Posted on 3/09/14 10:27 AM
Zack Snyder's 300 moved me. The film has fallen prey to biting parody in recent years, but I knew then that 300 was one of the era's great cinematic experiences. Movies like that demand to be seen on the big screen. Like both The Matrix and Gravity, 300 was a masterpiece of visual splendor. And it was unique, too; never before or since have I reacted so emotionally to any film's aesthetic. It remains one of my favorite pictures for that reason.
300 received a fair amount of criticism when it was released because of its simplistic narrative arc and grossly romanticized storytelling. But for me, 300 was pure magic. It did nothing more than it set out to do, taking a rather straightforward - spartan, if you will - approach to the Battle of Thermopylae. With 300: Rise of an Empire, graphic novelist Frank Miller and director Noam Murro take this focused scope and blow it up. Unfortunately, this creates far more problems than it solves.
Everything from the Battle of Marathon to the Battle of Salamis is haphazardly squeezed into less than two hours of film. As a result, fascinating characters like Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) are sidelined in favor of hamfisted speeches and brawny chest beating. Simultaneously, almost no time is given to distinguish the Athenians from the Spartans outside of exposition. Where's their poetry? Their sculpting? Their art? That contrast might have given the Athenians a much-needed dose of humanity. Instead, they come off like two-bit knockoffs of their Spartan counterparts.
But this skirts the main issue I had with Rise of an Empire. Some may recall that 300 was divisive for its decidedly East versus West conflict-driven plot. Historically speaking, however, this subtext was first and foremost in the minds of the Persian empire and the Greeks who resisted them. It is an ideological fight that persisted long after the Persian empire crumbled, arguably continuing through to modern day.
With Rise of an Empire, however, writers Miller, Zack Snyder, and Kurt Johnstad push this allegory well beyond its reasonable historical limit. The movie conflates several important and separate ideas, using longwinded monologues to associate a unified Greece with the modern American watchwords of Freedom and Democracy. In one particularly incriminating speech, Gorgo even refers to "our lady liberty." With this change in tone, the movie becomes less popcorn entertainment and more an exercise in unabashed jingoism. And considering the United States' current relationship with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, the "Rise of an Empire" epithet suddenly takes on a far more sinister meaning.
Every time the movie leapt from one momentous but horribly misrepresented battle to another, I could see my Greek history professor suffering a small heart attack in my mind's eye. The 300 franchise was never one for historical accuracy, but there is a difference between fantastical allegory and outright propagandizing. 300 bathed safely in the waters of the former, but Rise of an Empire wades triumphantly into the deep end and nearly drowns in the process.
Consider that not a single Persian character in this movie has any shred of intelligence. Artemisia (Eva Green), a formerly Greek woman who grew up to command the Persian navy, suffers the dimwittedness of her Persian subordinates through much of her conflict with the cunning Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who we knew to be prideful after his pathetic attempt at besting Leonidas in 300, comes off like a spoiled, shortsighted moron.
To complete the insult, nearly every Persian in Rise of an Empire is distinguished from their strangely white "Greek" counterparts by darker skin and stereotypically Middle Eastern garb. Where in 300 the Persians were more mysterious boogeyman than outright caricature, here the light skinned American versus dark skinned Middle Eastern iconography floats obviously to the surface like the mangled detritus of the plentiful shipwrecks of Salamis. The more I think about Rise of an Empire, the clearer its arguably racist but certainly nationalistic intentions become.
I am aware this review doesn't speak much to the content of the film. If you're wondering how the movie stacks up against its predecessor, it doesn't; it is merely serviceable, forgettable, big screen entertainment. The lack of visual novelty in a post-300 world is apparent. Still, the elegant fight choreography can be fun to watch and the cinematography is, at times, reminiscent of cinematographer Larry Fong's magnum opus.
But I must ask audiences to think beyond the film's pretty exterior and see this movie for what it is. Rise of an Empire is a fundamentally manipulative superimposition of modern American ideals onto important but distorted historical events. To me, that is not only educationally irresponsible - it's morally deceptive. And I want no part of it.
Movie Verdict: Meh
Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/1lLtLAW
Posted on 2/13/14 11:01 AM
Let me set the scene. You're a wealthy young woman from Pompeii. You're traveling for days in an uncomfortable horse-led caravan, finally returning home after a strenuous visit to Rome. Along the way, one of your steeds drops to the ground with a desperate whinny. And because for some reason neither you nor any of your Roman military escorts knows the first thing about horses, your entire company is paralyzed with indecision.
Fortunately, a dreamy, impossibly good-looking young slave with perfectly coiffed hair is nearby, and he offers to show you and your compatriots basic equestrian logic: a wounded horse is as good as dead. He approaches the horse, shares a few quiet words with you, and snaps the neck of the beast. It goes without saying, but at this point you've fallen madly in love with him. That you just met him thirty seconds ago is immaterial; this encounter has made you so over-the-moon crazy for this guy that you'd risk anything - your family, your personal safety, your freedom - all for the sake of winning his heart.
I'm sure I've lost most of you with the sheer absurdity of the scenario. Your cognitive abilities have reasoned that this love scene is so trite it puts the Disney princess films to shame. This is a good thing. No one should accept this scene, and by extension, no one should enjoy Pompeii. It brims with these eye-rolling moments, where emotions are artificial and every line of overused dialogue is visible from miles away.
This movie is the consummate offspring of cliché archetypes, absentee character development, and a coincidence-driven story. It treats its audience like idiots, favoring awful revenge and romance subplots over meaningful character arcs. Pompeii is, in the kindest terms, an utterly missable, barely competent bore.
Here's another scene, this one from the first moments of the film. Pompeii opens on a Celtic village somewhere in Brittania. A young boy watches as two cartoonishly evil Roman soldiers (Keifer Sutherland and Sasha Roiz) slaughter his entire family. The boy barely escapes with his life, but soon finds himself enslaved by the very people who massacred his kin. You can surmise the rest of the plot from there.
That boy grows up to be the gladiator Milo, played by Kit Harington. The actor does an admirable job as Jon Snow in Game of the Thrones and could probably carry a quality swords and sandals epic on his own. Pompeii, an abyss devoid of any worthwhile character moments, will not be his big break.
Co-starring is Carrie-Anne Moss, whose resumé speaks for itself. She plays the mother of Harington's helpless love interest, Cassia (Emily Browning). Moss' face was paraded in every ad that I saw for Pompeii, but don't be fooled: her role is both minuscule and inconsequential. Seeing such a talented actress diminished by blatant bait-and-switch marketing is disheartening.
Coming into Pompeii, I was also excited to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje flex his acting talent beyond his one-note villain in Thor: The Dark World. But by the time he makes his first appearance onscreen, I had already given up hope that any new character could transform the movie into a fun popcorn adventure. This isn't Akinnuoye-Agbaje's fault; he gives his tired brother-in-arms character as much of his energetic spirit as he can. But like the slave character he portrays, the actor is shackled by the ideas of a greater power. Indeed, none of the problems in Pompeii are the fault of the cast.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson and his writers, Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, fight an admittedly uphill battle with Pompeii. In an age post-Spartacus, post-Gladiator, and post-Blood and Sand, these dusty roads have been well-traveled. Yet, these intrepid filmmakers imagined they might give the gladiator genre a try anyway.
The problem is that we've seen this all before. Pompeii lacks the novelty of Kubrick's film, the fine direction of Scott's epic, and the carnal escapism of the Starz series. What's left is Pompeii, a hollow shell of its forebears. This is a shame given the unique disaster-laden backdrop of the Pompeii narrative; foregoing the gladiator angle, Pompeii might have benefited from an eruption-centric story in the vein of a Roland Emmerich film. Alas, it was not to be.
Anderson's vision is simply bloodless. I mean this in two ways. Aesthetically, this is a PG-13 effort from Anderson, meaning it lacks the adult language or violent imagery necessary to give a story about embattled gladiators any gravitas. But beyond its kiddy glove approach to death sport, the film also lacks soul. None of its characters are interesting or relatable. They are pallid imitations of real people, motivated by paper thin whim.
Cassia (Browning) and Milo are depressingly lazy amalgamations of gender stereotypes. What's more, they are surrounded by ancillary characters who care more about their fate than the audience does. About halfway through the movie, I leaned over to my friend and said, "I hope everyone in this movie dies." Do not mistake my meaning: I didn't harbor any resentment toward the characters. I just wanted the movie to end, and I figured their meaningless deaths would expedite the process.
There's a joke about how bad Pompeii is, buried somewhere among its ample computer generated ash and rubble. I'm sure it'd involve some snarky analogy between sitting through this film and experiencing the actual eruption of Vesuvius firsthand. But if the filmmakers couldn't be bothered to create a film that did anything new, creative, or interesting, I can't be bothered to make the quip. It just isn't worth my time, or yours. And neither is Pompeii.
Movie Verdict: Fail
RT Score: 40% (38%)
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1gR
Posted on 2/02/14 09:13 PM
I saw this Anchorman sequel twice, and both times I could not stop laughing. It's been a while since I've a seen a film with as much pure manic energy as this one. Rest assured, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was well worth the wait. Everyone from the powerhouse comedic team behind the first film is back; director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow return along with stars Will Ferrell (co-writing again with McKay), Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate.
Nine years have passed since we first heard the legend of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), and the update of the film's setting matches that gap. Burgundy and Co. have jumped from the seventies to the eighties. Ron and Veronica Corningstone (Applegate) are married with a six-year-old son, Walter (Judah Nelson, deadpan with hilarious innocence) and life is good, until Ron is fired by his idol, Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford). Burgundy hits bottom, but a proposal from GNN, the world's first 24-hour news network, sends him out to reassemble the news team.
What a wonderful reunion it is. Ferrell, Rudd, Carell, and Koechner are an absolute riot. Burgundy remains the lovable narcissist he always was, and Rudd and Koechner are solid once again as Brian Fantana and Champ Kind, but Steve Carell is something else entirely. Brick Tamland (Carell) was memorably eccentric in the first film, but here Carell devotedly throws the character even further into his own wildly absurd world. Brick is ludicrously enigmatic and Carell's performance glows with utter conviction.
In all honesty, the comedy is often very silly, sometimes sometimes veering into the plain stupid. Yet the pleasant surprise is the smartly subversive satire that McKay and Ferrell infuse into the story. As things start moving at GNN, the film throws some great jabs at the sensationalism in non-stop mass media. When network representative Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) tells Ron and the team "it's total crap and they can't get enough," the truth reflected in those words, especially today, is almost sobering. The ridiculousness of it all is frequently lampshaded, and, even through the retro lens, the satirical content retains its blunt honesty and relevance in the eyes and ears of its modern audience.
Sequels tend to squander the potential of their originals, but Anchorman 2 arrived this December as a welcome exception, a cinematic gift that opened just in time for Christmas. Sure, it follows the path blazed by the original, and, yes, perhaps the first movie is truthfully more quotable (you might not hear a line quite as solid as "sixty percent of the time, it works every time"), but McKay and Ferrell pull off a pretty neat stunt this time around. They prove that more can be better. Absurdity is pushed to the breaking point and then well over it, especially in a fantastically epic reprise of the news team battle royal seen in the first film. The big-headed, bigoted characters, especially Ferrell's, cross the line twice then twice again. This sequel takes the humor of the original, runs with it, converts it into rocket fuel, and blasts it through the stratosphere.
Ron, Brick, Brian, and Champ are all bumbling morons, each of a unique, twisted sort, and the focus on their outright idiocy is ingenious. James Marsden is also great as Jack Lime, the suave golden boy at GNN, and his clashes with Ferrell's Burgundy offer an interesting and rib-splitting glance into yet another media trend: the de facto pattern of the new pushing out the old. You shouldn't count out Ron Burgundy of course, because as the man himself passionately states, he was put on this earth "to have salon-quality hair and read the news."
Tonight's top story? A rare exception to disappointing comedy sequels that breaks its own boundaries and reminds us how much we love the legend of a certain madcap newsman in a maroon blazer.
Verdict: Movie Win
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dF
Posted on 1/23/14 09:23 AM
American Hustle opens with a balding, rotund, middle-aged man distastefully gluing a toupée to his head. You can taste the plaster fumes as little rivulets drip down his scalp. Then he takes his remaining strands of hair and pulls them over the furry piece now attached to his skin. The scene is uncomfortable, synthetic, difficult to watch. It is a good primer for the rest of the film.
That man, Irving, is played by Christian Bale, and he is the only human character in American Hustle. He has a conscience buried beneath his sleazy exterior, and he is shown to be a family man at heart. His oscillation between these two extremes is gradual and moving. Unfortunately, the people that surround him do not evolve or change. They manifest their desires in hyperbolic expression. From Bradley Cooper as unbalanced Agent Richie DiMaso to Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife, Rosalyn, the entire cast seems to revel in the irrational. Not a single character has any genuinely human qualities.
Rosalyn is a mother, but we know this because are told and not because we are shown. We never actually see her mothering. Likewise, we are introduced to an unstable Agent DiMaso whose actions are erratic and, as far as we know, unwarranted. It is eventually revealed that he took on Irving's criminal case because he was an FBI pencil pusher desperate for a job in the field. Unfortunately, this is also conveyed through expositional dialogue.
Amy Adams is Irving's lover and con artist partner, Sydney. She also isn't given any demonstrable impetus for her fickle accent-tinged behavior. And for what little role Jeremy Renner has in the film, his perfect do-gooder schtick feels contrived and implausible. Simply saying these characters have human qualities isn't enough. These traits must be apparent if we are to empathize with their struggles. If not, the result is a group of characters with whom we simply cannot relate; they are cardboard cutouts, ripe for spectacle and not much else.
The blame for shallow, cartoon-like characterization in American Hustle does not lie at the feet of the actors. Lawrence gives the Rosalyn as much dysfunctional depth as one could reasonably expect, and Cooper shines as he delivers gatling gun dialogue. Both have excellent, often hilarious sparring matches with Bale.
Adams is also fine, although she lacks the crutch of humorous respite from which Cooper and Lawrence both benefit. Through no fault of her own, her scenes tend to be more dramatic than funny. This does not work to her advantage in what is a mostly emotionless film. The supporting cast also stands tall beside the leads; a particularly amusing dynamic blossoms between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (Louis C.K.), and remains one of the standout storylines in the movie.
The problem with the characters in American Hustle doesn't lie in its direction, either. David O. Russell uses clever camera work to keep the film moving and under his hand his star team from Silver Linings Playbook all give fantastic repeat performances. Still, his guidance doesn't solve every problem. The film lacks focus. The main character appears to be Irving, confirmed by the opening and closing scenes, but Russell jump between narrative threads so much it becomes difficult to track or care about the central premise. The story isn't complicated per se, but it convolutes itself with one too many disparate character moments.
The blame for the mostly two-dimensional ensemble, it turns out, lies with the script. Eric Singer co-wrote the film with Russell and neither of them can keep the film on track. Their weak characterizations lead to a hodgepodge of events I never cared about. I was uninterested in whether Irving or Sydney would get away with their crimes. Even though Irving did eventually earn my sympathy, I was mostly nonplussed with his conman antics. In fact, I just generally didn't care about anyone: not Richie's desperate pull for the top of the bureaucratic ladder, nor Rosalyn's spousal troubles with Irving.
Something magical happens in the first five minutes of American Hustle. Just after Irving (Bale) perfects his awful combover, he leaves the dresser mirror and meets Sydney (Adams) in what appears to be a hotel living room. Richie (Cooper) barges in behind her, complete with luscious, impossibly tight curls. The three of them snap at one another and the room burns with energy. Instantly the relationship between Richie, Sydney, and Irving is clear. It is a brilliant way to establish the film.
I kept waiting to see that life reinvigorate the story once again. That never happens. American Hustle is a few scenes too long and a few true characters too short. The result is a passable, if unremarkable, ensemble showcase. To paraphrase a certain hobbit, it is thin. Like hair spread over too much head.
Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (65%)
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dv
Posted on 1/21/14 07:57 AM
I was in pieces when Roger Ebert died. I have never felt so broken up about the passing of someone I had never met in person. Following his death, I picked up Life Itself, which has now become something of a holy book to me. It is an informative autobiography, manifesting itself as both an invaluable guide to film journalism and, oddly, as a sagely blueprint to being a better person.
But Life Itself, though a beautiful memoir, still left me without internal closure. Ebert's musings about the joys of living haunted me. I was reading them in July 2013 and I knew an important fact not buried in the pages of his book: two years after finishing Life Itself, he would die. This was unbearable. I needed someone to fully acknowledge the passing of one of my heroes, a postmortem epilogue to quench the ache he had left behind. This documentary fills that void. It shows I am not alone in missing that scowling round man from the television, the man whose own words convinced me films were worth taking seriously.
Director Steve James had a vision when he set out to make Life Itself. He had extensive interview questions for Roger Ebert paced out to the roadmap of his movie. But at some point soon after he started filming, James came to understand something important. Ebert, known as a great storyteller to his friends, was going to have the project done his way. Without the ability to speak and with no way to walk, Roger Ebert nevertheless took Steve James' film and made with it what he wanted. And James, bless him, stepped humbly aside for his friend.
It takes courage to do what Steve James did. Few if any filmmakers are willing to remove their own authorship from their movie; professional ego tends to get in the way. But James, a talented and respected director in his own right, knows no one is seeing Life Itself for his name. They are seeing because it is about Roger Ebert, and James is content with that.
This moment of clarity transcends James' filmmaking. It pervades the stuff of the film and allows him to cut incisively to the misshapen core of his subject. There are documentaries that peal back layers of fame to reveal the human underneath, but none of them make you forget you are watching a celebrity the way Life Itself does.
James does not achieve this feat by merely replacing Ebert's book with his film counterpart. Instead, his film complements the source material. Although it overlaps tangentially with the material Ebert wrote, occasionally offering narration from an Ebert soundalike as he reads through passages of Life Itself, James smartly avoids any attempt at historical chronology or simple retelling. Instead, he admits plainly and without words that what was once an attempt to chronicle Ebert's life was now a gift, a band-aid offered to the public to help cope with the departure of a giant.
Through heartfelt testimony from friends, family, and colleagues, the story of Life Itself becomes a unique and telling account of the man from the mouths of those who loved him. It gives insight into his faults and dreams. Embarrassing anecdotes and biting admonishment color James' tribute to the man. Life Itself is a triumph of kind, but fair, portraiture.
Ebert once said, "A lot of critics are almost shy about confessing that they had any emotional reaction. If you laughed, say you laughed. If you cried, say you cried."
So I confess this for his sake: I wept through most of Life Itself, far more than I have at any movie to date. Hearing Roger Ebert speak through his computer one more time filled me with welled-up emotion I haven't felt since last April. If that sounds melodramatic, blame that man himself for my candidness. In fact, blame him for this whole review, this site, and my career. It is his fault I'm a critic, and I thank him every day for it.
There is a moment late in the film where Ebert reveals that his cancer is back and that he only has a few weeks left to live. His wife, Chaz, talks optimistically about radiation treatment. But behind her, Ebert shakes his head at her obstinate positivity before throwing his hands up in exasperation. Watching a man accept his fate so resolutely, and so calmly, was a moment of intense sadness for me.
But it was also a moment of discovery. It was then that I realized I had stopped caring about Roger Ebert the critic, the award-winner, the writer, and started caring for Roger Ebert the person. He could never have communicated this himself; Ebert had a habit of muddling his own self-image with magnificent prose and articulation that only served to remind me of his imposing reputation. Only an external source like Steve James could offer such human perspective to a world in mourning.
How fitting that such acumen came in the form of a movie, and how just that it came from his friend. I daresay Ebert would have liked that.
Verdict: Movie Win
RT Review: 100% (97%)
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dd
Posted on 1/20/14 10:13 PM
Llewyn Davis is kind of a prick. He's an immensely talented folk singer, but he's selfish. He doesn't seem to care about anyone but himself. Yet, I enjoyed spending time with Llewyn. In his own self-involved kind of way, his story rings true. We all know someone like him: a friend with all the potential in the world, but whose shortsightedness holds them back.
Unfortunately, the Coen brothers don't feel the same way. Never mind Oscar Isaac's spellbinding performance or silky singing voice. Forget his subtle performance and honesty of spirit. For the Coens, Llewyn is a project. He's a fix-me-up. He needs to be repaired.
I couldn't help but feel manipulated by Inside Llewyn Davis. The film spends most of its hour and forty minute runtime investing the audience in Llewyn's struggles. We laugh as we watch him awkwardly struggle with social mores. We cringe as he makes one faux pas after another. We even empathize with his frustration as no one recognizes his obvious aptitude for musicianship.
But frustration on behalf of Llewyn turns into frustration with the Coen brothers. Overwrought symbolism interrupts the narrative as it bashes the audience over the head with barely-hidden meaning. And if that doesn't communicate the message, the director brothers make their perspective abundantly clear with an eleventh hour narrative shake-up.
Indeed, the Coen brothers believe Llewyn is lost. But whats's wrong with that? Maybe Llewyn doesn't want to be found. And maybe I prefer his being lost. Maybe I appreciate his flaws. Maybe I find those aspects of his character relatable.
The story of Inside Llewyn Davis begs comparison with another slice of life story. In the award-winning television series, Louie, Louis C.K. captures the essence of the human spirit. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, his show oscillates between hilarity and emotional poignancy. They both feature realistically flawed main characters fighting to make their way in the world. But unlike Louis C.K., the Coens don't have any patience for humanity.
In Louie, Louis C.K. messes up constantly. His relationships range from nonexistent to depressingly unfulfilled, and his wants and desires often conflict with his moral values. But C.K. recognizes that that's life. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has their shortcomings. Horrible things happens to people, as do wonderful things. Awkward situations come and go. And while it would be lovely to become a better person along the way, life, on average, tends to stay the same.
Llewyn would probably find solace in hanging out with Louie. He would see that it's okay to fail. He would understand that that's what makes us human. Perhaps, one day, he might even learn from that. But in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens see fit to turn his story into a morality tale. They take time to capture the human spirit only to callously trample it into the ground. "Isn't Llewyn just the worst?" The Coens seem to say from on high. "He must learn the errors of his ways."
Inside Llewyn Davis features a cat. Several, in fact. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're plot devices. The parallels between the behaviors of wandering strays and of Llewyn are clear: there is a feline soul inside Llewyn Davis.
It's alright to roll your eyes. This is the puddle-deep symbolism I was talking about. As with many of their recent efforts, it wasn't enough for the Coens to just tell a beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and well-scripted drama about a struggling folk singer. They needed to muddle it up, confusing their message with unnecessary and simplistic imagery.
You know, Coens, there's such thing as too much. Llewyn is a weird name, and he's a weird guy, but I enjoyed getting to know him. I found his life intriguing. I had no need for layers, or for shoehorned metaphor. I ask you, Coens: what's wrong with a cat just being a cat?
Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70% (75%)
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-19B
Posted on 1/10/14 01:55 PM
The McDonagh family has some serious talent. Both Martin, the writer/director of In Bruges, and his brother John Michael McDonagh, writer/director of The Guard, have produced two of the best dark comedies of the 21st century. Martin in particular feels in many ways like a subtler, more poignant Tarantino, combining morbid violence with ingenious dialogue and meaningful emotion. In light of this, I was looking forward to his second film with great anticipation. It therefore grieves me to say that Seven Psychopaths is, to be frank, an utter disappointment.
Part of this failure comes from how uneven the movie is in its structure. I was totally hooked at the first scene, which brilliantly sets a violent, silly tone for a whacky tale featuring an eclectic ensemble of characters. Unfortunately, this initial giddiness doesn't last as the film moves into its limp second hour. It has been a long time since I've seen a movie that crashes and burns this much in its second half; while the first part of Seven Psychopaths is filed with the usual snappy, witty, kinetic filmmaking that we expect from McDonagh, the latter half completely changes course with meandering dialogue and slow pacing. McDonagh suddenly trades laughs for misplaced drama and eye-rolling preachiness, culminating in a wholly unsatisfying climax.
Like Hugo before it, Seven Psychopaths also suffers from false advertising. It does not, in fact, feature seven psychopaths at all. By my count, I could count at best five (arguably) psychopathic people. It may be unfair to fault a film for how it was marketed, but the title also elicits this expectation from the audience. One might argue that Seven Psychopaths refers to the title of Marty's script of the same name, but then I still don't understand where these elusive seven people come into play in the course of the narrative.
For those keeping count, here's a breakdown of the characters in the image above:
1. Angela's (Olga Kurylenko) story arc ends in the same scene she's introduced.
2. Walken is Hans, Billy's partner-in-crime, who favors Christian prayer over any sort of violence. He's far more concerned with the welfare of his wife than anything else. ✓*
3. Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter named Marty, perhaps based on Martin McDonagh himself, and serves as the straight man to Sam Rockwell's zany Billy.
4. Billy (Sam Rockwell) is certifiably insane, making one random, dangerous decision after the other. ✓
5. Abbie Cornish does absolutely nothing as Marty's "bitchy" girlfriend Kaya, so-called simply because she recognizes Billy as a psychopath and disapproves of Marty's drinking. Her story goes nowhere, and she's far from psychopathic.
6. Tom Waits can justifiably be called a psychopath, but like Angela, his story stretches across all of one scene. ✓
7. Woody Harrelson is Charlie, the primary antagonist, whose obsession with his dog and erratic violent behavior warrant classification as a psychopath. You can definitely see echoes of Ralph Fiennes's Harry from In Bruges in his mannerisms and quirks. ✓
*This is debatable. If he counts, so does his wife; but I'll leave that for you to decide if you do see the film.
The biggest downfall of the film is its self-awareness. Every error or inconsistency is commented on by the characters themselves as they help Marty work through his screenplay. Marty's script gives short-shrift to its female characters? So does McDonagh. Marty's climax feels completely anticlimactic in every possible way? So does McDonagh's. Marty can't come up with seven characters for his movie? Neither can McDonagh. Self-aware humor is a fine tool to use to drive a film, but simply pointing out why your movie doesn't work isn't funny and it only serves to remind us why the film isn't very good.
Seven Psychopaths does have its merits, of course. The humor is very much spot-on, at least in its superior first half. Visual gags and surprise violence, much in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino, give the movie that exhilarating roller-coaster feel that makes black comedy work so well. And while some of the dialogue feels quirky for the sake of being quirky, it is for the most part extraordinarily well-written.
And of course, the entire ensemble cast does as well as they can with the material they're given; Sam Rockwell gets the chance to be as zany as possible, Harrelson is amusing as the sensitive, angry villain, and Farrell does well at playing "normal," reacting to each subsequently absurd scenario with the appropriate expressions shock and horror. Walken in particular is incredible as Hans, the only character with any discernibly emotional or logical motivations in the entire film. Walken's total commitment to bringing Hans to life makes him the standout player in Seven Psychopaths.
Having said that, I probably won't ever see all of Seven Psychopaths again. Save for Christopher Walken's absolutely stellar performance and Sam Rockwell's delightful insanity, the film just falls apart too quickly and suffers from too many poor narrative choices to recommend. If you're a diehard fan of Martin McDonagh, you may find something to like here - for everyone else, you're better off just watching In Bruges for the hundredth time.
Let's hope his next effort shows a more concerted return to form.
Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (62%)
A Note on Tom Waits - To understand what is fundamentally wrong with Seven Psychopaths, we can look at the character of Zachariah (Tom Waits). Instead of showing us anything about his character outside of the fact that he is carrying a bunny, the film outright tells us via shoehorned exposition that he's a psychopath. He then proceeds to talk about his past, using unnecessarily violent flashbacks (two people actually left the theater in disgust) to confirm McDonagh's assertion that he is crazy. And then he leaves.
That is his entire role.
He does have a final post-credits scene, but it feel tacked-on, predictable, and isn't particularly funny or interesting in any way. Anything communicated there could have been achieved with some simple on-screen text, or left out entirely; it, like the character himself, adds nothing to the movie whatsoever.
A Note on In Bruges - There is a subtle, clever reference toward the beginning of the film to In Bruges. See if you can spot it - it happens in a conversation between Billy and Marty when they are discussing his script.
A Note on Missing Psychopaths - The hugely important missing ingredient of the other 2 or 3 psychopaths is accentuated as titles for each character appear randomly on the screen in the first half of the film, labeling them as Psychopath #1, #2, etc. These visual cues feel entirely incongruent and inconsistent with one another, ultimately confusing the audience more than they help.
Posted on 1/08/14 03:00 PM
I decided to incur the wrath of the internet today. I have never been interested in contrarianism for its own sake; I have never defended or criticized a film that I didn't feel strongly about. It is with this outlook that I say Movie 43, a sketch film that has earned universal derision from the public and from critics, wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen.
Don't get me wrong: Movie 43 is terrible. Some intrepid writers have tried to give the film credit as meta-commentary on the state of Hollywood, but I caution those fine cinephiles that such endeavors are a waste of precious time and effort. Judging by its haphazard production process, it seems little thought went into Movie 43 whatsoever. It is most shocking to know that the Farrelly brothers had anything to do with this film. Remember their loving homage to dimwitted comedy stars of days past in Dumb and Dumber? Or the charming fraternal saga of conjoined twins in Stuck on You? Or how about the nostalgia trip that was The Three Stooges?
But then, I would hesitate to call this a Farrelly brothers film in the first place. Although they specialize in gross-out humor, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have surprisingly tasteful style. Movie 43 just doesn't show that restraint and sensitivity, separating it from a true Farrelly effort. The movie also features twelve other directors. The brothers themselves only directed the storyline featuring Greg Kinnear and Dennis Quaid, a thread not even present in foreign cuts of the films. It is unfortunate that the Farrelly name is attached to this disaster, but I would hope that any discerning viewer would know that the fault lies at the feet of more than just two people.
Goodness knows there's more than enough fault to go around. I think I chuckled twice during the entire film. Once was at the sheer novelty of seeing the talented Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet engage in some of the basest material I've ever seen on-screen - that didn't last. Later, Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts elicit a brief smile with their unorthodox parenting methods. I would hesitate to call either of these scenes funny, but they get a few points for not making me roll my eyes in irritation. The rest of the sketches feel like they were pulled straight out of conversations on middle school playgrounds, which should give you an idea how piercingly intellectual they are. They were designed to shock and appall, but I mostly found myself hanging my head in dejected silence.
It almost pains me to say that Movie 43 somehow isn't without its redeeming features. While its myriad sketches all toe the line between awful and dick-wilting, they thankfully fly by at breakneck speed. Ironically, Movie 43 has a better grasp on the problem of one-note gags than the modern incarnation of Saturday Night Live. Where the latter hammers on one joke for far too long, Movie 43 offers quick respite from its sporadic terribleness. Note that this is faint praise, because at least Saturday Night Live is sometimes funny.
As sad as it is, that is what keeps Movie 43 from finding kin with the worst Hollywood abominations. Where Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer seem to have come up with their films over lunch, Movie 43 exhibits minor foresight with its random sight gags and loosely connected sketches. Likewise, Happy Madison films like Grandma's Boy find themselves stuck on one godawful premise which they beat bloody until all you can do is pray it ends soon. Movie 43 features similarly prepubescent stories, but no single thread lasts the full 90 minutes. None of these factors make this a good movie, but they offer a baby step up from the bottom of the barrel.
The issue with Movie 43 isn't its sub-par content or its desperate offensiveness. No, the real issue is that it offers absolutely nothing to the world of comedy. By extension, I doubt it will add anything to your life. If movies are meant to tap into a universal sense of empathy, as Roger Ebert once said, this movie does exactly nothing right. But it is fast paced and brief, a fleeting thought in the grand scheme of cinematic history. If you hate it, rest assured that it will be erased from our collective consciousness in short order. If you love it, well - I'm sure you'll figure out which shapes go in which holes soon enough. Third grade is waiting for you.
Movie Verdict: Fail
RT Score: 30%
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-18D
Posted on 1/08/14 02:45 PM
I can sum up my thoughts on Walking With Dinosaurs 3D in just two words. If you know anything about the history of this production, you probably know what they are:
Walking With Dinosaurs, named after the television miniseries released by the BBC in 1999, departs from the naturalistic, documentary-style presentation of its namesake in favor of a more traditional narrative. The story follows Patchi (Justin Long), a Pachyrhinosaurus who struggles as the runt of his litter. Growing up in Late Cretaceous Alaska (the Campanian Stage for all you paleo-nuts out there) presents many challenges to our intrepid ceratopsian (one of Triceratops' frilled, horn-faced relatives).
Whether its running from packs of formidable Gorgosaurs, which are like T. rex but smaller and faster, or being dominated by his bigger brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone), Patchi certainly has a hard time of it. But through curiosity and determination - you know, the traits dinosaurs are most famous for - he survives the annual migrations and grows up to be a fine, upstanding member of Mesozoic society.
As an adult, Patchi faces all new challenges, like competing with his more physically impressive brother over the lovely hand (er, manus) of his childhood friend and love interest: the fair Juniper (Tiya Sircar). The Enantiornithine bird, Alex the Alexornis (John Leguizamo) provides commentary all the while, leading us directly into the film's biggest problem.
Only four of the characters have any voiceovers at all: Patchi, Scowler, Juniper, and Alex. Yet somehow, with only four voices, they manage to fill every darned second with useless, utterly superfluous, and downright annoying remarks. From references to things that won't exist for another 70 million years (like ninjas), irritating amounts of poop and fart jokes, or telling the audience in words what the movie is already showing through action, the movie doesn't clam up for even a second.
At least, that's what it feels like. The dialogue has no substance and contributes nothing to the story or its characters. It comes across as a last-minute decision by studio executives with no faith in the power of the moviegoer's brain, and too much faith in the talent of lazy writers.
I wonder why.
Well, as it turns out, and according to pretty much everyone who worked on the movie, that is what happened. The filmmakers conceived of, wrote, shot, animated, and edited the film with no voiceovers whatsoever. The result reportedly played out as a fairly naturalistic, if somewhat stylized, portrayal of the dinosaurs in their natural habitat. According to a Facebook comment made by paleontologist and consultant, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., the film was mostly finished back in March. Unfortunately, the studio decided the film needed more exposition, and so they introduced Alex's narration. From there, they decided to add the three other cast members, who they - and I'm not kidding - last month.
This is obvious if you look at the product. From the design of the animals to their 3D rendering, it's blatantly obvious that the artists, animators, and filmmakers cared deeply about creating these creatures. In particular, extremely talented lead artist David Krentz's keen understanding of dinosaur physiology and behavior shines through regularly. Despite some anthropomorphization, these animals are fairly true to what we know about the fossil record.
Many paleontologists were involved until the 11th hour to make sure the animals were as true to life as they could be, and it shows. Hardcore dinosaur fans will appreciate the full-fledged wing feathers on all the maniraptorans, and the glorious layers of pterosaur pycnofibers rippling in the wind. Troodon is also correctly identified as an omnivore, and the Azhdarchids engage in some most-welcome terrestrial stalking. For those of us who care, this sort of accuracy is important.
All of this careful dedication culminates in animals that simply feel real. These are without a doubt the most realistic dinosaurs ever depicted on film; sorry, Jurassic Park, but your featherless Velociraptors just don't cut it anymore. In WWD 3D, I was aware of so many little details of life that added so much to the animals' realism. I could see the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy in action as the Pachyrinosaurs moved, and felt as though I could reach out and stroke the hard, pebbly scaled hide of the Edmontosaurus.
All of this tireless work meshes badly with the aforementioned voiceovers. These additions end up undermining the artists' intentions, yielding a movie that is more frustrating than anything else. Back when the first trailer released for this movie, I was thrilled that it didn't feature any talking animals. Finally, I was going to get to see dinosaurs as they actually were, and not as movie monsters or cartoons. Disney's largely forgotten Dinosaur from 2000 suffered a similar problem, but the decision to include voiceover in that movie was made early enough to do real lip-syncing. Meanwhile, the animals in WWD 3D are apparently telepathic.
Apart from these two aspects of Walking With Dinosaurs, there's not much else to say. There's a completely unnecessary human framing device about a paleontologist (Karl Urban) taking his niece (Angourie Rice) and teenage nephew (Charlie Rowe) to a fossil site. Their story is fairly simple. The music is mostly unremarkable, as well, although some songs actually hurt the film as they contrast with the tone of the story.
Something else worth noting is that the movie does suffer from some unfortunate sexist implications. The Pachyrhinosaurus in the movie form harems, with a dominant male having access to all the females in the herd. They are essentially his property. Had the movie been kept in its original incarnation, this would have been understandable. After all, a lot of herding animals today do tend to follow this behavioral pattern, and other species are not obligated to obey human social mores. But when you factor in the human voiceovers, suddenly Juniper's submission to the two male leads becomes more than a little uncomfortable to watch.
Your enjoyment of Walking With Dinosaurs 3D really depends on how much you like dinosaurs. Whether you're more interested in the science behind the scenes or the spectacle that takes center stage, the creatures of this movie are awesome in the most proper sense of the word. It also depends and how willing you are to ignore the voices and appreciate the animation. If you aren't, then there's nothing to gain whatsoever in seeing it.
There are so many better movies out, and so many better ways to learn about dinosaurs. Some might say that this movie still works for children, but I find that attitude patronizing; just because their brains aren't fully developed yet doesn't mean they can't enjoy well-written film, nor that they should have to settle for lesser material. And judging by their disinterested expressions, the kids sitting next to me in the theater were in complete agreement.
Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 40%
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-18G
Posted on 1/05/14 12:16 PM
David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the second film adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel by the same name. The film follows the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), and how they get wrapped up in a tangled web of mystery relating to the dreadfully dysfunctional Vanger family. The entire film is set in contemporary Sweden and plays almost entirely off of a hostile climate of backstabbing and mistrust.
Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the novel is Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. I am of the opinion that the English title strongly belies the brutality present in the story of the two principle characters, and that the original more accurately describes the content of the film. Make no mistake, every part of Dragon Tattoo is as visceral and as acutely executed as you should expect from a crime drama. Sexual violence abounds, and there is more than one scene that are quite difficult to watch; this is not a film for people with weak stomachs for in-your-face sadism.
This isn't to say Fincher's work exploitative or over-the-top. As someone who did not read the original novel I cannot attest to this, but I do know people who have and they claim there is even more risqué content that has been left out of the movie. From what I could see, every action has a consequence and no scene is shot for the sake of cheap thrills or to simply elicit visceral reactions. There is always a point, and it takes someone with skill like David Fincher to handle these difficult plot points so effectively.
Fincher's hallmarks are of course present in this film, down to his signature cut-through-wall shots. Fans of the director will find the overall feel of the film comfortingly familiar. His knack for bringing a sort of sterile coarseness to the universe he is filming is ever-present and lends to the setting the mood for its depiction of bleak underbelly of modern Sweden.
Playing one of the central characters in Dragon Tattoo, Daniel Craig gives one of his most affecting performances yet, proving that he does indeed have the chops for high-impact drama as much as he does for high-octane action. Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander is both a fascinating rebel archetype with a clearly complex backstory that makes her character an absolute scene-stealer. In combination, this unlikely pairing yields one of the most compelling on-screen partner-ups in recent memory.
The film also gets extra points for one of the best opening credit sequences of all time. This remarkable introduction to the movie sets a tone and artistic direction for the rest of the film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is certainly an aesthetic triumph and should be commended for its attention to detail.
In fact, Dragon Tattoo should be commended for being an excellent film on the whole that makes few, if any, major missteps. This is another knockout piece from David Fincher, a very impressive showing from Daniel Craig, and a breakout performance for Rooney Mara. It is well-worth your time.
You may never listen to Enya the same way again, however. Consider yourself warned.
Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (93%)
Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-7D