Friday, December 19, 2014
There is a lot to admire in this film. The performances are excellent, the story is compelling, and it is beautifully shot. There are several reservations that I have with the film and they are likely to be director's choices. The movie is deliberately paced. The music is designed to emphasize the pacing, and there needs to be a little more of a point of view as to what is going on. I know it is based on real events, but the subjects that get focused on never stay targets for long.
Everybody is talking about Steve Carrell in this part and we should begin there. I have always thought that he was a solid actor and I have seen some films where he is not a very nice character. Best known for his comedic roles, he is of course getting acclaim by stepping out of that comfort zone. I thought his desperate turn as a cuckold husband in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" was effective enough to show his acting chops, but because it was a comedy based drama, he got a little overlooked. This film will not be mistaken as a comedy. Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell smile like twice in the two plus hours this movie runs. Carrell's main technique is to keep his face impassive for 90% of the story and to keep his chin and nose up in the air. It feels a little mannered, but along with the make-up work it is an amazing transformation.
Tatum also has a surly expression for most of the film. In fact as a character, we know that there is something wrong with him when his look is relaxed and easy going. The story takes several turns that allow him to show off something other than his dance skills and physical training. I could have lived in ignorant bliss without having to watch the vomiting that takes place at a dramatic turning point for the three main characters. Everyone else is getting attention but it is his character that is the center of the story and he acquits himself very well.
Once again, Mark Ruffalo shows why he is a splendid addition to almost any movie. His natural ebullience is kept in check and his usual low key manner fits the character he is playing perfectly. His best scene is an awkward moment recording a short interview piece for a documentary produced by the would be coach and millionaire played by Carrell. His character, David, struggles with the words he needs to say what is in his heart about John du Pont. Ultimately his in-articulation may be the straw that breaks the camel's back in the story. We know that there is something not quite right about the millionaire wannabe wrestling coach, and we spend two hours waiting for the eruption. When it occurs, it is sadly sudden and mundane in spite of our horror at what took place.
Sometimes the movie seems to be about the emptiness of du Pont's life. For long periods it looks like the film is going to focus on sibling rivalry that is secretly felt. I guess that the truth is that the film maker's want us to know that our unstable rich guy had mommy issues but without her presence, he has no anchor to keep him from drifting off. I certainly hope that the message was not to suggest that the values the killer espoused were insincere or wrong. They represent the one thing about du Pont that makes him less of a monster. His needy narcissism is what lead to the tragedy, not the desire for excellence and restoring values to the sports world.
"Foxcatcher" will get many award mentions but it is not a film that reaches high enough to be "the Best". It is well made but as compelling as the story was, the lethargy it employs in it's telling makes it much less effective than it might have been outside of the performance categories.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Saturday, December 6, 2014
This is a sad, sick, twisted story. The morality level of the people it depicts is zero, the light it sheds on the news gathering business is harsh and it makes the City of Angels look like a pretty awful place to be. All that aside, the movie is brilliant at building tension, compelling us to watch those things that are not pleasant, and it contains an amazing performance from it's lead, Jake Gyllenhaal. Along with "Whiplash", we may have a candidate for the worst creature pretending to be a human being in a movie this year.
Louis Bloom is an intense young man. He appears to be maladjusted and if you looked at him closely, he might be a high functioning sufferer of Asperger syndrome. He is socially awkward with a very distinct manner of speaking. He is also lightning quick at learning things and he is smart enough to know where to find the information he needs or the pressure points to push to get what he wants. He also has no scruples whatever. He steals as is necessary, he lies when it serves his purpose and he has become a manipulator of the first order. It is not a life of crime that he excels at however. He dreams big and with the shortcuts he is willing to take, in his new avocation, he might very well be the next media king.
Gyllenhaal has the mannerisms and quirks of this character nailed. It is a very different performance from him than we have expected over the last few years. He is usually the quiet brooding type. I have not yet seen "End of Watch", but his performance in "Prisoners", "Zodiac" and "Brokeback Mountain" are very different from what he does here. He looks like he is maniacal at times. His eyes are wide, there is a slight sheen to his skin, his hair appears to be slightly greasy. Louis also dresses like a guy who wants to fit in, not like one who actually does. The thing that most distinguishes the performance though is the control he manages over his voice. The cadence of deliver suggests a degree of energy that he is suppressing at all times. His language is calculated and measured. The script by Dan Gilroy, sounds like it was written by someone who has absorbed the lesson that Quentin Tarantino has been sharing for twenty plus years, talk can be fascinating. This is not the verbal poetry of a Tarantino character per se. Louis barely utters a pejorative or curse word in the story. Yet you know his mind well from the way he phrases his negotiations with various characters. There is a degree of earnestness that comes out very clearly. Not the friendly form of sincerity, but the deadly serious determination that goes with his madness.
The story involves Louis climb into the local news business as a provider of video images to a local channel. He falls into the business but he quickly learns the ropes and reads the trades and researches on line. He has a devastating piece of dialogue that summarizes how local news processes all of the material they present on a daily basis. His calculation of the amount of time devoted to local crime stories is enough to make you want to scream any time a news program comes on, because he is balls on accurate. Any of you reading this from somewhere other than L.A. might be surprised to learn that Kent Schocknek, Pat Harvey, Rick Chambers, Rick Garcia and Sharon Tay, are all real local news personalities. They are not acting, they are simply playing themselves in the movie. It floors me that they would agree to appear in a film so clearly condemning the business they are in. Bill Paxton is a cutthroat competitor in the same business and he ends up being someone you sympathize with. Rene Russo plays a news producer and her fierce persona and professional insecurities may be the one element of the story that I doubt, but not for any reason in her performance. She bravely plays her age and status in in the world of
media entertainment and news. She is past her sell by date and her character is struggling to maintain a foothold in a very competitive business. I'd say her performance is also noteworthy and again, not very inspiring for future journalists out there.
There are two extremely harrowing scenes in the film, one action based and the other suspense grounded. The crime scene filming has only an off screen piece of action in it but it creates an aura of dread that is thick. That same type of dread comes back as Louis and his assistant begin to follow a pair of criminals, waiting for the right video moment. The climax to this storyline is horrifying and action packed. The movie is mostly a slow burn with a great script and an amazing performance anchoring it. You may want to bathe after seeing this film, but you definitely want to see it.
If you saw the Ben Stiller version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", you will find yourself experiencing a strong sense of deja vu when watching this film. The concept is very much the same. A man who leads a good but maybe not fulfilling life, sets out to discover what is missing. It involves a lot of world travel and adventures and ultimately it leads back to love. I do want to give a shout out to the AMC Stubbs program for providing a coupon for two free tickets. Word of mouth will probably not turn this into a huge hit, but the offer did a good job filling up a theater for an early afternoon screening.
Simon Pegg has been in some of my favorite films in the last few years. He is comic genius in the Star Trek films and also Mission Impossible series. He is also the lead in the so called "Cornetto Triliogy" of "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End". He is able to mix his low key humor with a certain amount of pathos and channel it well in this film in which he is the principle character and on which the film focuses for it's entirety.
The movie does not break any ground but it is shot in some nice creative ways. There is a subtle use of animation for transitions between the episodes and the camera usually holds steady instead of floating around as it did in the Walter Mitty film. A combination of video screens, skype, CCTV also add a little bit of creativity to the way the movie is told. However, the movie is a very straight drama with some big slices of humor and there is nothing too surprising in any of it.
Hector's trip to China starts things rolling with a canard that everyone will be familiar with, befriending a lonely rich guy. Hector being naive in the world does not see the twist in his story that we see coming. His take on love ends up being sadder than he expected, but exactly what we expect. The most mundane part of the film involves his seeking enlightenment at a monastery in the lower Himalayas. This section has one of the two best jokes in the film, let's just say, check your calender before you climb the mountain. The most surprising section of the film involves his time in Africa, where he goes from supreme satisfaction, to fear, joy terror and joy again. The shortest segment and the one that works the best actually takes place on a plane. Even though the idea seems to be a stretch, it plays as the most thoughtful moments in the film.
The cast is full of names and faces that you will recognize. Stellan Skarsgard is a banker, Jean Reno a drug lord, Toni Collette a lost love and Christopher Plummer is a fellow psychiatrist studying the same issue as Hector but with a very different approach. Rosamund Pike is Hector's long suffering girl friend and she is lovely as usual but not nearly as compelling as she was in her other film this fall, "Gone Girl". The platitudes are nicely revealed and undermined and then confirmed as the story demands. It will leave you mostly satisfied, although not nearly as nourished as you would hope.
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Disney Studios has moved from being stogy to contemporary in a few short years. Once upon a time they were fairy tale tellers with an occasional foray into cute. Now they seem to alternate with regularity between the classic Princess stories that they have told well for seventy years and the very modern stuff like "Wreck it Ralph" and "Frankenweeine". Last year was "Frozen" so we are due up for something non-traditional, the answer is "Big Hero 6".
Happy to say it is a winner although my admiration for it is tempered a little bit by some of the prejudices I have from many years of watching manga and anime from a distance. The story takes place in a future city San Fransokyo, which looks like San Francisco at first, and is even introduced with the standard ocean flyover shot of Fisherman's Wharf. Just like a "Dirty Harry" movie. As the town focuses however, it is a Hodgepodge of traditional S.F. sights and Asian influenced modifications. It's not clear if the whole town was bought by some corporation from Japan, or the universe is simply altered because of some population trend. That's always been one of my issues with this stuff, it is just enough like the real world to pull you in and then something out of left field shows up and changes things without any explanation. As a kid I liked "Astro Boy" and "Gigantor" but I knew they were off. "Speed Racer" worked for me as a film because nothing in it pretended to be real, it was all overdone. This movie does the same kind of thing. Our hero, who is named Hiro, is a genius kid who turns his nose up at using his smarts at anything as mundane as University Research. He then finds he loves the idea when his brother takes him on a tour, and tries to gain admission with a special project that will wow the engineering crowd. It does, and he immediately supersedes anything that everyone else is doing and we have no reason for him to get wrapped up in the University except the plot demands it. Just more of the stuff that makes no sense but that everyone in these media take for granted and just go with. I try to do that but sometimes it just nags at me and takes me out of the story.
There is a marvelous relationship built between the automated health care provider and the young boy Hiro. Even though Baymax never really develops any emotion, Hiro seems to provide enough for both of them. The fact that Baymax was programmed and slaved over by Hiro's older brother Tadashi, makes it poignant even though it is really mechanical. The idea of the health care robot is a bit absurd but it allows the character to sound as if he is emotionally invested despite it mostly being programming. I guess if Will Robinson can grow such an attachment, and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise can relate to "Data", we should be forgiving that the screen writers want us to do the same thing. There are still a lot of other elements that come together randomly which make the movie fun but also quite nonsensical. I enjoyed the conversion of Tadashi and Hiro's friends into a superhero team, but it happens so quickly and also with more brilliance than any University could have provided, that it still seems odd. It wasn't until two thirds of the way though and I accidentally noticed how many of them there were, that I suddenly got the title of the movie.
I will say that I could see the villain coming pretty early in the process, but it was not clear what the motivation was until a coincidence reveals it. That's another one of those things that threw me off, the accidental nature of all of this coming together. This is a movie that should be like "The Incredibles", with a background in technology and superhero worship, but it is missing the back story that made that movie work so well and the solutions come so fast that it rarely felt like the team was struggling. T.J. Miller completes a 2014 trifecta of clueless characters with a role as a slacker kid with a wish to be part of the nerd school and Alan Tudyk voices another Disney film after his turn in "Wreck it Ralph", this time playing a self centered Steve Jobs type character. Scott Adsit does a nice even voiced job as Baymax. I recognized James Cromwell's voice long before I remembered him and that scares me a little since I used to be a wiz at that kind of stuff.
This movie was very entertaining and I thought it looked great. There are concepts in the story that worked and a few that don't. This is not going to be a classic that everyone will remember as their favorite film from youth, but it will make a lot of film goers happy and what more do you want from a cartoon imitating a manga style comic?
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Well it was a sad Saturday this weekend. In addition to the mediocre effort put in by my team against their arch rivals, Katniss and Company played at only a slightly higher level. "Mockingjay Part 1 will not leave a stink in the room the way our coach did on the field, but it will be a good argument to stop splitting up books and turning a series of three into a series of four or more. [Oh, and the same might be said for turning one book into three movies, but we will have to see how that comes out next month.]
Abandoning most of the science fiction elements found in the original story and films, the new "Hunger Games" movie becomes a political science paper aimed at discussing the roots of revolution. The idea of Katniss as the face of a revolt, fomented by the previously unknown forces from District 13, is straight propaganda analysis. The committee evaluation of the video prop piece she completes encapsulates this whole movie. Why is she an inspiration and why is she not working as one in our film? Jennifer Lawrence has been very good in the previous "Hunger Games" movies, but she is less natural and interesting in this movie than she has been in anything I have seen her in. Most of this is because she has become a pawn, like she was in the original stories, but this time the action is controlled by a group of mundane cave dwellers who's motives seem to be a bit murky. She is not called on to use her wits or overcome an obstacle, she is a piece of agitprop set decoration for a larger conflict.
Much of the weakness in the film is directly from the weaknesses of the novel on which it is based. "Mockingjay was a limp ending to a young adult trilogy that simply ran out of steam and ended as quickly as it could. The Tributes from the first two stories are put on the sidelines while the revolution plays out between rebelling colonies and the Capital. There were some hints of the problems the rebels had wielding power in the novel. The prep team is abused and the citizens are required to live a regimented lifestyle that would deny them even the most mundane pleasures. The Castro like character of President Coin is hardly suggested in this film. All of the interesting elements of a not very interesting book are taken out when transferring it to the screen. The action in the film is limited to three or four moments when CGI battles are carried out with Katniss as the star of a recruitment commercial.
The strengths of the movie are in some unusual places. Elizabeth Banks as the frivolous Effie Trinket, gets to make a few comic moments zing without having to rely on over the top costuming and make up. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch character is missing for most of the movie, but every time he shows up, the movie got better. The best piece of casting and the most accurately realized character is Donald Sutherland as President Snow. It is perhaps unfortunate for the movie that the highlight of the film is a skype session between Snow and Katniss at the end of the movie. Their interaction has more sparks in it than anything else that takes place in this two hour place holder.
With a nice dedication at the end of the movie to their co-worker who has passed, the film should be a fond reminder of Philip Seymour Hoffman and his talent. Watching his performance however foreshadows the plight he faced. He looks tired and flaccid in the part and there is no energy or personality in Plutarch Havensbee. His co-star from almost two decades ago in "Magnolia", Boogie Nights" and "The Big Lebowski" Julianne Moore, is a little better. As the calculating leader of District 13, she is impervious and distant in the way called for by the plot. Liam Hemsworth continues to be little more than a plot device to keep Katniss from accepting her devotion to Peeta. Gale gets some action scenes in the movie but he does little except move through the scenery.
The movie looks good and the characters are given a chance to continue their story. The problem is that the story is losing steam as it becomes less about our heroic Tribute and more about the political intrigues of Panem. The hallucinatory gas attacks and the city destroying matrix that were parts of the book are no longer present. Faceless citizens revolt in the lumber and energy districts and a jingle is all we have to show their commitment. This movie will be a box office smash, but it will not be a treasured volume in the "Hunger Games" canon.