Sunday, July 31, 2011
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Aliens have tried to take over our planet dozens of times in the movies already. Every time they do, it seems like they always choose major metropolitan areas and the setting is always current day. While I’m sure there are exceptions to these rules, who is to say that aliens couldn’t plot their attack a couple of hundred years ago? They’re aliens; they’re advanced; they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. And if you think you’d be scared if aliens decided to attack us today, imagine what it would have been like for a cowboy in 1837 to come face to face with one of these massive monsters. Imagine that real good and you’ve got yourself a new breed of alien movie, you’ve got COWBOYS AND ALIENS.
Director Jon Favreau tows a very fine line between these two genres to ensure that he is somehow loyal to both without sacrificing much from either side. Like a good Western, it starts out quiet and lonesome. A man wakes up in the desert, bleeding from what he presumes is a gunshot in his side, with no recollection of who he is and with a bizarre metal bracelet around his left wrist unlike anything he has ever seen. As it turns out, this man is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and he is wanted for a bevy of assorted crimes, not the least of which is the murder of his former lover (Abigail Spencer). Jake moseys into a nearby town and right before he causes too much damage, a strange light appears in the sky. The whole town looks on as if a miracle is about to take place. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve never seen an alien disaster movie before so how could they possibly know what horror was in store for them?
The concept of COWBOYS AND ALIENS is so strong and while Favreau has crafted a sturdy blend of the two film worlds, there is something inherently amiss about the combination. One genre is often subdued and subtle while the other is loud and raucous. At times, the differences are too far apart to fully come together, like it wants to take flight but its too heavy to get off the ground. The pace picks up once the story crosses from cowboy loner to invasion survivors banding together. Craig is joined by typical tough guy, Harrison Ford, who is obviously enjoying himself a great deal in the part and Olivia Wilde, who just seems like she enjoys being window dressing way too much. Regardless, along with a few other determined town folk, they set off to take on the invading army with everything they’ve got, which admittedly is not much. This is where Favreau finds the commonality that ties the genres together – the endurance of the human spirit and the need to persevere.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Marsh has a wealth of archival footage at his disposal for PROJECT NIM and he makes great use of it, integrating passionate interviews and some respectfully recreated footage into the fold. As a result, Marsh is able to introduce his audience to Nim at as early a stage as two weeks old, when he was taken from his mother and placed into a family of nine. The hypothesis that Nim would either prove or disprove would frame the argument for nature vs. nurture. What if a chimpanzee was raised in a family as if one of their own? Would he adopt their practices and more importantly, would he learn to speak with them? Marsh then introduces us to the multitude of people who would play temporary caretaker to Nim over the years, from the mother who would first take him in and let him roam free on her hippy-esque commune, to the teachers who would never be the same for having spent time with him. Dedication to this animal is quite high considering how many times he has bitten these very same people.
For no other reason other than natural growth and progress, Nim eventually became too big and too potentially volatile to continue the experiment. Before it would end though, Nim would be able to use sign language to express dozens of words and, more importantly, it would appear that he would be able to string those words together to express actual thoughts. Nim’s transition to more traditional chimpanzee captivity environments would prove especially difficult. This is a chimp that has always been a part of the family and now he was living behind bars. It is a cruelty that would ordinarily seem socially acceptable if it weren’t for all that Nim had come to know in his life. He was always surrounded by love, which itself gave the chimp something of an ego, but now it was as though he was discarded by everyone he ever knew. And so animal cruelty would go from being seen as a purely physical act to emotionally damaging as well.
Marsh presents PROJECT NIM as succinctly as he can and allows his audience to gage what they consider to be cruel all on their own. His subject choices continue to show a fascination with the colorful and the eccentric and he proves with this project that he is a strong voice in today’s vast documentary landscape. By introducing us to Nim, he reminds us of the dangers of using animals for our own advancement, no matter how well intentioned we may be. Teaching Nim was the focus but it was actually Nim who would teach those he touched about themselves and their own baser instincts they may not have been aware of. And now, thanks to Marsh, many more will be able to learn these same lessons.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
I was weary of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER before watching it but still optimistic. After all, I had been very pleasantly surprised by previous Avenger installments, IRON MAN and THOR. I had not expected either of those to be anywhere near as good as they were so the captain could still impress. So what if Joe Johnston, who has not made a solid film since 1991’s THE ROCKETEER, directed it? Who cares if it stars Chris Evans, who’s never done anything more memorable on film other than take off his shirt? And why should it matter that the film is coming in at the tail end of mounting audience superhero exhaustion? Unfortunately, all of these potential detriments come together quite nicely to create a disaster worthy of being called captain.
Johnston takes a decidedly cartoonish approach to the iconic superhero, which could work given the film’s comic book origins but just comes off as amateurish. Before Captain America dons the uniform and shield he is known for, he was nothing more than a scrawny, scrappy boy trying to fight for his country. This is a problem as Evans is nothing if not a fine male specimen. To make Evans look that pathetic, his face was digitally plastered onto a smaller man’s body. The intention is good; the emotional attachment to the character would not have followed through the film if he were played by someone else in these earlier scenes. The execution is not great though as he looks more like a bobble-head than anything else. Throw in Stanley Tucci’s ridiculous German accent, the mad science experiments complete with sparks and electrical currents running through the air and Hugo Weaving with a red skull for a head and you’ve got a film desperate for credibility that undermines itself at every turn.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER had to happen to properly set up all the steps towards THE AVENGERS. I’m sure Evans will fit in just fine amongst those guys next year but for now, he feels trapped in a project that never comes together. Comic book movies are big movies; they need to play to wide audiences to justify their budgets but as gigantic as the comic book movie business has become, it does not mean that every one translates well to film. A different director might have made the difference here as there are semi-interesting themes that were only partially explored but Johnston tries too hard to appease the fans and the masses at the same time, which ultimately alienates both groups. Captain America has to prove himself for the longest time but thanks to this film, he only proves himself to be a joke.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Dating is complicated. The scene today can be so cold and callous that most people in it are forced to disengage emotionally from it in order to survive. Enter Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in FRIENDS WITH BENFITS, director Will Gluck’s follow-up to last fall’s breakout comedy, EASY A. They have a plan that will save everyone from the walls they’ve erected around their hearts by using those walls as the foundation for their mating practices. The logic is that if you’re already emotionally messed up, then you can avoid further damage by not involving emotion anymore. Voila! Dating oversimplified.
Timberlake and Kunis play Dylan and Jamie, two New York City singles at the top of their professional games who have essentially taken themselves off the market to preserve their already battered hearts. They click instantly when they meet and the fast friends decide they should take advantage of their natural chemistry and see if it translates in the bedroom, except without all the mushy stuff. Once they get going, they can’t get enough of each other but is it the sex they’re addicted to or is it each other?
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS tries very hard to disassociate itself from your typical romantic comedy but doesn’t realize that it actually plays into most of that genre’s conventions simultaneously. Fortunately, Timberlake and Kunis are adorable together; their chemistry and comedic timing endears the viewer to their plight, however trite it is, and saves the film from total cliché. Still, the light, casual tone of their relationship, I mean, arrangement, permeates to the rest of the film, making it just as tricky for us to connect emotionally as it is for Dylan and Jamie. It may be about a casual sexual relationship but it plays out more like a one-night stand.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a writer who doesn’t write, a man who barely appears to shower. Through happenstance, he runs into a former in-law and former drug dealer, only the latter is actually not so former. This is how Eddie comes to start taking NZT. He thinks its F.D.A. approved so we can’t really judge him, but he quickly finds out there is no way this drug is ever going to make it to market. NZT allows you to tap into the 80% of your brain that goes unused every day. The resulting clarity allows Eddie to take everything he’s ever taken in, in his entire life, and make perfect sense of it in seconds. Needless to say, Eddie never intends to get off these drugs and soon finds out he might not have a choice in the matter.
Director, Neil Burger, coasts through LIMITLESS and rarely attempts to access any of his own greater potential. Visual trickery meant to signify the depths of Eddie’s thought processes and amplified abilities come off as not only gimmicky but tacky as well. All the same, the talent is passable (Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish have scant parts compared to Cooper) and the moral question behind taking the drug to begin with is intriguing, but the climax of this film is so ridiculous and off-putting that it went, for me, from a time-filler to a complete waste of time. It’s ironic really how a film about untapped intelligence could be so utterly stupid. Or perhaps even more so, how a film called LIMITLESS could feel so limited.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Harry Potter: Is this all real or is it just happening in my head?
Professor Albus Dumbledore: Of course it's all in your head, Harry, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.
As you may or may not already know, I have only ever followed the literary icon, Harry Potter, on film. When the character made his first movie appearance, I watched simply because I was curious to see what everyone else was obsessing about. I even saw the next few films that followed for no other reason other than pure fascination with the incredible spell they cast over their fans. Fantasy has never been my favorite genre but I have always appreciated its grandness and imaginative nature. Despite this though, my interest in Harry Potter changed somewhere along the way (most likely when David Yates took over as director) and I went from mere observer to eager participant. And now that it’s over, I simply wish it weren’t.
As a stand-alone film, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART TWO is not the strongest of the series. In succession with the first part though, it is extremely satisfying. Honestly, how could it not be though? When Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) face off for the last stand to end all subsequent stands of any kind, it is inevitably transfixing. This moment has been coming for years now and even though we all know how its going to play out, whether you’ve read the books or not, there is still a desperate need to see Harry rise to the ultimate occasion of his life. Structurally though, the final installment is somewhat shaky at the start, feeling more like an afterthought instead of the greatest conclusion of all time. It also lacks the whimsy that has always been present in past Potter pictures, no matter how bleak the scenario seems. There is arguably no room for it here but the heaviness can be sometimes too much to bear.
Once HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART TWO lays everything on the table though, it is relentless. In fact, Yates has no interest in holding any casual viewers’ hands for this last outing. It is an emotional journey that must sink deeper and deeper into despair before any hope of success can be found. The battles are epic and characters from the many years at Hogwart’s return to either perish or flourish within those battles. And then there is Harry himself, alongside his two closest allies, Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). Their growth as both actors and characters has perhaps been the most consistent and compelling aspect of the entire series. Watching them come into their own and develop new understandings of their characters and of themselves has been the series’ secret weapon all along. As they leave the nest, they leave us with one of the most bittersweet farewells at the movies in as long as I can remember.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I hate to be the guy who does this but as I had to look it up before watching the movie, I feel justified in saying that if you look up “insidious” in the dictionary, you will learn that it means proceeding in a gradual, subtle way but with harmful effects. And so INSIDIOUS, director James Wan’s first hit since he exploded in blood-soaked glory onto the horror scene with SAW in 2004, is aptly named. Wan slowly draws you into his hyper-stylized haunted house and those harmful effects I mentioned, they begin to take hold.
The trouble with paranormal based horror films is that their build is usually intense and potentially brilliant but their reveal is ordinarily ridiculous. INSIDIOUS begins with great promise. The low lighting, bizarre imagery and frighteningly sharp score pull you into the nervous energy that permeates the walls of the house in question. A new family has just moved in and the lack of familiarity itself is a device to cause more anxiety in the characters. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play parents to young Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who has seemingly fallen into a coma after a mysterious experience in the attic. As it turns out though, it is Dalton, and not the house, that is haunted and unfortunately, the means with which Dalton’s rescue is orchestrated, which I will not spoil for you here, change the tone of the film so greatly that the subtlety required for it to live up to its name is all but lost completely.
That said, just because I wasn’t convinced does not mean that many believers out there will not be fully taken with INSIDIOUS. When it comes to the paranormal, you either believe or you don’t and it should be the filmmaker’s job to change the mind of even the most ardent of non-believer. While that didn’t happen for me here, I can say that the film gave me chills on more than one occasion. In fact, I had to distract myself when watching, which could mean that I’m not at all interested but in this case, it just meant that I was too scared to look.
Monday, July 11, 2011
The first thought I had when I saw that Matthew McConaughey was starring in Brad Furman’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER, a modern day dissection of just how far the legal system’s corruption reaches, was how could he not be sick and tired of playing lawyers at this point in his career.
McConaughey’s first big break was in Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED, but he was propelled into the stratosphere of stardom that we know him from, when he starred as Jake Briggance, a fresh, Southern lawyer taking a crack at his first big case in Joel Schumacher’s A TIME TO KILL. Clearly, he was pretty memorable for me as Briggance because it turns out he hasn’t set foot in a courtroom since – well, he hasn’t set foot on a courtroom set since then anyway. And here I was thinking that all the man ever played was lawyers. Fortunately, I did a little research before meeting him.
One of McConaughey’s favorite things to talk about? THE LINCOLN LAWYER. “When people like it, I can tell,” the veteran junket junkie proclaims. “And people are enjoying this film so there is stuff to talk about.” McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a recurring character in a series of legal novels written by Michael Connelly, a character he describes as both a “bottom feeder” and an “idealist”. Mick is a defense lawyer who defends whoever can pay him the highest price at the end of the day. He knows every loop and every hole to get around anything the system throws at him. It’s certainly a far cry from the greenery of Jake Briggance (pictured below).
The world McConaughey is referring to is one of mistrust and questionable scruples, disguised as the almighty justice system. Mick is set to defend Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), a hotshot realtor who has been accused of attempted rape and battery on a known prostitute. When it becomes apparent that Louis’s innocence may not be so clear cut, every facet of Mick’s life, from his relationship with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) to his work on previous cases, begins to fall apart.
“He’s juggling a lot of things; it’s a bit vaudeville,” McConaughey quips. “They can’t just all land at once.” If it didn’t appear as though they all would land at the same time though, it just wouldn’t make for very good drama, now would it?
To further throw off Mick’s balance, he learns that a man he once defended (Michael Pena) was wrongly convicted. He can’t prove it though without breaking the rules he is bound to as a lawyer and this conflict makes his circus act much trickier to uphold. “I was intrigued by this box he is in,” the box being metaphoric, of course. McConaughey continues, “What happens if you found out today that you put, not allowed, but put an innocent man in jail? I can’t imagine a worse nightmare.”
“I’ve got enough going on that I don’t need any other ‘new stimulus’,” he says cheekily, complete with air quotes. “When I’m on a film and I’m working, it’s work. I go home after and I have a structured lifestyle. Even if that's the watching the game on television.” His family even travels with him on junkets now.
Thursday, July 07, 2011
I am usually in bed before any of the late night talk shows come on but you don’t have to watch late night television to be aware of the melodrama that ensued during NBC’s Conan O’Brien / Jay Leno debacle from last year. After walking away from “The Tonight Show” after just a few months, O’Brien took to the road with the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”, a trek that forms the backdrop for the new documentary, CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP. They aren’t kidding around with that title either. This often hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the madness of O’Brien’s life and mind shows us a humbled man grappling with rejection, appreciative of his admirers at first, but seemingly irritated by the attention he himself demands as the tour nears its close. This portrait is nothing if not honest, but simply left me feeling just as annoyed as O’Brien eventually comes across.
Not watching late night television also didn’t prohibit anyone from taking sides in the debate, myself included. My not being a Leno fan, it was easy to throw my support behind O’Brien. I’ve never admired O’Brien with any consistency by I do find him funny and I did feel that he got the shaft when NBC decided to move the Leno show into “The Tonight Show” time slot. CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP essentially picks up with O’Brien shortly after he is let out of his contract. One of the stipulations for letting him break that contract was that he was not allowed to make any television appearances for a certain number of months following. His not being able to “stop” though would make this forced hiatus to be rather difficult and so he decided to put the tour together. You can feel O’Brien’s nerves on the screen. He has never toured before and is genuinely struggling with no longer having a televised platform to make people laugh in the way that he’s always known. Is it a need to entertain though that he must feed or is it really more of a need for attention?
As the tour takes shape and the dates start passing, O’Brien’s drive is noticeably falling off and it isn’t long before he begins to do nothing but complain about the demands that are being made on him due to this tour. Now, to be fair, I have never been on a multi-city comedy tour before and therefore do not know how taxing the experience is. In that same vein, I am not a celebrity of any sorts and do not know the hardships that come with that lifestyle. That being said, it is difficult for me to sympathize with O’Brien when he spends the first half of the film telling us how much he needs to entertain to live and then spends the second half complaining about his wish coming true. CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP is still funny but if you listen closely, you will hear the contempt and irritation in O’Brien’s tone. It is masked in humour though and therefore somehow supposedly not as hurtful. O’Brien may not be able to stop but he might consider actually trying. I’m thinking a little rest might make him a little less cranky.