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Monday
Jun172013

Review: Man of Steel

Returning home from a late night showing of Man of Steel Friday night, I tried to figure out exactly why I found it to be flat and lifeless. I imagined waking up the next morning and writing a lengthy point-by-point takedown of the film, discussing the implications of the choices that went into this version of the Superman mythos.

Reaching clarity on my second cup of coffee, I realized that not only would it be terrible to read, but more importantly, those changes likely would not have bothered me if Man of Steel were a better film.


The biggest problem with Man of Steel is that Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) has zero depth as a character. Clark Kent especially is never given any sense of self other than the childhood flashbacks, and so he remains just as much a mystery to us as he does to the rest of the world. By making the character a cypher, he becomes a Swiss Army knife of a metaphor for any miracle worker (Jesus most prominently), and thefore he is robbed of his humanity and relatability. While the flashbacks we get in Clark Kent's memories are beautifully shot and evoke the pastoral feeling of Kansas, the film never brings with it the emotional depth needed to carry the story.

Exacerbating that notion, Superman is often presented, as director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer do in this film, as a nature versus nurture study, and asking us to consider how much of the character is truly human or alien. Taken from this film alone, this dichotomy doesn't ring true. Yes, Superman has two dads in Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), and they have opposing views concerning their son's destiny. Pa Kent is protective and wants his son to hide himself away because he is afraid, while his alien father encourages him lead humanity and to "stand in the sun." However, the ultimatum presented by General Zod (Michael Shannon), for Kal-El to reveal himself or let a planet be destroyed, doesn't allow Clark to be the agent of his own destiny. He never truly decides to be Superman on his own.

And that's the inherit problem with Man of Steel. There is no story. Even more glaring than that of the much lambasted Prometheus, there is only plot here. Things happen for sure, but Superman never changes as a character. He doesn't grow or make a truly difficult choice, so the story is "drifter finds spaceship buried in the ice, discovers true heritage, rejects it, destroys city." It's not especially compelling, and remarkably there is more story in the Kryptonian first half hour of the film, 'The Tragedy of Krypton' then there is in the two hours that follow it.

In a lot of ways, Man of Steel feels like a reactionary film to Superman Returns. You complain that Superman doesn't throw a punch? Watch him punch for a half hour. Not enough Christ imagery? Bam! Superman goes to church, Jesus wears a red cape behind him. Although technically this film does also feature a real estate scheme of sorts, making this the third of six films to pull that.

It would not be fair if I didn't enumerate some of the things I liked about the film. A lot of the fine detail I actually quite enjoyed, and this film has many moments I would love to revisit. Hans Zimmer's theme for Superman is fantastic, and the rest of the score would make a decent marching band show. Russell Crowe gives his best performance since Master and Commander, and really the whole cast is excellent (except for Diane Lane, who doesn't succeed in making Ma Kent a hippie). The action was excellent, though again it feels hollow given the lack of story.

I understand why the filmmaking team made a lot of the choices they did, and some of them are very bold. Sometimes they pay off, but mostly they don't work given the lack of substance at the center of the film. Hopefully Snyder and company are able to get it completely right next time.

Wednesday
Jun122013

Review; This Is the End

This post originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.


This Is the End
springs from the comedy font of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the same minds that wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express. Starring their friends as versions of themselves and thrusting them into the apocalypse, This Is the End is ripe with the expected pop culture references, boorish humor, and plenty of pot. While not as successful as Superbad, this fast-pace film does offer a lot of nice surprises.


Jay Baruchel comes to Los Angeles and stays with his friend Seth Rogen. He reluctantly accompanies Rogen to James Franco's housewarming party. After a wild celebrity-filled party, cataclysmic events happen and Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson attempt to survive together while they wait for rescue.

This film is chock-full of cameos from other celebrities and half the fun is picking them out of the background or having them show up in unexpected ways, so I won't ruin the fun by spoiling them here. While celebrity sightings are only one aspect of the film it might be the most successful. As fun as the main six cast members are, it's the little cameos by the stars we know and love lampooning themselves and Los Angeles culture that amplifies the camaraderie shared by the core cast.

What surprised me the most about This Is the End was the skillful handling of comedic tension between the leads. Whether it's the carelessness of playing with a loaded gun, or the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure followed by a ridiculously loud noise, I found much of the drama pretty thrilling given the context. The film's aesthetic may take its cues from stoner culture, but it succeeds in mixing in action beats much more successfully than say, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny. While the "scares" are played more for laughs and are not intended to impress seasoned horror fans, they were enough to make me grip my arm rest in anticipation of the next one. In fact, I suspect I will find the film funnier a second time through since I won't have to nervously anticipate what happens next.

If you are looking for solid farcical humor, This Is the End delivers, especially in the first third of the film. Fans of the main cast will find an embarrassment of riches. There are big laughs throughout, but they tend to come in sparser amounts as the running time goes on. To the film's credit it sticks the landing in a more satisfying way than other comedies like it. Now, I can finally forgive James Franco for Your Highness.

This Is the End opens today in Philly area theaters.

Tuesday
Jun112013

Top 5 Movies Starring Celebrities Playing Themselves

In honor of This Is the End, here's a list of movies where celebrities star as themselves. No cameos or one scene appearances, these entertainers (and their egos) are all central to the film.


1. A Hard Day's Night (1964)
The first film featuring the Fab Four (sorry), A Hard Day's Night may have actually invented the idea of a "mockumentary." A film as progressive as the band is considered to be, Lester's choices for the film have influenced things as pervasive as Spinal Tap, Austin Powers, Spice World and The Office. Alun Owen's screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and it is full of references to things the band had experienced as well as other contemporary British cultural icons. Full of classic British humor including puns, wordplay, weird supporting characters, and slapstick comedy, this would still be worth a watch even if the principal cast wasn't The Beatles.


2. My Dinner with Andre (1981)
While we are never told that Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are playing themselves, I think we are meant to take it that way. A film best known for its unorthodox format (a conversation), it's an engaging film that is no less relevant today than thirty years ago. More than a few winks of satire endears the audience to a film that was crafted with relentless attention to detail, showing that simplicity can be a virtue. 


3. Private Parts (1997)
A fictionalized retelling of the rise of Howard Stern starring Howard Stern, Private Parts also features his real-life radio crew Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, and Gary Dell'Abate. It could be easily dismissed as a vanity project, and it probably is, albeit an entertaining one.


4. Being John Malkovich (1999)
With Spike Jonze directing Charlie Kaufman's script, Being John Malkovich has been lavished with critical praise from the moment of its release. It is often cited as wildly original and lauded for its exploration of moral gray areas. Playing with our perception of free will and fame, the film overflows with ideas and leaves us wanting to visit Malkovich's mind over and over.


5. JCVD (2008)
A Belgian film centering on a down and out version of national hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, JCVD is probably the most unflattering portrayal of anyone on this list. This version of Van Damme is really a sad sack, losing a custody battle, broke, and possibly willing to become a criminal.

Honorable Mention

The Trip (2010)
A shorter version of the BBC miniseries starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is pleasant and enjoyable, but the highlight is this:

Friday
May312013

Review: Now You See Me

This post originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.

If Scorcese's Hugo exuded the spirit of stage magician Georges Méliès' "movie magic," then Now You See Me (the third film about stage magic so far this year) had all the potential in the world to bring that love into the present day. But unlike watching a truly great magic trick, Now You See Me is a film with little up its sleeve.

The latest from director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans), Now You See Me has all the makings of a fun heist film where a band of magicians play Robin Hood, rob banks, and distribute the money as part of their stage act. In the film's opening, we see the origin of this merry band of thieves, The Four Horsemen. Sleight-of-hand expert Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher), "mentalist" Merritt (Woody Harrelson), and street magician Jack (Dave Franco) revel in the notoriety and self-grandeur that these "tricks" bring them. Hot on their tail are magic exposer Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) trying to stay one step ahead of them. Also in the mix are Alma (Mélanie Laurent), Rhodes' partner from INTERPOL (where all cops with foreign accents come from) and Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), The Four Horsemen's bankroller.

The film squanders its premise with a series of futile misdirections that defeat their own purpose by coming too fast and never establishing any stakes or payoffs. Inexplicable events take place that have little impact on what came before, and the film's ultimate "twist" feels cheap and unearned. The only credit due this film is its fantastic cast, actors that make watching the film bearable despite being given so little to do. There are some fun scenes including a fight sequence using street magic techniques, but none of the characters are ever expanded beyond their function to the plot. Isla Fisher gets the shortest shift, her lines consisting solely of shrugging off sexual advances with sass and a smirk. Similarly, the character played by the wonderful Mélanie Laurent exists only to spout exposition. It was also disappointing to see most of the male characters in the film play some minor variation on their established personas (or in the case of Franco, his older brother's).

Now You See Me would be pleasant enough to get a pass as fluffy summer fare if not for the twist ending. It does everything a twist shouldn't do: zero payoff, radical implausibility, and turns large portions of the film into absolute nonsense, rendering a repeat viewing pointless. It took a film I was having some fun with and made me hate it.

Now You See Me opens today in Philly-area theaters.

Friday
May242013

Review: Fast & Furious 6

This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.

The latest entry in this franchise, Fast & Furious 6 (aka Furious 6) is also the first one to have real expectations to follow up on. Fast Five opened two years ago to rave reviews and massive box office success, so was director Justin Lin able to keep the momentum going forward into the sixth film (his fourth with the series)?

Furious 6 picks up some time after the Rio heist featured in the previous film, with all of our heroes living large from their payday. It also continues with the juicy nugget teased in the post-credit scene of Fast Five, with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) shown alive and well after we witnessed her ambiguous death at the hands of a drug cartel in Fast & Furious (the fourth film if you're keeping count). Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his new partner Riley (Gina Carano) use this information to recruit Dom (Vin Diesel), and Brian (Paul Walker) to stop a team of international thieves in possession of a dangerous "component," promising Dom they will discover Letty's whereabouts in the process. Dom calls up the rest of the Fast and Furious family including Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Gadot) for the reunion.

The MacGuffin in this film is touted as a great threat to human life, yet we literally only ever see this "component" in the form of a briefcase. Let's be honest though, the plot doesn't matter. This threatening briefcase is the perfect excuse to have, in the words of Roman, "vehicular warfare," across Europe. This crazy premise and the chemistry in the ensemble works as well as it did last time, and the pair-ups throughout the movie keep the comic book crossover feel flowing.

The action sequences are on par with the best of the series, including tanks, planes, and other exuberant ridiculousness that defy the laws of physics with impunity. Interestingly enough, some of the most thrilling action moments come from the intense hand-to-hand combat. These aren't thugs driving cars, they're mix martial arts gurus driving cars. Further evidence that this street-racing franchise has come a long way in redefining its own genre.

Unfortunately, there are two things holding Furious 6 back from reaching the highs of the previous film. First, much of the film revolves around Dom and Letty as star-crossed lovers destined to be together. It's hard to be invested in the relationship, however, because the strengths of Diesel and Rodriguez as actors are not rooted in emotional scenes. Whenever the film tries to spend time on intimacy, it grinds to a halt. Additionally, the climactic action set-piece takes place entirely at night, which makes everything ill-defined and difficult to follow. This hasn't been a problem in the other F&F films directed by Lin, so I was especially disappointed to see it in his final bow.

There really isn't much to complain about with Furious 6 thoughand Lin is due praise for turning a franchise about practically nothing into one with an interesting continuity and surprisingly complex mythology for an action series of its ilk. Is it better than Fast Five? No, but it marks a turning point for the series that opens up a myriad of possiblilities for future films. It easily entertains and confidently sustains the franchise that has only continued to up the ante with each installment.

Be sure to stick around for the pre-credit teaser to F&F 7!

Friday
May242013

Review: Epic

This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.


Epic, the latest animated film from Blue Sky Studios (best known for the Ice Age franchise) tells the story of Mary Katherine "MK" (Amanda Seyfried), a teenager coming to live with her father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother. Bomba is an eccentric man studying what he believes to be a civilization of microscopic sprites living in his backyard. His obsession with this Atlantis of the forest is what cost him his marriage and a meaningful relationship with his daughter years ago, and MK is skeptical that her father will change now.

But MK soon discovers that her father isn't a crazy kook as she is unwittingly transported to Moonhaven, a world of tiny Leafmen (and women), whimsical Jinn, and other magical creatures under the protection of Queen Tara. When Moonhaven is threatened by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his hoard of rot-bringing Boggans, MK takes up arms with Leafmen Ronin (Colin Farrell), and Nod (Josh Hutcherson) to ward off the aggressors.

At first glance, Epic may appear to be a Frankenstein's monster of other fantasy epics. Films such as Avatar, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, and Alice in Wonderland  come to mind (the film is actually inspired by William Joyce's The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs). These comparisons are valid, and I believe the film to be unabashedly forthright in its inspiration, given Epic is the title. It's not meant to be self-referential, but reminiscent of many childhood fairytale favorites, a cinematic assembly that builds a custom world out of classic parts. What makes Epic novel is its beautifully rendered art design. A mix of Victorian steampunk and lush bright watercolor that is both ethereal and wonderfully detailed.

The voice cast is nothing short of incredible, and while it’s easy to be critical of a film for relying heavily on celebrities in animated films, this is not the case for Epic. Even the character design remains independent from the appearance of the actor lending their voice, a risk when pairing recognizable voices with animated characters that bare no likeness to each other. Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd, who voice Mub the slug and Grub the snail respectively, are especially entertaining as the obligatory  ‘wisecracking sidekicks.’ But instead of being merely comedic relief, Ansari and O'Dowd give these characters motivations and personalities that mesh into the world around them and are integral to the plot. Beyonce also deserves kudos for her soulful performance that lends the perfect amount of gravitas and quiet power to Queen Tara.

MK herself may be the most interesting character in the film, getting more characterization than most male heroes in the same genre. She is given a complex situation to overcome, one born out of divorce and parental death, a combination that is rare in children's entertainment. Their uncomfortable relationship in the beginning of the film provides the impetus for MK to accept the hero's journey that is thrust upon her and keeps her open to the lessons that allow her to grow. I'm a sucker for films with interesting female protagonists and Epic provides two in MK and Queen Tara.

The story of Epic itself is an intimate one, despite the indications of the title, and is a soaring tribute to the imagination of the past and its place in the future.

Thursday
May232013

Fast Flashback Part 5: Fast Five

After all the hype two years ago over Fast Five, I decided I should catch up on the Fast and Furious franchise (trying saying that three times fast), having only seen the original. Like many things, I procrastinated as long as I could, and now that Furious 6 is upon us, I have binge watched the first five films. Here is the final part of my look back!


Let's get this out of the way: Fast Five is the Avengers of this franchise. It seems to exist solely for the purpose of bringing together characters from the previous four films. This is the centerpiece of Justin Lin's four directorial turns with the franchise, and it may just be the crown jewel.

It picks up right where the previous installment left off, with Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) breaking Dom (Vin Diesel) out of prison. They cross paths with a criminal warlord in Rio de Janeiro, and assemble a team to take him down. Besides our central cast, they bring back Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast, and Sung Kang from Tokyo Drift. It also brings in Dwayne Johnson, which honestly, is never a bad idea.

At its core, this is a joyous film. The entire cast seems to be having a blast, and there is enough of a MacGuffin to feel like we are accomplishing something. The action is also at a series high so far, throwing physics out the window to relish in the face of excess and adrenaline. This allows Fast Five to embrace the kind of stunts seen in the video games the franchise has influenced over the years.

Fast Five does have weak points, however. At over two hours, it can feel a little long, and the dialogue is functional, if not simplistic. None of this mattered to me when watching the film, because broadening the ensemble beyond Walker and Diesel helps the exposition and comedy land much better than previous installments.

Fast Five is the best film in the series to date, with the infectious energy and comic book team-up transcending any faults.

Best (worst) lines:

Roman (Tyrese): Guess they did, considering your ass is here. When are you gonna give Martin Luther King his car back?
Tej (Ludacris): As soon as you give Rick James his jacket back.

----

Roman (Tyrese): You say what? This shit just went from Mission:Impossible to mission: in-frickin'-sanity! Whatever man.

Some final thoughts on the series:

I was actually dreading this project, but watching all five of these films in a weekend was actually quite a fun experience. Individually, Tokyo Drift and Fast Five are probably the only films I would come back to again, but watching the other films in the franchise really does enhance the return on investment in Fast Five. Never has a franchise built so much out of so little.  

My official ranking is as follows:

1. Fast Five (The fifth film)

2. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (The third film)

3. Furious 6 (The sixth film)

4. Fast & Furious (The fourth film)

5. The Fast and the Furious (The first film)

6. 2 Fast 2 Furious (The second film)

These titles are ridiculous, confusing, and inconsistant.

Which film and title are your favorite!? 

Wednesday
May222013

Fast Flashback Part 4: Fast & Furious

After all the hype two years ago over Fast Five, I decided I should catch up on the Fast and Furious franchise (trying saying that three times fast), having only seen the original. Like many things, I procrastinated as long as I could, and now that Furious 6 is upon us, I have binge watched the first five films. Here is part 4 of my look back.

The creatively titled Fast & Furious has the burden of setting up Justin Lin's trilogy, and is a little worse off for it. It retains the fun spirit of Lin's Tokyo Drift, but there's too much plot weighing the film down.

On the plus side, the opening gambit, featuring the hijacking of tractor trailers while in motion, is nothing short of spectacular. Well, until the very end, when the limits of 2009 CGI on an $85 million budget become all too apparent. The action setpieces on the whole are good, but the plot is too incoherent for them to hold much meaning.

For fans of the franchise, the reuniting of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker is probably a huge part of why they love this film, but it doesn't do too much for me, since neither are the best actors. It's probably the first real sequel to the original film, with all of the key players back in the game. That's nice, but the full impact of having the complete gang is much better represented in the next film.

Overall, Fast & Furious may be necessary viewing for understanding the next two films, but it is an otherwise mediocre installment that never rises above that opening action sequence.

Best (worst) lines: 

Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker): This is where my jurisdiction ends.
Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel): And this is where mine begins.

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Dominic Toretto: I'm a boy who appreciates a good body, regardless of the make.

Tuesday
May212013

Review: The Great Gatsby

I wish I could remember more of F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal work The Great Gatsby, but like all the other American classics forced upon me during high school its influence on my life (and memory) is minimal. But that shouldn't matter, because really, in an ideal adaptation, the movie should rely on only the overarching themes of the source material and use them to paint a picture of modern society.

Baz Luhrmann's take on Gatsby is close enough to the source material to properly evoke Fitzgerald's book, but with such contemporary flare as to make it timeless. Combined with his signature use of special effects and incongruous music, the film makes you realize that Jay-Z belongs as much in the 1920s as he does today. 

I was surprised to find much of the original prose so prominently featured in the film, dancing smokelike across the screen (similar to Moulin Rouge). I haven't read the book in a decade, and I still remembered the optical billboard of Dr. Eckleburg, and the green light that haunts Gatsby's every waking moment. The characters also walk right off the page, especially Mulligan's Daisy, a character I loathed so much in the book for her childish naivete, my initial desire was to punch her through the screen. 

The entire ensemble cast does an exemplary job, though it would be easy to overlook Leonardo DiCaprio's take on Gatsby until you realize it is a performance of a performance. Carey Mulligan embodies Daisy perfectly as the flighty, frusterating flower she is, while Joel Edgarton does a fine job making Tom Buchanan less daft and more sympathetic than I remember. It's Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway I am still undecided on, because I can't resolve in my mind whether I want him to be more or less of an active protagonist. Despite Nick's narration, this film is more about Gatsby than Gatsby's effect on Nick. I thought Maguire handled what little introspection he was afforded very well, but his story definitely played second fiddle to Gatsby. Some may find that the performances overall are over the top, but I found that they blended well into the heightened reality of Luhrmann's lavish production. This film takes place on a stage that matches the fluidity and verbosity of Fitzgerald's novel.  

Luhrmann brings the spectacle of course, and the lushly realized frantic party scenes at Gatsby's mansion are themselves worth the price of admission. One part high society, and one part warehouse party circus, they have to be seen to be believed. Despite how you feel about Luhrmann's style, he is a craftsman when it comes to using anachronism to comment on modern society.

With Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and The Great Gatsby,  Baz Luhrmann succeeds in reimagining very familiar worlds by staying loyal to source material and revealing the story's timelessness through aggressive visual representations. It's an adaptation style that may be too literal for the screen, but it doesn't fail to remind us just how vital the material is to return to time and again. 

Tuesday
May212013

Fast Flashback Part 3: Tokyo Drift

After all the hype two years ago over Fast Five, I decided I should catch up on the Fast and Furious franchise (try saying that three times fast), having only seen the original. Like many things, I procrastinated as long as I could, and now that Furious 6 is upon us, I have binge watched the first five films. Here is part 3 of my look back. Check back each day this week!

So we’ve come to this: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Way back in 2006, when this film was released, it felt like a last ditch attempt to make the Fast/Furious franchise a reality. All new cast, new location, this time they race…with turns! And yet, this film is excellent. Director Justin Lin takes over the franchise, and finally makes me care about some characters! I never cared at all about Paul Walker’s Brian, but Sean (Lucas Black) is much more charismatic and likeable as the lead of this film.

The film basically opens with a signature race (against Home Improvement’s Zachary Ty Bryan!) before high schooler Sean gets sent to Tokyo to live with his dad. Of course, Japan has its own kind of racing culture, and this American needs to relearn how to drive. We meet Twinkie (Bow Wow) and Han (Sung Kang), and soon we are remaking the formula of the first two films. Han is the literal Mr. Miyagi for Sean (the Karate Kid is directly referenced at least once), and teaches him how to drift.

We get some great mountain races, and this is the first time the franchise is able to make racing look as fun and cool as it does on Top Gear. Lin has an eye for it, and the neon-adorned setting perfectly fits the video game vibe the entire film is fueled with. Tokyo Dift is nowhere as introspective as Lost in Translation when it comes to an American in Japan, but the fact that the connection even comes to mind shows just how good this movie is. Japan isn’t just window dressing, but there are specific culture shocks at play here that give a depth I was surprised to find in a FF film.

Tokyo Dift ends on the first “OMG moment” with the appearance of Vin Diesel's Dom, a little surprise that seems to be a signature of Justin Lin’s time with the franchise. It’s a fun nod, even if there was no plan to make additional films in this franchise. Also, this is where the continuity of the series gets interesting, but I’ll save discussing it for a later installment.

Tokyo Drift is the film that revitalized this franchise; a hidden success well worth checking out even if you dislike the other films. It's also the only FF film so far that I would consider adding to my collection.



Best (worst) lines:
Drift King (Brian Tee): Do you know who I am, boy?
Shawn (Lucas Black): You're like the Justin Timberlake of Japan.

----

Han (Sung Kang): What'd you expect? You didn't just play with fire, you soaked the matches in gasoline.

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Han (Sung Kang): I don't care if you're sick as a dog or in bed with Beyoncé. I call, you show.