The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

9 Stars

Certifiably rotten, huh?

I politely disagree.

Like the phrase dictates: ‘It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.’

Well, I’m not large in stature. So imagine the superhuman integrity it takes for me to say:

I was incorrect, ladies and gentlemen.

But only partially.

(Check out my review of The Amazing Spider-Man to see why. It’s factually accurate, but my skepticisms surrounding a series reboot come across too boldly.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a fantastic movie, particularly as it pertains to the superhero genre.

Frankly I’m surprised the movie’s been received unfavorably by critics. After rifling through several reviews, I find few criticisms worthy of contention. I suppose, ultimately, the appreciation is very subjective.

In my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I put forward a thesis about what makes a sequel ‘great.’ I reworked it for the purposes of this review.

A great sequel furthers and expands the central narrative. It introduces relevant new elements offering alternative perspectives resonating within thematic ideas established by the previous film; all while maintaining suspenseful thrills and compelling character interactions. Finally, it evolves the conflict, and (in the case of a multi-part series) offers an emotional bridge tethering us from one film to the next.

Therefore, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) is overwhelmed.

Garfield is an excellent web-slinger, he ratchets up the witty banter in the second installment and is quite lovable as the protagonist. Peter’s relationship with Gwen (played by Emma Stone) is cute, relatable and touching.

The more (for lack of a better word) ‘romantic’ parts are fast paced and riveting. So the movie doesn’t get mired in lovey-dovey gobbledy gook.

Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon/Electro is a highly sympathetic character. Which works great for a supervillain! We feel for his desire for verification, his dreams of celebrity and notions of grandiosity.

Speaking of well-written supervillains, one of the best parts of the movie is when the bad guys conspire. It’s a believable scene, justifying an evil alliance, and it’s an aspect of cinematic superhero stories that’s never executed properly.

Dane DeHaan is solid as Harry Osborn, especially in the form of the Green Goblin.

The primary complaints are an unfocused narrative, an overabundance of characters and an overly action-packed final battle scene. These are all generalized, subjective criticisms and I couldn’t disagree more.

One review compares the final fight scene to the destructive culmination of Man of Steel. I found the criticism absurd when people were ‘shocked’ by the chaotic final battle sequence in last year’s reboot of Superman. And I still think it’s ridiculous to criticize a superhero film for being ‘overly destructive.’

We’re dealing with superhuman beings here, folks; if we’re to accept this reality then buildings must tumble.

There are two points of contention worth discussing: Paul Giamatti’s character (Aleksei Sytsevich) and the needless scene where the airplanes avoid collision.

Beginning with the former, this is Giamatti’s worst role ever. For whatever reason, his character feels very artificial, primarily because we can’t understand his dialogue. The film also doesn’t explore his background; probably a contributing factor to the ‘overabundance of characters.’

As for the latter point, there’s a scene in which the city’s power becomes compromised. A slew of minor characters are introduced for a brief sequence. Basically, these scenes illustrate the potential problems resulting from losing electricity. The air traffic control team waits for the power to turn on so they can warn two planes of imminent collision.

The sequence isn’t pointless; they’re trying to show us something. But why wasn’t it removed from the final cut? It’s ultimately a major derailment that doesn’t justifiably build on the story.

I have one final thing to mention, but can’t do it without spoiling something major. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet, stop reading here.

Lastly, the confusion surrounding Aunt May’s role is worthy of note.

Post-viewing, my buddy mentioned being bored by the interactions between Peter Parker and his aunt (played by Sally Field.)

Whether you appreciate it or not; the filmmakers are establishing a contrast between Aunt May and Gwen Stacy. This dichotomy illustrates a correlation to Peter. The knowledge of his alter ego seems to place his loved ones in danger.

When Peter and Aunt May are interacting, he’s attempting to keep one variable in his experiment constant. Towards the end of the movie, his hypothesis is proven, and the way to move forward is clear. By refusing verification, he can protect Aunt May from the dangers of his other life.

I’m trying to be careful about spoiling a plot point I consider crucial, but will conclude with the following remark.

Your appreciation of this movie will depend much, it seems, on your willingness to engage with the narrative. If you’re a superhero/Spidey fan, you’re bound to enjoy this movie, even if you don’t love it as much as me.

Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an innovative and original flick, with a polished narrative that takes chances and attempts to illustrate aspects of superhero stories we’re unfamiliar with.

Good on you, director Marc Webb, for throwing together a sequel worthy of a trip to the theater.

Neighbors (R)

8 Stars

In a comedy, it’s quite rare the female lead is just as funny as their male counterpart.

The only other example is Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in This is 40.

But in Neighbors, Rose Byrne as Kelly Radner, is just as funny, if not funnier, than Seth Rogen as Mac Radner.

The recent trend in Hollywood is to release multiple comedies during the summer season. Most of the time, the general public responds to one funny movie in particular, and that comedic blockbuster is what’s remembered.

Last year, the hit of the summer was This is the End, in 2012 it was Ted, in 2011 it was Bridesmaids, in 2010 it was Get Him to the Greek, in 2009 it was The Hangover.

And, every year, another funny comedy is overshadowed by the success of the box office hit. Last year’s We’re the Millers, 2012’s 21 Jump Street, 2011’s Horrible Bosses, and 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine.

’09 was a rough year, but ’08 makes up for it with some serious winners. Step Brothers is the most fondly remembered of that year, but let’s not forget Pineapple Express and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. (I’m a sucker for anything with Craig Robinson.)

Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West comes out May 30, so it’ll be interesting to see which movie ends up overshadowing the other.

Because Neighbors is great!

With an awesome cast, subject material that is both relatable and timely, and a hysterical script; director Nicholas Stoller’s got himself another winner here, folks.

Zac Efron’s performance in Neighbors is fantastic. He really sells it.

Oftentimes, like with Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip, a daring cameo can fall short. In Barbra’s case, her performance feels very artificial; like it’s been jammed into a comedy for outrageous effect. And unfortunately, her acting abilities just aren’t meant for making the modern audience laugh.

But Zac pulls it off; he plays a compelling and likable character, whom the audience feels compassion for. Not once does he feel out of place or miscast. There isn’t a single slip-up in terms of acting performance and he fits in quite well leading alongside Seth Rogen.

Rogen, for me, is always hilarious. But whether you like him or not, there’s plenty of other stuff to laugh at. Did I mention how funny Rose Byrne is?

I like that Dave Franco. He’s great in this movie, and is turning into quite a talented actor.

Neighbors earns its ‘R’ rating through a bevy of phallic jokes.

One of the film’s high-points is the sheer number of comedic performances it gets out of a cast of knowns and unknowns alike.

A young black actor, Jerrod Carmichael, plays a frat boy named Garf. His scene-stealing hilarious moments are numerous, and I’ve never heard of him before. But I wouldn’t mind seeing a lot more Carmichael in the future.

There are particular sequences worthy of note.

The first is a montage of period pieces; three scenes with different styles of shooting, depicting moments in the fraternity’s history. Each is led by cameos from comedic favorites, including the guys from Lonely Island, the Workaholics trio, and Jake Johnson from New Girl.

The other is reflective of an overall theme in Neighbors. It’s a movie for major cinephiles because there are tons of films references throughout.

The ‘Robert De Niro’ party is one of the most uproarious moments and has the entire theater rollicking with laughter.

One funny thing is the cameo by Jason Mantzoukas (as Dr. Theodorakis). He’s well-known as Rafi on FX’s The League. His character in Neighbors utilizes the same gag as the misleading doctor in Arrested Development. A similar joke appears in Family Guy and 30 Rock.

A final matter worth mentioning are the modern issues it offers commentary on. Lisa Kudrow has one of the funniest cameos as Dean Carol Gladstone, and all she’s concerned with are newspaper headlines.

In several ways, the movie makes a compelling argument for the harmlessness of fraternities. As of late, much to-do has been made over the evils of frat life. It’s nice to see somebody finally arguing for the other side.

Overall, Neighbors is a riotous batch of fresh laughs from a combination of reliable comedic mainstays and surprisingly proficient newcomers.

Whether it’s overshadowed by A Million Ways to Die in the West in a few weeks is of little concern.

For the time being, just know Neighbors is worth a trip to the theater!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13)

9 Stars

Our hero, believe it or not, is a symbol.

It’s not what you’re thinking.

The Captain’s a metaphor for America.

Look down. Did I fake you out of your shoes?

It seems a simple conclusion to arrive at, but ogle this concept through a different lens.

Captain America encapsulates a philosophical notion; a mindset transcending time, war and politics. He is twentieth century patriotism. In the face of any enemy, be it systematically internal or external, while others may waver Captain America perseveres.

A hefty portion of this concept lies in his commitment to the notion everybody may live free. But it’s something more than just freedom. It’s an incorruptible belief; a manner of ‘striving for righteousness’ that lives on through the death of many American soldiers.

Speaking of, should you see the second installment?

I rate Captain America: The Winter Soldier four and half, but to account for my proclivity toward comic books, you can give or take a bisected star.

Remember it’s a sequel to both The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger. Those who haven’t seen these earlier films may find this bothersome, but the majority probably won’t.

Never forget if you’re looking for things to complain about, you’ll find them.

It’s the same track I spin when any other comic book movie (Marvel or DC) comes out nowadays. If you’re willing to like it, and not overly critical, there’s no reason you’ll hate this film.

Logically, females with zero interest in superheroes should probably keep their distance. But even the pythons dangling from Chris Evans’s tank-topped shoulders can sway the naysayers.

It’s somewhere between twelve and nineteen minutes too long, so prepare for potential fidgeting around the two hour mark. And I’ve heard from NPR’s podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, the second scene after the closing credits is underwhelming. But I can speak for the mid-credits sequence, which didn’t bowl me over. Sure it’s slightly ominous, but the reference is outside my wheelhouse, so the reveal’s rendered inconsequential.

The scene’s directed by Joss Whedon and I like it; it just doesn’t get me looking forward to the next film.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is slated for release on May 1, 2015. Marvel will follow up two months later with Ant Man.

The use of negative space in the post credits sequence is smart, fun and intricate. Lend it five extra minutes if you appreciate this sort of thing.

The fight sequences are nothing short of spectacular. The use of different camera angles throughout the battleship in an early scene is elaborate and magnificent.

Overall, the narrative derives its strength from the movement of our hero through manufactured space. The shifting of the threats and the threatened assets often evokes the classic chess metaphor. On a more evolved scale of course; where time, height and game piece type become more varied and critical factors.

Things get really interesting when examining the intricacies of battle tactics and choreography. I won’t dive in too much, but simply consider the strengths and weaknesses of the main trio. Consider the setting of an elevator; the more bad guys filling it, less the chance Black Widow has of escape. She can probably take upwards of five or six, especially because short range and close quarters are optimal combat conditions for her superhumanity.

The same can’t be said for Falcon. At most he can handle two or three thugs trapped in a lift.

The depth to the settings is truly spectacular. The epic nature of it all is so fantastic, while maintaining a secure tether to realism.

So far CATWS contains the second-best Stan Lee cameo, after The Amazing Spider-Man.

I like how the Captain wears the old suit at the end. Solid costumes are a great touch.

A major criticism I can understand but don’t share personally: Several moments are reminiscent of plot devices from other films. For example, Black Widow utilizes a similar means of concealment as Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) in Mission: Impossible. But that was released in ’96 so I give it a pass.

A similar example (spoiler alert) involves the fate of Brock Rumlow, the lead thug played by Frank Grillo. During a brief shot at the end, his broken body’s raised on a stretcher, in a similar state to that of Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) in Elysium. There’s a major difference between their sustained injuries, but all bets point towards Brock rising again.

Another obvious connection mirrors a trend in superhero cinema: What I call, “The Citizen’s Call to Arms.” It’s the moment when the fate of ‘the good’ is partially placed in the hands of the regular humans. This notion’s explored in The Dark Knight and is part of the climactic sequence in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Robert Redford does a spectacular job acting as Agent Alexander Pierce, but it’s to no avail. The highest upside to his performance is his appearance and demeanor are completely different from that of his last role in All is Lost.

He’s easily the worst part of Captain A. His character isn’t all that compelling, and it’s a bit unclear what he wants and whom he poses a threat to. He’s not a detractor but there’s nothing exciting about him whatsoever.

Pierce isn’t particularly menacing and neither is Hydra as an overall villain. But that’s okay, it seems like an attempt to break convention; a good idea that sizzles out with Redford’s uneventful performance.

The other thing I don’t love is the glossing over of Falcon’s background. The reveal’s a delight, but further detail on his history (particularly his superhuman abilities) is highly desirable.

Major nuance derives from the supporting players. In the realm of sidekicks, Captain’s got two complicated, original and fully-fleshed-out allies.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson plays a great sidekick to Cap. He turns in a subtly fantastic performance.

And so does Black Widow as the other co-goody.

Oh me, oh my, I love me some Scarlett Johansson.

But Widow’s got me worried something fierce. She’s up to something fishy.

This movie’s final shortcoming is the lack of screen time for Natasha Romanoff. I’ll scream from the mountaintop until Avengers 4 we can always use more Black Widow, both in combat, and just as much outside of it.

And for Pete’s sake, I want Cap and Widow to fall in love like nobody’s business. Sure it could happen someday, in another movie, but it’s the fact that it also couldn’t that worries me.

To wrap up, Captain America: The Winter Solider is another solid entry in the esteemed superhero canon.

The one I can’t wait for?

The Hulk.

And he better be rocking purple slacks.

Eraserhead (R)

2 Star

Eraserhead’s been on my Netflix instant queue for six years.

It looks scary and it’s by the writer/director of Mulholland Drive (a film I enjoy; check out my review) and Blue Velvet (a film I’m still ‘back and forth’ on.)

It was playing at midnight at the TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles, so I was pretty excited to watch it on the big screen.

The man introducing the film was Patton Oswalt, so amongst a number of funny things, he also shared the following.

Mel Brooks used the resources of his own production company, Brooksfilms, to give David Lynch his first chance at a mainstream directing job with The Elephant Man. Patton reiterates that Stuart Cornfeld convinced him to do so by dragging Brooks to a midnight screening of Eraserhead.

Since I was young, I’ve had the utmost admiration for Mel Brooks.

And let me tell you something sister, E-Head’s unsettling.

I hate this movie.

Slimy slithering intestines don’t flutter my fancy.

Did that sentence make you feel gross? It should; hopefully it scares you away completely.

Because that’s all this movie does; it seeks to disturb the viewer.

So in that department: Mission Accomplished, Mr. Lynch.

This is by far his worst.

It’s smart; don’t get me wrong. But originality only goes so far with me. When the ride gets painful, stars begin falling off. It’s not fun, enjoyable nor educational.

Some consider it thought provoking. I don’t.

To be more specific, Eraserhead is about the fears of fatherhood. Despite the cover, it doesn’t disturb in a manner akin to horror flicks.

It’s about depravity and inhabits it’s own dark shred of sadness that doesn’t require a specific genre. Let’s call it what it is: A student film.

There’s a lot I don’t like.

In particular, I really hate the fetus-stomping blonde (or Lady in Radiator, played by Laurel Near) with the fatty cheeks. It’s never fun when she shows up; out of tune and singing the saddest song ever.

Any scene involving the deformed baby, its grotesque skin disease or the anxiety-inducing wail of sorrow; I’d happily discharge from my brain.

It’s the single cringe-worthiest hundred minutes of my life. And I’ve seen a couple movies that’ll convert an entire nunnery.

Jack Nance as Henry Spencer is very good.

The Girl Across the Hall (played by Judith Anna Roberts) is also solid. She dons a low cut dress and walks with a sinewy strut that’ll entrance.

But all the acting is good, I suppose. Allen Joseph as Mr. X is an oddball who offers the only chuckle.

Lynch apparently likes featuring scenes of a spotlight on an empty stage. The same idea shows up in Mulholland Drive. I don’t know what the hell to do with it.

More often I wonder whether it’s worth the ponder.

Towards the beginning, Henry traverses squat mounds of ashy dust while a train whistle blares in the background. Considering the subject material, I wonder if it’s in reference to Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. That short story’s about debating abortion and a couple torn up by unexpected pregnancy.

And it’s Hemingway; it’s wildly unpleasant. But much more enjoyable than Eraserhead.

Okay, I’ll slow down with the pessimism for a moment.

To be honest with you I could hate on this movie a lot more than I’m going to. It has redeeming qualities but they bring the rating up to a whopping one star. I’m not mad about it; it’s just not what I go to a movie for.

These moments of redemption are few and far between. There’s a lot of intricate camera angles involving shadows and how they fall on the characters.

Even the majority of the smart stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth! Like the leafless twig thrust into a pile of soil upon the nightstand. Dirt granules certainly spill onto his mattress on occasion.

There are two particularly noteworthy scenes. They’re both gross and unsettling, but somehow they shine amidst the pit of yuck.

When Henry’s in bed with a woman, they’re wrapped up in the sheets like a spider, and her teeth are chattering like she’s freezing. The spindly way she’s twisting, contorting and toiling amidst the covers is creepy and discomforting.

The other scene involves Henry making love to a woman, and their infidelity descending into milky white tub water situated in the center of the bed. It’s a beautiful shot and really a thought-provoking scene with a fascinating dynamic.

But even then, it’s still pretty unsettling.

Ugh! There’s so much filth in Henry’s room. The sound effects and score are constantly ghoulish, grotesque, creaky, whistley, shadowy, lurid, crackly, scratchy and overall irksome.

It’s an Odyssey through disgust, silt and darkness. And it’s the rockiest ride amidst a meteor shower.

Do yourself a favor and skip Eraserhead, and check out Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet instead. Only the biggest of Lynch’s fans will like this. It’s ‘un-good.’

By the way, I don’t know what he saw in it, but I still highly admire Mel Brooks.

Looks like it’s time to catch The Elephant Man.

Muppets Most Wanted (PG)

7 Stars

My relationship with Jim Henson’s sock puppets is presently blooming.

Up until a month ago, I hadn’t seen anything aside from Muppet Vision 3D in Walt Disney World. Since the new film’s in theaters, I decided to catch up and watch the reintroduction I’d missed in 2011.

If you read my earlier review, aside from being my absolute favorite person on Earth, you know The Muppets gets me pretty choked up. I find it touching and riotous.

Muppets Most Wanted is good, but it doesn’t live up to the preceding film.

It’s a little too long, so things start to drag after the ninety-minute mark, and my bias stems from having seen The Muppets two days previous.

Although Jason Segel doesn’t appear to have a hand in this film, favorites from the voice cast return to speak the parts. James Bobin also returns to direct his second feature, and is the lead writer on the screenplay. Nicholas Stoller, a cowriter on the first film, returns to help for the second as well.

To begin, the comedy is not weak. It’s not strong, but I can’t call it weak.

The music numbers are a different story.

The only one I can remember is between Constantine (Kermit the Frog’s evil twin and the world’s number one criminal mastermind) and Ricky Gervais (as Dominic or Number Two). Their duet is one of the better parts of the movie, and things start to slow down afterward.

Speaking of, Ricky Gervais is great, but I find Constantine much less compelling. On The Film Vault, a podcast and the best place to find cinema-related discussion on the web, one of the hosts speaks of his extreme fondness for Kermit’s diabolical double. But I simply can’t conceive of the appeal.

Perhaps it’s the accent. Goofy accents generally don’t do it for me. Particularly Russian ones; I’ve heard way too many Soviet impressions.

And Constantine just feels like another plot device that’s been revisited over and over again.

Even the song he sings to Miss Piggy; while loaded with a number of silly vocabulary words, it’s just a lyrical and visual bore devoid of a memorable or catchy tune.

So, to compare the two films, the music numbers of Muppets Most Wanted leave much to be desired. Although Bret McKenzie returns to compose the musical arrangements, his achievements in the first far outweigh those of the second.

Ultimately I think the film’s greatest weakness can be attributed to the sheer amount of plot with which it engages. There are several narrative strains to follow with diverse levels of compelling material. First of all, Kermit is removed from the story almost instantly, creating his own narrative strain aside from the Muppet tour, now led by Constantine.

Kermit’s narrative posits him in a Russian prison in the criminal’s place, where his varied attempts at escape are foiled by Nadya, played by Tina Fey.

Fey is pretty great, one of the highlights of the whole film, and she brings her ‘A-Game.’ She has several scene stealing jokes and even pulls the accent off better than most.

She certainly does a much better job than Constantine.

The only aspect of the movie greater to Fey’s performance is Sam Eagle and Ty Burrell as Jean Pierre Napoleon, a jokey French inspector. The third narrative strand follows around the pair of detectives as they blunder through an elaborate and oftentimes, silly investigation.

There appears to be some social commentary taking place here. Sam represents the atypical American police officer. Burrell is reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies, so his performance involves a lot of Frenchy slapstick.

Sam’s a buttoned-up hard worker, and Napoleon’s constantly resting whenever the chance presents itself. He’s all too eager to go on vacation and take lunch breaks, although they’re hot on the pursuit of his self-proclaimed ‘arch nemesis.’

The investigative duo is the source of several uproarious laughs, and a delight each time they’re featured on-screen.

Sam Eagle is representative of a greater trend in the Muppet empire that merits discussion. He’s brought to the forefront of the story in Muppets Most Wanted and is clearly the funniest character of all the puppets.

But the French Chef, Statler and Mr. Waldorf, Animal and Sweetums play roles of significantly less prominence.

Miss Piggy’s featured strongly throughout. Of course. As always. What would we do without everybody’s favorite voyeuristic hog?

The pig is the focus of several dull and uncomfortable scenes adding up to a half-hearted chuckle, at best. I will never descend my soapbox about this perspective.

Miss Piggy is, by far, the least interesting Muppet. Yet she dominates a considerable chunk of screen time; moments where Fozzie Bear, Gonzo or any of the aforementioned entertaining puppets can steal scenes or take the narrative in funnier directions.

Instead, we’re left with several momentous sighs of frustration.

So, ultimately, Muppets Most Wanted is a good movie that pales in comparison to The Muppets from 2011.

If you have to pick between the two, forget the big screen, save a couple bucks and order the old film on Netflix or iTunes. You’ll enjoy The Muppets.

And if you don’t, then there’s no need to catch the new film, right?

One Hour Photo (R)

8 Stars

Oftentimes the culprit of misinterpretation is expectation.

I don’t care how burly, I’d grapple with a coal miner if I overheard spoiled details regarding The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

Trailers are fun and all that, but time and again my theory’s proven: The less you know before seeing a film, the better.

One Hour Photo’s no exception.

Expect the unexpected.

Avoiding all synopses, an accurate prediction regarding a narrative arc is near impossible.

Since it’s a dramatic thriller, sinister behavior’s a sure thing. Perhaps you’ll find surrealistic mystery confusedly orbiting the central conflict.

Other than that, Fun Tower Koto unfolds in an unanticipated manner. Therefore, it’s difficult to draw correlatives without spoiling.

It’s written and directed by Mark Romanek; as of yet, the first in his two-feature career. The other is Never Let Me Go, released eight years later in 2010. I’ve never seen it and can’t speak to its quality, but judging by the current topic of discussion, it’s probably stylistic, clean-cut and quietly smart.

People seem to forget Robin Williams’s range as an acting talent. Aside from the voice of Genie in Aladdin, amongst a slew of other impressive roles, his achievements are featured prominently in Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come.

In Sun Power Moto Williams stars as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a photo booth attendant with a suspicious proclivity.

As a viewer, the knot of tension is a toiling veil, billowing from the menacing compulsions presumably lurking beneath Sy’s well-meaning façade.

Connie Nielsen turns in an excellent performance as Nina Yorkin, a frequent customer of the one-hour photo development lab. Nielsen’s had a long career in the film-biz. Unfortunately at first glance, her cinematic history seems unremarkable.

Her most noteworthy role is that of Lucilla, Commodus’s sister in Gladiator. Now that you think about it, she’s very good in that, yes yes?

See how easily the notion’s misplaced?

Nielsen’s acting chops really shine through here, but her performance is easily forgettable in the midst of a confusing tale, daunting subject material and a powerhouse protagonist.

On a final note regarding casting, Gary Cole plays Bill Owens, the manager of Savmart. He’s excellent as (ironically) an antagonizing boss, but one of a much different sort than Lumbergh in Office Space. His motivations are varied, complicated and sympathetic.

Sy’s workplace is a satirical version of Wal-Mart located in a suburban mall, but the setting’s of minimal concern.

[Side Note: If you can find me a Wal-Mart that’s half as clean, organized or well-staffed as this Savmart, I’d…well, I’d never believe you.]

In Run Sour Risotto the scenery, the geological location, and the exact timeframe are almost inconsequential. The only necessary contextual reference is the plot’s unfolding upon the cusp of digital photography. Sy’s occupational necessity teeters on irrelevance.

There are two types of people that will enjoy this movie: Film buffs and psychology scholars. As a piece of commercial art, it’s impossible to ignore the story’s merit.

This is a tight, well-crafted ninety-five minute film. Priority lies with painting a clear picture of a character coping with a contemporary existential crisis, not with polishing the narrative veneer. Although the story’s told completely, it’s very dissimilar to traditional processes of character transformation.

But, should you see it?

Why not?

You may not enjoy it but it’s a visually gripping tale of moral ambiguity and establishes a relevant window into a particular lifestyle of modern insecurity.

So from now until the end of my review, I will be less careful about spoilers.

Smart subtlety and several fantastic sequences make for the most riveting visual imagery.

In particular the photo development process is masterfully shot and edited beautifully. The sequence shimmers as a fountain plume of knowledge, and a cornucopia of succulent eye candy.

Speaking of ocular capability, the disturbing nightmare remains a mystery to me. The scene’s certainly there for a reason; I simply can’t discern the purpose at present. But Romanek’s first feature’s such a sterile and meticulous craft I don’t need to revisit the material. Its purposeful placement is fairly supposed.

Nuance glimmers in the details, after all.

And that’s what I like about this movie; the hint of fairy dust twinkling amidst shadowy corners.

During an early moment, Nina comforts her son Jake (played by Dylan Smith) who voices concerns about Sy’s loneliness. Lying on his bed, Nina reassures him by suggesting they close their eyes and generate good thoughts on the photo attendant’s behalf.

While the scene unfolds, Jake fiddles with an ‘expanding sphere’ toy, and it resonates thematically with the larger narrative. As the boy expands and contracts the plastic mechanical star, their positive energy’s injected into the metaphysical ether. Isolated from Sy’s physical presence, the pair still generates good will for him, when nobody else is.

The cosmic microcosm resonates with the later discussion of Deepak Chopra and the expanding/contracting of the universe.

The character of Jake is of superior significance than he seems at first glance. So along with the previous example, another revelatory moment takes place when Sy walks the boy home from soccer practice.

In this scene, Nina’s son illustrates a mature level of even-handedness most adults can’t muster. Without a trace of judgment, Jake accepts Sy’s gesture of friendship. The boy welcomes the attendant’s company, just like he would a schoolmate.

Now. In the grand scheme, the moment before they part ways is crucial. Subjective audience members are acutely aware of the danger in Jake’s actions because of potential instability in Sy’s mental faculties. Stepping back and ignoring that bias reveals no immorality or cause for suspicion in the protagonist’s actions.

Up until Sy offers the action figure, he hasn’t technically committed a moral transgression. But Jake’s refusal of the gift draws a line in the existential sand. The boy’s commitment to honesty is of significantly less concern than the alternative implications.

In a way, this choice to decline is the catalyst allowing Sy’s ultimate redemption. The film culminates in a realm of moral obscurity; perhaps otherwise, that wouldn’t be the case.

The action figure represents an unspoken power shift. Instead of being two human beings standing on equal footing; Sy tempts the boy with an unachievable material gain. You might call it ‘forbidden fruit.’ No matter what the phrasing, a ‘gift’ still represents a tangible exchange.

And I’d also argue it shows Sy at his weakest. Luckily for him, Jake makes the correct decision on both their behalves.

A refined detail is the framed mirror with the reminder to ‘Check Your Smile’ in the Savmart locker room.

Even the means of self-evaluation, the lens through which Sy can inspect himself, lies in the shadow cast by the judgmental puppeteers of higher-tiered society.

There is one misleading scene and it’s probably the strongest sequence in the entire film. The reveal at the culmination of Sy’s mental fantasy is truly unnerving. In this veiled depiction, the filmmaker builds tension like a circus carpenter installing a tightrope.

I never do this but I’m going to cheat by parroting the conclusion of another reviewer.

Because, hey, it’s succinct.

Elaine Cassel concludes,“Movies could play a more productive role in explaining psychopathology if the sources of twisted behavior were explained realistically and compassionately, as they are here. One Hour Photo is a rewarding study of abnormal behavior and one that psychology students should appreciate, if not enjoy. It leaves us wondering, and caring, now that we know what’s wrong with Sy, what will happen to Sy.”

Brief, yeah?

Hopefully that clears up any remaining confusion.

I still can’t explain the unsettling nightmare.

But maybe I don’t need to understand.

Obscurity can keep some details.

Swimming with Sharks (R)

9 Stars

Ever heard of this movie?

Me neither, until a few weeks ago.

It’s available for instant streaming via Netflix, and is easily worth ninety-three minutes of your time.

Swimming with Sharks is fantastic.

It has its shortcomings don’t get me wrong.

But between the high quality story and a spectacular piece of acting from Kevin Spacey, there are enough laughs to outweigh the unsettling plot.

George Huang wrote and directed Swimming with Sharks in 1994 and it’s the only major motion picture in his filmography. Perhaps it was his passion project?

It’s the classic story of a young man taking a job as an assistant to a big Hollywood agent, in order to get ahead in life. One thing it really hammers home is that a year can be way longer than first it seems.

You gotta love a young Benicio Del Toro performance, with that dour accent of an unknown nationality, like Fez in The Usual Suspects. Benny of the Bull plays a quietly excellent character as Rex, or the man who Guy, played by Frank Whaley, will replace answering calls at the desk.

Speaking of Whaley, here’s one of two shortcomings.

His performance is ultimately the least impressive part of this movie. And as the protagonist, that’s not the greatest sign.

I’m not saying Whaley’s acting is bad, but it’s unconvincing. He can’t keep pace with the whirlwind plot, and the coolness of Spacey.

The other major detractor is of less consequence, but it’s a noticeable weakness nonetheless. The scenery, settings and backdrops often leave much to be desired. They’re not incomplete or shabby; the surroundings of the characters are just very bland.

Perhaps this is a stylistic choice that somehow adds to the movie. Personally I think the budget wasn’t very high (IMDb estimates it around $700,000) and this doesn’t allow for tons of prep previous to shooting.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t need elaborate backdrops or an overwhelming amount of sensory detail. There’s enough already packed in.

More on that later.

On a final note regarding casting, Michelle Forbes as Dawn Lockard is just spectacular. Her character is compelling, strong and nuanced. The scenes in which she interacts with Guy are gripping and covered in subtlety.

Forbes played roles in lesser-known features, such as Escape from L.A. and Kalifornia. Recently she’s much more prominent in television and her work includes a significant role as Maryann Forrester Maryann in the second season of HBO’s True Blood. So noteworthy is her performance it’s deserving of a sidebar. Skip the following bracketed paragraph if you couldn’t care less.

[Sidebar: True Blood is no longer a good television show. It may never have been ‘great’ as an overall televised product, but the first two seasons had fabulous story arcs. It went off the rails because of the ever-expanding world building, and the perseverance of a character named Terra. The entire second season is carried by the introduction of the new antagonist, Maryann Forrester Maryann, and a large hunk of the show’s success is due to the thoroughly riveting and convincing performance from Michelle Forbes.]

Here’s a smart exchange.

When they first have a drink and discuss business, Dawn asks Guy if he’d like to go out. He orders a glass of white wine and she orders a cocktail. While they talk, she chews on the ice from her drink and smokes.

Huang draws a dichotomy here between the typical male and female roles in social and romantic interactions. I think Guy’s shorter than Dawn too, so they’re really an odd pair.

Nuanced scenes like this resonate throughout the entire film.

When Buddy and Guy are conversing, pay close attention to the physical positioning of Spacey’s body. At one point, his shoes are propped on the desk and uncrossed, displaying his crotch like a woman giving birth. This posture illustrates the relative difference in power between the two men and Buddy’s attitude toward his assistant.

So if you haven’t seen Swimming with Sharks, now’s the time, before the scenery and settings begin to feel any older. Stop reading here if you’re sensitive to spoilers.

Anyway, a final few things are worthy of discussion.

First of all, the wind-up toys on Buddy’s desk, and the discussion of ‘Equal’ versus ‘Sweet-N-Low’ artificial sweeteners. The symbolism in these details are too numerous to note; some of which I can’t wrap my head around either. Aside from the lack of ‘artificial sweetener’ present in Buddy’s rhetoric, I’m assuming there’s value to the color of the packets (blue and pink, reminiscent of early-life gender roles) but can’t complete the analytic connection without further research.

In retrospect, the existence of the toys throughout the earlier portion of the movie seems off. As the narrative unfolds, the mechanisms don’t draw our attention, but it’s odd to think a man with such a business-oriented lifestyle would adorn his workspace with playthings.

The resolution is built around a technological quirk of a distinct age in history. Only in the ‘90s could a conflict revolve around the oddities of call waiting and conferencing. But hey, it works.

The ending is a bit confounding in its value. It’s an original twist and the correct way to wrap up the story. But quite a bit gets lost in, what seems like, a rushed conclusion.

It’s not hurried; it’s just a drastic and almost unprecedented turn for the story to take. The viewer is never convinced Guy’s passion for the business outweighs his love of Dawn.

And I hate to harp on this, but it goes back to Whaley’s acting ability. When he shows up at Buddy’s house and threatens him at gunpoint, the seriousness of his intent doesn’t feel real. Further, the torture scenes aren’t genuine because we don’t see the capability for this level of aggression in Guy’s behavior.

But this is a buncha hooey and applesauce.

All things considered, Swimming with Sharks is a classic that shouldn’t be forgotten!

The Grand Budapest Hotel (R)

8 Stars

Filmmakers can craft narratives in three realms: Reality, Unreality or Surreality.

Take Moonrise Kingdom for example, to delineate the latter two ‘alities.’

Edward Norton plays a Boy Scout leader who conducts order within his troop in militaristic fashion. The Boy Scouts obviously never organize in this manner, but it’s part of the surreal world the director’s creating in order to build story.

Now. Ed Norton jumping over an impassable expanse with a child in his arms, that’s unrealistic. The act can’t occur in a relatable world, be it satirical or otherwise.

My point is, the director’s on his game when he remains within that surrealistic middle ground. In the frilly, multicolored world of luxe poignancy.

I’m not Wes Anderson’s biggest fan.

The Grand Budapest Hotel got shifted to the backburner because most reliable sources have given the thumbs-down.

I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom and they’re all good. They’re not great, but they’re good.

And I won’t go into my reasons here, but there’s always something that keeps them from achieving that next tier.

What’s the difference?

A great movie is worth revisiting. As much as I admire his talent and efforts, Wes Anderson’s movies just aren’t worth another round for this reviewer.

All that being said, TGBH is my favorite so far. Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig; it’s plenty captivating to enjoy the entire movie. And it’s not too long, which nowadays, is always good news.

Therefore, beware naysayers. As your brother in nay saying, there’s nary a nay-say for stating.

I’m all too willing to dislike The Grand Budapest, and am delighted just the same.

Perhaps Wes’s flicks are like a new catcher’s mitt; you have to catch a couple stylistic knuckle balls before you’re broken in and ready to absorb a fastball.

[Cause that’s how you break in a catcher’s mitt, right?]

Here’s what works.

Not only the casting, but also his stylistic choices (including the abnormal storytelling and complex narrative structure) make for a riveting moving picture.

Oftentimes the visuals are simultaneously complex and subtle, with familiar characters peeking into scenes with elaborate scenery and backdrops. The use of various camera angles, cuts and on-screen text all add to the delightful, kaleidoscopic surrealism.

The humor’s heartier and more consistent than usual. The jokes are oftentimes of a less smirky nature, although the irony hits the right comedic notes as well.

The dialogue is excellent, Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave proves rather proficient at executing the humorous manner of speaking. His timing is calculated and understated. Some of the best jokes are the mid-speech exclamations.

There are too many big names to mention, but Tony Revolori is solid in his breakout role as Zero.

One major nuance I appreciate this time around is the centering of the onscreen action within the scene. It seems the main characters are brought to the forefront of the sequence, each event seemingly set in a vacuum, and spotlights are shined on the primary players.

Quite literally, the lighting is increased around Jude Law, and he even notices the effect.

This in turn adds to the overall feeling of ‘storytelling,’ because that’s indeed the way the characters would interpret it. If Zero were to recall a single memory, such as the moment the train’s stopped, the visual depiction of his mental picture may resemble something like Anderson’s vision.

If this event truly takes place, there’d be the sounds of soldiers searching other train cars surrounding them. The way Zero remembers it includes only the immediate effects it has on him and M. Gustave.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have much bad to say about this movie, because I enjoyed it so thoroughly. It’s my third favorite movie to come out so far this year and I’d highly recommend it for any movie lover.

Of course I’d tell you to catch Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier first.

But if you haven’t seen either of those, well, then saddle up your movie horse, compadre.

Go into The Grand Budeho with low expectations (like me), and there’s no way you’ll be disappointed, right?

It’s rated R, how bad could it be?

I suppose the only downside’s no tears were shed.

Especially when the same can’t be said for Moonrise Kingdom.

I often wonder why he kept Ed Norton’s unrealistic leap in that movie.

Perhaps it’s Anderson’s nod to the audience; his method of acknowledging the leap he asks the viewer to take in suspending disbelief.

Perhaps the obvious use of CGI purposely jars us lose of the fantasy.

In which case I say: Good on ya, Wes Andy.

Consider me ‘broken-in.’

The Terminator (R)

10 Stars

Raise your hand if you’ve seen The Terminator.

Okay. You can’t tell but everyone on the planet has an arm in the air.

So, people of Earth, how many of you recall the last time you caught Arnold’s breakout performance?

Who were you with? Were you conveyed by carriage or dirigible?

Put your hand down if you can’t remember.

I only ask because revisiting’s worthwhile.

This was my first time watching the movie, so my Dad and I instant-streamed T1 via Netflix. And it’s glorious, lemme tell ya.

Soon as Arnold starts killing innocent people, my Dad says, “I don’t remember him being the bad guy.”

We realize he’s never seen the first installment before. He only thinks he remembers. And I bet that’s the case for many folks not raising their hand.

It’s been thirty years since release, but it holds up like you wouldn’t believe.

Seriously. The Terminator’s a smart movie. I’m glad I waited so long to watch.

Every character is watertight. Prominent or minor the acting’s often what retains the captivation in between gunplay and chase scenes.

The cops are Traxler and Vukovich, played by Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen (a.k.a. Bishop from Aliens), and have a humorous dynamic. Sarah’s roommate, Bess Motta as Ginger, is the sexy bouncy type, and her boyfriend’s a well-meaning dummy. Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) is withdrawn and serious.

How about Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor? She’s such an ass-kicking delight, her likeness is still utilized twenty-four years later in Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The show ran for two seasons and stars the pinnacle of underrated actresses, Lena Headey.

Talk about a crowning accolade for Hamilton’s performance.

As a standalone, the story is very good and there’s almost no need for a sequel. Although the ending lends itself to continuation, it’s not necessary.

The movie’s greatest weakness is the same mistake made by other science fiction films like Escape from New York and Event Horizon; meaning a drastic underestimation in regards to the timeframe. The scenes that take place in the future are supposed to be set in 2029. There’s a number of technologies I doubt we’ll have within the next fifteen years.

Laser ammunition, synthetic skin cells and advanced artificial intelligence aren’t around the corner.

Oh. And there’s time travel.

But this is a silly topic of discussion, because the plot’s ‘self-contained’; the rules allotted to the story’s universe are adequate enough. An artificial intelligence develops in 1997 that learns at an exponential rate, making allowances for the suspension of disbelief.

The irony is, the film unfolds a lot like a horror movie. I’ll get more into that later on.

For now, all I’ll say is that The Terminator is a classic must-see film in the same manner The Great Gatsby’s a must-read novel.

Those without a hand in the air should stop reading here, because the rest of the review will contain spoiler-heavy analysis.

Nuance abounds in this movie, and it’s illustrative of the intelligence packed into every detail. Much of what occurs resonates thematically with the overall narrative.

For example, the recording on the girls’ answering machine states, “machines need love to,” which obviously foreshadows Sarah’s eventual encounter with the Terminator. It’s also ironically commenting on the relationship between man and machine, and the eventual fate of humanity.

Another detail akin to this is the name of the club where the Terminator finally locates Sarah. The name is Tech-Noir; which is a touch of self-referential humor. The filmmaking resonates with noir themes, and the subject matter’s heavily rooted in science fiction.

It’s self-contained because of the limits established by the timeframe. In 1984, a Terminator would indeed have to look through the phone book for every ‘Sarah Connor’ and kill them off to ensure its mission’s accomplished. It also establishes conceivable distance between the protagonist and the pursuing threat.

The audience can accept humanity’s resistance to obliteration against seemingly insurmountable odds when considering ideas like utilizing dogs to detect terminators.

As for the special effects, most hold up quite nicely. And there shouldn’t be any problem for a sophisticated viewer, given the context in which it’s made. There is obvious use of green screen on set, and some devolved CGI, but for the most part everything’s on the up-and-up.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Timeline A is the history Reese returns from, which includes all events up until 2029. Timeline B is the realm in which the film unfolds, Earth in 1984.

Presumably, the John Connor of Timeline A didn’t descend from Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, right? A terminator didn’t arrive in Timeframe A’s 1984 to attempt the same assassination?

I’m assuming Timeframe A becomes separate from reality; whatever that means. And Timeframe B will continue to unfold into an altered future.

There appears to be no residual effects from the changing of history yet. No chaos or collapse; which is nice.

I suppose the only real alteration this has on reality is the splitting of John’s lineage. He’ll now be fifty percent A and fifty percent B.

I wonder if the sequel will cover the issue of reconnecting the loop; specifically, when history B reaches 2029, even if there’s no such thing as terminators, will Reese have to travel back in time to impregnate Sarah again?

My brain hurts.

Anyway, the reason I say it unfolds like a horror movie is the impending doom that’s constant throughout. Sarah encounters terrifying scrapes with death around every turn. I don’t want to reiterate the whole plot, but consider the odds constantly stacked against her.

After escaping the police station and literally everyone dies, Reese blasts the membrane off the Terminator’s metal skeleton and dies to blow its legs off.

Yet its torso continues to crawl after Sarah and is only crushed by the pneumatic press as his fingers claw at her face.

The protagonist’s terror is stretched to the utter limit, time and time again.

For those of you still holding an arm in the air, feel free to lower it now.

If nothing else you burnt some calories today, and learned two things about yourself.

  1. You’re easily manipulated. And…
  2. You have exquisite taste in movie reviews.

Wild Things (R)

7 Stars

If you read my reviews (and I don’t know why you would; it’s mostly blow-hardy nonsense) you’ll notice I attribute merit to elaborate fight sequences.

Literally, I believe there is narrative value in a masterfully choreographed battle. To give it antagonistic slant, it might be called ‘delighting in death.’

Why? For two reasons:

1)    I can cite two credible books on writing supporting the use of violence in stories (particularly those slated for a male audience).

2)    Show me a dude that doesn’t like the gunfight from The Matrix or the ‘one versus many’ battle between Neo and unlimited Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded, and I’ll lose one more potential friend. Or even just the bar fight in The Replacements.

I feel the same about sexual content as I do violence.

It’s strenuous, but I must be even-handed about this movie; this film doesn’t deserve its stigma.

What stigma?

When I told a movie buff pal from college about watching Mulholland Drive, the reply text read: ‘Second best lesbian scene to Wild Things.’

The scene she (thought my friend was male, didn’t you?) refers to is when Denise Richards, Neve Campbell and Matt Dillon engage in a steamy threesome.

Yes it’s fun to watch, but wow it’s blown out of proportion.

This isn’t a pornographic film, Proverbial Audience.

Just because she’s scantily clad in most scenes, doesn’t detract from Richards’s performance as Kelly Van Ryan. She’s very good in this movie, just like in Starship Troopers.

Does Richards lose points for being super hot? She isn’t discussed very often.

Perhaps partially because Kelly’s midriff is bare in almost every outfit. But criticisms proclaiming an excess of skin don’t belong in my book.

So the movie is very sexualized. Without that tension, I don’t believe it’s half as enjoyable.

What is Body Heat without the sexual tension? How about Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct or Cruel Intentions or anything featuring James Bond?

[See those movies if you haven’t.]

Neve Campbell’s acting is very good. She comes off a little strong in the contrarian role. Perhaps it’s her liberal use of the ‘F-word.’

Overall she does a good job with a tough part, though.

Kevin Bacon’s solid as usual. For most of the movie he’s the thoughtful, more reserved Bacon, but towards the end a hint of his character from Diner peeks through.

Bill Murray is more reserved as well, doing more ‘bare bones’ acting than in his usual roles as the funny guy. His character’s quietly humorous, but compelling too.

Finally, Matt Dillon’s fine. I’m afraid he did what he could with a difficult role. Just like Campbell’s character, I’m not sure how to improve upon the acting performance. He could use a bit more characterization outside of being the ‘handsome and friendly smooth-talker.’

The problem is a generalized feeling you get. An awareness you’re viewing a movie that’s generally accepted as ‘good’ not ‘great,’ at its very best.

There are some minor details I can name that are more concretely weak. Such as the Van Ryan family’s ability to live above the law.

But overall, I wish I’d seen this when I was younger and unaware of the famous threesome scene. I’m afraid I would have enjoyed it more without the stigma in mind.

The greatest part of this movie is the additional scenes, featured at the beginning of the rolling credits. The shots tie up all loose ends (most of which the audience is unaware of), and twist the story in a few final (and rather satisfying) ways.

Overall, Wild Things is very good. It’s well made, features an intricate storyline and is just a lot of fun. Plus, it’s available for instant streaming via Netflix.

Movie fans! If you’ve been putting it off because you’re afraid the quality’s ‘ungood,’ now’s the time to watch it.

There. You have my permission.

Check Wild Things off the list.