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The LEGO Batman Movie is not a sequel to the wonderful, OMG can you still not believe it not only didn’t win Best Animated Feature at the 2014 Oscars, it wasn’t even nominated, The Lego Movie, but, rather, the newest entry in the franchise. For those of you into esoteric movie references, that’s like the difference between Road to Zanzibar and, say, After the Thin Man.
The Lego Movie was a film that wouldn’t stop and carried you along on its ridiculous back never giving you time to think about it. It had something to say about being a drone versus being a child again, but what made it work was the theme being so secondary you might have missed it and not realize (as one politician didn’t) that the main song, Everything is Awesome, was ironic.
The LEGO Batman movie starts out the same way as action, action, action drives the story backed by a great deal of wit and cleverness. And the opening scenes suggest a movie with all the positives and pleasures of the first one.
All the while, while watching Godzilla, the mega monster movie epic written by Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham and directed by Gareth Edwards, all I could think is “where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you need them?”
(I remember this one moment, see, and this female MOTU, okay, she like passes over the central character, Ford Brody, and you can like see its testicular like sac carrying its eggs and everything, and, and I so wanted Crow, Tom Servo or Gypsy to call out, “Please don’t teabag me, please don’t teabag me”). Read the rest of this entry »
For the 2011 Oscars, Canadian director Denis Villenvue’s film Incendies (a puzzle film about twin brother and sister who find out they are closer to their unknown father and brother than they thought) was nominated for best foreign language film. In punishment for his sins, Villenvue was given the movie Prisoners to make.
Actually, I don’t know if this is accurate or not. As far as I really know, this was Villenvue’s pet project from beginning to end. But it sure feels like proof of that anecdote by Michael Haneke who came to the U.S. and was presented with a screenplay so outside his purview, he asked (and I paraphrase), “Is this what Hollywood is? You come here and they just give you whatever screenplay they have lying around in a drawer” (a viewpoint that seemed proven as far as I was concerned when the dynamic Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park was given the embarrassing screenplay of Stoker to make).
There is one good scene in Prisoners, a routine thriller about child abduction written by relatively newcomer Aaron Guzikowski. It comes early on with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (Loki? Okay, sure, why not) interacting with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. They talk about animal signs and fortune cookies and it has nothing to do with anything, but it is witty and fun. But after that (and before that as well), everything goes downhill rather quickly. It plays with religious imagery, but that all feels clichéd and under dramatized. And the movie brings nothing new to the genre, seeming to have no real purpose for existence, even the purpose of a movie that does nothing, but does it very, very well.
Prisoners is a one note film. It starts at a relatively high point of tension (even before anything happens) and pretty much stays there the whole time. Everyone seems so angry in the film. Hugh Jackman, trying a bit too hard to play against type as everyman working class father Dover, feels angry from the opening shot (both literally and figuratively, but you’ll have to see the movie to get the pun). And the scenes with Loki at the police station are so filled with furious confrontation, it feels like an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I never knew how anyone could stand working with anyone in that show, they were all so unprofessionally mean to each other). Even the weather is angry; it’s always overcast, raining or snowing. And when there’s no place for anyone to go, when they do go there, it tends to become camp, over the top and unintentionally funny.
There’s only one really effective performance in the move and that is Wayne Duvall as the Captain at Loki’s precinct. He’s one of those, I know I’ve seen him a million times before, though I can’t quite place where, actor. And he is spot on. But everyone else, Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, the unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Len Cariou (or maybe I just didn’t want to recognize them), and the unfortunately recognizable Paul Dano, just can’t do much with what they’re given. At least Mario Bello, as Dover’s wife, is lucky enough to have a character so traumatized she takes sleeping pills and is out for most of the film.
Because I and my friends could never become emotionally involved in the movie (though our eyebrows got plenty of exercise as we rolled them over and over again), all that was left for us was to wait, and wait…and wait, until we find out who did it. And because we could never become emotionally involved, all we did afterwards was pick apart the plot (a highly convoluted one by the time it’s over, a bit too clever perhaps than was necessary, but it did seem to hold together). If we had been riveted by what was going on and so involved with the characters and what they were going through, we probably wouldn’t have cared about the details so much (especially a particularly hysterical one at the end where Loki has the choice of calling 911 for help or speeding to get a little girl to a hospital down a crowded freeway during a deluge of a rainstorm while in danger of blacking out from being shot—guess which one he chooses?).
I do hope that as far as Villenvue is concerned, this was a take the money and run movie and that he’ll next return to his roots and make something that means something to him and not to some producer’s profit sheet. We can only hope.
I hate to say it. It’s so snarky and such a cliché and I hate it when I hear someone else say something like it, but I simply don’t know a better way to phrase it: Only God Forgives is the sort of movie a filmmaker makes when he starts believing his own press. In other words, it’s a film that shows incredible talent on the part of its director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also wrote the screenplay), but is so showy, ostentatious, gaudy and florid, calling attention to how brilliant the filmmaker thinks he is, that it becomes impenetrable as it drowns in its own pretentiousness. One just stares at the screen trying to figure out what everyone was thinking while you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m sure it means something to the filmmakers, but hell if I can make heads or tells of it”.
This is too bad, I mean, really too bad, because Refn is the wunderkind from Denmark who made his name with the Pusher trilogy (which I haven’t seen) and used the notoriety of those films to come to the U.S. to make Drive, that glorious neo-noir about a stunt driver by day, get away driver by night, who finds himself conflicted when he falls for his neighbor who has a little boy as well as a husband in jail. That movie was a controlled, tension filled character study with a real page turner of a story. In contrast, Only God Forgives moves at a snail’s pace with a story made up of beautiful sets filled with people who often sit or stand immobile looking like mannequins, all filmed within an inch of its listless life (the stunning cinematography is by Larry Smith)—it’s as if Macy’s windows were designed by Chan-wook Park or Kar Wai Wong.
The basic story revolves around an American with mommy issues who runs a boxing gym in Bangkok. When the American’s psychotic brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a fascistic, but righteous, police detective uses very righteous and fascistic means to restore order by manipulating the prostitute’s father/pimp into killing the brother. When the American finds out what his brother did, he lets the father go. But then the American’s mother comes to town ahead of an expected drug delivery and she wants vengeance.
Ryan Gosling plays the American, and like many of his other roles, he’s probably a bit too metrosexual for the part (he speaks so little so that whenever he does, his tinny voice seems a bit out of place). In the end, it’s Kirsten Scott Thomas as the mother, in wicked Babs Stanwyck blonde tresses, and Vithaya Pansringar, as the righteous police detective with a karaoke fetish, who deliver the most effective performances (Thomas also has the best line; when she finds out what her son did to the prostitute, she says, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons”).
Much has been made of the violence in the movie and it’s there, for sure, but it’s nothing that out of the ordinary for this sort of film and I’m not sure what everyone is so upset about. At the same time, IMHO there is some hypocrisy here. It’s obvious that Thomas has more going on in her relationship with her sons than simply expecting a card on mother’s day. But while Refn has no problem throwing gallons of blood around the sets, he seems to balk at showing incest. I’m not convinced the movie is as brave as Refn may think it is. Even White Heat with James Cagney was more daring in this area.
In the end, Refn has nobody to blame but himself for how it all turned out. He is the director and the writer after all, so it’s a little hard to find another fall guy. But it might be interesting to take note: for the first film in the Pusher trilogy, he co-wrote the screenplay with Jens Dahl; Drive was written by Hossein Amini. And there is something about this movie that does show contempt for screenwriters. It’s a film that feels all driven by the vision of an auteur who doesn’t think he needs help to reach his vision. There was certainly potential here, but it might have been interesting to see how it would have all turned out if someone else had written the screenplay.
The Wolverine is a perfectly acceptable entry in the rash of blockbusters revolving around comic book heroes. There’s nothing that wrong with it and ends up being more fun than one might think. Perhaps the easiest way to say it is that on a scale of one to ten, it’s far, far superior to Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, but it’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight. It stars Hugh Jackman in the title role and he looks great in his Elvis sideburns and motorcycle tough Marlon Brando clothes. The serviceable screenplay is by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; the ditto direction is by James Mangold. It all revolves around some dirty dealings among a wealthy Japanese businessman; the Yakuza; and a walking virus of a slinky blonde (played amusingly by Svetlannd Khodchenkova, again in tresses gold of Stanwyck Babs). In the end, it should be said the movie doesn’t paint the country of the rising sun in a particularly positive light: it’s major themes seem to be that save a Japanese soldier from the bombing (atomic, of course) of Nagasaki, he’ll still stab you in the back, and Japan is a country run by the rich and the mob with a police force that doesn’t seem to exist.
Wasteland is a sort of heist film that is structured in such a way that the pay off finale is its only real reason for existence. Because of this, the screenplay (by the director Rowan Athale) has only one purpose and that is to revolve itself around the “surprise” twist ending (the surprise is in quotations because it’s really not all that big a surprise by the sweet time it takes to finally get there). What happens is often what happens in movies structured this way: the story and the characters never quite seem believable or satisfying since they are not there to drive or tell the story, but only to set up the ending.
The story unfolds in an as told to way: recently released petty criminal Harvey (Luke Treadway) is being interrogated by DI West (Timothy Spall) after being found at the scene of a crime, a break in at a club owned by a mobster with the mobster’s enforcer, who Harvey has a grudge against, lying almost dead on the ground in front of him. Harvey, who is in pretty bad shape himself, tells West what happened.
It’s not a bad way to tell a story, but it’s a fairly clunky one here. Athale makes one of the most common mistakes in screenplays like this: Harvey tells West all sorts of details that he couldn’t know since he wasn’t there to witness the events himself. And the way he tells a story doesn’t feel like the way an accused criminal would tell it, but the way a character needs to tell it so the audience gets the whole shebang (again, to set up the ending). He doesn’t even tell West the same story the audience sees: at the very end, we discover suddenly that Harvey has never used the names of his accomplices the whole time in talking to West, though in the flashbacks, the names are constantly used—so what parts of the story did he tell West and which didn’t he? (And just how hard is it going to be for West to figure out just who these friends of Harvey are anyway? One of them is Harvey’s roommates, for Christ’s sake, not to mention a character who is his ex-girlfriend)
Though there is something satisfying about Harvey’s ultimate plan (Harvey wants revenge and he gets it, sort of; the enforcer ends up in hospital, but there’s no indication that anything more is going to happen to him), it’s just dramatized in a somewhat slipshod manner and it’s all a bit convoluted with too many goals for the characters. And the ending with West listening to Harvey one more time is ridiculous and not one iota believable (again, it’s not there because the characters would act this way, but out of necessity to reveal to the audience that “surprise” ending).
At the same time, everybody gives the whole shebang their all. You certainly can’t fault any of them. They get more than everything out of their parts that they can and, in fact, act as if an Oscar nomination depended upon it. At the same time, they are trapped by lengthy sets of dialog that often go on and on. One doesn’t always know how to react the verbosity. Sometimes you admire the actors for their dexterity in saying Athale’s realistic and vibrant dialog; at other times, you just want to yell at the screen, just shut the hell up and get on with it already. Only Spall, with his long suffering, jowly bull dog look, gives the strongest and most interesting performance (and Athale’s biggest error as screenwriter is probably the underuse of this character).
There has been a lot of controversy over movies that have opened in the last few months (or as they are known in Hollywood, the ones more likely to have a chance at being nominated for an Oscar). For Zero Dark Thirty, it’s the use of torture (oh, sorry, I mean, enhanced interrogation techniques; but you say potayto and I say, etc.); for Argo and Lincoln, it’s historical accuracy; for Django Unchained, it’s the use of the n-word and Tarantino’s take on slavery. But none of them have shown the vitriol and ferocious debate that one major motion picture has created in the hearts of true movie goers: Les Miserables and its non-use of lip synching. While all the objections of other films could be summed up by someone putting words in other people’s mouths, it’s only Les Miserables that hasn’t done it—literally. And still has gotten in trouble for it.
Les Miserables, the movie version of the long running Broadway musical, is probably an experience you either go with or you don’t. For the record, I did. As with others in the audience I saw it with, I was often on the verge of tears at this large, sweeping story that takes place in France during the revolution (no, not the French revolution of 1789, dude, but the June Rebellion of 1832—if you didn’t know that, you are so obviously not a Les Miz fan). It’s a story that has all the virtues of 19th century literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here). It also has all the defects of 19th century literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here). Again, you either go with it or you don’t.
I don’t know how William Nicholson (who adapted the play to film) and director Tom Hooper did it. There’s no reason for this movie to work. It probably should have resulted in an over the top, campy musical adaptation filled with picturesque poor people dancing in the streets. But that’s not what happened. Instead we have a deeply moving and often overpowering story of man’s inhumanity to man and the power of spiritual redemption.
Of course, much of this has to do with the original source material, a French musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, if for no other reason in that it’s not exactly a musical. Though there are a few lines spoken here and there, Les Miserables is more an opera. So instead of a story in which the authors had to create clunky transitions to songs sung by the various characters (which can result in a certain disconnect and call attention to the artificiality of what is going on), we instead have a story whose dialog and emotion is only heightened by music, a stirring score that just sweeps you along whether you want it to or not. One can make the argument, I suppose, that the original story by Victor Hugo has been shrunk by the usual necessity of telling a big story in a smaller venue; but one can just as easily make the argument that the story has also been enlarged and deepened by the expressive and impassioned music.
But much of the success has to be laid at the feet of Nicholson and Hooper who had the dubious honor or taking a stylized staged production and setting it against the hyper realistic background that is almost inherent in film; an almost impossible task, but one the two have more than succeeded in as far as I’m concerned. And they do it by throwing out all that stagy stylization (except the music, which, of course, can’t be gotten rid of) and adapting it and filming it all with a deathly seriousness. There’s barely a trace of musical comedy or Broadway tinsel here. They don’t even use the cute Dickensian approach that was so successful in Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver. It’s a straightforward look at poverty and injustice filled with people who are desperately poor, starving, having no hope. And the way Nicholson and Hooper film it, it’s often devastating in its realism, a realism that, in fact, may make it more difficult to return to the original. Once one has seen Hooper’s staging of the fight at the barricade, the chase through the sewers, the stunning visuals of 19th Century Paris, can the stage ever again satisfy (sort of “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree” type thing)?
One can almost tell how much Nicholson and Hooper have succeeded by pointing out the one major failure, the “Master of the House” number, a comic look at the innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who have so badly abused the young Cosette. On stage, this number is a real show stopper. In film, it’s a real show stopper too, but in a totally different way. This is the one number that is all musical comedy and writer and director just couldn’t seem to find a way to fit its style into the rest of the movie and so it falls ponderously flat. A close second is the song Suddenly, the only one written expressly for the movie (seemingly in an effort to get an Oscar nomination), a number that feels stylistically inconsistent and doesn’t really add anything to the film as a whole.
And there are some structural issues that can be traced to both source materials, the original musical and the book by Hugo. From the stage, we get a story that jumps from scene to scene leaving out transitional details that result in a story that is at times told in a somewhat clunky manner (as in the scene at the court where a false Valjean is on trial). From the book, we have a plot that has two stories—one, the conflict between Valjean and Jabert, and the other the love story of Cosette and Marius. The two overlap in the middle, but just as one winds down (Valjean/Jabert), the other is still going strong and it takes awhile to wrap things up.
But the rest of the movie is ravishing and ravishingly filmed, the camera often soaring above the actors to show a world that is being watched by God (astounding cinematography by Danny Cohen). The CGI that enables the filmmakers to show a 19th Century Paris often takes one’s breath away. The design aspects (costumes, sets, production design) are stunning.
And then there is the acting. It’s a superlative cast, with nary a false note (pun intended) to be had. They succeed for the same reason as Nicholson and Hopper: they all play their roles with a devastatingly seriousness. It’s probably Hugh Jackman’s (Jean Valjean) best performance. There’s no point in talking about Anne Hathaway as Fantine; I couldn’t improve on anything that hasn’t already been said. The young lovers (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) make us believe in not just love, but overpowering passion, at first sight. The one major issue, as has been pointed out by better men than I is Russell Crowe as Javert. His singing is a bit lacking (to put it diplomatically). But I don’t think he’s quite the weak link everyone maintains, mainly because his acting is so sure and strong and he is often filmed against overpowering backdrops that help bring an intensity to what he is saying that his singing cannot. At the same time, all I could think is how more interesting it would have been if Sacha Baron Cohen and Crowe had switched roles.
As for the non lip synching? Sorry, guys, but I thought it was a brilliant decision. It brought a dramatic intensity to the acting that I haven’t seen that often in musicals. But like the movie, it’s probably something you go with or you don’t, and for the record, I did.