Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Parental Guidance

“Parental Guidance” is a miserable, lazy, and idiotic attempt to earn the family box office dollar around the holidays. Every single plot point and character arc can be seen many many miles away. If I wanted to I’m sure I could go to great length to tear it to shreds. But, it’s the end of the year and quite frankly I don’t have the energy or motivation to do it. This film isn’t worth it.

“Parental Guidance” is in essence about two generations of parents and two different styles of child rearing. Old school vs. new school. Spanking a kid vs. not even being able to tell the kid “no” because it might harm them emotionally. The old schooler’s are played by aging celebrity wax figures Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. Crystal is his usual self, running his mouth for the whole duration of the movie, spouting corny jokes that none of the kids in the audience will get and Midler is loyally at his side. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Marisa Tomei (who plays the daughter of Crystal and Midler’s character). Calling her character a helicopter parent would be an understatement. Tomei, who’s usually an effective actress, is reduced to playing a fidgety, anal and utterly annoying character.

So Midler and Crystal are obviously here to appeal to the older members of the audience. For the kiddies, it’s the textbook PG, annoying spoiled brats. There’s the uptight oldest daughter who learns to enjoy life, the shy unconfident kid who’s suffering from some kind of social handicap (in this case he has a lisp) and the young monster always running around and causing mischief. The script by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse contains the usual fart and poop jokes. There’s (sadly) a joke where Crystal is hit in the testicals with a baseball bat and one where the kids get major sugar high from eating cake, that ends with Tomei’s character falling face first into it. If you ask me, the children audience members get left out in cold. In fact it’s kind of astounding how ill inspired and lazy the stuff involving the children is. But whatever.

I’m sure the target audience will like it. At the screening I attended there were plenty of laughs. The only remotely positive thing I can say about the film is that it’s harmless, and makes sure to cram in positive messages about family and parenting. Even so, there are much better ways to spend your time, plenty of other movies to see, especially during the holidays.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Django Unchained Review

When it comes to Quentin Tarantino movies, one thing you can always count on is originality, something that’s always welcome in this age of endless remakes, sequels, franchises, franchise reboots and CGI action spectacles. The 49-year-old director has a mostly uncanny ability to take from older movies (mostly B grade, exploitation genre pictures) and mold and twist them together into something immensely unique and creative.

For his latest venture into cinema, “Django Unchained,” Tarantino has made a western, which actually isn’t very surprising. He’s already exercised his skill and creative energy in other genres. He made two hard-boiled crime films (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction”) a Blaxploitation crime picture (“Jackie Brown”), a two part Samurai and martial arts homage (“Kill Bill Volumes 1&2”), an homage to the grind house action flicks of the 70’s (“Death Proof’) and in his more recent masterpiece “Inglorious Basterds,” the war drama. It’s about time he’s made a full on western.

But of course “Django” isn’t like a normal western, normal isn’t in Tarantino’s DNA. The movie deals the very controversial topic of slavery in the Antebellum South but it doesn’t deal with it in the direct, thoughtful way Hollywood usually deals with the subject. The film is about slavery but it isn’t About Slavery. Instead it’s used as a backdrop to tell a Spaghetti Western style tale (mixed with a hint of Blaxploitation) about vengeance and rescue, injected with Tarantino’s usual brand of wild eccentricity. Like “Inglorious Basterds,” it’s a big, bold wildly entertaining fantasy that only someone like Tarantino would have the guts to make. Like all of his films, “Django” walks a thin line between comedy and drama, a very risky balance that for the most part pays off.

The hero of the story is Django (Jamie Foxx), who starts off as a scared trembling slave and eventually becomes a confident revolver wielding western hero. He’s freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), a German bounty hunter. The two embark on a journey across the south with the intent to free Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who’s been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner who makes his male slaves engage in one-on-one death matches (it’s known as Mandingo fighting).

In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Jewish characters were given the opportunity to enact vicious revenge on the Nazis; in this movie Django is given the same opportunity except against the white oppressive slave drivers. There’s an amusing but satisfying scene early on where he whips a former slave driver into submission before shooting him. Foxx plays Django with cool, stern assurance, like any quintessential western hero.

Dr. King Schultz is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Landa (the malevolent but cunning Nazi that Waltz played in “Basterds”), except that Schultz is a full on good guy. Waltz plays him with such eloquence and ease. He’s deeply intelligent, walks into just about every situation with the utmost self-confidence. He’s never really fazed, he’s always thinking one step ahead. The only times he seems unconfident is in the presence of Calvin, who’s also intelligent and suave but also insane and sadistic. Calvin is the kind of cartoon villain that someone like DiCaprio can play easily, but he’s no less entertaining to watch.

The movie is expertly paced, Tarantino is able to keep it moving without it sagging but at the same time he gives his scenes ample time to play out. This is a Quentin Tarantino film so there are a few instantly recognizable elements. First off his screenplay is loaded with his trademark witty and intelligent dialogue. Secondly, his use of music, mainly Spaghetti Western variations (pre existing music and also a couple of songs composed for the film) to emphasize the drama or establish mood and tone.

There’s violence galore in “Django,” another standard in Tarantino Land. Two kinds exist. The first pertains to the more serious parts of the film (violence towards Broomhilda and innocent slaves, for example) and the other is the over the top, exaggerated comic book violence, like during the final shootout at the end. Whatever kind violence it is and however much there is Tarantino never uses it willy-nilly.

In regards to the first kind of violence he shows the audience just enough for us to feel the effect without over exploiting it. For instance, we get one short brutal scene showing Mandingo fighting and nothing more is seen after. When it comes to the other kind he has no problem showing the blood and gore and hyperbolic deaths in all their glory.  He knows that that stuff is fake and cartoonish, whereas the stuff involving Mandingo fighting is much more shocking and touchy to a movie going audience. Tarantino achieves an oddly brilliant balance.

 In the end “Django Unchained” is a Tarantino movie through and through. That means it won’t appeal to everyone. If you didn’t like him before chances are “Django” won’t change your mind. I get it, he’s a taste that not everyone responds to. At the very least however, beneath all of the Quentin-esque mayhem, he should be commended for taking on such a touchy subject in such a fresh and entertaining way.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Les Miserables Review

“Les Misérables,” the new movie adaptation of the popular stage musical (which in turn was based off of a 1862 novel by Frenchman Victor Hugo) is well made, no doubt. I don’t think anyone can watch it and not, at the very least, appreciate it for the craftsmanship that went into it. Even if the movie itself is a little jam packed and uneven. Its director Tom Hooper (who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2010 for “The Kings Speech”) should also be commended, as “Les Misérables” is a sprawling, gargantuan, period piece. In other words, not an easy task for any director.

The best thing about the movie is that Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson actually adapt it for a movie instead of taking the stage musical and putting a camera in front of it. The direction of period pieces in general tends to be flat and stagy (Hooper was a tad guilty for that in “The Kings Speech”) but “Les Misérables” is not. Instead the direction is energetic and the cinematography by Danny Cohen is very fluid, bringing out quite a bit of depth and dimension in story’s dreary environment. The editing by Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver is fast, like a ‘Bourne” action picture, which is admittedly bizarre for something like this, but I’ll take that in a period piece over flat and stagey.

As far as plot is concerned, it takes place in 19th century France, post revolution. You’d think it would be a joyous time but there’s still poverty and more talk of revolution. The main character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family is forced to do slave labor. After he is freed he comes into contact with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a poor peasant girl, who is forced to sell her hair and teeth for money to support her young daughter Cosette who is away. Indeed, it is a miserable time. Eve Stewart’s production design is spot on in depicting the harsh gritty reality. The mud, the disease, the gloominess. Not a pleasant affair, and Cohen’s cinematography further brings out that frigidness.

Anyhow, the movie moves on and at a rather fast pace, a good thing considering the film is two and half hours and we have much more ground to cover. After Fantine dies, Jean takes Cosette and looks after her. Time passes and eventually she’s all grown up (played by the big eyed blonde Amanda Seyfried) and they’re living together happily. But Jean can’t outrun his past, as he is still being pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), a ruthless police inspector, for breaking parole. At this point the movie warms up a little (not much though) as there’s talk of a new revolution. In fact one of the young revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), takes a liking to Cosette.

All of the performances are great across the board. Jackman gives one of his most powerful and impassioned performances to date; Jean Valjean is the driving force of the whole musical and Jackman pulls it off. Same goes for Hathaway, she’s not in it for very much but when she is she makes a lasting impression. For proof, check out her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Even Crowe, who I wouldn’t have thought would be musical material, excels as the menacing but also misguided Javert. Overall I think the main reason why they all work so well is because they got to sing their songs live as opposed to recording before hand and lip-synching. It gives each one a realistic imperfection; the singing isn’t pristine and overly theatric, it sounds natural. Amidst all the singing they’re giving actual movie performances.

But then there are some issues. The main one for me being that just about every word spoken is in song form. Now, I know this is a musical, which means lots of singing, but does every word need to be sung? There are plenty of musicals that have breaks, to let us catch our breath; “Les Misérables” doesn’t. Sure, there are a number of memorable songs but it gets to the point where a majority of them blend together into an unmemorable musical glop.

Other problems have to do with the fact that story itself is a little bloated, with some characters and side plots not connecting. For example, Cosette and Marius’ romance (which becomes a major storyline) feels rushed and undeveloped. Though, I suppose that isn’t entirely the movie’s fault. I haven’t read the book, or seen the stage play but I’ve heard from people who have that it is bloated and uneven. With that said the movie still has to stand on its own.

In the end though, it doesn’t really matter. Fans of the musical will see it and will probably be impressed. For everyone else, it’s a massive slightly uneven period musical. Take it or leave it. But as a nonfan I can happily say that it is skillfully made and superbly acted.


Jack Reacher Review

In the opening scene of Christopher McQuarrie’s “Jack Reacher,” an ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora) sets up in a multistory parking garage, across a river facing a baseball stadium in Pittsburg. He then proceeds to shoot and kill five innocent civilians. After the shooting Barr is quickly apprehended by the police and is expected to go to death row. However, he refuses to confess and calls on the help of one Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), an ex-military cop who has since disappeared off the grid. There’s something fishy about the whole crime; it all seems too neat. Reacher owes Barr a favor (going back to when they were in the military together) so one day he drops by the DA’s office unannounced. Then, along with Barr’s defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) the two try to figure out what really happened.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: how many times have I seen this before? And it’s true, on the outside “Jack Reacher” (based on a book series by Lee Child) doesn’t sound very different or interesting and seeing the trailers won’t change your mind. But the truth is, “Jack Reacher” is not your average Tom Cruise actioner. In fact it’s not like a majority of big budget action flicks you see these days. Overall it has the feel of an old-fashioned action movie and an old-fashioned action hero.

Everything isn’t sped up and as far as I could tell there was no major use of CGI. Unlike the “Bourne” movies there’s no shaky camera, the editing isn’t quick and choppy (individual shots last longer than five seconds). The characters aren’t always running off to some new place. The picture is patient, there’s hesitation before, during and after some of the action scenes. And best of all, there isn’t an overkill of action. When it does come you enjoy it because there weren’t a dozen or so gunfights or car chases before it. It’s deserved.

The movie’s primary focus is on the characters and crafting an interesting story. Not surprisingly Helen and Jack’s investigation leads them into a surprisingly complex web of cover up and deceit. It gets to the point where they can hardly trust anyone. But even for how complex it can get, “Jack Reacher” is still fairly easy to follow. McQuarrie doesn’t spell it out for us but neither does he leave us out in cold. And as the movie goes on, as more layers of intrigue are added on, the movie holds together and keeps you interested, wanting to see what happens next.

One of the most curious aspects of the entire movie is the fact that it has dual tones. On the one hand, there’s a certain level of seriousness. McQuarrie treats the violence in the film seriously. Take for example that opening scene where Barr commits the massacre, McQuarre shoots it straightforward and honestly, to the point where we feel the effect, the impact of this heinous crime. Same goes for other bits of violence involving innocents later on. And even when there’s violence and action we want to see (like when Jack is beating the piss out of someone) we still feel it.  At the same time though there’s also playfulness and this sense of unbelievability. At the end of a chase scene with the cops, Jack casually gets out of his car as it continues to move; he then (still walking, still casual) hides in a group of pedestrians waiting for a bus, effectively losing the cops. McQuarrie pulls off a nice balance: The movie isn’t too serious but it’s also not too goofy and cartoonish.

If you’re not a fan of Tom Cruise chances are you still won’t be after this. Jack Reacher is the kind of character Cruise can play in his sleep: cocky, smart and charming. He handles everything in such a cool, casual and carefree manner. In that regard he reminded me a little of Harry Callahan (minus the racism and Eastwood’s unique rough and gruff stature); he plays by his own rules, exercises his own justice. Reacher can be tough and vicious but does so in style, as opposed to someone like Jason Bourne who’s more quiet and driven. Cruise is not doing anything particularly new and daring, but so what? How many times did John Wayne or Clint Eastwood play the same kind of macho cool guy? Like those actors he’s a presence on screen.

It will be interesting to see if “Jack Reacher” makes money. Yes it has Tom Cruise but it moves at a slower pace and there’s a lot more talking, two things that generally don’t sit well with the usual Friday night action audience. I hope people give it a chance; the movie is intelligent, engrossing, entertaining and carries weight. That’s a rare combination to come by in mainstream action films.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This is 40 Review

The name Judd Apatow (the brand, the producer) has kind of overshadowed the actual writer/director. It’s not uncommon to hear the latest raunchy comedy (usually about men, but women find their place as well) described as “Apatow-ian.” I’m pretty sure I’ve used that adjective at least once in a previous review. Ever since his first movie, “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” in 2005, Apatow has had a major influence on numerous comedy filmmakers and actors like Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill. Apatow has produced many of these pictures, such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Superbad,” and “The Pineapple Express.” While there have been some stinkers (“Year One”) most of them have turned out to be some of the funnier, better made comedies of the last decade.

However, as a writer/director Apatow has only made four features. After “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” there was the Katherine Heigl, Seth Rogen pregnancy comedy “Knocked up,” then “Funny People” (which showcased one of Adam Sandler’s best performances to date). Now he comes with “This is 40,” a sorta sequel to “Knocked up,” focusing on the struggling marriage of Pete (typical wise-ass but wimpy Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, a little more naggy than usual). This isn’t unexplored territory for Apatow, and I’m not exactly sure this story needed to be told but Apatow still tells it with a surprising amount of authenticity.

I think what surprised me the most (in a positive way) about “This is 40” is how much attention Apatow pays to the characters. In fact it’s pretty much all character study. They don’t go to any extravagant places and don’t have any wacky and crazy shenanigans. There’s a scene involving a marijuana cookie at a resort but that’s it. Overall, it’s a closed in, intimate and honest portrait of a married couple struggling, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. As far as a plot goes, there isn’t really one. Pete and Debbie are both turning forty (although she’s in denial) and they’re having issues, issues, issues.

They don’t have sex very often, Pete’s struggling with his record label and Debbie with her clothing shop, and so they have financial woes. They have two children, one teenager Sadie and an eight-year-old Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow) and various conflicts go along with them. That’s not even the half of it, but you’re better off discovering the rest for yourself. In short, there’s a lot of marital bickering, parent-child bickering, high stress moments as well as tender moments.

Basically, all of the jokes come from dialog, barely any obvious sight gags, or gross-out gags, which is a blessing. Apatow’s script is mostly comprised of conversations between characters and humor and drama arises from them naturally. Apatow has a static style of filmmaking (which could be problematic to the young crowd that devour “Apatow-ian” films like “Pineapple Express” and “Superbad”); he doesn’t move the camera very often, keeping it planted, squarely, on the characters as they trade vulgarities and insults with one another. He also shoots mainly in medium shot and close up, I suppose in way to bring us even closer to the characters. As a result the movie can sometimes be overbearing and slow but also genuine. Apatow lets the scenes play out, lets his characters speak and grow at a leisurely pace instead of zipping from one comic set piece to another.

“This is 40” suffers from the same problems that usually plague Apatow movies, (both the previous ones he’s directed and the ones he’s only produced) namely that it goes on too long and gets exhausting as it reaches its home stretch. He mixes in too many ingredients; the stuff involving both Debbie and Pete’s father (Albert Brookes and John Lithgow) could have been easily left out. Nevertheless, the picture shows us that Judd Apatow, the filmmaker, can still turn out quality comedies.