Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

You know, the raging success of Christopher Nolan and his launch into the public's consciousness is something of a curiosity. Not because he doesn't deserve, far from it. But because his films, at their core, are so...anti-Hollywood. Reading off his plot summaries to his films on the basic, bare-bones level (i.e. a thriller told in non-chronological order, a murder mystery with Robin Williams, two Batman movies without flamboyant campiness and crotch close-ups, a film about dreams within dreams within dreams) and they sound like the filmography of an experimental, Harmony Kornie wannabe, Dogme 95 enthusiast. These films should not be loved by the public and be  such large blockbuster smash hits, when you get right down to it. There are way too intricate and ingenious to be beloved by such public masses.

But there is a God. Thank you, God. OK, maybe I should give audiences more credit. Every now and then, smartness triumphs over spectacle. However, the genius of Nolan is that he meshes both, making visually lavish, eye-popping, entertaining films that are feverishly seminal and thoughtful. Case in point, Interstellar.

As someone who made it through Inception just fine, my mind is chortling a bit with satisfaction and irony, in the sense that I can actually describe the plot. Essentially, the plot takes place in a stark, empty time in Earth's future. Dust storms are a constant occurrence and mankind has surrendered themselves to an agricultural society. Cooper is a former NASA pilot, now a farmer, living with his son, Tom, his father-in-law, Donald, and his daughter, Murph. While trying to find the origin of a strange, possibly supernatural occurrence, Cooper and Murph end up at a NASA facility. It turns out that a wormhole has been discovered in the solar system and it is up to Cooper to fly the rocket through that wormhole and get mankind onto the new worlds present in this wormhole.

At least, I think that's the plot. Or maybe it's my shitty describing skills. And that certainly can't be true.

Honestly, the movie can be a little hard to follow at times. However, even while I was lost on occasion, I still was in an intense state of wonderment from the start. Nolan beautifully generates an incredible sense of atmosphere. The shots of Earth at its time are so matter-of-fact and yet powerful that your mood almost get dragged down to complement the tone and feel of that environment, what with the desolate, austere landscapes and the ravenous dust storms. I've always said that if there's any sci-fi film that should be remade, it should be Mad Max (Really, people? Am I supposed to be intimidated by bad-acting, motorcycle-riding pansies?). However, I retract that statement, because this film takes that similar minimal, frighteningly simple perspective on the future of Earth and applies it to much, much greater and haunting effect.

And then that competence for creating atmosphere translates over to the space and wormhole sequences. It is so astonishing that I had a hard time telling what was green screen, what was real, or what was a soundstage. I don't know if any of it was used, but it doesn't matter because whatever method was used gives the movie at least one extra bonus point.

This film actually marks the first movie I have seen in IMAX (at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, none the less). I don't know how this plays at a regular theatre or how it will play when viewed on Blu-Ray, but in IMAX...damn. The sound is so intense that I felt that the deeply resonant vibrations from the speakers were going to give me a heart attack, although I don't know whether or not that goes without saying. I will say that, even though this is probably thanks to the cinematography, it looks gorgeous. And this film has some of the most beautifully shot water sequences I've seen in a film. They are crisp and whopping. And, while on the subject on visuals, they rank from suspense-inducing (i.e. dust storm chases) to jaw-droppingly spectacular (i.e. I will not reveal them).

To me, the actual greatest visual of the film is...the actors. I swear Nolan is gonna go through every other great actor he didn't work with and work with them, just so he can give them another great performance to put on their resumes. All of the actors are gut-wrenchingly effective, including an appearance in the second half of the film by an actor, who was not in the advertising and I will not spoil for you. Michael Caine portrays Professor Brand, the commissioner of this assignment, is as he always he is: refined, thinking one step ahead, and of course, awesome. Bill Irwin brings a comedic quality to the film as a robot called TARS. John Lithgow abandons his light-hearted, goofy persona for the role of father-in-law Donald, who Lithgow depicts with an acerbic, deadpan edge. Anne Hathaway picks up where she left off of from Les Miserables and gives us a commanding yet cathartic performance as Amelia Brand, Professor Brand's daughter, who is a crew member on this mission. Jessica Chastain, on the subject of picking up where leaving off, goes back to her Zero Dark Thirty roots, taking all of the authority, intense physical presence, and nuances as Murph. However, the big discovery to me is Chastain's younger counterpart, Mackenzie Roy, as a young Murph. A film so heavy and detailed in structure as this calls for actors who can live up to the challenge and Roy shows potential for greater roles, pulling off her scenes with valiance, vulnerability, and authenticity.

And then there's Matthew McConaughey as Cooper. How? How did this happen? Where did this side of you come from, Matthew? How did you, you, the co-star of lackluster films, such as Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, all of a sudden make a turn for the past four years as a dramatic actor. I don't where it came from, but all I can say is I'm a fan. His character is portrayed as quick-witted, courageous, and kind of stoic, which gives McConaughey a starting point for a stalwart performance that he also incorporates moment of shattering fragility. Plus, his dynamic with his daughter is the perfect juxtaposition with the relationship between Professor Brand and Amelia Brand. The way the film subtly reveals that aspect without drawing too much attention to it is a sly script decision.

Speaking of the script, it fucking commands this movie. Nolan co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan. Some viewers might become perplexed and confused during some of the film. However, one of the joys of the film is that Nolan drops in additional details to keep the viewer up to speed and sane. However, in the big scheme of things, the structure of the script is the excellence of the film. Nolan often has an inclination to utilize multiple layers on a screenplay. They're never simple and that is certainly the case here. I don't want to go into any additional plot details, as to avoid revealing any other details, because I want it to be as fresh for you as it was for me. All I will say is that the ideas Nolan chooses to put on display are astonishing in concept and detail. Once I was fully caught up with the director, I was in giddy awe, just waiting for Nolan to add something new and different. And he doesn't disappoint. The ideas he poses about the parameters and boundaries, or possibly lack thereof, of space and time are utterly intriguing from beginning to end. And while the screenplay is certainly intelligent, it never feels technical, as it realizes that an emotional resonance is necessary. And it does pack quite a punch, especially at its conclusion.

Viewing the trailers for this, it reminded me of Gravity, currently unseen by me. While that film seems tense and taut, this film is complex and cerebral, as well as enlightening. I actually could name an array of films this reminds me of (i.e. Apollo 13, Armageddon, Inception) and despite that, it still stands firmly on its own as an original and engrossing cinematic gem. It's one of those films that grips you, nails digging into your skin, but you surrender all of your sensibilities until the screen turns black and you sit there, contemplating and understanding what you have just seen. It plays, oddly enough, as a good double feature with the 1993 film, Gettysburg, in the way in that both films showcase grand, sweeping visual set pieces and makes them share their importance with the film's shrewdness and intellectual ambition. As much as I praise the film, I can't say that it gave me as big a sense of eureka and euphoria as Inception. But you know what, I'll be hyped to obtain the DVD, so I can watch it nine or ten times and retract that statement. In a time where films can be so simple and straightforward, it's incredibly liberating to see something so intricate and yet so goddamn entertaining.

RATING: Three-and-three-quarters stars out of four

Monday, August 11, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

*sigh* I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so sorry, movie! I’m sorry for judging you based on the trailers. I’m sorry for thinking this was gonna be Marvel, Jr. I’m sorry that I tried to keep my perceptions, despite the 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m sorry that I almost forwent seeing this movie, in place of the possibility of seeing the sequel to a dull, imbecilic horror/thriller/dark-Hunger Games-wannabe film that came out last year.

You win, Marvel. Marry me.

Yeah, usually I try to kick my reviews off with some articulate background knowledge or something, but sometimes, you just gotta start off visceral. For someone who hasn’t seen all of the movies this year, this summer however still is looking like one of the weakest summers for movies. Judging by the trailers, some films have potential, but a lot of them look…freaking…lame. So given my tendencies to go in with a preconceived thought of how a movie’s going to be, I was not expecting much from the new Marvel adaptation, Guardians of the Galaxy. But to my greatest, grateful surprise, I found myself engaged in this film in every way. This is one of the most eccentric, quirky, and offbeat comic book films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most consistently and thoroughly entertaining.

So let’s dive in! The film’s plot is centered around a valuable orb that happens to conceal a stone that has the power to wreak mighty havoc. A young man named Peter Quill, or Starlord, was abducted and taken to the planet Morag and grew up into being an outlaw. He wants the orb because it’s valuable. Meanwhile, the evil Ronan wants the orb because he wants to cause destruction to the planet, Xandar, because…uh…I think something about his father being killed by someone from Xandar and having a grudge against Xandar, despite a peace treaty between Xandar and Morag that was enacted. Peter goes down to Xandar to sell it, but Gamora, an assassin affiliated with Ronan, swipes it from Peter. While they battle for it, a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket and a talking tree, Groot (just stay with me on this) and try to intervene, but they all end up getting imprisoned.

While in prison, it is revealed that Gamora actually plans to betray Ronan and not allow him to possess this orb because…um, damn…I seem to have forgotten. Believe me, if you see the film, there are so many other things to focus on than plot. Anyway, in prison, these four meet Drax, who has a grudge against Ronan for killing his family. So, they decided to band together as a quintet to find the orb and protect it from Ronan. Trust me, guys. Despite my complicated explanation, it’s actually not confusing in the movie. It’s kinda one of those things where you can actually follow what’s happening decently, mostly because outside of the plot, there is certainly much more to devour.

One of the many strong points of the film is the droll attitude that director/screenwriter James Gunn treats his characters with. The hero, Peter Quell, has his wry, sarcastic moments a la Tony Stark, but he isn’t uber cocky, at least not in a believable way. When he goes to steal the orb in the beginning, instead of being stealthy and cunning, he enters with his cassette player, dancing to 70s music with a self-imposed swagger. One of his primary concerns throughout the film is his cassette player. If he were ineffective, he would be the ultimate antihero. The talking tree, Groot, is this generation’s Iron Giant: powerful, clumsy, oblivious, but possesses a good heart. Consider a running joke where Groot can only say “I am Groot.” Drax is so aggressive and masculine that he doesn’t know about metaphors. And Rocket? He’s a wisecracking raccoon that gets drunk in one scene. Need I say more?

The idiosyncratic nature of the characters damn sure doesn’t get in the way of the goodies that are provided on the surface. As an action film, it fervently delivers. The special effects in the film are astonishing, very bright and colorful. The secret is that instead of being obnoxious with the effects, the film not only makes the action sequences fun and rousing, but also it never forgets the fantastical tone of the film. The world and characters of the film aren’t aggressive; therefore the effects seem even more remarkable and imaginative. Watching these sequences made me think about how much this film trumps over The Avengers. Of course, I am a big fan of that movie, but in that movie, the action sequences at times could be too taut and loaded that they could occasionally be incomprehensible. In Guardians, they’re more eye-popping because they’re looser and more flowing, thanks to cinematographer Ben Davis and editors Craig Wood, Fred Raskin, and Hughes Winborne.

And a little thing called 3D never hurt either. Sure, the film has its obvious shots that were put it just for the 3D effect, but let me say that I probably will never be able to watch a 3D film in 2D again. I never saw movies like How to Train Your Dragon and Avatar in 3D, so I don’t know that experience, but this. Damn. This may be the best 3D I’ve seen in a movie. I was moving all around in my seat because of dodging, ducking, moving my head side to side, and, in one section, gripping the arms of my seat because I thought I was falling. Looking back on it, I almost want to cry because of how damn good the action, effects, and most importantly, how it was composed and edited. Good show, guys!

However, the best effect in this movie is the other major reason why I like this film more than The Avengers: the humor. God. Damn it. I have never, repeat never, laughed so hard in a comic book movie. Instead of a review, I probably should’ve just made a 3-page list of the biggest, best laughs in the film. When Drax calls Gamora a “green whore,” it’s a big laugh. When Rocket convinces a man with a prosthetic leg that they need that prosthetic leg to help them out during chaos in the prison, only to find that Rocket was lying because he wanted to see that guy wobble, it’s a big, big laugh. My personal favorite is where the four are first arrested and Peter flips off the camera. The execution of that joke and how he does it still sticks with me and makes me chuckle. Excuse me for a minute.

OK, I’m back. Anyway, the humor is extremely witty and at times wry, in both the sarcastic and subtle form. In terms of the subtle form, just consider the scene where our five heroes are walking in a straight line in slow-motion. That trope has been used so many times that it’s perfect to satirize, but it’s even funnier, given merely the context of these characters. Also, consider the raccoon’s name, Rocket. The filmmakers take a cute little raccoon, make it a self-righteous, sarcastic jackass, and they top it off with that name, which tries to make a freaking raccoon sound badass. It’s that kind of subtlety that gives the humor multiple layers.

Even some of the violence is executed with levity. Consider a scene where Yondu, Peter’s paternal figure on Morag, uses his magical, whistle-controlled arrow on Ronan’s men. He stabs through all of them and then afterwards, all of them fall to the ground in unison. Never has violence been so abrasive and jolting and yet so broad and cartoonish.

Part of the reason the comedy works is not merely because of the ingenious script, but because of the impeccable cast. Despite the fact that some of these actors have in fact done comedy in the past, they still reveal comedic chops and timing that I didn’t except. Chris Pratt nails it at Peter, as does Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket. Zoe Saldana plays it straight and perfectly captures the quick-wit, focus, and authority of Gamora. Her being the most rational-thinking person in the group makes it funnier when she has to say, “I’ll have to die with the two biggest idiots in the world.” Dave Bautista portrays Drax with the right amount of conviction, machismo, and vulnerability. Vin Diesel, in a departure from his streak of action film roles where he just looks serious and flashes the occasional smile, voices Groot and delicately balances the character’s intense abilities yet cuddly spirit.

The sharp dynamic of the script and cast also sells the tender scenes as well. Yeah, I said it. Tender scenes. Take that, Avengers! The film begins with a young Peter on Earth, watching his mother die, presumably of cancer, and never obeyed his mother request to hold her hand, as she flatlines. This is a heavy intro for such a furiously entertaining action film. There are some scenes with a tender tone that are light in nature. There are even some touching moments that find to incorporate humor. Consider a scene where Peter opens a present that his mother gave him before she died. This happens at the end and I won’t dare spoil it, but if you find yourself crying and laughing, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Speaking of the end, stay through the credits. Usually, I’m not a fan of the credit cookie, but it’s worth it. Trust me.

This film can play as an impeccable companion piece to The Lego Movie, due to their technical competence and visual flair, sharp, witty script, vibrant energy, excellent uses of music, and the ability to transcend expectations, their genres, and age barriers. In other words, both are better than expected, both go beyond the strict confinements of their genres, and they both appeal to all ages, be it 5 years old or 85 years old. This is one of those movies where I almost feel bad talking about it on a technical level. To me, this is one of those movies where you just focus on the fact that you’re having fun watching it. In other words, this is a type of movie that makes me enjoy the movies.

And yes, I am hooked on the feeling. (hahaha It’s funnier when you see the movie)


RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Get On Up (2014)

Foreword: Yes, I will jump into this review with no acknowledgment that I haven’t posted anything for about 8 months. Hey, it’s not my fault you guys didn’t love me enough. ;-)

For a man of such prestige and remarkable skill and charisma, James Brown should probably have a whole eloquent, wordy paragraph about his influence in music and why he’s one of the greatest of all the time. However, I can’t personally conjure up any words that haven’t already been said by others to justify his greatness. So let me reiterate a common belief: James Brown rocks!

He’s one of those artists whose appreciation from me grew stronger as I grew older. As a kid, I knew he was a guy who made catchy music, including “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Get Up Offa That Thing,” two of the most overplayed soul records in history (thank you, children’s films). As I got older though, I was truly pleased to know that he was not only the Godfather of Soul, but also he was one of the pioneers of that tight, black rock called “funk music.” Not to mention, his dancing skills were otherworldly. He practically glided on the floor with rapidness and fluidity.

I bring all of this up, because if you’re looking for a film that provides insight and details into why James Brown is such a tremendous artist, you’re not gonna find it in this year’s Get On Up.

The film, through a narrative similar to Pulp Fiction, recounts James Brown’s humble yet difficult upbringing, his discovery for his love of music, and his ascent into being the musical god that we all know he is with occasional obstacles…that the movie oversteps in, like, 30 seconds for each one. Not much of a deep plot, but it isn’t one of those movies. It should be, but it isn’t.

Pondering my early film memories, one that pops into my mind frequently is my father introducing me to the 2004 classic, Ray. I remembered him from an appearance of Sesame Street, but didn’t know too much about him. My father bought it on PPV and we, as a family, watched it all together. Even for being an 8-year-old, I understood the film perfectly and as a kid, I was hypnotized by it. I think it was the first film that really made me start thinking of film as an art; an art that can portray its subjects in a way that it cuts through the souls of them and the audience. Plus, I was blown away by Jamie Foxx’s phenomenal performance of Ray Charles, as were many other critics and audience members. Not only did it transcend people’s perceptions of Jamie Foxx, but also it really re-vitalized the biopic.

Now when I first saw the advertising for this film, comparisons to Ray, inevitably, instantly penetrated my brain, even before I saw it. Immediately though, I had to brush them out of my psyche because I felt that would be an unfair standard to hold this movie to. However, about a half-hour into the movie, those comparisons I promised to forgo suddenly came rushing back to me with a vengeance.

The whole movie is practically Ray, Jr. Let’s see here. You get the less glamorous upbringing of a musical god’s childhood. Check. You get the group the musical god was a part of before he branched out on his own. Check. You get the musical god’s highly successful transition into a solo career. Check. You get the continued success of the musical god, despite the white music executive exuding hesitation. Check. You get his mistreatment of women. Check. You get the musical god transforming into an egotist, who ends up pushing away the people who stuck by him. Check. You get the heartfelt tribute in the credits with pictures and facts. CAN I GET A CHECK! That’s the crucial flaw with the movie. And boy, it is a gaping flaw! Everything’s so telegraphed and clich├ęd.

I was hyped to see this film and I found myself saddened that I would be comparing the film to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. A tragic comparison, but there it is. Both films abandon authentic emotional involvement with the subject in order to be a huge vanity project for the subject. And the worse part? The Justin Bieber movie, despite being bland and kinda confused in its composition, is actually…sigh…a better film than this. At least it’s expected. Justin Bieber is a painfully bland, mega-douche, anger-inducing, manipulative pop star, who makes bubblegum music that isn’t gonna put him on lists with MJ and Prince.

James Brown is not that guy. He’s immensely talented and deserves a film to justify his greatness. What director Tate Taylor (the helmer of The Help) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who together wrote another hit from this year, Edge of Tomorrow) gave him is a shallow, thin, underwritten vanity project that basically goes, “Look at how awesome James Brown was! Look at how good a dancer he is! Look at how…er…still on top he is!” Yeah, he is. But maybe the uninitiated would like to know why. Why was he the genius that he was? Ray really dug deep into Charles’ soul and exposed not only his genius, but his weaknesses and demons and how he had to work to defeat them.

This film does little to none of that. It’s so focused on its own excess that when it tries to go for emotion, they are terse and rushed. When we are plunged into his childhood, we barely even get to spend time in it. It gives us so little detail, but just expects us to feel for him. That’s going to back to how telegraphed the movie is. It just half-heartedly goes, “Oh, look at how different he is. Look how he’s treating the women in his life. Look at how he’s treating his friends,” without really reaching any kind of emotional resonance or depth. I guess the film figured that a way of bringing you into his life was giving Brown multiple, expository monologues where he speaks directly to the camera, but they’re so peculiar in the film that it just leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement. Hell, some story conflicts are started and resolved in the drop of a hat. Consider a scene where James Brown gets into a fight with his girlfriend, DeeDee, portrayed by Jill Scott, and then within one minute, they are making out on the bed. I’m sure the filmmakers thought of it as a way to capture how crazy love is, and it is, but in a forced manner.

The thin screenplay actually does a disservice to James Brown. Because there’s no emotional involvement or any major obstacles he had to face, Brown pretty much prances around the screen as a cocky, pretentious, self-indulgent bully. It’s not like Ray Charles where we empathize with him because we want him to win the struggle between him and his demons. It’s more like, “Wow, fuck this guy. He’s a real prick.” You don’t care about him. At least, I didn’t.

However, with all the flak I’m giving the film, I will hand this to the film: the performances, for the most part, are excellent. Aloe Blacc as one of the Famous Flames, the group James Brown was originally a part of, is really wooden, but it’s a pretty short appearance. And Jill Scott tries, but it seems like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be doing there. Dan Aykroyd as record executive Ben Bart just…plays Dan Aykroyd. Whee!

However, Chadwick Boseman does play James Brown with a lot of charisma. It’s amazing how excellently he emulates him and how tremendous a dancer he is. Plus, It’s cool that after playing Jackie Robinson in 42, he was given the opportunity to portray another icon in pop culture whose popularity doesn’t decay with time. It’s just a shame that he’s not given a whole lot to work with. The best performance, to me, was legendary actress Viola Davis as his mother. She gives an extremely heartfelt, complex performance. Her character is plunged into situations where she’s supposed to be loving, happy, annoyed, independent, vulnerable, and woesome and Davis plays her beautifully. Her monologue to her son near the end is actually one of the more authentically emotional parts of the film, despite it being part of a plotline in the movie that’s referenced an hour after its introduction, but I digress.

In addition, it is a pleasure to hear his music onscreen and there are some well-choreographed, engaging musical sequences. However, even those could quite envelope me in their spectacle, because I was too focused on wondering whether Boseman was singing or lip-synching. Personally, I am unsure, but the fact that that was my primary focus makes me deduct a couple more points.

Lemme leave you guys with this little bit of information: James Brown was involved with drugs after he fell out of the public’s consciousness. How perfect would that be to fit into the film? To show how not having anymore hit records and time on his hands and money; what all of that can do to a celebrity? They have potential there and they wasted it. In fact, that pretty much sums up most of the movie, in the context of itself and in the summer movie season. Please, please, please just buy his music or watch a documentary of Brown if you really want to pay tribute to this musical great.

RATING: Two-and-a-half stars out of four