Friday, September 5, 2014

THE IDENTICAL Film Review

Entertainment


THE IDENTICAL
★ out of 

I walked into this one blissfully unaware of anything other than that it was a movie about an identical twin of an Elvis knock-off.  What I got was one of those rare gems of a movie so awful but just ever so clumsily earnest that it deserves to be seen by those with an ironic sense of humor.  I could almost call it an instant ironic cult classic.  Now it’s primary target audience, which is clearly supposed to be the same Christian audience who church out en masse to any movie marketed as “faith-based”, but those who are going to appreciate the true entertainment value are going to be those of us who can humorously appreciate a serious effort by the clueless.

There’s so much about this, that I don’t even know where to start other than a quick synopsis.  THE IDENTICAL is essentially a “what if?” story that asks “What if Elvis Presley’s twin brother had not actually died as an infant but rather been given away and raised by another family?” However, in this movie, the pastiche of Elvis (The King) Presley is “Drexell (The Dream) Hemsley”  and his secret twin brother is “Ryan (The Identical) Wade.”  Both Drexell and Ryan are portrayed by Elvis impersonator Ryan Pelton now relaunching himself with this film as a Christian singer named Blake Rayne.   As a work of speculative fiction, this actually has the potential for a really good story.  This film is not it, but it does have its own charm, which I will get into in a bit.

The beginning of the film is set during the Great Depression when a young couple, the Hemsleys, give birth to twins.  They cannot afford to feed four mouths and at a Tent Revival, the father believes God to be telling him to give one of his sons to the childless traveling Evangelist and his barren wife.  This way he knows his son, Dexter Ryan, will be raised by Godly parents.  Reverend Wade promises not to tell Ryan he was adopted until both his birth parents have passed away and he dedicates the boy to God. Fast forward to Ryan’s childhood and you see the Reverend believing and pushing Ryan towards the ministry but Ryan clearly does not have the knack for it, but he certainly has a knack for singing and tapping his feet to the beat.  Fast forward to Ryan’s teens and the good-hearted, but slightly rebellious son keeps slipping out to the rhythm and blues “honky tonks” on the wrong side of the tracks where he is drawn to the music but doesn’t know why.  In all this though, he never drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes.  See? He’s rebellious but not bad.  He’s rebellious because his call is to music but his dad keeps pushing him to follow in his steps as a minister.

Over the course of the rest of the film, it tracks along with Drexell’s career and Ryan’s purposeless and meandering adult life as he tries to just plug on through but cannot seem to nail down what he’s supposed to do.  And, of course, it doesn’t help that everyone is always carrying on about how much he looks like Drexell Hemsley.  It is Ryan’s wife who knows that the only fulfillment her husband will feel is going to be on stage and creating music and she encourages him to try out for a Drexell look-alike/sound-alike contest, which, of course, he wins.  And from there he builds his own career as a Drexell knock-off, which has its own ups and downs.  In the end, the resolution revolves around him accepting himself for who he is and just doing what he loves to do, not for the money or the fame but because it’s what he is supposed to do.  He finds his purpose and place and happiness finally in the end.

On the positive side, the movie has a good heart to it.  It has a nice message, although it gets convoluted.  The guy playing Ryan is about as good an actor as Elvis was, so there’s almost a point where you think it’s an intentionally meta thing.   But it’s not.  He’s just not an actor, but he has to carry the whole film.  Thankfully, he is kind of likeable – in a schlubby kind of way and there are times where he looks uncannily like Elvis.  He does a decent singing impression too.  The odd thing about that is that…IT’S NOT ELVIS.   Since it’s not Elvis, why make the character sound like him to such an extent?  I had almost bought into the idea that this is an alternate universe type of thing and that would explain it, but then they tossed in a throw-away line referencing Elvis and the Beatles and that brought the entire Drexell Hemsley concept crashing down.  That was a huge mistake.  Drexell and Elvis could not co-exist like that and be believable, and that’s when my strained commitment to the story started totally unraveling.

At that point I was there primarily for Ray Liotta who gives a fantastic and moving performance throughout the entire film.  His Reverend Wade grounds the film in his emotional reality and helps you forget the other nonsense because every time they cut back to him, he is authentically in the moment emotionally and you buy into the reality.  Ashley Judd is one-note, but nice, as Liotta’s wife and Ryan’s mom.  Joe Pantoliano slums it here as a car mechanic, mentor, and friend to Ryan.  And I don’t know what the hell Seth Green is in this movie for!  He plays a childhood friend of Ryan’s and really just…I just don’t know.  The rest of the film is populated with oddly out of place and amateurish actors – most notably the guy with the pompadour who plays Ryan’s manager.  He is laughably awful and needs more work.  He should star in SHARKNADO 3 but I suspect he doesn’t realize he’s bad.  He came off like he thinks he is a master thespian.  Yeah. One of those.

There are also some truly odd things just tossed into the film blender that had absolutely no bearing to the story.  There’s some bizarre Zionist bent that’s like pro-Israel bumper stickers on a car.  I’m not against bringing in the idea that Ryan’s birth parents were a Christian father and a Jewish mother.  It just seems like there should be an explanation of why that matters rather than just making the statement as if it has some great meaning.  As well, a character points out that both Drexell and Ryan wear a Jewish “Chai” symbol as a pendant necklace.  However, there’s no explanation for the fact that the “Chai” symbol means “life”.  I had to look that up afterwards.   And I’m still not exactly sure of the significance to the story but the characters acted like it meant something.  And most inexplicable was that during the 60s montage, they completely skipped over…oh…the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s assassination, Viet-Nam, MLK’s assassination, but stopped the movie completely to focus on news reports about the 6-Day War in Israel and even cut to Reverend Wade giving an impassioned sermon calling for another Hannukah miracle for Israel.

It was all quite bizarre.

Another amusing tidbit that finally drove home to me the reality that all I was watching was an extended promotional peace for “something” was the scene where Ryan finally has written, recorded, and pressed his own original album of songs under his own name.  He takes it to a record company called “City of Peace Productions” and has an exchange there where the white-haired producer tells him his song “City Lights” (imagine it in the style of the “In the Ghetto” era for Elvis) is a guaranteed hit and offers him lots of cash to buy the song so that Drexell Hemsley can record it.  Then I remembered that when the movie started and they flashed the logo for the production company that made the movie, it was called “City of Peace” replete with another Hebrew symbol (I don't think it's the "Chai" as it looks different from the pendant) prominently displayed.  Then afterwards when I went online I discovered that, yes, City of Peace is producing “Blake Rayne” as a recording artist and they are planning to release “City of Lights” as a single.

It’s an awful movie, to be sure, but there’s something actually charming in its awfulness and in its deliberately crass attempt at marketing and pushing some vague Messianic-Jewish agenda.  For at least the first half of the movie I thought it was self-aware in the way it was replicating the naïve low-brow charm of the early Elvis movies, but as it went on I realized it was clear that the director simply doesn’t seem to really understand the difference between those films and reality.  So, it’s a different type of naiveté and there’s an amateurish charm to that.

One last thing, by removing Elvis and his songs from the equation, they also remove all the sexual implications and naughtiness of those early rock-n-roll songs and give us these cleaned up knock-offs like “Boogie Woogie Rock-N-Roll” and “Bee-Boppin’ Baby,” neither of which would have likely gotten much air play back in the day.  At the same time that they are attempting to market the entire film and music off of completely ripping off Elvis and his music, they fail to achieve anything substantively successful by their utter lack of charismatic energy and understanding of what made Elvis, well, “The King.”

And that should really tell you just about all you need to know.



Thursday, May 29, 2014

CHEF and MALEFICENT Reviews!

Entertainment


CHEF
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Very succinctly, this is the most charming and legitimately funny comedy so far this year.

I don't want to say too much about this one because I just want everyone to go see it and enjoy it like I did. This movie is so perfectly put together that watching it is like sitting down to a full course dinner topped with a nice after-dinner wine.

Chef Carl Caspar has spent the last 10 years of his career subjugating his own dreams and desires to the over-controlling owner of a posh Los Angeles restaurant. In this metaphor for everyone else's mid-life crises, we watch his career (and self-confidence) implode as he is pushed to rediscover his passion and his true self. His path to fullness is paralleled in a food truck trek across the country with his son, who he had previously been at best an absentee dad after his divorce.

Along the way we are inundated with real belly laughs that arise out of honest circumstances and true character moments. Damaged relationships are repaired and the path to happiness is restored as a hard truth takes hold: Happiness and satisfaction will always elude those who never pursue their dreams.

Also, there is absolutely no way to walk out of this movie without a craving for a Cubano sandwich. Thankfully, we have an excellent foot truck in Austin, Texas that serves Cubanos.

One other note, I went to see this film at a local theater in Austin and I wish that director and star Jon Favreau could've been in there because the audience was enthralled. They were interactive and reactive through out the entire film and especially when the road trip made its way into Austin and the truck pulled up to Austin's famous Franklin's Barbeque (voted best barbeque in the entire country by The Foodist at Bon Appetit). There were cheers and whoops of enthusiasm throughout the entire Austin segment.

This movie exemplifies so much of what is missing from so many Hollywood-based comedies. There is a renaissance of independent film happening right now and if you aren't seeking out gems like this you are missing out. You want more? How about Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, John Lequizamo, and Robert Downey Jr.? If that doesn't get you in the door then I dunno what else to say.

‪#‎chef

Monday, May 26, 2014

MEMORIAL DAY 7-FILM MINI-REVIEW ROUND-UP!

Entertainment
 

MEMORIAL DAY 7-FILM MINI-REVIEW ROUND-UP:


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
The first fully-realized X-Men movie that finally takes its cues from the successful Marvel Studios AVENGERS franchise and successfully adapts a clas...sic storyline from the comics. Surprisingly smart and deftly shifts in tone and pacing between the decades. Best of all, director Bryan Singer did something that the directing of Amazing Spider-Man 2 should take a cue from -- he lets the character moments breathe and allows the actors to do their thing. When you surround the story with actors of the caliber miraculously assembled for this film, you better damn well let them act.

The heart of the film is the younger version of Xavier, who has lost his sense of purpose at that point in his life. Most interesting of all was the emphasis on Mystique/Raven who becomes the singular most important mutant on Earth and whose actions lead to the dystopian deadly future (10 years from now) the X-Men are trying to prevent from coming into being by sending Wolverine's mind back in time to his younger body.

Much has been made about the "reset switch" ending, but even without spoilering the details on that, I have to admit that I am completely okay with it. I have always enjoyed the X-Men films but they have suffered from a lack of cohesion and long-term vision. The benefit this film has is that now Marvel Studios has demonstrated that you can approach these super-hero franchise films with an eye towards building a larger universe and with longterm planning. It does not completely remove the other films from continuity for without them occurring, then the events that happened to rewrite history would never have happened. So, they are important pieces of a future that will never happen now (or will be different).

FIRST CLASS plus this film set up a future successful franchise with a closer adherence to the spirit of the comics themselves and I am glad to see it. This was a movie that was a hell of a lot better than it had any right to be.

#xmendaysoffuturepast


THE GERMAN DOCTOR
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
A chilling Argentinian film (with subtitles) about the infamous psychopathic Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele after he escaped to Argentina after World War 2. The story itself is fictional but it is wrapped up in actual history, specifically about a female Nazi hunter working for the Mossad who tracked Mengele down to Argentina around 1960 and was found dead after Mengele escaped capture.

The film is about a young family who open up a lodging home in the mountains so that the artisan father can focus on his baby doll design work. Their oldest daughter is a teenager who has a genetic disorder preventing her from progressing into puberty at a normal pace. A mysterious, but charming, German Doctor comes to stay at their lodge and becomes interested in her and her family. As he over-involves himself in their lives he becomes somewhat obsessed while crafting a co-dependency between all of them.

What makes this film so chilling is the charismatically charming performance of Àlex Brendemühl as Mengele. He captures the mind of a true psychopath replete with the magnetism and cold, but not dangerous demeanor. When things fall apart and his self-control begins to slip so we catch glimpses of the evil in him it is both fascinating and repulsive. We hate ourselves for liking him and getting drawn into his web.

An excellent film that just flows smoothly like a well-written novel.

 #thegermandoctor


NEIGHBORS
★ out of ★★★★★
 
There is nothing redeeming in this film. It only earns 1 star because there are a couple of laugh-out-loud slapstick moments. The movie assumes that every person on the planet is just a huge pile of excrement with no value, no morals, and no character.

The two worst parents on the planet suffer the indignity of having the worst fraternity on the planet move next door. What follows is just a series of patently unfunny bullshit in which I wanted to call CPS on them after the third or fourth time that their baby was simply left at home alone in her crib all night.

Revolting.
#neighbors


ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
 
Fascinating vampire movie by director Jim Jarmusch and starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt. Really, that pedigree is enough to justify going to see this one.

It's slow-moving and eccentric. It felt less like a vampire movie and more like one of those odd little short stories you get in the occasional vampire anthology book. It really is not about vampires but is using vampires as a plot device to comment on the human condition. It's no mistake that Hiddleston's character is holed up a decaying brick home in the abandoned urban Detroit area. The modern decay is reflective of his own spiritual decay.

The movie is not "beautiful", but there is dark beauty in it. It is mostly absurdly funny in the blackest of black comedic ways. I enjoyed the love between Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) and it was interesting to see how they were stronger together than apart.

This film is not going to set the world on fire, but it is definitely worth your investment of time if you get a chance.

#onlyloversleftalive


THE RETRIEVAL
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
One of the best films of the year. It's a gut-wrenching film set during the Civil War with a young black boy who is used by a white Bounty Hunter gang to retrieve escaped slaves and bring them back for a fee.

He gets sent, with his unscrupulous uncle, to retrieve a freed slave for a huge retrieval fee but over the course of long trek back they bond together and the boy is put in an excruciatingly difficult position.

The directing and the acting in this movie are fantastic and emotionally real. It is painful to watch at times but only because you, as the viewer, are so caught up in the boy Will (Ashton Sanders) and his youthful guilt and shame. He is being forced to grow up faster than his heart and mind can keep up.

Highly recommended.

#theretrieval


PARTICLE FEVER
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
Very simply the best documentary about the launch of the Large Hadron Collider you'll probably ever see.

For a science nerd like me, I couldn't really ask for more. The film follows the lengthy years-long process of getting the Collider built, and the key scientists involved in it. Before long, and through some quite clever opportunities for explanations to us lay-people, we find ourselves emotionally caught up in the moment when they finally discovered the almost mythical Higgs boson (or God Particle).

If you just said to yourself "What's the Higgs boson?" then I suggest you should be required to watch this movie. You can thank me later.

#particlefever


TRANSCENDENCE
★ out of ★★★★★
 
One of the worst films I've seen this year. It makes the fatal flaw of being relentlessly boring and just plain stupid.

This emotionally overwrought sci-fi flick just makes poor story choices after poor story choices after poor story choices in an attempt to engage us in its cautionary tale of the Singularity -- when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. In this case, it starts with the death of a visionary scientist played by Johnny Depp whose brain patterns were captured and incorporated into a computer program.

As he evolves, all manner of stupid stuff happens. The movie also stars Paul Bettany, Amy Adams, and Morgan Freeman but they're all wasted on a ridiculous script saying obscenely stupid dialogue. Really, don't waste your time on this one unless you need something to help you battle insomnia.

#transcendence

Saturday, May 17, 2014

GODZILLA Review

Entertainment

GODZILLA

Giant monsters tearing up Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco with crazy good special effects.  That's about all you need to know in this reboot of the GODZILLA franchise for the American stage.

Apparently there is a huge Godzilla fan community locally because when we went to see this movie Thursday night the theater was a sell-out crowd (98% male) full of vocal Godzilla fans.  They gave a lot of loud "in the know" vocal reactions to the basically familiar Godzilla tropes that appeared in film including the use of a silly acronym like M.U.T.O. (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) to give us a name for the new monsters that battle the massive behemoth.
They also erupted into a huge round of applause at the end.

That definitely made for an...interesting movie-going experience.  My background with Godzilla is really just that I used to watch the movies on TV when I was a kid and I've gone to see GODZILLA 1995, GODZILLA (1998), and GODZILLA 2000 in the theaters.  Essentially, the basic set up for most of them (in my memory) is that (a) in 1954 Godzilla tore up Japan then disappeared (b) new monster(s) appear and start tearing things up (c) the humans somehow pull Godzilla into the mix to kill the other monster(s) (d) in the end, the grateful humans look on as Godzilla disappears into the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.

So, essentially this is every other Godzilla movie ever made but with substantially better structure and effects (and star power) than ever before.  However, they still did that one thing that drives me crazy about every giant monster movie these days (JURRASIC PARK to PACIFIC RIM and every monster flick in between) is that they couch much of the monster f/x in the middle of a rainstorm.  Time for that cliche' to be done.  But make no mistake, I thought the monster f/x was incredibly well-done.  Godzilla has never looked better and the Mutos were outstanding as well.  The idea of a radioactively mutated bug species that consumes radiation and defensively set loose a pwerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) worked quite well in updating the idea of monsters for 2014.

The opening sequence, set 15 years ago, with Bryan Cranston and his wife, Juliette Binoche, effectively established an emotional connection to the monster dramatics that kicked of the movie quite well.  In fact, the film might be criticized for it's over-emphasis on the human drama to the point of downplaying the Godzilla stuff a bit.  However, the biggest fault for this film in doing that was refocusing the film's narrative off of Cranston when it shifts to the modern day and onto Aaron Taylor Johnson who plays Cranston's now grown son.  I wonder if the filmmakers' choice of "Brody" as their surname was an insider's nod to Sheriff Brody of JAWS fame. 

There was something emotionally lacking in Johnson's performance, which prevents the emotional resonance of Cranston's obsessively emotional overload.  A balance between the two of them would have been better for the film, which is interesting considering the approach to the monster they have chosen for this reboot.

In this version of Godzilla, he is a force of nature.  He exists merely to rise up when needed and in a predatory way chase, confront, and battle whatever new monster(s) that appears and upsets the natural balance of co-existence.  The King of the Monsters is apparently the only monster the earth can support. 

It's all quite absurd and full of entirely preposterous coincidences to make sure that Johnson's character is always right there with the action.  In a film like this, that's just part of my expectations going in.  Ken Watanabe's scientist character, Dr. Serizawa, is completely wasted in what could have, and should have been, an integral role in dealing with these monsters.  Maybe it was the filmmakers' way of making sure we understood quite clearly that this is going to be an American franchise. I don't know.  It's not a dealbreaker, but it was disappointing.

Overall though, I would say (as a friend well-described it) this is an A-version of a B-movie.  It really is, for me, the "greatest" GODZILLA movie ever. That doesn't make it a great movie but it certainly makes it the greatest of the GODZILLA movies.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

#godzilla

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 Film Review

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

I laughed; I cried; I cringed.  AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is a mixed bag that I mostly enjoyed a lot.  The biggest stumbling block to reaching it's goal lay in absolutely everything in it relating to the primary villain, Electro.  Before I talk about what they did right, I'm going to talk about Electro because Electro is so awful that had they not gotten Spider-Man so absolutely perfectly this film might have killed the entire franchise like Schwartzenegger's turn as Mr. Freeze in BATMAN AND ROBIN.

There was not one thing that worked with Electro, even the special effects stank on ice.  While the cgi Spidey was indistinguishable from the live-action Spidey, everytime Electro was cgi it was on par with a sub-standard video game.  But that's not the least of the problems with Electro.  As established early on in the film, electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a clown.  He smacks of the caricaturish performance of Jim Carrey as The Riddler in BATMAN FOREVER.  In fact, it almost seemed like it was an ill-conceived homage.

Max's life is saved by Spider-Man and, reacting like some mentally defective man-child, he convinces himself he's Spidey's best friend and has imaginary conversations with him in his apartment.  All the while slapstickey musical cues play every time he's on screen.  Max claims to have invented the entire power grid system for New York City; the power grid being a product of his employer OsCorp, of course.  However, there is no way that we can believe that this cartoonish imbecile could have done that, and especially not within the context in which nobody at OsCorp even knows he exists.  There is such a thing as being a cog in the corporate machine, but there is no way the person we have met has ever been given that sort of position.  In fact, he is treated more like a janitor than an engineer.  It all really makes no sense.  And the circumstances that lead to his accident giving him electrical powers also makes no sense. 

This film, and this particular series, makes such efforts to lend some level of scientific believability to the fantastic.  In fact, the underlying subplot of Peter Parker's father's scientific experiments are deliberately laid out for us over this and the previous film so we believe it is entirely possible for a man to have gained the powers of a spider.  The same goes for the Lizard in the first film and the Goblin and the Rhino in this film.  But for Max becoming Electro, there is no logical basis for it.  An introverted nerd gets massively electrocuted and then falls into a vat of electric eels who shock and bite him.  And the powers he gains aren't the powers of eels. He gains the power to drain all electricity and power himself up like a battery.  He gains the ability to turn completely into electricity and then miraculously reform into a solid body -- and retain his clothes.  Even in the world of super-heroes, this becomes a stretch when, again, there is such an effort to attach a rational basis for buying into the fantastic.

The biggest problem beyond all the illogic and absurdity is the wholesale personality change in the character.  They hint that there's some sort of rage enhancing aspect to his powers, but that does not explain his total loss of inhibition, his sudden rise in the ability to communicate coherently, and most of all his intelligence.  Whereas before the accident he claimed to be smart but conducted himself like an idiot who hero-worshipped Spider-Man, now he is conducting himself like a super-smart villain who wants to kill Spider-Man for, y'know, taking him down after he destroyed Times Square. 
Oh yeah, they also added some goofy distortion to Electro's voice which made him sound ridiculous and hard to understand.  Put him in a room with Bane and you'd need subtitles to figure out what they were saying to each other.  Also, after Max turns into Electro they shift from his slapstick musical cues to some odd urban gangsta sound along with what sounded like Max muttering to himself inside his head.  However, once again, it was so muddled I couldn't really understand much of it.  Dr. Kafka, who tortures Max at the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane is also a ridiculous over-the-top cartoon better suited for a MAD Magazine parody than a serious film.
So, bottom line, Electro sucks and he sucks bad.  And that's unfortunate for the film because he's in it for a good portion.

HOWEVER....

There has never been a more perfect presentation of Spider-Man himself onscreen ever before.  You will absolutely believe a man can websling.  I loved his bantering and joking.  His attitude is perfectly in the spirit of the character.  Spidey's interactions with the police and especially the people on the streets is flawless.  Both the Batman and Superman franchises could learn a lot from this film's efforts at showing the lengths a true super-hero will go to save even one innocent life.
The movie picks up with Peter and Gwen's graduation from high school and the events of the film play out over the summer, and thankfully, it looks like a mild summer for NYC.  The soap opera aspect of Pete and Gwen's relationship felt real.  At times, it was overwrought, but we are talking about 18 year-olds.  They tend to have these dramatic bents to their relationships.  I believed it.  I also believed in them as two young adults deeply in love with one another but caught in an untenable set of circumstances.  "It's complicated" is an understatement.

There's mystery and intrigue with a flashback sequence with Pete's parents where we do find out what happened after they disappeared (as shown in the first film).  There's a reunion and trauma surrounding the return of Pete's childhood buddy, Harry Osborn.  The relationship with Harry might have benefited, emotionally for the viewer, if it had been allowed to have been developed over 2 films rather than crammed into one, but it mostly works.  Paul Giamatti's "Rhino" character serves mostly a purpose at giving us a glimpse of the future path of the films. Since Sony recently announced a "Sinister Six" spin-off film on the horizon, this is no surprise.  We get a tease of J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle and will surely see him in all his glory in the next film.  Suck it up guys and get J.K. Simmons back for that.

For me, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are the heart of the film and their struggles and pains are what I feel -- especially Pete's.  We are rooting for them to succeed and when they don't, it hurts.  We are privy to what the world around Pete does not see.  They see Spider-Man and assign all their confidence and hope in him.  Behind the mask we see a young man struggling to do what's right and figure out how to love and be vulnerable to the possibility of hurt.  "How can I love?" may be the second most common story theme after "Who am I?"  So, it makes sense to follow up the first film's theme with that.  The set-up is there for the next film and beyond and I am ready to see what happens next.

Unfortunately, Electro will forever be a pockmark on an otherwise excellent film.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

#amazingspiderman2

Sunday, April 6, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Film Review

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Somebody just turned the volume up to 11.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (CA: TWS) just grabbed THE AVENGERS and leapfrogged right past them to catapult himself right to the top of the super-hero movie pyramid. This is a fully realized synthesis of everything that has come before in the Marvel Comics Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly distilled into a taut action epic that never once loses sight of the character or... the world he exists in.
The tagline that has been tossed around with this movie is a classic comics tag: “Everything changes,” only this time it is true.

The first Cap film, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER served as both an origin story for Cap but also a prologue for THE AVENGERS film. CA: TWS explores Cap’s loss of innocence in a world where the villains are not so easy to identify as it was when they wore swastikas on their sleeves. Where IRON MAN 3 served as an epilogue to THE AVENGERS, it falls to a Captain America film to be the prologue once again for an AVENGERS film (the currently filming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON). However, CA: TWS is also a true sequel picking up on story threads from the first Cap film.

This film is securely Cap’s film, but it strongly builds up his supporting cast without ever feeling like it takes away from Cap’s story. This is an ensemble film that revolves around Steve Rogers, man out of time and the world’s greatest soldier. In the first film, set mostly in the middle of World War 2, we saw Steve, an intrinsically good man, given the strength and power to accomplish great things and not become corrupted. A natural leader, he demonstrated that rare quality of charismatic and confident command with an intuitive sense of when “just following orders” was not a proper option. As a result, he earned the trust of everyone he came into contact with. His arch nemesis, The Red Skull, functioned as the contrasting distorted mirror version of Captain America demonstrating how the same power could absolutely corrupt someone who is already bad.
 

There were other character stories in the first film including Red Skull’s top scientist in his Hydra organization, Arnim Zola. You will remember that he was eventually captured by the Americans. Steve’s best friend from childhood, Bucky Barnes, was the only soldier in Cap’s “Howling Commandos” team to lose his life in the war when he fell to his death off a speeding train in the mountains. Steve’s guilt and pain was magnified as he was there with Bucky and was unable to save him when he fell. And then there’s “Agent Peggy Carter” who was/is Steve’s first and only love but his duties in the war kept preventing them from pursuing anything more than the purest of platonic love.
 
Without spoiling the movie, let me just say that CA: TWS follows through directly on those characters and their current impact on Steve and his personal journey. It also delivers incredibly effective and important journeys for Col. Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow). Somehow, the writers and directors of this film also found time to introduce 2 major characters into the mix, Sam Wilson (The Falcon) and the mysterious assassin, The Winter Soldier. By doing this they combined two different eras of the Captain America comic books, the 1970s and the 2000s, into something new and original that knocked my socks off.

As a child, my introduction to the character of Captain America was during the phase in which the title of the book was actually “Captain America and The Falcon.” So I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the character of Sam Wilson. I was both excited to learn they were introducing him into the film but I was also slightly hesitant because I was afraid his character would bear little resemblance to the character as I remembered him. I should not have worried. The casting of the roundly likeable and earnestly charismatic Anthony Mackie is what sells it. They changed up a little bit of Sam’s personal background, but for the most part, this is the guy I already knew. It was like my first experience watching Chris Evans as Cap. I felt that I already knew him. It wasn’t someone performing, this was actually the Captain America I “knew” from my childhood. Sam is also a good man. He and Steve bond instantly with mutual respect and it completely makes sense that they are drawn together through the events of the film brought about by the appearance of The Winter Soldier in an incredible action sequence in Washington D.C.
 
Actually there are a couple of incredible car-based action sequences that are in and of themselves worth the price of admission. The action in this movie is ramped up, violent, and impressive. It weaves in and out of mass destruction-type action and personal combat expertly – very “BOURNE-like” in that way.
 

Part of why it is fitting to include The Falcon in this story is that the ‘70s era of Captain America comics, following the Watergate controversy and the fall of President Nixon, dealt with a loss of innocence in Steve as he had to face the inroads of corrupt government. This film deals solidly with issues of over-reaching government and the politics of the day – especially how far should the people allow their governments to go under the guise of “protecting” them? The film also solidly addresses the importance of the free flow of information. The themes explored in CA: TWS are strongly relevant and I believe that it will only increase in relevance as time passes.
 
Oh yeah, I almost forgot something. For the hardcore Cap fans who maybe thought there was no way to ever incorporate “Batroc ze Leaper” (a mostly absurd French stereotype villain whose super-power is super-jumping) into the more grounded Cinematic Universe, well… worry no more.


 Bottom line is….GO SEE THIS MOVIE!

★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

#captainamericathewintersoldier #wintersoldier #captainamerica
 
 

Monday, March 31, 2014

TIM'S VERMEER Film Review

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TIM'S VERMEER

One of the best movies of the year! This movie tells the years-long story of San Antonio-based inventor, Tim Jenison and his attempt to prove his theory to explain how Dutch master painter, Johannes Vermeer (and perhaps other Dutch masters) was able to paint photo-realistically 150 years before the invention of photography.

Self-deprecating and humble, Tim, is a genius for sussing out something that has perplexed art historians since the early days of the cam...era. There are subtle distortions in perception that are captured only with a frozen image as captured through a camera lens that we cannot see with the naked eye. And yet, the technology of the time made it impossible for artists to have photo references to work from.

So how did Vermeer do it?

Art historians were already pretty settled on Vermeer's  reliance on some sort of optics, in the form of a "camera
obscura" but the limitations with that piece of technology coupled with the utter lack of any underlying drawing (as proved through x-rays of Vermeer's paintings) has consistently stumped the experts. And it appears to have taken a practical-minded inventor of digital video processing techniques (among many other clever creations) to do what scholars and artists could not deduce.

 Tim is not an "artist". He does not know how to paint at all. In fact, we see his first painting ever captured in this film using his rudimentary invention based on his theory. And it is astoundingly accurate and good. So, he sets out on an obsessive mission to replicate, down to the minutiae, the room and the setting that Vermeer used for his famous painting "The Music Lesson." This means we follow him through his research and recreation and then his painstaking painting process as this untrained and inexperienced painter produces a most amazing....well....original Vermeer by way of Tim.


Penn Jillette (friends with Tim and producer) narrates and guides the proceedings. This film, directed by Teller, is a masterpiece itself at revealing a centuries-hidden technique that was passed down in secret from Master to Apprentice much like the secrets of Magic and I am sure this is what attracted Penn and Teller to this project in the first place. By the end, the viewers should have not only an increased appreciation for the artistry of Vermeer, they should also have their entire notion of the line between technician and artist wholly skewered. 
 
Perhaps what makes an artist an artist isn't quite as limiting as we tend to want to make it. Even Tim himself doesn't perceive himself as an artist...but I can tell you his entire process to get to that finished work is a beautiful work of art itself as well as the final painting.
 
Tim Jenison is a master of his own unique and inventive approach to creation. In a way, he reminds me of a modern-day Leonardo and this film is a beautiful snapshot of his creative process.

★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Sunday, March 30, 2014

SABOTAGE Film Review

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SABOTAGE

You know how we all wonder sometimes how Arnold Schwarzenegger can have been speaking English for more of his life than not and still can't shake his strong (and often marble-mouthed) accent? Well, likewise, you'd think that after decades and decades of acting that he might actually gain some ability to really...act.

Oh well.

No surprises here. Arnold still has charisma and screen presence plus there's some gravitas to his age now that makes him worth watching (...even in spite of his severe lack of acting skills). The filmmakers make the wise choice of surrounding Arnold with excellent actors, but that unfortunately signs a serious light on his inability to draw me into his character's emotional turmoil.

The movie is interesting and entertaining, but way over the top in brutality and grisly effects of pieces of bodies and internal organs and pools of blood. There's action films and then there's gross action films. This one falls in the category of extremely gross. It is also quite ludicrous. So, if you dig the gross and ludicrous taut action thrillers then you'll probably dig it.

The story involves a Special Ops DEA taskforce, the type that only could exist in a movie, led by Arnold's character, John Breacher. The taskforce is made up of 6 or 7 (I lost count of the mostly interchangeable actors) of the most loathsomely immoral and irredeemably unlikeable rat bastards you can imagine. Think, the Dirty Dozen, but without any of the charm or wit and a penchant for torture porn. There's some attempts at humanizing the characters, but it's really not enough. The "sabotage" of the title revolves around a flubbed attempt to secret away $10 million dollars from one of the team's drug busts. Instead, it appears that the members of the team are starting to get picked off one at a time by the drug cartel who thinks they stole from.

Logic gets twisted and then tossed out the window where it is then blasted into dust by a surface to air missile resulting in one of the more ludicrous (and again....grisly) car chases I've seen in awhile. There is really something disturbing about the level of fixation the director seemed to have for focusing his laser beam of attention onto the blood splatters, spews, and bodies. It's about as desensitized as the killing of the zombies in THE WALKING DEAD but I have a hard time in a film as serious as this one takes itself, not noticing the flippant manner in which lives are taken.

The resolution of the mystery of the money and the killing is no big surprise and the coda to the story is somewhat satisfying at least. That may be my favorite sequence of the film and my favorite acting by Arnold. Of course, I think he didn't say any lines during it, so there's that.

His acting coach might also want to talk to him about his cigars. At times, they were distracting to the point of caricature -- just like his ridiculously dark-colored hair Moe-cut on top his natural gray shaved cut.

I was entertained, and it's probably a decent flick for what it is, but I didn't particularly enjoy it.

★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Friday, March 28, 2014

NOAH Film Review

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NOAH

*Do not read if you don't want spoilers! This review is going to be full of them!*
**************************

 No matter who you are, please for the sake of sanity please leave your literalist Bibles at home if you choose to go see this movie. Otherwise, you ...will be driven as mad as Noah trying to find ways to reconcile the film with your Biblical flood narrative. This is a grand old myth that exists within many pre-historical mythological narratives and assigning the main characters the names and general lineage from the Biblical account is merely usage of the familiar in telling an archetypal epic. Ultimately, this film is a sci-fi epic exploring themes of faith, madness, obsession, redemption, forgiveness, and most of all....free-will, or our choices as humans and the consequences.

I know of no way to really discuss this movie without talking about specifics, so here come the spoilers. I'm very familiar with the Biblical tale and in my opinion that was an intruding detriment to my ability to get caught up in the story at first. I had to consciously tell myself to stop comparing what I was seeing to what I was familiar with. What helped me do that was changing my viewing paradigm. Instead of seeing the story of the Biblical "Noah," I chose to view it as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic set on another planet. Once I did that, then I settled in nicely. The cause of my unease had to do with this post-industrial society in which "fallen angels" had surrounded themselves with a cloak of "earth" so that they are walking around as 20-foot multi-armed rock monsters who interact with and attempt to help the humans. There's a bit of a nod to the Prometheus myth here as some of how they seem to help is providing mystical source material for humans to wield fire.

The story that director, Darren Aranofsky, is telling is a story much more personal than just the story, or myth, of the Ark. Just like MOBY DICK is on one hand a story about a Captain chasing a whale, it is even moreso a tale of obsession and madness -- this film is less a story about God's dissatisfaction with man and his dramatic method of cleaning up mankind's mess; it is a tale of obsession and madness. Noah becomes progressively more unhinged as the years go by and slips into a post-traumatic survivor's guilt-induced madness. He does not see himself as deserving of the gift of continued life given him by the Creator (they never call God anything other than "The Creator"). The evil and wickedness of man is driven home in disturbing ways as we see the debauchery and even cannibalistic lifestyle of Tubal-Cain's kingdom. Tubal-Cain represents the worst of mankind with his focus on self and manipulative treachery. He revels in his wickedness. Noah is tortured by his own human nature but driven by a desire to deny himself in service of others -- a self-less love. Yet, all he sees is his own wickedness and questions why the Creator would use him rather than destroy him.

In this story, God never speaks directly or audibly. The Creator speaks through miraculous intervention; through dreams; through circumstance; through events others might see as coincidence. It's a very interesting way to approach it and is indicative of the struggles that even the most faithful have in trying to know the will of God when their God does not speak directly. In Noah's case, the frustrations build. Even the "Watchers" (the name given to the fallen angels) state outright that the Creator is silent "as always." But the key point to this is that were the Creator to speak directly then Noah's free will would not be an issue in play. He would just be following instructions and this is not the story that Aranofsky is telling. Aranofsky is telling the story of a prophet who is trying to interpret the Creator's intent through his own flawed perceptions. As a result, he understands some of the broad strokes of the Creator's plan: (1) man's wickedness has grown to such a degree that they are deserving of nothing but mass genocide, (2) the rest of Creation is undeserving of death and needs to be preserved, (3) Noah and family must build a sea-faring ark to save the animals. Noah misses the most important element in the equation, however, and that is the "why" it is him and his family that were chosen.

Most of us are familiar enough with the basic narrative to expect that it should be obvious that Noah and his family are the avenue to repopulate the planet afterwards. However, what if the only female of child-bearing age who makes it onto the ark happens to be barren? What is his purpose then? Why is Noah chosen if the end result is hopelessness? He has trusted the Creator to provide and yet all seems to be pointed to utter destruction of the human race.

And therein lies Noah's ultimate descent into madness and loss of faith even in the face of the miracle of the Creator's active hand in bringing all of this into being in the first place. There finally comes a moment where he faces the breaking point between blind obedience to a flawed understanding of God's will and love.

In the end, there are subtle hints throughout the film that this is not the primordial world we think it is but actually in the far, far future post-Apocalypse. In that sense, I immediately had a PLANET OF THE APES feeling about it. The twist in PoTA that this planet was actually Earth the whole time is like the twist of thinking this is pre-history when it might actually be post-history. The most explicit evidence is a retelling of sin and it's impact on man throughout "history" leading up to this moment and in the silhouette of man killing man we start with Cain killing Abel and then it moves through time in the silhouette eventually reaching modern day weapons. It's symbolic, but considering the context of wiping out mankind because of our wickedness but with the dangling hope of Noah's family providing a new beginning, it becomes a very important moment as those silhouettes would be projecting just a repeat of the same in the future and make the entire story pointless. To me, the movie becomes a tale of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In that, it is truly mythological and meaningful to our current state of being.

The effects are good and in some cases truly spectacular. Russell Crowe acts his ass off as Noah. His emotional journey could've been way overdone but Crowe gave him a real sense of truth and reality. I could feel him as he tipped over the edge of madness. Ray Winstone's Tubal-Cain was less nuanced and did go over the top a few times. The weakest member of the group was the actor playing Noah's son, Shem. But that weakness was less about his acting and more about his hair and beard. It was too well manicured and seemed out of place up against Noah's more natural hair growth. His brother, Ham, never really gets on board with Noah's mission and gets more and more estranged from him. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson do quite well with what they are needed to do as Noah's wife and his daughter-in-law respectively. Anthony Hopkins plays Noah's grandfather, Methusalah, and has a wonderful moment as the floods begin that made me tear up.

The more I reflect back on it the more I like it. It's a powerful film that resonates with me on a number of levels. If you're looking for a retelling of the Biblical flood narrative then I don't recommend this movie. If you're looking for a powerful science-fiction epic that addresses universal themes in an entertaining and creative way then get a bucket of popcorn and sit back for an interesting and engaging ride.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Thursday, March 27, 2014

BAD WORDS Film Review

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BAD WORDS

Jason Bateman's directorial debut is one of my favorite movies of the year so far. Unfortunately, there are very few people I would feel comfortable telling them to go see it. Bateman's character, Guy Trilby, is simply one of the more horrendously unredeemably awful human beings I've ever had the pleasure of laughing at.

It's a simple plot. A 40 year-old man competes in a national spelling bee and gets away with it because of a loophole in the rules that never ...stipulates age but merely that a competitor must not have graduated the 8th grade before a certain date. Well, as Mr. Trilby is more than happy to inform them...as a drop-out....he never graduated 8th grade at all, so he qualifies.

Now, you might wonder why a grown man would want to demean himself and relentlessly heckle and bully these young children publicly like this. Well, that answer is the "McGuffin" of this movie. It doesn't really matter what the answer is; there is no excuse for his abhorrent behavior. But we do, at least, get an answer.

He really does conduct himself like what you would imagine someone with no conscience might, but the truth is he is acting out because of pain. And the grounding of the movie, that makes the viewer able to tolerate him even at his worst, is the unlikely friendship between him and 10 year-old Chaitanya Chopra, played by Rohan Chand. They are gold together with onscreen chemistry and comic timing plus a sense that they really do care about each other. Chand's exuberantly naïve performance matches Batman's sociopathic detachment. So many parents, however, are going to be so horrified by the graphic language and the manner in which Trilby treats Chopra that they may not be able to appreciate the subtleties here.

I suspect that many parents of little kids are going to have a hard time enjoying this movie because of Trilby's offensive language and outright emotional bullying. However, I thought the movie was hilariously in bad taste but with an overall goodness to it in the end without getting into sappy after-school-special type of shit.

And the fact that I could get through a quick review of BAD WORDS with only letting one minor bad word slip is nothing short of a miracle.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Sunday, March 23, 2014

DIVERGENT Film Review

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DIVERGENT

Loved this movie! It's smart, compelling, well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, and the special effects and action are top-notch. It hit all my sweet spots. In this far-off future, some sort of devastation has hit the world and cut off the remnants of societies from each other. In the setting of DIVERGENT, the city of Chicago, with it's dried out husk of Lake Michigan, is home to ...a self-sufficient society surrounded by an enormous fence purportedly for protection. There is a more sinister implication that it may be more of a containment than a protection.

In this society, their world is separated into 5 factions:

(1) ABNEGATION: This faction values selflessness. In MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) terms, it's probably ISFJ.
(2) DAUNTLESS: This faction values bravery. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESTP.
(3) ERUDITE: This faction values knowledge and logic. In MBTI terms, it's probably INTP.
(4) CANDOR: This faction values honesty and is prone to black and white concrete thinking. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESTJ.
(5) AMITY: This faction values kindness and peace with a willingness to compromise. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESFP.

The poverty-stricken homeless are the forgotten people...the "Factionless," or those who have failed to achieve within their factions and are cast out.

When citizens turn 16 they are required to take an aptitude test to tell them which faction they are genetically predisposed towards. In the end, they do allow each individual to "choose" their faction, but there is clearly pressure from the government and the social peerage not to veer from the results of the test. In rare occasions there our outliers, or "divergents", who have inconclusive results -- they cannot be "typed" into a single faction. The heroine of the story is Tris, who is raised in Abnegation but turns out to be a Divergent (typed as Agnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless) but she has to hide these results or be shunned or possibly worse. She chooses Dauntless because she has always admired them for what appears to be thrills and adventure that she has never experienced before.

There is a lot more going on than she realizes and we track along with her as she moves through the stages of weakness to strength to truth and understanding. She also finds a deep connection with Four (Tobias) who is one of the Dauntless trainers. I'm tempted (in MBTI terms) to type Tris as an ENFJ and Four as an INFJ, which would fit within the percentages of types to the general population.

Basically, this movie tackles the topic of societal controls trying to drive out the outliers (Divergents) who challenge the mass beliefs and authoritarian structures. It is very telling that there is not a faction committed to philosophy or spirituality or self-expression. The society of DIVERGENT is one where all 5 factions are separated not just by type but also segregated into different areas and homogenous clothing styles specific to each faction. The authority gives lip service to the freedom of the individuals to "choose" their path but the system is set up for failure by individualists.

There are some basic visual and stylistic similarities to THE HUNGER GAMES, but I'm going to want to set anyone on the fence about it straight and that is that this is very different. THE HUNGER GAMES deals more directly with the malevolent political manipulations of government and the twisted justifications we make, as humans, for self-indulgence and violence. This story is more about our need to tribalize ourselves and subsume the individual. This is not really about politics but about human nature. The forced separation into factions is driven home with the repeated mantra of "Faction before blood."

Tackling themes like this could easily result in a convoluted and dull film with a lot of over-preachy didactic messaging. The film is structured just right with never a dull moment and quite thought-provoking. If I wasn't worried about over-spoiling I could probably go on all night about it.

★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Trio of Reviews: MUPPETS...MOST WANTED, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, and VERONICA MARS

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MUPPETS: MOST WANTED

Back to old-school Muppet movies and that's....okay. Mostly it's okay because of the musical input of Bret McKenzie (of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS) for the songs. The previous MUPPETS movie was a true "meta" film focusing on reintroducing the Muppets to relevancy in the modern day with a clever parallel storyline with the Muppets themselves attempting to reenter the public scene relying on nostalgia to fuel their move into the future. This movie is not q...uite as clever in that sense. It just picks up the baton from the final scene of that movie and jumps right into another Muppets adventure that fits within the same pattern as THE MUPPET MOVIE, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, and THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTEN.

This is not a bad thing, but it is a slight step back in terms of that higher sense the previous movie had about exploring universal themes of self-identity and self-worth. This one is simply going for laughs and it delivers. It's funny. It's enjoyable. It's clever. Tons of gags throughout but the best bits involve a musical theater performance by the celebrity inmates at a Siberian gulag and the comedy gold interplay between Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle.

Ty plays a French detective with Interpol and Sam is CIA. They team up to track down the Muppets because they believe they are involved in a series of heists throughout Europe. Every moment between these two is totally hilarious and the highlight of the entire movie is their "Interrogation Song". Funniest thing I've seen in a long time and worth the price of admission.

I wish the movie was laugh-out-loud hilarious all the way through, but it isn't. It's enjoyable but I wasn't always laughing. The previous film didn't have me laughing all the way through either, but as I said it had some higher themes it was exploring that gave it a little more depth. But I'm not going to complain because it was still fun and the celebrity cameo choices were positively inspired at times and wholly unpredictable.

Fun for the whole family. Enjoy.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
 
 
 
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Such a strange movie. It's typical Wes Anderson in that exists in a super-stylized fairytale land divorced from reality but it tells an oddly compelling story.

It time jumps backwards then moves forward with the story of Gustave H., the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the early part of the 20th century. The story is being told to a modern writer by an aged former lobby boy who worked as a boy for Gustave.

The story involves the spread ...of fascism in Europe, the theft of a Renaissance painting, a battle for an inheritance, and framing an innocent man for a murder. Along the way, the quirkiness of the characters takes center stage as Wes Anderson and his repertoire of favorite actors pop in and out to fill in roles where needed.

Ralph Fiennes makes the movie bearable. F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law are also compelling but their bookend parts are too small to be very relevant. Fiennes plays Gustave and he creates a character who I love without reservation. He is so smart and worldly wise but he hides it behind a façade of a narcissistic fop -- which he is anything but. In this, he reminds me of the Scarlet Pimpernel a bit. Watching the subtleties of his performance is what makes this film worth seeing. Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe are ridiculous caricatures and Tony Revolori plays young Zero as flat as a first year middle-school theater student in his first play. Without Fiennes' fully realized performance the entire film would have fallen apart.

I know Wes Anderson films can be polarizing for some and there's almost this hipster-esque attitude with some of his fans as if they feel like they are part of a special little clique of specials who "get" it and everyone else is just too square. I guess there's always that possibility but I think I'm pretty hip to Anderson's approach and I think I "get" it, but whereas I thought last year's MOONRISE KINGDOM was excellent from start to finish, this one is a lot more miss than hit and Fiennes is who carries the entire film.

For the record, those of you who are self-appointed members of that Wes Anderson "clique", can you do me a favor in the future? Can you stop being so vocal in the theater and over-laughing at things that are chuckle-inducing at the most? That would be great. Also, if you could stop over-laughing everytime George Clooney, Bob Balaban, or whoever the next cameo appearance is shows up on screen? Yeah. That'd be great too.

Thanks.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Friday, March 7, 2014

300: RISE OF THE EMPIRE and NON-STOP Film Reviews

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300: RISE OF THE EMPIRE

It's "skins versus shirts" or "moobs versus Klingons"; whichever works for you. The Athenian navy, led by Themistocles, in a sea battle against the Persian navy, led by Artemesia.

Artemesia is played with delicious delight by Eva Green and her globulous boobs, of which we do get to experience them in full naked delight -- I imagine the 3D viewers might collapse into puddles...but I digress.

Artemesia is the only reason anyone should go see this mov...ie other than its glorious splattering blood opera and symphony of ridiculous gore. If you liked 300, you'll probably like this one too although there's something missing. The director (I forget his name) tries desperately hard to copycat Zach Snyder's hyper-stylized 300 style to capture the imagery and frenzy in freeze-framed (or slow-framed) staged comic book splash pages. It works up to a point but then it gets so overplayed it borders on the absurd and becomes silly rather than effective. When pushing the envelope artistically, it really pays to know when to restrain yourself.

The film is an adaptation of Frank Miller's XERXES about the God-King of Persia and the second Persian invasion of Greece. The film gives us the backstory on Xerxes and his rise to kingship (and godhood) after the death of his and Artemesia's father King Darius from a single arrow shot by the Athenian Themistocles.

Now, the way you know this movie is about Themistocles and not Leonidas is that Leonidas wore a red cloak and Themistocles wears a blue cloak. If you can remember that, then you're gonna be all up to speed.

I had a little bit of a hard time following exactly how this timeline fit within the timeline of the first 300. There was so much narrative exposition I was kind of blanking out on it, but I think I kind of figured it out about halfway through when Themistocles was notified of the slaughter of the 300 Spartans (the events of the first movie). So, at first I thought it was maybe a prequel and that this young soldier might've been young Leonidas but then I realized the sea assault was actually happening at the same time as the 300 film, and at the halfway point then shifts into becoming a true sequel continuing the events after the death of Leonidas.

I didn't think the movie was stupid. That's good. I was afraid I was in store for another POMPEII. I think it accomplished pretty much everything it set out to accomplish. The problem is that it didn't have the gravitas of Gerard Butler as Leonidas to carry the testosterone baton and it didn't have the legitimate talent of Zack Snyder as director to really pull off that stylistic imagery quite as well. But it has that one thing that really makes the entire movie worth watching, and that is Eva Green as Artemesia.

Could'a been a lot worse. But they might want to stop now.

★★★ out of ★★★★★

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

2013 COMICS INDUSTRY "IN MEMORIAM"

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 My annual duty to create an "In Memoriam" for AICN Comics' @$$IE AWARDS — recognizing notable people connected to the Comics Industry who passed away in 2013.




Sunday, March 2, 2014

MOVIE-POCALYPSE NOW! PRE-SHOW 2014 OSCAR PICKS

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MY PRE-SHOW 2014 OSCAR PICKS
I'll surely be taking some lumps putting this up here, but I'm going to anyway.  In a few hours, I will see how my decision-making squares up with the "Academy." 

This has been a good year for some very good films. For the first time I can recall, I made an effort to see every film nominated at least in the BEST PICTURE category.

In making my picks, many of them were blatantly obvious, Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" for example, in that there really is not another performance nominated that even comes close. However, there... are a few nominations that were really tough. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR is really a tough choice between Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club" and Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave." But I decided to go with Fassbender who disappeared so completely into his character that I couldn't even recognize him anymore. However, I think McConaghey's brief supporting role in "The Wolf of Wall Street" should qualify him for a special Oscar. An absolutely brilliant performance, but basically consists of 3 scenes.

The BEST ACTOR choice is a tough one too. All things being equal it should be a 3-way tie between Bruce Dern ("Nebraska), Leo DiCaprio ("Wolf of Wall Street") and Matthew McConaghey ("Dallas Buyers Club"). The swing to McConaghey is purely emotion-driven in that I just "feel" his performance slightly swings to a level beyond anything else I've seen him do.

The BEST PICTURE choices gives me a hard decision to make. Taken in total, I think every nominee other than "Philomena" are deserving. My choice of "Nebraska" as the overall best picture is based on the whole of the parts all working together to create a work of sublime storytelling that touches on the basics of the human condition -- life, love, relationship, and mortality. It's the movie I keep reflecting back on the most in positive terms. I can separate individual parts out to recognize excellence in those parts in other movies, but "Nebraska" pools all the elements together into a film I think is instantly timeless, touching, and thought-provoking.

And now....my picks:


 ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
"Her"

ORIGINAL SONG
"Let it Go" from "Frozen"

COSTUME DESIGN
"The Great Gatsby"

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
"The Wolf of Wall Street"

ORIGINAL SCORE
"Her"

CINEMATOGRAPHY
"Nebraska"

VISUAL EFFECTS
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
"Dallas Buyers Club"

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
"The Croods"

SOUND MIXING
"Gravity"

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
"The Great Beauty" (Italy)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave

SOUND EDITING
"Gravity"

FILM EDITING
"Gravity"

LEAD ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
"Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)"

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
"The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life"

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave"

ANIMATED SHORT FILM
"Get a Horse!"

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
"20 Feet from Stardom"

LEAD ACTOR
Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"

PRODUCTION DESIGN
"American Hustle"

DIRECTING
Martin Scorsese for "The Wolf of Wall Street"

BEST PICTURE
"Nebraska"