Thursday, January 8, 2015

Unbroken



Walking out of the theatre after seeing Angelina Jolie’s inspirational triumph-of-the-human-spirit offering Unbroken, I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from the early Simpson’s episodes. Attorney Lionel Hutz tells Homer “This is the most blatant case of false advertising since my suit against the movie The Neverending Story.”

I think if Lionel Hutz had seen Unbroken, he may have another lawsuit on his hands. Before I explain why, I will give a full SPOILER ALERT that I am going to discuss the ending of this movie (and an 80’s classic) in full detail so if you really want to see it, please do not read any further. If you think you might want to see it, please continue reading so that I may save you $13 that would be better spent almost anywhere.

I remember seeing the trailer for this film a few months back and I recall thinking – what a great story this will be. The best stories are the ones that see the greatest internal transformation in the protagonist. When done correctly, our protagonist goes through a harrowing ordeal and emerges a changed person, usually, but not always, for the better. From the trailer, I saw this would be the real life story of American Louis Zamperini who after competing for the U.S. in the 1936 Berlin Olympics served his country in WWII, was shot down, and survived adrift at sea before being taken in to a Japanese P.O.W. camp where he was regularly beaten by a sadistic Japanese Officer.

If we stop here, this is an incredible though not original story. Zamperini is not the only person to go through a trying ordeal at the hands of wartime captors. What made me want to see this movie is what happened after he was released from the camp. Zamperini rededicated himself to his Christian faith and sought out his captor so he could forgive him. I dropped my $13 so I could be taken on this journey of redemption through a real life triumph of the human spirit story. What I got instead was…I’ll get to that shortly.

What I will say for this film is it does not shy away from showing the audience just how brutal Zamperini’s experience was. Zamperini and two of his aircraft colleagues spent more than 45 days on an inflatable raft in the Pacific Ocean. Their ordeal made Tom Hanks experience in Cast Away look like a episode of Fantasy Island. (If you’re under 40, google Fantasy Island and you’ll see what a clever reference that is)

After finally being rescued (?) by a Japanese ship, Zamperini is taken in to a P.O.W. camp where they discover his identity as a former Olympic star. This along with his naturally defiant disposition leads to several severe beatings which are played out for us in graphic detail. I read that these scenes were so intense to shoot that the actor who played the sadistic camp Warden Wantenabe (Takamasa Ishihara) was so distraught after one of the scenes that he vomited on the set. There is no doubt that the actors all did a superb job with the material they were given, especially Jack O’Connell who played Zamperini.

So after two straight hours of being subjected to the most graphic torture and hardship scenes I had seen in a while, Zameperini and his buddies were released and greeted at the airport by joyous family and friends. Perfect, at this point I was ready for the redemption part. Show me how he overcame his bitterness, hatred, and rage and found enough strength in his faith to find love and forgiveness in his heart and express this to his captor face to face.

And then it happened.

They started running the epilogue captions. Those are when they tell you what happened to the character in real life at the end of one of these true story movies. They went something like this:

Louis went on to marry the girl of his dreams in 1946.
After spending years battling severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Louis Zamperini sought out Wantenabe to forgive him but Wantenabe refused to meet.

Then they showed a real life clip of an 80 year old Louis carrying the Olympic torch in the lead up to the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

I have so many problems with this “ending” I have no idea where to begin. I will start with that the fact that we never met the girl of his dreams in the movie except through a single photo so that doesn’t give us any emotional payoff.

Most importantly, they “epilogue captioned” the most important part of this story. We needed to see his battle with post-traumatic stress and what he had to go through to bring him to a place of forgiveness. You can’t offer a redemption story and not show the redemption. Without it, all you are offering is two hours of torture porn. Yes I understand it is problematic because Watenabe refused to meet. But you have to show Zamperini’s efforts to seek him out and make us understand why he must do that. Without this piece to the story it feels like if they ended E.T. where he was dying in that big tent and then flashed up on a black screen: “E.T. eventually recovered and was saved by Elliot who rushed him to the space ship via a magical bicycle ride. Elliot and E.T. had a heartfelt goodbye before E.T. was safely returned to his home planet."

It’s just not the same as seeing it for yourself.

When I think back to how I felt immediately after seeing Unbroken, I again have to go back to another Lionel Hutz classic. I wanted to kind of run over someone with my car. And by “kind of” I mean “repeatedly” and by “someone” I mean “the filmmakers.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2



Is there any genre we have a greater love-hate relationship with than the comedy sequel? Sequels to our favorite comedies are often the most anticipated releases of the year. Even just hearing that one is in the works can create as much internet traffic as an oiled-up Kardashian. And yet all too often, the experience of sitting through a comedy sequel leaves us feeling angry and let down. Not unlike after seeing the photos of an oiled-up Kardashian. 

So as I sat in the darkened theatre waiting for Horrible Bosses 2 to begin, I hoped for the best but braced myself for the worst. I enjoyed the 2011 original which benefited from exceptional screen chemistry amongst the three leads (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) as well as fearless supporting performances from the titular horrible bosses. (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Collin Farrell) For the sequel to live up to the original, it would have to buck a long standing cinematic trend.

I have created four categories that all comedies sequels fall under and the percentage for each. They are:

AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (7%)
A Shot in the Dark (Pink Panther sequel), Austin Powers the Spy Who Shagged Me, 22 Jump Street

NOT AS GOOD AS THE ORIGINAL BUT PASSABLE (63%)
Beverly Hills Cop II, Wayne’s World II, Anchorman II, Clerks II, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

REMARKABLY BAD (22%)
Ghostbusters II, Back to the Future II, Weekend at Bernie’s II, Look Who’s Talking Too, Short Circuit II

A GLOBAL AUTROCITY REQUIRING A UNITED NATIONS RESOLUTION (8%)
Caddieshack II, Blues Brothers 2000, Teen Wolf Too

Just going by the (completely made up and arbitrary) numbers, comedy sequels have a 70% chance of not being truly awful but only a 7% chance of actually being good. It would seem that comedy sequels are why they invented the phrase – Meh, it was okay.

In Horrible Bosses II, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis), and Dale (Day) decide to go into business for themselves after Dale comes up with the idea for The Shower Buddy, a shower nozzle that automatically dispenses shampoo and conditioner. The guys get approached by billionaire Burt Hanson (Christolph Waltz) who wants to be the exclusive distributor for the product and orders 100,000 units. This turns out to be a power play to bankrupt the guys and take over their company. To prevent this from happening, our guys need to come up with a way to make a lot of money in a very short time to pay off their bank loan. They land on a kidnapping plot where they abduct Hanson‘s douchebag adult son Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom.

This plot device gets the movie where it needs to be – our bumbling leads stumbling their way through a high level criminal plot well beyond their competency. And the role Rex plays in the kidnapping turns out to be a fun aspect as well. However this plotline also exposes the movie‘s greatest weakness. The first movie worked so well because the guys were constantly pitted against and reacting to their horrible bosses. Remove that constant force of antagonism and you’re left with a low rent three stooges dynamic. There are too many scenes of the guys bickering and fighting amongst themselves and not enough really big laughs.

The scenes that were the most enjoyable and really popped off the screen were the brief cameo appearances by the former bosses played by Aniston and Spacey. The bumbling nature of our protagonists only really works when contrasted against the strength and awfulness of the antagonists. I would have liked to see more of Aniston, Spacey and Jamie Foxx who returned as Mr. (shall we say) Jones. Without more of these amazing supporting characters, what plays out for most of the second half is yet another inept kidnapping movie. It’s not terrible but it’s not special either.

To make this movie a real success they needed to follow the path of Austin Powers and 22 Jump Street and make the laughs huge and keep them coming through the entirety of the film. A sequel cannot give us the joy of meeting the characters for the first time as in the original so it needs to hang big laughs on a solid plotline. Fail to do so and what do get?

Meh, it was okay.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I


I want to begin by stating that as a rule, I consider myself a live and let live type of guy. Point of fact, there are only three things that I truly hate with every fibre of my being:

1. People who insist on celebrating the 12 days of Christmas between December 13th and 25th instead of between Christmas Day and January 6th when it actually is. Yes, I get it, all the fun is in the lead up to Christmas but you can’t just alter historic facts to suit your agenda like you’re the Texas Board of Education.

2. Anyone who posts intentionally cryptic and manipulative Facebook posts in a shameless bid for sympathy and attention. Whenever I see someone post Feeling blue :-( I can assure that it is only the rules of polite society and my absolute love of dogs that prevent me from responding with “Good, I hope your pet was hit by a bus.”

3. The latest trend out of Hollywood to produce half-movies. Half-movies are when they adapt a series of novels but break the last in the series into two films. They insist it is so they can give the story the necessary screen-time to do it justice. Of course, everyone except those who recently fell off a truck reeking of turnip knows that it is so they can get my $12.95 twice rather than once.

Without fail, half-movies are the worst films of the series. (The Harry Potter and Hobbit franchises slowly nod their head) To be fair, it’s almost impossible for them to be anything but the weakest. They are asking people to plunk down good money to see only the first half of a story. It would be like if you paid to hear a joke and all you got was A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into bar. The Priest goes up to the bartender and says I’ll have a gin and tonic. The end. That will be $13 please. You couldn’t help but feel creatively cheated and completely ripped off. So you can imagine my surprise when I left The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I  not feeling creatively cheated and completely ripped off.

That is not to say that Mockingjay is a great movie but by even making it a good movie, the filmmakers accomplished a feat just shy of miraculous. As in the book, the movie picks up right after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) disrupted the Quarter quell which is the celebrity all star version of their annual children-murdering-children festivity known as the Hunger Games. Picture a dystopian Dancing With The Stars – only slightly less cringeworthy. Katniss has been rescued by the rebels as modest uprisings against the Capitol have begun in the other districts. The rebels need Katniss to serve as their propaganda tool but she is reluctant to do anything for the people who rescued her but left Peta behind.

Right here is where this instalment gets off on a much better foot than other half-movies that came before it. Whereas those simply picked up the action where it left off and continued on its merry way, Mockingjay begins with a protagonist called to a mission which she is reluctant to undertake. Only after seeing the horrific devastation of the her home district does she overcome her reluctance and agrees to the mission. Joseph Campbell would be very proud. In that first act, we have the Call to Adventure (Katniss, we need you to be the Mockingjay), the Refusal of The Call (No, go f**k yourself) and Crossing the First Threshold (Look what those bastards did to my home, all right, I’m in)

On to Act Two.

From here the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse between Katniss and President Snow brilliantly played by Donald Sutherland.  Sutherland is able to portray every ounce of Snow’s ruthless and calculating demeanour without ever making it come off as ham-fisted or cartoonish. Snow has Peta held in the Capitol and just as Katniss is being used to ignite rebellion, Peta is being used by Snow to stamp it out. Whether Peta is doing this freely or under duress is not exactly clear. Still, Peta’s pro-Capitol propaganda messages only fuel the desire to extract him from Snow’s grasp.

Another success of Mockingjay is taking us deeper inside the Katniss-Gale dynamic. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) has worked his way into being one of the rebel army’s top soldiers. This gives him more to do than just be Katniss’ shoulder to cry on. This is key because when Katniss does need that shoulder, Gale is no longer viewing events simply through the prism of what is best for Katniss. Now he has to consider what is best for the rebellion and when you mix in his unresolved feelings for Katniss, these scenes play out with more depth and meaning than in the earlier films. This is important because previous fan favourites like Haymitch, Effie, and Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last performance) all take more of a backseat in this one.

The biggest challenge in any half movie is constructing a satisfying third act. In the actual book, everything builds to the big climactic confrontation at the end. Here they have to jerry-rig an “ending” out of what is the middle part of the novel. Again, they are able to do this more successfully than I expected. This third act builds up to a rescue attempt of Peta and the other tributes. All the while, Katniss is trying to play Snow to ensure the success of the mission. Without giving too much away (Peta dies…okay he doesn’t die – relax) we have enough invested that the success (or lack thereof) in the mission is enough to feel satisfying as an ending. We have been waiting to see if Katniss and Peta will be reunited and the resolution to this narrative question works.

If you are a fan of the books and/or the previous films, there’s nothing in Mockingjay that will disappoint you. And I expect you will leave the theatre as I did – feeling, for the most part, narratively satisfied. Which, again, is more than a little surprising. How did I expect to leave the theatre given this is another Hollywood half-movie?

Feeling Blue :-(


Friday, June 28, 2013

Man Of Steel

There are three great cinematic mysteries that keep me up at night. Three unanswered questions that keep running on a loop in my head like that 90’s pop song you can’t stop hearing (I’m talking to you Barbie Girl by Aqua). These are, in no particular order, (1) In Jaws 4 The Revenge why does the family, believing a great white shark is out to get them, move to the Bahamas (a warm water island) instead of say the land-locked state of Indiana? (2) In Casablanca why is Captain Renault portrayed as a womanizer when clearly he is gayer than any three Cher impersonators combined? And (3) Why, in this modern era of superhero summer tent pole films have they not been able to make a decent Superman movie?

With Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, my list is now down to two. Not because he made a good Superman movie but rather because in failing to, he provided all the reasons why it is simply not possible to.

Man of Steel is what is now referred to as a “clean reboot”. This movie, like most of today’s movie going audience, moves forward pretending like Bryan singer’s 2006 Superman returns never existed. In MOS, we have the ubiquitous origins story – Krypton is about to explode, a baby is born, he’s put on a rocket ship destined for Earth, you know the rest. The difference is in MOS, Jor-el (Russel Crowe) steals something called a “codec” which will allow any Krypton survivors to repopulate a new planet. Turns out Kal-El (superbaby) is a bit of a miracle birth, the first natural birth on Krypton in generations. General Zod (Brilliantly played by Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon) is sent to a space prison of sorts but not before he vows to find the son of Jor-El and destroy him. So to recap. A benevolent father sent his only son, the product of a miracle birth, to be earth’s salvation while a force of ultimate evil tries to stop him. Maybe this isn’t a clean reboot after all?

We then see a grown up Clark Kent living a nomadic life, drifting from job to job, using his superpowers when he has to. The most interesting part of the movie comes in the stretch where through flashbacks we see Clark Kent as a boy struggling with his new found powers. He wants to use them to help people but his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) does all he can to dissuade him. Jonathan argues that the world is not ready for someone so special like Clark and he fears that he will either be exploited by the government or treated like a circus freak by the media. Watching young Clark struggle with wanting to help in crisis situations while not going against Jonathan’s wishes is the part of the movie that gave me hope I was finally going to get a great Superman movie.

 I was mistaken.

 What happens after this point is heavy on plot and short on story. Zod and his hench-people arrive on earth and demand that they turn over the son of Jor-el. Clark turns himself over to the authorities and allows himself to be turned over to Zod. Perhaps the strangest and cheapest device in this movie is the ghost of Jor-el who appears as a “consiciousness” and can communicate to people and manipulate objects magically in the living world. This is where Man of Steel really started to lose me. It relies too heavily on Jor-El giving his son the answers. When Superman is in his deepest jeopardy, it is the ghost of Jor-el who gets him out of it. In fact the solution to the climax is provided not by the protagonist, but rather by phantom Jor-el and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). This struck me as way too much Deus ex Machina for me to stomach.

The latter portion of the movie is Superman and Zod engaged in an orgy of CGI fight and flight. They throw each other through buildings, into tanker trucks, destroying most of Smallville’s key infrastructure all the while getting nary a scratch on one and another. A minute or two of this can be visually stimulating. 10-15 minutes of it leaves you wanting to shout at the screen “WHAT IS THE POINT?!?! YOU’RE NOT EVEN HURTING EACH OTHER”.

And this is the ultimate reason it is impossible to do a decent Superman movie these days. When he has a human villain, he can physically overpower him so it becomes difficult to maintain any sense of jeopardy. When the villain is one or more of his Kryptonian equals, there is too much emphasis put of elaborate CGI fight scenes that don’t lend themselves to any real sense of jeopardy or suspense. In the greatest Superman movie ever made, 1981’s Superman II, when Superman realizes he cannot physically overpower Zod and the others, he outsmarts them by luring them into a brilliantly devised trap that neither his enemies nor the audience can see coming. There is a moment when we are genuinely fearful that Superman has surrendered himself to them. This is the kind of suspense that -can only be created by a well-crafted story. All the CGI in the world can’t replicate what that does for the audience’s enjoyment of the movie.

 Man of Steel fails because devoid of all of the CGI pyrotechnics, there isn’t really any story to speak of. Superhero movies are great when they deal with the alter ego dealing with the weight and responsibility of the masked hero. Think of Spiderman and “With great power comes great responsibility”. Or go back again to Superman II. In that movie, Clark Kent was wrestling with whether he wanted to be Superman anymore. He toyed with putting his own needs before the needs of the world. When these movies work, the ultimate victory is not the victory over the villain but rather the victory over his own inner doubts and fears. That is story and it is the element that is sorely missing from Man of Steel.

Would I recommend seeing this movie? I’ll say this. Seeing this movie in the hopes of enjoying a great superhero story makes about as much sense as fleeing to tropical waters if you’re hoping to avoid a vengeful shark attack.

Need I say more?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul

Have you ever invited someone out to a social event, you know, someone really cool? Maybe you hadn't seen that person in while and you were really looking forward to just kicking back and sharing some laughs. Then when they show up they've brought four or five of their really annoying friends with them. And what you want to say "you can come in but these losers have to take a hike." Of course you don't do that for two very important reasons: (1) The unspoken rules of polite society forbid it and (2) Unlike me, there's an excellent chance you're not a major league A-hole.

I separate myself from the rest of you because I feel like I should be able to say "you losers go take a hike". And nowhere did I feel that urge stronger than sitting through a screening of Paul. I loved the title character but was either bored or annoyed by the cast of characters who surround him.

Paul is the latest offering from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who previously gave us Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and Run Fatboy Run (2007). In Shaun and Hot Fuzz, they succeeded in providing a fresh and cutting send up of some much loved movie genres. Here they try to do the same thing with the Speilberg/Lucas fanboy cannon. Pegg and Frost play Grahame and Clive, two British sci-fi fans who travel to the US to attend Comic-Con and take a tour of the famous UFO sites of the American Southwest. So how fitting that while out on the highway at night, they see a car go off the road in front of them and upon further investigation, discover Paul, a foul-mouthed slacker alien. The guys take Paul in their RV and their road adventure has officially begun.

Right away, I like Paul and find him very funny. When he's on the screen, I find myself enjoying this movie quite a bit. The problem is, when he's not on the screen, the movie begins to suffer almost immediately. The reason for this begins with the two human leads in the film.

The great thing about doing a genre spoof is you are able to use shorthand with the characters. Two sci-fi fans at Comic-Con? Got it. Say no more. We know who these guys are. Socially awkward, uncomfortable with women, terrible fashion sense. But because we are so familiar with those archetypes, unless you give us something fresh and interesting about them, we will get bored very quickly with them and sadly that is what happened here. Outside of generic sci-fi geeks, I can't tell you anything noteworthy about these characters.

Even more problematic for me was Ruth Buggs, the love interest for Graeme played by SNL's Kristen Wiig. Wiig is very convincing in the role of a sheltered fundamentalist Christian whose abhorrence for all things scientific should be a nice contrast for Paul. Now there is lots of room for satire and sharp commentary in the debate between science and religion. Unfortunately, this movie doesn't engage in any of that. The filmmakers seem to want to suggest that Paul's existence nullifies everything Ruth once believed so now she is free to drink, swear, and get stoned. I don't think I can end the debate but I don't see why we can't live in a world where Darwin's principles and intelligent design can co-exist. Why can't we have aliens and God (in whatever form you believe He takes: God, Yaweh, Oprah) peacefully co-existing? By portraying Christians as all slack jawed idiot Yokels, this movie really took a misstep for me.

Perhaps the biggest misstep involved the character development or lack thereof. SPOILER ALERT – There is a scene at the end where Paul tells the guys. "So I guess we learned a bunch of valuable stuff about being true to ourselves and all that crap." This is supposed to be a clever way of pointing out that they haven't really learned anything or changed for having gone through this journey. We are almost supposed to feel like that kind of character growth is a lame device of movies of yesteryear. But I wanted to scream at the screen 'If you have actually learned something about yourself for going through the journey, there might have been a satisfying ending. The majority of the plot involves them being chased by the authorities. That could provide some genuine character development but does not here.

I should point out that there are some genuine laughs in this film. Seth Rogen is great providing the bite behind Paul's personality. And the guys do a nice job of referencing all the big blockbuster movies of the 70's 80's and 90's including a Titanic reference that was very clever. But in the end there was too many lost opportunities for this movie to work as well as it should have.

I loved seeing Paul on the screen. I just wanted to tell the other characters to go take a hike. They're ruining my quality hang with my good friend Paul. I can say that because, don't forget, I'm a major league A-hole.

Or at least, that's what I'm constantly told.