Friday, May 31, 2013

Before Midnight (2013)


After the guy gets the girl and the screen fades into the credits at the end of a movie, that’s it; you can only imagine if they stay together forever or call it quits sometime down the road.  In Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third film in the ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy, the guy and girl stayed together, had kids, and now are maneuvering through all of the problems of middle age every one in the audience is going through as well.

In 1994’s Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) spent an entire night walking around Vienna, falling in love, and vowed at the end to meet again six months later.  Not too many of us in the theater can relate to that.  In 2004’s Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet up nine years later and spend the entire day walking around Paris falling back in love.  Nope, not too many of us are identifying with that either. 

But in Before Midnight, they have been together for nine years and are building resentments, annoyances, and their fair share of grievances.  Everybody can relate to this.  Nobody on Earth has the conversations that Jesse and Celine have.  They hop easily from subject to subject, never stumble into so much as an awkward pause in conversation, and still share new and interesting stories with each other even after having been together so long.  A lot of these conversations feel improvised between Hawke and Delpy.  They know their characters so well now after playing them in three films, they know exactly what they will say in particular situations.

Hawke and Delpy talk on and on as the slowly stroll towards a retreating camera in noticeably long takes.  The scenery is always a supporting character in these movies and this time they are vacationing in the South Peloponnese in Greece.  The camera watches the sunset, lingers on ruins, and unlike its previous brothers, settles into a hotel room for a relationship-defining fight.  This choice is an abrupt departure from the usual café, garden, and sidewalk settings.

The ‘Before Sunrise’ films are extremely wordy but not overly verbose.  I like listening to these two banter back and forth.  In Before Sunrise, it was too easy to sit back and watch two 23-year-olds sort of show off for one another.  In Before Midnight, it feels like work now as Jesse and Celine.  There is an extremely long argument with accusations being hurled back and forth that makes us feel like kids wishing our parents would stop fighting.  Jesse and Celine know each other’s buttons and how to effectively poke them.

In 1994, there would be no reason to imagine a 41-year-old Jesse with three kids and a chronic, simmering tension with his wife.  Revisiting him so many years later is at once comforting to check-in on an old friend, but also disconcerting.  We have grown older along with Jesse and Celine and have settled into routines that we swore would not happen when we were in our early-20s.  Linklater based these characters on himself and a girl he met while travelling through Philadelphia and walked around with all night.  It’s only natural that at some point, Jesse and Celine stop walking around and start building a life together which gets messy and complicated.

Before Midnight is an extremely rare example of a Chapter 3 after boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.  Now it’s boy argues with girl concerning domestic chores, child rearing, and work-life balance.  Jesse and Celine are brutally honest with one another to a point where most couples could not recover.  However, most couples do not have philosophical sparring matches about the nature of the self or the perception of time that our two protagonists nonchalantly throw back and forth at each other at will.    

The three films of the ‘Before’ trilogy are Gen. X’s romantic arc.  Jesse and Celine were laid back and aloof, edged a bit more towards serious matters, and end up hurling verbal daggers at each other in and around an ancient Greek landscape.  It can be hard to watch, but we are so invested in these characters by now we’ll take what we can get after every nine-year break.

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Iceman (2013)

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) had a choice.  He was not born into a mafia family and he was not pulled in ala Michael Corleone.  Gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) gave him a choice.  Either get out of the car or go over there and murder that bum as your initiation.  Kuklinski got out of the car alright, but he got right back in after completing his assignment.  The Iceman does not tell you to feel bad for Kuklinski for getting caught up in the racket, he chose his life.
I suppose if you happen to be good at finding unique ways to murder folks and have the stomach for it, contract killer is a career where you don’t mind getting up in the morning to go to work.  Kuklinski probably never had a case of the Mondays.  Estimates of Kuklinski’s total body count range from 100 to 250.  What kind of guy has the tenacity to murder that many people over the span of 20 years?  As it turns out, a devoted family man is just the guy who can get it done.
Kuklinski marries Deborah (Winona Ryder), they have two well-adjusted and precocious daughters, and they settle in an upscale New Jersey suburb.  Deborah comes across early on as naïve and gullible concerning her husband’s vocation and later on chooses to ignore some glaring warning signs that all is not right.  One can forgive her for not jumping to the conclusion that her husband is one of the most effective murderers this side of the Mississippi, but what kind of self-delusions does it take to not ask a few questions when the professed currency trader’s daughter is deliberately run over in the street? 
Based on a true story, the movie Kuklinski appears to have a better disposition than his true life counterpart.  Michael Shannon plays him extremely dry and stoic, but earnest.  Any perceived slight, either physical or verbal, may lead to murder.  This is not a guy you want to get stuck talking to at a party.  He wears sunglasses while indoors, only speaks in short, staccato sentences, and exudes an overall child molester vibe. 
The early displays of Kuklinski’s temper hit harder; he slices a guy’s throat open for bad-mouthing his girlfriend in a pool hall.  This scene is juxtaposed to Kuklinski’s awkward first date with Deborah as they are just getting to know one another.  What Deborah sees in this guy we can only guess at.  He hardly speaks but seems to jump to the front of the boyfriend line when he remarks that she is prettier than Natalie Wood.  Kuklinski’s later murder scenes are just him going through the motions.  Perhaps this is director Ariel Vromen’s intent; we become bored with Kuklinski’s monotonous killing just as he did. 
A certain tedium is inherent in most biopics.  They are straight, linear stories and almost always end up overstaying their welcome (Walk the Line, Ray, etc…) as they run out of steam.  By the time Kuklinski is dicing up bodies and putting them on ice with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), I just wish we could skip to the end.  I get it; he kills people but loves his family.  Now pick up the pace.  I’m not asking for a frenetic-paced Iron Man or Fast and Furious, but Kuklinski the man is too plodding and stone-faced to look at for two hours. 
Frequently, a famous face pops up to counteract the overbearing Kuklinski.  We run into a heavily-mustachioed David Schwimmer, endure a very brief interlude with James Franco, and watch a very upset Stephen Dorff yell a lot as Kuklinski’s jailbird brother.  Ray Liotta checks in every 20 minutes or so playing the same character Ray Liotta has played in every single movie he has been in the last 10 years; menacing and threatening. 
The story behind The Iceman would be a good read in The New Yorker but would most likely be one to avoid if it was a TV movie.  Since this version has Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder, it is worth it if you love movies about contract killers, but I am pretty sure there is something better on right now you could be watching.    
Directed by:  Ariel Vromen
Written by: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny A. Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, James Franco, Stephen Dorff

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Hangover Part III (2013)


The Hangover series is tired.  It was tired even before The Hangover Part II two years ago.  The Hangover trilogy is the new penultimate example of where the first film makes a ton of money and the studio squeezes two more sequels out of it even though there is no story to tell.  The overall impact is that the first film, which was so original and hysterical, is dragged down to the bottom of the barrel because of its two worthless brothers tacked on to it.

What made The Hangover (2009) so good was how it came out of nowhere.  The major laughs and events of their crazy, drunken night happened off screen and the audience didn’t see those events until pictures in the credits.  Brilliant.  Then The Hangover Part II (2011) repeated the exact same thing, but in Bangkok.  Just because it is set in a foreign locale doesn’t make it better.  In fact, there were plenty of times when Las Vegas was more foreign than Thailand.

Now writer/director Todd Phillips unloads The Hangover Part III on us.  What a superfluous nothing.  At least the formula is different; nobody blacks out and then has to piece the missing debauchery back together.  Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) are escorting Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to a center called ‘New Horizons’ which is supposed to somehow cure him of being a 42-year-old adolescent.  Mean gangster Marshall (John Goodman) and his henchman Black Doug (Mike Epps) kidnap ‘The Wolfpack’ because they are searching for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) for some missing gold or something; it really doesn’t matter.

This is all just an excuse to get the old gang back together for the audience, set them up for more hijinks and shenanigans, and hopefully rake in another cool half billion dollars or so for Warner Bros.  So tired.  Mr. Chow has a much bigger part than past films and gets naked again, Doug disappears for almost the entire movie again, and Alan is that much more tedious to endure.  Alan must have a version of Asperger’s Syndrome because he is still overtly rude and misreads every single social situation.  This was so effective in the first film because it was so new and outrageous.  Now it’s just a caricature of earlier success but just throttled to death.

The Hangover did not need to be a trilogy.  There were never any cliffhangers; the story required no tying up with a bow.  They brought Melissa McCarthy in for this sequel because her name sells movie tickets at the moment and the script needs all the help it can get even though she is just there to be a female version of Alan, which is not funny.  Alan gets on our nerves and now they give us a double dose of him in the same scene.

The horse is dead.  The search for easy money and lazy writing thoroughly beat it death.  Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis should turn their backs on this franchise and never look back.  Todd Phillips, who scored with Old School (2003) and the first Hangover should stop plagiarizing himself and snoop around his old, dusty basement to find his creativity. 

Stay away from The Hangover Part III.  Everyone involved with it is just sleepwalking through it for the easy paycheck.  Take a look at Hollywood’s Memorial Day offerings this year.  There is this Part III, The Fast and the Furious 6, and Before Midnight, the final part of its own trilogy.  Are they really that hard up for original screenplays or are they so risk averse we get needless sequel after sequel?  

Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy, Jeffrey Tambor, Heather Graham, Mike Epps

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)


I am not a Star Trek purist so I will provide limited commentary on the merits of the series reboot and the mighty convenient back-in-time plot device that allows for an entire new future for all of the same and familiar characters.  For those who think the idea sacrilege, at least you get a new Star Trek story to kick around and more ammunition to use in your debates about new vs. old.  Oh, there is a lot of old.

The omnipresent debate and battle of wills between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is the dominant theme woven throughout the action-heavy Star Trek Into Darkness.  Kirk leads by the seat of his pants and acts according to his gut, which is the most illogical leadership method Spock can think of.  Settled in earlier films, the punch line is that the two Star Fleet officers complement each other and combined make the perfect Captain for The Enterprise.  Into Darkness just provides a few more scenarios for this obvious fact to sink in.

After a splashy Raiders of the Lost Ark beginning with angry natives chasing Kirk, he deliberately chooses to break the Prime Directive.  Has any Star Fleet Captain ever followed that pesky rule to the letter?  He would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for that goody-two-shoes Spock – the man whose life he saved.  This cues up about two hours worth of morality and ethics-driven philosophy discussion; they even have time to argue about it during volcano explosions and one-on-one hand combat with bad guys.

At least the personality differences between our two leads has more screen time than an awkward sub-plot involving relationship difficulties between Spock and Uhuhra (Zoe Saldana).  To its discredit, Into Darkness mostly ignores The Enterprise’s key supporting crewmates including Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Uhura, but Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets some time in the limelight.  Bones (Karl Urban) is unfortunately becoming more of a caricature of DeForest Kelly than an actual character as his cast mates are achieving.  This is not his fault as an actor, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof are choosing to write him this way.  Quinto is especially good as the new Spock and John Cho surprises with just a glimpse of what Sulu is capable of before the movie goes back to ignoring him.

Even Zachary Quinto is outshined by the best actor out of them all though, Benedict Cumberbatch.  Known almost exclusively as Britain’s new Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch finally gets his chance to play Moriarty for once.  As the film’s main villain, Cumberbatch is ice cold, brilliant, baritone-voiced, and steals every single scene he is in.  I would have liked a bit more brains than brawn in this area, excluding a tense ship-to-ship human luge while dodging space debris.  Solving problems and certain death again and again using fists instead the mind is more in the Jason Bourne arena than Star Trek.            

Cumberbatch and Quinto are really the only reasons I give a positive review to the film.  The score is atrociously melodramatic and over-the-top to the point of distraction and the production design, specifically The Enterprise’s bridge, is ridiculous.  The bridge would be too neon for the Vegas strip.  However, seeing what London and San Francisco look like in the year 2259 is well done.  Star Trek is all about looking up and out into the unknown; however, these brief glimpses of two major future cities are more than intriguing. 

The script latches onto a reliable and effective villain, cheats on character development except for Kirk and Spock, and contains multiple references to contemporary issues.  The most blatant of these is the ongoing debate concerning drone strikes.  As expected, Kirk is all for launching justice-serving revenge attacks from afar while Spock advocates for arrest and trial.  I suppose they’ll have to compromise and meet in the middle once again – just like they always do.

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

John Dies at the End (2013)

John Dies at the End desperately wants to label itself a cult classic, the kind shown at midnight screenings.  Those are usually reserved for the likes of Rocky Horror, the original Tron, or worst movie of all time candidates like The Room and Troll 2.  John Dies at the End is nowhere near good enough for classic status and it is only run-of-the-mill horrible, not Troll 2 horrible.  It won’t achieve midnight screening status, it will achieve #3.95 Wal-Mart DVD bin status.
Perhaps the 2007 book (written by Jason Pargin under the pseudonym David Wong) it is adapted from is unfilmable since the screenplay is so choppy and incomprehensible it ends making no sense at all.  All the kids in town are taking a new street drug named ‘soy sauce’.  When you’re on the sauce, you can see the future, see the past, travel to alternate dimensions, and also get to make up your powers as you go along.  About every 20 minutes or so, a character on the sauce will reveal a new power when the plot demands it. 
Told in flashback by sauce-head Dave (Chase Williamson) to rumpled-looking reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), the story hops around from yesterday to a few years ago.  John (Rob Mayes) took the sauce first, died, came back to life, travelled with Dave to another dimension to save the world, and now they are some sort of ghostbusting team fighting evil demons.  Actually, I have no idea if John really does die or not; this movie does its best to make sure you have no idea what is going on.  The first draft of these plot points must have been written on a bar napkin and then typed up in screenplay format by a different person who had no idea what the cryptic and illegible notes meant.  The main plot point and ideas in the movie do not connect with one another. 
There are enormous and creepy looking spiders, demons composed of all the meat from an overstocked meat locker, and a very aware dog named Bark Lee who follows Dave around.  It all adds up to nothing.  The dead-pan humor is part film noir, B-grade horror film, and black comedy sci-fi flick.  A doorknob turns into a penis for no reason at all; at least none that writer/director Don Coscarelli decided to figure out.  Coscarelli also wrote and directed the much superior Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) which has the same dry humor but has an actual plot instead of unintelligible and ill-explained vignettes.
John Dies at the End is a great title but do not give the movie the satisfaction of ever claiming it is a cult classic; that’s just what it wants you to do.  The story had such potential.  A drug with the awesome name soy sauce which heightens your senses, perceptions, mind powers, etc… and acted in such a straight-forward, cool and collected manner is the foundation of an engaging film.  Why deliberately muck it all up with nonsense plot holes, meaningless asides, and the whole alternate dimension bit? 
Do yourself a favor and make the choice.  Make the choice to not press ‘watch’ on Netflix.  Make the choice to leave John Dies at the End forever more languishing at the bottom of the $3.95 bin.  I believe in you.
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Written by: Don Coscarelli, David Wong
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)


Show me The Great Gatsby without the ‘Directed By’ in the credits and I will tell you Baz Luhrmann directed it.  There are a handful of directors whose visual style is so distinctive you can recognize their work a mile away; Wes Anderson is another director on that short list.  Luhrmann wants his films to move fast, he displays frenetic intensity by the use of edits and jump cuts.  The opening half hour of Moulin Rouge! is unforgettable by how fast it moves, even without the help of hallucinogenic absinthe.  A sizeable minority of folks are put off by Luhrmann’s style; they think it too fast and furious.  I raise my hand as a fan though.  

One of many things the character Jay Gatsby is known for are his outlandish and over-the-top parties.  There are fireworks, multiple brass bands, famous actresses, senators, and an unending supply of illegal Prohibition-era booze.  Luhrmann is the ideal man to have behind the camera directing a Gatsby party.  Glitter and streamers pour down upon tuxedoed gentlemen and their flapper wives and mistresses while more contemporary music pounds in the background with a Jazz Age tweak.  Executive Producer Jay-Z gets more than his far share of soundtrack contributions.  But can Luhrmann conjure up the more serious aspects of the Gatsby story with as much aplomb?

Retelling and often told tale to an audience familiar with its overarching themes, but does not necessarily all the details, is the challenge Luhrmann walked into with the courage to tell us a story most of us already know.  You know how much courage Luhrmann has?  He actually made The Great Gatsby in 3-D.  Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws gargantuan parties at his Long Island estate to lure the one who got away, Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan), back into his open and obscenely rich arms.  Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator, Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, and coincidentally, Daisy’s cousin.  To complete the love triangle, there is Daisy’s husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who hails from old money and probably a mother who finds it difficult to love him.

Luhrmann and frequent co-screenwriter Craig Pearce latched on to some of the more notable motifs from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.  The rotating green light illuminating Daisy’s mansion across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion mesmerizes him.  It taunts him, mocks him, or perhaps represents Daisy as if she is calling out to him to rescue her.  But Daisy is just a main cog along with a myriad of other cogs in Gatsby’s fantasies.  His past is too fantastical to be true, especially when told with such braggadocio and flair.  Besides, Daisy is an emotional child yet can be self-aware at times such as when she wishes her always off-screen child will grow up to be a fool.

There is no more need to discuss plot; most of us dissected the novel in high school.  Does Luhrmann bring something new to the table?  The most famous predecessors are the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and the 1949 version with Alan Ladd and Betty Field.  Luhrmann’s version is certainly louder, gaudier, and has the pacing of a frightened rabbit compared to its more contemplative ancestors.  1922 New York City is also more realized.  

Luhrmann is a master of place.  Moulin Rouge! (2001) is mostly remembered for its take on Belle Epoque Montmarte, I recall a gritty, urban scape from Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Australia’s outback was its own character in Australia (2008).  1922 New York City and its surroundings are front and center in Gatsby.  The powdered-coal and soot stained no-man’s land between Long Island and the city with the oculist advertisement is evocatively created from the novel’s descriptions.  The thunderous Dusenberg’s racing over the Queensboro Bridge make you want to get up and actually go visit that time before air conditioning. 

Just as the Moulin Rouge parties were the highlight of that film, the Gatsby parties are the pinnacle of this one.  Luhrmann’s thudding intensity does not resonate during the rest of the film; however, maybe that is a blessing because it gives the audience a break.  Gatsby and Daisy’s meeting requires a certain weight the preview hinted at but the real film did not produce.  It is more flippant and lighter than a meeting between these two long-absent lovebirds need.  Maguire is an effective Carraway because he knows to keep to the background where his mundane and more levelheaded character belongs.  Nick Carraway may tell us the story, but it is not his; it is Gatsby’s.  

Luhrmann’s Gatsby fails to land with the impact I expected.  I wanted the story’s themes of decadence, regrets, new vs. old, and wishful thinking to land louder than the booming bass from the speakers.  That was wishful thinking on my part.  Just like the best song from the preview, Filter’s version of ‘Happy Together’, what I was looking for did not make the final cut.

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan, Jason Clarke