Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Counselor (2013)

When discussing The Counselor with various friends over the weekend, I definitely got the feeling that this is one of those times where you're either going to "get it" or not.  I fell somewhere in the middle, which kind of shits on my own point.  There were many aspects I liked and appreciated, and then at other times I was scratching my head.  It's interesting to note that I saw a couple walk out after about 20 minutes, which to be fair, doesn't seem like you're giving it much of a chance.  If you asked that couple what The Counselor was about, they wouldn't have been able to tell you much of anything.

Therein lies the issue I think many are going to have with The Counselor.  What's it about?  What was it trying to say?  I've often complained about films that spoon feed the plot or hold your hand through every little detail.  I like a little ambiguity and having to figure things out on my own.  The Counselor might have a little too much ambiguity for its own good.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular "Counselor". In fact, taking a page from Layer Cake (a favorite film of mine), I don't think he's ever referenced by an actual name.  After one of many lengthy conversations with his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), the Counselor decides to get involved in a large cocaine deal.  The deal goes wrong, the Mexican cartels blame him, and now he and just about everyone he knows is in danger.

Throwing a wrench into all of this is Reiner's girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who appears to be behind the deal going wrong.  I was never quite sure of her motivation unless she secretly hated everyone she knew and wished them harm.  She also had a cheetah fetish, which I didn't know if was some metaphor I didn't get, or just a random character trait given to her.  Depending on your perspective, there's sexy/bizarre scene where she has sex with a car.  Even the Reiner acknowledges the randomness of it when he recounts the story to the Counselor.

Lack of motivation is something I struggled with through much of The Counselor.  Why was a particular scene in the film?  Why are these people doing these things?  There are scenes that are almost entirely in Spanish, but not subtitled.  Was knowing Spanish a requirement?  If it wasn't a requirement that you understood what was being said, then what was the point?  When the Counselor and Westray (Brad Pitt) meet, they order a Heineken.  Don't they have better taste in beer?  Okay, that last point's probably a nitpick.  As I mentioned before, I don't mind having to figure things out on my own, but it started to become a chore after a while, and I found myself not caring about what was going on as a result.  Even when things were explained, I didn't find it to be very satisfying.  It was also devoid of any kind of drama or tension.

Another element I had an issue with was the dialog.  While there are a few great conversations, there were others that had me going, "Huh?  What in the hell are you talking about?"  There's some very philosophical and symbolic dialog that was a little laborious to listen to. Who talks like this?  If this had been directed at me, I would have asked why they can't just speak directly and get to the point.  Apparently this was Cormac McCarthy's (No Country for Old Men, The Road) first screenplay, and I think he might have tried a little too hard to be smart and heady.

If you're worried that I'm spoiling details, I don't think you'll find that to be an issue.  The Counselor does a lot of foreshadowing, and certain moments were very predictable.  The irony is that some of the most predictable scenes were the ones I enjoyed the most.  There are some very inventive deaths that rival many horror films.

Perhaps I had my hopes set too high when I saw that Ridley Scott was directing.  This was one of my more highly anticipated films of the year and I can't help but feel disappointed.  It's not all bad though.  The film has a very slick look and is very well acted.  Bardem is always interesting in everything he's in, and there were moments where I thought Fassbender was doing his finest work.  Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz aren't in it very much, but Pitt seemed to be having the most fun of the bunch.  If there was any weak performance, I thought it was with Cameron Diaz.  Her attempt at a cold, sexy demeanor came off as kind of flat and lifeless.  It's just not enough that I really like the cast, I have to care about characters and story.

The Counselor is the very definition of a mixed bag.  For every thing I liked about it, there was another thing I disliked.  This is one of those films that's going to divide audiences and likely spark some debate, which isn't a bad thing.  Having said that, if you're interested in seeing The Counselor, I'd recommend you rent it in the event you're in the dislike group.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

It's Jackass meets Borat, with a little bit of The Man Show Boy and Little Miss Sunshine thrown in.

That's really all there is to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, the latest from Johnny Knoxville and Co.  Rather than do a straight up Jackass 4, Bad Grandpa has a loose plot stringing the various gags together.  While it's a pretty basic story, I appreciated they actually attempted at one.  It made the film feel less random, and the gags felt like more of a byproduct of the story they were trying to tell.

After the death of his wife, Irving Zisman (Knoxville) is tasked with taking his 8-year-old grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), back to his father.  As they travel across the country, they make various stops where a variety of pranks and stunts are pulled on unsuspecting bystanders.

Unfortunately, some of the best laughs are ruined in the trailer, so the less you've seen of it, the better.  Even knowing those scenes were coming, it made me smile when hearing the audience's reaction.  There were still plenty of moments that I got a good laugh out of, or got me rocking in my seat.  A lot of your enjoyment of Bad Grandpa is going to depend on how much you enjoy fart, shit and dick jokes.  If you're easily grossed out, Bad Grandpa is not the movie for you.  The pranks are a little uneven; some are really inspired, while others are predictable or variations on ones you've seen them do before.  Even if the prank doesn't always hit, the reactions from the witnesses are always great.

As I mentioned earlier, while simple, I actually appreciated the story elements.  It was sweet to see Irving and Billy slowly bond over their journey.  The story by Knoxville, Spike Jonze, and director Jeff Tremaine balanced these elements well.  I never found myself getting bored with the story, and it provided a break from all the hijinx.  If this had just been a string of pranks, then I think it would have gotten old quick.

I actually thought Knoxville was pretty good in the role.  They are doing a great job with the old man makeup these days, but he sells the old man schtick well.  You don't see any times where it looks like Knoxville is on the verge of being identified.  Jackson Nicoll was a real scene stealer.  I don't know much of his dialog was scripted or feeding him lines through an earpiece, but he has pretty good comedic timing.  There's a scene later in the film where he says something that you can tell got a genuine laugh out of Knoxville.  Knoxville and Nicoll had good chemistry and it looks like they were having fun.

One thing that always pops in my mind when watching something like Jackass or Borat is the balls you need to pull this stuff off.  I'd be too afraid of getting my ass kicked going into strange places, approaching people and making inappropriate comments.  It goes to show you what a kid or an old man can get away with that a 35-year-old man wouldn't be able to.  Even still, there's more than one part in Bad Grandpa where you have to assume they had to break character, and let everyone know they were making a movie or things were about to take a really bad turn.  There are some funny moments in the credits where you can see that most were good sports about it once they were let in on the joke.

Bad Grandpa isn't a game changer or really bringing anything new to the table, but it has a good amount of laughs for those that enjoy the type of humor seen in Jackass or Borat.  Grab some friends, a few beers, and check out a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Carrie (2013)

Carrie White could have been the next great Sith Lord, but squandered her gifts.  YOU BLEW IT!

I've had a lot of conversations this week about Kimberly Peirce's adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie.  It's mainly revolved around how I'm not a fan of remakes, especially classics.  I also found it a little annoying to hear the cast talk about the film and how terrifying it is, as if nobody has heard of Carrie before.  Also, how is a story about a bullied girl going to work considering how hyper-sensitive we are about bullying now?

Anyway, I watched Carrie and was going to write up my review, but then saw that the Brian De Palma's original was streaming on Netflix.  As it wasn't fresh in my mind, I thought why not watch it again and then I can have a more accurate comparison.  I'm glad I did this, as it softened my opinion of the newer version.  While I'm still not a fan of remakes, the modern version of Carrie is an example of one where I don't mind that it was done.  It's pretty much a beat by beat remake, and doesn't do much new with the material.  You might think that makes this remake pointless, but here's the thing, the original doesn't hold up all that well.  It's extremely dated looking, and there are times where it felt outright silly.  Another thing that surprised me is that the new Carrie was actually paced better.

I'm going to get into some minor spoiler territory with regards to the new version, but if you aren't aware of the general plot of Carrie by now, then where in the hell have you been?

There are some minor differences between the two; some I felt were improvements, where others felt unnecessary and even undercut the film a little bit.  The big one was when we get to the famous prom scene. In the original, the entire class is laughing at her once she's drenched in pig's blood.  This makes Carrie's reaction a little easier to sympathize with.  In the new version, and I could be remembering this wrong, but I recall more shock from her classmates, so when Carrie goes off, she's killing a lot of people she shouldn't have any beef with.

I felt like the classmate's and teacher's reaction to Chris' (Portia Doubleday) bullying was a little more realistic and modernized.  Chris' behavior, while totally ridiculous, actually made more sense to me considering the sense of entitlement you see from many these days.

One change, and this may be good or bad depending on your point of view, but there's no nudity in Carrie, where in the original I was surprised at the amount of nudity in the opening scene.  There's no real gore either.  I'm really surprised this is rated R when I think this could have gotten away with a PG-13 rating.

It turns out that the way Sue (Gabrielle Wilde) was portrayed was actually more faithful to the book.  I was initially critical of the fact that they made Sue pregnant.  I thought it was some lame, thrown in reference to all those teen mom shows, but I looked it up and it Sue was concerned about being pregnant in the book.  This wasn't in the original Carrie, but seeing how it had no impact on the plot, I can see why it was left out.  They also showed Sue having nightmares in the aftermath, which wasn't the case in the book or the new version.

Another improvement is that modern effects made Carrie's telekinetic powers look much more realistic.  This is another thing that doesn't hold up when when you go back and watch the original.  They are able to set up Carrie's powers much more effectively, as well.

The biggest improvement is Julianne Moore as Margaret White.  She's extremely creepy and really nails it with her performance.  She absolutely blows away Piper Laurie's version.  On the other hand, while there's nothing wrong with Chloe Grace Moretz performance, I had a harder time buying into her as Carrie.  Part of what made the original Carrie work was that Sissy Spacek wasn't "conventionally attractive", where Moretz is a normal, attractive girl.  It's hard for me to accept her as someone that would be an outcast.  I also liked Judy Greer as the gym teacher, Ms. Desjardin.  The rest of the cast is attractive, but mostly forgettable.

One point to the story in general I still find odd is how Sue asks her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom.  She's doing it out of guilt, which I get, but why not just befriend Carrie and find her a date of her own rather than make her boyfriend take her out?  That's just weird to me.

Kimberly Pierce's Carrie turned out to be a faithful adaptation to the source material.  If this was the first time I had seen it, I would have come away from it thinking it was a decent horror flick.  While it's a modern update for a new generation, I'd actually recommend it over the original if you've never seen it before.  It's paced better, has a great performance from Julianne Moore, and much better effects.  There's no need to rush out and see it, especially if you've seen the original, but give it a rent sometime.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 18, 2013

Escape Plan (2013)

In Escape Plan one man enters, but two men leave.  How is this possible?  His name is Schwarzenegger.

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a security consultant that specializes in testing the security of maximum security prisons by escaping from them.  Shortly after completing a job, he's contacted by the CIA to test out a new, experimental prison.  The conditions of the job aren't under his normal guidelines, but the money's good, so he agrees to the job.  As part of his cover he's to be captured and brought into the facility, but things quickly go wrong when he's drugged and his tracking device is removed.

Once Breslin awakens in "The Tomb", he meets Warden Hobbs (Jim Caviezel), who's not the warden the CIA said would be his contact.  Clear that there's been a double-cross, Breslin knows he's on his own and is going to have to escape for real.  Another inmate, Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), takes an interest in Breslin and the two agree to work together in order to escape.

It's a relatively simple "escape from prison" premise, but what hurts Escape Plan is that it gets a little too cute for it's own good.  There are several Oceans Eleven-type moments where they have to go back and explain how things happened after the fact.  It also did a poor job of introducing certain aspects.  Warden Hobbs is interrogating Rottmayer over the location of someone called "Mannheim", but I don't remember any explanation why Hobbs wants Mannheim so bad.  The reason for Breslin's double-cross was difficult to understand, not because it was confusing, but the motivation didn't make sense in the context of the story.

Miles Chapman and Jason Keller's screenplay could have used some tidying up, as well as some punch up on the dialog.  I was actually disappointed in the lack of good one liners or banter between Stallone and Schwarzenegger.  Escape Plan is also needlessly long at almost two hours and it's actually kind of boring in a few parts.  Director Mikael Hafstrom needed to quicken the pace, and there were several parts that could have been edited out.

There's not as much action as you'd expect or would like to see from a duo of action veterans.  There's a fun climax, but you have to sit through nearly 100 minutes until it happens.  For the length of the film, the lack of action is really noticeable.  The visual effects were a little rough in a few parts, too.  With a budget of around $70 million, it doesn't seem like much went towards that aspect.

Arnold is the highlight of the film.  It's not that Stallone is bad, but whenever the film focuses on him the tone is way too serious.  Anytime he's joined by Arnold, the pace quickens and overall feels livelier.  Arnie seemed to be having a great time and had all the best lines.  There's a great scene where he's acting crazy while in solitary and he's totally eating it up.  Not only is it the first time I can recall him speaking in his native German for any length of time, it's the best I've ever seen him act, period.  His physicality may have diminished, but I can get into scenery-chewing performances if this is what we have to look forward to.

The supporting cast is pretty good.  It also stars Vincent D'Onofrio, Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson.  None are given much to do, but I can't imagine turning down an opportunity to be in a Stallone/Schwarzenegger film even if they are past their prime.

While far from a good movie, Escape Plan has just enough for fans of Stallone and Schwarzenegger to get their fix.  If you've been looking forward to this, then I think you'll get enough entertainment out of a single viewing, but it's not something you'll go back to watch over and over.  It's right on that border of a matinee or save it for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

I debated even writing something up for Carlo Carlei's version of Romeo and Juliet.  It's not that this is completely awful, but overall it's really unremarkable and forgettable.  There's not much of a point to a Romeo and Juliet remake unless you're either going to do an amazing version or take a risk and do something a little different.  Even that's been done before though, and not even just with Romeo and Juliet.  You only have to look a few months back to Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing to see a good example of an interesting take on Shakespeare.

I'm not going to bother with a plot synopsis, so instead I thought I'd just point out some random thoughts and musings I had about the film.  I apologize if this reads a little rough, but I felt like getting something out there.

  • It begins with what I hoped was a joust, but turned out to be some stupid game where two contestants tried to force a lance through a suspended ring.  This was followed by a bunch of spitting in disgust.  If the Montague and Capulet families hate each other so much, why have a contest where the stakes aren't higher?  Why do these families hate either other so much anyway?  It's not explained in the movie, but is it even explained in the original source material?
  • When Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) is introduced, there's a lingering slow-motion closeup of her face.  I couldn't understand why this was done as it's not like we needed any kind of hand holding over who Juliet was.
  • Romeo's (Douglas Booth) introduction was also a little silly in that he's working on a sculpture wearing the deepest v-shirt I've ever seen.  This shirt exposes a sweaty, hairless, and atrophied chest.  At this point I'm afraid I might be watching Shakespeare for Twilight fans.  It's never said, but I guess Romeo's some kind of artist.  In several scenes he's either working on a sculpture, drawing, or painting.  Did he make a living off this or was this just a hobby where he had large rooms dedicated to it?
  • Generally speaking I thought most everyone was miscast.  As much as I liked Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit I thought her delivery, as well as Douglas Booth's, was a little labored.  Contrast that with Damian Lewis' delivery as Lord Capulet which was way over the top.  Ed Westwick's Tybalt made me think he was confused and thought he was on Game of Thrones.
  • Paul Giamatti, however, was one of the few bright spots as Friar Laurence.  He's always good though.  I thought Natascha McElhone was fine, but she's not asked to do much.  Lastly, Stellan Skarsgard as Prince Escalus also escapes unscathed, but he's only in a handful of scenes.
  • The first half of the film felt rushed, as if they took shortcuts getting us to Romeo killing Tybalt and his banishment at the one hour mark. There's really only one more major thing that needs to happen from this point, but it's stretched out for another hour.  I thought the pacing was terrible.
  • Romeo and Juliet meet, instantly fall in love, and get married the next day.  I've often said that old stories about love at first sight don't translate well to modern times.  Nobody meets and gets married within a day unless a large amount of alcohol is involved.  I've always thought that love at first sight and quick courtship hinged on times where the parties involved didn't have much in the way of personalities or interests.  Imagine if these two had vastly different hobbies or religious beliefs?  Sure, I wish love was as simple as just being attracted to one another, but that's not my experience.
  • Another thing that I didn't feel translated very well was to see people monologue in public not worried about people overhearing them or being discovered while sneaking around (sneaking around in plain sight to boot).  People would look at you like a crazy person if you did that today.
  • The film ventures into unintentional comedy territory when we get to Mercutio and Tybalt's showdown.  Just before Tybalt's gang arrives there's a gust of wind.  I was expecting a Wild West shootout theme to play.  Then, you see Tybalt and his gang approaching in slow motion, hair blowing because they forgot to turn the wind machine off.  I wasn't sure if a fight was about to break out or a guitar solo where it would cut back to Juliet writhing around on her bed.  Where's Whitesnake when you need them?
  • Speaking of fighting, I thought the fight choreography was horrible.  You'll see swords swinging a good foot over the head of the target, combined with unnecessary spins and flourishes.  It reminds me of a video about over-choreographed lightsaber fighting.  There's no emotion to it.  Plus, they also make a point to tell us that Tybalt has amazing technique and is tough to beat in battle, but you don't see any of that in the film.
  • I've heard complaints that the film doesn't use the traditional Shakespearean dialog, but I still felt like I needed an American to to Shakespeare translation at time.  Again, look to Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing for an better example of how to do this.
  • I actually found the dialog to be redundant.  Lady Capulet says that her nephew was her brother's son.  No shit, eh?  Is that how nephews work, or was their a roaming definition of the term back then?  There were more examples of this, but it's not like I took notes.
  • I gave myself a chuckle when Friar Laurence told Romeo that he's married to calamity.  I said, "Yeah, but is she hot?"  I crack myself up sometimes.
  • Generally speaking, it seemed to favor style over substance.  There was some very nice set and costume design, but at times it felt too complex for the time.  At a costume party, Juliet wore this really fancy, Medusa-like mask where I could only wonder who had the skill back then to make such an elaborate mask.  It also appeared they were going for a color scheme at the beginning of the film, but then quickly abandoned it.
  • This isn't a criticism, but there were lots of scenes where you could see their breath indoors.  It must have been freezing where they filmed this.  Good thing they had those heavy costumes on.
  • Finally, just as we get to the final scene, they have to throw in yet another sissy sword fight.  I don't ever remember Romeo having a final fight.  Anyway, he kills the guy and leaves his body.  Several people follow Romeo in after, and not one showed any concerned or made a comment about the dead body that's still laying outside.
Carlo Carlei's Romeo and Juliet is bland and passionless retelling of a well known story that nobody was asking for.  It's simply unnecessary, especially when you consider there are much better versions of this available to watch.  I'll credit the film for it's look and design, but otherwise this is paint-by-the-numbers as far as Shakespeare goes.  I can't recommend watching this unless you're a die-hard fan of Romeo and Juliet or want to compare it to other versions.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

Movies keep giving me reasons why I avoid boats and the sea.  I don't like the water anyway.  It messes with my cybernetics!

Captain Phillips is the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates back in 2009.  Even though this only happened a few years ago, I was totally in the dark about it.  I don't know if my ignorance was because of where it happened, or I just wasn't paying attention to the news at the time.  Sometimes I can get wrapped up a little too much in my own world.

Shortly after leaving port en route to Kenya, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) runs a drill to prepare the crew, as this is a dangerous shipping lane known for pirate attacks.  As if on cue, they pick up two skiffs on radar.  The Maersk Alabama's crew is initially successful at fending off the pirates, but on a second attempt four pirates succeed in boarding.  Captain Phillips orders the crew to hide and they are able to sabotage the ship and eventually overpower one of the pirates.  Unable to control the ship, the pirates have no choice but to take the ship's lifeboat and flee.  The crew attempts to exchange the captured pirate for the Captain, but the pirates double-cross them and escape with Captain Phillips.

Shortly after, the destroyer USS Bainbridge, under the command of Commander Frank Castellano (Yul Vazquez), is dispatched to catch up to the lifeboat and respond to the hostage situation.  As things escalate and appear more dire, a Navy SEAL team is also sent in to aid in the rescue.

Captain Phillips is a massively intense movie, and the fact that I had no idea how it turned out made it that much more agonizing.  There are several times when watching Captain Phillips where you genuinely aren't sure how he's going to get out of this situation.  Prior knowledge of these events won't make this any less harrowing.

The screenplay by Billy Ray, which was based off the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea", by the actual Captain Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, feels very authentic without sensationalizing the event.  I've read that Richard Phillips felt the retelling of the events is accurate, and it's always nice to hear when the people involved feel their story's been done justice.  Stories like this make you wonder if faced with the same situation would you have been as brave.  It's easy to see these skinny-ass pirates and think, I could totally overpower them if I can catch them off guard.

One thing that surprised is that you actually feel sympathy for some of the pirates.  The opening of the film gives you a look into the conditions they live in, and how many of these pirates are just kids that are forced to do this by local warlords.  It's just how things are for them, and it kind of reminds me of when you see an otherwise good kid forced into a gang simply because he has no choice.  Even though they are doing wrong, there's a part of them you feel for.  It also helps they didn't kill anyone.  I credit director Paul Greengrass for balancing the sympathy you may feel for the pirates with the heroism of Captain Phillips. Despite over two hours, it's briskly paced and doesn't waste any time.  The score by Henry Jackman really drove the tension as well.

If there's anything I had a problem with, and it's the main reason why this isn't getting the full five Death Stars, it's the film's overuse of shaky cam.  I get that it was used to simulate the motion of the ocean and immerse you in the situation, but I found it to be unnecessary and even distracting at times.  I don't need help feeling seasick; let the movie do that on its own.

As you'd guess, Tom Hanks is great.  You feel everything he goes though and even what's going through his mind.  He kind of broke my heart a little at the end, and you just want to give him a big hug. After a bit of a downturn with some of his recent films, he's definitely back in the Oscar race with Captain Phillips.  Just as surprising are the performances from the pirates, particularly Barkhad Abdi as Muse.  All four have never acted before, which is impressive considering their performances, but it also makes them that much more terrifying because you don't know who they are.

Captain Phillips is an experience that may leave you feeling as exhausted as the Captain did by the end.  It's an intense tale of real heroism, and also a reminder of a what a great actor Tom Hanks is.  This is definitely one you don't want to miss.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Enough Said (2013)

Imagine if Enough Said featured the characters of Elaine Benes and Tony Soprano.  With their tempers this could have been the most violent romantic comedy ever made.  There would be a lot of bodies in their wake.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorcee and mother working as a masseuse.  She seems to be content with not dating, but her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), is leaving for college soon.  Perhaps not wanting to face the reality of having an empty nest, she begins to date Albert (James Gandolfini), a regular guy she met at a party.  Albert is also a single parent with a daughter preparing to leave home.  The two hit it off and things seem to be going well.

Meanwhile, Eva takes on a new client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), and they form a friendship as they bond over stories about their exes.  However, Eva slowly realizes that Albert is actually Marianne's ex-husband.  Rather than come clean, she keeps everyone in the dark as Marianne continues to dish dirt about Albert and eventually poison their relationship.

This aspect of the film could have been an absolute mess if handled differently, and there are lots of bad examples of coincidence like this being horribly contrived, but fortunately Enough Said is a smarter and more realistic film.  It's clear that Eva is torn with the prospect of coming clean and how it will affect her relationships.  While it did bug me a little that she didn't fess up right away, you can understand why she didn't, and Eva doesn't escape without consequence.  Despite Eva's mishandling of the situation, you still can identify with her.  It's not like she's bad person.

Another interesting angle in the movie was how Eva was dealing with the impending send off of her daughter.  She forms an odd bond with Ellen's best friend, Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), which isn't something that Ellen is all that wild about.  This could have felt forced or melodramatic, but it fit in well with everything Eva was already feeling and dealing with.  It helped that both Chloe and Ellen were portrayed as normal teens, rather than bitchy or angsty.  I'm tired of seeing movies where teens hate their parents by default.  Some kids actually get along with and love their parents.

One of the things that puts Enough Said in another league from other romantic comedies is that it's chock full of great performances.  Even the supporting roles are developed and acted well.  Eva's best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband Will (Ben Falcone) are hilarious as a couple that always seem to throw subtle, and some not so subtle, digs at each other.  The two of them were a highlight of the film.  Did you know that Toni Collette is from Australia?  I had no idea until I saw Enough Said.  I don't recall ever hearing her speak with her natural accent before.

Enough Said is consistently funny and ranges from being very sweet to awkward and uncomfortable humor.  I didn't find it cheesy and this is due in large part to it avoiding a lot of the typical romantic comedy cliches.  It also has an open ending, rather than wrapping everything up neatly with a nice little bow.  Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, she does a great job of avoiding melodrama and balancing all the characters and plot elements well.  Even the limited interaction between Eva and her ex (Toby Huss) was handled in a cordial manner, rather than filled with acrimony.  Enough Said is a breath of fresh air for those frustrated with rom-coms where characters don't communicate or say what they really feel.

It's a shame this is James Gandolfini's last movie as he is really great in the role.  He's funny, charming and easy to relate to.  Part of me watched Enough Said with a heavy heart knowing this was gonna be it for him.  You will be missed, Mr. Gandolfini.

This is really Julia Louis-Dreyfus' movie though and she's fantastic.  I didn't really think about this until after, but this is a rare film role for her as she's stuck more to TV.  She's a total comedy pro and her timing and delivery is as sharp as ever.  Her chemistry with Gandolfini was very natural, and you never have any issues buying into their relationship.  She also shows a tender side and there's a few scenes toward the end that pulled on my heartstrings a bit.  I hope her success here encourages her to take on more roles on the big screen.

Enough Said is a mature romantic comedy.  It's sensitive, smart, realistic and features great performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.  This is a great date movie to catch on a matinee.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Gravity (2013)

At least there aren't any sharks in space.  Well, at least that we know of...

I bring up the sharks thing because I heard a lot of people comparing Gravity to Open Water.  While there's some similarity between the two, they really are much different films.  Since Open Water is based on real events you get a bigger feeling of dread, as you know from the beginning how it was going to turn out.  At least with Gravity there are glimmers of hope.  If there ever could be a movie like Gravity that was based off real events, I hope it doesn't happen until after we invent transporters or warp drive or something.

Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a spacewalk while working on the Hubble.  Houston advises them that a Russian satellite has exploded but it's initially not a concern.  However, the debris has collided with another satellite and now it's heading directly for them.  There's no time to return to Explorer before they are hit.  The shuttle is destroyed stranding Kowalski and Stone, and communication with Houston is cut off as well.  Short on fuel and oxygen, they are left to find a way to the International Space Station.  As if things weren't bad enough, the debris field is travelling at high speed as it orbits Earth and is expected back every 90 minutes.

This pretty much sums up just the first ten minutes of Gravity, which is mercifully only 90 minutes.  I say "mercifully" because I don't think I would have been able to take much more.  I don't usually bite my nails, but I might have taken them down to the nubs.  Nearly everything that can go wrong does, and you desperately want them to catch a break.  There's a part towards the end where I feared something else horrible was going to happen, but I was letting my imagination get the better of me.  Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil anything.  In fact, that's all I'm really going to say about the story, as it didn't play out exactly like I thought it might.  Friends of mine can tell you how I've been angry that I thought the trailers were showing too much.  Fortunately, I didn't find that to actually be the case.

Gravity is being praised for it's scientific accuracy, but director Alfonso Cuarón admits that there are some inaccuracies.  I'm no rocket scientist, so I didn't notice these things, but they're there if you're looking for them.  I imagine that most are excited that the outer space scenes have no sound in them.  This lack of sound makes all the destruction that much more terrifying.  Imagine being surrounded by exploding satellites and shuttles without knowing it was happening unless you were looking directly at them.  I guess that would be kind of like how a shark would totally sneak up on you in the water.  You also get a real feeling for the lack resistance in space with how fast everything is going.  The slightest misstep or mistake and you're screwed.  I'm not sure how the anti-gravity scenes were done, but this is the kind of film I'm really looking forward to some kind of "making of" feature on the Blu-Ray.

The muted scenes and physics reminded me of the battle sequences in the modern Battlestar Galactica.  Gravity is punctuated with an eerie sci-fi score that really stood out.  The score by Steven Price is likely my favorite of the year and I'll be disappointed if he doesn't receive any love come awards-time.

Gravity is an absolutely beautiful movie.  I usually don't make note of a cinematographer, but Emmanuel Lubezki did some fantastic work here.  This is one of the few films I've seen that's definitely worthy of the IMAX format.  Even the 3D was very immersive and not distracting.  If you have a theater that offers IMAX or another premium format, like RPX, do not hesitate to spend the extra few bucks or wait until a showtime is available.

I don't know what else can be said about Alfonso Cuarón at this point.  I've loved everything I've seen of his so far.  He's an extraordinary director.  I really love how he resisted making this a spectacle of loud explosions.  That fact alone makes this a smarter sci-fi movie that avoids feeling like a blockbuster.

Lastly, I loved George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in their roles.  Clooney still gets to show his wry charm, and it's interesting to note that Robert Downey, Jr. was originally attached to the role.  I love RDJ, but he might have been a little too jokey.  Outside of Marion Cotillard, most of the names attached to Bullock's role I think would have been a mistake.  This is mainly due to the ages of the actors though.  I think I would have had a harder time buying into a twenty-something as an engineer/astronaut.  I felt Bullock was a natural in the role and her performance was great.  On a side note, Sandy's almost 50?  You wouldn't know it as there are some glory shots of her that really highlight how she's in killer shape, and it seemed to be saying, "Eat your heart out Jesse James!"

Gravity is a terrifying, intense visual masterpiece.  I can't think of a better looking film I've seen in the past few years.  It's expertly directed and acted, and is one of the top films of 2013.  This is one you don't want to miss on the big screen.

5 (out 5) Death Stars

Blowing my mind!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Austenland (2013)

If Austenland is the result of Stephenie Meyer's producing a film, then maybe we all need to agree to take her keys away and not let her around movies anymore.  She can have them back when she's sobered up.

I didn't think Austenland is bad enough to land in my top ten worst of the year, but it's pretty telling when the group of girls behind me exclaim that this was the worst movie they've seen.  This is coming from people in the movie's target audience.

While, Austenland it has its moments, much of this film felt like bad local theater, which is even more of a surprise considering the cast.  These aren't scrubs or a bunch of no names, but there's a surprising amount of overacting and mugging for the camera.  The labored jokes and bad slapstick were something that reminded me of a stretched out SNL skit.  You know, the really bad ones that are usually on after Weekend Update.

Jane's (Keri Russell) growing obsession with Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy has caused her to be a single thirty-something.  Seeing her lose a boyfriend over this reminded me of one the points Don Jon made about porn and romantic comedies.  When you have this idealized fantasy of how a relationship should be, reality is never going to live up to that.

After getting sexually harassed at work, she abruptly decides to spend her life savings to go to Austenland, a Jane Austen-themed resort.  Her only friend advises her this is a bad idea, which was the only realistic part of the movie.  Nobody seems surprised or shocked that Austenland even exists.  You'd think they'd make a point to remark how odd the very idea was, but we're all just supposed to go along with it without much setup.  Even getting Jane to Austenland was rushed without much in the way of character development.  It's not that Jane is unlikeable, but you don't know enough about her to be invested in her journey.

Once arriving at Austenland, she learns that spending her life savings only got her the "bronze package", which basically means that the lady that runs the place, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), gets to treat her like a second class citizen.  It would have been interesting if the film had done more with the class theme, but they didn't.  Everyone in the resort is in character and guests are given fake names.  They are also paired up with an actor with the intent of giving them a romantic story, but know that it's not real.  Why pay all this money for a romantic experience that isn't real?  This is taking the fantasy to an unhealthy level.  Anyway, Jane bonds with "Elizabeth Charming" (Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to have more wealth than brains.  I like Jennifer Coolidge, and I thought she was funny for the most part, but she's basically doing yet another ditzy variation of the character she usually plays when she's not Stifler's Mom.

Austenland jumps from scene to scene without any real flow.  It's very choppy, with scenes ending abruptly or jokes landing with a thud before moving on.  The worst example of this involves Jane attempting to play a few bars from Nelly's "Hot in Herre".  Worse yet, the end credits feature the cast lip-syncing to the song.  This kind of stuff is cheesy in the best of films, and the only way you can generally get away with it is if you've earned it by being consistently funny.  Here it just felt lame and indulgent.  The humorous moments in Austenland were so few and far between that I can only conclude they were funny by accident.  The rest of the time, it's a little painful to watch.  What really upset me was that they totally wasted Bret McKenzie.  Why get someone like Bret McKenzie to be in your movie and then not take advantage of his musical gifts?  The guy won Oscar for The Muppets for fuck's sake!  Flight of the Conchords!  Argh!!!

Like many romantic comedies, it's also extremely predictable.  Jane meets Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), who appears to have little interest in Jane or even being there.  Meanwhile, Jane seems to be hitting it off with one of the resort workers, Martin (McKenzie).  Hmmm...I wonder how this will all develop?  All the typical rom-com tropes are here.

I also found it odd that after arriving, Jane spent much of her time alone and avoiding everyone.  Wasn't the point that she was paying for this fantasy?  Why is she acting like she'd rather be somewhere else?  You'd think she's be jazzed and dive headfirst into the experience.  I feel bad for Keri Russell.  She's had a successful TV career, but it hasn't translated well to movies.  She does her best with the material, as it's something I'd expect to be in her wheelhouse, but what's she supposed to do when it seems the only personality trait given to her is that she's good at drawing portraits?  It's like how in bad Katherine Heigl films she's either clumsy or eats junk food as a substitute for having personality.

Gaius Baltar (James Callis) was in this, too.  I thought he was really overdoing it, and he's better than this.  I did enjoy Georgia King's performance though.  I thought her performance had the right balance of goofy and serious.  It felt like how someone would really try to act emulating this style, but hadn't quite figured it out yet.

The sad part is the premise would have actually worked had they taken the opportunity to make fun of the tropes or romantic comedies and themes in Jane Austen books.  The potential was there to make a smart homage or parody, but the wit isn't there.  Instead, we have just another run-of-the-mill rom-com, that happens to be Jane Austen-themed.  Directed by Jarusha Hess, he's proving that his success with Napoleon Dynamite may have been a fluke.  He also co-wrote with Shannon Hale, whose novel this was based on.  I really hope the book was a better read.  It's interesting that the wiki for the book mentioned that Jane's great aunt left her the trip to Austenland in her will.  That seems like a more natural setup than what happened in the book.  I wonder why it was changed?

Lastly, apparently there are people that really are this devoted to Jane Austen, own Regency style clothes, learn the dances and attend balls.  I actually don't have an issue with that, and a part of me thinks it might be fun to attend one of these events.  It isn't any weirder than going to an Renaissance Faire, or being obsessed with Star Trek, Harry Potter, Wars.  I think a documentary about Jane Austen fanatics might be interesting, but that's not what Austenland is about unfortunately.  Someone should make that documentary.

Austenland has its moments, but it's ultimately a messy film that never quite hits and suffers from inconsistent tone and surprisingly amateurish performances.  I suppose if you're a fan of Jane Austen, you might get a kick out of the premise, but don't expect much as it's a predictable romantic comedy with people in Regency outfits.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Boom, as in bomb!

Don Jon (2013)

There's nothing like seeing a movie that really speaks to you, but then realize that the fact you identify with it so much means you might have a problem.  That's how I felt after watching Don Jon, the writing and directing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  I think the JGL got in my head a little bit.

Jon (Joey Go-Levs) has no problem with the ladies.  He's so adept at picking up chicks and getting one night stands that his friends call him "Don Jon".  However, one night he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and she shuts him down.  Believing she's the hottest chick he's ever seen, he decides to pursue her normally and starts a relationship with her.

Jon has a bit of a secret he's keeping from Barbara though: he loves porn.  He breaks down his "porn philosophy" and why he prefers it to actual sex in a scene that was not only hilarious, but I found mirrored some of my own thoughts a little too closely.  It's pretty bad when you see a montage of porn and recognize some of the stars or even movies the clips come from.  Some would say Jon is addicted to porn, but I would say that it's more that he romanticizes it and it's become a replacement for intimacy.  If anything, I'd say he was more addicted to masturbation.  When your daily masturbation totals approach double digits, I think that's a bigger problem.  It's not like he's hurting anybody though, and it doesn't appear to have much of an effect on his life.  It's not like Michael Fassbender in Shame where it's putting his job in jeopardy.  On the other hand, we've all heard about studies where it's said that easy access to porn is causing people to not pursue meaningful relationships or give up on them when there's the slightest bit of difficulty.  This is just an example of that.

Despite Jon's outward appearance of a meathead, he has good relationship with his family, eating dinner with them frequently and attending church each week to confess to his behavior.  One thing I have to give JGL credit for is that Don Jon is a deeper film than at first glance.  I can understand seeing the trailer and thinking it's going to be some shallow movie about a bunch of guidos that pick up chicks and watch porn, but there's more going on here.  Although I loved the dichotomy of seeing Jon dealing with road rage while driving to church, and his confessions were always good for a laugh.

Anyway, Jon's porn only becomes a problem once Barbara checks his browser history, which is an issue all on it's own.  She really doesn't like porn and thinks it's disgusting.  Jon takes issue with her love of bad romantic comedies, and makes the argument that what you see in a rom-com is no more fake or unrealistic than what you seen in porn.  I have to say I take Jon's side in this fight.  With regards to rom-coms, Don Jon features a few fake movies with some good cameos that audiences should get a kick out of.  Even before Barbara discovered Jon's porn, she started to show her true colors, which reinforced his behavior even more.

Finally, while attending night class, he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) and forms an unusual friendship with her.  Esther's introduction was one of the story elements I thought was a little odd.  When you first see her, she's just crying by herself outside of class and nothing is really said.  It's an awkward introduction, especially when it's obvious she's going to play a bigger part in the story later on.  You don't get Julianne Moore to do a single scene in a movie where she's crying for no reason.  Even as their friendship develops it still seemed odd how she was forcing herself in his life.  Eventually it comes together and leads to a conclusion I wasn't expecting.

The product placement was a little too obvious, as well.  An Apple laptop his heavily featured, there's a very in your face Carl's Jr./Hardee's commercial, as well as an entire conversation revolving around Tivo.  Don't get me wrong, I get why the product placement exists, it was just a little over-the-top.

Despite these small issues, this is a great directorial debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  With both writing, directing, and starring, he may have had a little too much on his plate, but I was still really impressed.  His script is consistently funny and there's a surprising emotional depth.  As you'd expect with JGL, he is great in front of the camera, too.  Leave it to him to make me like and identify with a guido from New Jersey.  This might also be my favorite performance from Scarlett Johansson.  Despite how they make her up for the film, which is totally not my type, it might be the hottest I've seen her.  I've criticized her in the past for being a little wooden, but that was definitely not the case here.  I could make joke about wood, but I won't...

My surprise performance has to go to Tony Danza, who is absolutely fantastic at Jon's dad.  It's a such a great performance that you have to wonder why he hasn't been doing more movies.  Lastly, Brie Larson does her best Silent Bob impression, never speaking while texting the entire movie, until she has one thing to say that makes Jon feel better about himself.

Don Jon is a hilarious and smart film, featuring great performances, and an assured directorial debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  While there are some small flaws, I can't think of too many films this year I've enjoyed more or laughed out loud as much while watching.  I highly recommend checking it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Call it Death Star porn.