Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bad Words, Thor: The Dark World, Particle Fever

Bad Words
Dir. Jason Bateman
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After spending years on the infamous Hollywood "Black List" for the best unproduced screenplays, Jason Bateman finally took it upon himself to star in and direct for the first time Andrew Dodge's dark comedy script.  Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a foul-mouthed, immature, but brilliant asshole who loopholes his way into a national spelling bee for reasons we learn incrementally throughout the film.  Bateman proves with Bad Words that not only can he direct well, but turn in a solid dramatic performance.

This truly earns its title of 'black comedy,' with Bateman fearlessly playing what's pretty much a sociopathic character for laughs, and it totally works.  I'm also just a sucker for pissed-off older guy paired with young kid movies (like Bad Santa and Bad Grandpa...I guess any comedy that starts with the word 'bad').  It's just pure fun to hear Bateman spew off one snappy, outrageously offensive line after the other in front of the most innocent, wide-eyed kid (played by Rohan Chand, who you may recognize from Lone Survivor).  I don't want to give much away, but I really had a good time with this one.  Although sometimes it did go a little too far (exposing a young kid to prostitutes and alcohol was a bit much), and the overall "brown" look of the film wasn't especially pleasing to the eye, Bad Words was really funny and surprisingly touching.

Rating: B

Thor: The Dark World
Dir. Alan Taylor
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Thor is fucking boring. There's not a lot to him: he's this all-powerful god with a big hammer and he's trying to save the universe.  Thor: The Dark World, Marvel's post-Avengers sequel to the equally dunder-headed Thor, still doesn't add much dimension to the character.  With a plot right out of a (bad) video game, there's some race of pointy-eared alien dudes that really hate all the Gods in Asgard, but luckily they were destroyed a while ago.  But for no particular reason at all Thor's Earthling GF Jane (Natalie Portman) gets sucked into some vortex and some sort of red goo gets inside of her and that unleashes all the pointy-eared dudes...I really don't know.  The plot of this film is pointlessly confusing and uninteresting.

While the film does have some fun moments of comedic relief, mostly coming from Kat Dennings, they don't outweigh the unbearably self-serious and illogical plot.  The film is filled with great acting talent doing the best with their roles (I think Hemsworth and Hiddleston totally own their roles as Thor and Loki), there's just not much substance to this film.  It feels like one giant "Avengers" circle-jerk made for comic book fans to spend more of their money on a recognizable property.  Maybe some people like this kind of "turn your brain off" CG action film, but I thought Thor was a total bore.  Honestly reminded me of Attack of the Clones.

Rating: D

Particle Fever
Dir. Mark Levinson
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One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in recent history has been the Large Hadron Collider.  It's been covered by every news outlet and physicists everywhere are claiming that the results of this massive experiment could explain everything in the universe - but still I have no idea what it actually is.  And although it still goes way over my head after watching the documentary Particle Fever, I do have a newfound appreciation for all the tireless work put in by thousands of people from many, even warring, countries.

Directed by an actual particle physicist, the film does a good job of getting us into the headspace of these brilliant minds, young and old.  I really liked how the film shared with us the genuine wonder of these people: to them a blip on a screen was like winning the lottery.  I also really like the juxtaposition of them working with the smallest particles in existence to answer the biggest questions imaginable. The film was edited by Walter Murch, probably one of the most famous film editors of all time (he literally wrote "the book" on editing), and it definitely has a great flow.  Even though I had no clue what was going on, just watching these experts' move their hands across a chalkboard and pour out these long equations was strangely spellbinding.  While Particle Fever may not have been that "for-dummies" explanation I was looking for, it was still an interesting story on the human side of things.

Rating: B

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel, Enemy, Tim's Vermeer Reviews

Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
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Wes Anderson is one of those directors whose singular vision is so strong, most criticism falls to pure taste.  For his eighth feature film, he yet again delivers a painterly-perfect film, shot with vibrant colors, immaculate set design, very precise camera movements, rich costume design, and just about every big-name star that could fit under one roof.  This particular roof belongs to the Grand Budpest Hotel - the goings-on of which we are presented Inception-style via three different timelines.  The "main" story takes place in 1932, in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, where M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) steal the painting "Boy with Apple," the prize object of a family fortune (headed by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in old lady makeup).  What follows is part-heist, part-slapstick, part-dissemblance of the nature of storytelling that is obsessed with its own quirkiness.

Now, don't get me wrong, if you consider yourself a Wes Anderson fan, you'll probably love The Grand Budpest Hotel; it's got everything you expect (to the point where it's almost a parody of itself) and as an added bonus is surprisingly violent at times - but I just couldn't get into it.  This type of ultra-quirk simply doesn't make me laugh or excited, and while I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into producing this strange little vibrant caper, I just did not care about the plot or characters enough to be invested.  Anderson's work always feels a little too artificial to me - with his symmetrical compositions and an ultra-clean look - almost as if we're looking at a dollhouse instead of an actual hotel.  And while it was interesting to frame the story in this "meta" narrative, it seemed to me more like Anderson making a comment on his own work and how he "borrowed" ideas from other artists to make them his own (one scene in particular is ripped right from Hitchcock).  I'm sure the film is brilliantly constructed if you peel back the layers and analyze it, but on a personal level, I just found the film too...Wes Anderson-y.

Rating: C+

Dir. Denis Villeneuve
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The last time director Denis Villeneuve and Prince of Persia Jake Gyllenhaal got together, they made one of my favorite films of last year, Prisoners, so as you could imagine, I was eager to see what they'd come up with next.  Enemy is another thriller, this time about a history teacher who finds his doppelganger in the background of a movie rental and decides to track him down.  The events that follow after that I can't explain to you.  Not for spoiler reasons, but I actually have no idea what the fuck I watched.  While I'm certain there are meanings to the madness that is Enemy (the film even begins with the quote "Chaos is order yet undeciphered"), this is one of those head-scratchers that will leave you with nothing but questions by the end.  This film is very cold, humorless, and at no point will it hold your hand through this mess.  If you're really into this kind of challenging filmmaking (such as Upstream Color or Primer), you may find yourself fascinated, but I personally found it frustrating and unrewarding to sit through.  While it's certainly unique, and has one of the most inexplicably freaky endings to a film I've ever seen, I ultimately found this too much of a slog, and none of the characters have much spark to them.

Rating: C-

Tim's Vermeer
Dir. Teller
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I've always been a huge Penn & Teller fan (I was even lucky enough to see them in Vegas!), so I definitely made an effort to check out Teller's directorial debut.  Tim's Vermeer, though, isn't about the magician duo at all - it's about Penn's close friend Tim Jenison, the inventor of various TV equipment (Video Toaster, TriCaster), who in his spare time became fascinated with the 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer and how closely his paintings resembled video in how they portrayed reality.  The film is essentially Tim's painstaking 6-year journey in trying to reproduce one of Vermeer's classic works using techniques that could have been used in that time period to uncover the mystery plaguing art historians for centuries: how did Vermeer paint his paintings?  Although the documentary had some noticeably amateurish mistakes (such as camera people appearing in mirrors and an inconsistent video/audio quality), I absolutely loved this film.  Much like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this is about a man driven to perfection, while also bringing to mind what exactly makes art "art."  I think anyone with even a passing interest in art or just people who have ever been obsessed over their own work should connect with this very interesting, funny, even moving film.

Rating: A-

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The LEGO Movie, The Wind Rises, Labor Day

Hey guys...sorry I haven't kept up with my reviews as of late.  It's been like a month since I saw The LEGO Movie and Labor Day, so I apologize for my tardiness.  I'm having less and less time to write reviews as I start finishing up my last undergrad year, but luckily March looks like a crap month for movies (except for Noah, which I really hope turns out great).  Anyway, thanks for reading - I actually do appreciate it!

The LEGO Movie
Dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Much like Frozen, The LEGO Movie is yet another film added to the pantheon of 'movies I want people to shut the fuck up about.'  Seriously - seemingly everyone is talking about this nostalgic animated feature like it's the second coming of Christ.  Don't get me wrong, I actually really liked The LEGO Movie, but it just never reached the heights of some of Pixar's best works.  This is a loud, overbearing adventure that throws just about everything at you to get your attention.  That being said, the animation in this film is absolutely incredible; EVERYTHING in the film is "made" out of LEGO, from water, to fire, even the explosions.  Although it was created on a computer, it's practically photo-realistic and the physics of it make the film feel like you actually are playing with LEGOs (though sometimes the movie got so detailed it was hard to see what was happening).  The characters range from charming (Chris Pratt's Emmet) to downright annoying (Alison Brie's "Unikitty"), and while much of the humor seemed to land with general audiences - some touting it as 'genius' - I personally thought some of the jokes felt forced and more juvenile than I was expecting.  I won't go into spoilers (I'm sure most of you have already seen this anyway), but I didn't care for the ending and wish it was handled a little less heavy-handedly.  The mixed message of the film didn't sit well with me either (that being an "anti-corporate" film based entirely on the LEGO brand).  Overall though, there are some gags that worked for me (Will Arnett's take on Batman was pretty great), the animation was top-notch, and although this movie gave me a headache, I have to recognize its craftsmanship.

Rating: B

The Wind Rises
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Supposedly the last film from master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is somewhat of a biopic on Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft designer during WWII.  As you would expect from a Studio Ghibli film, the animation is gorgeous, and unlike many of the western animated features we're used to (ie Frozen and The LEGO Movie), this has a very calming effect that doesn't blast a billion pixels at your head in 3D, like looking at a watercolor painting.  This is a very rich, contemplative film about the unfortunate paths one must take to achieve their dreams.  Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt in the American version), wants nothing more than to be a master airplane engineer, constantly perfecting his drawings and concepts (not unlike Miyazaki himself), but at the cost of building them for the use of bombing.  This may be Miyazaki's most "realistic" film (that I've seen), but he still manages to make everything super-detailed and brings us into this world of airplanes and 1930's Japan in a way you've never seen before.  Not much is brought up about the ethics of what the characters do in this film however, to my frustration, and some scenes in the middle are quite sluggish, but if you're able to look past that, The Wind Rises is a beautifully-crafted, very personal swan song from one of the greatest animators of all time.

Rating: B-

Labor Day
Dir. Jason Reitman

While I thought Reitman's last picture, the fantastic and underrated Young Adult, was one of the best of that year, Labor Day was, you could say, a labor to watch (I apologize for that pun).  The melodramatic plot is told from the perspective of Henry Wheeler (played by Gattlin Griffith and narrated by Tobey Maguire) who lives with his depressed mom (Kate Winslet).  While shopping, an escaped prisoner, Frank (Josh Brolin), forces them to provide shelter.  Then one thing leads to another and Frank turns into the husband and father that was missing from their lives, making things complicated as the cops start their hunt.

Though Winslet and Brolin make for an exciting pair, the film never really takes off.  The main kid is an absolute bore to watch (he took lessons from the Kristen Stewart school of acting), and some of the dialogue was cringe-inducing, especially all the unnecessary allusions to incest that pop up over and over.  This is disappointing coming from Reitman, who usually handles human relationships really well in his films.  I would just stay away from this one.  (Fun Fact: exactly one shot in this film, when there's a flashback on a teacup ride, was shot in my hometown of Salem, NH).

Rating: D+
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