Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Admission

Directed by Paul Weitz.
2013. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.
Cast:
Tina Fey
Paul Rudd
Michael Sheen
Lily Tomlin
Wallace Shawn
Nat Wolff
Gloria Reuben
Travaris Spears
Christopher Evan Welch
Sonya Walger
Leigha Hancock

Portia Nathan (Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University. She has had this job for sixteen year. She's also been with her boyfriend Mark (Sheen) for ten years. Her life is wholly predictable, the way she likes it. Things change when she's contacted by John Pressman (Rudd). He is the director of the Quest School, a newly formed school about to have its first graduating class. He asks her to come and speak to them about Princeton. She only agrees because her boss is extremely interested in drumming up enough applications to put them back into the nation's top spot in the category of most applied to school. They have fallen out of first place for the first time in a number of years. Let's pause right here. If this is what they're really worried about at Princeton they're even more out of touch than I thought. Anyhoo, John introduces Portia to the extremely intelligent, but academically challenged Jeremiah (Wolff). Her life is sent spiraling out of control by these events which happen in fairly rapid succession. She also finds herself attracted to John who tells her that Jeremiah might be her son. Finally, Mark leaves Portia for Helen (Walger), the world's foremost authority on Virginia Woolf. Wackiness ensues.

Actually, I should say attempted wackiness ensues. Most of the humor falls completely flat. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, in my estimation, both function best when they have a lively, possibly insane person to react to. This is how they induce laughter. It's what made Fey so good working with Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and even Amy Poehler. Rudd is downright brilliant when sharing the screen with Seth Rogen. With just Fey and Rudd together, we have two people playing it straight and waiting for the other to give them something to bring out their own comedic talents. To use a football analogy, it's like two gifted wide-receivers on a team with no quarterback to throw them the ball. Whatever skills they might have are wasted. Occasionally, Rudd tries to step into that role but he is woefully inadequate. It's not that his acting is bad, because it's not. The problem is both he and Fey are too earnest in their portrayals. Remember, that's what they do. Therefore, things meant to be hilarious, such as Rudd delivering a calf or Fey vomiting in front of a frat house come across as misguided, possibly pathetic, and at least a little bit askew, but rarely funny. That's sort of a problem for a comedy. On the other hand, the movie absolutely sizzles during the few short instances Portia's mom Susannah (Tomlin) is on the screen. She has the right kind of energy and plays it just enough over the top for our stars' natural ability to shine through. The movie works similarly whenever Michael Sheen appears, also. Unfortunately, this serves to highlight the shortcomings of our heroes.


With the possibility for laughter greatly diminished, we're forced to adjust mid-stream to watching a drama with a few funny moments. As such, the story is vaguely interesting, but not one with which we're totally enraptured. What's coming is too easily seen to really intrigue us. We know how it's going to work out between our two leads. We also know we're headed for Portia's impassioned plea to Jeremiah into Princeton. To the movie's credit, this is still a very effective scene, played marvelously by Fey. The one curveball in the whole picture is where our heroine ends up. Though it is presented as if she's in a better place than when we started, it doesn't completely feel that way. She seems strangely content with her new-found incompleteness and dependence upon others.

Admission is a film with its heart in the right place. Sadly, it fails on nearly every level in its execution. It tries to strike a comedic tone, but isn't close to being funny enough. The drama isn't dramatic enough to take up the slack. This renders it forgettable. I'm including the people on the screen in that assessment. The only memorable character, Portia's mom and John's adopted son Nelson (Spears), are minor to the production and go long stretches without appearing. The leads are simply giving us more of the same characters they've been playing for much of their careers. The end result of all this is that the movie just drones on and on and on for its entire run time. In other words, its 107 minutes feel like they are multiplying as they slowly pass.


MY SCORE: 4/10

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Lone Ranger

Directed by Gore Verbinski.
2013. Rated PG-13, 149 minutes.
Cast:
Johnny Depp
Armie Hammer
William Fichtner
Tom Wilkinson
Ruth Wilson
James Badge Dale
Helena Bonham Carter
Barry Pepper
JD Cullum
Harry Treadaway
Saginaw Grant

Way back when my age was denoted by a single digit, I made sure to watch three television shows that were made before my birth, but still in syndication. One was "The Adventures of Superman," starring George Reeves. The second was "Batman" with the one and only Adam West in the lead. Finally, to complete the daily triple shot of pre-pubescent testosterone, I watched "The Lone Ranger." I knew that Superman was really the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and Batman was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. The Lone Ranger was different. That masked man was so mysterious I didn't even know his real name. His secret identity really was just that - a secret! How cool! I guess Tonto knew, but he didn't say much. Besides that, our hero had some other cool things going for himself. He rode that beautiful white horse name Silver and wore a hat that matched her coat. He had a long nosed six-shooter and was so accurate with it he could shoot the gun out of a man's hand from any distance without hitting the hand. Then there was that theme song. Dutta dent, dutta dent, dutta dent dent dent dent - dent dent dent dutta dent....I know, I'm not doing it any justice at all. Maybe this will help...


Fast-forward more years than I care to count and The Lone Ranger graces the screen once more. He made it there once in the 80s, but let's pretend that never happened. This time around, we get Armie Hammer taking over the titular role. Okay, not the first person I think of for the part, but not someone who makes me scratch my head, either. The problems start with his role, though not necessarily with him. What I mean is The Lone Ranger is only the third most important element to this whole production. In reality, this is a film all about the director, Gore Verbinski, and the muse he occasionally borrows from Tim Burton, Johnny Depp.

Depp plays our hero's sidekick Tonto. Sort of. It's really some weird amalgamation of Tonto and all of Depp's other face-painted characters. From the Tonto side of the equation, we get all the broken English we can stand, even if it is fairly irregular. From the other side, he brings his now trademark mugging for the camera and often prancing about the set while playing everything for laughs. It gets close to minstrelsy of a Native American hue. It is pretty much the direct opposite of the way the character was portrayed all those moons ago, in a supposedly less enlightened era. Let's keep it real. He was always a walking stereotype. However, no matter how racism or just plain ignorance was explicit in how he was drawn, Tonto was always honorable and prideful. Depp's version may or may not be a pathological liar, is closer to being a court jester than a hero and is at least a little bit insane. I guess if it makes the kids laugh then mission accomplished, right?


This is where Verbinski comes in. He does here what he does with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He introduces a lot of colorful characters we should get to know better, but don't, and places our heroes in one life-or-death situation after another. As per his usual, he does it all in a manner that's so silly it's bound to get a few laughs, but not nearly enough to make up for all the gags that fall flat. Finally, he delivers what should be a simplistic plot in a convoluted manner. This starts with where we first met Tonto. He is and exhibit in a museum in 1933. As if this were Night at the Museum, he comes to life and relays the whole adventure to a young boy. It adds nothing to the movie except run-time and a different style of makeup for Depp to perform in. This defines the word extraneous.

Verbinski does give us some exciting set pieces. Early on, we get an amazing scene featuring a runaway locomotive. Sure, it ends in ridiculous fashion, but it's a sight to behold. The climactic battle at the end is also fun. There are also some standouts among the supporting cast. In fact, there are two. One is a cross-dressing henchmen with the IQ of a buffalo head nickel played by Harry Treadaway. He's good for easy laughs. The other is played by Helena Bonham Carter, also on loan from Tim Burton. Here, she appears to be something out of Robert Rodriguez's fantasies. She comes complete with an artificial leg that doubles as a rifle.

Unfortunately, the positives aren't nearly as weighty as the negatives. The good things amount to a few empty thrills. Those looking for lighthearted action may be pleased. Even they won't have much to grab onto, however. The rest of the movie is basically a bunch of stupid stuff happening. As far as our hero, The Lone Ranger himself, well, he's not all that heroic. He whines and complains a lot. He also winds up following Tonto a lot. Only at the end does he change gears. That seems as much about giving him the obligatory shining moment than about him actually developing into that. In other words, this could probably have been titled Tonto: the Movie or Pirates of the Wild West. A whole bunch is going on, there are a few laughs mixed in with some big action sequences that will entertain some viewers while the rest of us will think it's a mess.


MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On My Mind: A Not Happy Enough Ending?


My wife and I have literally watched hundreds of movies together. After all this time, we still have completely divergent ideas on what makes one good or bad. One of the main areas where we most often disagree is on how a movie ends. She prefers that everyone live happily ever after. I'm okay when that happens, as long as it's not forced, but prefer more ambiguous or darker endings. However, that's not really my issue with her insistence on fairy tale finales. My thing is I'm occasionally baffled when she doesn't like a movie because the ending of the movie we just saw isn't happy enough.

I know. You're wondering what that even means.

To explain what's going on in my household, I'll use the movie that inspired this post, Gravity, to give you a window into our lives. Oh yeah, SPOILER ALERT! If you don't want the ending ruined for you, just stop reading now. Now that that's out the way, let's proceed.

Gravity is the harrowing tale of Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, on her first mission into space. Soon, she finds herself all alone facing her own mortality after the rest of her crew has been killed by debris from a nearby satellite that's been shot down. With the Space Shuttle they arrived in also destroyed, she has to somehow make her way to an unmanned Chinese space station and try to fly it back to Earth. That's simplifying it a bit, but you get the gist. At the end of this grand adventure, Stone manages to crash land in one of our planet's many bodies of water. After some more struggle, she makes it to the nearby shore and struggles to her feet and walks presumably toward civilization. Mission accomplished, right? Pure triumph of the human spirit, no? Yes, but that wasn't enough for Mrs. Dell on Movies.

So what's the problem?

The problem, in her eyes, is that the movie didn't go on long enough. For most of us, where the movie ends is perfect. It closes on an undeniable implication of her survival of an epic ordeal. My wife doesn't like implied endings. She has an incredibly strong desire to see it played out to the point where any shred of doubt has been completely removed. She didn't want to see Bullock just make it to Earth. She wanted to literally see our heroine walk through the forest at the edge of the beach, make it safely to some sort of civilization, notify them of her identity, be deposited back in America (if she isn't already there), and reunited with friends and family. Never mind that this could easily add another half-hour of less-than-thrilling cinema, that's what she wanted, dammit. Only then would she deem the movie complete.


I have a theory.

My theory is that her maternal instincts are so strong she practically adopts the protagonists of some movies as her own children. The idea that the movie ends with even the potential for them to be in danger is appalling to her. After all, there may be wild animals in those woods Bullock is staggering toward. She may be walking into some savage village where she'll be killed. She might be...you get the point. There are potentially lots of obstacles between where the movie ends and that same character falling peacefully asleep in her own bed. Look at the pic above. In my wife's eyes, the movie may as well have ended right there.

That's my theory. It's possibly the sexist ramblings of a clueless man. Maybe it's just a frustrated husband grasping at straws. Still, numerous conversations with the woman in my life have made this more than plausible. It's downright probable.

It's also ridiculous.

At least that's what I say. When I see Bullock pull herself up on that beach and the word GRAVITY come across the screen, I take it as a clear indication that her journey is over. She made it. Years of studying English lit has taught me to just roll with whatever is suggested by the ending. I mean, that only makes sense, right? If the author, or auteur in this case, wanted us to think anything different he/she would have continued their story.

Then again, it's not so ridiculous. As much as I consider myself a movie buff, even a bit of an expert when being compared to friends and family, I still can't tell a person they have to like or dislike a movie and for the reasons I give them. Try as I might to make her understand that Gravity ended at the best possible moment, it's still only the best possible moment in my opinion. For her, she didn't see what she wanted to see. It didn't go far enough. I totally disagree, but we're talking about her feelings, not mine.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
2013. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Phaldut Sharma
Amy Warren

In space, no one can hear you scream. Oh wait, that's another movie. Regardless, it's true. Ryan Stone (Bullock) finds this out the hard way. She and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are among the crew on a Space Shuttle mission to perform some routine maintenance on the Hubble Telescope. It's her first time in the great beyond so she's not feeling particularly well while floating alongside the machine she is working on. Other than that, things are going according to plan until our good friends, the Russians, intervene. Sort of. They actually just shoot down one of their own satellites which is no longer functioning. The problem is that the debris is sent hurtling through space, directly at the two most photogenic astronauts of all time. Oh, and their co-workers. Crash, crash, boom, boom, and Stone is separated from the rest of the crew, uncontrollably spinning into the blackness. Kowalski soon recovers her. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've seen the trailer, or watched the Oscars, or one of the entertainment news shows, or just heard someone bumping their gums about it, so you can guess what happens next. Stone gets separated again and spends the rest of the movie trying to rectify her situation.

Early on, we hear a few different voices communicating with the astronauts, and see Clooney scooting around on his motorized chair. However, it really is a one woman show. It's a spectacular one, at that. Sandra Bullock turns in what I think is easily her best performance. Her Oscar-winning turn in The Blindside is great, if a bit over the top. I've liked her in a number of other movies and been indifferent to her in a bunch more. Here, she's captivating in a way not many movie performers have ever been, completely alone for long stretches of film. Tom Hanks' work in Cast Away immediately leaps to mind. For most of that movie his only companion is Wilson, a soccer ball on which he drew a face. Here, Clooney's smiling mug gives Bullock slightly more companionship. The rest of the way is all her. Even more impressively, she's not even acting in an organic setting most of the time. She's often in model space vessels and an anti-gravity environment. Mostly, she is suspended on a wire against a green screen. The only people around her are the crew, all off-camera, so she has no one to play off. If you don't think that's tough to do, I've got an exercise for you. Try standing up in a public place and acting out a personally and visibly emotional scene all by yourself for a full minute without breaking character or acknowledging anyone who is around. Don't forget you have to be totally convincing. Go 'head, I'll wait. No? Okay, let's move on.


We have to get back to that green screen I mentioned. You've probably seen one and know how it functions, but just in case not, it's just that - a green screen on which the techno wizards will later add visual effects. The magicians that worked on Gravity were rewarded with Oscar gold in just about every technical category there is, and deservedly so. It truly is a special fx marvel. From the smallest details to the eye-popping action sequences, the fx do their job. They work in service of the telling of a great story without becoming story. There is never a moment we don't believe our heroine is floating helplessly in space. This is a huge part of the movie's creation of tension. That tension drives the film. Even before we get to all the angst filled stuff, the visuals work magic on us. In the earlier, more serene moments, we're allowed to gaze upon Stone's infinite workplace. The views are as spectacular as we imagine. Rarely has a setting been more well established.

Like I said, though, the job of all those fx is to help tell a story. Making sure that what dazzles the eye does the same to the mind is director Alfonso Cuaron. Given the massive amounts of technology on display this may sound odd, but he really does take a minimalist approach. Sure, the entire set was constructed on a PC, but that's merely a fact of where our tale takes place. Aside from this, the camera is trained on Bullock and her exploits nearly for the entirety of the runtime. There are only a few exceptions made for Clooney, mostly right at the beginning. Most similarly themed movies would have tacked on another twenty-plus minutes by cutting away often to people working feverishly to save the protagonist. That doesn't happen here and the movie is better for it. It's tight and concise, keeping the viewer on the edge of his/her seat without ever letting us off the hook. There is nothing to focus on besides this woman and her plight. Directing that singular person may have been as difficult as the portrayal of said person by Bullock. Here's another exercise to demonstrate my point. Try having a willing person act out a scenario in a room all alone with you. Have them follow your directions but not actually interact with you. Instead, they must react to things that aren't actually there, and make sure they're looking directly at wherever it is decided these things will be located and/or coming from. Bottom line is Gravity is a masterful job done by Cuaron worthy of his Best Director win at the Oscars. It's even more worthy of our massive exhalation when the closing credits roll.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Internship

Directed by Shawn Levy.
2013. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Cast:
Max Minghella
Josh Brener
Dylan O'Brien
Tiya Sircar
Tobit Raphael
Jessica Szohr

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are luxury watch salesmen that work as a team, because salesmen aren't a bunch of heartless cutthroats. It's okay for me to say that, I was in sales for five years. While I'm at it, let's address me going with the actors' real names instead of their characters' monikers. It's something I almost never do. However, let's keep it real. This is the same Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson we always get. 'Nuff said on that front. Turns out, the company they peddle time pieces for has abruptly shut down. A few nights later, Vaughn is job surfing online when he decides to google "google." Bada-boom, bada-bing, he and Wilson are now part of a highly competitive internship program on the campus of the search engine giant. The winning team of interns will earn full-time gigs. Of course, our heroes have no tech experience at all. Wilson doesn't seem able to turn on a computer. Vaughn can surf the web, but is pretty computer illiterate, himself. Of course, they wind up on a team of misfits. A really long commercial ensues.

If you've seen the trailer for The Internship then you know I'm not kidding about this being a commercial. Hell, the trailer is essentially a commercial for the commercial. So how do they flesh things out? We start with a live-action version of Monsters University. No, I'm serious. Same basic plot, same stock characters. Swap out John Goodman and Billy Crystal for Vaughn and Wilson, respectively. Add a few cuss words, a love interest for Wilson, a scene in a strip club, slap the Google logo all over everything, have everyone speak of the company with great reverence, and voila!


You just want to know if it's funny, right? In spots. Vaughn does his usual fast-talker schtick while Wilson does his normal routine. If you find either or both of these guys funny then you'll find things to make you laugh, potentially lots of things. It helps if you're in their general age group. Lots of the jokes center on the generation gap between them and their fellow interns. When the team is given a task, our heroes start trying to talk their way through it, regardless of whether that's a useful thing to do, and make lots of reference to 80s pop culture. One reference, far older than any of those is one I found most interesting. At one point, Wilson breaks into a paraphrased and truncated rendition of the legendary Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred." The kids don't get this or most references and go about actually trying to solve the problem. Rinse. Repeat. The flip side of this is that neither Vaughn or Wilson has any clue about computers nor current pop culture. Sort of. For instance, a big gag involves the guys being sent on a wild good chase to find Professor Charles Xavier. I get that they didn't immediately recognize the name as being leader of the X-Men. I even get that the joke can go on for a moment while they catch up. However, this isn't something you have to be young and hip to know. Even if we ignore the fact that X-Men was one of the country's most popular comic books right when these guys were right in the target audience for such things, and had a Saturday morning cartoon, we still know something impossible to overlook. They have been making X-Men movies for more than a decade and unless I'm mistaken, all of them have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. These movies have also shown up all over TV numerous times. Finally, our "old" guys know something far younger in terms of being a pop culture phenomenon, The Hunger Games. To be fair, as full of holes as the logic for this scene is, it is one of their funnier bits.

The rest of the cast is filled out with characters we've all seen before in a number of movies. Remember how much I said this resembles Monsters University? Yeah, same characters here, pretty much. We have the cocky and arrogant bully as our bad guy in the competition. We also have the unforgiving authority figure presiding over the whole thing. Just about everyone else is one form of geek or another. Therefore, the story feels like a by-the-numbers job that fails to add its own twist to the proceedings. It just tries to float by on the charm of the two lead characters. They do an amiable job, but can't really make it anything special. It is occasionally funny, breezes by without causing us to think, and just isn't anywhere near as good as Monsters University at doing essentially the same thing.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poetry in the Movies Blogathon!: Louder Than a Bomb



As you may know, I've decided to host my very first blogathon. In honor of National Poetry Month, it's all about acknowledging the elegant art getting some overdue credit for being a major contributor to cinematic history. If you would like to participate, please check out my original post on the matter. I'm going to jump in with my first of what will be at least two posts (maybe 3?). No messing around with ancient verse just yet. We're going with a contemporary documentary, Louder Than a Bomb.

Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel.
2010. Not Rated, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Kevin Coval
Adam Gottlieb
Nate Marshall
Nova Venerable
Lamar Jorden
James Sloan
Charles Smith
Jesus Lark
She'Kira McKnight
Elizabeth Graf

"Louder Than a Bomb," which takes place in Chicago, is the nation's largest high school poetry slam. For the uninitiated, poetry slams are spoken word poetry competitions. Poets are scored on a scale of one to ten on each poem they perform. Here, we focus on students from four of the nearly fifty competing schools in 2008. Most prominently featured are the kids from Steinmetz Academic Academy. They won the previous year despite it being their first year competing. We spend lots of time with Mr. Sloan, one of their coaches, as well as with students Lamar Jorden, Jesus Lark, She'Kira McKnight, and Charles "Big C" Smith. We get a little time with some others on the team, too. These are the kids that go against the grain. Judging books by their covers, you'd be hard pressed to peg these as poetry buffs. They're the most "urban" group, to use a code word. Yet, these are the defending champs. They are also struggling to get it together for this year's slam.

For the other three schools, our focus is limited to one student each. Adam Gottlieb attends Northside College Prep. He's the kid who loves everyone and everyone loves him. He is the ultimate diplomat, giving shout outs to his competition in his own poetry. Nova Venerable goes to Oak Park and resides at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don't mean that people don't like her. That's not the case. I mean that she's tougher to get close to with her guarded personality that stems from her hard childhood. She writes more as a cathartic exercise and with an underlying anger. She might be in the competition, but she's really purging her soul. Nate Marshall is the happy medium between Adam and Nova. He goes to Whitney Young Magnet School and is known as "the grandfather" of their poetry program. He loves teaching others and has fun with his art. However, he does carry with him the memories of growing up in a rough environment.


With the Steinmetz kids, we go through the trials and tribulations of a team trying to prepare without always having everyone on the same page. Their ups and downs make for an intriguing roller coaster ride. With the others, we delve into their backgrounds, getting to know them more intimately. Adam and his family makes us laugh. Nova's might make us cry. True to form, Nate's does a bit of both. The movie works itself into a fun carousel that stops rotating come competition time. That doesn't mean the ride is over at that point. Directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel do a wonderful job playing up the natural tension of the competition without it feeling forced. By the way, movie buffs will find this interesting. Jon Siskel is the nephew of none other than the late and now legendary movie critic Gene Siskel.


As for the poetry itself, it's a solid mix of funny, personal, and socially relevant pieces. Like lots of spoken word, the majority of what we hear relies heavily on rhythm, rhyme, and passionate delivery. We get that in spades and enjoy listening to it. For me, there are three pieces that stand head and shoulders above the rest. There is the crowd-pleasing ensemble poem "Counting Graves" from Steinmetz. It's a superior piece of performance art, timely and powerful. The other two are both by Nova. Her first, "Apartment on Austin," details her relationship with an often drunk and needy father. The other, "Cody," is named after her younger brother who has special needs. Both are exceptionally well written poems with strength completely independent of the theatrics of her recitations, which there really are none. They just punch you right in the chest and rip your heart out through the hole.

You may or may not be into poetry like I am. Still, the human stories on display reach out and grab the viewer. We become invested in their fates and root for the tens to go up after they've read. We're disappointed when they don't. However, we learn that what the slam organizers repeat numerous times is true. The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Sunday, April 13, 2014

French Toast Sunday's Darren Aprilofsky


Lindsay over at French Toast Sunday is honoring director Darren Aronofsky all this month by highlighting content based on his work from around the web. Any of you that are fans of his work should definitely pop by there to get links to all the Aronofsky you can stand. You can also join in on the festivities by leaving a link to your own stuff on the man, or his movies. Just click here and off you'll go into a happy place.

If you're still here, I've got some Aronofsky content of my own for you to check out. Click on the titles below for my reviews of the following movies: