Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nebraska (2013)

It seems like the only good films I've seen so far in 2014 were actually all released in 2013.  Considering some of the stuff released so far in 2014 though, it's probably for the best.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he's won a million dollars and is willing to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.  His son, David (Will Forte), reluctantly drives him despite doing everything he can to convince Woody that this is all a scam and hasn't actually won anything.  While driving to Nebraska, they encounter various former friends and family members that all think they deserve a piece of the pie.  That's basically Nebraska in a nutshell.  It's kind of Seinfeldian in its about nothingness.

So, why all the Oscar buzz and hype then, you ask?  Even as a fan of director Alexander Payne's previous films, I was asking the same thing.  I wasn't quite sure what I was in for as Nebraska started.  I didn't know much more about it than who it starred and that it was in black and white.  I'm happy to report though that the praise is well deserved.  If you know me at all, then you know I tend to enjoy character based movies.  Nebraska is a very good one.  However, I can see this not being for everyone if you're not into quirky, slice-of-life stories where not a lot happens.

Based on the color palate, I was concerned that the tone of the film was going to be kind depressing. The choice to film it in black and white was a good one though.  One thing I've always liked about modern films in black and white is that you tend to notice things, particularly with the lighting, that you wouldn't otherwise.  It also forces you to focus more on the dialog and it's easier to pick up on some of the subtleties.  Nebraska is a lot like life in that sometimes things just happen, and there many shades of grey.

About halfway through Nebraska, the phrase "pleasant awkwardness" kept popping in my head.  It's never uncomfortable, even as we delve into the family's deeper issues.  We watch people gain an understanding and acceptance.  It gives the film a nice conclusion without delving into melodrama.  The script by Bob Nelson is on the lighter side and very funny.  If you check out his IMDB page though, it's odd to see that this is the only screenplay on his page.  There's only a few TV writing credits otherwise, and those aren't very recent.  Is that accurate?  If so, it's pretty interesting see him get nominated for best original screenplay on his first go around.  I know it's not the first time it's happened, but still.  It's a very understated script.  A lot of the humor comes from the reactions of characters.  It doesn't try too hard to be clever or goofy, and a lot is said with facial expressions and stares.  It reminded me me a bit of what I liked about The Descendants, but Nebraska doesn't quite pack the emotional punch that The Descendants did.  That doesn't make any less poignant though.

Bruce Dern's great performance as Woody is how I imagine myself when I reach his age.  Alcoholic, stubborn and generally disagreeable.  He says whatever's on his mind and just doesn't care.  It's why I'm looking forward to old age.  Well that and farting in public.  As the film moves on, you learn more about why Woody is the way he his, and Dern is able make him all that more sympathetic.

I also enjoyed Will Forte's performance.  Initially, I thought it was an unusual casting, as despite his time on SNL, isn't exactly a household name.  In just the opening minutes, you can see why he was perfect for the role.  There's something about comedic actors that really nail being able to sell frustration and uncomfortable situations without trying to be funny.  The same can be said for David's brother, Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, who almost never disappoints and I wish he had been in the film a little more.

Everyone's talking about Bruce Dern, but I really got a kick out of June Squibb as his wife.  I can see why she got a supporting nomination and she has some of the best moments of the film.

Nebraska is a funny, insightful film about family and filled with great performances.  Again, it's one of those films whose quirk won't work for everyone, but if you like unusual character based stores, then I think you'll really enjoy it.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I keep wanting to call this Jack Ryan: Shadow Hunter, but that sounds like some kind of Assassin's Creed game.

Just the other day I was telling someone how it bugs me when a movie shows you a cityscape with obvious landmarks, but then still bothers to put the name of the city on the screen, as if you were born yesterday.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit does this at least three times in the first few minutes.  I can understand an American not immediately recognizing London, but when you see the Statue of Liberty a few minutes later, do you really need to see "New York City" displayed?  Are we that stupid?  Yes, that's rhetorical.  This is done many times during the film, letting us know the names of buildings or airports despite having no bearing on the story or provide any useful insight.  Does it matter what airport they're at when we already know their destination?

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is attending school in London when he sees the reports of the attack on 9/11.  He enlists in the Marines, but is shot down on a mission and has to go through vigourous physical therapy to regain the ability to walk.  During physical therapy he meets a medical student, Cathy (Keira Knightley).  They flirt, but part ways as she graduates.  He's also watched and then recruited by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who wants him to be their inside man on Wall Street looking for financial patterns that may point to enemy action.

We fast forward 10 years and Jack's on Wall Street doing exactly that.  He's living with Cathy now, and you'd assume they hooked back up shortly after the previous events, but later there's a reference in the movie to that they've only been together for three years.  Did they reconnect after 7 years?  How'd they meet up again?  Plus, I'm a little disappointed that we jumped so far ahead, and don't get to see any of Jack's training or anything like that.  More than a few times details that would have helped invest in the characters or story were skipped or glossed over.

Anyway, Jack discovers a pattern of suspicious cash movement, and he's sent to Moscow to investigate and perform an audit on the company in question.  He's barely in Moscow ten minutes and someone tries to kill him.  I've heard of people not liking auditors, but this takes it to another level.  I guess Jack's on the right path, eh?

Shadow Recruit has an interesting enought setup, but then pretty much goes into cruise control.  It's not that it's paced poorly, or is boring, but theres nothing here you haven't seen before.  It has all the typical spy thriller tropes where plot holes and coincidences occur to always help the hero at the right moment.

Misunderstandings between characters occur when there was no reason to lie or mislead.  For example, he lies about seeing an old movie, which was really just a cover to exchange data with a CIA handler.  Cathy finds the ticket stub, and tricks him to see if he'll lie about it.  Instead of just telling Cathy he caught a film at lunch, he fumbles through a bad lie that only makes her more suspicious of him.  Plus, what kind of CIA agent wouldn't do a better job of covering his tracks, by you know, throwing the ticket away?

There's a moment during the climax where Jack is fighting a guy by a van, and then in the next scene he's driving that van, which probably should be undrivable due to water damage, with the guy he was just fighting now in the back trying to detonate a bomb.  How did that happen?  Did something get cut from the film?  Did my mind totally wander while it skipped ahead?  Also, why didn't either of these guys have a gun?  Would been pretty useful in that situation.

After a somewhat disappointing performance in Star Trek Into Darkness, I thought Chris Pine bounced back well here.  It was a good role for him and was one of the brighter spots of the film.  I always enjoy Keira Knightley, but there's not much to her character for her to really sink her teeth into.  Kevin Costner was goo, too, but was on autopilot for the most part.  Again, it's not an issue with the performances, but more that none of the characters are all that interesting.  Probably the most disappointing is Kenneth Branagh as the movie's villain. He's not particularly menacing, and they had to go out of their way to have him kill or beat his henchmen just so you'd think he was crazy.  About the only thing you learn about him is that he has advanced cirrhosis.  Just a generic movie bad guy otherwise.  Even his plan, which involves manipulating the dollar to collapse the U.S. economy, doesn't exactly instill any kind of primal fear.  When the plan is outlined, it's a bunch of financial mumbo-jumbo, and even Costner's character asks for it to be dumbed down when explained to him.

Also, the only available showtime to me was on IMAX, which I would definitely not recommend.  There's zero value to seeing this on IMAX, and I'm shocked that it's even being offered as an option.

If you really need your spy thriller fix in the middle of January, then I suppose you could do worse than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  It's an entertaining, but very paint-by-the-numbers thriller without a lot of originality or creativity.  I'd call it a solid rental and not something you need to rush out and see.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Her (2013)

Do you like hearing people have awkward phone sex?  How about stories showing people falling in love with inanimate objects?  Do you like movies set in the future, yet everyone dresses like 1970's grandparents?  Well then Her is the movie for you!

Clearly I'm oversimplifying when talking about Her, as it's anything but a simple movie.  Her is one of those unusual films that oscillates from being brilliant to just plain weird.  This probably shouldn't come as a surprise to people familiar with writer/director Spike Jonze previous work, especially where Charlie Kaufman was involved.

Her is about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is currently going through a divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara).  They had a long, loving relationship, but drifted apart and Theodore's having trouble letting go.  He buys a new, artificially intelligent operating system, mainly to help organize his life.  The OS introduces itself as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and explains how she's designed to grow and evolve.  As Samantha learns more about the world, they continue to bond and eventually develop an emotional relationship.

Based on the premise of the film, I was worried this was going to be another Lars and the Real Girl, which might as well been called "Entire Town Indulges a Sad Man with Mental Health Issues."  Fortunately, Theodore is more grounded than that.  He's actually a fairly normal guy, just a little introverted.  I still had a bit of an issue with someone falling in love with an AI, but after I thought about it for a bit, is it really all that different from a long distance or exclusively online relationship?  I've watched people have relationships where all the interaction was over the phone or at opposite ends of a keyboard.  Either way there's no physical intimacy.  Is that a requirement for love?  Who's to say that's not the direction we're headed.  Followers of my blog are probably aware of my dislike for online dating.  I share a similar dislike for long distance relationships.  I feel like some of the time it's a way of having an easy relationship where there's not as much at stake.  If things get too difficult, you can just end it without much complication.  This is actually a point brought up during the film, so I appreciated the fact they took this on.

Another interesting point Her made was how all of this technology is actually making us less connected.  In many scenes of the film, you see people walking around, talking into their PDA/phone devices, not even looking up at people immediately around them.  We see this all the time now where people stare into their phones, so zoned out that they bump into people, trip over stuff, or worse.  Recently, I was a bar and noticed that every single person sitting in the bar area was looking into their phone rather than interact with anyone around them.  Don't get me wrong, I've been guilty of this, but it's one of the reasons why I'm trying to move away from stuff like Facebook and Twitter.  It's great to be able to connect with people that live far away or you wouldn't have access to otherwise, but I think our future will be much better off if everyone steps away from their computers, puts down their phones, and works on interacting with those around them a little more.

There were a few little things I found distracting.  One of which was whatever Theodore's job was.  He's some kind of letter writing surrogate, but I never got exactly what he did or what the purpose was.  I didn't feel it was explained all that well, and normally I wouldn't have paid it any mind, but since there are a lot of scenes of him at work and interacting with co-workers (mainly Chris Pratt), it bugged me a bit that it wasn't clear.  Another thing that was too cute was the overall look of the film.  It's very 60's/70's styled with lots of reds and oranges.  People wore awful shirts, had unkempt hairstyles, and had those old man pants with the waistline just below their chest.  They even managed to make Amy Adams look frumpy, but not Olivia Wilde (could anything though?).  It was like hipsters take over in the future, which may be the most terrifying aspect of Her.  Lastly, at just over two hours, the film could have been tightened up a bit.  There were a few scenes that went on too long where the point had been made.  On the other hand, they play hilariously unusual video games and I wish I could have seen more of that.

Joaquin Phoenix was wonderfully nuanced.  As I mentioned earlier, you might want to write Theodore off as a weirdo, and he is kind of a dork, but Phoenix makes him sweet and very sympathetic.  He's searching for the same things we all are.  However, he blows it on a real date with Olivia Wilde's character when she was clearly into him, and that's unforgivable.  I was impressed with Scarlett Johansson's voice work, which had very cute sexiness about it.  I also enjoyed Amy Adams, but I wish she would have been in it more considering she was one of the few real-world friends Theodore had and they had previously dated.  I could have used a little more Rooney Mara, but I think that's due to the fact that I wanted to learn more about their relationship and why it failed.

Her is a smart, thought-provoking film that brings up some interesting ideas regarding love, intimacy and general interaction with people.  I can understand how it might be too strange for some, but I think if you give it a chance and go in with an open mind, you'll find yourself thinking about the film for long after.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lone Survivor (2013)

I realized before watching Lone Survivor is that the title itself is a spoiler.  Even without being familiar with the real events this was based on or reading Marcus Luttrell's book about his experience, all you have to do is look at the title to know how it's going to turn out.  It kind of a downer when the title saps some of the suspense of a film.  Imagine if The Sixth Sense had been alternatively titled He's a Ghost?

Lone Survivor is the true story of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan.  Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is part of a four-man Navy Seal team, the remainder played by Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch, on a mission to capture a Taliban leader.  While staking out the small village where he's hiding, a trio of goat herders, including two boys, happens upon them.  They have to make a difficult choice: let them go and hope they can get to safety before the Taliban finds them, or kill them and complete their mission.  They decide to uphold the rules of engagement and take their chances.  For the record, I voted for killing them, but I'm a murderous, cyborg psychopath.

Of course the Taliban catches up to them, and from there it becomes fight for survival.  A punishing, white-knuckle fight for survival.

Lone Survivor is just brutal at times.  This is not a glamorous film about war.  The amount of bodily abuse these guys take is superhuman.  It helps that the film begins with a montage of SEAL training.  When you see how grueling it is, it's easier to understand how these soldiers can keep going while taking so much punishment.  It's what they were trained for.

Their fight is unrelenting, and it's a little heartbreaking knowing in advance how it's going to turn out. This kind of leads into my only real issue with Lone Survivor.  We don't get to know the individuals very well. Writer/director Peter Berg decided to focus more on the action and overall heroism than any type of character moments. There are a few small details here and there, but we know almost nothing about them otherwise.  In fact, I struggled to recall anyone's name by the end.  We care because they are our soldiers and we want to see them survive, but not because of any emotional investment we have with them.  As the film is a tribute to these soldiers, I would have liked to know more about them personally.

Despite not getting to know the team, there is a clear sense of brotherhood and how much they care about each other.  Team is made up of a very strong cast that makes it a little easier to connect with them.  While Wahlberg is the star, I don't want to single anyone out as it kind of takes away from the sacrifice they collectively made.  It didn't take too long before I stopped seeing them as Marky Mark, Warren Worthington, the kid from The Girl Next Door and Tim Riggins, and just saw them as soldiers.  And of course no military-themed Peter Berg film would be complete without a Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) sighting.

The overall intensity of the action makes it easy to overlook these flaws.  Once the firefight begins, you'll be on the edge of your seat until the conclusion.  With the way the action was shot, there are many moments where you feel immersed in it.  I'm kicking myself for not seeing this in RPX as the sound was fantastic.  There are rattling explosions that made me jump in my seat a few times.  Nothing beats the throaty, metallic sound of the sniper rifle either.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was an MK 12 (had to look it up).  A better sound system in the theatre would have really made this sing.

Sure, you might come out of it a little, "Rah, rah, USA," but what's wrong with that?  I'm sure that's a little bit of what Peter Berg was going for, but it's not over the top.  I didn't watch Lone Survivor and feel like it was a recruitment film or shoving politics in your face.  It's pretty neutral as far as that goes, and is more about the mission and the the sacrifice of the soldiers.

While Lone Survivor is a brutal war movie, it's also a powerful tribute to the courage and resilience of these soldiers.  If this wasn't based on a true story, it would be easier to watch this as simply a very good action film, but knowing the sacrifice behind it adds a solemn feeling.  Definitely worth a watch though and one of the more realistic films about war I've seen in a while.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

An interesting thing happened during the trailers to Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  They abruptly stopped, the lights came on, and I thought there was either a problem with the projector or the theater was doing some kind of gag involving the movie.  I turn around to see a few security guards and the theater management asking everyone to have their IDs and ticket stubs out.  Apparently someone noticed that there were a lot more people in the theater than the amount of tickets they sold, so they knew that underage teens (this is an R-rated movie) had likely bought a ticket for another movie and then snuck in.  They escorted about 30 kids out.  I've seen a few people get kicked out of movies recently, but never to this extent.  I wonder if the theater chain is getting pressure from corporate or outside sources to cut down on allowing kids into R-rated movies.

Anyway, it's no secret I'm not a fan of the Paranormal Activity series.  I thought the first was one of the most overhyped, boring horror films I've ever seen.  It had little going for it outside of the found footage gimmick; nothing more than poorly written characters reacting to pots falling, the wind blowing doors shut, and sounds off-camera.  Terrifying!  By the third film, I thought the series had totally run out of steam.  At least with the fourth installment, the writing and acting improved and gave us some likeable characters.  The newest film continues on that course.

The Marked Ones gives us a new locale and family to follow.  Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is celebrating his graduation from high school in Oxnard, CA.  Shortly after a party in his apartment complex, his downstairs neighbor, who many believed was a bruja, or witch, is shockingly killed by class valedictorian, Oscar (Carlos Pratts).  Jesse and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) break into the victim's apartment and find various black magic paraphernalia.  The next morning Jesse finds a strange bite mark on his arm.  He then develops bizarre abilities and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and violent.  Desperate to find what's happening to Jesse, Hector and their hot friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) investigate and find that Jesse isn't the only person this has happened to.

One of the more fun aspects of the film was how Jesse experimented with his abilities.  They have fun with them at first, and it will remind many of the earlier parts of Chronicle.  There's creative use of the old electronic Simon memory game as a Ouija board that I thought was a clever twist.  As I mentioned earlier, the writing and dialog is an improvement over the first three films.  There's some very funny, and natural banter between Jesse, Hector and Marisol.  We don't learn much about them personally, but they aren't annoying.  They drink, smoke pot and try to get laid.  You know, the type of behavior you'd expect from kids their age.  As far as the cast goes, newcomer Andrew Jacobs did a good job and it's the kind of performance where you get that feeling he's got a bright future ahead of him.

Unfortunately, The Marked Ones is full of predictable jump scares that weren't remotely scary.  It was so obvious when one was going to happen, I would say to myself, "Cue someone jumping out of nowhere in 3..2..1!"  At this point, they need to be able to deliver more than cheap scares.  The whole formula of these films is stale.  You know they're going to end up in some house where witches ambush them and they can't get away.  The only question I had was were they at the house from the end of Paranormal 4 or Paranormal 3.  I'm pretty sure it was from Paranormal 3, but it could be the same house for all I know.  There is a really funny part during the climax that had me saying, "Finally!"  Unfortunately, it's short lived and falls back into the same crap from the others.

They're trying their best to link these stories together, but I'm at a loss what that the goal is.  It continues to be muddy to me.  That's really the issue with any film like this.  What are these demons/ghosts after?  They don't seem to want more than to mess with people and then occasionally kill those that dare investigate the weird events around them.  Seriously, it's been five movies now.  What's the end game?  Has anything been answered?

I don't know what it is, but I have a really strong urge to buy a GoPro after watching The Marked Ones.  Oh that's right, it's because most of the footage was filmed with either with a handheld or a GoPro.  Man, those GoPro cameras have sure gotten a lot of mileage in horror films, eh?  Seriously, it's a pretty useful piece of technology.

And I'm still dying to know who's actually been finding this footage...

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones might change things up slightly, and isn't quite as boring as the other installments, but it's still more of the same, predictable jump scares.  It doesn't provide any genuine chills and fails to haunt or leave any lasting impression.  I can only recommend this to existing fans of the series who want to stay up to speed, but I'd recommend fans of genuine horror to look elsewhere.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I look forward to Coen Brother's films as much as any other cinephile does, but Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the few I wasn't all that wild about seeing.  It's mainly because I've never been that into folk music.  Was I going to be able to enjoy a film set around an era and style of music I've never been into, and starring an actor I don't think I had heard of?  Well it turns out they managed to make a movie that made me like and care about folk music.  That's the true genius of the Coen Brothers, not their great storytelling and unusual characters and situations, but that they made me care about folk music.  Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but the Joel and Ethan Coen continue to prove time and time again that they are brilliant filmmakers and storytellers.

One thing you'll notice is that Inside Llewyn Davis isn't quite as quirky or as unusual as other Coen Brothers offerings.  While there are a few funny things here and there, this plays as a pretty straight forward character piece, following a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis.  Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk musician in New York.  He had a more successful act with his former partner, but he recently committed suicide, forcing Llewyn to try to make it as a solo act.  Effectively homeless, Llewyn crashes on the couches of people that can't say no to him even though he seems to overstay his welcome.  Llewyn isn't exactly the easiest guy to root for, it appears he has a habit of either straining or shitting on relationships.  He's not completely unlikeable though.

As the songs were all performed live in the movie, rather than lip-synched, it really added to the authenticity.  If I wasn't aware of many of the actors outside of the film, I would have thought they were all established folk singers.  Granted it's no surprise Justin Timberlake can sing, but I was impressed with Carey Mulligan's voice.  I am so generally clueless about the folk scene that I didn't even realize that most of these songs have been around for a long time.  I thought they were all originals.  Despite my reservations about the music, I ended up enjoying most of it, either tapping hands and feet along with it, or wanting to join in the singing myself.

I wondered if I actually knew about Oscar Issac from anything else, but then realized he was the best thing about 10 Years  He's actually been in a ton of stuff, but mainly supporting roles and he's one of those guys that seems to blend in.  In addition to being a great singer, he delivers a deep, soulful performance that lets you know he's moving on to bigger things in the acting world.  There's a scene where he's auditioning for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) that actually gave me the chills, and it's such an honest and vulnerable moment that I was moved to tears.  When Grossman gives his feedback, it's heartbreaking and I was concerned that Llewyn was moving towards a dark outcome, but was relieved when the story circles back.  His final performance also brought chills as it's powerful moment that shows you that Llewyn may be coming out of his funk.

As far as the rest of the performances, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake were funny.  John Goodman's character really stands out as one of most memorable of the film despite his limited time on screen.  He's paired with Garrett Hedlund, who could have been played by a mute for all the dialog he had.  Nothing against Hedlund, mind you, but I think he said like 5 words all film.

I also found an interesting parallel to complaints I heard about modern music.  Llewyn is a talented, frustrated artist that's having a hard time getting his music sold, even heard.  When Bud Grossman tells him, "I don't see a lot of money here," you see that anger and frustration in Llewyn's face.  Meanwhile, a catchier, radio friendly song seems to be headed towards hit status.  When about to perform it, he asks, "Who wrote this?"  It's clear he thinks it's a ridiculous song, and Jim Berkey (Timberlake) looks hurt by the question.

We only hang out with Llewyn Davis for a short period of time, but it's a journey worth taking.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a gloomy tale about a frustrated artist, but still has enough humor and heart that it's not depressing.  Oscar Issac surprised me with one of the better performances of the year, and I can say the same about the Coen's surprising me with the movie.  If anything, it kind of makes me want to get a cat, and I don't even like cats.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars