds up to the moment where he threatens to kill Margaret. Most films do so only when it’s convenient to the plot. It almost feels like a thriller in the way its paced.

So, we have great performances, smart themes, and a quick pacing that makes a seemingly unfilmable topic to be very cinematic. I was about ready to retroactively declare it one of the years best films.

And then we get to the third act and the film stumbles.

The movie ends with a courtroom scene. A courtroom scene outside a legal drama is a desperate narrative move.  The scene is almost too cartoonish to be taken seriously. I can summarize what happens with this New Yorker cartoon:

And it gets even more over the top when the judge orders to the two to paint a picture in order to demonstrate who created the works. Yes, I’m aware this is what really happened, but it doesn’t feel right with the tone that has been set. The film is not a comedy and never really has aspirations to be one. This just makes the ending feel like a bad joke, even though we do get a sense of justice from it when Walter chickens out of the painting competition. It’s still a bad move for a film that had been doing almost everything correctly.

So, Big Eyes is flawed. But, I’m pleased it exists. It demonstrates that people can learn from their mistakes and take steps to correct them. Tim Burton realized, like Margaret Keane, that he can make untold amounts of money by lying about his talents. And like Keane, he’s finally leveling with us.

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A Review of The Imitation Game

I found The Imitation Game to be a very challenging film, and not for the reasons you would expect.

The Imitation Game is a marvelous film at the basic levels. The performances are amazing, the direction is great, and the construction of the film as a whole is wonderful.

But at the same time, there is something about the work that felt wrong. I think that the problem with The Imitation Game was that it tried to do too much in too short a run time. Alan Turing is a man whose life could fill an entire BBC miniseries. Of course, there are many people who fit that description. But it feels hollow to insist that such people fit their life stories into a feature length biopic.

The Imitation Game is mostly about Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) wartime activities. Turing was the man who figured out how to crack the Nazis’ Enigma device using a sophisticated machine that could break their codes. In doing so, he invented the modern computer. He was also a gay man at the time when Great Britain felt such activities were criminal. Therefore, instead of being praised, Turing ended up committing suicide after a British court finds him guilty of indecency for paying a male prostitute for sex.

Does it sound like I’m describing two different works? You’re not wrong. The Imitation Game feels too fragmented to really have a real impact.

It’s not impossible to mold a film with multiple disparate themes into a successful work. I don’t blame director Morten Tyldum for being unsuccessful. He is obviously a talented man for what he gets right about The Imitation Game. The performances of Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley both deserve Oscar nominations. The film also works as a great political thriller, featuring people who were desperate to accomplish an impossible task.

Cumberbatch has a talent for playing characters like Turing. He has been widely praised for his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and turned into a sort of geek sex symbol. But whereas Holmes is always the best man in the room, Turing reveals just how lonely such a man would really be. Cumberbatch captures this element well. At times, he can almost barely speak as he tries to express his thoughts. In his opening scene, Cumberbatch acts rather Holmesian as he explains to a naval commander that he doesn’t want to work for the government. It’s a great scene, and its also great to see Turing learn that his attitude will not get him far as he alienates those he works with.

And this brings me to my first criticism – the relationship between Turing and the rest of his team is not handled very well. Stop me if you’ve heard this before – the characters hate the protagonist but grow to like him after a fleeting gesture that would really only be the first step in real life. Yep, that’s exactly what The Imitation Game does. In this case, Turing gives everyone an apple and tells a bad joke.

I realize it’s difficult to cover many years of someone’s in a single film, but other filmmakers have been more successful than this. It’s as though the filmmakers got ahead of themselves and decided that the story of Turing would be enough and encourage us to overlook the film’s faults. And as the film went on, it became more pronounced.

Still, the rest of the WWII scenes are great. The team races against time to crack the Enigma machine and there is a moral question about how they should use this technology to save lives. I won’t spoil it, but it does present the sort of moral quandary that world leaders at the time did face – quandaries that undoubtedly haunted them for the rest of their lives. These are great scenes, as Turing faces his machine and begs it to work before the commander shuts everything down. He also has to face the fact there is a Soviet spy on his team. This is an amazing war thriller that draws audiences in to the plight of Turing and his team.

But whenever I was sucked in, I found the film pushing me out through superfluous details. I haven’t even covered Kiera Knightley’s character, Joan Clarke. Clarke is a brilliant mathematician whose parents want her to find a good husband. It’s a great performance and a great character. Knightley is completely natural in her role. She comes off as smart but never arrogant. She is the perfect foil for Turing, and it’s easy to see why they could admire each other.

But at the same time, Clarke is used to illustrate the plight of women who wanted to be professional in a world that viewed them as less than human. This is a legitimate topic for a film, but it makes the film feel stretched even thinner. How can anyone focus on that story while the Nazis are killing the British? Considering the stakes, it prevents my mind from understanding the war and what Turing and Clarke hoped to accomplish.

What also stretches the film thin is the final act about Turing’s arrest for his homosexual activities. Yes, the real Turing was a gay man and yes, his fate (a judge sentenced him to be chemically castrated to remove his gay urges) is a terrible one. But we never really see that side of Turing as an adult. There are flashbacks to his schooldays where falls in love with a boy named Christopher. Indeed, he names his computer after his love. But that’s as far as it goes thematically. It might seem minor, but the film makes a point at the end of citing the number of gay British men who were forced to undergo the sametreatment as Turing.

Films are about showing, not telling. We are supposed to arrive at our own emotional conclusions. They cannot just cite material and expect people to have the same feelings. As I said, I completely agree with the film’s conclusion that the treatment of homosexuals at the time was inhumane and barbaric. That doesn’t mean i agree with the way the film handles it. Why not show us more of Turing’s partners and show the story of how he was forced to keep it a secret from his colleagues? Why not show the strain such secrecy places on his relationships? That would have been far more effective than what the film delivers.

I admire films that try to address multiple themes. Some films do so very well. But The Imitation Game was the first time I ever really felt distracted by a film trying to do too much in its run time. The film was simply trying to do far too much. Turing was a man who’s story needed to be told and when the film focuses on the creation of his machine and how it won WWII, it soars. Everything else just feels unnecessary.

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A Review of The Interview

So it only took a few days for Sony to realize its mistake and release The Interview.

I stand by everything I wrote in my previous entry. Sony was cowardly not to pull the release for any length of time. I am glad that they saw the error of their ways though and let us analyze the film.

But now that they have, we have some more questions to ask. Is this the definitive political satire of our time, the one that demonstrates how much further ahead we are than other nations that view criticism of their leaders as a moral offense?

No.

It’s still funny, but in the way that Franco and Rogen’s other films are funny. It’s certainly not political. And it also has quite a few missteps that should have been corrected.

Normally I might not care as much, but this film has become the must see movie of the season. While other studios are spending untold dollar amounts to get people to watch their films in time for the Oscars, The Interview has the sort of publicity that Hollywood would kill to have. It’s become more than a film. It’s become a movement, which makes its flaws more pronounced.

The plot is actually quite simple. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, an Entertainment Tonight style reporter whose scoops are less along the lines of nukes in North Korea and their “threat” to the world and more along the lines of “Eminem is gay.” (That’s one of the interviews presented in the first act, featuring Eminem playing himself.) Seth Rogen is Skylark’s producer Aaron Rapaport, who after being insulted by a former schoolmate that now works for 60 Minutes, wants to land an actual scoop. He contacts North Korea after reading on Wikipedia that Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) is a fan of Skylark.

You know the rest. CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan, who you may recognize from Mean Girls) recruits them to kill Kim Jong Un with a cyanide strip. In the fine tradition of Crosby and Hope (or maybe Cheech and Chong), the two keep bungling it up.

The style of humor is not in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog. It’s more in the style of Animal House. The film’s biggest laugh comes when Rogen is forced to “secure a package” containing the poison that has landed in a forest in North Korea. His pleading, his vocalizations, his actions, and his demeanor all demonstrate that Rogen knows what comedy should be. It’s a great moment as he screams over the radio about his plight. It’s great, as is the scene where Rogen has to explain that no one has swum from North Korea to Japan. Skylark is depicted as the usual dumb airhead who thinks Kim Jong Un is great because he drinks margaritas with him and hires North Korean prostitutes for entertainment. He isn’t really funny on his own, but Franco and Rogen have a great chemistry together that make their jokes so infectious.

But that style of humor demonstrates one thing: the film is not a political statement. Indeed, it seems to know almost nothing of North Korea. I could spend the rest of this review discussing this, but I’ll focus on the biggest example.

Late in the film, we get to the titular interview. Skylark tries to catch North Korea on the numerous crimes it has committed. But Un responds to them, even stating that the reason for the nation’s plight is the sanctions the U.S. has placed on the country. Never mind this is because they lied about their nuclear program or the fact that one of their biggest allies is a huge world economy that certainly could trade with them. Skylark treats this as an enormous revelation, one that he cannot respond to.  There isn’t even a joke about this fact.

It does take a few shots at the reclusive dictator. One moment in the film has Lacey describe the propaganda of North Korea. It states that Kim Jong Un doesn’t urinate or defecate. (This is completely true to life.) Of course Franco brings it up when he meets the dictator, who sets the record straight by stating, “I have a butt hole, and it’s working overtime.”

This line is good for a giggle, as are the moments that show Jong Un as a Katy Perry addict. There is also some satisfaction is seeing Kim Jong Un reduced to a blubbering mess at the mention of his father.

But it doesn’t really amount to much, especially as we never really see North Korea. Most of the action takes place in one of Un’s private palaces and the grounds outside. North Korea is still depicted as a dangerous power (which is not true) and we never see Kim Jong Un as he truly is.

Here’s an idea – what if those nukes that North Korea was threatening the world with turned out to be fake? What if the best Kim Jong Un was able to muster was a piece of paper with the word “nuke” written on it?  Heck, given current events, it might be funny to have Un execute his uncle for stealing the last cookie. It might also be funny to have Kim Jong Un present a floppy disc to his people as “the latest technological achievement from the glorious people’s republic.” That would be much closer to reality AND would mock our perceptions of the country. There is this great Twitter feed from some called “Kim Jong Number Un.” It scores far more points against the dictator and the way he’s perceived. The Interview does not do so. Even his death scene (yes, it’s leaked and been all over the internet, so I don’t think that’s a spoiler) is depicted as a standard action movie style death. Wouldn’t it be funnier for him to die in a complete random way? What if he started crying while listening to Katy Perry and crashed his helicopter because he was so distracted?

I and many others built up an idea of what this movie should be after it was effectively banned. And I have to say that it didn’t meet my expectations. It’s a standard Seth Rogen/James Franco team up that is good for a few laughs but is not a real cultural touchstone. Who cares if we hear about Dave Skylark’s sex life? It’s not really the film’s fault, but it’s nowhere near what I was hoping it would be. Still, it’s good for a laugh and I am still going to celebrate the fact that we can see it as we always should have.

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The Interview, Kim Jong Un, and Sony’s Cowardice

As you can tell from the headline, I am not in a mood to mince words.

There are many things to be offended about in today’s world. You can be offended about the hostage situation in Australia. You can be offended about the Taliban slaughtering children. Here in the U.S., you can be offended over the fact that police officers keep killing unarmed people and don’t seem to be facing any consequences.

I am offended and saddened by all of those things. But this also hits me in a way I didn’t really expect, simply because I never believed something like this could happen.

Following a massive hack to their servers and various threats against theaters that were going to show the Seth Rogen/James Franco vehicle The Interview, Sony Pictures has pulled its release. It has stated that it has no plans to release it in theaters, on Blu Ray, or on Netflix.  It is languishing in a vault somewhere. Right now, it’s looking like we may not see the film at all.

I hope I’m wrong; that’s not how the world should be.

That it was The Interview that was pulled was irrelevant. It could have been any film and my reaction would still be the same. I’m not saying The Interview is some sort of artistic masterpiece and its vaulting is the equivalent of the destruction of Greed. I have no way to make a proper assessment of the film. It could be a terrible film with flat comedy and bad performances. In fact, some critics who managed to see it say that’s exactly the case. The Rotten Tomato score is at 52%. It could be the greatest film ever made, a poignant satire on international relations and the looming spectre of the Cold War on the world. I doubt that last scenario, but the trailer did look funny and I was a fan of This is the End.

There are countless lost films out there. Some were lost to time due to neglect. Others were completed but canned due to an actor’s death or rights issues that were not worked out before. Some (like the infamous The Day the Clown Cried) were shelved because the creator found it unwatchable and embarrassing.

That’s not what happened with The Interview. It was ready to go. Promotional material was released. Posters adorned lobbies. Trailers were up on YouTube. The two main stars started granting interviews in relation to their upcoming film. (Seth Rogen was one of the last guests on The Colbert Report.) It would have probably done well at the box office had it been released as scheduled.

And now, that’s all gone for two reasons. And both of them are terrible reasons.

For one, North Korea’s reaction is pathetically stupid even for a terrible despot who has witnessed his people starve but uses his country’s exports of fake U.S. currency, crystal meth, and insurance fraud to buy Yves St Laurent cigarettes and sauna equipment so he can beat hangovers after partying all night. This while the majority of North Koreans literally eat grass – those that aren’t stuck in nightmarish, dystopian gulags and have to resort to eating hard pieces in cow feces to eat anything at all.

Dictators have been portrayed in film since there was film. They’ve been discussed in literature for centuries. There have been countries to ban works, sure. But declaring a film to be an act of war, especially when that film has no chance of reaching your shores anyway, is stupid. Hitler never threatened to assassinate Charlie Chaplin over The Great Dictator. Suddam Hussein never threatened to bomb the U.S. mainland when Hot Shots Part Deux roared into theaters. Mussolini felt that the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup was about him and so banned it in Italy, but it didn’t result in Harpo having to employ a bodyguard.

And I’m not even going to count the number of times the U.S. president has been the target in any number of espionage films. Did anyone arrest the director of Air Force One or In the Line of Fire for portraying a president in danger of being murdered? Fox News rallied against a little seen mockumentary called Death of a President, but they didn’t hack into Lionsgate’s servers and post emails that suggested Jason Statham demanded fresh, virgin tiger blood every day on the set of Crank.

So what, you corpulent, idiotic, pathetic, spineless, nefarious, vile, stupid imbecilic freak makes you so special?

That clip is above is from the aforementioned Death of a President. I’ve seen it. It was an interesting piece of speculative fiction that didn’t really live up to its premise. It may be vulgar and offensive to depict a world leader in that manner. I didn’t find it vulgar, mostly because the film didn’t really take a position on Bush as a human being or as a president.

But I can see that and make that analysis.  (So can you, if you’re so inclined. It’s on Hulu.)

Which brings me to my next point – Sony’s reaction.

After everything that happened, and after their moment to become the beacon of free speech, they pulled the film. They chickened out. They did exactly the opposite thing they needed to do.

“We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome,” Sony said in its statement as they demonstrated they don’t stand by their filmmakers or their right to free expression by pulling The Interview from its release schedule.

I know how damaging the hack was to them. The emails make some of their top executives seem quite unprofessional and may alienate a few powerful people in Hollywood. But that’s business. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes your relationships change. What’s going to be a lot worse is how they will have no support from that artistic community. Why would anyone work for Sony if they’re going to have to constantly compromise and may not even allow their films to be seen? That’s far worse than telling Angelina Jolie that she’s out of her mind for calling a meeting about the editing process.

Now, I know what you’re going to say, “It’s better safe than sorry.” “They threatened us with terrorist attacks. The theaters would have been targets. We can’t show the film now,” you think, as a car backfires and you run for cover.

Well, you could also get into a car wreck each time you drive. In fact, that’s far more likely than being a victim of a terrorist attack while watching a movie. Vastly more likely. So should we ban cars to keep you safe?

I have a feeling you would have some words about such a ban, but math is on my side. So let’s ban cars! North Korea doesn’t have cars and the only traffic accidents they have are the top political officials who fall out of favor or criticize the Dear Leader.

See, this is the problem. Sony and theater chain owners were afraid of something that could not realistically happen. The threat was enough to give North Korea what they wanted. Some would compare their actions to those of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister that helped create the Munich Agreement. But that’s not a worthy comparison. The British populace didn’t want war and may not have been in a position to fight the Nazis. North Korea is in no position to do anything (see that statement about the exports and how the citizenry eats grass) and people wanted to see the film. But Sony and American theater owners still backed down.

This would have been a lot worse if people came out supporting Sony in the interest of not being yelled out. Luckily, the reaction seems to be the opposite. Sony’s actions have been heavily criticized. Kim Jong Un’s death scene from the film has already leaked. Franco is still making public appearances. (He was part of the ensemble that helped play Stephen Colbert off his show.) And above all, Kim Jong Un is not winning anyone’s approval. People think about him, I’m sure, but this has put him in the news in a bad light more than even the UN’s report on his human rights abuses.

That’s the ultimate victory of pop culture. Usually, politics is boring and indecipherable. But when it hits the people directly, that’s when change comes.

In the short term, maybe that means The Interview is released in theaters. In the long run? Maybe people around the world realize they cannot be bullied when they demand access to something.

The second The Interview is released, I will review it. For now, I am going to criticize Sony in the manner they deserve. Shame on you for bowing to North Korea. Shame on you for censoring an artistic work. And shame on you for expecting us to praise you for making the choice you made.

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A Review of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome/My Fury Road Reaction

Another week, another huge trailer for a film franchise that was completely dormant for decades.

Actually, I can’t wait for the release of Mad Max: Fury Road because I can’t wait to hear the full story of its crazy production. It was originally supposed to shoot in 2003, then it was delayed due to money issues and the outbreak of the Iraq War. Then it was supposed to be revived as an animated film stylistically similar to Akira. Then it was supposed to be two films shot back to back.

And then, when it finally started filming, the production was so out of control it stopped and restarted roughly a year later. And THEN filming wrapped in 2013 but got trapped in post production. And despite all of the interest in the franchise and the long gestation period, nobody has any idea what the film is about.

Apocalypse Now didn’t go through this many false starts or such a bizarre shoot. Fury Road is destined to be either incredible or incredibly terrible. There is not going to be a neutral position.

What’s unusual is just how the series was revived in the first place, especially after Beyond Thunderdome. The second film in the series (Road Warrior) is regarded as a genuine classic that has influenced filmmakers from David Fincher to Joss Whedon. Thunderdome’s reputation is more mixed. There are some who love it and insist it is the best of the franchise. (Roger Ebert took this position.) There are others who feel that it is the low point of Mad Max.

In a recorded DVD intro for The Road Warrior, Leonard Maltin compares the climatic car chase to John Ford’s legendary Stagecoach. Both are genre pictures that rewrote all the rules about their respective genres. The post apocalyptic look of Mad Max is everywhere now, even in places where it’s not appropriate.

Beyond Thunderdome deserves praise for not copying its predecessor but for trying to introduce something new. This time, Max goes to a western frontier town called Bartertown where a power struggle exists between Aunty (Tina Turner) and the El Topo-esque Master Blaster. Aunty tries to get Max to kill the giant Blaster via the Thunderdome (essentially a WWE cage match with chainsaws and blades) to prevent the dwarf Master from taking over the town.

What’s surprising is that this plot is resolved barely forty minutes into the film. And that’s where the movie makes it’s biggest mistake.

After that, Max encounters a tribe of children who believe him to be a pilot that will fly them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.” If you think this sounds like a half baked version of Peter Pan’s lost boys, you are correct. Even the intriguing version of their oral history is not enough to save them.

So of course Max thinks the best thing to do is to take some of the children to Bartertown to rescue Master, which results in half the town being destroyed and a car chase involving a train.

I cannot tell you how those ideas link. I think that the idea was to explore how civilization truly rises. The kids start out in what we would call a primitive tribe but then move onto rebuild great cities. They have legends and heroes. It’s the same things that kept everyone else going. There’s also the dynamic that their legends are based on reality but are not going to meet the expectations of everyone. Still, the film ground to a halt during the second act.

But those scenes in Bartertown are amazing. It’s a great western tribute that captures the imagination. Plus, in its own way, it feels like the sort of ramshackle civilization that would be set up in the world of Mad Max. Tina Turner is an effective villain and the Thunderdome scene is worthy of applause. It was fast paced, action packed, and a wonderful exploration of the “bread and circuses” idea that would undoubtedly carry the people living in this world. This is fascinating, intriguing genre film making. That is where the strength of the film was, and it’s curious that the filmmakers didn’t seem to realize it.

Another problem is how they changed Max. In The Road Warrior, there’s a lot of Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune in him. He barely talks in that film at all. Here, he almost never shuts up. They even handle his weapons poorly. At the start of the film, Max unloads an entire mercenary’s arsenal when entering Bartertown. (It’s illegal to carry the weapons there.) In Road Warrior, part of his character was that his sawn off shotgun was useless – he had no ammo for it. It was his poise and his mysteriousness that made him dangerous. Trying to have him act like a typical macho ’80s action hero didn’t feel right.

So, Thunderdome was incredibly entertaining but still flawed. That’s what has me worried the most about Fury Road, especially in regards to its long gestation time. There’s an old maxim in Hollywood that states, “You’re only as good as your last film.” The last Mad Max films had some great ideas, some wonderful images, and the series’ trademark fantastic action. But it ultimately tried to do too much in a short run time. It’s also still very difficult for me to explain how the two plots merge together. But at least I can explain what happened. The fact that no one seems to know what’s going on in Fury Road is disconcerting.

But to me, the weirdest aspect is the fact that Fury Road just seems to be The Road Warrior on steroids. It’s bad for sequels to redo what previous films have already done. Beyond Thunderdome didn’t have that issue. It took its characters and tried to do something new with them.

Even if it didn’t succeed, it’s one of the most daring sequels ever made. I hope Fury Road lives up that.

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