Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

You can't hold it against a movie studio for going after the low-hanging fruit. And there's nothing more low-hanging than pet videos. While there is a part of me that would have been happy had The Secret Life of Pets been just a series of Vine-like vignettes—basically the Pet Collective viral videos in animated form—for it to be touching in addition to funny, there had to be some plot thrown in the mix. But with that plot comes the hyper-awareness that none of this is breaking new ground, and that the incredible voice talent is what makes it all come together amid the constant peppering of animal jokes. And we start, as most animal love stories do, when Girl Meets Pup...

In the eyes of Max the Dog (Louis C.K.), he and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) have the perfect thing going living in Manhattan. That is until one day when Katie adopts a giant, unkempt pup named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), upending his spoiled life and special relationship with his human. Desperate to be rid of this unwanted intruder, Max cracks a plan to lose Duke during their walk while Katie is at work. But when they both separate from Max's group of friends at the dog park and get picked up by a the fuzz heading for the pound, they find themselves face-to-face with an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his band of abandoned rebel pets. After Snowball sabotages the truck, he rescues the pair with the caveat that they be new recruits in his battle against domestication and the human race. Meanwhile, Max's friends—particularly pup princess Gidget (Jenny Slate)—notice he's missing and go on a mission through the city to bring him home.

There's a reason this kind of content is human cat-nip. There's nothing that brings strangers closer together than talking about their beloved pets; or whether dogs are better than cats; or how bird people are weird... As a result, the movie leans real hard on the comedy pandering to that pet-owner instinct to cry out "That is so [insert pet name here]." And hey, I'm not judging, because I'm not immune. I did it, too, at least a dozen times. I own two cats and a Miniature Dachshund, and watching Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Burress) give himself a belly rub with a stand mixer left me bent over with the lolz. And don't even get me started on how bitchy and familiar Chloe the Fat Cat (Lake Bell) is.

But that's kind of the problem with the movie, too, if you want to identify it as a "problem." The comedy never really grows any legs, and the jokes are a blunt but purposeful flash-in-the-pan. One bit about dogs delivery puppy-dog eyes begging for food is over and you're on to the next bit about cats always landing on their feet. And so on and so forth. In the end, there's something very obvious about it all.

Duke is a problem, and he never really stops being one. Sure, he's the Buzz and Max is the Woody in this scenario, but unlike Toy Story, where their coming together leaves us elated that they did, by the end of Pets... we still kinda hope Duke will find another human. Oh, you didn't feel that way? Well maybe I'm a monster then! Despite the film working so hard to bring the two together through peril and strife, they remain as at odds as where they started. The hate and paranoia has simply diminished. Perhaps it's the absurdly unrealistic way that he is animated (no other animals in this world are as ridiculously exaggerated as Duke, except maybe dat viper up dere) or Stonestreet's 'blah' voice work, but he doesn't feel right in this story, regardless of the attempts to give him depth.

Inversely, aside from Louis C.K. proving he can literally do no wrong, Jenny Slate as Gidget is a pure delight, and she steals the film from the comedians surrounding her. Slate gives that fluffy nugget a voice reminiscent of Patty Mayonnaise, and we learn that Gidget is driven by a significantly more relatable motivation in her love for Max than any of the other supporting characters. Her fearlessness is both adorable and unexpected, and it offers some of the smarter comedic moments, particularly when she embarks on her adventure and makes friends with Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks). That dynamic between the two of them has more going for it than most of the other triter moments with Duke or Snowball's 'funny at first but then you're over it' crime lord toughness.

While we're likely left wanting more, there is also a lot to love. I love my pets more than anything, and watching pets love their humans and humans love their pets is always going to get me. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, as Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" rings through an opening montage that will turn you into a happy puddle. For most people, none of the rest is going to matter, because Max loves Katie and Katie loves Max. Anything else is just filler.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

AFI Top 100: #26 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Claude Rains & James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The recent labored action in our Senate (and later in the month, the House) has reminded me just how moved I can be by the Democratic process. Idealism doesn't take you very far in this world (or so we're taught), and the older we get, we often lean towards thinking that's for the best. But something happens when you witness idealism shift from talk to action. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its questionably naive glory, represents that at its core. Director Frank Capra is known for finding the heartstrings and giving them a solid pluck—sometimes harder and longer than any reasonable person would ask for—but it goes to show how emotionally invested we all can get, despite ourselves.

The film stars frequent Capra collaborator and all-around "good guy" James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young youth leader who finds himself with an unexpected United States Senate appointment after his controversial predecessor dies. Not knowing how in-over-his-head he is, Smith accepts his civic duty and turns to his late father's trusted friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), for mentorship. When Smith arrives in Washington D.C., he faces unrelenting resistance to his hopeful ideas, from members of the Senate to his politics-wise secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Saunders takes it upon herself to wise-up the poor guy, rubbing the shine from his eyes by helping him write his first bill, one to create a government funded camp for Boys, and making sure he understands just how hard it's going to be. But as he pushes his plan forward, he is roadblocked by his friend, Senator Paine, who is under the thumb of James Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt political boss, who aims to discredit Smith and everything he's worked for. Unwilling to compromise his values, Smith takes to the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation and weed out the corruption that surrounds him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Legend of Tarzan" (2016)

© Warner Brothers

The most appropriate sequel to a film that was never made. Then I remember that, of course it was, like a hundred times. With that, a true origin for this new Tarzan wasn't necessary, because what? Were you born under a rock? Yet something else happened, in this world of Zach Snyders and J.J. Abrams'... We weren't forced to endure some unnecessary, offensive re-imagining that made these beloved turn-of-the-century characters unrecognizable. Rather, The Legend of Tarzan from director David Yates (of the Harry Potter series' later films) is as straight-forward and clean a telling as you could imagine. On top of that? It is rife with pearl-clutching romance. And I couldn't disagree more with the critics about this one.

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in peace in Victorian England with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), for the past ten years, having left behind his life in Africa, where he was known by another name: Tarzan. When King Leopold of Belgium's control of the mineral-rich Congo is threatened, he sends his malicious envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), to gain access to a mountain full of diamonds controlled by a vengeful Chief (Djimon Hounsou)—and Rom's passage can only be paid by delivering Tarzan, the King of the Apes, to the tribe. Unaware of this plot, John travels with Jane and an American soldier, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to the Congo in search of evidence that local men are being unjustly enslaved—but when Jane's life is threatened, John must shed his lordly visage and embrace the animal inside that he'd tried so desperately to suppress.

The plot is uncomplicated and the motivations are crystal clear. Everyone has their own agendas, but nothing keeps the story from moving forward. This is an action/adventure cinema lesson in not getting sidetracked. Rather than "starting at the beginning," the film begins long after the origins of Tarzan, only giving us tastes of his upbringing among the animals sprinkled strategically throughout the film. John's introduction as a Lord is contradictory to our expectations, and it allows for an exciting build to his transformation back into Tarzan of the jungle. He is a man in control, but he is also driven by instinct, and the combination is unnerving to watch. At one point, Rom speaks with unexpected honesty to Jane, "Your husband's wildness disturbs me more than I can easily express." There is fear in him, but also jealousy, and even more subtly, arousal; it's a kind of envy he can't quite understand, but we understand it. Watching John become Tarzan is thrilling, in more ways than one. And Leon Rom feels it, too.

Skarsgård may have been an uninspired choice for the role of Tarzan, but it was without question the right one. It isn't a stretch for him, considering the years he spent on "True Blood" sniffing out blood like a sexy animal beast. But those are his obvious, out-of-the-box strengths. As Tarzan, his weaknesses also wind up landing in the 'plus' column. The underlying Swedish accent, normally a hurdle for him to overcome, adds to the slightly awkward spoken English that you'd expect someone raised by apes to develop.

On the other side, Margot Robbie's American English is never quite right, but her classic beauty is reminiscent of Old Hollywood—she's confident and strong, but perversely aware of her vulnerability in this aggressive world. She relies on Tarzan, which may not feel all that progressive, but for a movie like this with characters like these, it shouldn't. Visually and emotionally, she's complete perfection as Jane. And together, they'll give anyone the vapors.

In true summer movie fashion, the action is also impressive. It's simultaneously consistent and varied— the topography changes may have been occasionally dizzying, but the cinematography was soaring, though like many films intended for 3D, there are obvious trick-shots that are lost on 2D audiences, and even borderline silly. The supporting cast was wonderful, albeit lacking in dimension (Hounsou is never bad, but he wasn't given much here). Even with all the familiar faces, it didn't feel like desperate stunt casting. This is the movie that The Jungle Book failed miserably to be. The cherry on top, the piece that tied the entire epic together, was the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, particularly is sequences featuring vocals by Zoe Mthiyane. Parts of the composition were Gladiator good. From me, there isn't much higher praise.

Personally, I think that Yates' Tarzan screams for repeat viewings. I enjoyed it in the way that I did 1999's The Mummy, where something just keeps drawing me back. There are excusable imperfections that do nothing to inhibit the enjoyability of the movie overall. Even with the occasionally weak dialogue or rough CGI, the performances are strong and the sexual tension is exhilarating—it's simply a bonus that the story is familiar enough to avoid the weight of loaded exposition, allowing a more mature (though simple) plot to flesh itself out. A summer feast for the eyes and ears, just let the spirit of the jungle wash over you and enjoy the rest.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Monday, July 11, 2016

Music Mondays: Hozier "Better Love"

This weekend, I saw The Legend of Tarzan, and while I'm still writing out my thoughts (spoiler: I liked it—a lot), this seemed too appropriate not to share for Music Mondays. During the final credits, I couldn't help but perk up when I heard the romantic crooning of Hozier. "Better Love," Hozier's sweetly soaring ballad, was the perfect cap-off of a purely summer spectacle jam-packed with all kinds of sexy chemistry.

While the movie may not be to everyone's tastes, this song should be far less contentious. Can Hozier write a song for every movie from now on? That'd be great, kthx.

Artist: Hozier
Song: "Better Love"
Album: The Legend of Tarzan: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Movie Review: "The BFG" (2016)

© Walt Disney Pictures

I'm going to try to keep this one [kinda] short. For me. I know, alert the media. The reason being is that I feel bad about hating this movie so, so much. It is, after all, for children, directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, adapted from a book by one of the most adored authors ever, and the trailer made me tear up without fail. All the ingredients were there, and yet this new version of The BFG was unexpected, insufferable garbage. Worst of all? It was so boring.

You know the story. Ten-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) may be a dreamer and a reader, but she's also considered a bit of a stubborn troublemaker at the orphanage where she lives. As all wild spirits are wont to do, Sophie is happiest wandering the halls playfully late a night alone—that is until one night when she spots, out by a lamp post on the street, a Giant (Mark Rylance). He, naturally, spots her, too. Fearing she'll reveal his existence to the world, he snatches her up and whisks her away to Giant Country, where he's made his long-time home in the bowels of a hillside.

When Sophie notices that this frightening 24-foot creature isn't all that frightening at all, he reveals himself as the Big Friendly Giant and a curious friendship blossoms. But this real-life dream catcher isn't alone in this world, and the other, larger giants certainly aren't as friendly. Instead, they're human being eating machines, and it's up to Sophie to convince the BFG that only he can save the children of London from being snatched from their beds by revealing the existence of giants to the world. Easier said than done.

The story isn't the problem. In fact, keeping most of the original story intact is all director Steven Spielberg (but mostly writer Melissa Mathison) does right. As the story develops in this cinematic version, however, it becomes immediately clear that we're in for quite a slog. Introductions are what they are, and Sophie and BFG get there quickly, but Spielberg then spends a significant amount of time bouncing pointlessly around throughout BFG's home and world and work and thoughts and dreams... without ever really revealing much.

The same scenes and conversations continue to happen, from the back and forths to London to the bone-crunching "evil" giants continuously bumbling their way in and out of the action. Smell a human, Look for it, Find Nothing. Smell a human, Look for it, Find Nothing.... rinse and repeat. Some scenes last an inexplicably long time (re: that bloody awful breakfast scene at Buckingham Palace) and contain really stupid moments that we're forced to endure unnecessarily, while other more important moments (the final battle of the giants) are over in a flash. How could you be expected to focus on the meaningful connection between Sophie and BFG in a film so poorly constructed?

Author Roald Dahl is known for playing around with tone, not to mention language and theme. He was a master at experimenting with the unsettling nature of childhood and magic—but Spielberg had no idea how to handle one of Dahl's most famous stories. That's what infuriated me, because he should have. This is the guy that brought E.T. to life! How could he so drastically miss the mark with basically the CGI equivalent of E.T. meets Peter Pan? He simply tries so hard to be important, to pay the necessary credence to the story, that the movie inflates with its own sense of stunted self-awe—and then bursts like a balloon.

Small pieces of the film were beautiful, like the way the dreams themselves were animated, almost tangible and so emotionally affecting. But anything enjoyable (including the adorable Ruby Barnhill) was overshadowed by the messy tone of the terror mixed with slapstick, that it took everything in my power to not furrow my brow and scowl at the whole thing. Had I expected less, perhaps I wouldn't have viewed it so harshly. But as Roger Ebert might say, I hated hated hated this movie.

Hey, turns out this wasn't so short after all. Oh well.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars

Movie Review: "Swiss Army Man" (2016)

© A24

If ever there was a time in your life that you said to yourself, "I wish I could watch Harry Potter's lifeless body regurgitate fresh drinking water like a spigot to save a man's life," then this is the movie for you. You may also need to seek some help. Swiss Army Man is undoubtedly the curious byproduct of Cast Away and Weekend at Bernie's having a weird love triad with Daniel Quinn's Ishmael—if all of them shared a curious fetish for whoopie cushions. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (so many Daniels in this) have a sick and exhilarating sense of humor, and what makes their vision here so special is that it's not for nothing. Moreover, it's not expected summer fare; a movie that makes you think, and feel, and tear up through your laughs. The comedy is an avenue for the philosophical, and vice versa, as we witness the life-reviving effects of love, and the debilitating fear of living, through the eyes of two dudes trying to figure it all out. With flaming farts.

Hank (Paul Dano) has been stranded on a desert island, and he's—quite literally—at the end of his rope. Right before ending it all, he finds a gurgling corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed ashore his beach, and its mere presence gives Hank the inspiration to plan his escape from imminent death. That, and the fact that the corpse's continuous flatulence holds the power to motoring the two of them straight through the crashing waves. As Hank dead-lifts his new friend (pun intended) through the forest in search of help, something happens: the corpse, who we learn goes by Manny, starts to move. And talk; and think; and display plenty of other mysterious abilities. As Manny's water-logged mind develops, his child-like questions about life and love prompt Hank to reexamine his own existence, and the two discover through one another a joy and reverence for life.

There are more than a few moments that really need to remain secrets. This isn't a heavy "reveal" movie with loads of gasping Oh my gods or Whaaaaat??s... Rather, the development of this friendship, along with Manny's inquisitive hopefulness, worry, and imagination, create a magnificent and touching story that simply needs to be experienced. That being said, it's also littered with truly disturbing imagery as Manny the corpse is basically abused and mutilated, but that's all tampered with soaring music by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, not to mention the fact that the corpse itself doesn't really mind. None of the jarring shots of impalements, guttings, or bone crackings last longer than a quick edit, which is a true testament to the sharply carved out structure and pacing. You can honestly get away with anything if you commit to the rules up front.

This is Daniel Radcliffe's best role (on screen) to date. It's well known how cool and laid back a guy he is, and so it's no wonder he fell into this role so perfectly. Physically, he contorts and pushes his body in ways that I'd normally be totally unsettled by (when his convincing body double isn't in the shot), but like the abuse he goes through at the hands of Hank, none of the horror ever really breeches through. Radcliffe is simply too wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to make it anything other than uplifting. Likewise, Dano was right at home in this quirky, mentally unstable world. His performance didn't surprise me the way that Radcliffe's did, but it was equally as commanding, and for much of the film, it's Hank's personality and creativeness that make this such a triumph.

I hesitate to say too much, because I genuinely think this movie has a little bit for everybody, even those who turn their nose up at the hoity-toity indie stuff. Swiss Army Man is a happy marriage between high- and low-brow—without much in between. In the end, we're left with an appropriately ambiguous and sentimental buddy adventure that is also a study in societal behaviors, albeit through an absurd lens. And while there are twinges of existential sadness, you're never far away from a punchline. Usually one with a fart.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Movie Review: "Independence Day Resurgence" (2016)

© 20th Century Fox

The instinct to make a sequel for one of Hollywood's greatest patriotic anthems was not misguided. I mean, you have to give 20th Century Fox some credit for waiting this long. It's that wait, 20 long years, that gave me hope. They wouldn't greenlight something after so many years if it wasn't totally amazeballs, right? Right?? In my mind, there was no way Independence Day Resurgence wasn't going to be a good time—the BEST time, in point of fact—and even the cheesiest of dialogue couldn't stomp out that hope. Unfortunately, the inclusion of (one would think) fool-proof throw backs to ID1 gutted this movie of any value as director Roland Emmerich infused the nostalgia of his nineties masterpiece into the drawl and tedious explosion exploitation of 2012—and we're left with a limp, quip-less action parody that was too afraid to be its own thing.

It's been 20 years since Earth was invaded by an unknown and advanced extra-terrestrial race, leading to a battle between alien and man that ended in a victory for Earth—and the hope that the aliens would never return. But when satellite engineer David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is once again called to investigate the appearance of a mysterious space craft heading for our planet, he reluctantly enlists the help of global scientists and a group of young fighter pilots, including Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth, who sadly gets top billing) and Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher, who is far too dull to be in this), to discover a means to protect themselves against a new—and stronger—invasion. As the heroes of the first wave of attacks come to terms with the questions they never sought to answer, it may lie with the younger generation to use the alien technology they've grown up with to take down this enemy once and for all.

Phew! That was a description full of cliches. It seems fit, though. The film's opening 20 minutes started strong. A solid first act is hard to come by, but the story's opening is basically running on fumes from 1996. But hey, there was potential, and you could feel it in the build-up. Then, as the fumes ran out (maybe I should have seen this coming?), it just started shitting all over itself with unoriginal CGI, overblown death sequences, and strong-armed character reminiscing that suffocated any hope of a memorable, cohesive story. Jeff Goldblum is still his Goldblum-y self, and you'll love him for it, despite his being forced into ridiculous scenes with characters blustering through their decades-long PTSD. Bill Pullman as President Whitmore is aptly more grizzly and crazy this time around, but he isn't given the heart-stirring writing of the first film that appropriately covered up his so-so acting.

The use of alien technology should have been the most exciting, creative, easy to incorporate part of the story—what better way to waste 20 minutes than to showcase all the cool junk the aliens left on our planet, and what we did with it? But that doesn't happen. Everybody is so over it by this point, we don't even get to be in on the excitement of discovery and innovation. It's that discovery that makes the original so damn entertaining. Instead, Resurgence drops in a bunch of new ideas that are more existential than it's actual themes are capable of handling, like other alien races and a planet full of galactic refugees, except that is all so slapdash that you could miss it with a 2 minute bathroom break. Considering they were thisclose to simply regurgitating the same old story, the attempts to be "different" are just embarrassing.

For nearly two hours, we're forced to be surrounded by kids who are still carrying around their petty grudges, like one of them got left out of the capture the flag game at overnight camp that time and still won't stop talking about it. With the exception of Hemsworth, every single one of them lacks even an iota of charisma—something we likely could have overlooked had the movie not bludgeoned us with reminders that these people are the offspring of far more charismatic and memorable people. The sad truth is that I'd have easily awarded the movie a star (or two!) if they'd cast original Patricia Whitmore, Mae Whitman, rather than the lack-luster but arguably "hotter" Maika Monroe. For shame, Fox. Opportunity missed.

The studio's fear of creating new characters—ones that were separated emotionally, mentally, and physically from our favorites in the original—is evident. Emmerich had zero confidence that audiences would stick with the story if they weren't bombarded by memories and nostalgia, not to mention the same old jokes, and it makes for exhausting, obnoxious movie-going that, worst of all, isn't very fun. Hey guys, remember how Will Smith was a witty, fearless pilot and loved punching aliens?!? Well his son does sorta the same stuff but not really, but look it's his son, you're not looking!

Yeah no, movie. We got it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...