Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts

October 6, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s remarkable to note how expected Marvel’s success has become. They bring out several new films a year, and the bar just keeps getting higher in terms of crowds. Thor: The Dark World is considered one of the weaker films creatively, yet it’s still earned more than $600 million worldwide. Can anything stop the Marvel juggernaut? One major hurdle arrived in August with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. Although well known to comic book fans, its characters were not household names like Captain America and Iron Man. Gigantic hits rarely arrive this late in the summer; audiences are typically worn out after three months of explosions. Few were expecting Guardians to become the year's number one movie, but the hints were there if you dig a little deeper.

We’re living in a dreary world for blockbusters. Our super heroes do more brooding than cracking jokes, and decimating major cities is par for the course. The visual effects may be spectacular, but it’s hard to get too excited. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Christopher Nolan found a way to keep his Batman films away from becoming too portentous. It takes quite a lot of skill to pull off that trick, however. What this summer needed was a space adventure! In retrospect, a romp across the galaxy with a ragtag group of misfits was a surefire fit. The Marvel cache brought people in the theaters, but it was the word of mouth that took this film to the stratosphere. The raves came from both audiences and critics, who recognized the skill behind the goofy antics.

I hate to diminish the skill that’s needed to pull off this type of adventure movie. There’s a fine line between delivering a fun, offbeat experience and a tonal misfire. The past few decades are filled with films that strove mightily to deliver this type of hybrid. The infamous Howard the Duck had clever gags but couldn’t sell the oddball narrative. I mention that film for several reasons, including a surprise appearance in a post-credits scene. Beyond that connection, it also couldn’t make us take Howard seriously. Director James Gunn has possible obstacles to bypass with Guardians, particularly the standout Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a big tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). What’s refreshing is how easy it is to accept both. One reason may be the makeup effects work from David White, but good writing doesn’t hurt either.

Chris Pratt as Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy

Another challenge is star Chris Pratt not being a household name, but it just takes a few moments to sell him as the lead. He has such a relaxed presence on screen as Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) that we’ll follow him anywhere. He’s a bit of a mess as a Ravager yet finds a way to skirt out of dire situations. Abducted from Earth as a child, he’s tied to our planet through a cassette of old-school pop songs that plays constantly on his ship and Walkman. The choice to use tunes like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Feel in Love” is pivotal to setting the right mood. There’s a sense that anything can happen and we aren’t playing by the normal rules. When Quill uses “O-o-h Child” by Five Stairsteps and tries a dance contest to distract the stern villain Ronan (Lee Pace), we’re far from Man of Steel territory. That scene is hardly a throwaway and comes during the final fight to save the planet Xander, and it feels right despite the high stakes.

There are plenty of precursors to Guardians, with the most obvious one being the original Star Wars. The idea of outsiders coming together for a common goal springs from a much earlier time than that 1977 film, however. It’s a common theme of adventure stories yet feels fresh in the right hands. A more recent ally is Serenity, which has a similar mix of high stakes with one-liners and space action. That movie is more grounded and focused on humans, yet it shares the fun that’s often missing from big-budget material. It’s certainly no coincidence that Joss Whedon is so involved in the Marvel universe; The Avengers also shares this airy feeling to the action set pieces. Guardians takes that approach to a different level yet doesn’t fall into self-parody for the most part. The final act risks becoming too big to keep us engaged, but the characters still run the show. They’re involved in a classic heist with a ticking clock, and the fate of millions hangs in the balance.

Karen Gillan as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Another key factor in the success is the look, which is filled with bright colors, giant ships, and inventive aliens. This is not the muted world of blues and greys from The Amazing Spider-man 2. There’s plenty of green screen work, yet it meshes well with the digital effects to deliver colorful and unique worlds. The costumes from Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth, The Avengers) set up the good and evil characters just right. Lee Pace wears a massive black outfit that makes Ronan appear so imposing that he nearly dwarfs everyone beneath him. A nearly unrecognizable Karen Gillan (Amy Pond from Doctor Who) is all metal and darkness as the evil Nebula. Chris Pratt wears a bright maroon jacket as Quill that brings to mind the cool of Mal Reynolds and Han Solo. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has a similar dark outfit to Nebula, yet her green skin and red hair differ so much from the grim look of the villains.

Gunn co-wrote Guardians with Nicole Perlman, though he’s going out of his way to dismiss her involvement. It’s impossible to know how much of her original script in on the screen, but it’s distressing to note how strongly Gunn’s making his case. Perlman’s the first female writer that’s been credited on a Marvel film, and the issues seem to be coming more from him than the studio. Would it really be that bad to just accept that both contributed to its success? Regardless of this murky situation, Gunn’s comic sense plays a key role in why the movie works. It’s filled with jokes, yet there’s a linear plot that connects together. We’re flying along for the ride with this mismatched group through a high-tech prison, a dangerous alien marketplace, and other locations before we reach the final battle.

Michael Rooker in Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s easy to imagine a studio chief wanting little to do with a film starring a raccoon, a tree, and other aliens. Bradley Cooper’s unrecognizable voice does wonders for Rocket Raccoon, but the real star is Groot. He’s a tree of few words, yet Vin Diesel finds ways to make each “I am Groot” delivery feel different. When you add in memorable parts for the massive Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro, it’s more than a star vehicle. There’s even a random appearance from Glenn Close as a government official. Unlike some other superhero franchises (i.e., Batman v. Superman), I’m excited to see a sequel. That’s rare and shows just how much fun is present within this film. It sidesteps the Marvel formula and creates something that feels unique and truly alive.

September 29, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)

Spider-man floats towards New York in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

The first weekend in May has become the signal to audiences that the summer movie season has truly begun. We’re seeing recent changes that push this timing even earlier, but prominent releases still arrive in early May. It’s been the spot where all three Iron Man films earned huge box office returns and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 3 blew away the competition in 2007. Sony introduced plenty of head-scratching when they decided to reboot the Spider-man franchise only five years later in 2012. They dropped the new version in early July, and it drew solid reviews and crowds. This set the stage for a much larger push for a sequel with a lot more at stake. The marketing push for The Amazing Spider-man 2 started rolling last summer and continued ferociously throughout the winter. It was easy to lose interest in the sequel months before its release because of the vigilant campaign. Following the gargantuan success of The Avengers, the stakes had reached a new high for every superhero franchise.

Did Sony over reach with its marketing? The constant news and reveals wore down my interest and made skipping it an easy choice. It promised a lot more than it could possibly deliver with villains and story. They kept the title on everyone’s minds throughout the spring, but that isn’t always good. There’s a fine line between making people aware and overwhelming them. An image that hints at Dr. Octopus or The Vulture is a nice touch in the movie, but selling us on greater involvement is misleading. These moves shouldn’t impact our assessment of a film, yet it does play a role. If you’re entering a movie with skepticism before the first image appears, it takes a lot to change those perceptions. Even those viewers that try avoid trailers and news could not escape this push.

There’s a danger when a film has goals beyond delivering an effective and entertaining story. Before The Amazing Spider-man 2 was even released, Sony made it clear this was a first step in a series of spin-offs. It’s clear throughout this film that those considerations muted a possibly interesting look at the challenges of being a superhero. The chemistry between real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield was a key reason the 2012 film worked. They’re pushed too far to the background this time behind multiple villains and Peter’s search for information about his father. I’m a fan of complicated mythologies in certain cases, but it’s hard to care when the emotional connection is lost. The third-act surprise lacks the same impact because of the messiness in front of it. What should be a tragic moment feels cheap because it’s lost within a flimsy structure. The scene is done well but can only do so much by that point.

Jamie Foxx as Electro in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

Streamlining the villains in super hero films is a wise choice but rarely followed. Jamie Foxx’s Electro generates impressive effects but doesn’t work because there’s little sympathy for Max. That understanding is what made Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus so interesting in Raimi’s Spider-man 2. There are remarkable shots of Electro leaping from spot to spot while Spider-man avoids his attacks. They’re beautiful and probably looked even more amazing in 3D. This film is CGI-heavy yet rarely dull with so much happening with the visuals. The problem is giving us nothing with the enemies. Electro disappears for a long time in the second act, and we barely miss him. There’s an interesting story about him buried somewhere, but it’s lost behind an even less thrilling villain.

Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) is a familiar name from both the comics and the movies. He’s a close friend of Peter and eventually becomes a rival. If you didn’t know that history, the portrayal in this film would be very confusing. Harry is all over the map and shifts between kindness and insanity without warning. It’s hard to know the reasons for this inconsistent guy, but my theory is that much was left on the cutting room floor. Where’s the time for character development when you’re trying to create a franchise? Despite his importance to the climax, Harry seems like a throwaway role that was dropped into the plot to build the other projects. DeHaan is a talented actor who’s delivered strong performances in films like Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines. Few could do much with this character, however.

Andrew Garfield stars as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

It’s easy to spend many paragraphs digging into the strange choices by Director Marc Webb and the multiple writers. There’s a point where that becomes tiresome, however. I’m interested in how much the final product succeeded in meeting their goals. Andrew Garfield recently blamed the studio for forcing cuts that ruined the film. His passion is endearing and comes from a place of loving the character. It does feel like there was an interesting film that could have been salvaged. It’s too easy for me to say that cutting 20 minutes would change the result. A running time of 142 minutes feels too long for this material, but that’s more because the story isn’t that engaging. Even a shorter version of this material could deliver a similar result because the tone doesn’t connect like it should.

If there’s a precursor to this film from the Marvel releases, it’s Iron Man 2. We’d seen a few brief appearances from S.H.I.E.L.D. in previous films, but they’d fit smoothly within the story or appeared at the end. This movie introduced multiple villains (including one that disappeared for a while) and crammed in so much plot that didn’t enhance the narrative. The S.H.I.E.L.D. side trip in the third act felt out of place and killed the momentum. It’s a rare example where Marvel picked shootouts over character. Looking at the franchise on the whole, it did help set the stage for The Avengers. This example shows the challenges of trying to construct a massive franchise on par with Marvel. The rewards are huge, but it’s easy to lose sight of the primary goal of delivering a successful movie.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 is bookended by fights between our hero and Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), who becomes the Rhino for the second battle. Having a star of Giamatti’s stature in the opening scene leads us to believe he’ll return for a later moment. Instead, he’s only present to act as a bridge to the Sinister Six. Giamatti uses a ridiculous European accent that’s purposely designed to be outlandish and induce laughs. The problem is that most of the others don’t share the joke. Peter Parker is tormented by his inability to protect everyone, including Gwen Stacy’s father (Denis Leary). As Spider-man, he uses the corny humor that’s common for that character. What’s strange is how awkward it feels when you consider this version of Peter Parker.

The Amazing Spider-man 2, directed by Marc Webb

There’s a striking look to both Spider-man movies from Marc Webb that makes this film work at times. Director of Photography Dan Mindel (Star Trek) creates a world of vivid blues and blacks with a cool smoothness. The dark blue from the Spider-man costume leaps off the screen, and the lighter shades from Electro’s weapons give an interesting palette. These shots are gorgeous, but they’re part of loud action scenes that are often hard to follow. New York City looks striking during the big fights, including the first showdown in Times Square. It’s a movie designed to play on the largest IMAX screens around, and it surely pleased some audiences. Watched at home on a smaller scale, there isn’t enough beyond the chaos to deliver an engaging movie. It’s the worst example of world building at the expense of character, and the future looks murky for the franchise.

September 26, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: An Introduction

Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn

The summer of 2014 was filled with tentpole releases that pummeled the audience into submission. There’s a tipping point where few people have the willingness to keep up with all the big films. These blockbusters start to feel too familiar, and even the more unique movies get lost in the shuffle. Which of these year’s examples will stand the test of time? It’s a tricky question to answer in late September. This was a busy summer beyond the film world, so I wasn’t able to catch most of the studios’ big-budget releases. The benefit is having a wealth of possibilities to explore at home this fall. The reputations of these selections vary widely, so it will be interesting to see which ones surprise me.

Why spend time on blockbusters? Is there anything left to say about them? There are hundreds of reviews on IMDB, and I do wonder if anyone will still care about these films. On the other hand, the extra months bring additional context to the analysis. It allows me to explore why audiences shied away from certain films and adored others. I’ll discuss the themes and form in each choice while taking a different approach to the review. Did the marketing hurt its chances? It will be interesting to watch so many of the year’s major releases within a short period of time. I hope my senses can take all the action.

If you’d like to follow along, here is the marathon schedule for the upcoming weeks:

The Amazing Spider-man 2 (9/29)
Guardians of the Galaxy (10/6)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (10/13)
Edge of Tomorrow (10/20)

I will try to add others within these weeks like Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past if time allows. One title that won’t make the list is Transformers: Age of Extinction. My interest has limits, even when you’re talking about action-packed blockbusters. I’ll update this page with links as the series progresses. If there’s one major studio film that deserves my attention, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

September 22, 2014

2014 Documentaries: To Be Takei

George Takei at an autograph signing in To Be Takei

When the original series of Star Trek premiered in 1966, it was a landmark for diversity. The multi-racial cast explored the galaxy and covered important social issues with more depth than you might expect from a ‘60s TV show. I caught little of these achievements when seeing it as a kid in the ‘80s; the outer-space setting and alien worlds drew my attention. Viewing it today, the series is sillier than I remember but has an added relevance because of the cast and subject matter. One of the key players was George Takei, who piloted the Enterprise through the final frontier as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. He remains known for this iconic character, particularly following the success of the Star Trek feature films. There’s a lot more to his story than his time playing Sulu, however.

When many people think of Star Trek, their minds go to Kirk and Spock. Even so, few actors from that show have developed a following like Takei. He’s gone beyond the typical fan and built an online fan base through Facebook and frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show. He’s also become outspoken for social justice and came out as gay in 2005. The different sides of Takei’s personality are chronicled in Jennifer Kroot’s warm documentary To Be Takei. She presents the actor with his husband Brad, who’s been in a relationship with him for more than 25 years. The film jumps around chronologically to offer an interesting portrait of a man who’s becoming more popular every year.

It seems fitting with Takei’s hectic life that Kroot avoids a straightforward telling of his background. She spends a good deal of time on his childhood experiences at internment camps during World War II. One segment that cuts between many versions of the same speech for various organizations is very effective. Takei has clearly found his niche as a public face for important causes apart from his acting career. His descriptions of growing up in those camps are stunning even to someone with some knowledge about them. Kroot returns to this topic several times, and the jumps to different themes don’t always connect so well. Even so, it’s easy to follow around a guy like Takei wherever the movie takes him.

George and Brad Takei in To Be Takei

What makes this film about more than Takei is the participation from Brad, who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera. The opening scene involves a minor squabble between the couple, who are completely endearing. Brad runs the show at a later autographs signing and is a no-nonsense manager at these events. It’s his persistence that allows the star to be so relaxed for his fans. What’s unfortunate is how long Takei stayed in the closet because of fears that it would hurt his career. It’s a testament to Brad’s love that he was willing to stay behind the scenes for so long. It could not have been easy to watch from the distance and keep their relationship a secret. It’s a telling reminder of our recent progress but shows that our culture still has a long way to go before there’s no stigma.

An interesting subplot is Takei’s strained relationship with William Shatner. We see footage of the roast of Shatner, which includes some vicious swipes that seem to be in good fun. However, there is a slice of truth to everything Takei says about his former co-star. Shatner appears in the film and seems to be joking about their feud, but it becomes clear that animosity is still there. Was Shatner invited to Takei’s wedding? Who’s telling the truth? I expect the reality is somewhere between their stories. I admire both guys yet recognize that some big personalities just don’t mesh. I would have enjoyed more time on this topic within this movie, but I realize the feud wasn’t the focus.

Howard Stern also has a significant presence in this documentary, though he’s supporting Takei. Given the radio host’s reputation, their friendship shows a refreshing meeting of the minds between kindred spirits. They have an easy chemistry that you can’t fake, and Takei has appeared many times on Stern’s show. Clips from their interviews help to reveal why Takei’s built such a following beyond the Star Trek fans. It isn’t easy to move beyond the role of typical genre stars that are locked into certain characters.

An ongoing part of To Be Takei is the attempt to make Allegiance, a musical inspired by his time in the internment. While parts of this passion project remind me of the fictional William Shatner’s attempt to do a musical of Julius Caesar in Free Enterprise, it ends up being a success. Takei may not be a great singer, but it’s easy to make an emotional connection because of his personal history. This engaging film shows how that experience as a kid shaped everything his entire life. It’s a little disjointed and messy, yet that seems appropriate when you consider Takei’s hectic existence. He’s throwing himself into everything, and the late-career renaissance is a testament to this persistence.

September 15, 2014

2014 Documentaries: Finding Vivian Maier

An image of Vivian Maier from Finding Vivian Maier

We all have an artistic drive within us. It could be painting, photography, woodwork, or even writing about movies. There’s something that must come out to keep us alive. That doesn’t mean we’re all looking to get discovered. Some take the opposite approach and have little interest in showing their work. Vivian Maier was one of these people. She took thousands of photos and had a unique talent for capturing the human experience. Her pictures are more than just attractive images; they have a rare soul. Maier was also an eccentric personality that hoarded newspapers and had few friends. Working as a nanny, she chronicled others’ lives while having a limited one. Despite all we’ve learned about her life, Maier is still an enigma with so many questions surrounding her work.

If it wasn’t for random chance, we’d know little about Maier and her remarkable photographs. John Maloof was a young real estate agent in Chicago looking for pictures to document his neighborhood’s history. He purchased Maier’s photos at an auction for that project and discovered something quite different. It seems fortuitous that they fell into the right hands since Maloof was curious to dig further into Maier’s work. Finding Vivian Maier depicts his efforts to learn more about her background as a photographer and a person. Maloof co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel, and it plays like a detective story as they uncover new clues about her past. Maier was a private person but still connected with enough people to give a solid perspective on her life. We may not fully know her, but their recollections allow us to build at least a limited understanding about Maier’s persona.

There’s a danger in accepting too much of what we see in this type of documentary as the actual events. It’s clear that Maloof had to get pretty far before filming his efforts. Examples like Searching for Sugar Man have revealed the ways that filmmakers can skip over some truths to tell a better story. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this film, however. From all accounts, Maier was an unknown artist and hadn’t been discovered until this point. Beyond its success as a film, this story provides a great introduction to her impressive work. The challenge is keeping us engaged in something beyond the initial surprise. Maloof and Siskel tackle this obstacle by looking into the person behind the photos. The families where Maier worked are open to recounting their tumultuous experiences with the unusual nanny. We slowly uncover her background along with Maloof as he digs further into the mystery. The pace is helped greatly by the excellent score from J. Ralph (The Cove), who keeps the momentum flying towards the next discovery.

Finding Vivian Maier

It’s easy to be cynical and think that Maloof has pursued this project solely for commercial gain. He does own many of the photos and benefits financially from Maier becoming known. That interpretation seems too simple, however. There was no guarantee of any benefit when he spent countless hours digging through boxes of photos. That great diligence rarely happens if the person isn’t engaged by the material. There’s little sense within this film that his interest in Maier’s life isn’t real. We shouldn’t be too naïve, though. Maloof stumbled upon a gold mine with that first box of photos. However, he still had to do the work and locate the families to uncover her past. This film often plays like a personal diary with Maloof speaking directly to the camera in close-up about each step in this journey.

Finding Vivian Maier premiered in 2013 at TIFF and has become one of the most prominent documentaries of the past year. We’ll never know why Maier was so driven to take photos yet had little interest in publicizing them. That compulsion drove her to create amazing work, and the fact that she made prints indicates her understanding of their value. It’s an intriguing story with plenty of different layers to uncover. Maier was a difficult person and could be an unkind nanny. There was a touch of insanity to everything she did. She seems like a being from another place and time dropped into our universe to document it. How could that kind of person have a normal life? Maier was too manic to connect with people, but that same eccentricity drove her to surprising heights.

September 10, 2014

Night Moves Review (Kelly Reichardt)

Jesse Eisenberg plays the paranoid Josh in Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves.

Night Moves: Resistance is Futile

Jesse Eisenberg is known for playing manic, fast-talking characters that can’t help but reveal how much smarter they are than everyone else. Despite a wide range of performances, he’s still Mark Zuckerberg. One reason for this impression is because Eisenberg’s really good at playing an arrogant intellectual. His confident doppelganger in The Double shows how far he can stretch that persona. I mention this perception because of how much it varies from his subdued role as Josh in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. Looking rough behind facial hair and mundane clothes, he brings a different intensity to the environmental activist. Josh is our entry point, but he’s hardly likable.

Eisenberg joins Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as activists planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam. They aren’t stupid kids with no concerns about prison. The slow process of setting up the act shows their patience to ensure no surprises occur. We know little about these characters beyond their willingness to break the law to make a point. There’s a lingering question of what they’ll really accomplish, however.

The frustration of watching so much misconduct from corporations and the government is too much to bear. They’re passionate but seem to recognize the grim obstacles in their way. Sarsgaard’s Harmon lives in a trailer far apart from civilization, and this feels like another day at the office for him. He’s a little older and has seen enough to recognize the limits of their efforts.

The woods are beautiful yet also the scene of tragedy in Night Moves.

Reichardt co-wrote Night Moves with Jonathan Raymond, and their script takes its time in showing the lead-up to the bombing. We watch the trio get the boat, buy fertilizer, and set up for the big night. Despite the attention, we learn very little about these characters. It’s more of a procedural than a character study, and there’s a sense of foreboding around everything. What makes it work is the remarkable look to the film.

Meek’s Cutoff was even slower, yet Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and the spare landscape kept it riveting. His camera sits inside vehicles and remains static while characters ponder their actions. When the vice starts constricting on Josh, the lens pulls closer and traps him within the frame. In a key late moment, all we see is his face as horror occurs off-screen. It’s a fitting way to capture a brutal act that pushes the story in a shocking new direction.

Fanning plays Dena, who’s younger and seems to come from money. Determination to rock the system is one thing, but dealing with the aftermath is something else entirely. These aren’t best friends that will have each other’s back no matter what happens. They’re skeptics that wonder if the others are worth their trust. When the inevitable challenges arrive, how will they deal with these suspicions? Sarsgaard’s characters always have some tricks up their sleeve, but it’s Josh that looks willing to go further. What’s lost in the mess is any excitement about executing their plans. It’s just a drop in the ocean, and the move does nothing to stop the corporation. They may succeed yet still feel like a failure.

It’s easy to look at Night Moves as Reichardt asserting the futility of environmental activism. That interpretation feels too simple, however. She does like these characters, who are risking their lives to make a statement. They try to avoid hurting anyone, so collateral damage is a consideration. What Reichardt and Raymond aren’t doing is letting the trio off the hook because they’re concerned about the environment. In an early scene, Dena asks a documentary filmmaker what they should do. The answer is noncommittal and reveals the limits of activism. When the overlords control everything, can anyone make a difference? It’s important to stay informed, yet that approach only goes so far. Blowing up a dam is an attempt to change the game, but it only leads to greater damage.

September 9, 2014

Book to Screen: Divergent (2014)

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Divergent

Veronica Roth’s Divergent is tailor-made for the big screen. Released in 2011, it’s the first installment in a trilogy of young-adult books. A teenage lead faces a new world and learns about her rare abilities. Who wouldn’t identify with that experience? Tris is becoming a strong individual and battling enemies while finding romance. She’s a loner and the only person capable of stopping the villains’ plans. It’s easy to compare this story to The Hunger Games, and there are some definite similarities. Both feature a female protagonist and a post-apocalyptic universe, though the structure and politics are much different. I’ll avoid focusing too much on those connections during this piece. It’s the first in a new series on this site that will cover both the original book and the film adaptation for various titles. The frequency will depend on my ability to find the reading time. These books are long! I’m starting with Divergent, which thrived at the box office in March.

The novel Divergent, written by Veronica Roth

The Book

Let’s begin with the book, a first-person narrative about Tris’ induction into the Dauntless faction. They’re a warrior group with no tolerance for weaklings, so Tris struggles to prove her worth. Stepping back for a moment, this world is divided into five factions based on particular traits. When they turn 16, each teen faces a test that reveals where they should go (I’d fall within Candor or Amity). They aren’t required to choose that group, though. Tris is a rare case and “divergent”, which means her skills cross multiple factions. We spend a majority of the book with the Dauntless before the real threat becomes clear in the final pages. Roth takes her time and depicts the other initiates and the testing process. It’s the type of information that a film can’t provide. By the time we reach the end, our understanding of this universe is clear. The structure may be a stretch, however.

The first-person perspective puts us inside Tris’ mind, so it’s easy to understand her thought process. The dialogue gets awkward, especially when it covers her growing bond with Four. It makes sense from a 16-year-old’s mind, though. Comprehending how the factions really function is a greater challenge. Would the demarcation between each one fit so clearly? Dauntless leaders have created new rules that weed out weaker members, but they’re an exception. How would the Amity faction ensure they remain peaceful and happy? The key to enjoying Divergent is accepting this world on faith and pushing any concerns out of your mind. Roth uses the split to make a point about people having more diverse personalities. Putting everyone into a box is just encouraging dissenters to pursue a violent conflict. They’ll see the others as a threat and want to control the world, while other free thinkers with a similar mindset become dangerous towards their power.

The factions are a direct allegory and remind us that having a divided society is a bad idea. Roth nails down the themes by having the smart group prepare to grab control from the humble one. Like political parties vying for power, ethical rules fly out the window. The book is entertaining because it never feels heavy handed, thankfully. Roth seems to understand that the most important move is building an interesting story. Tris is like a student entering a new high school, and the growing friendships (and young love) keep us engaged without considering the larger message. There are no huge surprises, but the plot moves along and doesn’t get bogged down in too much exposition. The result is a page-turner that won’t astound you but is appealing enough to make it worth your time.

Divergent, directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley

The Movie

The Divergent film is directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), and it doesn’t stray much from the source. We stick with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and follow her through the Dauntless training. We don’t get more background on Four (Theo James), the villainous Jeanine (Kate Winslet), or others unless it connects to Tris. That maintains the focus of the novel but makes the world smaller. Despite expensive visual effects, it doesn’t feel like a complete universe. That isn’t a huge negative, however. Instead of wasting time explaining the intricate details, the characters are the focus. The challenge is doing justice to the book without sticking too closely to it. The Harry Potter movies faced a similar obstacle, and they became much stronger when they strayed from them. This film doesn’t try to cram in every moment, but it stays faithful to the book despite removing a few key moments.

The best move is casting Shailene Woodley, who makes Tris believable and doesn’t over sell her skills. It’s a subtle performance that reins in the emotions, which fits with the humble Abnegation background. The other actors are a mixed bag, however. Theo James is okay as Four, and Miles Teller has fun with the conniving Peter. We barely get a chance to know Tris’ friends Christina, Al, and Will; they’re victims of the limits in a film version. The trouble is that it mutes the impact of the key emotional moments. It’s hard to care about Al because we hardly know him. I wonder if he was needed at all in the movie. We’re rushing headlong towards the climax, and the few minutes leading to his tragic end don’t give us enough to care. Writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor had to make tough choices, and I would have enjoyed a leaner two-hour version that excised a few more subplots.

Despite these issues, Burger finds the right tone for this fictional universe. The Dauntless world is tricky because it sounds ludicrous, yet the environment feels right. The grey color palette fits the spare and grimy world of warriors that have little time for luxuries. They're too busy trying to prove their dominance. A key factor was shooting on location in Chicago, including the Navy Pier and its Ferris Wheel for the war games where Tris makes her name. The pace also works and moves quickly through the testing process. These assessments include mental challenges in a dream universe, and those visions are great. Watching Tris face down hawks and struggle with drowning keeps the impact on the screen. The final test lacks the power from the book, but that could relate to the PG-13 rating. Instead of choosing between sex or death in the test, Tris just pushes Four out of the way and moves to the next fear. It’s essentially the warm-up act for the real battle against Jeanine’s forces, so Burger doesn’t waste too much time on that scenario.

Divergent, a 2014 film based on the novel by Veronica Roth

The Last Word

Divergent is an easy read and written for YA audiences, and the book works in that realm. I’m curious enough to check out the second installment, so that’s an achievement. The movie should please the novel’s many fans, though it could also baffle viewers unfamiliar with the source. I had to explain a few parts to Erin that weren’t explained well in the movie. Many popular genre books (The Giver, Ender’s Game) have failed on the big screen, so I shouldn’t discount its success. The young cast keeps the material from being too dour, and Woodley was the right choice to lead the franchise. I won’t be lining up to see the next movie, but there was enough to keep me interested. I’m hoping that Roth and the filmmakers expand the world in the follow-up books and movies. If that happens, there’s enough in the basic formula to deliver an engaging story. That’s enough, right?

September 8, 2014

2014 Documentaries - Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Elaine Stritch in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

There’s a fascinating moment from Elaine Stritch that breaks the fourth wall of the documentary format. When she feels that a scene isn’t working, the long-time Broadway star angrily directs the camera man and tries to recreate it. From that point onward, we start to question how much is a performance for the camera. Are we really seeing behind the showbiz veneer? While this question lingers, it slips to the background as we watch such an entertaining woman. Director Chiemi Karasawa gives us intimate access and reveals the vulnerability behind a star well into her 80s. Despite her physical and mental limitations, Stritch is defiant and refuses to slow down. She’s an open and energetic performer, but we see the insecurity from someone who’s lived her life on stage.

Despite attempts to control the perspective, there’s so much truth within Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Stritch is exhausted and struggling to craft her show, but the crowd still loves her. She deftly plays her inability to remember all the lyrics as a joke, and fans appreciate the attempt. Most Tony-award winners would never take this approach. There’s a touch of insanity to the way Stritch refuses to stop after hospital stays and other setbacks. Even so, her persistence is charming despite any difficulties along the way. By her side at every turn is Music Director Rob Bowman, who does a lot more than arrange the songs. His reliable presence provides just the support that Stritch needs to keep the show alive.

Celebrities appear frequently in Shoot Me, including the late James Gandolfini. His warm comments about Stritch remind us of the heart behind his often-gruff demeanor. Seeing the pair together presents two performers who left before their time. She died earlier this year, and it still feels too soon at age 89. The camera takes us behind the scenes at 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and others. Stritch’s guest appearance as Jack Donaghy’s mom won her an Emmy in 2007. It’s clear that she has a lot of friends in show business, and that fact isn’t surprising given her style. An early scene follows Stritch down the street wearing a fur coat and talking to everyone she meets. Her life is on stage.

Elaine Stritch

There are so many stories about Hollywood, Broadway, and show business in general in Stritch’s mind. It’s impossible to capture them all within an 81-minute film. Karasawa gives us a picture of an artist at a time in her life when so much tells her to stop. Stritch loves the spotlight, but she’s hardly arrogant. When choosing a room at the Stella Adler Studio, she keeps rejecting locations for being too large. Despite her success, Stritch remains an insecure girl from a humble background. She’s a force of nature on stage but has struggled with alcoholism behind the scenes. It’s intriguing to watch her battle with it every day and sometimes cave and have a drink. It’s hard to blame her at 87.

Stritch is well known among theater fans, but she’s hardly a household name for cinephiles. Shoot Me is just the right way to introduce her to a new segment of the audience. Avoiding the talking-head route and spending time with Stritch is the right move. We see her both on stage and in the quiet moments back at the Carlyle Hotel. This gives us a much clearer understanding than any raves from other actors or experts. I knew little about her before seeing this documentary, and even this brief glimpse told me quite a lot. Stritch may talk directly to the camera and create a few wrinkles, but that freewheeling approach is part of her charm. All we see is the heart, and there’s plenty on display in this film.

September 4, 2014

Under the Skin: No Joy in This Universe

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

There’s a brutal early scene in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin that refuses to leave my mind. Scarlett Johnansson’s mysterious being is trying to pick up a swimmer while a family relaxes at the nearby beach. The adults' dog is caught in the tide, and they try unsuccessfully to save it. When Johansson's charms don’t work and the swimmer leaves to help the drowning parents, she chooses a different approach. While the helpless guy lies on the beach, she smacks him with a rock and kills him. The parents drown, and their baby is left alone and screaming. Her uncaring attitude towards the baby is chilling and shows the lack of emotions in this predator. Glazer keeps his attention on the baby, who is helpless on the remote beach and continues to scream for its mom and dad. A strange man arrives and cleans up the evidence of the killing, but he ignores the baby and leaves the child.

This is a cruel and horrifying moment.

As the father of two girls, I can’t help but watch this scene and think of my daughters. Our youngest is 18 months old, and I can’t imagine seeing an toddler in this state and doing nothing. It makes me ill to even think back on this scene. What makes it stand out is the way that it differs from much of the film. Johansson’s character picks up single guys with no attachments and lures them to a strange place with black liquid. There’s a promise of sex, but they face an entirely different fate. What’s surprising is how cold and sedate these encounters feel. The guys are so mesmerized by the attention that they fail to grasp what’s happening. She maintains a cool presence that makes more sense as we learn more in the final act. The images are vivid, but we feel detached from what’s happening to these guys.

Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson

Glazer uses non-actors for the men, and watching the filming sounds as interesting as the movie. The unscripted interactions between Johansson and these guys were reportedly shot without them realizing it was a film. It’s an intriguing way to get a natural performance, especially from people with no experience. The mundane discussions make it tough to get too engaged in their lives, however. The men are interested in talking with this beautiful woman, but there is little memorable dialogue. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin create a stunning look that nearly compensates for the lack of excitement in these bland encounters. They’re purposely humdrum yet set in a striking visual environment. The camera pulls back and reveals the guys as minor blips within a giant black pool; they mean little to her beyond their use to the grand plans. Similar to the gorgeous beach, it's an attractive setting yet feels strangely cold and distant.

Glazer shifts gears in the second half and turns the focus inward as the woman loses interest in the abductions. She’s a being from another world trying to make sense of this body that she inhabits. The obvious connection is David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but that movie focuses on the way he’s corrupted by our society. Glazer reveals the dark side of humans, but they’re side players in the girl’s inward exploration. She may be a callous being that can leave a baby screaming on a beach, yet that isn’t a purposely evil move. Instead, she’s following instructions from agents that care little for her as an individual. Compassion isn’t part of her make-up, despite what she learns in this story. It’s a memorable piece of art that can frustrate but sticks with you for a long time.

September 2, 2014

2014 Documentaries: The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” – Donald Rumsfeld

There’s a strange charm to the way that Donald Rumsfeld dodges questions. His comments make sense on the surface, but he’s just spinning a phrase to avoid giving a concrete answer. It’s easy to think of Rumsfeld as a fool who believed so strongly in his plans that he ignored what was right in front of him. Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known does not present a guy of limited intelligence, however. The smiling face that sits in front of the skilled interviewer is a shrewd manipulator who believes he can sidestep any question. When Morris asks him why he agreed to sit down for the movie, Rumsfeld calls it a “vicious question”. It’s hard to say why he chose to participate, but it probably involves the ego of a guy who held posts for multiple presidents going back to Richard Nixon.

I’ll admit to entering this documentary with a bias against Rumsfeld. He was one of the faces that sold the Iraq War under George W. Bush in 2003. If there is an ideological spectrum, I’m sitting on the opposite side from Rumsfeld. Even so, it was intriguing to learn his assessment of tumultuous times that revealed failures to connect the right evidence. Rumsfeld calls it a “failure of imagination”, but that view takes the position there wasn’t an agenda pushing to invade Iraq. He tries to answer Morris’ questions and outlines why they believed Saddam Hussein was a threat. However, the reasoning falls short because of contradictions between the answers and the original case for war. You could say he’s forgotten past words, but Rumsfeld comes off as a guy who obsesses over details.

Donald Rumsfeld's Snowflakes memos

Morris spends a good portion of the 103-minute running time having Rumsfeld recite key memos called snowflakes from his extensive career. It’s a clever device to reveal what he was thinking at the time given his reluctance to offer insights. We jump back to his work for Nixon and Ford, though a majority is spent with his recent tenure. Supported by powerful music from Danny Elfman, Morris incorporates film clips, photos, and other devices to keep the material engaging. He continues to grow as a filmmaker and understands how to add context. There is footage of Rumsfeld sparring with reporters at press conferences, especially near the end of his tenure. Morris' Interrotron camera allows us to look directly into Rumsfeld's eyes, though we may not like what we see. Rumsfeld is a skilled manipulator and comfortable in this setting.

There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

Let’s inspect this statement. Rumsfeld gave this quote in June 2002 at a press conference in Belgium from NATO headquarters. It happened during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, and he appears to be discussing the challenges with intelligence. But what is he really saying? The point becomes less coherent the more times you read it. Is he stating that logical conclusions are made without evidence and are “unknown knowns”? That’s quite a stretch when you’re talking about decisions that could involve the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Rumsfeld doesn’t explain the comment much better to Morris in this film. He’s clever and knows how to distract from what he isn’t saying. It’s intriguing (and maddening) to watch him give comments that seem candid yet reveal very little.

Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

It’s difficult to discuss The Unknown Known without mentioning The Fog of War, Morris’ remarkable documentary with Robert McNamara. Both were military leaders who made questionable decisions, but the difference is what the McNamara interview reveals. He served as the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and is open to exploring what happened during that period. Some critics have pointed out their frustrations that Morris couldn’t get the same response from Rumsfeld. I understand those concerns but don’t think it hampers this film. We still get an engaging look at a guy who barely acknowledges his failures. It gives a better understanding of Rumsfeld’s limited thinking that led to problems during his tenure. It lacks the same punch as The Fog of War, but there’s enough to make it interesting for the right audience. Morris does his best to draw more from Rumsfeld, but you can’t force a guy to reveal things he’s locked behind a wall of murky explanations.

July 31, 2014

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2014)

Anita Hill, star of the documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power

I believe Anita Hill. It doesn’t make sense to talk around the issue when discussing her story. My perspective on her revelations about Clarence Thomas back in 1991 is essential to analyzing this film. Anita: Speaking Truth to Power offers an intimate perspective of what Anita experienced facing the Senate committee (and the public) 23 years ago. The image of old white men questioning Anita remains stunning because of the sharp contrast. It’s a fascinating story on its own, but Director Freida Lee Mock (Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner) focuses on Anita’s life during and after the hearings. She was painted in a terrible light by Republicans (and some Democrats) and put through the ringer by the press. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been in today’s news cycle. Regardless, Anita’s life was forever changed by this time in the spotlight. Was it worth it? This engaging documentary makes the case that Anita’s example inspired great progress.

Anita Hill testifying about Clarence Thomas in 1991.

The highlight is the chance to connect so closely with Anita, who speaks freely without seeming bitter about the results. She’s an intelligent, brave woman that ended up being a punchline for late-night comedians. The law professor couldn’t escape the limelight and decided to embrace it, though I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice. This documentary covers a famous event but succeeds more as a personal tale. We’re only hearing from Anita and her supporters, but that’s just fine. Mock isn’t doing an investigative journalism piece about the confirmation hearings. I expect that the book Strange Justice by Jane Meyer and Jill Abramson would go more into that territory. The writers appear in this film and offer some background on the case against Thomas. Other participants include Anita’s friends and family, and they paint an interesting picture of a highly regarded and fascinating person.

The film begins with a voicemail from Thomas’ wife Virginia, who’s still asking for an apology from Anita 19 years after the hearings. This is stunning and reveals their monumental impact on a personal and political level. It’s possible that Virginia truly believes that her husband is innocent. Only she knows for sure, but leaving a voicemail in 2010 is strange. Virginia’s angry face appears frequently in the clips from the hearings, and it’s clear that she believes a huge injustice has occurred. While I admire someone who stands by her husband, it’s hard to be too sympathetic. The big question is why Anita would come forward if the accusations were false. What did she have to gain? The most likely result was character assassination, and the senators were more than willing to comply.

The Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991.

What’s even more distressing than the image of the guys questioning Hill is the tenor of their inquiries. There’s an aura of distrust and suspicion behind their questions. The worst offender is Arlen Specter, who ferociously digs into every detail and tries to discredit Anita. Orrin Hatch is nearly as bad and looks for inventive ways to undercut her accusations. Those men are Republicans defending their guy, but the Democrats barely stand up for her. Joe Biden makes some friendly comments but seems extremely uncomfortable with the situation. Ted Kennedy eventually makes a fierce statement about the hearings, but he remains silent for most of it. Only moderate Democrat Howard Heflin from Alabama makes clear points for Hill (at least in this film), but his complicated questioning may have gone over some heads. Few look comfortable discussing sexual harassment.

The challenge with analyzing this documentary is maintaining an “objective” take. I was intrigued to learn more about Anita’s story, so it was an easy sell. As a father of two young girls, I have a personal interest in stories about courageous women. The filmmaking is pretty standard and includes interviews mixed with video footage. Even so, that’s hardly a strong criticism. Flashy techniques could distract us from the main points about Anita. If you don’t believe her story, this film is unlikely to change your mind. Even so, it might offer greater understanding about why she came forward. The hearings' legacy goes well beyond Thomas’ confirmation despite the fact that he remains on the U.S. Supreme Court. The final segment reminds us of how much Anita has impacted women across multiple generations. She’s become a cultural touchstone in the fight against sexual harassment, and the impact transcends her individual struggle. We still have a long way to go towards real gender equality, but this example shows that we’re heading in the right direction.

July 24, 2014

Snowpiercer: Bong Joon-Ho Wins the Summer

Chris Evans and Kang-ho Song in Snowpiercer

This summer has been dominated by the familiar band of super heroes, giant robots, and other franchise characters. It’s been rare to see an original story that packs a punch yet enters new territory. A talented South Korean filmmaker has arrived to shake up the formula and deliver one of the year’s most unpredictable gems. Bong Joon-ho is building quite a fan base around the world after the success of The Host and Mother, and his latest outing should continue that trend. Snowpiercer is an epic tale that provides the thrills and surprises of a summer movie. The budget is just shy of $40 million, but it feels more expansive than films that cost four times as much. The trick is getting us engaged in a story that could go anywhere. It occurs in the confined space of a moving train, yet there’s a sense that anything may exist behind each gate. Despite Harvey Weinstein’s best efforts, it's catching on through word of mouth and deserves a larger audience.

Comparing movies to video games is an overused trope, but it actually fits in this case. The revolutionary forces led by Curtis (Chris Evans) are progressing through each level, fighting enemies, and solving problems to reach their ultimate goal. There are even boss fights that raise the stakes and offer new challenges with greater difficulty. Like the skyscrapers in The Raid or Dredd, the train offers the perfect setting for this type of incremental progress. Each gate moves them closer to the final stage, but the dangers increase and require added skills. Curtis is supported by a group of adventurers with their own abilities. Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) knows the electronics for opening the gates, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) can see what’s coming, and Grey (Luke Pasquilano) is a skilled hand-to-hand fighter. They’re a formidable team with a chance at escaping their awful situation, but it won’t be easy.

Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho

What makes Snowpiercer more than just another cool action film is the creativity in the set design and this entire universe. It could easily become a one-note story with a great concept but limited execution. The remarkable part is the way that the inventive environment sets the stage for a gripping film. Joon-ho supersedes the genre trappings and delivers thrills while digging into compelling sci-fi themes. In a frozen world of limited resources and space, how do you avoid pure chaos? Wilford (Ed Harris) has developed an extreme class structure to maintain the “balance”, and it feels like an immoral construction of a deranged man. But what’s the alternative? Would the rich folks of the first-class cabin give up their posh life and share their wealth with the lower classes? That’s a tricky question, especially when the system’s been in place for nearly decades. Usurping this structure will most likely deliver rampant destruction.

It’s easy to understand why Curtis will lead the revolution. The tail section has miserable conditions with bodies living on top of each other. They’re fed with bars of a jello-like substance and have no freedom to move around. Kids are taken from their parents with no explanation, and it’s essentially a totalitarian state. What’s surprising is the way Curtis’ status as the hero slowly drifts away. We’re still on his side and want to reach the end, but there’s little sense he’ll save the universe. The upper-class folks view him as a non-person and barely acknowledge his existence. Limited resources only allow for so many to thrive while others suffer. It’s essentially a simplified look at a capitalist society. Wilford may claim benevolence and intent to preserve the balance, yet there’s a joy in being a savior. The privileged few like Tilda Swinton’s Mason revere him and look down upon anyone that says differently. Who wouldn’t love a guy that’s created such an isolated paradise?

Ah-sung Ko and Kang-Ho Song in Snowpiercer

The screenplay delves into complex themes, but it's also rousing entertainment. The hatchet battle is possibly the most thrilling sequence that I’ve witnessed this year. Although it’s bloody and action-packed, there are small touches that separate it from the typical fare. In the middle of the fight, everyone stops for a brief New Year’s celebration. That brilliant segment is matched by a comic sequence involving a classroom of students, a history video, anthems praising Wilford, and machine guns. It’s ridiculous and represents a drastic shift in tone yet still feels right in this world. It takes major skills to get away with this move and keep the audience right with the story. I wasn’t budging for a second.

If there’s an emotional center to Snowpiercer, it’s Chris Evans’ steady presence. Curtis is struggling with past demons, and the revelations about his past are startling. Evans sells the tragedy without over playing the melodrama. He’s so committed to stopping Wilford that betrayal from an ally never crosses his mind. Swinton and Harris get more leeway to chew scenery and inject the right energy into their supporting roles. Wilford doesn’t even arrive until the finale, yet people talk about him for the entire film. It takes an actor with a huge presence to live up to those expectations. He’s hardly a standard movie villain, either. Despite the rampant collateral damage with Wilford’s approach, there’s a method to his madness. He’s become a clinical leader that pushes morality aside for the good of chosen few. It’s hardly a great scenario, but there are very limited alternatives. This unforgiving environment sets the stage for one of the year’s most thrilling films.

July 21, 2014

Chef: Favreau Re-ignites His Heart

Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony in Chef

Jon Favreau burst onto the scene in 1996 as the writer and star of Swingers, and his ascension continued with major directing gigs like the two Iron Man films. When you’re shooting movies with astronomical budgets, it’s hard not to lose your originality. His most recent outing Cowboys & Aliens was a critical and financial disappointment, and it arrived three years ago. Favreau has been doing some soul-searching and was looking to work on a smaller scale. While it may sound like a step backwards, that’s hardly the case. Chef reveals the heart that attracted people to him in the first place. Its characters mean well and are just looking to find their place. There’s a similarity between the career paths of Carl Casper and Favreau. When money gets involved, it’s hard to stake your claim as an individual. Playing to the middle rarely leads to exciting creative results.

Favreau plays Casper as a nice guy who’s self-involved but not in a malicious way. He’s been cooking the same meals for Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant for too many years. I’ve worked in mundane office jobs, so I can sympathize with this feeling. You don’t even realize how much the lack of creative thinking is impacting the other aspects of your life. Casper spends time with his son, but he’s always focused on his job. He can’t even enjoy a roller coaster without checking his phone. Who has time to be a good dad when you’re running a restaurant? I expect that Favreau has faced a similar situation with his kids. Casper is constantly on the move and pushes back the lingering questions in his mind about his predictable job. It’s only a matter of time before something cracks inside his soul.

Chef, directed by Jon Favreau

The instigator of this life change is a powerful food critic (who else?), and all it takes is a bad review to knock Casper into manic territory. His public outburst against the appropriately named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) certainly springs from Favreau’s opinions about unfair critics. There were harsh reviews written about Cowboys & Aliens that probably mirror the clever barbs from Michel. In one sense, Casper’s statements that critics aren’t creators make sense. In this particular case, the bad review goes viral and hurts his reputation. On the other hand, Michel ends up being more than a one-note villain. We aren’t in Shyamalan territory from Lady in the Water. He devastates Casper’s confidence, but his main points are correct. The generic cooking lacks creativity and doesn’t match his immense talents.

Chef advertises for the greatness of many things, including food trucks, New Orleans, and Twitter. Favreau presents the simplicity of working on a truck and making dishes that people love. These aren’t patrons that have been ordering the same food for 20 years. I’ve been a recent convert to food trucks, so he’s preaching to the choir. The use of Twitter feels natural, though I expect they spent a pretty penny bankrolling this project. Making Casper’s 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) the social media expert works because he cast the right actor. Anthony looks much older and sells the boy's intelligence. The Casper/Percy relationship connects directly to the chef’s search for his creative identity. When he’s doing something that he loves, it’s easy to convey that joy to his son.

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo in Chef

The main reason the story works is because of the cast, and everyone is bringing out their genuine side. It feels like they believed in the material and enjoyed supporting their friend. The scene where Casper welcomes Martin (John Leguizamo) to the food truck and tells him the pay is nothing matches how I picture Favreau’s meetings with the cast. Leguizamo is rarely this likable and perfectly depicts Casper’s loyal ally. He’d rather give up a lucrative job as a sous chef than not work with Casper. Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr. join the fun, while Hoffman gets the most thankless role as the less creative owner. That guy is hardly an evil villain, however. He takes a different perspective on the restaurant business and isn’t totally wrong.

If there’s an area that’s lacking, it’s the depth of the female characters. Johansson’s Molly is charming and gives Casper the push that he needs. However, she’s essentially on the screen to offer advice and love the guy. Favreau and Johansson sell their connection, but it’s a pretty thin character. That’s also true of Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife Inez. It’s clear why he’d want to be with her, and she’s a very likable character. Even so, she’s a reactive creation that’s just waiting around until Casper finds his way. Vergara also sells Inez as a real person, and it’s only with more consideration that we recognize the limited portrait. These issues are hardly fatal because there’s so much niceness on the screen. The conflicts are clear but are mostly in place to showcase the positive sides of Casper’s regeneration.

Family food truck day in Chef

Chef is one of those films with extended sequences that will send you scrambling for the kitchen. The food looks gorgeous, and Favreau presents it majestically. The soundtrack is filled with jazz tunes, and that brings vitality to simple moments like driving down the highway. This is the type of movie that may turn off cynical viewers, and I can understand that reaction. Even so, it reveals a heart that’s been missing from Favreau’s recent work. There’s nothing wrong with directing a blockbuster about superheroes. The question is whether those projects match up with Favreau’s skills. He seems more at home with this smaller story about a guy who’s becoming engaged with life. Casper’s speech to his son about his love of cooking should resonate with anyone who loves a creative activity. When we’re immersed in our favorite pursuit, is anything better?

March 17, 2014

Veronica Mars - The More Things Change...

When you consider all the attention that the Veronica Mars movie received well before its release, watching it without preconceived notions is quite a challenge. I’m a big fan of the TV show, especially the first two seasons, so meeting the familiar faces again was like a family reunion. Getting the band together once again was an achievement in itself. Would the magic still work for creator Rob Thomas, star Kristen Bell, and the other Neptune residents? That’s the question hanging over a production that arrives nearly seven years after the final episode. Thomas has made it clear that the movie is made for the fans, so that removes some of the mystery out of the story. Even so, revisiting Neptune with Veronica is great fun and reminds me why I enjoyed the show so much in the first place.

Veronica Mars – Directed by Rob Thomas; Starring Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Frances Capra, and Ryan Hansen

The premise gives the beloved title character a reason to return home when her former boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is charged with murder. It’s also the weekend of Veronica’s high-school reunion, a perfect setting to reunite with pals like Weevil (Frances Capra), Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Mac (Tina Majorino). They show up to update us on their lives and bond with Veronica, but her most important relationship is still with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni). Their connection grounds the show and brings much-needed heart to the detective story. The chemistry is still there, but Keith’s main purpose is to remind Veronica what she’s giving up by staying in Neptune. Colantoni makes it work and can say a lot with just a look; Keith knows where too much time with Logan will lead her.

The film opens with a quick primer on what’s happened before for new viewers. It can only explain so much given all the callbacks and characters, but it hits the main points. Like Joss Whedon with Serenity, the challenge for Thomas is finding a way to connect with a new audience while pleasing his fans. Some are going to watch this movie itching to tear it down, and there’s no point trying to connect with them. Instead, he pulls the best elements of the show and slams them into a 107-minute package. This plot could extend across an entire season, so the information comes fast and furious. Thomas cranks up the pace and dares us to keep up with it. All is explained clearly in the end, but novices trying to remember the difference between everyone could get a bit lost in the mix.

The action follows the formula that made the show a darling among the critics and devoted fans. There’s a crime that seems cut and dry, but Veronica has her doubts. Barriers appear at every turn, but she starts putting the clues together and learning the real truth. Figures in power are usually at fault, and her fellow students (now similar adults) add extra obstacles for Veronica. Despite her efforts to avoid it, you know that she’s going to the reunion. Old scores are settled, which inspires an all-out brawl and other mayhem. Danger lurks around every corner, and a few close friends end up in the hospital. A common theme on the show was how people will go to a lot of trouble to protect their reputations. Digging too deep is bound to create problems for Veronica and anyone close to her.

Beyond any twists, the hardest thing to believe is that Mac drinks Bud Light. Of course, she’s also working for the evil Kane Software. Maybe success has changed our lovable geek. The product placement is everywhere in this movie, especially for Samsung. The device that took the famous Oscar selfie is back and plays a key role in the story. Even with the Kickstarter success, I expect these products really helped to bring this movie to light. It’s also interesting to note all the cameos, which include Justin Long, Bell’s husband Dax Shepard, Ira Glass as himself, and Jamie Lee Curtis. The silliest appearance comes from James Franco, who again mocks his real persona in a fun scene. It’s clear that a lot of people are fans and wanted to be part of this resurrected show. It’s great that Thomas found a spot for the brilliant Ken Marino as Vinnie Van Lowe. There’s even a random Jerry O’Connell sighting as the corrupt sheriff. The massive cast brings depth and creates an ensemble feel that’s more reminiscent of a TV series.

I’ve barely touched on the actual plot, but that feels secondary to spending time with the characters. Veronica starts the film dating Piz (Chris Lowell), the nice guy college student. The chances of success for that relationship end when Logan arrives in his military uniform. There’s a conflict over Veronica choosing to take a high-paying job at a big law firm, but that’s also a smokescreen. She’s only at home catching bad guys, despite the pain it may cause. Keith may want his daughter to escape Neptune, but she comes alive in this place. Veronica's the smartest person in the room and constantly underestimated by her foes.

Crime’s only grown worse in Neptune since the show ended, and there are hints at a larger conspiracy behind the scenes. Could a sequel be around the corner? I’m pulling for Veronica Mars’ success, and the chances for more stories are very high. Bell’s open to the idea, and getting the cast on board would probably be easy. Even if the general audience takes a pass, there are enough fans to find a home for Veronica and her pals without their help. It’s hard to argue with that kind of adoration. We’re still connected to these characters, and there’s nothing in this movie to convince us otherwise. Let's make this happen.

March 11, 2014

2014: The Year I Embraced the Streaming Culture

Despite my interest in technology, I’m rarely an early adopter when it comes to new trends. They often seem like cash grabs designed to fix imaginary problems. The rise of 3D is a prime example. Seeing a movie on a giant screen is enough of a spectacle. I had a similar reaction when Netflix started pushing their streaming services. DVD-by-mail was a near-perfect upgrade from the video store and offered a lot more selection. Why mess with a good thing? I stuck with my DVD subscription and ultimately dropped it when the benefits slipped. My local library offers plenty of great titles, and that fits with the focus of this blog. Plus, a few video stores remain for the newer releases. That situation has worked out well, but I’ve noticed a change in my thinking. It’s time to embrace the new era of online film distribution.

Before continuing, I should offer a clarification. When I talk about the online medium, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to check out films via a computer screen or phone. There are limits to this change. Thankfully, our Blu-ray player has connections to Netflix, Amazon, and other services to make it easy. I also have a trusty HDMI wire for services like iTunes that aren’t accessible. It’s essentially another way to use our home theater set-up to watch films. Even so, it’s quite a change in perspective. One reason is a slight adjustment in my focus for this blog towards newer movies. While I’m still catching up on classics, I’m hoping to be more engaged in the conversation about recent films. My schedule prevents me from making regular trips to the theater, so a new mindset was needed to work for this situation.

Thus far in 2014, I’ve written about 24 films. Here’s a breakdown of where I saw them:

Streaming through Netflix and Amazon Prime – 21%
Online rental through Amazon Instant Video – 13%
DVDs from library or home collection – 58%
Theatrical screenings – 8%

This may not seem earth-shattering, but check out the 2013 figures over the same period:

Online rental through Amazon Instant Video – 6%
DVDs from library or home collection – 88%
Theatrical screenings – 6%

Although I’m still watching a majority of films on DVD, I expect the shift to continue further into this year. The Veronica Mars movie arrives on demand Friday on the same day as its theatrical release, and it will be easier to catch it without arranging a babysitter. The remaining two entries in my Niche Culture marathon will both come from online sources. Why is this change happening? One reason is having better Internet. Before upgrading my service last spring, watching films online was extremely frustrating. There still are moments now that remind me why DVDs can be easier, but they’re less frequent. Another reason is the greater accessibility to indie films that only play in a few select cities.

Back in 2011, I embarked on a “Post-Netflix Project” due to that company’s awful service and disregard for its customers. My thoughts about Netflix haven’t really changed; they don’t offer enough selection to cover the diverse aspects of movie fandom. Even so, I can see the benefit particularly when looking at recent movies. Plenty of Oscar-nominated documentaries and foreign films are currently available. I’ll still be picking up DVDs at the library, especially for blind spots like Yojimbo. It’s hard to argue with the ability to borrow a Criterion release of a classic with little wait. I don’t watch as many DVD extras these days, but they’re also still worth checking out in the right cases.

But what about movie theaters, you ask? I love the big screen and can’t imagine a better place to enjoy cinema. The distractions are gone, and spending two hours just focusing on a movie is incredible. The challenge is getting there. The adjustment has come with the methods when home viewing is the best option. Technology is constantly changing, and it’s hard to predict the source of the next wave to change our habits. My guess is that it’s going make it even easier to watch media at home. I’m still hesitant to embrace it fully, but my guard is down about this trend. If a resistant guy like me is okay with this shift, that’s hardly a good sign for movie theaters. Even so, I expect they’ll continue to thrive by offering an experience that’s still much different from the online world.

February 7, 2014

Mitt: Humanizing a Candidate

Mitt Romney in Mitt.

The Republican Party has struggled in recent years with the perception (fair or not) of it being a group of rich white guys who don’t understand what it’s like to not have money. If they were looking for a candidate to change that view in 2012, they made a poor choice with Mitt Romney. The wealthy business man and former governor of Massachusetts did little during the campaign to avoid that stigma. Is there more behind the slick hair and dapper suits? I’m definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I realize that any serious candidate has more to say than clever catch phrases. Romney’s record prior to running for president was pretty moderate and included major healthcare reform as governor. What happened to that guy? Greg Whitely’s Mitt doesn’t answer that question, but it does give a behind-the-scenes look at Romney and the challenges of a campaign.

Premiering at Sundance in January and now available on Netflix, this documentary provides a glimpse at the pressures of trying to win the nation’s highest office. Romney’s family loves him but doesn’t want him to run, especially after his failed attempt in 2008. We spend a lot of time with his sons, who experience the stress firsthand during the chaos. His wife Anne stands by her husband right to the end, but there’s a sense that she’ll be okay if he just retreats from the public sphere. Whitely succeeds at humanizing a guy who comes off a lot colder in public. We see Romney horsing around with the family in the snow, picking up trash off a hotel balcony, and just enjoying the quiet times. They savor every victory and sit mournfully after his low points. It’s that rare perspective that drives this film.

Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Mitt.

The challenge with Mitt is the limited perspective on Romney as a candidate. We get quick footage of the aftermath of the 47% debacle, but there’s no input on what really happened. There’s a conversation with Romney deriding the lack of understanding small business owners by his opponent, yet it’s hardly revelatory. Despite having close access, Whitely gets few moments to capture Romney’s internal thoughts beyond what he tells his family. Instead, we’re left to read facial expressions following major events. After the second debate with the “act of terror” issues, he sits quietly and has the look of a guy marching to a funeral. While pushing back against the idea that he made a mistake, Romney’s eyes say it all. He tries to put on a strong façade, but there’s clear doubt in his mind.

It’s fascinating to watch the progression of the 2012 Election Day as the bad news starts arriving. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan expect to win and have a rousing final campaign stop. When the expected results don’t happen, his core team keeps trying to spin them positively. It’s this up-close view that makes Whitely’s documentary worth seeing. I don’t agree with Romney’s views on many issues, but it’s clear that he believed that he could make a difference. It may surprise you to see Romney laughing to David Sedaris on This American Life or quoting from O Brother, Where Art Thou? with Anne. He’s clearly an intelligent guy with nuanced views on politics. The problem is that he wasn’t able to communicate that side to the public. It’s all about quick impressions, and he couldn’t shake the image of being an out-of-touch guy willing to change his views to get elected.

Mitt and Anne Romney in Mitt.

Beyond its limited take on Romney’s candidacy, Mitt shows the impossibility of maintaining a normal life while running for president. The Internet and 24-hour news networks have changed the game and made it even more intrusive. When Romney sits down with his family to weigh the pros and cons of running, no one rushes to give any positives. They recognize the nasty side of politics that’s only been heightened in our modern age. A person would have to be pretty crazy to even try this venture. Given this fact, Romney seems pretty balanced and genial. While nothing we see changes my thoughts about his candidacy, it does soften them on the personal side. This may frustrate viewers hoping for more depth, and that reaction is understandable. Even so, there’s enough interesting material to make this movie worthwhile for anyone interested in the political process.