For several years I contributed to the entertainment website The Local Q and the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper as a film reviewer. Many of those reviews may be found below and the link at the bottom of the page. The reviews were ultimately compiled into a book, A Latchkey’s Take on Modern Cinema. You can find more details on the book here.
Director Darren Aronofsky has a unique gift of bringing dramatic verisimilitude to his films, be it drug use, an aging professional wrestler, or in the case of “Black Swan,” an ambitious ballet dancer. He seems to go beyond the traditional narrative structure to add a layer of psychological content missing from today’s cinema. An overused description in the film world that I’ve never personally used until now is “haunting,” but that is just what “Black Swan” is — a haunting look into the disturbed mind of a high profile ballet dancer at the peak of her career.
Dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) lands the role of a lifetime with the lead in Swan Lake. After dedicating her entire life to ballet, the pressure of the demanding dual-role lead in Swan Lake slowly builds to a haunting crescendo. Under intense direction of eclectic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, “Ocean’s Twelve”) and facing competition from rival dancer Lily (Mika Kunis, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), the impeccable Nina begins to lose her grip on reality while trying to channel the necessary emotions to perfect the nefarious Black Swan portion of the role. At the film’s unexpected climax, Nina manages to reach the pinnacle of her on-stage career while her personal demons engulf and ultimately define her life and career. Much like he does in 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream” and 2008’s “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky brings a callous authenticity to “Black Swan.” The trademark handheld voyeuristic cinematography and cramped, closed framing of Nina’s home and backstage life draws you in to her plight and growing insanity. Portman and Kunis share tremendous chemistry in an on-screen relationship that traverses the bounds of bitter adversaries and fervent sexual partners.
There has been some controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Portman’s dance scenes in the film. Shortly after Portman won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Black Swan” the claim was made that most of the dancing was done by dance double Sarah Lane. Aronofsky says 80-percent of the dancing is done by Portman, while Lane says it is around five percent. My guess is only the film editor knows for sure, and the true number is probably somewhere in the middle. Despite the controversy, it is the acting that steals the show here, not the dancing. Portman delivers a graphic portrayal of Nina as she struggles with the everyday grinds of a grueling profession, conflicting relationships and a loosening grip on reality. The ballet is a simply a beautiful side attraction in an already masterful work of art.
Art is what it comes down to, as the plot of “Black Swan” is a classic case of life imitating art and asks the question – how much is a person willing to sacrifice in the name of their craft? Aronofsky revisits the successful formula used in “The Wrestler” with an intense look into the psychological toll of an obscure profession, but the similarities end there. “Black Swan” is like nothing we’ve ever seen before – a testament to Aronofsky’s artistry as he continues his rapid ascent as one of Hollywood’s top young directors. While Tinseltown has a habit of churning out the same formulaic material, Aronofsky manages to use his own familiar formula to break new ground in cinema.
Be wary of a film labeled based on a true story. That’s what I always tell my film students. I don’t tell them beware, and I certainly don’t encourage them to ignore them. I only ask that they do their own research and take what they see on the silver screen with a grain of salt. This is true of Hollywood’s latest dramatic recreation in “Argo.” Based on real and quite dramatic events in 1980, there is brilliance to be found in the film. However, the true beauty lies more in the cinematic tools used to dramatize the story rather than the heroic events the movie draws inspiration from.
The U.S. embassy located in Tehran is center stage for the Iran revolution in 1979 when militants storm the building, taking its staffers hostage. Six of the 58 American diplomats escape during the raid and find refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. With no options to leave the country, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) leads an improbable extraction mission that revolves around a fake sci-fi movie called Argo that calls for shooting locations in Iran. Disguised as a location scout crew, Mendez leads the six U.S. diplomats through intense Iranian scrutiny in an effort to get them home.
The film has Ben Affleck’s fingerprints all over it, as its director, star and co-producer. Though many dramatic liberties are taken to create the Hollywood narrative, Affleck does it in the right way. He spent a week with the real Tony Mendez to help maximize verisimilitude in such a complex CIA operation. Affleck also told the UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper he struggled with decisions such as downplaying the role of New Zealand and British diplomats in the name of creating a sense of desperation for the U.S. diplomats.
The fictional discretions Affleck settles on are utilized in marvelous fashion, building non-stop suspense that puts you square in the seat of the six desperate diplomats. Only one dramatization is painfully obvious, with a somewhat hokey chase scene during the film’s climax, but beyond that, “Argo” serves as a clinic for building conflict and tension in a five-part narrative.
“Argo” is masterful in capturing the era from the very opening credit that features a grainy, retro Warner Brothers logo. The mise-en-scene is equally brilliant, with set designs, wardrobes and color palates that commensurate with the late 1970’s. You get the feeling that such a dubious CIA rescue mission was custom made for 1980. I certainly can’t imagine it happening today during the days of Seal Team 6 operations, with the President watching every move. The clothes, hair, accessories, and props such as movie posters and toys (extremely apropos given the nature of the mission) all capture a specific moment in history, perhaps we all got in a big hurry and started taking ourselves a tad too serious.
The casting deserves its own special nod. Along with Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston round out the domestic crew helping Mendez with the mission, while Tate Donovan heads up the lesser-known group of diplomats in Iran. Goodman and Arkin shine as the fake movie production team, providing some much needed comedic relief that might otherwise leave audiences near cardiac arrest.
Though the details of the extraction are heavily dramatized, it does not downplay the efforts of all people involved in the mission. “Argo” likely won’t win any awards for its historical accuracy but it certainly deserves credit in several other categories. From the subtle ways it depicts the late 70’s and early 80’s to the emotion that pours from the actors courtesy of a tightly wound narrative, “Argo” is as gripping a political thriller as you’re likely to find. The film’s denouement also includes further elements of the story as well as historical photos matched with the corresponding cinematic representations, revealing the painstaking process to remain accurate with locations and characters in creating a very real diegetic setting. For more on the film and an interview with retired CIA agent Tony Mendez, I recommend this article in The Washington Times.
The Starving Games
Last year I shared my disappointment in the Marlon Wayans parody film “A Haunted House.” The entire parody genre as a whole seems to have lost its luster. I’m all about second chances, so this week I gave the new-to-Netflix film “The Starving Games” a shot. The film comes from the other “family” of parody writers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Other than the Wayans family, these guys have the parody market cornered.
“The Starving Games” takes the film franchise “The Hunger Games” to task with protagonist Kantmiss Evershot (Maiara Walsh, TV’s “Cory in the House”) doing what she can to stay alive in the 75th annual Starving Games. During the games she encounters everything from Angry Birds, Taylor Swift, Gandalf the Grey, and James Cameron. The film takes a simpler approach from prior parodies with a narrative that incorporates popular culture elements while sticking fairly close to the “Hunger Games” narrative.
To be honest, the story of Friedberg and Seltzer is more interesting than the film “The Starving Games.” They use the movie as a vehicle to show how small changes in characters’ responses or actions from the legit film being spoofed can lead to comedic moments. It all stems from a college experience (both attended UC Santa Barbara) when the duo wondered what would have happened in “Goodfellas” if the infamous “Funny how? Like I’m a clown?” Joe Pesci scene cut to the next scene with Pesci in clown makeup. The seeds were laid for their parody filmmaking careers.
Friedberg and Seltzer occasionally deviate from the parody film (most recently “Best Night Ever”) but their parody body of work is the pair’s real bread and butter. They even co-wrote “Scary Movie” with the Wayans brothers before branching off to carve their own path with parodies that include “Epic Movie” and Disaster Movie.” The production of their films is a tale of two narratives. Actors return for multiple films and cite a close bond with cast and crew. Critics on the other hand universally pan the films. Most of their films have less than 10% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Friedberg and Seltzer have not only accepted their place in Hollywood but also embrace it in typical parody fashion. For “Date Movie” they invited two L.A. film critics to join the audio commentary section of the DVD.
I think the phrase “it is what it is” fits perfectly here. “The Starving Games” slots in nicely with other Friedberg/Seltzer productions, taking aim at teen-oriented material and featuring mostly slapstick and toilet humor. The films mean well, and there are a few genuinely funny moments like a funny “Avengers” appearance at the end and the general overall take on the world of “The Hunger Games.” Not surprisingly it’s nothing groundbreaking and will likely appeal to you if you’re under the age of 18. And that’s ok. It is what it is.
When I first read that Summit Entertainment was combining two of my legitimate most favorite things in the world – film and the NFL draft – I could barely contain my excitement. I had high hopes after watching multiple trailers and listening to Kevin Costner espouse the film’s realism by using current players, NFL teams and logos and actual game footage. The stage was set for a glorious cinematic moment that could potentially equal the excitement of the moments leading up to the number one NFL draft selection. Then I attended the movie and watched as that glorious can’t miss prospect I so greatly coveted turned into a classic bust right before my eyes.
Veteran director Ivan Reitman (“No Strings Attached”) and screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph made one crucial mistake in an otherwise paint-by-numbers film. They alienated a niche audience with expectations that the Kevin Costner vehicle would appeal to a wider audience. The NFL draft has become a phenomenon in its own right, a spring rite of passage for NFL hopefuls and the ultimate reality show for football fans and the two cable networks that dedicate hundreds of hours of programming to the three day spectacle.
“Draft Day” tries to capture the best of both worlds, with the film’s diegesis taking place in a small twelve-hour time frame during the first day of the NFL draft. The problem here is the narrative tries to work in a storyline that should really encompass several month. These include the obligatory love story, a surprise pregnancy and a long-running family drama that appears mid-narrative and then quickly disappears. These are all benchmarks of solid conflict within a drama but never play out effectively given such a short window of time. Twelve hours is perfect to capture all the real-life drama the NFL draft provides. The script, as the saying goes, almost writes itself. The mistake is trying to cram in all the unnecessary plotlines that have nothing to do with the film’s title or advertised narrative.
Rather than embrace the likely audience that is custom-made for the film – the male football fan age 18-49 – the film alienates them. The trailer is fairly misleading as most of the action advertised in the trailers takes place in the final 15 minutes of the film. The front office moves made by protagonist Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner) as the Cleveland Browns general manager are laughable. A scene where the Browns owner sits down with Weaver Jr. the morning of the draft to finally discuss the team’s strategy is as implausible as any scene in recent cinema history. Weaver Jr. himself is fairly unlikeable as a protagonist and the rest of the film’s characters are flat and void of any redeemable depth.
“Draft Day” is an interesting study in creativity from a filmmaking standpoint. Reitman uses a countdown clock that helps build tension as the first pick of the draft approaches – though the tension often dissipates quickly as the narrative wanders away from the football-related story. He also uses a technique I’ve never seen before, using wipes that develop into split screens with characters overlapping the split screen frame. It is a unique visual but gets a bit distracting with repeated use throughout the film.
I would be curious to see results of exit polls taken at theaters to get the makeup of “Draft Day” audiences. My guess is most are football fans hoping for a draft-related narrative rather than the family drama/love story/football as the backdrop recipe the writers opted for. My disappointment is only rivaled by my surprise that Reitman and his team went this route with such a niche topic. Despite its promise and much to my chagrin, “Draft Day” looks more like a late round selection than a first round gem.
After a decade-long hiatus, Will Ferrell and friends are back with “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” The film was released in December and is now available on DVD. A caveat before this week’s review – I spent ten years in the television news industry and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” is one of my favorite films. The characters you meet in the TV industry are second to none and though not quite as over-the-top as the one’s found in the “Anchorman” franchise, they are as unique as they come. I had two big questions regarding the sequel: How would it stack up to the original and what’s in store for the Channel 4 news team this time around? Let’s fire up returning narrator Bill Kurtis and find out.
Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are co-anchoring the evening news in New York and enjoying life with their son when Corningstone is promoted to lead anchor and Burgundy is fired. After leaving Corningstone and New York, a washed up Burgundy gets one more shot at redemption when new 24-hour news startup GNN – Global News Network – hires Burgundy and his old news team for the graveyard shift. Opting for sensationalism over news, the team begins to revolutionize the industry while taking on Corningstone and rival news organizations.
Director and co-writer Adam McKay sticks to the same formula that worked in the first film, from a womanizing Ron Burgundy and ridiculously idiotic Brick Tamland to conflicts within the now-GNN news team. Some critics claim the film is simply a loosely structured repeat of the first film. While the gags and characters are similar, the narrative is new and that’s enough for fans of the franchise. Its classic Ferrell & Co. schtick rooted in reality. Ferrell said he got the idea for “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” while watching a documentary on the misogynistic newsrooms of the 60’s and 70’s. This time the film tackles the rise of the 24-hour news networks.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” makes a strong yet extremely satirical social statement on American popular culture and what our corporate-owned news products have become. As GNN pours on the hyperbole the network’s ratings soar. The madness culminates when Burgundy’s insignificant random car chase taken from a Minnesota news feed easily beats Corningstone’s live interview with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Burgundy poignantly sums of the point of the entire narrative while running from a fight between rival news networks yelling, “There’s too much news here!”
Much like the original does with the 1970’s, “Anchorman 2” captures the early 80’s through a fun mix of mis-en-scene and light eighties hits from musicians like Boz Skagg’s, Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins. Gone are the muted browns and yellows of the 70’s, replaced by the vivid colors and outrageous styles from the 80’s. It does occasionally come off a little contrived, like the gang randomly reading a “Garfield at Large” book or Trivia Pursuit cards appearing in a diner condiment rack, but for the most part it appears organic.
The continuity of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is seamless. It’s as if you could do a simple fade out from the first film and fade in on the sequel with nothing lost. I’m not sure why critics have such a problem with this. Who doesn’t want a double dose of a film they enjoy? Sure, if you weren’t a Ron Burgundy fan to begin with this film isn’t for you. Mckay and Ferrell do enough to distance the sequel from the original while keeping the same style of humor that made the first “Anchorman” such a success. Ferrell & Co. manage to stay classy a second time around.
I did not expect to like “Divergent.” I really didn’t. Based on my underwhelming experience with the cinematic version of “The Hunger Games” I figured the same thing would happen with what I knew was a similar genre. Granted, I haven’t read “Divergent” so I viewed the film though a different lens. Alas, I cannot pass up a post-apocalyptic film, especially one directed by Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”). I left the theater very surprised with a piqued interest in the rest of Veronica Roth’s book series.
In a post-war Chicago where residents live in factions based on their personality traits, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”) discovers she is “divergent” with multiple personality traits. Considered dangerous and faction-less, she is forced to keep it a secret. When she uncovers a government plan to destroy all divergents Tris enlists the help of fellow divergent Four (Theo James, “Underworld: Awakening”) to save her family and other divergents from being eliminated.
I love the concept of “Divergent” and the world created by Burger and cinematographer Alwin Küchler (“Sunshine”). The film opens outside a giant electrified fence surrounding the city of Chicago and slowly sweeps over a post-war landscape revealing the five different factions and their inhabitants. Burger, who painstakingly created an early 1900’s autochrome look for “The Illusionist,” uses color in a similar fashion here to identify characters that literally wear their personalities on their sleeves.
“Divergent” plays out like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” but on a more grandiose stage. The war is alluded to briefly but never explained, with Burger leaving it up to own machinations. All we get is tidbits here and there, mostly from bitter Erudite faction leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). One of the wonderful things about film is getting lost in an entirely new world that never existed anywhere before now. From beautiful landscape shots from high above the city to dark cavernous holes deep underground, “Divergent” delivers a stunning dystopian setting.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end, and around the film’s midpoint the narrative switches gears from a slow build of introducing the setting and characters to hokey action and plot lines that come off as formulaic and contrived. Tris suddenly becomes super-human, fight scenes are drawn out, and the phrase “I love you” overpowers a mind-controlling drug. I don’t remember a film being such a tale of two halves.
Nevertheless after watching “Divergent” I’m adding the remaining two books in the series to my summer reading list. Sure the books are sort of like bubble gum literature with tropes very similar to “The Hunger Games” – down to a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike protagonist in the film – but they also feature themes such as identity and family that are easy to relate to. I was pleasantly surprised by “Divergent” mostly because of Burger and his filmmaking team. The real test I suppose is…when the sequel is released will I remain in the same faction having reading the rest of the series?
Film is subjective. That’s one of the beautiful things about the medium. How we connect to the story and characters and our own bias lurking around in our subconscious all play a role in the viewing experience. It was with great surprise that I found “Gravity” disappointing, and I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since I watched the DVD release. A caveat, and one that I think played a big role in why I’m not a huge fan of the film, is that I didn’t see it in the theater. My sense, judging on the universal acclaim from both critics and audiences alike, is that to fully appreciate “Gravity” you need to experience it in a theatrical setting.
A routine spacewalk to repair the Hubble Telescope goes horribly wrong when debris from a damaged satellite destroys the space shuttle Explorer. Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are adrift in space with no choice but to attempt to travel to the nearby International Space Station with what little fuel is left in their thruster packs. When Kowalski detaches from Stone to prevent them both from drifting away from the space station, Stone is left alone in space, desperate to find a way back to Earth.
“Gravity” breaks new boundaries as far as the “space film” subgenre goes. Director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki team up to create some beautiful scenes in an innovative fashion. The film’s antagonist is a debris cloud from destroyed satellites, and the scenes when the debris collides with the space station are intense, combining both swooping and shaky handheld shots in long takes. When Cuaron takes us inside Dr. Stone’s helmet, we feel just as disoriented as she does as Earth and debris go circling by at a dizzying pace. Music and sound effects combines with the juxtaposition of shots to create a world unlike we’ve ever seen in cinema.
The film has also been praised for the accurate depiction of space and life in zero gravity conditions. NASA astronaut Mike Massimino told “Space Safety Magazine” (bet you didn’t know THAT existed) that it was scary how accurate the film’s portrayal of life in space is. He should know; Massimino has performed repairs to the Hubble telescope during a spacewalk. The second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, told “The Hollywood Reporter” he thought the simulation of the dynamics in space were remarkable.
Others, however, playfully took the film to task for some inaccuracies. Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted some puzzling thoughts he took away from the film. Some were scientific – such as the incorrect positioning of satellites – and others had to do with the plot – questioning why an astronaut would feel the need to inform a medical doctor what happens medically during oxygen deprivation. However the most poignant of his comments asks why we flock to see films about people in space but ignore when our actual astronauts are in space. He has a valid point.
When describing “Gravity” to colleagues and students I describe it as “2001: A Space Odyssey” meets “Cast Away” but with something missing. As I search for what that something is, I think I’ve narrowed it down to the lack of depth in the characters. The visual effects and mise-en-scene overwhelm us in the film and you never really connect with the characters. Dr. Stone is cold and to me comes off as unlikeable. Cuarón, who also co-wrote the film, offers up a sympathetic backstory and Stone’s subsequent mental breakdown, but all that tells me is NASA would likely have never cleared her psychologically to go into space.
In a film striving for the realism in space, which “Gravity” seems to do after listening to the people who have been there, Cuarón makes one crucial mistake. The plot is thin, singular, and features a (somewhat) unlikeable protagonist. From a production standpoint I loved the film. The effects, cinematography and music are a thrilling combination. From a story standpoint, the film fails to connect with the viewer and ends up somewhat of a disappointment. I goes to show you that no matter how advanced home theater technology becomes, you just can’t replace the big screens at the movie theater.
The Monuments Men
Film genres exist for many reasons. From an analysis standpoint genres give us a baseline for tropes and filmmaking styles. From the business point of view genres offer Hollywood studios a formula for films that are safe and familiar. For audiences genres make it easy to categorize and associate with specific films and actors. Though they serve many purposes, genres are not set in stone. The most interesting films are often ones that bend conventional rules to create a hybrid of styles– but it doesn’t always work. Such is the case with “The Monuments Men.” Director George Clooney puts a comedic twist on an otherwise austere true story that took place near the end of World War II.
During World War II Adolf Hitler ordered Nazi troops to steal some of the world’s finest art for his planned museum complex in Austria. In an effort to preserve centuries of fine art, the U.S. army created a seven-person team charged with finding and preserving thousands of works of art in war torn Europe. The group – made up of museum directors, curators and art historians – finds itself in a race against time as Hitler orders much of the art to be destroyed upon Germany’s impending defeat.
The film is based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” – the second of three books about the topic by author Robert Edsel. “The Monuments Men” seemed to be a passion project for George Clooney, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced the film in addition to a starring role and directorial duties. Clooney says he took a more lighthearted approach to the subject matter to avoid repeating the cynicism that permeates the other two films he wrote and directed, “The Ides of March” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Clooney does so by combining elements from several genres to bring the plot and characters to life. Sometimes it works; other times scenes seem out of place. Clooney admits they took liberties with the characters, changing names and adding some fictional (and often comedic) elements to keep the film lighter. It almost has a “Hogan’s Heroes” feel to it at times – though this clashes with the theme of death and despair that will forever hang over the events of World War II and the dramatic nature of the mission.
At its heart “The Monuments Men” is a war film. Much of the movie was shot in Germany and the UK with a muted look that matches the World War II era. The plot hints at a few key battle scenes but they never fully develop on screen. The film is a drama as much as a war film, with the war efforts humming along in the background almost silently. Clooney told Entertainment Weekly the movie is around 80% accurate with most of the fictional layers added to the characters rather than places and events.
The ensemble cast is a who’s who of A-listers with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett joining Clooney as major characters. “The Monuments Men” is a unique look at a relatively unknown effort that saved thousands of iconic works of stolen art. Though the hybrid genre style of drama, comedy and war film doesn’t mesh well, the movie still captures the spirit of bravery and selflessness by a group of people determined to save pieces of our culture from the hands of evil.
That Guy…Who Was In That Thing
One of the exercises I give my film students is to identify minor characters from a movie and describe their purpose as it relates to the major characters and plot. These minor characters are made up of character actors that you often recognize from other films and television shows but can’t quite put your finger on. We’ve all been there saying to a friend, “It’s that guy, from that thing…” Filmmakers Ian Roumain and Michael Schwartz have made that the focus of the 2012 documentary “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing.” Sixteen minor character actors discuss the highs and lows of their careers in a surprisingly witty and sometimes sobering portrait of the 99.9 percent of Hollywood that populate the films we know and love.
The lineup is indeed a great collection of “those guys” – most of which you’ll probably have to look up on imdb.com and then say to yourself, “oh yea, I recognize him!” Only extreme film buffs and pop culture savants will immediately recognize these bit players. Sure, you might recognize a few from your favorite TV shows and films – Zeljko Ivanek from “Heroes” and “Blackhawk Down,” Timothy Omundson from “Psych,” or Gregory Itzin from “24.” But for the most part, the troupe really is made up of “those guys.”
All sixteen actors give candid accounts on everything from hardships of the career to their personal finances. They all seem to have come to terms with the fact they will never be leading men in Hollywood but share an appreciation for their brethren that make up the majority of the Screen Actors Guild. They are not, however, cookie cutters of each other – despite what we might think from their traditional familiar minor roles. The actors have strong, often differing opinions about their role in Hollywood.
Some of them revel in being typecast – Omundson jokes that the only thing worse than being typecast is being not cast while others like “Nikita’s” Xander Berkeley despises being typecast as a bad guy when his neighbors will tell you he’s the nicest guy in the neighborhood. Throughout the documentary the actors offer up humorous slants and anecdotes while explaining their challenging careers in Tinseltown.
Many of the actors also share interesting stories of how they got into show business, such as “CSI’s” Robert Joy resigning his Rhodes Scholarship to join an acting group in England or “In the Company of Men’s” Matt Malloy impressing director Robert Altman by tying a string to a fly’s leg (you’ll have to watch the documentary to find out how he did it). Many took odd jobs to make ends meet in the beginning, ranging from limo driver to wine salesman. “Murder One’s” Rick Worthy jokes that he thought he arrived when he made a McDonald’s commercial.
The film is a nice reality check (or wakeup call) to the fact that after the celebrated leading men and women in Hollywood, hundreds upon hundreds of actors – typically only peripherally recognized as “that guy” – make up any given production. Minor characters are anything but what their name implies. They serve an important purpose to help develop the protagonist and key antagonists and move the plot forward. It is clear that these actors do it for the love of the craft as character acting can be very fruitful and treacherous at the same time. “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing” does a beautiful job of capturing the art form through the eyes of sixteen talented and sincere actors who have spent their entire careers being “that guy.”
In honor of the Winter Olympics the Film School Blog skates into classics week with a consensus top film among Olympic-themed movies – “Miracle.” The film documents the year leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic hockey showdown between the United States and Soviet Union, famously known as the “Miracle on Ice.” The filmmakers faced two big challenges from the start – staying true to actual events while trying to tell the story cinematically and creating the authenticity that many sports films lack. “Miracle” scores uncontested goals on both counts.
In 1979 the United States Olympic Committee chose Minnesota hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) to lead the U.S. squad into the upcoming Winter Olympic Games. Brooks selected a relatively unknown roster to play his unorthodox style of play designed solely to defeat the top team in the world, the Soviet hockey team. In seven months, Brooks transforms the squad from a group of stubborn individuals to a cohesive unit that becomes like family. After an opening game tie, the U.S. team comes together in preparation for the inevitable showdown with the Soviet Union in the Olympic medal round.
The Hollywood machine will tell you that the main purpose of the movie business is to make money. While this may be true of the business side, there is an artistic cultural side to film and this is the lens in which many films should be viewed. It’s an interesting dichotomy where many Oscar-winning films are actually box office flops despite their critical acclaim. I’ve said before that film can serve as a window into our culture and when done correctly it can also preserve important stories for future generations. “Miracle” certainly falls under this category.
Not surprisingly, the millennial generation doesn’t instantly know what the “Miracle on Ice” is. It’s not their fault. They never knew the Soviet Union as a world superpower and nuclear threat, and the impact of the moment means a little less to them. Although the “based on a true story” mantra is often overused in Hollywood, I feel like we’re in the midst of a resurgence of historically important cinema. From last year’s “Argo” to the recently released “The Monuments Men” audiences seem to have a thirst for culturally relevant content, and Hollywood is wisely listening. Though it was made in 2004, “Miracle” captures the moment for generations who didn’t live through it.
The narrative of “Miracle” is really about Coach Brooks, who tragically died in 2003 in a car accident just after principal photography for the film was completed. His story is fateful in its own right as he was a part of the 1960 Olympic team and was cut just a week before the games began. That team went on to win the gold medal and was the last U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets until the 1980 games. Brooks’ unconventional game plan and willingness to let his team bond over one common enemy – himself – was at the heart of the U.S. victory.
The film’s hockey sequences feature a surprising amount of verisimilitude. Director Gavin O’Connor (“Pride and Glory”) wisely chose to cast hockey players as actors rather than attempt to teach actors to play hockey. Legendary sportscaster Al Michaels also recreates his broadcast of the game, though O’Connor reportedly uses audio from the 1980 broadcast for Michaels’ classic line, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” to capture the authenticity of the moment. Defenseman Jack O’Callahan told USA Hockey Magazine the film’s storyline was “pretty darn close” to what actually happened.
One caveat for the film is that it is produced by Disney and predictably lacks some of the gritty realism that no doubt occurred during training and the Olympic Games. Other than some well-worn cinematic clichés, “Miracle” captures the essence of Herb Brooks as he prepared a young squad of 20-somethings into a worldwide event bigger than they could ever have imagined. The film also realistically recreates what many call the greatest sporting moment in modern day history. It’s a must-see for sports fans and I can’t think of a better time than now to revisit of watch the film for the first time.
More by chance than design I’m continuing the polarizing theme of adult films. Last week’s “Don Jon” took a somewhat comedic look at what pornography can do to a relationship. This week’s film now available on Netflix – “Lovelace” – takes a much darker look at what the adult film industry can do to a person’s life. The film documents the life of Linda Lovelace, perhaps the most well-known woman in the adult film industry. Despite appearing in only a few films, it was her work in the mainstream XXX hit “Deep Throat” that catapulted her into pop culture lore. Lovelace herself remains a polarizing figure due to her quick exit from the business and anti-pornography crusade later in life.
Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfreid, “Les Miserables”) rises from humble beginnings to take the adult film industry by storm, becoming an overnight sensation with the film “Deep Throat.” Despite the facade of a glamorous life, Lovelace is trapped in a world of abuse and mental torture, held captive by a controlling husband and an unforgiving adult film industry.
The film tells Lovelace’s tragic tale in a unique fashion. The first part of act two includes her ascension to fame and fortune, and it plays out in glitzy style as Lovelace becomes a star, runs with circles that include Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner, and becomes a sought after star. The movie has an upbeat tone full of rich color and funky music from the early 1970’s. It comes to a gritty halt at the film’s midpoint in somewhat of a flash-forward when we see Lovelace taking a lie detector test to verify her life’s events for her publisher. When we return to previous events from the film the mood is bleak, the rich color and buoyant mood replaced with bleak undertones.
This is where the abuse from Lovelace’s husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, “Jarhead:”) comes to light. Lovelace quickly dissipates from a joyful, fortunate sensation to a prisoner, held captive in a world she wants to desperately leave. It is fitting that the film is told in such dichotomous fashion. The life and true motivations of Linda Lovelace, who passed away in 2002 from injuries sustained in a car accident, remain a mystery with secrets she took to the grave.
Though the focus of the narrative is Lovelace, it is the supporting cast that makes Lovelace worth watching. Peter Sarsgaard is fantastically brutish as the conniving Chuck Traynor. Throughout the film you see a hint of deceit in his eyes in every frame he’s in. Sharon Stone is wicked as Linda’s inordinately religious mother who shoulders much of the blame narratively. Hank Azaria plays the seedy yet strangely artistic adult film director to the hilt. It is a sad cast of characters that tragically combine to destroy a woman’s self-worth.
Depending on who you listen to, there are two sides to the Linda Lovelace story. She has documented her time in the adult film industry with three novels – two of which support the industry and one which is very outspoken against it. Some of Lovelace’s former co-stars and directors doubt the sincerity of her claims of such brutal abuse by Traynor. “Lovelace” is firmly in the corner of Linda with a narrative that paints her as a victim of circumstance held captive by an abusive husband. The film asserts that Lovelace would never have discovered nor stayed in the adult film industry if it weren’t for Traynor. The movie also leads viewers to believe she only appeared in “Deep Throat” when she appeared in a total of five adult films in all, including a “Deep Throat” sequel.
“Lovelace” is not for the squeamish and is appropriately rated R for heavy sexual content and violence. There are some scenes that are uncomfortable to watch. It is not a happy story. But as the saying goes, life imitates art, and in the case of Linda Lovelace it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. What’s real, what’s fabricated, whose story is real and what really happened…“Lovelace” is just another piece of the puzzle that only one person will ever know for sure.
Relationships are complex, unique, and the subject of countless narratives in Hollywood. Now available on DVD, “Don Jon” deconstructs the modern relationship in rare fashion courtesy of the mind of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film is the writing and directorial debut of Gordon-Levitt, who works overtime as the film’s star. The dark comedy makes quite a few social statements while exaggerating the relationships between men and women.
Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is quite the ladies man. Nicknamed “Don Jon” by friends due to his ability to pick up women, he enjoys a simple life that includes family, friends, church, car, and porn. Lots of porn. To the point of addiction. Despite his popularity with the opposite sex, Jon prefers porn because of the noncommittal status it provides. When Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, “The Avengers”) comes along, it turns Jon’s world upside down. Entertaining a relationship for the first time, Jon discovers that women share in his distorted expectations of relationships.
Once you get past the explicit sexual imagery you realize that “Don Jon” makes some surprisingly poignant social statements. One of the criticisms of pornography is that it creates unrealistic expectations of women and sexual health in relationships. The film begins with a blitzkrieg of mass media’s unrealistic images of women. It creates a chicken-and-egg catechism regarding Jon’s porn addiction. The film continues to examine the media’s psychological effects on women, pointing a finger at Hollywood’s romantic dramas and comedies for creating unreal expectations of men. Jon’s revelation of these two conflicting mediums create a dichotomous funny and morose scene at the film’s midpoint.
Besides Jon and Barbara, the film is mostly filled with flat, minor characters, save for one. Julianne Moore devours every ounce of emotion around her as Esther, Jon’s tragic older lover. In a culture that celebrates the cougar it is refreshing to see a disparity of age between two characters celebrated rather than mocked. Gordon-Levitt takes great care with Esther’s character as she makes a surprising resurgence late in the film.
The film is not without flaws. The script is a little too convenient at times as characters often say just the right thing to advance the narrative to the next sequence. It makes the dialogue feel forced and forces the viewer out of the film’s verisimilitude. The minor characters’ shtick gets a bit repetitive and you get the feeling this is where Gordon-Levitt might have missed a chance to add some depth to the characters, specifically Jon’s father, the stereotypical crass New Jersey male played by Tony Danza. Like the egocentric protagonist, the script puts a little too much emphasis on its main character rather than the supporting players.
Fans of Gordon-Levitt will notice quite a change in his physique. He underwent a rigorous training regimen for six months to bulk up to play the body-conscious Don Jon character. Actors often undergo both physical and psychological changes – sometimes permanent – in efforts to not just portray but become the characters we see on the silver screen. It is an often unseen dedication to their craft that results in seemingly effortless performances.
All in all “Don Jon” is a bold first filmmaking effort by Gordon-Levitt. He takes chances with both the script and the stylistic fashion used to tell the story. The film scratches the surface of characters as far as development and open framing from a psychological standpoint, and you have to think the same about Gordon-Levitt. With an impressive acting resume at just age 32, he’s likely just getting started as a successful screenwriter, director and producer.
The Wolf of Wall Street
There are ways to tell a story, and then there is Martin Scorsese’s unbridled style of bringing a story to life on celluloid. The renowned auteur has done it again with the Jordan Belfort biopic “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Scorsese teams with Leonardo DiCaprio for a fifth time to tell the unlikely story of Wall Street tycoon and racketeer who built a financial empire from a garage and took on the federal government in the process. The narrative moves at an incredibly fast clip with Scorsese pushing the filmmaking envelope, making “The Wolf of Wall Street” perhaps like nothing you’ve ever seen.
When breaking into the financial world in the late 1980’s, impressionable stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) follows the advice of his grandiose boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) and rises from unemployed broker to millionaire Wall Street firm owner. Using every trick in the book – both legal and illegal – to make his fortune, Belfort lives a wild life filled with girls, drugs and nonstop parties. When the federal government investigates Belfort and his firm, the magnate pushes back, risking his entire empire in the process.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a crazy, beautiful concoction of the right time, right place and the right people involved. Like a volatile penny stock the film itself was a risky project, dating back to 2007 when DiCaprio outbid Brad Pitt for the rights to Belfort’s memoir. Warner Brothers was slated to produce the project with Ridley Scott on board to direct, but they dumped the project in 2010. Enter independent film company Red Granite Pictures and DiCaprio ended up with the director he wanted all along, Martin Scorsese. Without the heavy hand of a large studio involved in production, Scorsese had free reign, and does he ever let loose.
If you put Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” in a blender and turned it on high, you’d end up with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Jordan Belfort could very well be the prequel version of Gordon Gekko on steroids. DiCaprio channels his inner Henry Hill, flashing fits of wit and rage while narrating the entire film. DiCaprio admitted to Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” that the film was heavily inspired by “Goodfellas” and it certainly shows.
The entire cast of the film is phenomenal. DiCaprio does the heavy lifting, appearing in nearly every scene of the three hour film. Lesser known Australian actress Margot Robbie (“About Time”) also shines as Belfort’s temperamental wife Naomi. Rob Reiner is excellent as always as Belfort’s incredulous father. But it is Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, a composite of several characters from Belfort’s memoir, who steals the show. His character transforms from a flaky furniture salesman who happens to live in Belfort’s apartment building to a gregarious partner in crime, at Belfort’s side every step of the way. In a way, he becomes the Joe Peci to Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta. It’s a stark character arc and a brilliant performance that will likely land Hill an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
If there’s one critique of “The Wolf of Wall Street” it would be that it is just as excessive as its protagonist. Belfort’s narration ambles at times; sometimes he’s an omniscient narrator and others he’s delivering inner dialogue or breaking the fourth wall with a direct address to the audience. Screenwriter Terence Winter says the narration was essential to capture the true personality of Belfort. Apparently there was some debate as to if it should remain in the film. As a fan of “Goodfellas” I’m glad it stayed.
Scorsese utilizes just about every tool in the filmmaking toolbox to the point that it almost overwhelms you. Yet it all seems somewhat appropriate given the exorbitant nature of the narrative. The film is not for the faint of heart as it apparently sets a record for the most times the “F” word is used in a mainstream film. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film also had to be cut down to avoid an NC-17 rating. I can’t imagine it any other way. Sex, drugs, hard living, unconscionable characters and a larger than life protagonist make for an amazing story, with a brilliant director in the driver’s seat. It is an epic film and another instant classic for Scorsese.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Last year Peter Jackson made his triumphant return to cinema with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Jackson not only recaptured the cinematic magic achieved with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy but also made a technological advancement by shooting in 48 frames per second (fps), double the standard film frame rate of 24 fps. That brings us to part two of Jackson’s latest trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Could Jackson and his team successfully bridge the gap with the middle chapter while building towards the trilogy’s climactic third film? The answer, in short, is no.
Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, “Lord of the Rings”), hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, TV’s “Sherlock”) and the dwarves continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain in an effort to reclaim Erebor from the dragon Smaug. When Gandalf separates from the group to confront the Necromancer, the group relies on the unlikely help of elves and an archer named Bard (Luke Evans, “Immortals”) to reach the Lonely Mountain and confront Smaug.
While “The Hobbit: “An Unexpected Journey” established new characters and exciting new lands, the second film lacks on both a narrative and technological level. Sequences seem unnecessarily long and the CG is painfully obvious at times. A humorous yet somewhat out of place chase involving the dwarves and a pack of bumbling orcs is far too lengthy and looks like something you might find on a made for television movie. For a film series and filmmaker known for his ability to merge effects into film with stunning verisimilitude, this development was quite the calamity.
Considering the film runs 161 minutes, the characters are surprisingly flat. Evangeline Lily (TV’s “Lost”) joins the cast as elven guard Tauriel and immediately falls for the dwarf Kili. The forbidden elf-dwarf love story doesn’t add much to the narrative, especially with a newly introduced character we aren’t thoroughly invested in. Perhaps the most egregious moment is when the entire troupe of dwarves immediately gives up on their mission once reaching the pinnacle of their journey, the Lonely Mountain. These dwarves have literally been to the ends of Middle Earth and back just for the chance to confront Smaug, yet show absolutely no fortitude when finally reaching their goal. It is the most unlikely and unlikeable scenarios of the entire film.
Which brings me to Smaug. For a powerful dragon that has the strength to wipe out entire kingdoms, Smaug strangely seems to have a Napoleon complex. Upon entering the Lonely Mountain and awakening Smaug, Bilbo gets a thirty minute monologue from the fire-breathing beast on why he is so powerful and how he could crush the tiny hobbit with one flick of his tail (without, of course, crushing the tiny hobbit with a flick of his tail). This leads to a drawn out battle where the dragon is easily outwitted and outrun by the dwarves. The mighty and ominous Smaug comes off having the smarts and coordination of an Orc.
Despite most of the cast, production and writing team returning for the second film of “The Hobbit” trilogy, it feels like the writers struggled a bit to stretch out the middle chapter for Jackson’s vision of the Tolkien novel. Contrived plot points, odd character development and an overuse of CG all add up to a fairly disappointing second effort. The film is entertaining and still stands out as a classic Peter Jackson construction, though likely the most tepid of the three epics.
2013 MacGuffin Awards
2013 is in the books which means it’s time for the Film School Blog MacGuffin Awards! A MacGuffin, of course, is a goal or object desired by a film’s protagonist or antagonist used to move the plot forward. A fine example is the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. With that, let’s take a look back at the best and worst from 2013 and hand out some MacGuffin Awards!
Best Film of the Year: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Though liberties were taken with the true events on which the film is based, the narrative is no less powerful. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” frames the civil rights movement and key historical moments from the past few decades within one family’s personal struggles. I don’t remember a film personalizing historical events to this degree, making it extremely emotional and by far the film of the year.
Runner Up: “Oblivion” – The best way to describe this sci-fi drama is intricate. From the writing and marketing to the visuals that included beautiful cinematography and mise-en-scene, “Oblivion” was crafted with great care, and it shows.
Best Surprise of the Year: “Dead Man Down”
Despite poor reviews I decided to check out this film because of the genre. I’m glad I did! The film noir sticks to a simple formula, which is becoming a lost art in today’s cinema. Despite the drawn out and quite ridiculous shootout during the film’s climax, director Niels Oplev moves the film at a perfect place, revealing just enough to keep us on our toes. In a fast-paced cinematic world, Oplev takes the time to show us that the film noir genre is alive and well.
Runner Up: “The Imposter” – An innovative documentary that blends traditional narrative storytelling techniques with interviews to create a captivating film about a man posing as a child that went missing years earlier.
Biggest Disappointment of the Year: “Identity Thief”
Perhaps it was Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman stuck in all-too familiar roles or maybe the busy, contrived script, but something about this road trip comedy fails to meet expectations. I would point to the numerous plot holes that detract from the overall narrative to the point that it loses what little verisimilitude you would expect from a slapstick comedy.
Runner Up: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” – The film fails to capitalize on a fantastic ensemble cast and instead focuses on Steve Carell’s unlikable protagonist Burt Wonderstone.
Best Netflix Find: “The Future”
This 2011 indie film explores themes of life, death, relationships and self-exploration in a unique, genre-combining fashion. It also captures the dichotomy of the 90’s child that is hungry for change but too apathetic to do anything about it.
Runner Up: “Lost Angels” – Powerful documentary that goes beyond profiling the Los Angeles neighborhood known as “Skid Row” by introducing many of the people that call it home.
What Were They Thinking?: “R.I.P.D.”
I’m still trying to figure out how Jeff Bridges and Kevin Bacon became attached to this project. Universal spent $130 million on this box office bomb hoping to cash in on the popularity of the “Men in Black” franchise. A lazy script and failed comedy gags make this film painfully insufferable.
Runner Up: “A Haunted House” – Though co-writer and producer Marlon Wayans sticks to a simple parody formula in spoofing only a few films, the jokes are mostly singular in nature and not funny, a bad combination for a comedy.
Best Themed Film: “The Breakfast Club”
The start of the 2013 school year led to the selection of “The Breakfast Club,” arguably John Hughes’ best film. The movie is heavy in themes of high school pressures wrapped up in a fun teen comedy that seems more mature than is should be. Beautifully uncomfortable moments capture the true awkwardness of living through the teenage years. A must-see film that is still relevant today despite the changing styles, technology and attitudes.
Runner Up: “The Andromeda Strain” – A nasty bug that sent me to the couch for several days was the inspiration for the selection of the 1971 plague film. The film was groundbreaking for its time, using techniques still seen in today’s films and television series.
The World’s End
Inspiration in film can literally come from anywhere. Some movies capture iconic figures or moments in time. Others are more conceptual, such as “Star Wars” as a space opera. The concept for my most recent short film “Die Insel” was formed after a casual stroll around Quincy’s Quinsippi Island. The point is, if you look closely you will likely see a film’s true inspiration. “The World’s End” is a sci-fi comedy with a wild premise, but further examination reveals several implicit messages that run much deeper than the silly robots that dot the film’s landscape as lifeless antagonists.
Searching for some sort of redemption in life, recovering drug addict Gary King (Simon Pegg, “Shaun of the Dead”) tracks down his estranged high school friends to finish their previously failed attempt at a pub crawl known as the Golden Mile. The crawl consists of 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven, ending at a pub called The World’s End. A few pubs in, the group uncovers a shocking secret about their hometown – most of the townspeople have been replaced by robots. Following Gary’s lead to avoid suspicion the group attempts to finish the pub crawl, becoming more inebriated at each stop, until the truth behind the robots is finally revealed at The World’s End.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the film going in, “The World’s End” looks like a familiar tale featuring a down-and-out protagonist desperate to recapture his glory days. The conventional narrative takes an unexpected twist as well as a delayed introduction of the antagonists midway through the second act and settles into a wild mixed genre of science fiction, post-apocalyptic and slapstick comedy. Think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” meets “Superbad.”
It was an interesting viewing experience for me to say the least. As I had remembered the film during its initial promotion, it was zombies rather than robots as the focus of the film (no doubt subconsciously conjuring images of the classic “Shaun of the Dead”). When neither had arrived about 45 minutes into the film I thought I must have confused the film altogether with a different movie. This film, I thought, was actually getting quite deep, with Pegg brilliantly playing Gary King, the central tragic figure who peaked at age 18. Then it happened – an epic bathroom fight scene between Gary and his friends and a group of no-good teenage robots hell-bent on taking over the world.
The film doesn’t abandon the current plotlines at this point, but they certainly take a backseat to the comical tone “The World’s End” embraces with this new twist. I’m a bit torn as I was just getting in to the plight of Gary King and his old mates when the mayhem begins. So what’s the meaning behind the mid-act switch to a very different tone of science fiction?
Screenplay writer Edgar Wright says one of the film’s themes is the homogenization of towns in England – and the same could certainly be said here in the States as well. You don’t have to look very far in any hometown, U.S.A. to find an Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Just look at the east end of Quincy for proof. It’s a veritable haven of chain stores and eateries. If you’ve been gone a while, it’s like returning to a purgatory haze of something familiar yet very different at the same time.
Co-writer and star Simon Pegg says the concept of feeling alienated in your own hometown is what ultimately led to the sci-fi concept. It does make perfect sense once you look for the deeper meaning and inspiration for the film. All Gary King wants to do is go home again and recapture those feelings of good times with old friends. Once he gets there, everything – and everyone – is different. “The World’s End” certainly puts a unique spin on that desire – one that involves body-snatching robots, an anti-hero protagonist, and a legendary pub crawl.
We’re the Millers
So the plan this weekend was to go see Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 South Korean film “Oldboy.” For reasons that I’ll eventually get to when reviewing “Oldboy” the film debuted on a limited number of U.S. screens over the weekend. Quincy did not make the cut of theatrical releases so it was on to plan B – the new DVD release “We’re the Millers.” The film creates a cinematic conundrum: Can a film be both a raunchy and romantic comedy at the same time?
For the record, I don’t have a skin in the game on either side, as I appreciate all film genres. I’m not ashamed to admit I like a good romantic comedy. I’ve even been known to shed a tear given the right amount of verisimilitude. I will also admit to enjoying the occasional Farrely Brothers film, known for their high levels of raunch. My dilemma begins when these two sub-genres collide, as they do in “We’re the Millers.”
When small-time drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis, “Horrible Bosses”) is robbed, he is forced to go on a drug run to Mexico to cover his losses. In an attempt to make it back across the border, he enlists the help of a stripper in his building (Jennifer Aniston, “Wanderlust”), a nerdy neighbor (Will Poulter, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) and local homeless teen (Emma Roberts, “Wild Child”) to pose as his family. When the foursome unwittingly steals from a Mexican drug cartel, a cross-country chase and hijinks ensue.
I’m not sure why, but I can’t get past the duality of these two sub-genres. “We’re the Millers” has a pretty basic paint-by-numbers plot with a typical Hollywood ending, but along the way it goes back and forth between sappy and vulgar sequences. Maybe it’s my age showing but I think “We’re the Millers” would be better served to keep it clean, with the occasional bawdy joke thrown in for greater shock value. Like oil and water, I just don’t think raunch and romance mix well cinematically.
I’m a big fan of Jason Sudeikis, but it’s surprisingly the supporting cast that makes the film worthwhile. Nick Offerman (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) is hilarious as passive DEA agent Don Fitzgerald, and Kathryn Hahn is equally funny as his aggressive wife Edie Fitzgerald. Looking at her track record as a supporting actor, Hahn just makes any comedy better (“Step Brothers” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” among others). The pair makes a classic passive-aggressive Flanders-style family, ala the Simpsons. Ed Helms plays the nerdy drug lord Brad Gurdlinger to the hilt. Much like the predictable plot, leading actors Sudeikis and Aniston are disappointingly just kind of there. In fact, midway through the film I found my mind wandering to how much better a prequel about the Fitzgerald’s might be.
Don’t get me wrong, “We’re the Millers” is not void of humor, though as I mentioned earlier most of it come courtesy of the minor characters in the film. Though the film was a financial success, the mundane plot and wishy-washy commitment to the type of comedy it wants to be leaves something to be desired. Though it is important to consider this – Hollywood operates on dollars and cents as much, if not more so, than artistic merit. It’s only a matter of time before Nick Offerman becomes a leading man, so perhaps I’ll get that Fitzgerald spinoff film after all.
Welcome to Nollywood
What would you say if I asked which country is currently the second largest film producer in the world after India? Probably the U.S. Maybe China? How about…Nigeria. That’s right, according to a 2009 U.N. study Nigeria has surpassed the U.S. to become the second ranking country in terms of number of movies produced each year. Known as Nollywood, the booming film market defies the odds by thriving despite a poor economy and being virtually unknown outside of Africa. Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer’s documentary “Welcome to Nollywood” sheds some light on the success of Nigerian filmmakers and actors in the face of nearly insurmountable adversity.
To understand Nollywood, you must first understand the films themselves. These are not the Hollywood blockbusters we are familiar with here in the states. In fact, if Nollywood films had a place in U.S. Cinema, they likely would land in the now defunct B-film series on the USA television network, “Up All Night.” Many of Nollywood’s films make Roger Corman’s movies look like Academy Award material (with all due respect to Roger Corman).
Recent advances in digital video technology at the turn of the century created a fertile base for the burgeoning straight-to-video market in Nigeria. Digital video and post-production equipment is cheap. Movies are shot on location rather than in a studio. Films are produced in a matter of days rather than months. After a quick turnaround they are distributed throughout Lagos and other Nigerian cities.
But affordable filmmaking is only half the story. Why have these low-budget videos replaced the western blockbuster in Nigeria and other parts of Africa? “Welcome to Nollywood” explains that Nigerians want and need to relate to the movies they watch. Despite the sub-par quality and kitschy plots, Nigerians see themselves in these Nollywood films. Viewers relate to the tropes and sympathize or celebrate with the protagonists. Why spend money on Hollywood’s polished vision of the western world when they can enjoy an entertaining albeit gritty perspective on African life? It’s an equation that equals hundreds of movies per month being released in and around Nigeria.
In the beginning I had my doubts about the film’s protagonist, filmmaker Izu Ojukwu. He comes off as unlikeable as he berates camera operators and actors. But watching Ojukwu and one of his actresses moved to tears by the power of a moving scene in his film makes you realize just how important these movies are to everyone involved. “Welcome to Nollywood” is a journey as much as it is an informative documentary, and you learn about the filmmakers and actors as well as the business of Nollywood.
Early on in my freshman-level Understanding Media course I explain to students that cinema is a reflection of culture, and this is perhaps never more apparent than the current Nollywood movement. With the means to do so, Nigerian filmmakers are expressing their own cultural views and customs through the film medium. Though the U.S. continues to dominate the global film market, one African country has taken matters into its own hands in an effort to tell their story and share their cultural values.
My observations from this week’s film review are twofold. The first is from the business side of filmmaking and the other the creative. New to Netflix is “Phantom” starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny. Somehow, despite a veteran cast and riveting plot material, the film’s promotion seems to mimic its title. Until I saw this pop up on the new release section of Netflix I had no idea it even existed…it’s as if it were a phantom.
In 1968, veteran Soviet Navy Captain Demi (Ed Harris) is asked to take command of his old ship, an aging diesel submarine, for a top secret mission. The mission is to serve as a passing of the torch as Demi prepares to hand the reigns to his younger executive office Alex Kozlov (William Fitchner, “Elysium”). Things quickly spiral out of control when rogue KGB officers led by Bruni (David Duchovny) take command of the ship. With Bruni threatening a nuclear missile strike that would begin World War III, Demi and Alex must find a way to disable the missile, regain control of the ship and alert area submarines that they are not a nuclear threat.
The plot is exciting enough to compete narratively with other films from this genre such as “K-19: The Widowmaker” and “The Hunt for Red October.” Unfortunately, like the clunky diesel submarine that serves as the film’s mise-en-scene, the film chugs along slowly and rather complicated, failing to deliver like its predecessors. The film is actually based on real events – though the script itself is nearly all fiction.
Writer and director Todd Robinson tries to squeeze entirely too much into a script where simplicity would suffice. Complicated backstories and confusing subplots take away from the narrative rather than complement it. The diegesis of the film exists almost solely within the cramped confines of an old Soviet sub. Though I’m sure Robinson was going for verisimilitude, too many extras and complex narratives just muddy the deep ocean water.
Robinson does deserve an A for creative effort, which brings me to the creative aspect of the film. In a time where Hollywood is remaking and re-imagining everything under the sun, taking an event such as the actual 1968 disappearance of a Soviet submarine and using it for the backdrop of a film is brilliant.
History shows the submarine existed and we know where it sank. The true meaning as to why and what happened along the way has never been revealed. The gist of the film’s plot comes from the theory that the actual Soviet K-129 submarine positioned itself to launch a missile at Pearl Harbor while making the attack look like the Chinese rather than the Soviets, allowing Russia to sit back and watch its enemies destroy each other. “What if?” scenarios are engaging and spark conversation – and Robinson openly admits that his film is simply one idea of what possibly happened when the sub disappeared.
Despite our love of conspiracy theories and some decent star power, “Phantom” should probably be deemed out of commission. It has received fairly negative reviews – deservedly so – and with little fanfare it arrived with barely a blip on the sonar. The actors seem out of place with Harris hindered by his character’s weakness, Fitchner following his commander blindly and Duchovny showing little emotion despite a subplot rooted in hatred and revenge. “Phantom” is a novel premise but one that falls far short of its potential.
This week is a first on the Film School blog. I’m going to defend a movie I didn’t really care for. Indulge me for a moment as I offer my rationale. This week’s review is the new DVD release “The Internship” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. That’s probably all you need to know about the film in order to create your own set of expectations. Most of us are familiar with the bodies of work created by Vaughn and Wilson – two actors very well known for specific types of comedy.
Which brings me back to “The Internship.” The film was met with fairly negative reviews, with a 35% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes – qualifying it as “rotten” – and a score of 42 on Metacritic, the pop culture aggregate rating site – just above the threshold for unfavorable reviews. The film certainly doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but I don’t think it deserves such harsh criticism. Audiences and critics alike should have known what they were getting themselves into and rated the film accordingly. From food & drink to automobiles and appliances, you can’t buy Ford and expect Jaguar quality. It seems like that might have been the case here.
Lifelong salesmen Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) find themselves unemployed when the digital age puts their designer watch company out of business. Embracing the change, the two embark on an internship opportunity with Google, where the competition is twenty years younger and much more technologically savvy. Relying on charm and wit, the duo begins to win over fellow interns while gaining the attention of Google executives.
Vaughn and Wilson reunite for their first film since 2005’s “Wedding Crashers” in what seems like a rehash of “Old School.” From the plot – two old guys trying to survive in a young person’s environment – to specific plot devices such as Vaughn’s intern team being disqualified from the competition because he forgot to login during an exercise…a repeat of “Old School” when Vaughn’s team was disqualified because of an illegal roster after Blue’s death.
So what? “Old School” was hilarious, so why not try some similar themes? Sure, “The Internship” hardly stands up to “Old School” but the comedy does have its moments. The film features a bright young cast of actors that includes Max Minghella (“The Darkest Hour”) and Josh Gad (“Jobs”) as well as scene-stealing Aasif Mandvi (TV’s “The Daily Show”) portraying a cranky, straight-laced Google exec. It’s kind of a bi-polar film where the highs are high and the lows hit pretty low.
I’m not telling you to rush out and buy – or even rent – “The Internship.” But I also don’t quite understand the low ratings, or the critiques that say the film is nothing more than a Google commercial. I think it’s kind of refreshing to see an actual global conglomerate play such an important role in a film. Talk about verisimilitude. Google and the campus featured in the film is practically its own character with unique and quirky customs. We’re not talking “Citizen Kane” here. Hollywood is all about formulas that work, so it’s no surprise that we see recycled versions of successful films. That’s certainly the case with “The Internship” and though it doesn’t quite meet expectations, I say it’s not deserving of such harsh criticism.
I often talk to my students about the power of cinema, but that is a broad and rather ambiguous term until put into the proper context. Following a civil war in Somalia in the early 1980’s, Somali fishermen banded together to protect their coasts from illegal fishing and dumping in the waters. This movement slowly evolved into the off-shore piracy acts we hear about today. Based on the 2009 attack on the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, the film “Captain Phillips” uses the power of cinema to bring to life dramatic events happening thousands of miles from our border.
In 2009 the American commercial container ship Maersk Alabama captained by Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is hijacked by Somali pirates. Four armed men take control of the ship until the crew captures one of the pirates and negotiates a deal that trades a lifeboat and cash onboard the ship for Captain Phillips. The pirates take the lifeboat with Phillips still inside, holding him for ransom while attempting to return to Somalia. In a race against time, the U.S. Navy must execute a daring rescue as the pirates – and Captain Phillips – near the Somali coast.
If you are familiar with the story, “Captain Phillips” might seem a bit predictable. If you aren’t, the narrative which is based on true events offers real life drama typically reserved for Hollywood writers. Either way you cannot deny the utterly tragic and ironic circumstances surrounding the hijacking. Though the film’s antagonists are the pirates, the film paints them as somewhat sympathetic figures. Unfortunately much of it comes from vague one-liners and subtext regarding the plight of Somali fishermen and the lack of opportunity for Somali children. There is an entire story yet to be told here regarding the Somalis and at least “Captain Phillips” makes reference to it, regardless of how vague.
Tom Hanks shows his brilliance as Captain Phillips. He carries a moderate east coast accent and a blend of authority and vulnerability that few actors of our generation can pull off. The final scene of the film is an emotional wave that sneaks up before crashing down on you. Most films end on a tidy note, but “Captain Phillips” takes it one step further with a poignant scene where five days of hell pours from the soul of the protagonist. Opposite the veteran Hanks, Barkhad Abdi is terrific as Abduwali Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates. Surprisingly he has no prior acting experience and was found at a Minnesota casting call. Abdi more than carries his own as his character has as much cerebral as physical struggles with Phillips throughout the film.
“Captain Phillips” is not without its flaws. Much of the plot is incredibly contrived. The moment Phillips gets on the ship and ridiculously foreshadows the narrative by immediately expressing safety concerns. This continues throughout the film with convenient plot points at every turn. The crew is portrayed as brave while the pirates seem near bumbling, easily manipulated and consistently falling for traps set by the crew, Captain Phillips, or the U.S. Navy. In the end it is the raw emotion of the real events that helps overcome a somewhat labored Hollywood script.
Unfortunately the film is not without controversy either. Though the film is largely based on Phillip’s book “A Captain’s Duty” crewmembers of the Maersk Alabama have publicly blamed Phillips for the attack, citing his recklessness by brazenly avoiding warnings prior to the attack. Eleven people from the crew have filed a lawsuit against Maersk Line based on Phillips’ actions during the attack. This is a far cry from the character portrayed by Hanks in the film. Though the truth might muddy the waters a bit, from a cinema standpoint “Captain Phillips” is still a powerful film that brings the all-too real pirate attacks to light.
This is the End
Have you ever liked and disliked a film at the same time? Think of how often we quickly answer the question, “What did you think of the movie?” Typically, you answer one of four ways – loved it, liked it, didn’t like it, or hated it. Recently released on DVD, “This is the End” manages to elicit two of the four responses from me – a first. I can universally and definitively tell you what I think of a film after I watch it. My opinion may change (and often does) after future viewings, but I either love, like, dislike or loathe a film. There’s no wiggle room, no in-between. Until now, that is, all thanks to “This is the End.”
The film immediately sets itself apart from the traditional narrative by having everyone in the film playing themselves, albeit in a farcical fashion. It is a bit jarring when the exposition begins with people in an airport coming up to Seth Rogen’s character saying, “Hey, it’s Seth Rogen!” You see, Seth Rogen’s character IS Seth Rogen.
After about fifteen minutes you do get used to it, perhaps because the actors in “This is the End” typically portray extremely laughable and often preposterous characters in TV and film. We’re talking Jonah Hill (“21 Jump Street”), Danny McBride (TV’s “Eastbound and Down”) and Craig Robinson (TV’s “The Office”) – actors who portray some of the most outlandish characters in recent history.
After a drawn out exposition the film picks up at an epic housewarming party hosted by James Franco. The party sets the tone for the rest of the film with gags featuring Michael Cera as a coked out sex fiend and Rihanna joining in on a Craig Robinson-led sing-a-long about taking off your underpants. A series of earthquakes, explosions and sink holes leave Franco, Rogen, Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”), Robinson, and McBride alone to survive the apocalypse.
I have to admit, I’m not a fan of actors playing themselves in film save for the necessary cameo appearance. Suspension of belief is one of the beautiful things about cinema. For roughly two hours we’re transported to another place, sometimes another time or even galaxy, leaving our problems behind if only for a brief moment. When you reach a level of verisimilitude that includes actors playing themselves it strips a lot of that element away. Part of me couldn’t get past the fact that these were actors just playing themselves, even if they were trumped up comedic versions.
On the other hand, the style lends to some funny moments such as Franco and Rogen getting high and trying to formulate the concept of a “Pineapple Express” sequel and the gang constantly taking jabs at their glorified profession. I think it is this duality that creates the love/hate feeling I have for the film. I laughed quite often, which is the point of a comedy…but I also never fully bought into the film – regardless of the ridiculous plot – because the actors were just being themselves. It’s a polarity you typically don’t find in film, which gives “This is the End” a certain novelty aspect that hopefully fails to catch on in Hollywood.
What makes up a legend? When it comes to the world of sports, a legend can be anything from a single player to the entire makeup of a franchise. This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the infamous “Steve Bartman” incident that many believe led to the collapse of the 2003 Chicago Cubs. The documentary “Catching Hell” examines the Bartman debacle as well as the meaning behind a true scapegoat.
I am always intrigued by the narratives woven by documentary filmmakers, especially films such as this, inspired by one single event that lasted less than ten seconds. Filmmaker Alex Gibney wisely begins with one of baseball’s most infamous lore’s of all time, the 1986 Boston Red Sox and Bill Buckner. Buckner, the ill-fated first baseman, let a routine ground ball roll through his legs in game six of the World Series, allowing the Mets to go on to win game seven and the ’86 World Championship.
Interviews with Buckner, Red Sox teammates, and journalists such as Bob Costas – who was in the Boston locker room as crews prematurely brought in the championship trophy and celebration champagne – bring the infamous moment to light in painful fashion as if it happened yesterday. You feel pity for Buckner, who was forever and unfairly labeled the scapegoat of the series, yet at the same time understand the frustration by Red Sox fans who at the time had not seen a championship since 1918.
After exploring the importance of Bill Buckner’s legend as it relates to Boston and baseball in general, Gibney smoothly transitions to Steve Bartman, the demure computer programmer consultant who in 2003 was destined to enter the Chicago sports lexicon in a fashion so unbelievable it had to be seen, and replayed over and over, to be believed. Much like he does with Boston’s “Curse of the Bambino” Gibney offers a history lesson on Chicago’s “Curse of the Billy Goat” which is blamed for the championship drought that began after their last title in 1908. 2003, however, was supposed to be the year the Cinderella Cubs seemed destined to break the curse. That is, of course, until Steve Bartman came along.
The stage was eerily similar to the 1986 Red Sox. Game six of a seven game series, a historic baseball city desperate to break a curse, and one fateful moment – this time a fan interfering with a foul ball catch by a Cubs outfielder – that served as the catalyst for an epic collapse. Gibney offers a historical and contextual perspective to the event with a creative mix of network footage, interviews with fans sitting near Bartman, original footage from fans at Wrigley Field, and local Chicago broadcasters and sports writers.
“Catching Hell” paints a dramatic picture and an extremely sympathetic character in telling the story of baseball’s latest scapegoat, Steve Bartman. The fans at Wrigley Field and eventually the entire city of Chicago turned on Bartman, blaming him rather than the team’s on-field failures that followed the foul ball play for the collapse. Watching Bartman slumped in his chair for a full inning as fans spew verbal hate and hurl beers and hot dogs his way is truly tragic.
There is a bit of closure in the film, though not for Cubs fans. Having won two titles since 2004, Bill Buckner and the city of Boston have made peace during a teary eyed reunion that is included in the film. Despite efforts by Gibney and other journalists, Bartman seems to have fallen off the grid, so at this point, on the ten year anniversary of the fateful day, everyone involved with the “Steve Bartman” incident are still searching for closure. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this film. It is human drama at its finest – and ugliest.
What is the answer? That is a question asked by so many people wanting to make a change. World peace, hunger, financial woes…we look for answers to every crisis we face in life. This is where the power of cinema comes in. At the very least, a good documentary can spark a debate about an important topic. At the best, it can enact change for the better.
October is National Bully Prevention Month, and in honor of the month I chose the 2011 documentary “Bully” for this week’s review. It’s no secret that bullying is a big problem amongst our adolescent population in the U.S. The statistics are staggering. The big question is why, followed of course by, what is the answer? “Bully” doesn’t necessarily offer any definitive answers to the problem but rather a sobering look into the world of bullies and their victims.
Childhood should be a time of joy with young minds learning about the wonders of life. Sadly, millions of young children share a very different adolescent experience. “Bully” unobtrusively looks into the lives of students from across the U.S. that face bullying on an everyday basis, mostly within the confines of their schools. The stories are heartbreaking.
In addition to victims the documentary introduces us to parents of children who committed suicide after incessant bullying. The combination of footage that captures kids being bullied every day and powerful statements such as “my son will be eleven years old for the rest of his life” from the father of a young boy who killed himself gives “Bully” a powerful voice that most bullying victims lack.
If there is a narrative theme to the film it is blaming the schools for not protecting the victims. To be fair, the administrators don’t do themselves any favors by the way they deal with the issue. Some of the interactions between administrators and bully victims are maddening. One assistant principle actually blames the victim for his troubles when he refuses to shake the hand of a bully, telling the victim he’s no better than the bully. The bullying was so severe in this instance the police were involved. Another school administrator told the parents of a victim who had been strangled and poked with pencils (among other things) on the bus that when she rode that particular bus to observe, the kids were “good as gold.” How does she think the students will behave when a principal is on their bus?
In the defense of the schools, they are in the business of education. Teachers are not psychologists, sociologists or prison wardens. Bullying is an issue that goes far beyond the scope of our school system. It just so happens that this is where bully victims are most exposed, surrounded by a host of potential bullies throughout the day. Sure, kids are cruel and often say mean things, but it seems like bullying today has taken on a new level of malice. And victims are not always equipped with proper coping skills. Unfortunately, as we learn in the film, parents and school administrators are also often not equipped with the tools to help our youth deal with the long-lasting and sometimes fatal effects of bullying.
The parents are not blameless either. They seem mostly oblivious to the true emotional anguish that bully victims suffer. One parent actually blames her son by stating if he had just spoken up none of it would have happened. Another parent tells the same boy that if he doesn’t stop getting picked on his younger siblings will suffer the consequences. These poor kids seem to get bullied by peers, parents and school administrators alike.
So what is the answer? “Bully” ends on a positive note, showing parents and victims getting involved in anti-bullying campaigns across the nation. As for you and I, we can educate ourselves and our children about the issue and maybe even get involved. Knowledge, understanding and activism seem to be the key for bully prevention. I recommend starting with this film. For more information and resources, visit the film’s website at http://www.thebullyproject.com.
I absolutely love going to video rental stores. It’s like basking in an oasis of anticipation. A warm glow washes over you ever so briefly as the promise of a great film flutters around each DVD or Blu Ray box propped up on the shelf. Unfortunately with so many new digital delivery methods, trips to the local rental joint are slowly becoming a lost art. In the fast-paced world of instant gratification we live in today even I find myself rushing in and out of the rental store in a flash, having already selected which film I want to rent via the Flixter app on my iPhone.
This weekend I kicked it old school when all copies of the new DVD release I planned to rent – “Now You See Me” – were checked out. I blithely set about the long yet always pleasant task of perusing the new release section, making mental rankings in my head as I shuffled from right to left. Then, halfway through the alphabet, my wandering eyes stilled on a film that has quite literally served as a proverbial devil and angel on my shoulders since the theatrical trailer release: “Pitch Perfect.”
From the moment I saw the trailer for the film it teased me as a movie that looks quite funny yet with a premise that is likely quite awful. I insisted on finding out right then and there, snatching the empty case from the shelf and rushing to the checkout. The male clerk even gave me a little grief. “’Pitch Perfect’, eh?” he asked rhetorically. My musical rom-com journey was about to begin.
Long ago when cable television was still in its relatively early stages, the cable network USA ran late night weekend programming called “USA Up All Night.” Hosted by Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear, the show was a celebration of silly comedy, kitschy horror and classic “B” movies. I loved it. Fast forward two decades and “Pitch Perfect” picks up where “Up All Night” left off.
Barden University freshman Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick, “50/50”) reluctantly joins a female a cappella group, the Barden Bellas, at the behest of her father. With help from a ragtag group of girls Beca begins to change the face of the Bellas, launching them to the finals of a national competition where they square off against their male rivals, the Treblemakers.
One of the reasons “Pitch Perfect” would be such a fit for the films celebrated by “Up All Night” is its whimsical take on the college experience. As a college professor I see students every day taking life way too seriously, mostly because of people like myself who place such an emphasis on academics. Beca’s first moments on Barden University’s campus include a future love interest belting out 80’s tunes from the back of his parent’s car and a group of students laying an a cappella smack down on unsuspecting passerby’s. The tropes of the film include campy campus sing-offs, quirky roommates and campus life dominated by artistic folk.
Despite a predictable plot and flat characters, something about “Pitch Perfect” sticks with you. Perhaps it’s the fun mix of new and classic music. Maybe it’s the talented group of young actors led by Rebel Wilson (“Pain & Gain”) and Adam DeVine (TV’s “Workaholics”). Whatever the reason, it is a formula that succeeds. The film was a box office success and a sequel is in the works. In an era where dark drama and horror seem to rule the box office, it’s nice to find a refreshing change in this surprising little cult hit.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
In my scriptwriting course I often talk to the students about the importance of context. Context as a definition is the space in which we place things, be it tangible or intangible. In cinema the importance of context cannot be stated enough, which is why I often remind students of its relevance. The history of the civil rights movement in this country has been portrayed many times in film, but perhaps none as powerful as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” The context in which the story is told is one that should resonate with most audiences regardless of race or creed. The film is a gripping family drama that highlights the very best and worst of the civil rights movement in the 20th century.
After being raised on a cotton plantation in the 1920’s, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”) puts his skills to work as a house servant for the wealthy and eventually works his way to the White House as a butler. During the next 34 years, Gaines watches the civil rights movement unfold through the political lens of the White House and struggles to keep his family together while his two sons go down very different paths.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” weaves complicated themes brilliantly and beautifully throughout the narrative. From an engrossing opening sequence that reveals Gaines’ motivation for the entire film to confronting the worst moments during the country’s civil rights movement, the film grabs a hold of you emotionally from the start and doesn’t let go for the next two hours.
The context in which the civil rights movement tears an African American family apart for years is heartbreaking. After surviving his youth as a slave in the south, Gaines does everything in his power to provide a safe environment for his wife and two sons. Having grown up in the age of activism, his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo, “Lincoln”) ignores his father’s warnings and becomes a key figure in the civil rights movement. Though both men struggle for the same respect, the personal conflict drives a wedge between the two men for decades. Neither man is right or wrong, as the entire atmosphere of a country divided serves as a key antagonist to both men.
Forest Whitaker’s performance of Cecil Gaines may be the finest of his career. He displays great range in a film that documents most of Gaines’ adult life and reveals a complicated subtext throughout the narrative. Oprah Winfrey surprisingly holds her own as Gaines’ wife Gloria. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz also shine as Gaines’ co-workers at the White House. A handful of veteran actors portrayed the eight presidents throughout Gaines’ tenure, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Though sometimes difficult to see such well-known actors as historical figures, the film achieves enough verisimilitude to not detract from the narrative.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is based on a true story, but as always it should be taken with a grain of salt. Several facts and events from the life of the real life butler Eugene Allen have been dramatized for Hollywood’s sake. Nonetheless the movie takes an unabashed look at pivotal moments in the history of the United States, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and finally the election of President Barack Obama. Given the context of the Gaines family strife and the theme of racial inequality, the film is as emotional and engaging as it is powerful. It is without question my choice thus far for best film of the year.
A Haunted House
Long before I started writing the film school blog I commented to someone that the art of the parody film was lost. Recent spoofs seem to gauge their self-worth not by the quality of humor but by the quantity of films they can poke fun at. Looser rules certainly apply to the parody genre but you still need some sort of contextual framework to keep the narrative in one piece. The latest parody film, “A Haunted House,” just arrived in the Netflix New Arrival queue. It spoofs the “found footage” genre, with most of the material coming from the “Paranormal Activity” series. I was anxious to see if the film continues down the same muddled path the parody genre has been on or if it returns to the simple yet successful formula set by earlier parodies.
The premise of “A Haunted House” is rooted in the first “Paranormal Activity.” A title card introduces footage that was found in the home of Malcolm (Marlon Wayans, “Scary Movie” series) and Kisha (Essence Atkins, “Dance Flick”). Like most found footage films, the exposition lulls as we’re introduced to the locations and main characters of the film. A gag centered around Kisha running over Malcolm’s dog as she moves into his house falls terribly flat, unfortunately a precursor to the rest of the film.
Wayans – whose family has practically owned the parody genre since his Uncle Keenan Ivory Wayans wrote and directed 1988’s “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” – claims “A Haunted House” isn’t a parody but rather a movie with funny characters doing the opposite of what typical white people do in horror films. He co-wrote and produced the film and despite the claim uses similar comedic material seen in past parodies. Most of the gags are sexual in nature and get old rather quickly. Wayans and Atkins’ protagonist shtick never gains traction, though the outlying characters do offer some salvageable comedic moments.
David Koechner shines as Dan the Security Man, a character who pokes fun at reality television by recording his everyday mundane life as a security camera installer for a show named “Camera Guys.” He also moonlights as a ghost hunter in a show named, of course, “Ghost Guys.” Cedric the Entertainer has an all-too brief role as Father Doug, a priest-in-training from a local prison who attempts to perform a rather unconventional exorcism. Nick Swardson is hilarious as a gay psychic determined to get Malcolm to come out of the closet. “Come out!” he screams at Malcolm while Father Doug yells the same at the possessed Kisha. It is one of the few jokes that actually land while most others fail miserably.
To their credit, Wayans and rookie director Michael Tiddes stick to the simple formula that is paramount to a successful parody film. They chose a handful of films to spoof (the aforementioned “Paranormal Activity” as well as “The Exorcist” and “The Devil Inside”) which keeps the narrative cohesive. Unfortunately the other part of the formula is gags that are actually funny and that is where “A Haunted House” falls way short.
Consider yourself warned, if you go into this film expecting “Scary Movie” you’ll be disappointed. If you do like the movie, there’s good news – despite a mixed reception from audiences and poor feedback from critics, the film grossed more than 40 million and “A Haunted House 2” is in the works for next year. Case in point, it’s not always a film’s artistic merit that garners attention but rather the bottom dollar.
The Big Wedding
I’ve found the most rewarding experience in filmmaking is seeing your vision come to life on the big screen. Ideas, characters and places that previously existed only in your mind become a reality for your audience. It’s a cathartic experience and one I try to share with my students. At the end of my scriptwriting course I ask students to produce a movie trailer based on their scripts. Due to time constraints they can’t make the full films, but creating a trailer still brings the idea to life. I semi-jokingly say if I wasn’t teaching I’d like to be a movie trailer editor because it is an art form in itself. This brings me to this week’s film now available on DVD, “The Big Wedding.” The theatrical trailer and all-star cast featuring Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams and Susan Sarandon made this look like a can’t miss comedy. This proves the point of movie trailers being an art form; the film couldn’t have been further from what the trailer promoted.
The premise certainly seems slapstick: A divorced couple must pretend to be married in an attempt to placate their adopted son’s über-religious birth mother who has traveled from Columbia to the U.S. for his wedding. Writer and director Justin Zackham (writer, “The Bucket List”) might have been going for farce but what he gets is a film that falls flat. One has to ask, with a veteran cast mixed with new faces such as Katherine Heigl (“One for the Money”), Amanda Seyfried (“Dear John”) and Topher Grace (“Take me Home Tonight”), what exactly went wrong?
I blame the script. “The Big Wedding” is a remake of the French film “Mon frère se marie” (My brother is getting married), which may lend to some of the character motivation driving the remake’s narrative. With the French known for being more liberal when it comes to sex (at least culturally, though certainly not in media), the MacGuffin in “The Big Wedding” isn’t enduring love, as the title might imply, but sex. Trying to weave a complicated narrative with multiple plotlines around an intangible MacGuffin in the comedy genre proves to be too much for this great cast to handle.
Due to conflicting motivations and little back story, the majority of the characters in the film are flat. The exposition establishes the diverse cast of characters who then proceed to do exactly the opposite of what their character should do. Jared Griffin (Grace) is a 29-year old successful doctor and a virgin with the willpower to stave off a number of attractive nurses, yet spends the rest of the film trying to sleep with his adopted brother’s biological sister (yes, you read that right). Ellie Griffin (Keaton) is clearly still scarred by her ex-husbands affair with her best friend Bebe (Sarandon), yet jumps into bed with him the first chance she gets. I think you get the point…the film carries on like this for another hour or so.
Are their redeeming qualities in the film? A few, but hardly enough to recommend you rent the movie. Robin Williams is wasted as the rarely seen Catholic Priest Father Moinighan who may or may not have fallen off the A.A. wagon in a gag that never delivers. The parents of the bride provide some funny moments as prejudiced yuppies, but that shows how far down the film has to delve for laughs. Most of the scattered laughs come in the scenes with the entire cast together, but not enough to redeem this “comedy.” Despite the title the only thing big about the film is the level of disappointment.
The Breakfast Club
When I was in college I got into a spirited debate with my humanities professor regarding the validity of the movie “The Breakfast Club.” She claimed it was “bubble gum” cinema while I argued that the intersecting themes of teen angst were both genuine and timeless. With late August upon us and school officially back in session I decided to revisit the classic 80’s film as well as the arguments made by myself and my former teacher.
Having studied cinema for nearly two decades and now looking at the film through a different lens, I’m happy to report that my initial claims about the film as a student still hold true. The brilliance of John Hughes’ second film stands the test of time and I’d walk into any classroom today and argue the same points I did 17 years ago, albeit with much more elegance and panache.
Five suburban Chicago high school students with nothing in common land in Saturday school. With nothing to do and all day to do it, the day turns into a social experiment of sorts as the students begin to learn about each other and eventually discover that they have much more in common than they ever thought possible. As the end of the day draws near, one question remains – how will the group interact with each other the following Monday under the microscope of their peers.
The characters in “The Breakfast Club” span every stereotype of the high school social stratosphere. You have the self-professed descriptions of the athlete Andrew (Emilio Estevez), the princess Claire (Molly Ringwald), the brain Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), the basket case – better known today as Goth or emo – Allison (Ally Sheedy), and the criminal John (Judd Nelson). Most viewers probably fell (or currently fall) into one of the categories in high school. The rawness of the narrative is what makes “The Breakfast Club” so great in that it is easy to relate to at least one of the main characters.
There is also a uniqueness to “The Breakfast Club” from a filmmaking standpoint. Most of the narrative takes place in one single location inside the high school library. Hughes wastes no time jumping into the conflict with sharp, confrontational dialogue between Vernon and the students. The remainder of the film is mostly an ebb and flow between the students as they agree and disagree on all the finer points of life as a teenager in high school. A single location, five young actors with tremendous chemistry, a clever script and up and coming director all equal a tremendous film.
“The Breakfast Club” is arguably director John Hughes’ finest work. Known for capturing teen angst on celluloid like no other director (other Hughes films include “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), the film tackles an extraordinary number of issues in just 97 minutes. Suicide, parental pressure, mental and physical abuse, sex, drugs, and social status is all explored, often times in uncomfortable scenes, reminding us just how awkward being a teenager can be.
Released in 1985, “The Breakfast Club” captures 1980’s pop culture about as good as any film from that era. The soundtrack reached #17 on the US Billboard top 200 and the film’s anthem, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The film also features five actors from the famed group of young actors known as the “Brat Pack” (other members included Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy). Though times may have changed since 1985, I think most teens can still easily relate to “The Breakfast Club” in ways that might surprise them.
My film appreciation class is often an eye opener for students as they leave the class looking at cinema in a new way, now aware of what I call the “invisible cinematic language.” Things like lighting, cinematography, and editing are used to affect viewers on a subconscious level. It is what makes the medium so magical. But there’s another invisible aspect to consider in today’s cinema and that is the film’s agenda. Many documentaries take on a persuasive tone, but it’s not as prevalent in traditional Hollywood narratives. New in theaters this week is “Elysium” which drips with themes of corruption, immigration, class warfare and healthcare.
In the year 2154 Earth is overpopulated and in ruins while a select group of wealthy citizens live in an Earth-like space station called Elysium. When Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on Earth he must find a way to get to Elysium to access a healing medical pod. Max is forced to make a deal with a rebel leader planning to infiltrate Elysium , making him an unlikely savior for the people of Earth.
“Elysium” is an exciting film full of vivid visuals, but it’s not quite the sum of its parts. It never settles on what type of genre it wants to be. Sure, it automatically falls into the action/sci-fi, but with all the social statements being made it could easily be a drama. Add in a romantic subplot and all of the sudden the heavily choreographed action sequences and chaotic cinematography start to feel a bit out of place.
With a typical run time of 90 to 120 minutes in a typical film small plot holes are somewhat acceptable to get from point A to point B for sake of time. In “Elysium” there are numerous plot holes that are often too big to overlook. The rare citizen that manages to sneak onto Elysium to access healing medical pods always knows how to operate them. Shuttles fly through a seemingly airtight defense system on the space station unnoticed. Though the politicians on Elysium have no interest in the welfare of citizens on Earth, there are multiple shuttles filled with medical pods ready to launch to Earth at a moment’s notice. One, maybe two plot holes you can live with, but “Elysium” definitely pushes the limit for what a viewer can accept.
Despite the plot holes and mixed genres, “Elysium” is entertaining and intriguing, mostly because of the cast. Though most of the characters are flat, the talented actors make the most of what they have to work with. Two in particular steal the show – Jodie Foster and Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. Foster slides effortlessly into a villain role as corrupt defense secretary Jessica Delacourt while Moura is ridiculous and fun playing Spider, an eccentric human trafficker.
“Elysium” is written and directed by Niell Blomkamp, best known as director and co-writer of “District 9.” His handheld documentary-style of filmmaking is on full display in “Elysium.” It is a surprising social problem film cleverly wrapped in a sci-fi film, but what makes it unique is also my biggest critique of the movie. Because the script goes it so many directions packed into a surprisingly short runtime (109 minutes) the film feels rushed and disjointed at times. Despite its flaws the visuals and cast make it worth seeing in the theaters.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Every now and again we’re reminded that when illness strikes, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Unfortunately I was reminded of this during my favorite time of the year, my family reunion. A bug ran through our family wiping me out for most of the weekend. Lots of extra miserable time on the couch got me thinking about the best movies about illness. Given the recent popularity of apocalypse-inducing plague films I decided to revisit a classic film from 1971, “The Andromeda Strain.”
When a government satellite crashes in a small New Mexico town, all but two of the town’s residents die. Fearing an alien germ strain, the government assembles an elite team of scientists to discover the nature of the germ and contain it. Just as the scientists discover the secrets behind the germ – now dubbed the “Andromeda strain” – it mutates and escapes into the research facility. With a self-destruct mechanism activated, the scientists must race to share the cure with others and deactivate the impending nuclear explosion that threatens their lives and the safety of the entire planet.
“The Andromeda Strain” is an innovative and trend-setting film whose ideas are still seen in present day Hollywood. The opening credits, eerie with eclectic graphics and off-key soundtrack, purport the film as documenting a now declassified government event, making it one of the early mockumentaries, long before the days of the “Paranormal Activity” series and “The Fourth Kind.”
The plot spans four days, broken up by simple yet ominous title cards that remind the audience of the precious time that exists in a plague situation. The film also drives home verisimilitude by using news-style lower third graphics to identify locations and times. These are all tools used in modern cinema to achieve an added sense of realism in a film.
The narrative is told in creative fashion, using non-linear storytelling and multi-scene shots used extensively in television series such as “24” and “Burn Notice.” The diverse skills of director Robert Wise – whose directorial credits include “The Sound of Music” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” – are on full display in “The Andromeda Strain.” From the set design to narrative structure, the film is a clinic in telling a gripping story without relying on CG and other special effects.
The film also shares many of the tropes presented in its sci-fi predecessor, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film moves at a slow but deliberate pace (a sign of the times for 70’s cinema) and deals with themes of extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence and the mix of politics and science (sounds familiar). There are a few tongue-in-cheek moments that help lighten the mood along the way. In lieu of Hal, the voice of the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we get a luscious voice from the intercom courtesy of 63-year old recording specialist Gladys Stevens.
The film is based on the 1969 Michael Crichton novel of the same name and largely follows the book. Given its dated nature, “The Andromeda Strain” might not be for everyone. For those who enjoy modern sci-fi films or any of the plague sub-genre films, the movie is a must-see. Revisiting these classic films is a lot like sitting down to chat with a wise elder about how things were done back in the day. For every episode of “24” or modern-day cinematic thriller such as “Contagion” we have four-decade old films such as “The Andromeda Strain” to thank.
There is a category of films I hadn’t really thought of until watching this week’s film, “R.I.P.D.” It looked like a “Men in Black” action comedy with multifarious dead people replacing aliens in the antagonist role. What I realized about 15 minutes in is that age could very easily be a new way to categorize films. I’m not talking about the rating system but rather the style in which the film is written and produced. Currently we have children’s films and then just plain old films. I suppose teen comedy is a subset of films that already exist, and that’s exactly where “R.I.P.D.” belongs.
When Boston detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds, “Safe House”) is killed in action, he is recruited by the Rest Peace Department, a collection of deceased police officers who patrol the afterlife. The agency hunts and captures “deados” – spirits that refuse to leave earth after they die. Walker is paired with grizzled R.I.P.D. veteran Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”), a U.S. Marshall killed in the 1800’s. Together the unlikely duo must stop a plot by the “deados” to send the formerly deceased back to earth to destroy it for good.
I’ll give you a moment to soak in the ridiculous plot.
The most surprising thing about the film is the cast that appears in it. Jeff Bridges is an Academy Award winner and a Hollywood icon whose character in “The Big Lebowski” spawned a new religion (Dudeism). Kevin Bacon, who plays Walker’s crooked partner, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is an award-winning film and theatre actor. It’s almost painful to have these two on screen together in a film this silly. It’s equally as painful to learn that the budget for the film was 130 million dollars, most of which presumably went towards actor salaries and special effects.
The script was written either for or by a 12 year old boy; at times it’s hard to tell the difference. From the onset you see every move coming five minutes before it happens, to the point where you’ll feel somewhat clairvoyant when leaving the theater. I wasn’t expecting an Oscar candidate when I bought my ticket but I did expect more than the formulaic hodge-podge of supernatural films of the past. The few laughs come courtesy of Jeff Bridges’ work as the grumpy Wild West cowboy still bitter about how he died and the coyotes and buzzards who picked apart his carcass in the desert. I’m not being facetious when I say that’s about it in the laugh department.
One can only assume that Universal Pictures saw the recent success of both comic book adaptations and the “Men in Black” franchise which spawned two sequels when giving “R.I.P.D.” the green light. How they managed to secure Bridges, Bacon as well as Mary-Louise Parker is beyond me. Perhaps all three wanted to take a break from serious film and television and just have a little fun.
Now that the film has bombed, taking in a little over 12 million in its opening weekend, you can bet Universal is re-thinking their decision. Longtime film producer and author Mike Medavoy writes at length about the gambles that studios take and how one big blockbuster a year can save the studios bottom line. In this case, Universal Pictures gambled big on “R.I.P.D.” and unfortunately for them the film wound up in theaters dead on arrival.
There’s a saying that life imitates art, and it couldn’t be truer when it comes to this week’s film review. During the filming of “The Soloist,” a movie which features a homeless musician who trained at Julliard, second-unit director Thomas Napper realized there was a bigger story unfolding right in front of him. While shooting on location in a 50-block area of Los Angeles known as skid row Napper began talking to many of the homeless extras about life on the streets. It was in these conversations that the idea for the documentary “Lost Angels: Skid Row is my Home” was born. Initially released in 2010, the film is now available on Netflix.
“Lost Angels” does more than just profile skid row, it humanizes it. It is almost less a film and more a journey as we meet and follow several residents as they struggle with life on the streets. Along the way we meet a former Olympic medalist who lost everything do to drug addiction, a transgender musician from New York, an eccentric but loveable trash collecting cat lady and the gentle giant that befriends and adopts her as his “fiancée.” Their back stories are captivating and often times astonishing.
The residents of skid row call it a “homeless community” and the moniker appears to fit. As Napper and his film crew navigate the skid row landscape a blueprint begins to take shape; one filled with friendly faces and tragic stories, littered with hope and faith. The film not only introduces you to the transient residents of skid row but the generosity of those who help the homeless find respite from life on the street, including employees of the Midnight Mission and the Lamp Community.
I cannot think of a film that is more uplifting and yet tragic at the same time. The skid row area is described in the film as an “open asylum for the mentally ill.” The homeless profiled in the movie are unabashed in discussing their struggles with mental illness and drug addiction and offer a new perspective on how the two often go hand in hand. Many of the residents admit to self-medicating, a.k.a. turning to street drugs, in an attempt to manage their mental illness. As their stories unfold any early judgment you may have had will likely be replaced with compassion. The true power of film.
This is not an objective documentary as it takes the government to task on several issues regarding mental illness and social policies, such as the Los Angeles Safer City crime initiative. “Lost Angels” points to a combination of city expansion that eliminated thousands of low-cost housing complexes and the closing of psychiatric hospitals in the 1980’s as the main culprit of homelessness in Los Angeles.
There are four main categories for documentaries: Factual, instructional, persuasive, and propaganda. “Lost Angels” falls under the persuasive umbrella as it seeks to reveal a social injustice and promote action. It is gently narrated by actress Catherine Keener and reminds us how quickly our lives can be turned upside down. It labels skid row as a place of contradictions and after meeting many of the people that reside in the 50-block area I tend to agree. Everyone truly does have a story, and “Lost Angels: Skid Row is my Home” brings those stories to light in its own contradicting fashion, heartbreaking yet inspiring at the same time.
Last week 1.4 million viewers tuned in to the Syfy network to watch a film named “Sharknado.” The social media universe was buzzing with details about the kitschy film, leading Syfy to label it “the most social telecast ever.” While that may be a heavy dose of hyperbole, it does go to show that there is still a place for “B” movies in the cinema world today. It’s theme week here on the Film School Blog so it’s fitting we pay tribute to the greatest “B” movie director of all time, Ed Wood.
In the early 1950’s a young carnival performer named Edward D. Wood, Jr. moved to Hollywood to get into filmmaking. Starting small with plays and commercials, Wood turned a chance friendship with aging movie star Bela Lugosi (best known from 1931’s “Dracula”) into a floundering film career. Notorious for low-budget films, Wood was posthumously recognized as the worst director of all time.
In 1994 stylistic director Tim Burton offered his take on Wood’s improbable career in the biopic film “Ed Wood.” Though initially not the first choice, Burton is the perfect person to chronicle Wood’s life on celluloid given his own unique outlook on life and film. The narrative follows Wood through his initial foray into filmmaking and documents the making of three of his first four major films.
The cast of the film is as versatile as Wood was a filmmaker. Johnny Depp is perfectly cast as an idiosyncratic Wood in his second of many partnerships with Burton (1990’s “Edward Scissorhands” being the first). Martin Landau won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi. Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray and former professional wrestler George “The Animal” Steele help round out Wood’s ragtag entourage.
Burton puts his expressive stamp on the film in a number of ways. The film was shot in black and white to mirror the time, and set designers went to painstaking lengths to match the mis-en-scene of the 1950’s. Like Wood and Lugosi, Burton himself had a similar relationship with an aging horror star in Vincent Price, and it clearly emanates from the narrative. Sarcasm and wit drip from the film, like when Wood exclaims in all seriousness, “This is it, this is the one I’ll be remembered for!” referring to “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Ed Wood fancied himself as a young Orson Welles, writer, director and star of AFI’s top film of all time, “Citizen Kane.” Ironically, Wood’s fourth film “Plan 9 from Outer Space” frequently tops “worst film of all time” lists. Though the two men are on opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum, they did share the same passion for cinema. Wood’s unflinching affinity for filmmaking allowed him to persevere when others would no doubt have failed.
Which brings us back to “Sharknado.” The production company behind the film is The Asylum, and “Sharknado” is not their first cinematic go around. Viewers of Syfy are no doubt familiar with their work with other titles such as “2-Headed Shark Attack” and “Mega Piranha.” Low on production values and star power, they wisely don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s even an “Ultimate ‘Sharknado’ Post-Game Guide” on their website with links to other people poking fun at the film.
Every film has a place in the world, whatever it may be. Some films inspire or evoke strong emotions, others entertain or inform. Whatever the purpose, making a film of any length is no small feat. In the spirit of Ed Wood, last week nearly one and a half million people proved that bad is still sometimes good in film. And I have to think that Wood would be “Sharknado’s” biggest fan.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Everybody loves magic, right? Surprisingly there aren’t a lot of films that feature magic as the focal point of the narrative. Though the art of illusion most recently received its Hollywood due in 2006 with “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige” it is still a fairly untapped trope in the annals of Tinseltown. That changes this year with the DVD release of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” which takes a comical look at the world of magic, both past and present. Though the film falls short as a comedy it does make a profound statement about magic in the modern era.
Creative differences drive longtime friends and magic partners Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, “Crazy Stupid Love”) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) apart, ending their decade-long run as Las Vegas’ top magicians. With an intense, stylistic new magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) turning heads and making a mockery of their craft, Wonderstone and Marvelton must reunite to reclaim their spot as the top magic act in Las Vegas.
The cast of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is fantastic, but because the narrative focuses so heavily on the Burt Wonderstone character the rest of the ensemble never gets to truly shine. Jim Carrey’s character Steve Gray is based on magician Criss Angel and he owns the role as only Carrey can. Olivia Wilde does what she can as Wonderstone’s assistant Jane, but the script paints her out as being unnecessarily passive-aggressive. Steve Buscemi is surprisingly serene as Wonderstone’s passive sidekick.
One major mistake by the filmmakers is making the Burt Wonderstone character too much like the character Steve Carell will always be most well-known for in Michael Scott from “The Office.” The clueless, misogynistic Wonderstone is like a hybrid of Michael Scott and Ron Burgundy, making Carell’s delivery feel very played out. Let’s face it, Will Ferrell currently has the market cornered on that type of character, and it also doesn’t help that Carell appears in both “Anchorman” films.
Despite the predictable narrative (which doesn’t always doom a movie; please see last week’s review of “The Heat”) and underutilized cast, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” does make a strong and somewhat philosophical statement about the current state of magic. It pits the traditional roots of magic versus the new flashy, made-for-TV style we’re used to seeing, only turned up a notch for comedic effect. Instead of Criss Angel’s “Mind Freak” we get Steve Gray’s “Brain Rape.” It leaves you pondering what should be considered true magic.
Much like “World War Z” the film suffers from several script re-writes and fails to gain traction until near the end of the rising action. Coincidentally this is when many of the scenes feature several cast members, allowing them to play off each other. Perhaps if the film wasn’t so Wonderstone-centric it may have been less predictable and more likeable. I find myself surprised saying this, but “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” needs less Carell and more of the talented cast around him.
Water for Elephants
“Water for Elephants” is a classic romance and coming of age story set in the depression era with the world of the traveling circus as a backdrop. The film is based on the 2006 novel of the same title by author Sara Gruen. Film adaptations are nothing new to director Francis Lawrence, who did the same in 2007 with Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend.” This is a completely different genre, however, and I was curious to see if Lawrence could pull it off.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson, “The Twilight Saga”) is a semester away from finishing school and becoming a veterinarian when receiving the news that his parents have died in a wreck. Leaving his old life behind, he takes to the road and becomes a vet for the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. It is on the cross-country journey that he falls in love with Marlena (Reece Witherspoon, “Walk the Line), the star attraction and wife of hard-nosed circus owner August (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”). Jacob and Marlena bond over Rosie, the newly acquired elephant who will join Marlena as part of the star attraction, and soon find themselves facing a choice – abandon the Benzini Brothers circus and face the unknown together, or continue living under the thumb of August.The movie teems with verisimilitude. Throughout the film, Jacob has opportunities to do the heroic thing, but cannot summon the courage to pull it off. It is refreshing to have a protagonist appear as an everyday man, especially in a plot that attempts to encapsulate a magnificent journey. Sure, Jacob always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but he doesn’t always do the right thing. As far as Jacob’s traveling counterparts, the film effectively drives home the desperation the men feel in giving up their lives to find work with a touring circus during the depression era. Though only minor characters, you find yourself rooting for them as much as the protagonist.
Much of the film takes place in the cramped quarters of the traveling circus train, where special effects are traded in for gritty mise-en-scene. The overall production design of the circus world is beautiful, accompanied by sweeping cinematography that pulls you right into the big top as if you were a circus mark being thrust by the crowd towards one of the carnival attractions. Pattinson was an excellent choice as Jacob as the role required much brooding, and Waltz shines as a complicated antagonist character with ample depth.
The film’s early character development is a bit questionable. Lawrence seems very rushed to get Jacob on the Benzini Brothers train, offering a convoluted opening scene to show us how close Jacob is to his parents. When we first view Marlena and August together as a couple, she actually seems rather smitten with her husband, who is presented to us as a callous, heartless business man. I don’t expect obvious foreshadowing, but in sticking with the film’s verisimilitude it would have been nice to see Marlena struggling with the relationship she is trapped in rather than enjoying it. There are also some rather awkward ongoing dinner scenes with just August, Marlena and Jacob that seem unnecessary and beg the question – how surprised should August be of their affair after continually forcing onto his wife the company of a handsome young man who shares her love of animals? Perhaps the folly of the shrewd businessman is that he cannot see past his own wallet.
While the film doesn’t serve as a circus biopic, it does peel back the tent canopy somewhat on the working conditions of the three-ring spectacle. It is a cerebral film that features heavy themes such as abuse, imprisonment and interdependence and casts somewhat of a spotlight back on the audience. Much like the circus atmosphere surrounding reality television and celebrity and athlete worship of today, the film makes you question what we are willing to accept as entertainment while ignoring what goes on behind the scenes.
“Water for Elephants” is a film about friendship, love and perseverance, and captures the despair of our society during a time of great unrest with the depression and prohibition. The tagline of the film is “Life is the most spectacular show on earth.” It does certainly get you thinking about your own journey — both the one you’ve taken and the one that lies ahead. Much like “The Notebook,” the film reminds you that we’re living the journey every day, and before we know it, the journey comes to and end, so we should enjoy it while it lasts.
Dog Day Afternoon
This week I chose “Dog Day Afternoon” in remembrance of director Sidney Lumet, who passed away earlier this month. If you put Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in a blender, the end result would look a lot like a Sidney Lumet film. He contributed more than 40 films to Hollywood, many of them heavy with emotional dialogue and deep in verisimilitude, including classics such as “Serpico” and “Network.”
“Dog Day Afternoon” documents the true story of a botched New York City bank robbery and, more importantly, the motivation behind the crime. On a summer afternoon in 1972, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) walked into a bank and demanded they empty the vault. The joke is on Sonny, as the vault contents was collected earlier that day, and all that remains is around a thousand dollars. The police show up before Sonny and cohort Sal (John Cazale, “The Deer Hunter”) can escape, creating a hostage situation and a local media frenzy. As the crisis wears on, Sonny reveals he robbed the bank because he needs money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend Leon (veteran television actor Chris Sarandon). With frayed nerves and no options left, Sonny and Sal make a futile escape attempt that leaves Sal dead and Sonny arrested by the FBI.
The film is surprisingly charming and witty, considering the nature of the crime. Sonny’s aloof interactions with his hostages make him likeable, in spite of his menacing sidekick Sal. When the hostage negotiator sends pizza into the bank for the hostages, Sonny attempts to pay for the pizza himself. He also whips the gathering crowd into a frenzy with the now infamous line “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the recent Attica Prison riots. Sonny’s character development is strong, as Lumet wisely takes his time with the reveal that Sonny is gay and needs the money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend. A young Al Pacino is brilliant in a difficult and complex role of bisexual bank robber and Vietnam veteran.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a classic representation of the 1970′s film movement that featured gritty realism and anti-establishment themes. It features an anti-hero internalizing his struggle with everyday life after returning home from Vietnam, putting it on par with Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” It is an under-utilized style most recently employed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”). The only real criticism I have is the lack of illumination regarding Sonny’s relationship with Sal. Sonny obviously feels a strong loyalty to his partner in crime, but we never learn why. It is implied that Sal was previously in prison, but we don’t know what for. Ultimately, we know nothing about the relationship of the two men who are on screen together the most. Perhaps that is the way Lumet wanted it, instead emphasizing Sonny’s off-screen relationship with Leon.
Lumet stayed very true to the actual events that occurred on the fateful 1972 afternoon. John Wojtowicz, the bank robber who inspired the film, said that for the most part the film realistically portrays the events that unfolded during the botched bank heist. In the tragic real-life denouement, Wojtowicz ended up serving 20 years in prison for the robbery and other parole violations. While in prison, he received $7,500 for the rights to his story and paid for his boyfriend’s (Ernest Aron who went on to become Elizabeth Eden post-surgery) sex change operation with the money. After the sex change, Eden went on to marry someone else. She died in 1987 at age 41, and Wojtowicz died in 2006. The two were never married.
Director Zach Snyder (“300” and “Watchmen”) is known for films that rely more on visual effects than gripping storylines – and that trend continues with “Sucker Punch.” Reviews of the film have been fairly harsh — mostly because it is structured more as a hybrid video game/music video/motion picture than a traditional narrative film. In Snyder’s defense, the film is what it promised to be — a visual rollercoaster with a plot popularized by “Inception” that involves multiple planes of reality happening all at once.
The film’s gritty exposition draws you in when Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister are left in the hands of an abusive stepfather after their mother dies. Baby Doll accidentally shoots and kills her sister while trying to thwart an assault by the stepfather, leading to her committal at a run-down all-girls mental asylum. Baby Doll is turned over to corrupt orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac), who takes a bribe in exchange for a promised lobotomy within the week. From there the film moves from reality to the first plane of Baby Doll’s imagination – a burlesque style brothel where Blue orders the girls to perform for “clients.” Baby Doll is informed that a high roller, aka the doctor performing the lobotomy, will arrive for her in five days. With the threat of the high roller looming, Baby Doll plans her escape with the help of the now-sexily clad inmates made up of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, “Stop-Loss”), Rocket (Jena Malone, “The Ruins”), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, “High School Musical”) and Amber (Jamie Chung, “Sorority Row”).
Their plan to escape involves five items the girls must acquire within the asylum. Each of Baby Doll’s machinations to acquire the items takes us to the second plane of her imagination, where girl power is amped to the nth degree. The girls function as a super-hero like special ops group facing enemies that include steampunk zombies, fire-breathing dragons, and artillery-clad robots. This is where the film shines, as the visual effects take precedence over the characters and plot. Each mission pays homage to genre-specific writers and film directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien. The film’s soundtrack — consisting of modern covers of bands such as The Eurythmics, The Beatles and The Pixies, many with vocals by star Emily Browning — also plays a central role in taking you from plane to plane throughout the film.
The message of “Sucker Punch” is self-empowerment, but the lack of connection with the characters vastly nullifies the intended edict. The characters in the film lack any real depth, and the initial plotline involving the abuse and fate of the girls at the asylum is quickly abandoned for the more visually pleasing wraiths inside Baby Doll’s imagination. The plot holes are so numerous you should do what Snyder seemed to do — ignore them altogether. However, despite its flaws the film is unique enough to stand on its own. The cinematography moves at breakneck pace, the visuals are sensational, and the action is well choreographed. If you are a fan of Snyder’s earlier films and are willing to allow for the plot misgivings and lack of character development, you’ll get a kick (or punch) out of “Sucker Punch.”
British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) team up with several SNL stars in the comedy “Paul.” There is a little something here for everyone, with a charming little green alien, silly adult humor and a legion of pop-culture references. The most successful accomplishment of “Paul” is its ability to use the sci-fi genre as a comedy without poking fun at the genre’s fans. Eventually the film reveals itself as more than just a sci-fi spoof — incorporating romance, intrigue and a road trip sense of adventure.
Lifelong friends and science fiction fans Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) cross the pond from London to attend Comic-Con and visit several alien hotspots in the southwest parts of the U.S. They get more than they bargain for when stumbling across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the lam. When alien Paul – cleverly named after the dog his ship lands on — crash lands in the Midwest, the U.S. Government keeps him under lock and key to learn what he knows about the universe and — more importantly — lends that information to Hollywood (We learn that Paul is the driving creative force behind Steven Spielberg’s career, and that Agent Mulder was also his idea). When Paul discovers the government’s plan to remove his brain, he makes his escape to return to his home planet. After encountering Paul during his escape, Graeme and Clive befriend the witty yet crude alien, and the three embark on a cross-country road trip in an effort to return Paul to the mother ship. Characters encountered along the way include Christian zealot Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig, “SNL”), angry redneck Gus (David Koechner, “Anchorman”) and U.S. Government Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman, “Hancock”).
The film follows a familiar successful formula by director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) with witty characters and one-line zingers embedded throughout the dialogue. The computer-generated Paul blends into the film seamlessly, unlike several of his predecessors (I’m looking at you Garfield and Jar Jar Binks). After a somewhat plodding exposition, the film picks up steam as a fun road trip romp with picturesque settings of the southwest and even delivers a few twists during the resolution. Pegg and Frost have superb on-screen chemistry and Jason Bateman shines as always as Agent Zoil.
The subtle pop-culture references are a lot of fun to unearth throughout the film. My favorites were a honky tonk country western band playing the Star Wars Cantina song and Steven Spielberg’s first feature length film “Duel” astutely located on a theater marquee. There are plenty more, but I won’t give them all away. Much like the character Paul, the film takes a while to grow on you. It is slow moving at first, with somewhat confusing character motivations, but eventually settles in as a traditional Mottlola comedy that is entertaining and good for several laughs. Oh, one more thing, don’t forget to bring your Reese’s Pieces — you’ll need them for the E.T. homages during the film!
Where the Boys Are
In honor of the thousands of college students heading south for spring break, I decided to check out the film that started it all for the spring break sub-genre: 1960′s “Where the Boys Are.” Most people probably think of cheesy 80′s films when they think of spring break flicks, but director Henry Levin set the stage 20 years earlier, complete with the sunny locale (Fort Lauderdale), the eclectic mix of vacationers, silly college hijinks, and the “crazy” guy with the funny nickname. The film cleverly begins with scenic aerial shots of the Florida coast while a narrator describes spring break in Fort Lauderdale as more of a zombie attack than a vacation hotspot, calling the onslaught of students an “annual invasion that turns night into day.”
The film is set during a time when casual sex was becoming more acceptable — or at least discussed — and the topic is a recurring theme throughout the movie. Four college girlfriends set out for sunny Florida in search of decent tans, boys, and innocent fun, but end up with more than they bargain for. Led by Merritt Andrews (Delores Hart — much more on her later), the foursome begin meeting who each thinks is the man of their dreams. Merritt falls for Ivy Leaguer Ryder (George Hamilton). Tuggle (Paula Prentiss) swoons over the goofy yet charismatic TV Thompson (Jim Hutton). Promiscuous Melanie (Yvette Mimieux) gets into a complicated romance with two men in the hotel complex. Angie (Connie Francis) is generally unlucky in love, but eventually finds love with eccentric jazz musician Basil (Frank Gorshin).
The film serves as a coming of age tale as the girls’ principles are tested in their new relationships. Merritt discovers she isn’t ready for the sexual relationship Ryder pushes for. Tuggle spends the week trying to figure out the quirky TV, only to watch him fall for an older woman. The mostly lighthearted film takes a dark turn when it is implied that Melanie is sexually assaulted by one of the men she has been cavorting with. With the film’s climax revolving around Melanie’s assault, Levin fails to recapture the previous feel-good vibe during the film’s resolution, leading to a somewhat bemusing denouement.
Watching classic films isn’t for everyone, though I highly recommend you at least give it a try (if you have not already done so). It is a wonderful experience to watch a classic and then research the film — learning about actors from past generations, the culture during the film’s decade, and all the fun celluloid tidbits you pick up along the way. For instance, the star of “Where the Boys Are,” the beautiful Delores Hart, was dubbed the next Grace Kelly. She was Elvis Presley’s first onscreen kiss, and well on her way stardom when this film was made. However, after six years in Hollywood she became a cloistered nun in the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, where she resides today. My favorite character of the film was TV Thompson, portrayed by Jim Hutton. I didn’t know this going into the film, but Hutton is the father of Timothy Hutton (TNT’s “Leverage”), one of my favorite actors of today’s generation. The quirky Paula Prentiss is extremely charming, and I found it interesting that she and Hutton starred in four consecutive films together — because they were MGM’s tallest actors (Prentiss at 5’10” and Hutton at 6’5”). Frank Gorshin, of course, played The Riddler in 1966′s “Batman.”
Once you forgive the film for the mistimed use of cheesy music and poorly lit scenes that go from day to night and back to day, you’ll enjoy a fun little trip back in time. Most of the shenanigans by college students are overheard on a police radio in a running gag, so you get more Gidget than Jersey Shore from the film. Credited with popularizing the trek to Florida for spring break, “Where the Boys Are” has certainly earned its place in pop culture history. While much tamer than its descendants, the film created the wildly successful sub-genre formula that is still used in Hollywood to this day.
Good movies about the television industry are hard to find. The 1976 film “Network” set the bar high, and 1987′s “Broadcast News” followed in its footsteps. As a ten year veteran of the television news industry, I was looking forward to Hollywood’s latest offering about the business in “Morning Glory.” Going in I had high hopes, based largely on a veteran cast that includes Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. Those hopes were quickly put on standby, as “Morning Glory” ended up like many of its poor predecessors, focusing on fluff rather than substance.
Directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”), the film follows the exploits of perpetually optimistic and bubbly television producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams). Fuller is riding high as a morning show producer at a New Jersey television station when her position is eliminated in cutbacks. Desperate for a job, she lands the role of executive producer on the deteriorating national morning show “Daybreak” at the fictional network IBS. Desperate for ratings, she turns to a washed up veteran anchorman, curmudgeon Mike Pomeroy (Ford), to turn the show around. Fuller finds herself in over her head when personalities clash, the network threatens cancellation, and her personal life begins to crumble around her.
I’m being kind when I say the plot is flimsy, the characters are unlikeable, and the film’s portrayal of the news industry is unrealistic. The plot has a feel-good predictability to it when Fuller, an unknown producer, somehow lands a job as a national network executive producer. It all goes downhill from there once she actually shows up for work. On her first day on the job, Fuller makes a statement by firing an unpopular and uncooperative anchor, only to replace him with the similarly hostile Pomeroy. She spends the rest of the film trying to appease Pomeroy, rather than doing the job she was hired her to do, which is improve the show. When Pomeroy goes against Fuller’s will and actually breaks a newsworthy story live, Fuller for some inexplicable reason receives all the credit. The cast and crew of the failing morning show constantly complain about their fourth place rating, but do absolutley nothing to improve the show. Any shot the film has at verisimilitude is lost when the news crew literally jumps out of a van and magically goes live with no setup or satellite truck.
The strong veteran cast couldn’t save this film. Ford’s talents are wasted thanks to a flat character in Pomeroy with a dry, monotone delivery. Pomeroy’s co-anchor Colleen Peck (Keaton) spends all 107 minutes of the film bickering with co-workers. McAdams is a great choice for the enthusiastic protagonist, yet her repetitive shortsighted and questionable decision making quickly wears thin on the audience. The only likeable characters — Fuller’s love interest Adam (Patrick Wilson — “Watchmen”) and fellow producer Lenny (John Pankow — “Mad About You”) — are extremely flat and play minor roles in the film. As an audience we are supposed to relate to and root for the film’s protagonist. Fuller comes off as a tad whiny, ditzy, and not fully prepared to be working in network news. At one point she argues that the viewers want entertainment over news, and tha is what she is prepared to give them. Remind me never to tune into “IBS” for coverage of any serious issues facing the world today.
The film briefly touches on the blurring of the line between news and entertainment, featuring a young producer focused on the entertainment side of news and a veteran journalist who feels the golden years of the industry have passed him by. Given the talent at their disposal in Ford and Keaton, it is a somewhat puzzling decision that the film instead focuses on the ditzy morning producer trying to corral all the personalities in the newsroom. Even for a fluff comedy it misses the mark due to misused actors, a silly plot, and a protagonist you don’t find invested in. In today’s reality of news becoming “infotainment,” there was plenty of fodder available for the screenwriters to make this a lighthearted drama with real substance. Unfortunately they chose to go the route of the bobble head comedy, devoid of any real acumen or depth.
The Adjustment Bureau
“City of Angels” meets “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in this week’s review of “The Adjustment Bureau.” The film is being dubbed a romantic thriller, and while it does tell a love story, it ultimately theorizes on the issue of free will. Veteran screenwriter George Nolfi makes an impressive directorial debut thanks in part to a notable performance by Matt Damon. This isn’t the first time the duo has teamed up to make cinema magic – Nolfi was a co-screenplay writer on “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Now behind the camera, Nolfi brings the same chaotic energy from the Bourne series to “The Adjustment Bureau.”
Charismatic congressman David Norris (Damon) fills the void in his life with a busy life of politics, but a chance encounter with dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) turns everything he knows upside down. After repeat run-ins with Sellas, Norris is convinced it is fate, but a higher power has other plans. The Adjustment Bureau – an organization meant to keep things running “according to plan” — steps in to keep the two apart, declaring they have other plans for Norris. Despite the efforts of the Bureau, Norris finds Sellas after a search that lasts several years, determined to eschew the destiny that has been set for him and instead write his own future — one that includes the woman he loves.
The love story works thanks in part to tremendous chemistry between Damon and Blunt. It is a bit hokey at first, as the self-made Norris seems to mope for three long years while searching for someone he barely knows, something that comes off extremely out of character. Yet once the couple reunites, the sparks fly. Nolfi wisely leaves out typical gratuitous sex scenes, opting instead for the subtleties of a long awaited lingering kiss — a moment so important it is warned by the Bureau that “if they kiss, it all changes.” Having first met my future wife in grade school and finally confessing my life-long crush to her eighteen years later on a very serendipitous night myself, I could easily relate to the love at first sight relationship shared by the couple in the film.
The architecture of the world inside “The Adjustment Bureau” is brilliant. Nolfi constructs God and his angels as a modern day corporation, with God cleverly referred to as the “chairman.” The film is set in New York City, and the angels use doors throughout the city to move through space, able to cross miles with the single step through a doorway. The plot moves quickly, revealing additional details about the Bureau as it unfolds. Little about the Bureau is known at first, making it a bit frustrating as it serves as the film’s antagonist, but in due time all is revealed. “The Adjustment Bureau” plays out like an inner-city cat and mouse game between a omnipotent deity and a cantankerous mortal soul. You do, however, find yourself questioning the motives of God in the film, as he employs somewhat bumbling angels and seems to have a habit of changing the master plan on the fly.
The film is a lighthearted hypothesis about destiny and free will, and leaves the audience questioning the random moments of life. As one of the angels explains the seemingly inconsequential moments in life to Norris, such as the occasional stumble or the spilling of coffee, “sometimes it’s chance…sometimes it’s us.” It was a surprisingly humorous and action-packed love story that lived up to the billing of a romantic thriller – a hybrid genre I didn’t realize existed until now. It offers a fresh, stylistic take on the butterfly effect and examines the ripple effect our actions may have on the rest of the world around us.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Every year there is a spirited debate about what is the best Christmas-themed movie. From Die Hard to Gremlins, the selections run the gamut of film genres. The Film School Blog wants to chime in with one of my own Christmas favorites. I narrowed down the field with strict criteria of what defines “Christmas theme.” Sure, “Die Hard” is a classic, but the narrative takes place with Christmas as a backdrop, so I (painfully) removed it from contention.
To qualify as a true Christmas movie, the narrative must revolve around the holiday. I may be a bit biased this year, but prepping Christmas for a 2 year old has me appreciating the efforts of Clark W. Griswold. The lengths that “Sparky” goes to ensure the biggest holiday celebration the Griswolds have ever seen in National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” is worthy of this year’s Christmas selection.
With a week to go before both sides of their family joins them for Christmas, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is determined to create an old-fashioned family holiday for everyone to enjoy. To Clark, though, that means finding the biggest tree possible (that comically won’t fit in the house), the biggest and brightest Christmas lights display, and surprising his family with the news that he put a down payment on a pool (borrowing against a Christmas bonus he’s not guaranteed to get). It’s slapstick humor of sorts, but with sprinkles of genuine family drama and emotion thrown into create a modern holiday classic.
Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’Angelo) says it best when she tells Clark Griswold, “You set standards that no family activity can live up to.” Well-meaning Clark has an endearing quality to him despite ill-fated efforts at every turn. I’m sure many of us have fathers or uncles who share similar quirky traits (I know I do) where presentation is 9/10th of the holiday, which always leads to some entertaining Christmas memories. The Griswolds are classic middle-class Americana with familiar family dramas (just ratcheted up for comedy’s sake), and that’s why this movie resonates with so many people.
Film critic Roger Ebert says “Christmas Vacation” comes close to delivering on its own material but never pays off. I disagree, and I think the reason is Clark’s hilarious deadpan responses to his continual failures. This is the third installment of the National Lampoon “Vacation” series in the 1980s, and by this point Clark seems resigned to his own failures. Known for his over-the-top rants from the earlier films, Chevy Chase changes his delivery style to create a character arc created over the span of a decade and three films.
And there is a classic payoff toward the end of the rising action when Clark finally blows his top and exclaims to his family, “Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny *expletive* Kaye!”
“Christmas Vacation” has a great cast with Randy Quaid returning as Cousin Eddie and a third set of Rusty and Audrey in a young Johnny Galecki (TV’s “Big Bang Theory) and Juliette Lewis. Bryan Doyle-Murray also returns (he appeared in 1980′s “Vacation” as the Kamp Komfort Clerk) but this time as Clark’s smug boss Frank Shirley.
Despite an inconsistency in character continuation and a third director in the series — “Christmas Vacation” being the directorial debut for successful film and TV director Jeremiah Chechik — the series works well on so many levels because John Hughes wrote all three of the 80s films (but not 1997’s “Vegas Vacation”). From the family dysfunction many of us know so well to the classic comedic moments from Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” ranks up there as one of the top modern Christmas films.
The 2012 MacGuffin Awards
The Film School Blog is proud to present the inaugural MacGuffin awards for best and worst of 2012’s film selections. What in the world is a MacGuffin, you might be asking? In film a MacGuffin is a plot device used to keep the film moving forward despite little relevance to the narrative. It is typically an object desired by the protagonist or antagonist — think the cash reward for Han Solo in “Star Wars” or the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”
The tool (and phrase) was made popular by Alfred Hitchcock and is widely used today in all genres. After 50-plus film reviews in 2012, the Film School Blog proudly presents this year’s MacGuffins!
Best Film of the Year: “Argo”
Based on true events in 1980, “Argo” was a triumph in mise-en-scene and building conflict and tension throughout the five-act narrative. It also reflects the maturation of Ben Affleck as a masterful storyteller as director and co-producer as well as actor in the film. Tremendous casting, suspenseful action and a great historical narrative are weaved together to win the first ever MacGuffin for film of the year.
Runner Up: Looper — Integrates several genres with a great story that leaves you looking for theories long after the film ends.
Best Surprise of the Year: “The Cabin in the Woods”
Word of mouth is what drew me into the theater to see Drew Goddard’s apparent slasher-in-the-woods flick that ended up being so much more than I expected. “The Cabin in the Woods” crosses genres to form a campy, sci-fi, suspenseful film with end-of-the-world narrative ramifications. The film manages to poke fun at its slasher predecessors while paying homage to them at the same time. Film buffs will enjoy the multiple levels and brazen risks with the script taken by Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon.
Runner Up: Ted – Writer and director Seth MacFarlane hits a home run with this comedy that features an animated teddy bear as a protagonist.
Biggest Disappointment of the Year: “Flight”
I stand by my call that “Flight” is a bait and switch based on the film’s advertising campaign. The campaign promised a film based on a plane crash, a pilot who miraculously landed the plane and the investigation that follows. It veers way off the runway as a repetitive case study in the plight of the alcoholic, with the plane crash and subsequent investigation as the largely forgotten backdrop. Denzel Washington’s performance saves the film, but “Flight” still wins a MacGuffin for biggest disappointment due to a plot that wastes so much potential.
Runner Up: “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” — A Disney film that scratches the surface but fails to capitalize on what should have been a deeper, more meaningful story.
Best Netflix Find: “Lunopolis”
Netflix is a fantastic resource for finding older, obscure or independent films. 2009’s “Lunopolis” is an indie film that tackles time travel in a creative way, using all sorts of visual elements in lieu of costly special effects. The result is a surprisingly deep narrative and good performances from mostly untrained actors.
Runner Up: “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” — This is a hidden little gem from 2009 that stars Richard Gere in a heartwarming narrative based on a true story that animal lovers everywhere will surely enjoy.
What were they Thinking?: “Battleship”
My admitted weakness for big-budget science fiction films forced me into the theater to see “Battleship” despite what seemed like a predictable premise. Predictable quickly turned into me asking, “Why was this movie made?” With horrible acting and completely implausible narrative plot points, the 200-million dollar price tag can’t save “Battleship” from the 2012 “What were they Thinking?” MacGuffin Award.
Runner-Up: “Apollo 18″ — Purposely bad film footage and a slow moving plot lands “Apollo 18” in the passenger seat for this award.
Best Themed Film: “One Crazy Summer”
Every few months the Film School Blog chooses a classic film in some timely fashion. “One Crazy Summer” was chosen for the kickoff of summer, and it meets all the classic 80s film criteria — kitschy plot, zany characters and actors John Cusack, Joel Murray, Demi Moore and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Runner-up: “Invincible” — Super Bowl week brought on Disney’s “Invincible” that chronicles the true story of Philadelphia Eagles bartender-turned-wide receiver Vince Papale. Much like “Argo,” the film’s mise-en-scene captures 1976 in fine fashion.
Congratulations to all the 2012 MacGuffin Award winners! Tune in to the Film School Blog each week during 2013, where every review becomes a nominee for the 2013 MacGuffins!
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The wait is finally over for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and director Peter Jackson. After directing only two films since the 2003 conclusion to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson returns with another epic series, beginning with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The prequel, which focuses on Frodo’s uncle Bilbo Baggins, re-introduces us to Middle Earth and several of the characters featured in the initial trilogy.
With expectations high, could Jackson possibly repeat his LOTR success? I made my own trek to the local AMC to experience Jackson’s latest visual masterpiece.
Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, TV’s “Sherlock”) is recruited by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, “Lord of the Rings”) to reluctantly join a group of 13 dwarves on a quest to recapture the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which is now occupied by a dragon. Under the leadership of Dwarf King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, “Captain America: The First Avenger”), the group travels to the far east of Middle Earth to their former home on the Lonely Mountain.
On their journey they must overcome goblins, orcs and a silent evil that lurks just out of sight.
Jackson succeeds in recapturing the magic that made his “Lord of the Rings” series so special. From beautiful sweeping shots of the mythical Middle Earth to a vibrant group of characters bursting with personality, “The Hobbit” is a lengthy narrative that merely sets the stage for a larger journey. Initially a children’s book by J.R.R. Tolkien, Jackson’s team of co-writers turned “The Hobbit” into a PG-13 version that includes similar dark themes and characters featured in the initial LOTR films.
The world of Middle Earth is recreated both through mise-en-scene as well as cinematically. Jackson wisely uses many of the same people from the LOTR trilogy. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who served as the director of photography for all three LOTR films, returns to give the film a familiar look and feel. The cast features a host of familiar faces, and the film’s score is done by LOTR composer Howard Shore. The care that went into creating the world of “The Lord of the Rings” has been duplicated in selecting the crew tabbed with capturing the essence of Middle Earth for “The Hobbit” series.
Though it shares a similar world, Jackson still manages to break new ground with the film. One of the secrets to the “film look” is that film cameras shoot at 24 frames per second, offering a warm, soft look. “The Hobbit” is the first major motion picture to shoot at a higher frame rate of 48 frames per second, specifically to enhance the sharpness of the image for 3D.
Though I saw the 2D version of the film, initial reactions to the higher frame rate have been both good (crisper image detail) and bad (glossy, made-for-TV look). Jackson calls 3D a “gift” for getting people more involved in the theatrical experience, so it made sense for him to challenge the near millennium-old technique of shooting at 24fps to improve the 3D film.
Wary of sounding like a perfume knockoff ad, I’ll say if you loved “Lord of the Rings” you’ll also love “The Hobbit.” There are a few plot holes and unanswered questions — Why does a dragon need to surround itself with gold? Why doesn’t the group just use the giant Hawks to fly all the way to Lonely Mountain at the beginning of their journey? But like everything else in Middle Earth, this will remain shrouded in mystery, and that’s OK.
With the launch of the new epic series, Jackson effectively recaptures the magic formula that worked so well in the LOTR trilogy. Last week I mentioned how difficult it is to duplicate the theatrical experience at home. It is for that reason that I suggest that you check out “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in the theater. Whether 2D or 3D, it is a cinematic experience in itself with the beginnings of another epic Jackson/Tolkien journey.
The Dark Knight Rises
We live in an era where Hollywood’s beauty if often only skin-deep. Blockbuster films that offer lots of flash with little story are chic right now, but there is a series of recent films that defied this logic. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” is now available on DVD, and the final piece of the trilogy challenges the notion that a blockbuster can’t be full of style and substance. With all of the special effects you can fit into a single film and thick continuing plot, Nolan’s denouement was well worth the wait.
Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, Gotham is nearly crime-free, Batman has disappeared and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, “The Fighter”) is a recluse. A mysterious masked man known as Bane (Tom Hardy, “Inception”) arrives in Gotham with the intent of fulfilling League of Shadows leader Ra al Ghul’s mission of destroying the city, forcing Wayne out of seclusion to don the bat suit once again. With control of a Wayne-funded fusion reactor turned into a nuclear weapon, Bane holds Gotham hostage while claiming to liberate the city. Only Batman, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, “The Book of Eli”) and a handful of allies are left to stop Bane and save the city from destruction.
I made the mistake of missing “The Dark Knight” while it was in the theater. Big-budget films like this are custom made for the big screen, and it is never more evident than with this movie. Nolan used IMAX cameras for much of the film, with vivid images meant for large screens. There is also a layer of non-diegetic sound over most of the film, including key dialogue, which helps set the tone of a scene but also becomes a bit distracting during the home viewing experience sans quality surround sound system. With improved picture and sound, home theater systems have come a long way but will likely never replicate the theatrical experience.
Screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan put all sorts of amusing twists in the final “Nolan” chapter of their Batman vision while setting the stage nicely for their successors. I have to include the caveat that I’ve never been a big fan of Anne Hathaway, and was pleasantly surprised with her portrayal of Catwoman. The Nolan brothers gave her more claws than Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1992 version, helping Hathaway shed her good-girl image as a conniving con artist and modern day cat burglar who serves as a hesitant antagonist for most of the film. They also introduce the Robin character in a creative way that cannot be revealed without spoiling the fun.
The film is not without flaws, however. Little is revealed about the film’s main antagonist, Bane. Unlike most of the Batman films, the source of Bane’s power and most of his back story is never revealed. The bits of his back story are revealed merely to throw us off the trail of a larger plot twist. If you aren’t familiar with his comic book lineage, the imposing mask worn by Bane administers a drug directly into his brain, giving him increased physical strength.
With a run time of 165 minutes, “The Dark Knight Rises” is lengthy with a seemingly endless exposition, but is full of reveals and “aha!” moments. Unfortunately, these moments are cursory and don’t allow the audience to register the gravity of the plot impact. A seemingly pivotal moment involving Bane releasing former “Dark Knight” antagonists such as Scarecrow from the Blackgate Penitentiary receives little attention. Months of relevant material are accounted for in quick yet poignant montage, and most of the rising action feels rushed as Nolan attempts to fit everything into one final film.
Despite the sheer amount of plot information, the brilliance in “The Dark Knight Rises” is it’s careful writing that manages to end one saga while potentially launching another. Nolan was hesitant to do a third film, but after co-writing the script with brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, he completes the trilogy in fine fashion. Not only does it tie in elements from the original film “Batman Begins” but also pays homage to the entire Batman franchise by creating the strong potential for a new series. With Nolan’s vision for the DC Comics superhero now complete, we can look forward to a possible “Justice League” appearance by Batman, rumored to have a 2015 release date.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
One lesson I include when talking to my students about understanding film form and content is the bias brought into the viewing of a film. Your own experiences greatly impact the way you interpret a film. That’s one of the amazing things about the cinematic experience – we all view it in a different context. This was never more evident than in viewing this week’s holiday-themed film selection, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” The personal project for writer/director John Hughes is also a brilliant combination of genres and seems to get better with each holiday season.
Uptight advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants to get home from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, but a Midwest storm reroutes his plane to Kansas. With bad luck at every turn and an unlikely new best friend in blundering shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy), Neal tries desperately to get home using every mode of transportation possible. Through the disastrous trip home, Neal and Del must come to terms with each other as well as their own faults.
The context in which I watched the film is twofold. The first is family related. I was still in college the last time I saw “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” My life has changed tremendously since then, most notably marriage and family. Much of the film’s conflict stems from protagonist Neal Page attempting to get home to his family. In prior viewings, I understood the meaning of the cutaways such as Neal’s daughter performing in her holiday play while he missed it, but this time around I felt it. My life experience changed the way I felt about specific scenes in the film, as I could now emotionally relate with the protagonist.
The other relates to the physical context in which I viewed the film. I watched the film on my computer while relaxing comfortably in a hotel room during a pleasant holiday visit with family in Texas. I was thankful all right, and not just because of Thanksgiving. I’ve had my fair share of interesting holidays, and viewing the film while in the midst of a great one intensified every obstacle poor Neal and Del encountered. Though several of the gags are quite kitschy, there are others very rooted in reality. I once spent Christmas Eve on a broken down train for six hours, waiting on buses that never arrived, and another in a truck stop with a broken down vehicle. Although slightly exaggerated, you can relate to many (though certainly not all) of the film’s antics. Not surprisingly, writer John Hughes says the film is based on his own similar experience.
“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is classic 80’s cinema with two of the decade’s best comedians at their best. Candy is the perfect choice to play such a lovable buffoon, and much like Neal, one minute you can’t stand him and the next you love him. Neal is not without fault, as Del brings out the very worst of him, but of course he learns his lesson in the end. The dynamic back and forth between the two characters (and the audience as they decide who to side with) drives this film.
Director John Hughes combines several genres in creating this classic Thanksgiving comedy. It is an interesting twist on the male buddy Hollywood formula, with Neal and Del ultimately forging a friendship despite constantly being at each other’s throats. It is also a great road trip film, with plenty of mishaps and colorful characters along the way. And of course it’s a classic holiday film with a good-hearted message. Hughes directed eight films from 1984 to 1991, and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” serves as his break away from the teen angst films he’s most known for.
I have been anxiously awaiting the premiere of “Flight” since first viewing the trailer. With what appeared to be an intriguing plot and Academy Award-winners Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis attached to the film, I figured you can’t go wrong. Unfortunately something happened between liftoff and landing that left me unexpectedly disappointed. “Flight” is by no means a bad movie but rather somewhat of a bait and switch, based on the film’s advertising campaign. For me, “Flight” will always be a classic case of what could have been.
When his plane begins to fall apart in the sky, veteran airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is able to pull the plane from an uncontrollable dive and manage a crash landing that results in minimal casualties. Though he is initially hailed as a hero, investigators soon discover Whitaker had high blood alcohol content and traces of cocaine in his system at the time of the crash. As the investigation heightens, Whitaker begins to lose himself in an alcoholic haze. While coming to terms with the deaths that occurred during the flight, he is forced to face both NTSB investigators and his own chemical dependencies destroying his career and personal life.
“Flight” was advertised as a suspenseful drama surrounding an airline crash where Whitaker is the pilot and possibly savior despite the fact that alcohol is found in his blood sample. Unfortunately it eschews the fertile plot ground surrounding the crash and subsequent investigation, focusing solely on Whitaker’s alcoholism. There is certainly room to combine the two plotlines, but we only receive information on the crash investigation via random updates from union lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), trivializing the now somewhat insignificant subplot. Taken in a different direction, the suspense could arguably reach that of recent box office hit “Argo.”
The melodrama starts off forceful with the dramatic plane crash but quickly loses altitude as the narrative develops. The main antagonist in the film is alcohol (in which Whitaker has no bias as nearly every adult beverage under the sun is featured in a not-so-subtle effort at product placement), and the repetitive nature of Whitaker facing adversity, turning to alcohol, rinse and repeat, becomes predictable. After pulling you in during the exposition, “Flight” never really gets off the ground.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, the cast is brilliant given what they have to work with. John Goodman continues to build his enigmatic character niche as Whitaker’s friend and drug supplier Harling Mays. You can feel Cheadle’s contempt for Whitaker boiling just under the surface in every scene he’s in as the airline union’s criminal attorney forced to defend his immoral behaviors. Despite her unrealistic battle with heroin, Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes”) is a good fit as Nicole, the convenient damsel in distress who gives Whitaker at least one redeeming quality.
Critics are praising “Flight” for its subject matter but in this case I must respectfully disagree. Though similar in content to 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas” (also featuring a drunken protagonist with a distressed female love interest), director Robert Zemeckis surprisingly spends most of “Flight” trying to convince us how bad Whitaker’s drinking problem is rather than focus on building a dynamic plot and developing round characters. While “Leaving Las Vegas” gets inside the head of its tragic protagonist, “Flight” skirts the edges of chemical addiction and settles on a sterile feel-good Hollywood ending.