Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Review: "Enough Said" (2013)

Pacing is an important factor to filmmaking that is often neglected and hard to describe adequately. As the actions and suspense begin to build up, the pace at which the scene moves is key. Do you take it slow to keep the audience guessing what will happen? Or do you ramp it up and get the viewers’ hearts pounding?

Of course, it’s possible to do so much of either one that it works against the film. A movie can be so slow that when something finally does happen, the audience has stopped caring and lost interest long ago, like in many Ingmar Bergman pieces. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you go too fast then there’s the risk of skimming over important plot points or sequences that the audience wanted to see, such as the terribly received “Godzilla: Final Wars.”

Ultimately, the pace at which a film should move depends entirely upon the movie itself and how it wants to make the audience feel. One thing that it should always be is consistent. A movie should never move at a brisk pace yet slow down once it gets near the end, or vice versa. 

Such is the problem with “Enough Said,” a romantic-comedy starring the late James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an aging couple who are both getting over their ex-spouses and their only children going off to college. It is revealed later on that Louis-Dreyfus’ character, who is a masseuse, has become friends with Gandolfini’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and has been unknowingly effecting how she looks at her boyfriend.

The problem with the pace of “Enough Said” is it drastically shifts once this reveal comes down on us. The first half of the movie is spent with Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini developing their relationship, cracking jokes at their own shortcomings and getting over their age problems. It feels like these two have become teenagers again when they’re around one another.

Once she learns that Gandolfini and Keener have been married before, the film suddenly slows down to a snails pace, indulging in many scenes that don’t add much to the story or ones that go no where. In fact, there is a large gap where James Gandolfini disappears from the film once the big reveal is made, as if his character has vanished from the plot.

Even the scenes that do add to the story seem to go on much longer than they should. There’s a scene where the couple have a double date with friends of theirs. As the night progresses and they become increasingly drunk, Louis-Dreyfus starts to insult Gandolfini for the smallest things, like having no night stands by his bed or that he can’t whisper. While this scene certainly has a point, it stops being comedic and instead becomes disrespectful and hard to watch.

If the filmmakers still want me to care about her character, then making her rude, stubborn and insulting is not the way to go.

Still, “Enough Said” does have elements that makes it enjoyable. As previously mentioned, the first half is simple yet captivating at getting the point across that these middle aged and flawed people are falling in love. Furthermore the film is very well handled at showing just how flawed these adults can be, such as when Louis-Dreyfus explains that she never regrets anything including her mistakes in life. These flaws lend credence to the fact they’re both divorced and their children are leaving them.

Overall though, I felt like not much was accomplished in “Enough Said.” Often relying on cliches and a predictable romantic-comedy formula, the film doesn’t feel much different from others of its genre. While the comedy is often good, it is the pacing that brings this movie down. A film should never be too fast or too slow, but one thing which always kills the piece is switching from one to the other halfway through.

Final Grade: C-

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Hopper #4

Let it be known that I did not watch these three films consecutively. Rather, I went to the movie theater three times over the past week, but due to a multitude of things getting in the way, I haven’t found the time to write reviews on any of them until now.

Still, I like to think that “The Hopper” has become my style of reviewing new releases or films that are still in theaters, even if I don’t watch them back-to-back.

“Captain Phillips” (2013)

It appears that 2013 is or will become the year of Tom Hanks.

With the release of “Captain Phillips” and Hanks’ portrayal of the real man who stood up to Somalian pirates and never backed down even after being trapped on small contained lifeboat with them for days, as well as the impending release of “Saving Mr. Banks” and Hanks attempting to pull off a loving imitation of Walt Disney, I can honestly see yet another Best Actor nomination in his future. 

Whether it’ll be for “Captain Phillips” or “Saving Mr. Banks” remains to be seen, but I’d have no qualms if he was nominated for either one. Or both.

Hey, if Meryl Streep could do it, so could Tom Hanks.

Hanks has often been branded as the modern day equivalent of James Stewart, well known for roles such as “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” While I see plenty of similarities between Hanks and Stewart, mostly their ability to pull off the “every man” so effectively, I see Hanks as a far different actor. 

“Captain Phillips” is more than enough of an example to show Hanks’ diversity as an actor. I cannot see James Stewart pulling off a role like this, with his calm and pleasant demeanor. Hanks, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to shut off the kindness of his roles in “Forrest Gump” and “Big” and stare at these pirates with strength yet sincerity. 

Phillips works his crew hard once he learns that pirates might be lurking and the crew doesn’t take kindly to this, even calling him a hard-ass. In fact, during one scene where he openly talks to the crew of his freight ship and members speak up against Phillips, he doesn’t want to hear any of it and goes on his merry way. 

Yet under all of that fierce exterior lies a man who only wishes to protect everyone under his command. This side of him shows when the pirates finally board the ship, when he complies with their demands to the best of his ability but never revealing anything about his crew. He keeps them safe and hidden from harm, all without raising a gun or forcing anything upon the Somalians. 

Tom Hanks is able to keep the loving and caring nature of his acting style, but is also able to embrace the strength and coldness needed to pull of his role in “Captain Phillips.” That is where the strength of this film thrives. 

Final Grade: B-

“Machete Kills” (2013)

There is a distinct advantage to a film that never takes itself seriously. For one, you can go in with zero expectations and often end up having a blast with how over-the-top and cheesy the movie can be. Much like junk food, these types of movies aren’t that great for you, but they’re a blast to enjoy while you feast upon it.

“Machete Kills” is one such film, taking every opportunity to make the audience roll with laughter at how ridiculous the one-liners, action sequences and caricature characters can get. This is an absurdly stupid movie, but Robert Rodriguez and company know this and just roll with the punches.

The movie follows an agent of the Mexican government, known only as Machete (Danny Trejo), an unstoppable wall of knives and muscle, as he is sent on a mission by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen...we’re all doomed) to stop a Mexican revolutionist who has a nuclear mission pointed at Washington D.C. As he gets closer to his target, new information comes to light that shows there may be more people in on this plan, including weapon designer Voz (Mel Gibson).

To give some idea how many crazy pills went around the film set, here are just some of the side characters. Sofia Vegera plays the owner a brothel in Mexico, who is determined to kill Machete after he leaves her place of business without paying, while also going by the nickname “Man-eater.” Vegera takes every opportunity to thrust her lady parts at the audience and have as many sexual weapons as possible. 

Then you have Charlie Sheen (credited as Carlos Estevez) and Mel Gibson, who have both become parodies of themselves at this point. Charlie Sheen plays how most people have imagined him nowadays, with beds full of women, drugs constantly being thrown around and insane dialogue that’ll make you wonder how Sheen isn’t in a mental hospital. The only difference is that he’s now President Rathcock (yes, that’s his name). I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheen came up with that name on his own.

As for Gibson, he plays the stereotypical mustache-twirling villain, Voz. He has everything you could imagine at his disposal, including legions of cloned super soldiers, at least three nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S., guns that vaporize people at the atomic level and a space ship ready to be launched at any moment. The only difference between Voz and Lex Luther is that Voz has hair.

In the end, “Machete Kills” is one of the stupidest films I’ve seen in a long time and it is enjoyable for that very same reason. While I wouldn’t want to see many movies like this, silly stupid films have their time and place. Watch this one with friends and a beer and you’ll have a blast. 

Final Grade: C+

“Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2”

Puns. Puns galore. 

Here’s the thing about puns. While they’re often said to be the lowest form of comedy, that’s only the case for bad puns. Ones where you can’t help but roll your eyes at the absurdity of what you just listened to, such as any one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines in “Batman And Robin.”

Good puns, on the other hand, can make you laugh just as hard as any other good joke. It’s all about execution. For example, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” takes loads of opportunities to make puns about their pony-filled world, like having the names of their cities include Fillydelphia, Las Pegasus, Manehattan and Saddle Arabia. 

“Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2” takes every chance it can get to make puns, combining the names of a food and an animal together, for example Shrimpanzees, Watermelephants and Mosquitoasts. It’s this kind of humor that keeps the film fresh and distinct from its predecessor. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing keeping it afloat. 

Taking place directly after the events of the first “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is approached by his childhood hero, Chester V (Will Forte), the world’s greatest inventor, to join his company, Live Corp., and become the scientist that he had dreamed about. But when it turns out the machine responsible for the food storms is still active, it’s up to Flint and his friends to return to Swallow Falls and stop the food animals from leaving the island and taking over the world.

While the characters are still as enjoyable in this film as they were in the first one, there are some noticeable down grades. The town’s local cop is no longer voiced by Mr. T and is instead replaced by Terry Crews. Let’s face it, anyone is a downgrade from Mr. T. 

Tim Lockwood (James Caan), has a considerably reduced role from the first film, where he was a constant reminder of Flint’s failure and continued need to succeed. Here, he mostly serves as comic relief as he teaches some of the local food animals (or foodimals) how to fish.

That might be why the film doesn’t win me over as much as the first movie did, with far too much focus on comic relief. While in the first one, every character had their moment of comedy, it varied and didn’t tend to repeat itself. The comedy from characters felt natural without going too over the top. Here, there are at least five different main characters are used for comic relief, not including most of the foodimals. 

As a result, the characters don’t feel nearly as developed or fleshed out, as they seem to exist only to provide jokes rather than to play an active part in the story.

Still, I can’t find any reason to hate any of the returning characters, especially Flint and Sam Sparks, the comedy is still fresh and clever and the visuals for the food and animal combinations is wonderful at times, especially on the much larger ones. It’s just disappointing that after the forerunner did so well at balancing characters who were funny, interesting and active in the story, we have the follow-up and its desire to have these characters simply make puns.

Final Grade: C

Final Thoughts: 

Oddly enough, the winner of this set of movie visits was “Captain Phillips.” I honestly didn’t expect a whole lot going into that, due to the director, Paul Greengrass, known for directing the Bourne movies. After watching the trailer, I knew most of the shots would be in the traditional Greengrass fashion: Shaky-Cam. 

Here’s a lesson to all you aspiring filmmakers. If you want to make an action sequence, and by extension a movie, look clear and focused, avoid shaky-cam. While the effect does make the audience feel like they’re apart of the action, it comes at the cost of being able to tell what the hell is going on. Most instances of shaky-cam have the camera far too close to the action and move around so much that it’s sometimes impossible to recognize individuals. Far too many filmmakers use this style these days and it has quickly become one of my pet peeves. 

That might have painted an image of “Captain Phillips” in my head that didn’t make the movie that desirable to me. Once the film started, I pushed that image aside and enjoyed the film for what it was. In the end, that was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hopper #3

When I was finishing up the last episode of “The Hopper,” I came to the realization that I had watched literally every movie in theaters that I had wanted to watch and that there wouldn’t be any movies coming out for a while that would interest me. 

That was about a month ago. Now a plethora of movies have been released in the intervening time. Some of whom, I’ve been told, are must see movies, while others are just ones that I think could be cool and worth my time. 

I’m happy to say, of the three movies I watched this time around, that I’m glad I viewed all of them. Each one was satisfying in its own way, and barring a few questionable decisions, they were all enjoyable. 

But let’s start with the one which I’m sure I’ll get the most flak for.

“Gravity” (2013)

No, I did not hate “Gravity.” Quite the opposite, actually. But I will say from the start that I did not enjoy it nearly as much as some people are making it out to be. 

“Gravity” is currently boasting a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and critics have been praising the film out the wazzu. While I understand why people are enjoying this so much, I can’t bring myself to say it’s one of the greatest movies of our generation. 

The plot of the film centers on a space shuttle as it performs maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope, which includes Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who chose to be up here to get away from all her troubles on Earth, and Mission Specialist Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an adventurer who plans to set the all-time space walk record. When a Russian Anti-Satellite test sets off a chain reaction, their space ship and everyone onboard is destroyed. Now Stone and Kowalski must find a way to survive the harshness of space before they run out of oxygen or more debris gets to them first.

Let’s start with what I thought really worked for “Gravity.” Namely, the look of the movie. If “Gravity” is anything, it is a beautiful movie. Not once does it feel like Bullock or Clooney are in a studio or on a set. They move and act as if they’re literally floating around space. The way the sun and reflections of the Earth reflect off of their helmets is a rather simple yet effective way of showing the scope and magnitude of where these characters are. 

Not to mention, the film cuts to a different shot only when its absolutely necessary. This is something I expected, since director Alfonso Cuaron, who also brought us “Children Of Men,” has a trademark of long-tracking shots during crucial moments. The opening shot of the film lasts roughly 12 minutes, and every second of it is gorgeous to look at. 
So if I really enjoyed the look and feel of the movie, what didn’t I like about it? Mostly the story. In particular, that it’s nothing to write home about. 

Stone and Kowalski go through your basic heros journey, with nothing really standing out or trying anything that we haven’t seen before. It’s not necessarily a bad story, just that it mostly serves as a vehicle to get to the next fantastic looking shot of the sunrise. 

While that can be all well and good, it can be incredibly distracting. I’ve addressed this before, but the main aspect I watch for in any movie are the story and characters. I feel those should always be at the main focus of a movie, and without if either of those falter then the film will suffer. 

While “Gravity” does have a wonderful appearance and can often leave you speechless with just a simple shot of George Clooney looking down on Earth, the story and characters do leave a lot to be desired. 

I read in a New York Times article the other day, in which a film critic said that “Gravity” was “the most beautiful and pretty looking popcorn film of all time.” Honestly, that is something I can agree with. 

Final Grade: B

“Don Jon” (2013)

Now this was an interesting experiment of a movie.

Not only was this Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first attempt at writing and directing a film, but it also is not afraid to openly discuss the problems with online pornography, including addiction and how it compares to actual sex. However, at the same time, I feel there was plenty of missed opportunities in “Don Jon” that could have raised this film from just another romantic comedy. 

There are only a few things that Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) cares about it in life, mostly revolving around his single lifestyle and his porn, which he believes is better than real sex. Jon can lose himself in porn, forget about his troubles and worries for a while, yet sex doesn’t do this at all for him.

One day though, Jon meets “the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen” in Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) and it’s love at first sight. Jon is willing to forego his usual pickup style to get together with Barbara. The moment the subject of his porn addiction comes up, Jon can’t stop. Now he has to choose between his gorgeous girlfriend or his satisfying porn.

What works in favor of this film is Gordon-Levitt and his performance as both Jon and the narrator. From his simple facial motions to the sincerity in his voice, Gordon-Levitt nails it at make the “Don Jon” a likable yet flawed character that we want to see pull through in the end. His narration style boosts this by going into a sorta alternate state of mind when he talks, as if we’re with him while he does the dirty deed. 

Yet I feel there is untaped potential in this film. The movie makes it a point that Johansson’s character is addicted to romantic comedies as much as Gordon Levitt’s character is addicted to porn. They even go as far as to adopt the same stylistic editing when Johansson’s character “reaches her point.”

This could have been a clever and interesting way to show the similarities and difference between porn and movies, especially how some people use them. After all, what is pornography but entertainment stripped down to its bare basics?

Unfortunately, this is something “Don Jon” fails to touch on. The two main leads do have one heated argument about it when she discovers him looking it up after a night of passion, but they only discuss the issue briefly because of how close-minded she is and doesn’t want to talk about anything that upsets her.

The film instead decides to focus on Jon and his romantic life tying into his addiction to porn. The result of which makes sense but is also icky and kinda disturbing. I guess I can’t fault the movie for that, but it does leave out an interesting aspect that could have removed many of the cliches it shares with other romantic comedies. 

Final Grade: C+

“Prisoners” (2013)

Mystery is a genre which is often hit or miss. Either the mystery works and captivates audiences with intrigue and ambiguity or it is so full of holes and red herrings that you leave the audience wondering why they even bothered with it. 

“Prisoners” is an effective mystery that works at keeping the identity of the wrongdoer a secret for a long time, making the protagonists look competent yet still flawed enough to relate, and even has little hints and clues about the outcome even from the beginning. 

After Thanksgiving dinner, two little girls, Anna and Joy, go outside to play. After an hour of not hearing from them, their parents begin to share the neighborhood for them and are unsuccessful. When a trailer that they noticed earlier has disappeared as well, the parents can only assume whoever was in that trailer has kidnapped their children.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) has been assigned to the case and intends to keep his streak of solving every assignment given to him alive. Yet, when the most likely subject, the trailer’s driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano) fails to give up any information, everything seems to be at a dead end. Until Anna’s father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackmon), kidnaps Alex on his own and tortures him to try to pry information out of him.

While watching “Prisoners,” I could help but make comparisons to AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Not that I think they were copying one another, but more that their protagonists end up taking up similar methods to help out their loved ones.

In “Prisoners,” Hugh Jackmon’s character is willing to beat a supposedly innocent man to near death, deprave him of food and water and confine him to a box smaller than a bath tub, all because he feels this man will tell him where his daughter is. He is a good man who is willing to go to these extreme and immoral lengths, all in the name of helping his family.

Jackmon even gets the parents of the other kidnapped daughter (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) involved on it. At first, both of them don’t want to have anything to do with this, and Jackmon even allows them an opportunity to set Alex free. Yet they don’t take it. They want their daughter back just as much as Jackmon does, and this man with the IQ of a ten-year old might be their only chance. This makes them partners in crime and are just as guilty as Jackmon would be.

Even so, this is just merely a subplot of the larger mystery of the kidnapper, which is nice. It doesn’t overshadow the main story, but it does add character to both Jackmon and the film itself. As I said, the mystery is great at building up all the necessary parts without giving anything away too early, while moving at just the right pace to keep the audience from getting too bored. 

Overall, “Prisoners” is a satisfying mystery that manages to work in characters who are more than just amateur detectives. If you’re a fan of “Breaking Bad” or just really like mysteries, I would highly recommend checking this out. Even if you don’t care for a mystery, it still might be worth a look.

Final Grade: B+

Final Thoughts:

I wanted to also try to see “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2,” but I didn’t get that opportunity this time around. Expect a review of that in a few days though, since I still really want to see it.

All in all, an effective and well-made group of movies this time around. The weakest of the bunch was “Don Jon” and even that had some interesting and funny moments in it. Both “Gravity” and “Prisoners” worked at their own genres and delivered on everything that they promised they would be.

It’ll probably be a while until another “Hopper” comes out, since there aren’t many movies coming out in the next month which I really want to see. There are movies that I am highly anticipating, especially “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.” Those are some films I’m excited to see.

Seriously, how can you go wrong with Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Movie Review: "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946)

War can often bring out the best that cinema has to offer. 

A brutal, vicious but often necessary act, war can be traumatic, heartbreaking, yet at the same time uplifting and can show us in our better nature. Many filmmakers have capitalized on this, which has led to many of the most influential movies of their time, form the subtle yet graphic “All Quiet On The Western Front,” to the gritty and heart-pounding “Zero Dark Thirty,” even to my personal favorite film of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

An interesting era for war films was the 1940s, especially in the years following World War II. There was very little grey area about the depictions of war at that time. The majority of films were about the Americans saving the war or being triumphant heroes who beat down the baddies, usually depictions of Nazis or the Japanese. 

One year after the end of the war, William Wyler released his interpretation of harshness and brutal conditions of the aftermath of war, in “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” Unlike any other film that came out at the time, this film didn’t try to sugarcoat anything or make the soldiers look like heroes, but instead as normal people attempting to readjust to society after being away for so long.

The film follows three officers returning to their routes of Boone City. First is Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an infantryman who returns to his job as a banker while realizing that his kids have grown up and things have changed. Then there’s Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a bomber pilot married to a dancer unsure of what to do with his life now. Finally, you have Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who lost both of his hands in an explosion and now has hooks for limbs.

While nothing extraordinary happens over the course of the film, that’s the strength of this piece. It goes against every other type of war movie which came out at the time and just tells the story of three victims of the war and their average lives. Nothing over-the-top or forced, no added conflict to make events matter, just these three men coming home after three years at war and the results that come from that physical and mental absence. 

To punctuate this effect is the stellar cinematography of Gregg Toland, who is most famous for his work on “Citizen Kane.” Much like Kane, there is a distinct spotlight on the deep focus, making everything within the shot, even something far in the background, clear and easy to see. There are several scenes that take advantage of this, especially when multiple conversations and focal points are in one shot. Instead of the camera cutting away, our eyes are drawn to where these characters are looking and we see everything they do. 

What really sells “The Best Years Of Our Lives” though are these three gentlemen and their adjustment to not being apart of the war any longer. For Fred, things came so easy to him during the war, yet when he returns it seems like he can’t do anything right with his wife and getting a job. 

With Al, everything feels too different for him. His kids have become adults who don’t need his help anymore, and he gets a promotion at his job where he more relies on his heart, much to the dismay of his superiors. The only thing that seems to remain consistent is his supporting and loving wife, who watches on with confidence and a smile as her husband begins to drink way too much.

But the real crux of the film is Homer and how he has to readjust, not just to society, but to living without his hands. The film makes it a point early on that, while Homer was recuperating, the Navy taught him how to do many tasks with his hooks, including how to drive and light cigarettes. But one thing they could never teach him is how to hug his fiancee upon his return.

Homer’s character is just as much about the people around him reacting to his situation as it is about Homer learning to live with the hand he has been dealt, especially his girlfriend. Homer doesn’t want people to take pity on him just because he’s different. If anything, he wants to be looked at like any other guy, but that’s just not going to happen. He tries to have dinner with his family, but even his father tries to hide his own hands in the presence of Homer. 

Homer is made even more impressive when the actor playing him never had any acting experience before this film, and was hired by William Wyler himself after watching a documentary featuring Harold Russell. Still, among actors like Fredric March, Russell gives the most heartfelt and emotional performance of the whole film. Through his simplicity and sincerity, Homer is the standout character.

Overall, “The Best Years Of Our Lives,” manages to breakout of the traditional system of war films and tells a story about three average lives without overdoing it on the drama or message and just lets these men be themselves. Combined with breathtaking cinematography and outstanding performances all around, the film still holds up incredibly well today and will continue to entertain audiences as long as war exists.

Final Grade: A