Sunday, July 20, 2014

Begin Again







I come to this post and this movie without any preconceived idea of how the movie is supposed to look or sound or even develop. I have not seen "Once", even though I own a copy and it has been strongly recommend to me. I will not be comparing "Begin Again", made by the same director as "Once", to a movie that I have not seen. It looks to me on a number of sites that this is exactly what other writers are doing. Whether that is fair or not I can't say. This review will be solely based on my experience today. I thought the film was wonderful. The style is interesting and I think it helps justify the title. I liked the actors, especially Mark Ruffalo, and the music was just good enough to believe in for the scenerio that the film creates.

Keira Knightly plays a songwriter, who lives with a musician on the brink of major stardom. Ruffalo is an A and R guy, on his way to oblivion because of his personal life. The movie starts with a single scene in a N.Y. Cafe, where would be musicians play their tunes for audiences that can be indifferent because their beer has just arrived or they spilled their drink, or the date that they are with has suddenly said something interesting and then no one is paying attention to the singer all of a sudden. From the moment of the performance we are then moved to two elaborate flashback sequences that bring us to that particular performance. Neither of the sequences is very pleasant for the characters but they fill the audience in on what the circumstances of the two main people in the story are. As the first flashback ends, it is as if someone reached up and pushed the replay button, so we begin again (See the clever title reference?, Much better than On The Road).

That structure might seem pretentious to some, but I enjoyed it and it reminds us as an audience that this is a story about two people, being told from different perspectives at times. What we as an audience might desire for either of these people, by themselves or together, is bound up with the stories of others and there are cross currents moving continuously. The subject of redemption and the theme of finding yourself are major components of what happens in the story, but the story itself concerns music. This story wants us to revel in music, The film visualizes the process of creating music in several interesting ways, including a fantasy segment of that opening scene. The biggest thing to take away from the movie is the power that music can have over you, both for good or ill. For instance, the musician Keira breaks up with has written a new and beautiful song, but it is so different from what he has written before that it is obvious to her that it was written for someone else. His song reveals things about him that he might have wanted to keep a secret.

Another example of how music can be so important in defining a relationship comes in a section in which Ruffalo and Knightly share their playlists with each other while also sharing the same device. It is a moment of deliberate self disclosure that brings them to the edge of a deeper relationship. As they walk through NYC listening to Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Dooley Wilson, they realize how much of the other person they can connect to. It may be one of those artificial movie moments but if you love music, it is a moment that you would hope to experience yourself. The creation of music is another place where people can connect to one another. There are several montages of recording sessions that the two of them and their rag tag group of musicians conduct in various NY locations, outdoors with the ambiance of the city as their studio.  Classically trained musicians come together with funk and hip hop artists and street buskers to make the music that our leading lady has written. The A and R guy is a former music producer who knows how to make it work and he brings just the right touches to each song and set up. As a side plot, the music also helps his personal life begin to reconnect as well.

The music industry may take it on the chin with the business model that this story develops. Indie kids and media anarchists will love some of the criticism of the music business. Musicians will I'm sure identify with a number of the secondary characters as they struggle to make it as well. Talent makes out both for those who might be accused of selling out, but also those who hold firm to their convictions. This is a fantasy that aspiring artists will take to heart. I'm moved by music all the time. Themes from movies run through my head, pop songs from my youth are on a continuous loop when I look back at different points in my life. I love hearing a new song that I can connect to. I have never had the talent or the ear that it takes to be effected by music the way these people can be. I've had other passions and I can relate those pretty easily to the comparable points in music. This movie gets it for the most part. I will bet however, that it is going to cost you more than a dollar to get these swell songs on your ipod, phone, media device. That I'm afraid is one truth this fantasy cannot escape for the moment. There was one other piece of truth that the film shares. As Ruffalo's character refrains from drinking at a party, in part to gain control of his life, he instead picks up a can of soda to make his little toast with. I know that the meaning of his next statement is really about drinking soda instead of alcohol, but when he practically spits it out and asks, "how can people drink this shit?" as a loyal Coke brand consumer, I could not help but laugh  out loud and smile knowingly as he looks disgustedly at the can of Pepsi in his hand. Exactly my thought.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction



Big, loud, stupid and confusing, those pretty much sum up the Transformers movies at this point. Kids who played with the toys or watched the cartoon series may have some stake in what transpires in these films, but the rest of us just go for the spectacle. This episode was longer, the action scenes took up more space, and there were multiple bad guys behind every other moment. I am getting weary of seeing cities destroyed, that is more and more unpleasant. I can't really think of anything to say that would convince you to either see this movie, or to stay away. Analysis of Transformers is similar to trying to teach a pig to sing. It's a waste of your time, and people who like pigs will accuse you of animal cruelty.

I can list a couple of things that I enjoyed about the film: Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, and Mark Wahlberg. These guys bring their A game to an enterprise that doesn't really need them to, but as professionals, they are doing their best to sell the preposterous. Grammer has the thankless role as the heavy, Tucci starts off all bluster and ends up in comic relief, and Wahlberg does earnest hero consistently. T.J. Miller stared off the comic sidekick role but his part is not funny for long.

I enjoyed watching Transformers ride Dinobots into battle, the same way I watched Apes ride horse with machine gins in both hands. I thought to myself, "That looks cool, but is in in the least necessary for the story?...No." Look, the popcorn was good, my Coke Zero was cold and the theater was dark, some days thats all I really need, the movie is almost not an issue, this is one of those days. I laughed a couple of times, but never consistently at the things designed to be funny. It was in 3-D so the Robots keep breaking into pieces and pieces keep flying out at me. I just don't understand why the robots keep working when all their mechanical parts are missing. If something goes wrong in most technology, everything else gets gummed up to. I guess that's just the stupidity, sorry, the magic of Transformers.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

America



If you are leaning right, you will embrace this film and feel encouraged that someone is articulating views similar to your own. If you lean left, you will understand the views of those who see the world differently than you do, and if you don't care about politics and history, you should go see "Transformers" and wait for this to show up on your cable channels later on. This is a movie that takes some motivation to see because it is not always as polished and cinematic as the commercial films playing in the next theater, and it has a pretty clear agenda, so you know going in that you will be listening to an argument. I will try to focus on the cinematic and story telling elements but inevitably, the argumentative issues will become a part of this post. I write about films here because I want to talk about movies, but when the movie involves politics, I hope people will listen with an open mind, regardless of their political persuasion. 

Dinesh D'Souza is a controversial conservative author, who has turned to making documentary films in the last few years. Two years ago, his film "2016 Obama's America" was a surprise box office hit.  He took his political theory as to the President's agenda, and presented an argument that was easy to follow with a variety of proof that was sometimes convincing and sometimes stretched credulity. In the midst of an election year, it was exciting to see a movie in theaters that came to grips with a political point of view directly. This year is another national election year, but it is not a Presidential election year. Toward the end of the film, you would not know that because D'Souza targets not only the current President but also the most obvious national figure that he sees as a dangerous successor to the President.

Before the film starts making political points however, it has a much broader and I think more acceptable agenda. "America" presents a full-throated defense of American values in contrast to a simmering narrative of the nation that has been percolating for nearly fifty years. Nothing in the film attempts to whitewash the sins of the past, but it does put many of those sins into context and some of them are directly challenged for accuracy. He begins laying out an indictment of America as presented by left leaning and socialist based scholars and activists. While he as the film maker does have control of the editing of the interview sequences, I don't think any of the subjects would deny that he has presented their criticisms accurately. The late Howard Zinn is not interviewed directly but his thoughts are paraphrased for the audience, and again, it seems that no one could object to the interpretation that D'Souza has made of his perspective. Having set out five specific indictments of the American system, D'Souza proceeds to answer each of them with well selected examples, interviews of other relevant public figures and scholars, and some statistical data in the right places. With the exception of Zinn, the approach is largely clinical without a direct attacks on the advocates or the interview subjects from earlier. Zinn on the other hand comes in for some direct criticism from a noted historian who openly mocks some of the "truths" that Zinn has supposedly exposed. The tone is still even handed despite the other professor's clear disdain for Zinn and his history. 

There are some sincere but amateurish theatrical recreations of historical moments to make the points that D'Souza is trying to get across. These add an element that makes the film feel more like a History Channel program than a theatrical feature but they also sell some of the ideas effectively. The one major exception is hinted at in the trailer above. Although the ad asks us to imagine a world without America, and an early hypothetical event shows how this could have happened, it is really not the focus of the film. Occasionally we get to a point where a rhetorical question is posed, but there are no recreations or long sequences that attempt to answer those questions. For two thirds of the movie, the focus is on why the historical views that are promulgated currently are either inaccurate or without context. The most effective parts of the arguments are the counter stories and opinions that are shared. There is a long piece of footage from a press interview with Bono of the band U2, that expresses the feelings that D'Souza and many other Americans have about this country. When the question of American Exceptionalism comes up, this should be one of the first quotes used by defenders of the concept that there is something different about the American character.

The last third of the film returns to more overtly political issues and attempts to link the philosophy that "blames" America to those political figures that the film makers clearly are opposed to. This will be the section of the movie that is most infuriating to partisans on the left, because it  is not subtle about how President Obama and Hillary Clinton are viewed through this political prism. Whether you are convinced or not, it is a plainly stated case and the proof offered by D'Souza is interesting. Challenges to his reasoning are likely to emerge, on the assumption that heads have not exploded at this point and we are not already reduced to name calling. It takes a great deal of fortitude to listen to positions that you vehemently disagree with. You can't respond logically to an argument though if you don't understand it's premises. "America" makes clear what the perspective of many on the conservative side of the national divide is. The campaign law that D'Souza admits he broke in the recent court case is also used as an argument to demonstrate the dangers that the right perceive from the power being accumulated in government hands. While he might not be the poster child that civil libertarians would want to champion, there were plenty of other examples that should disturb anyone, regardless of their political ideology.

I have not read other criticisms of the film yet, as is my custom, I try to see things for myself first. It is not hard however to imagine some of the vitriol this movie will earn from those who disagree with the positions of the film makers. This is a hundred minute film that attempts to cover a broad range of topics at a thematic level rather than a microscopic one. As a result of the broader approach it indulges in some pretty clear appeals to patriotism. Someone is going to jump on this as political propaganda but that misses the point. Propaganda seeks to obscure the truth with imagery or slogans, this uses imagery to make the analysis entertaining and compelling to it's intended audience. That imagery is not merely a token from the clip art book of patriotic pictures. The figures represented have principles that align with the argument. The contrast in narratives is told visually in a film and so some of this is just necessary. I do not remember anyone being shown in a negative light through manipulation of the images. Certainly the editing of some messages may create a negative impression, but the quotes from the President and Senator Warren were not taken out of context. They were explained and used to contrast the  positions of the  two views, not to diminish the advocates. Oliver Stone spent ten episodes extolling the history of Howard Zinn. This film is not as complete, but certainly deserves as much attention as that other enterprise did. It is enlightening to look though more than one view of history.



Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes




The original series of the Planet of the Apes films were some on the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction stories of the late sixties and early seventies. They explored themes of war and humanity in a Topsy turvy world where apes were the dominant species on the planet and the films  questioned the wisdom of humans who believed that they could reach the stars but could not stop destroying themselves. We discover that man has destroyed his home and lost the alpha position through nuclear annihilation. In the seventies, at the height of the cold war, that seemed to be the most likely scenario. Almost fifty years later, as the series is being re-booted, the threat to and from man has shifted from destruction in war to elimination by biotechnology. As we become more and more dependent on technology and the size of the planet shrinks due to easy transportation and open access to other countries, the threat shifts to disease and technology as the most likely pitfall for the human race. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a zombie apocalypse story with apes replacing the zombies and a new cold war developing between species. This new series again raises provocative questions about humanity, war, and nature.

In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", the mutation that leads to a more dominant simian species is found in a laboratory. Cesar is the result of an experiment to fight Alzheimer's disease, the experiment results in an ape that can bridge the gap between animal instinctive behavior and reasoning type thinking. This sets up the current story by allowing the apes to populate a section of the Bay area (I assume it is Point Reyes)  while thousands of human survivors of of what they dubbed the "Simian Flu", struggle to rebuild civilization after more than ninety five percent of the human population has died. The story picks up ten years after the plague and shows us once again how human need for technology can be threatening to the peace of the planet. I appreciated that this part of the story was more subtle and less moralizing than it could have been. There are also dark hints about what happens to the human population when technology breaks down. It appears that civilization requires a certain amount of sophistication and technical ability or the result is brutality and savagery become the social structure.

The ideas of the film and the story itself are quite admirable and are enough to recommend the movie. I do have a bit of a reservation that I hope will be taken in the proper spirit as opposed to a direct criticism of the film makers. I recognize that the apes are still in a primitive developmental form. They communicate at the beginning of the movie using a sign language that Cesar has taught them. When the first utterance of a word by an ape occurs, it is a dramatic moment. During the rest of the film, the apes use a combination of spoken and sign language, and the spoken language is the issue that concerns me. To paraphrase "Spinal Tap", "It's a fine line between stupid and clever". The Tarzan lingo sounds like Indians in a western from the 30s at times. If people can suspend their disbelief for the apes developing a more sophisticated civilization, than most will be able to do so for this communication process. In an attempt to make the transition to a new culture more realistic, the screenwriters have relied on a tool that can easily be mocked. Later in the movie, as an ape rides a horse, through a wall of fire, with machine guns blasting from both hands, it is a cool visual moment, but it also invites another opportunity to mock the seriousness of the tale. Once again, I think the tightrope is strong enough to sustain those willing to go along but I can imagine that this would be rich territory for parody down the road. 

Jason Clarke is an actor that I have become familiar with in the last couple of years. As his career has grown, the parts have put him into movies that I am now likely to see. He seems to have had an extensive career prior to 2012, but with "Lawless", "Zero Dark Thirty", "The Great Gatsby" and "White House Down", I know now that I have seen him before. Andy Serkis is still the lead of the movie, but Clarke has to be the character we place our trust in and he manages to convey decency in a world where that standard is not always valued. Serkis again does a marvelous job with the motion capture work. It's great that he is getting steady work in big films but it must be a little frustrating that almost no one would recognize him from those movies. (On the other hand, it may be a great delight to have that anonymity). Gary Oldman is the biggest name in the movie and he is not really a star despite being one of our best actors and being featured in some of the biggest movies of the last fifteen years. This is not a star vehicle and Oldman plays his role effectively, although he is absent from the story for more than eighty percent of the film. I also appreciated that he was not cast as a villainous human bent on war with the apes. That humanity contributed to the bitterness that prompts the outburst of violence that comes, it was refreshing to see the screen writers acknowledge that the emerging ape community will suffer the same pressures and failures that humans did. It speaks to a more universal truth than simply saying "humans are asses that will destroy the world".

The army of apes is matched only by the army of technical credits listed to bring them to the screen. In some ways the depiction of the apes here is so technically superior to the masks of the seventies films, that it could render those movies quaint relics of their time. There is still something unnatural about the CGI creatures that sometimes makes the film feel a bit mechanical, but then there are bits like the newborn son of Cesar, interacting with the humans, that will make the barriers between CGI and animals or actors disappear. The film tells an exciting and thoughtful story with enough action to keep a broad audience involved, and a more thoughtful audience challenged. That is a second balancing act that has been managed here. I like the fact that the titles at the start of the films ape (yes I made that joke) the font from the original series. So far, the two story lines of the two versions of the franchise have managed to coexist. The story is set up for further development and doubtlessly, "Rule of the Planet of the Apes" will be coming to a theater near you sometime in 2017.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Chef



Every few years a movie comes along that focuses on food and makes you want to eat, now. I remember seeing "Like Water for Chocolate" and hoping I could find a Mexican place that cooked food like that. When I saw "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" I wanted to consume foods that I had never heard of before. "Big Night" romances Italian food so much that it might be better to eat than to fall in love. Hell, even food made by a rat was appealing a few years ago. This movie sits in that tradition. Nearly every scene will have your mouth watering in hopes that this restaurant, or food truck, or just that guy, would appear on the scene and you'd be able to enjoy a meal that reminds everyone why people watch the Food Network in the first place.

Along with the great looking food, there is a nice story here about living your passion. Chef Carl has a history of promise but a present of so what? When an opportunity to impress a food critic goes wrong, he must figure out how to restore his status as a Chef and balance his personal life, especially with the son he has neglected since divorcing the kid's Mom. This story will not surprise you. It goes exactly where you think it is going to end up. It does take that journey in an entirely charming and entertaining path, so even though you know the destination, the journey is still worth your time.

Jon Favreau has cast himself in the movie that he wrote and directed. It is a nice return to the indie roots that he has not haunted much since directing some pretty big films in the last few years. For my money, he is a great storyteller and makes a picture worthwhile without special effects and big budgets. He is however helped by some star power. Dustin Hoffman shows up for a couple of scenes to create a motivation to get out of the rut the chef has been stuck in. Scarlett Johansson buts in a little time as a minor character that gets as stimulated as we do by the process of creating great food. Robert Downey Jr. appears in one scene, steals focus for the whole sequence and than leaves us with a sense that the world is a weird place. The standouts however are not the big names but the more modestly familiar. Sophia Vergara is the most wonderful ex-spouse a person could have. If there is a flaw in the script, it is that we have no idea why the two exes are no longer together. They understand one another better than anyone else in the story. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are terrific background characters. In the second half of the movie Leguizamo steps out a bit more and the movie is better for it. Emjay Anthony is a young kid playing a young kid. He has a pretty good part and shows a nice amount of promise. Finally, Oliver Platt is in the movie, and he is wonderful in the role of a food critic that pushes the story forward.

Several other elements about the story make it a little more unique. There is a solid little critique of social media culture contained in many segments of the movie. There is also a very good demonstration of the power that culture can have for the benefit of people as well. That benefit is not just limited to the economic process of connecting with customers, but also finding ways to connect with human beings. I appreciated that it was not a complete satire on the on-line world. It should be a good reminder to everyone that what you spill onto the net, is going to stay there and all of us should be cautious with that responsibility.

"Chef" is great counter-programming for the summer. In a season filled with sequels that are not as great as we might want, and original blockbusters that are loud and somewhat crude, it is great to have these smaller films that get by on wit and charm to make the summer days more passable. This movie will be a crowd pleaser, but the crowds will be moderately sized. I've been trying to get to it since it opened at the end of may, so for many of you I am late to the party. I feel satisfied by that because this was a good mid-summer bracer and leaves me hopeful that other films will come along and charm me for the rest of the year as well.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

Jersey Boys





Let's do a checklist to start with.

Do I like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons?      Yes
Do I like Clint Eastwood as a Director?                Yes
Did I like the stage version of Jersey Boys?          Yes
Do I love musical films?                                        Yes
Did I like the Movie Version of the story?             For the most part

For the record, my wife loved the movie and does not have any of the reservations that I have except for one. I'll tell you what that is at the end of this post, but for most of the film I had a great time and enjoyed the songs, staging and look of the movie. It does lack something and I'm having a hard time articulating it but I will try. Some musicals can expand and fill a screen with color and dance and energy as a way of opening up the stage bound version of the play. An intimate story like this suffers a little from being so close on the characters and by keeping the structure of having each of the "Seasons" narrate different parts of the story, Eastwood and the screenwriters (who also did the book of the musical) remind us that this is a theatrical piece more than a film. The energy of a movie is different and the transitions and storytelling work in completely different ways than in a stage musical. The reverse is true as well, "Beauty and the Beast" as a film flowed like a stream over a perfect hillside and into our hearts. The stage version feels like it is a wave engulfing us in it's musical tropes. It is a different experience and for me not as satisfying.

"Jersey Boys" the movie tells the same story of the rise of a group of New Jersey delinquents to pop stardom and the tribulations they go through. The songs are worked into the story as part of the backstage process but the songs don't tell the story as in a traditional musical, they just highlight moments from the story. It worked on stage pretty well because it is done in a minimalist style. The mind's eye fills in the blank spaces and connects the dots. In a film, all of that is done for you and the songs stand out as non organic parts of the film. They are not what the story is about. This is not a hodgepodge "Frankenstein" creation like "Rock of Ages" or "Mama Mia", which strech songs that already exist to fit them into a story. These songs are distinct and could be performed at any point in the story. They only advance the story by their success or style, not by their subject.(The one exception being "Oh What a Night", which is tied into an event early in their careers but the song came later in the history of the band).

The integration of the songs into the film is smooth and the staging in several scenes is excellent. The first performance of "Sherry" was choreographed in the style of pop groups at the time and looked terrific. The Ed Sullivan performance was also a standout scene, it was another one that advanced the story but the song mattered not. The staged version in a nightclub of the debut of "Can't Take My Eyes off of You" was also special. When the big band horn section comes in with a curtain revel, it sends chills through the audience on screen and in the theater. The end credits seemed to have the things that a musical needs, choreography from the whole cast, a willingness to suspend disbelief and everyone sings. If the whole movie had been like that, it would have been different enough from the play that it would stand out. It feels like they played it pretty safe by sticking closely to the style of the play and that';s where I think my reservations are for the most part.

The great Christopher Walken appears as a mob connected guardian angel, but that old song and dance guy does not get to do much until the credit sequence. I assume the guys in the lead roles are the actors from the Broadway version of the play because I did not recognize any of them and they are all talented singers and performers. Their acting styles seem to emphasize stage theatrics more than film acting. The reunion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction is a good example of what I mean. They let staging, costuming and body language do the acting. The makeup conveys the passage of time rather than their facial expressions. That reservation that I mentioned that my wife shared with me has to do with the make-up. I did not see Clint's much derided film on J.Edgar Hoover, but the biggest criticism I remember reading was of the make-up job on Leo. I guess Clint is not very focused on this aspect of the film because the make-up work here was not very convincing. Even though it is not supposed to last long since we flashback almost immediately to the younger versions of the actors, I think the depiction of them as older needs to be convincing, and it was not.


All in all I liked the movie but I can't enthusiastically say I loved it. There are moments that impressed me but there were several times when the picture was just not working the way a film should. I applaud Clint for trying his hand at a musical. He doesn't embarrass himself, but I suspect that the remake of "A Star is Born" that he has been connected to will probably need more than Beyonce to get made.