Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6
Dirs. Don Hall and Chris Williams

3.5 out of 5

Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics, while a surprise at the time, looks like a shrewder investment every day - not just because of the financial rewards and infusion of adaptation-ready IPs, but also in its tacit recognition that superhero stories are the fairy tales of the modern age.  Nowhere is this clearer than in Big Hero 6, a film that combines the whiz-bang of manga-influenced comic book action with the sentimental through-lines of a traditional Disney animated feature.  

In the futuristic Pacific Rim metropolis of San Fransokyo, science prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) spends his time constructing "battlebots" and hustling adults in the city's underground robot fight clubs, despite the scolding of his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), a student at the local institute of technology.  Concerned that Hiro is wasting his talents, Tadashi introduces him to Baymax (Scott Adsit), a robotic healthcare assistant developed by Tadashi himself.  When a mysterious masked individual starts committing acts of techno-terrorism, Hiro and a spunky cohort of other young inventors must transform themselves into a ragtag group of avengers using their own cutting-edge science.

Though the plot turns on a sudden tragedy that pushes Hiro into pursuing cutting-edge research as a coping mechanism, Baymax is clearly the linchpin of the film.  Combining the polite, servile attitude of Siri with the huggable body of the Michelin Man, Baymax guides the young protagonist on a journey of emotional self-discovery thinly disguised as a standard superhero vigilante story.  Big Hero 6 covers a lot of familiar ground - it borrows heavily from Brad Bird's superior animated classics The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, as well as the "boy and his dog" story archetype - and character development is simplistic bordering on clunky, taking a step back from the more complex relationships of recent Disney films like Frozen.  (At one point, Hiro informs his own brother that their mother died when he was a toddler.)  

But what in lacks in narrative originality, Big Hero 6 makes up in sheer energy and colorful, kaleidoscopic visuals: the metropolitan mash-up of San Fransokyo is just as whimsical and detailed as any fairytale realm, and much more diverse to boot.  It's also heartening to see a film determined to rev kids up about science, with heroes applying their intellect to save the day.  In this, the movie is admittedly as nuanced as mixing baking soda and vinegar inside a clay volcano.  But passion for a subject feeds off an emotional enthusiasm.  You've got to dream it before you can do it, and Big Hero 6 gives a kinetic kick-start to the imaginations of a plugged-in generation.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Dir. James Marsh

3 out of 5

The lives of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), are dramatized in the lovely but inert The Theory of Everything.  The film, based on Wilde's memoirs, heavily emphasizes a romantic angle from the get-go and seldom deviates from the prestige movie playbook.  Hawking's major career achievements - most notably, his work on the nature of time and the origins of the universe - are juxtaposed against the development of the motor-neuron disease that gradually robs him of his physical faculties.

The Theory of Everything eschews all the admittedly low-hanging but potentially powerful metaphors - a vibrant mind overcoming a weakened body, a man obsessed with time despite his own uncertain future - in favor of the longitudinal study of a late 20th-century marriage.  To its credit, the movie tries to say something worthwhile about the unpredictability of love and the long, difficult arc of human relationships.  We see more of the wife's side than we typically do in these biopics; as devoted as Jane is, she finds herself up against obstacles and temptations she could never have foreseen as a young woman spellbound by Hawking's confidence and determination.

But no matter how honest Jones and Redmayne are their performances, the movie reveals little about what makes Hawking - whose life was certainly impacted but not defined by this relationship - such a singular figure.  Instead, Hawking's brash real-life personality and groundbreaking science are made cutesy and digestible for maximum uplift.  In the end, that's Everything's mission: not to educate, but to inspire.  In this the film is rather successful, full of swelling strings and plucky humor.  But the lightly patronizing tone of the entire endeavor - which seems to suggest that we should be most impressed by Hawking's suffering - doesn't give that fuzzy feeling enough support to last.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Dir. Bennett Miller

3.5 out of 5

Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) begins Foxcatcher trapped in a life of quiet indignity.  He's ekeing out a living as an amateur athlete and, even worse, feels overshadowed by his more successful and charismatic Olympian brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).  So when eccentric billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell) cold-calls him and invites him to du Pont's suburban Philadelphia mansion, Mark is thrilled by the potential of catching a huge break, even if he's worried that it might just be another dead end.  In a similar way, Foxcatcher does a great job of cultivating an atmosphere where it feels like anything can happen, even though the story turns out to be another straightforward, somber treatise on the American Dream.

Foxcatcher strikes me as a movie that is trying very hard to not blow anything out of proportion.  There seems to be little attempt to compress the details of the events that inspired E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script, from du Pont's initial recruitment of Mark to oversee an elite wrestling club that lives and practices on his estate, to the two men's downward spiral caused by du Pont's erratic behavior, to Dave's late intervention to save what's left of Mark's career.  It's a story ripe with themes of obsession, control, entitlement, and power.  Yet, over a languid 130 minutes, Foxcatcher has difficulty emphasizing any of that.  The garish details are exquisite (the art direction of the du Pont estate is essay-worthy) but the bigger picture remains muddled.  Scenes simply come one after the other, make their single point, and then dissolve into memory.  

Though a haphazard script and poor pacing threatens to sink Foxcatcher the longer it lasts, excellent performances keep it afloat.  Director Bennett Miller is terrific with actors - remember, he guided Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in Capote and Brad Pitt to one of his most substantive star turns in Moneyball - and he proves this once more through his two leading men.  Tatum is better than he's ever been, seemingly tensing every muscle in his body, transmitting both the frustration of a world-class athlete struggling to remain on top and the discomfort of an employee working for a psycho boss.  Speaking of discomfort, there is Carrell, taking his gift of awkwardness and sanding off the cartoon safeguards to create something truly unnerving.  He also does this while making a physical transformation: his beak-like nose, prosthetic teeth, and affected slouch make him resemble Gru, his animated alter ego in the Despicable Me films, only with way more creepy menace.  (There's also fine work, as usual, from Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave as du Pont's disapproving mother.)

Foxcatcher presents itself as a tightly-coiled drama about what it takes to succeed in life's many arenas, be they athletic or interpersonal.  In reality, it's the cinematic equivalent of an awkward pause.  What the movie needs is to be more like Dave: assured, inquisitive, interesting.  Instead, it is like Mark, a character burning with competitive fire but fundamentally a blank space, who eventually turns into a sullen child caught in the middle of a custody battle.  Ultimately Foxcatcher always says what it means; it just has trouble saying it with meaning.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To
Dir. Bobby and Peter Farrelly

1 out of 5

The bulk of this review is going to sound very strange - perhaps even hypocritical - given that I consider 1994's Dumb and Dumber a fart-lighting, pee-drinking, diarrhea-blasting lowbrow comedy masterpiece.  It's juvenile and vulgar in a fun, rascally way that made sense in the Farrelly Brothers' directorial debut.  Two decades and several dispiriting films later, the Farrellys return to the well with Dumb and Dumber To, a recycled appeal to lowest common denominator attitudes.  It is, in fact, so vile that it should have us reaching for better mathematical metaphors.  It's a negative integer.  It is absolute zero.  

The plot is ostensibly about Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey), two lifelong friends who today we'd undoubtedly describe with the words "high-functioning," reuniting to locate Harry's heretofore unknown daughter (Rachel Melvin), the product of his tryst with local floozy Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner).  However, I prefer to imagine it as a dystopian science fiction story about two lovably childish men, who in their middle age have been abducted by aliens and replaced by petty, lecherous, racist, misogynistic, and generally unpleasant cyborgs.  Dumb and Dumber To plumbs new depths in stereotypical humor simply by virtue of its incredible laziness.  When it's revealed that Harry was raised by adoptive Asian parents, you better believe that someone is going to confuse his Ls and Rs - and just to prove that they're capable of writing fresher material, the Farrellys toss in a "me love you long time" joke.  You can practically hear the facepalming of Charlie Chan himself.

To be fair, Dumb and Dumber To has rude things to say to a lot of different people.  What’s perhaps more offensive is the way the Farrellys gleefully rob the corpse of their prior comedic triumph, trotting out snappy one-liners to use as catchphrases and rehashing some of the original's most inspired moments in depressing fashion.  Most of the time, it feels like a third-rate homage put together by hapless Dumb and Dumber obsessives.  There is perhaps no better metaphor for the movie as a whole - and please forgive me for spoiling one of the few successful jokes in the entire thing - than a scene where Lloyd and Harry miraculously recover their beloved "Shaggin' Wagon," Harry's old pet grooming van dressed to look like a large sheepdog, only for it to break down mere seconds into their joyride.

This film is completely saturated in ugliness, down to its horrendously cheap-looking sets and blatant tax credit locations: the guys' quest ultimately brings them to a TED-like tech conference, naturally located in...El Paso, Texas.  Here, the plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity which, obvious as it is, comes as a reprieve from the aimless gross-out gags and yokel humor.  And I never thought I'd say this, but the obnoxious mugging of Carrey and Daniels is actually the least bothersome aspect of the movie, and the only thing preventing it from complete disaster.  The reckless abandon of their antics give the gaping maw of humorlessness that is Dumb and Dumber To its only real jolt of energy.  They are clearly having a blast.  I’m glad someone did.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Dir. Christopher Nolan

3 out of 5

Interstellar, being a Christopher Nolan film, promises many things: secrecy and revelation, the inevitable re-framing of narrative boundaries, a sense of (or at least an attempt to achieve) real wonder or terrific awe.  What I wasn't expecting were sass-talkin' robots.  Even though they're medium-sized details, those glorious machines are proof that Nolan is self-aware and still attempting to grow, even as Interstellar is clearly of a piece with the rest of his filmography.  It's less of a puzzle box than anything outside of his Batman trilogy, yet still contains twists and surprises revealed with the smug sense of satisfaction usually reserved for tech product announcements.  It considers the human element and blends it with a welcome respect for science, but it ultimately seems to be saying, Now, wasn't that thing I made pretty clever?

And yet, Nolan cares enough about his brand as a maker of "intelligent" blockbusters that he actually does try to do smart things with them.  Interstellar is an ambitious sci-fi epic that blithely introduces advanced astrophysics concepts like wormholes, relativity, and extra-dimensional travel while stumping for the continued human exploration of space.  All of this is idealized within the movie's protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  Formerly a NASA test pilot, he is now a farmer - one of many struggling to maintain the Earth's food supply after an unexplained plant disease and apocalyptic dust storms have driven most terrestrial crops to extinction.  Along with his science-prodigy daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper discovers that NASA has been surreptitiously sending manned probes into deep space to search for other habitable planets.  

Interstellar begins to pick up steam the farther it gets away from Earth.  Before you can say "destiny," Cooper makes the difficult decision to leave his family and captain the ship sent to retrieve the probes, in the hopes that at least one of them has found a suitable colony.  Bringing along scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) - the astronaut business is is a surname-only affair - and a couple of impractical-looking yet extremely versatile A.I. machines, the mission predictably runs into complications and devolves into a series of gripping life-or-death choices.

The problem with Interstellar, however, is that Nolan frequently sacrifices clarity for density, and then confuses it for depth.  This is a film that feeds off furiously-scribbled diagrams and magic equations, all directed toward a reveal of the convoluted and silly explanation for what sets the whole thing in motion.  Nolan also gets bogged down in scenes on Earth with the older Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her brother Tom (Casey Affleck), who age to adulthood while Cooper is still out playing spaceman, thanks to the wonders of relativity.  And for a guy often lauded for his vision, Interstellar often feels like a bibliography for other sci-fi classics.  It takes its designs and daring from 2001: A Space Odyssey, lifts the dread about a dying planet and a doomed species (not to mention its boxy robots) from various '70s sci-fi movies, and features a father-daughter relationship that quotes heavily from Contact - a film that McConaughey himself starred in nearly 20 years ago.

Drawing inspiration from other sources isn't a bad thing.  Neither is taking the kernel of a scientific truth, then making up a bunch of interesting and dramatic stuff to place on top of it.  But it's hard to deny that overcooked, bloated storytelling often derails Interstellar, a film of so many wonderful individual beats that never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.  It's a gorgeously-rendered hymn to the spirit of discovery that nonetheless struggles to determine what it wants to be, though my theory is that it's a lot like the monolith from the aforementioned 2001: big, bold, and inscrutable, pulling us closer whether or not we understand its purpose.

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Wick

John Wick
Dir. Chad Stahelski

2 out of 5

Keanu Reeves is 50 years old.  Let that sink in for a moment.  One of the most convincing things in John Wick - and there are not many of those - is that, unlike his generational peers in the "angry middle-aged man" subgenre of revenge films, Reeves doesn't look that far removed from his physical peak.  When the filmmakers identify the titular John Wick as a recently-retired enforcer and assassin for various criminal types, they truly mean it.  There's barely even enough time for dust to collect on Wick's hidden stash of firearms, which he’s gone to the trouble of burying under thick concrete in his garage, presumably so he can look even manlier by smashing his way to them with a sledgehammer.  

Wick begins the movie in standard lone grey wolf mode, grieving the loss of a loved one - his deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) - and giving the side-eye to the local criminal element, namely the petulant son (Alfie Allen) of a powerful boss (Michael Nyqvist) in New York's Russian mafia.  The young man foolishly and pointlessly provokes Wick by attacking the talismans of his masculinity - stealing his vintage sports car and killing the dog gifted to him by Helen - before scurrying back to the city.  At this point, the unfolding of the typical DGAF fantasy begins, with Wick pursuing bloody justice against every Slavic thug in the five boroughs.  

The over-the-hill avenger with nothing to lose is a simple gimmick with immense staying power (just ask Charles Bronson), but most attempts to achieve an adult gravitas in this inherently juvenile species of film almost always rest exclusively on the casting of wily veterans.  John Wick understands this, tossing names like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and Dean Winters into supporting roles.  Yet even this stellar cast can't help a script read like anything more than a third-rate James Bond movie plagued by wooden dialogue impatiently stuffed in between action sequences.  

The director, Chad Stahelski, and his producer, David Leitch, are better known for their top-notch stunt work in a variety of Hollywood blockbusters, and that's apparent in John Wick's many well-choreographed and visually coherent rumbles.  It's just too bad that everything else is a contrived mess, from the intricately connected backstories that ultimately don't matter to the swank Manhattan hotel that caters exclusively to visiting assassins and looks like a clone of the Flatiron Building.  John Wick undoubtedly can and even should have an audience - competently shot and edited action can't be ignored in an increasingly cacophonous era - but Stahelski just doesn't hit the right notes for a fun, pulpy revenge flick or an absurdist genre deconstruction (remember, this is a movie that begins as a quest to avenge a puppy).  There is only gunmetal-gray gloominess matched by a disappointingly stiff performance from Reeves, who just can’t work his anti-aging juju on a premise that’s almost ready to be put out to pasture.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Dir. Dan Gilroy

4 out of 5

Don't get me wrong.  Nightcrawler is a fine film: mesmerizing, tense, and disturbing.  But titling it as such might do a disservice to grubs.  Its principal subject, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), is an abhorrent antisocial creep, a small-time thief who chances upon the world of freelance news videography, chasing ambulances and filming human torment to sell to local television stations.  But what makes Lou so despicable isn't his vulgar opportunism - it's his false sincerity masking the emptiness of the frighteningly Busey-esque platitudes (in Lou's world, "fear" stands for "false evidence appearing real") and regurgitated self-help advice that is a poor substitute for a real moral philosophy.

And yet like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Lou is a bad apple made worse by a rotten system.  Nightcrawler is many things - a study in quiet menace, a sultry LA-after-dark primer, a sordid tabloid-infused thriller - but ultimately it's the sharpest indictment of dog-eat-dog capitalist absurdity since American Psycho.  As Lou climbs the ranks of the insular world of guys who shoot the wreckage of daily life, he learns that not all accidents are created equal.  "If it bleeds, it leads" is still the rule, and almost no footage is too graphic, provided that the anchors give the audience fair warning.  Lou's warped worldview, however, drives him to use his blunted intellect like a ball-peen hammer, bullying the morning news director (Rene Russo) of a fledgling station and his own dimwitted assistant (Riz Ahmed) into positions that compromise their physical and emotional health.  Before long he's not just recording events, he's also manipulating them to serve his own purposes and fulfill the Darwinian narrative raging inside his head.

The film is a collaborative triumph for writer-director Dan Gilroy and Gyllenhaal; together they manifest one of the most memorable trolls in recent history.  It's not hard to imagine Lou as a Tea Partier, a GamerGater, or a truther, employing a cretinous rhetoric that's a  mix of desperation and entitlement, deep spiritual confusion and righteous determination.  Gyllenhaal abuses his natural adorability and sleepy basset hound eyes to sneak in more of Lou's ferocious tenacity and inherent soullessness, and Gilroy gives him the dangerously charismatic vocabulary of a first-class freak.  Nightcrawler isn't the most focused or original media satire, but it's a masterful portrait of skulduggery and it gleams with the pornographic beauty of Los Angeles at night.  And in that sunless electric oasis, Lou's just another person who can remain a stranger to the light, never having to acknowledge the darkness that's steadily enveloping him.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Catch-Up: Summer/Fall 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: films straddling the blockbuster/prestige picture divide.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dir. Jonathan Liebesman

2 out of 5

When you're making a film about giant talking reptiles using martial arts to protect New York City from a flamboyantly evil metal-suited samurai warlord, you're automatically given a lot of leeway.  So it's disappointing to see the latest stewards of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise - including producer Michael Bay and Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman - churn out a film that's a completely jumbled tonal and visual mess.

TMNT's problems start with a lazy script that lavishes attention on reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) while ripping off several story beats from, of all things, The Amazing Spider-Man.  April's investigation into the turtles' origin is both excruciatingly dull and frustratingly convenient: her father once worked with the film's villain, industrialist Eric Sacks (a bored William Fitchner), on the mutagen that eventually turned four box turtles into hulking karate masters.

Given the odd limitations on the heroes' screentime, the action sequences should be an ideal time to showcase their personalities.  Unfortunately, Liebesman has an established reputation for visual incoherence with films like Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won't do much to improve.  Any flourishes that might make the film momentarily fun and buoyant are quickly overwhelmed by noisy, interminable chases or beatdowns that serve mostly to pad the runtime.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems in a hurry to get nowhere and is happy to meet a minimum standard of entertainment: a hyper-slick, colorful bit of nonsense that will distract its target demographic for 90 minutes while struggling to please anyone else.

The November Man

Dir. Roger Donaldson

3 out of 5

Pierce Brosnan's run as James Bond could be characterized as a stellar performance frequently in search of good material.  It's no surprise that immediately after shedding the Bond mantle, Brosnan moved (admittedly slowly, but that's the Hollywood machinery for you) to develop something that might play more to his strengths: Bill Granger's down-to-earth series of spy novels, the seventh installment of which serves as the inspiration for The November Man.  It's a staunchly old-school revenge film masquerading as an espionage thriller; Brosnan's character, retired CIA operative Peter Devereaux, is given agency to do more than just run and shoot stuff as he tries to outrace the younger agent (Luke Bracey) he used to mentor in a bid to capture a Russian war criminal.

The November Man has plenty of meat on its bones, layering an institutional conspiracy and the complicated backstory of a social worker (Olga Kurylenko) who may hold the key to nailing Devereaux's man.  In fact, there's a little too much going on if the film's truly aiming to reveal more of it's protagonist's psyche than the typical spy movie.  The November Man has keep several balls in the air as it races from target to target, offering Brosnan fewer chances to unwind and ultimately falling back on a single-minded pursuit of justice, always surging ahead with guns drawn.  It's got far more in common with a Liam Neeson beat-em-up than a Le Carre adaptation - an off-brand cloak-and-dagger thriller that could've been more with the right focus.

Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher

4 out of 5

The emotional hysteria of our modern spoiler-averse culture is a great hindrance for film critics who have to tiptoe around PR embargoes and an ultra-sensitive public.  That being said, the less foreknowledge you bring to Gone Girl, the better, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story from Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel.  Working from a script by Flynn, director David Fincher puts his own clinically cynical spin on marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  When his wife - the inspiration for a series of fictional children's books written by her patrician New Yorker parents - disappears from their suburban Missouri home, Nick struggles to navigate the media firestorm developing around the story, searching for his missing spouse while trying to keep the secrets of their relationship away from the public.

Gone Girl unravels with the seductive sensationalism of a Dateline mystery combined with the icy confidence of a master cinematic string-puller.  As the twists pile up, the film pivots from zeitgeist-y crime drama to unabashedly nasty, sexy, pulpy farce.  Any questions about how Fincher is interpreting the material - including the stilted scenes of Nick and Amy's early romance to the Way We Live Now monologues - should be answered by the time Tyler Perry shows up as a high-powered lawyer/image consultant tossing gummi bears at Affleck's face.  Gone Girl is wickedly fun and a great yarn, but it's merely good Fincher: terrific, but not transcendent.  As in so many of his films, Fincher holds up a mirror to the more monstrous aspects of the human condition - it just happens that this time his looking glass is more suited to a carnival funhouse.

Dir. Alexandre Aja

1.5 out of 5

The late Roger Ebert loved pointing out whenever a movie employed the Idiot Plot: a story kept in motion by characters withholding or not recognizing some basic information that would otherwise resolve the conflict.  Or, in other words, a story where everyone must necessarily be an idiot for the movie to exist.  What might he have thought of Horns, in which a young man named Ignatius "Ig" Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) begins growing satyr-like horns that lend him supernatural powers of persuasion?  Here is a plot device that could create a truly omniscient protagonist - people literally cannot lie if Ig compels them - yet it still takes an interminable two hours to arrive at its wholly dumb conclusion.

Horns is essentially a paranormal twist on a basic crime procedural conceit.  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend (Juno Temple), Ig becomes a pariah, descending into a spiritual malaise that lifts only when his horns begin to grow.  There's definitely potential to be found in this premise: veteran horror director Alexandre Aja adds a sardonically playful edge to the obvious Satanic metaphors, and it's fun to see Radcliffe get to cut loose and indulge his inner devil.  Unfortunately, Horns has issues with its softer side.  The tangled web of teenage relationships that drives the film is nowhere near as convincing as its (far too infrequent) moments of dark comedy.  Its understanding of love is oblivious to the point of callousness, and fatally undermines the weight and relevance of Ig's quest.  Really, a nice honest chat between a few of the characters could have ended the movie much earlier, providing a great benefit to these fictional people - and an even greater benefit to the audience.