Friday, May 30, 2014

MALIFICENT: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a muliplex near you:

MALIFICENT (Dir. Robert Stromberg, 2014)

“I hate children!” Angelina Jolie yells in the guise of the iconic villainess Maleficent, perhaps the most iconic villainess ever in the world of Disney.

This declaration is amusingly believable, despite the fact that Jolie and hubby Brad Pitt have a brood of both biological and adopted children in real life, but almost nothing else is in this live-action prequel of sorts to the 1959 animated milestone SLEEPING BEAUTY.

The idea here is that Maleficent had her reasons for her wicked wrongdoings, such as cursing a newborn baby to fall into an eternal sleep on her 16th birthday.

You see, as a young faerie living in the magical realm known as The Moors, she was once in love with the baby’s father, Stefan, when they were young and played by Isobelle Molloy and Michael Higgins respectively. After they grow into up into the form of Jolie and Sharlto Copley, Stefan betrays Malificent by drugging her and stealing her wings – cutting them off with iron, which is like Kryptonite to the faeries – in order to become king of the human realm.

So the curse upon Stefan’s daughter Aurora (played as child by both Jolie’s own offspring Vivienne Jolie-Pitt and Eleanor Worthington Cox; then as a teen by Elle Fanning) is purely an act of revenge because you know what they say about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned.

Sorting out this mythical mess will involve Malificent’s right-hand man Sam Riley as a shapeshifter, who can become anything from a crow to a ginormous fire-breathing dragon; the chatty comic relief of three floating pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville), and a wannabe epic battle with Stefan’s faceless army of armored soldiers.

The premise of giving a classic character an elaborate back story explaining how their role in a classic tale came to be brings to mind last years’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, so it’s no surprise that MALIFICENT is directed by that film’s production designer, Robert Stromberg making his directorial debut.

Stromberg, whose work on James Cameron’s AVATAR and Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND won him Oscars, has a sweeping visual style and flair for creating otherworldy terrains, but all of his previous conceptual designs appear to blend together into this one. The result is a lavishly generic CGI-ed landscape that could be in any number of fantasy films over the last decade.

This all too familiar artificial atmosphere renders Jolie as just another special effect. With her face saturated in white make-up on top of scary cheekbone prosthetics, Jolie looks like a pristine porcelain doll, or worse like a dolled up mannequin posed and re-posed for stop-motion sequences. At least she doesn’t strike a pose with her hand on hip, while her bare right leg juts out of her dress like on the Oscars a few years back. But then maybe that would make up a little for the film’s lack of genuine humor.

Jolie does display moments of impassioned emotion – like when she’s screaming to the Heavens after having her wings clipped - but overall her icy, intense commitment to embodying the Mistress of Evil doesn’t help get across the heart and soul that screenwriter Linda Woolverton (THE LION KING, ALICE IN WONDERLAND) is going for.

It may be possible that MALEFICENT didn’t appeal to me because neither the original fairy tale, whether it was Charles Perrault’s or the Brother Grimm’s version, nor the Disney movie adaptation have never appealed to me. So, of course, the prospect of the story being told from another perspective would have little allure.

SLEEPING BEAUTY fans may rejoice in Jolie’s performance, and find the revisionism refreshing, but this non-fan found it to be a dark, drab, and tediously draggy re-imagining that has no imagination of its own.

More later...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jon Favreau's CHEF Is An Overstuffed Cuban Sandwich Of a Movie

Now playing at an art house near me:

CHEF (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2014)

Jon Favreau's modest directorial follow-up to his critically panned 2011 sci-fi western COWBOYS AND ALIENS, could be seen as a plea for small scale indie cred away from the special effects and major studio interference, but it's likable enough to make me forget about that. It also made me very hungry - even though I came to it with a full stomach.

Favreau casts himself as an acclaimed Los Angeles chef working for a popular restaurant run by Dustin Hoffman. When a food blogger (a wonderfully smug Oliver Platt) gives our title character a bad review, Favreau takes to the internet and engages in a twitter battle with the critic. Of course, Favreau is new to the online world so his precocious, pre-teen kid (Emjay Anthony) schools him in the jargon, and before long he's trending.

Hoffman fires Favreau after he has a crazy meltdown in the middle of the restaurant in the presence of Platt, a cellphone video of which quickly goes viral, and the big lug decides to give his ex-wife's (Sofia Vergara) advice to give the food truck business a go.

This involves a one scene cameo by Favreau's IRON MAN buddy Robert Downey Jr. as Vergara's first husband, who hooks up Favreau with a old, beat-up truck that he refurbishes in one of the movie's many music-driven montages, dubs the El Jefe Cubanos, recruits his fellow friend cooks John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, and hits the road.

With the help of his computer whiz son Anthony live-tweeting their cross country trip, Favreau's travelling cuisine-mobile is a huge success. The frothy follow-your-dream theme may be more than a little saccharine, but Favreau's film genuinely seems to believe in it.

With its wall-to-wall Latin-flavored soundtrack, overhead close-ups of immaculately arranged food cooking (lovingly shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau), rambling rom com beats, and the orange-hued sampling of the culinary culture of Miami, New Orleans, and Austin, CHEF is an overstuffed Cuban sandwich of a movie.

Serving as triple threat (writer/director/star) for the first time since 1999's MADE, Favreau didn't trim any fat off when preparing this movie meal, resulting in an overlong, montage-heavy, second half.

Favreau even allows for a sing-along scene, in which he harmonizes with Leguizamo on the Hot 8 Brass Band's horn-driven cover of Marvin Gaye's “Sexual Healing.” This mildly amusing yet incredibly superfluous bit should've been only available as a deleted scene on the later Blu ray/DVD release.

Also, the casting of Favreau's movie star pals, such as Downey Jr., and another IRON MAN alumni, Scarlett Johanssen, as a hostess who gets turned on by watching Favreau cook, come off like phoned-in favors just to raise the movie's marquee value.

Still, the foodie-centric CHEF has a affable spirit to it - a party spirit with a lot of watchable activity, and familiar faces. Favreau's comedy dish here is no pièce de résistance, but it's a pleasant enough platter of food, folks, and fun.

More later...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Re-visiting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK With My Mini-Remake (Of Sorts)

The Colony Theater's Cool Classics screening of Steven Spielberg's 1981 action epic RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, scheduled for tomorrow night here in Raleigh, reminded me that I once made a video recreating one of its most famous scenes.

It was back in 2008, around the time of the release of the fourth entry in the series, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, that I put some old toys from my youth, and the original soundtrack to work to make this:

Yep, pretty sweet, huh? Take that, you kids that remade the whole damn movie back in 1989!

Also in anticipation of the screening, I put together a slideshow of behind-the-scenes pics from the making of the movie:

Indiana Jones and the Behind-the-Scenes Slideshow (Examiner, 5/20/14).

Anyway, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg and George Lucas' immortal tribute to the action adventure serials of the '30s and '40s, screens as part of the Colony's Cool Classic series on Wednesday night, 
May 21st, at 7:30 pm. Admission is $5.00.

Hope to see you there.

More later...

Monday, May 19, 2014

R.I.P. Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

I was saddened last night to hear of the passing of cinematographer Gordon Willis at the age of 82. The Queens, NY-born Willis' work as Director of Photography on such mighty classics as THE GODFATHER series, seven of Woody Allen's best films, seminal '70s films like KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, and ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN all left a lot of iconic imagery forever embedded in my, and undoubtedly many others', movie-loving memories.

In tribute here's 10 of my favorite screenshots from the films Willis shot that I believe capture the immaculate beauty of his compositions (and give some indication of why he was called “The Prince of Darkness”):

1. MANHATTAN (Dir. Woody Allen, 1979)

2. THE GODFATHER (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

3. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Dir. Herbert Ross, 1981)

4. THE PARALLAX VIEW (Dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1974)

5. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (Dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976)

6. ANNIE HALL (Dir. Woody Allen, 1977)

7. THE GODFATHER PART II (Dir. Francis ford Coppola, 1974)

8. STARDUST MEMORIES (Dir. Woody Allen, 1980)

9. INTERIORS (Dir. Woody Allen, 1978)

10. KLUTE (Dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1971)

This easily could have been a top 100 Willis screenshots list as I went through so many great images to pick these out. Sure, I'm glossing over what Willis' lens viewed in the '80s and '90s in less classic though still notable movies like PERFECT, THE MONEY PIT, BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY, and, sigh, THE GODFATHER: PART III, but those are the pictures I've chosen!

There are even striking shots from his last film, the critically lambasted THE DEVIL'S OWN in 1997, (frequent collaborator Alan J. Pakula's final film too), that could have made the list as well.

One last parting shot (from STARDUST MEMORIES):

R.I.P. Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

More later...

Friday, May 16, 2014

GODZILLA: Not Godawful Like The '98 One So There's That

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

GODZILLA (Dir.Gareth Edwards, 2014)

When I was a kid I loved GODZILLA movies. Well, I loved laughing at them. 

It was the '70s run of the series, so it was the iconic overgrown fire-breathing creature at its cheesiest. The gigantic lizard (a stunt actor in a rubber suit) was portrayed as a friend to the people who'd save Toyko or whatever Japanese city from an attacking monster, then wave to the cheering masses and head back into the sea. Even toddlers could tell how ridiculous those movies were. 

This new American remake/re-boot/re-imagining/re-whatever wisely acts like the godawful 1998 Roland Emmerich version never happened. Max Borenstein's screenplay neatly builds upon Godzilla's atomic age origin story from the 1954 original, with a  set-up featuring an intense Bryan Cranston as a Nuclear Power Plant supervisor in Japan convinced that there's a cover-up surrounding a massive meltdown that took the life of his wife (Juliette Binoche).

As Cranston's Navy officer son, and the movie's real protagonist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson flies to Japan, leaving behind his nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son (Carson Bolde), to bail out his now thought to be crazy father after he was arrested for trespassing in the quarantined are where they lived when the tragic accident occurred in 1999 - hey, that's not far off from when the tragic accident that was the '98 GODZILLA happened but I digress.

Cranston and Taylor Johnson trespass on the property again and are taken into custody to some sort of secret installation where the plant was, which now has an insanely large chrysalis pod being studied by scientists played by Ken Watanbe and Sally Hawkins. Watanbe seems to have only been hired so that he can dramatically say “Godzilla” (or “Gojira”) in his thick Japanese accent.

There's all this layered plotting to get through before we even catch a glimpse of Godzilla, but the build-up has a lot of genuine suspense and Cranston's great emotional gravitas going for it. 

However, once Godzilla finally rears his spiky, scaly reptilian head and roars his trademark roar in an in-your-face close-up (one of the many times I was glad I wasn't seeing it in 3D), the movie is all about the big battle scenes with the human element and the science whatnot taking a backseat.

So a terrifically thrilling first half bleeds into a tiresomely bombastic second hour that apparently has the sole goal of outdoing MAN OF STEEL in the amount of devastating destruction it can fill the screen with.

Godzilla chases the Winged Muto (I think that's right) that hatched from the pod at the plant site across the ocean from Japan so we get to see Honolulu, San Francisco (Jesus, how many times do I have to see the Golden Gate Bridge getting destroyed in the movies?), and Las Vegas get destroyed. Like usual we don't see many people get killed, because this is a popcorn picture and that would bum us out I suppose.

It is a major improvement over the '98 one, and I like that this American film by a British director based on a Japanese commodity takes its source so seriously, but I was bored to tears by the messy, noisy battles. 

I'll give them that they succeeded in wringing some instances of excitement out of CGI creatures wailing on each other, but I think I had more fun in my youth watching men in bulky costumes with obvious zippers slugging it out with tacky backgrounds covered with unconvincing miniatures and models.

But here, the cluttered visuals here looked so much like every other event films' visuals that I kept expecting a superhero to show up.

There's also the attempt at a Spielbergian sense of awe that director Edwards, whose modest low budget debut film MONSTERS was a dry run for this ginormous genre exercise, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (THE AVENGERS), and thousands of special effects artists just can't pull off.

It could be that beyond the campiness I enjoyed back then, I never really cared much for the whole Godzilla thing. I mean, I appreciate the anti-nuclear subtext of Ishirō Honda 60-year old original - perhaps the only essential entry of the series - but can anyone claim that any of the nearly 30 sequels that followed is quality cinema?

I know, I know - they're not supposed to be high art, they're supposed to be big ass popcorn movies with monsters mashing, buildings being smashed, missiles exploding (or getting eaten), and mass hysteria.

This has all that in spades, so Godzilla fans and audiences seeking mindless thrills will eat it up, but, in my case, I'm going to borrow the words of Butthead (of Beavis and Butthead fame, of course) commenting on a long forgotten video: “Usually, demolition and destruction is pretty cool, too, but I don't know, like here, it's like, here it just, it falls flat.”

More later...

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an art house near me:

(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

Finally, a vampire movie for adults! Adults who are into slow moody art films that is.

Jim Jarmusch’s first film since 2009’s critically misunderstood THE LIMITS OF CONTROL sets a hypnotic tone right off the bat with a pitch black sky full of stars that swirl clockwise behind opening red pointy titles that resemble the credits from those Hammer DRACULA productions from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The swirling motif continues as it fades into an overhead shot of a record playing on a turntable, then a mesmerizing close-up of a spaced-out Tilda Swinton (also from overhead) slowly falling backwards as the room spins around her.

This is how Jarmusch, via the sumptuous lens of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, illustrates the sensation of instant euphoria that comes from drinking blood, sonically enhanced by the Velvet Underground-style droning of Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL.

While Swinton swigs tiny wine glasses of O-negative in Tangiers, her husband of many centuries, a long-haired reclusive rock musician (a deathly downbeat Tom Hiddleston), toils in a dark rundown Detroit apartment.

Hiddleston and Swinton are named Adam and Eve, but despite their advanced age and historical namedropping (“Remember when you gave that string quartet to Schubert?”), we’re not told if this is the original Adam and Eve. We just get that the deathly pale duo have lived through the ages gorging on, and influencing, art, literature (Swinton can’t travel without a suitcase full of vintage books), and science.

Hiddleston casually asks his gofer, an eager rock kid played by Anton Yelchin, to get him a wooden bullet for “an art project.” Sensing her hubby Hiddleston’s suicidal leanings over a video phone chat, Swinton hops a plane to Detroit. There, the long-time lovers luxuriate in each other’s company, slow dancing to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” and sharing O-negative popsicles, until a flirty Mia Wasikowska shows up as Swinton’s reckless younger sister who needs a place to stay.

All the while, Hiddleston refers to the mortal humans as “zombies,” and bemoans what society has become. This social commentary doesn’t go very far, but it doesn’t need to as there’s plenty of creepy atmosphere and ominous imagery to sink one’s teeth into.

The spare cast also includes Jeffrey Wright, who previously appeared in Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle BROKEN FLOWERS, as a doctor who illegally procures Hiddleston with blood, and the 74-year old acting legend John Hurt as Elizabethan-era playwright Christopher Marlowe, Swinton’s blood connection in Tangiers. Hurt has a great deathbed scene in which he speaks of being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, labeling the bogus Bard an “illiterate zombie philistine.”

Hiddleston displays layers not even hinted at in his popular portrayal of Loki in Marvel’s AVENGERS and THOR movies, while Swinton plays upon her icily alluring persona with a tongue-in-cheek slyness; they’re utterly convincing as this blood-sucking yet exquisitely cultured couple.

It's also a bit amusing that Swinton followed spoofing her resemblance to David Bowie in his video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (from the 2013 album The Next Day) with recalling Bowie's emaciated, pale presence as a dying vampire in THE HUNGER (1983) whether or not that was intended.

Alongside the aforementioned tunage by Jarmusch’s band, Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem’s otherworldly score, which won the Cannes Soundtrack Award last year, adds greatly to the film’s tense trance-like tone. It reverberated in my psyche long after I left the theater.

With its subtle wit and its engagingly erotic ambience, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a welcome respite from the bombastic blockbuster fodder currently clogging up the multiplexes. It stands up nicely to Jarmusch’s ‘80s and ‘90s indie classics (STRANGERS IN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN, DEAD MAN,) and is his best film since 1999’s GHOST DOG.

It’s also the first vampire film in a long time fit for a evening of fine wining and dining - even if blood isn’t your particular poison.

More later...

Friday, May 09, 2014

FADING GIGOLO: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at an art house near me:

FADING GIGOLO (Dir. John Turturro, 2014)

John Turturro’s fifth film as director doesn’t waste any time setting up its simple racy premise. In the first few minutes, Woody Allen as a Brooklyn bookstore owner casually asks his neighbor friend (Tuturro) if he’d take part in a ménage à trios with a couple of high class Manhattan ladies (Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara) for $1,000.

That’s right, Allen, a schlep suitably named Murray, proposes to be Turturro’s pimp for a percentage of his profits, which will come in handy as Allen is forced to close up his quaint shop, and he has a young African American wife (Tonya Pinkins) and several children (3-4, I lost count) at home to feed.

But despite Allen’s dominant wise-cracking presence, the old school-sounding jazz soundtrack, and the familiar New York locales, this is Turturro’s movie, and he puts in an appealing performance as man of few words florist Fioravante. His brand of tall, dark, and handsome works wonders with the radiant Stone, so much so that she has trouble sharing him with Vergara.

Meanwhile, French actress Vanessa Paradis as a grieving widow of a Rabbi, who also has a bunch of kids (6, I think) may just benefit from Turturro’s services, that is, if a stern Leiv Schreiber as a snooping Hassidic neighborhood watchman doesn’t get in the way.

FADING GIGOLO, beautifully shot by cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo, is as measured and confident as Turturro’s character, but it often feels like a rom com that’s short on both rom and com.

There’s definitely some sultry chemistry between Turturro and Stone, as well as Vergara, who it’s nice to see not over-exaggerating her Spanish accent like she’s called upon weekly to do on Modern Family, but when the narrative goes the expected route of having Tuturro fall in love with the unassuming until the last minute Paradis, it’s more of a cutesy convention than it is convincing.

As for this being the first acting appearance of Allen outside of his own films since Alfonso Arau’s 2000 comedy PICKING UP THE PIECES (I don’t remember it either), it’s hardly a role that required any heavy lifting. Allen’s Murray is uninspiringly one of his scheming schlub archetypes that he’s embodied throughout his career from TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) to SMALL TIME CROOKS (1999).

It could be seen that the amusement of such a character has been partly drained from Allen’s recent turn in the media spotlight when 20-year allegations of molestation resurfaced via statements from former flame Mia Farrow, adopted daughter Dylan, and his only biological child Ronan, but it seems to me and most movie-goers the 78-year old filmmaker is really only regarded as mildly controversial these days. Whether you’re an Allen fan or detractor, nothing in this movie is going to sway you to a different side than the one you come in on.

Turturro, who based the screenplay on his experiences with Judaism growing up in Brooklyn, stretches the premise nearly to the breaking point when Allen is kidnapped by a group of Orthodox Jewish officers and has to face a Haredi tribunal for the offense of corrupting Paradis. This bit is as forced as it is unfunny. Even the welcome presence of Allen’s DECONSTRUCTING HARRY co-star Bob Balaban as his lawyer can’t squeeze a laugh out of the situation.

As charming as some of their exchanges together are, there’s a comical distinction between Turturro and Allen worth noting. Allen is “on,” always desperately going for the joke while Turturro plays it cool, more into the sex scenes to care about whether things are funny or not. 

More succinctly put: Allen is the fading one; Turturro is truly the game gigolo. These tasty ingredients may not mix together into a classic comedy, but they're still worth tasting.

More later...

NEIGHBORS: A High Concept Comedy That Never Becomes Overwhelmed By Its Concept

Guest reviewer William Fonvielle, of the blog Filmvielle, takes on:

NEIGHBORS (Dir. Nicholas Stoller, 2014)

Well how 'bout that. Lend it to this silly battle of Seth Rogen versus Zac Efron to produce the unofficial State Of The American Comedy. Raucously funny, tightly paced, and oddly thoughtful without being oppressively so, NEIGHBORS is one of those comedies where so much of what matters clicks, you're even willing to forgive the few parts that don't.

If it carries with it any sort of dread, it's only the countdown to the inevitable horrible sequel that doesn't understand any part of what made the original special.

An oddly omnipresent theme in recent comedies, particularly those produced or directed by Judd Apatow, is the need for adolescent males to leave their childish habits behind. The 40-year-old virgin accepted that he could no longer substitute action figures for companionship.

Rogen in KNOCKED UP didn't shirk the lifetime of responsibilities from his one-night stand. Instead of moping over his break-up in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (also directed by Nicholas Stoller), Jason Segel focuses his energy into his dream project about puppet vampires.

It's a simple concept, getting surprising mileage because each of these respective movies seems to genuinely believe what it's preaching. And it's not without lineage. If, as everyone suggests, Apatow is the closest we have to a Harold Ramis heir, then his movies are a direct continuation of Ramis' "snobs vs. slobs" classics (STRIPES, ANIMAL HOUSE, etc). Not an exact echo, mind you. Just carrying the torch further down the road - Apatow's movies relish the sight of grown men getting into mischief, but they invariably arrive at the point in the third act when enough is enough and it's time to grow up.

So where does that leave NEIGHBORS here in 2014? On the surface, you have a classic Ramis battle. A rowdy frat house (led by a shockingly adept Efron), whose bongs puff smoke with the same thoroughness as their stereos blast loud music, move in to the house next to a young newlywed couple (Rogen and Rose Byrne). The bros dreams of partytime antics so legendary, they can land on their frat's wall of fame. The young couple wants nothing more than blissful, suburban peace for themselves and their infant daughter. Snobs and slobs, enter the ring!

Wait a sec, though. Stoller immediately subverts expectations by casting Rogen not as the stoner party animal, but as half of the husband/wife team. That's right. Seth Rogen, once among the freakiest of the Freaks And Geeks, now convincingly stands as a movie's bastion of adulthood. Essentially, Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien take their standard Ramis frame, plug in Apatow's favorite Boy Who Must Grow Up into the role of Boy Who Already IS Grown Up, and make that character and his wife the audience surrogate. 

And are the couple's demands really that extreme? They're not against partying. Hell, the movie opens with them brazenly having sex in the living room while their wide-eyed child gazes on. They're just trying to create a normal life for themselves in the process.

Ultimately this results in neither a Ramis cautionary tale of excess partying (where there are no consequences) or an Apatow cautionary tale of excess adolescence (in which there are no consequences for a while, until there are), but an impressive summation of both. There is where American comedy was. NEIGHBORS shows you where it leads.

All the more impressive is that Stoller doesn't club you over the head with this either. With each passing movie he grows more skilled as a true director of comedy. Not a mere assembler of scenes, but a director. A director makes the hard choices. He knows when to let his talented performers riff, and more importantly, he knows when to judiciously bring the editing blade down. The movie contains a few fantastic examples of actors running with a concept (witness Efron and frat brother Dave Franco's bit on bros vs. hos), but it still runs a tight 96 minutes and damn well means it. Apart from any scholarly examination you or I might bring to the table, this is fundamentally a movie that sprouts from a solid concept, embodies it with distinct characterizations, then honestly follows those characters and that concept as far as they go.

A comedy that decided what it wanted to be and made choices along the way to make that happen.

And by the end, Stoller and his team prove themselves adept at the fine art of having their cake and eating it too. After two acts that take great relish in the joy of watching mischief, an uneasy feeling began a-boiling in my stomach. Stoller and his writers overall did a nice job of adding layers to their characters along the way - Efron fears graduating college and entering a world where he doesn't matter, while Rogen and Byrne worry that becoming a couple who just wants a night of peace with their kid means their youth is effectively killed. All this works nicely as background to the action.

But will NEIGHBORS unfortunately remember that a story requires an end, and then fall into the trap of blatantly Imparting A Lesson? 

What makes NEIGHBORS so impressive is as it arrives at the finish line, it manages to simultaneously hit the gas while leaning on the brakes. The bawdy, lets-have-a-good-time nature of the movie never lets up. If anything, it only escalates. But Stoller ultimately never sides with anyone, and he takes a step back with these characters, by now so well established, and allows us to see things from everyone's point of view.

When Rogen and Byrne finally lie in bed in the end and lovingly coo over such boring things as the smell of freshly ground coffee, it plays not as a joke. NEIGHBORS means it. But when Efron gazes at the extremest of the extreme party he hath wrought as a source of genuine pride and accomplishment, it plays not as a moment of pity. NEIGHBORS means that too. Stoller never actively judges nor supports any one character. Instead he has the temerity to suggest they might both be right, a concept he subtly weaves between the laughs. There's a place for partying, there's a place for adulthood, and they both matter.

One hell of a juggling act, this movie is. It's a high concept comedy that never becomes overwhelmed by the concept. It's a loving embodiment of both the Ramis and Apatow schools of comedy while simultaneously tweaking the formulas in both small and meaningful ways (lets not gloss over the fact that instead of a shrill nag, the lead female is Rogen's equal partner in crime). And it's a movie that will make you cackle to the point of missing lines.

All NEIGHBORS had to do was make us laugh. How nice that it decided to do more.

More later...

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


RUNNER RUNNER (Dir. Brad Furman, 2013)

Remember the slick Justin Timberlake/Ben Affleck movie RUNNER RUNNER, that came out and died last October? No? Wait – a few of you do?

Well, it’s one of those first class flops that made me wonder if it was really as bad as its 9% Rotten Tomatoes rating says it is so I queued it up on Netflix.

It starts off intriguingly with a coolly confident Timberlake as a Princeton grad student, who’s an affiliate for an online poker site on the side. A flashy opening credits montage fills us in with snazzy graphics and TV news sound bites that online gambling on college campuses is on the rise.

Amid the headlines about Ponzi schemes, bribery, and racketeering, we catch a glimpse of Affleck as e-Casino tycoon Ivan Block, identified as “King of online gaming on FBI list.” This scene they're setting up here is certainly very different to today’s gambling and poker scene with the recent legislation changes and legal options for USA players.

After Timberlake loses a lengthy game to double his tuition money to a cheater on Affleck’s “Midnight Black” site (in a circling camera sequence that cribs off Fincher’s dorm room brainstorming scenes in THE SOCIAL NETWORK), he travels to Costa Rica to seek out Affleck, and show him that he has proof that his system swindled him.

At a glitzy party that Timberlake talks his way into, Affleck thanks him for bringing this data to his attention but has him escorted out. The next day, Affleck invites Timberlake aboard his yacht The House (as in “the house always win”) and offers him a job at his website with a guaranteed 7 figures in the first 18 months, guaranteed 8 figures in the first three years. Of course, it’s an offer he can’t refuse and we’re off running running.

Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s screenplay follows the template of Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET with Affleck being Gordon Gekko to Timberlake’s Bud Fox – even utilizing the lady love interest that used to be the bosses’ scenario - but with a bit of the gambling with other people’s fortunes stakes from Ben Younger’s BOILER ROOM (which featured an Affleck cameo) getting thrown around here like bouncing dice on a craps table.

Timberlake gets predictably more and more caught up in the dangerous dealings of Affleck’s corrupt corporation, and has an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) breathing down his neck, so he sets out to outsmart everyone, win the girl (Gemma Arterton, who as one IMDb commenter put it “has never looked hotter”), and perform a highly engaged, impeccably choreographed, show-stopping song and dance number climax. Okay, everything except that last one happens but, dammit, it’s Justin Timberlake so forgive my wishful thinking.

Affleck is so convincing as the top dog douche here that it’s easy to see what fuelled the Great Batman Backlash of Summer ’13. With his slimy character’s pretentiously spoken speeches and his demented delight in feeding his enemies to crocodiles (or threatening to), Affleck isn’t even up to subpar Bond villain standards; he’d barely cut it as the bad guy in a LETHAL WEAPON sequel or Miami Vice episode, or at least with this material.

As it checks off all the routine thriller clichés, including the one about the deadbeat gambler father (played here by John Heard) whose life is on the line in the big game, RUNNER RUNNER is one of those terrible yet terribly watchable movies. It’s fun to guess what the next line is, and ridicule the lame attempts at twists.

Those into gambling online will be disappointed because after the film’s set-up, it’s really not about the world of internet gaming at all. It just uses that as an unsuccessful springboard into another tired student-becomes-the-teacher face/off between two big names.

Director Furman, whose much better 2011 crime drama THE LINCOLN LAWYER helped spark the McConaissance (you know, the current era in which Matthew McConaughey is an heavy-hitting Oscar winning dramatic again after a lost period of rom coms?), has made a competently structured narrative but with little inspiration or depth. With hope, the next time out he’ll take a riskier gamble than this vacuous vehicle driven only by star power.

More later...

Friday, May 02, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: Here We Go Again...Again

Now playing at a Marvelplex near you...

(Dir. Marc Webb, 2014)

I tried to go into this sequel to the re-boot with an open mind, but it wasn't easy as my enthusiasm for the Spider-Man franchise is at an all-time low these days. I so wasn't into Marc Webb's first entry 2 summers ago; I wrote on this very blog that it seemed "more like a reconfigured remake than a brand new beginning." Well, the sequel is more of the same as it matches a lot of story beats from Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 2 from 10 years ago.

Andrew Garfield is back as the web-shooting super hero who is now haunted by the ghost of NYC Police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), who I forgot had died in the first one (shows how much it left my memory). A flashback reminds us that Garfield's Peter Parker had promised Leary's Stacy that he would leave his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone) "out of it," so after a late entrance at their graduation - Spider-Man had to chase down a Russian mobster (Paul Giamatti) who had hijacked a truck filled with tons of Oscorp plutonium, you see - our conflicted protagonist breaks up with the love of his life.

Meanwhile some half-assed villain origin stories are being set up concerning Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who we all know becomes the Green Goblin, and Jamie Foxx as a Oscorp maintenance man who has the bad luck to fall into a tank of genetically modified electric eels.

This happenstance turns Foxx into a blue glowing electric generator that engages in a Times Square-set battle with Spider-Man that's one of the better sequences. Unfortunately its more MAN OF STEEL than SUPERMAN II as there's loads of messy bombastic destruction that had to cause some deaths but you never see them. Instead they cut to a comical shot of Spidey wearing a fireman's helmet and holding a running hose while firefighters are laughing it up all around him.

The plot gets messier with DeHaan scheming to get a transfusion of Spider-Man's blood to fight off his growing illness, Stone considering going to study at Oxford, and Garfield trying to solve a mystery left behind by his late father (Campbell Scott) involving a briefcase and a secret lab. Garfield does this by constructing a Homeland-style cork board of documents, pictures, notecards, press clippings, string tying them all together, etc. I bet that's not far off from how screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS) along with Jeff Pinkner (James Vanderbilt is also given a story credit) constructed the screenplay.

At an overstuffed 142 minutes, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is tiresome and uninspired franchise filler. There is some charming chemistry between Garfield and Stone, who are dating in real life, but the insipid dialogue they're given sabotages them on almost every line.

That's just one of many of the movie's problems. The humor feels off, Hans Zimmer's score is generically overwrought, Giamatti is too ridiculously over-the-top, the theme of Peter trying to sell the world (or at least his still unseen Editor J. Jonah Jameson) on Spider-Man being here to help is cheesily handled, Leary's ghost is a poor plot mechanism, Sally Field as Aunt May isn't given anything to do, and a major character getting killed (I'm not Spoiling who) doesn't have anywhere close to the emotional impact it's going for. Even the Stan Lee cameo falls flat.

One of the film's few plusses is its design, and ace cinematography by Daniel Mindel. But even with the effects advancing further forward, Webb's SPIDER-MAN is still toiling in the aesthetics of the Raimi/Tobey Maguire trilogy. It's like they are content to stand in those superior chapters' shadow, without any motivation to put their own distinct stamp on the classic comic book character.

Sony has unsurprisingly got SPIDER-MAN 3 and 4 already scheduled for 2016 and 2018 to fill the spaces between the more promising installments of the Marvel Universe (THE AVENGERS, IRON-MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, et al). This is really only good news to the diehard fanboys, because I bet the rest of us will think twice about ponying up for such subpar Spider-man entries like this one.

More later...