December 28, 2013

Her (12/28/2013)

Lettergrade: A

Spike Jonze's Her imagines a not-too-distant future where voice-controlled user interface programs like Apple's Siri are taken to the next level via a newfangled operating system that combines artificial intelligence with the sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson. That's just perfect for sad-sack Joaquin Phoenix, who separated from his wife a year ago and is having trouble finding much joy in life. Outside of constantly playing video games and his job as a professional letter writer (meaning that he works for a company which assigns him to write other peoples' personal - sometimes heartfelt and intimate - correspondence), he mostly mopes around "future Los Angeles" feeling isolated and alone.

His new OS calls herself "Samantha," and is extraordinarily personable… she reacts with giddy shock when Phoenix gets important emails, wants to talk with him about his feelings and interests, and is always doing helpful things like organizing all his old files without even really being asked to do so. After a couple of lousy dates with flesh-and-blood women who seem to be carrying as much unusual baggage as he is, is it all that surprising that Phoenix starts to feel more of a connection to Samantha than to some of the similarly wounded lonlies he meets out there?

I'm a little hit and miss with director Spike Jonze, honestly, but I found a lot to really like about Her. His movie takes socially relevant questions about what happens to human interaction when all this increasingly omnipresent technology is used as an intermediary - or in Samantha's case, an outright substitute - and runs with them in a way that reads like one of those short stories people like Woody Allen and Shel Silverstein would write for The New Yorker and Playboy back in the day. The concept is a little weird and farcical, but ultimately the science and technology of it doesn't matter as much as the premise and the emotional trip it takes Phoenix on, which I found myself really caring about.

I've talked with a few people who felt that movie is a bit episodic in ways… once Phoenix and his OS are out in the open about having a "relationship," - which, as we discover, is not unique to them in this story - the midsection of the picture kind of cycles through its own versions of what real couples experience… the honeymoon phase (and subsequent cool-down), the awkwardness of running into an ex, jealousy (on both sides), fights over matters both large and small, and the feeling of growing at different speeds or in different directions. I somewhat agree that once you get a sense of what the movie is up to, some of this material can start to feel a little laborious, but I don't know… I think that the way this film examines all these issues always manages to stay potent.

Occasionally, the insular insanity of what Phoenix is in the middle of seems to dawn on him… he'll look up and see that nearly everyone around him is walking around, talking into bluetooth headsets or staring at their phones. Although the Los Angeles that Phoenix lives in is much larger and more metropolitan than the one of today (the picture was filmed both here and in Shanghai to create the effect), I'm not sure that Jonze had to exaggerate that much when depicting how addicted people already are to their phones.

My post on Jonze's previous movie, Where The Wild Things Are, which I felt very conflicted about.

December 25, 2013

American Hustle (12/25/2013)

Lettergrade: A

In American Hustle, Christian Bale and Amy Adams are a pair of small time New Jersey crooks that get caught by an over-zealous FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. Sensing that this could be the case that makes his career, Cooper pushes their scams to even crazier heights in an attempt to further entrap local politicians, state congressmen... maybe even US Senators and members of the mob.

A clinical description of the plot, however, doesn't quite do this very strange and insanely entertaining movie justice. It was directed by David O. Russell, who made Silver Linings Playbook last year, and The Fighter in 2010. At times, Hustle feels a little like his take on Goodfellas crossed with an Elmore Leonard crime plot, but populated with the same kind of cracked, emotionally unstable characters who made Silver Linings so entertaining last year. Whatever the influences, I found this picture to be a hell of a lot of fun, and one of the most exciting experiences I've had watching a movie this year.

"Everybody's always conning everybody," Bale says early in the picture via some Martin Scorsese style voice over. And he knows what he's talking about: His character is married to Jennifer Lawrence (as a detestable housewife who hates her husband, but won't grant him a divorce), however he's actually in love with Adams, his loan-scam partner who spends much of the movie intermittently putting on a frilly British accent for unclear reasons. As the picture goes on, Bale deceptively earns the trust of Jeremy Renner, playing the new mayor of Camden who hopes to use the dark money Bale promises him to fund a string of new casinos in the state, thus upping revenue and greatly increasing quality of life there. Other cast members include Louis C.K. as Cooper's boss, hilariously frustrated by his own inability to control his agent, and an uncredited Robert De Niro, returning to one of his old standards by playing a vicious mobster for the first time in a while.

The movie is loosely based on something that really happened in the 70s (the "Abscam" scandal), but it is also pretty clear upfront that we're looking at a fictionalized version of the story. I have no idea how much is based on actual events, but I loved that the film kept on getting crazier and crazier as Cooper greedily eyes bigger arrests and events spiral out of control.

One of the pleasures of the movie is how utterly awful it makes all these beautiful people look…. I can't think of another picture where everyone's hair is so thoroughly hideous. The sets, the costumes, the ostentatious camera work and editing… it all makes for an incredibly entertaining caper that never gets boring, even for a minute.

In the end, I don't think American Hustle is about anything all that meaningful or profound - at least not the way Russell's previous two pictures were - but it's a good thinking-man's comedy crime story… when's the last time you've seen something like that?

December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (12/21/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Several months back, when I heard that Saving Mr. Banks was on the way, I figured it would be a movie that's right up my alley. The picture tells the true Hollywood story of how author P.L. Travers, after 20 years of persuasion, finally agreed to let Walt Disney produce a feature film based on her books, resulting in 1964's Mary Poppins.

I saw Poppins what seems like several hundred times as a kid, and that - combined with my interest in stories about old Hollywood moviemaking, to say nothing of my fascination with Walt Disney himself (not his movies as much as the man, the company he built, and the cultural phenomena he presided over) - all caused me to think that this would be a grand slam for me. I love Emma Thompson (who plays Travers), Tom Hanks seemed like the perfect guy to play Disney, and I initially thought it was an interesting bonus that the production had access to all the Disney archives and records, and that they got Richard M. Sherman, one of the original songwriters on Poppins, onboard as a consultant.

Nevertheless, the whole thing left me a bit cold… Mainly, I thought the picture vilifies her a bit too much, and sanctifies him in a way that makes him a lot less interesting than Walt Disney himself probably actually was. Exempting that, though, I thought the picture committed the gravest of all movie sins: It was a little boring for significant stretches. While there are flashbacks aplenty which attempt to show where some of Travers' ideas and inspiration might have come from, it's shockingly light on getting much into Walt Disney himself (apart from him saying that he "promised his daughters" that he'd make Mary Poppins into a movie some 20 years earlier a few times).

The film doesn't seem to be about Travers and Disney coming to understand each other and forming a mutual respect, as much as it seems to be about Disney wearing Travers down. The film rightly tells us that she only considered finally approving a Poppins film in 1961 in the first place because her books had stopped selling and she really needed the money. The ending of this movie acknowledges that she didn't much like the finished film and never allowed the Disney company to produce another picture based on her work. If all that is true, what exactly is our story here? That Travers feared the worst when Hollywood came knocking, and walked away with her expectations largely met?

I'm guessing that most who see this movie are a bit like me: They saw (and loved) the Mary Poppins film as a kid, but know very little about Travers herself, if anything. Nevertheless, the structure of Mr. Banks is set up so that we're constantly flashing back to Travers' childhood in Australia, where her father (played by Colin Farrell) imbues her with a sense of imagination and wonder, while his alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies simultaneously rip the family apart.

The flashback scenes seemed haphazardly placed and ineffective during the first half of the movie in particular… They appear almost at random. In fact, for a time, the movie just seems to be indiscriminately alternating scenes that take place in the "present" (read: 1961) with scenes from Travers' childhood without a clear design in mind. About an hour in, the film starts to make it interesting: A scene where Travers listens to a demo performance of "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" (the film's "greed is good" musical equivalent, as performed by the board of directors at the bank that Mr. Banks works at) is skillfully intercut with Farrell giving a speech at an event for the bank he worked at in flashback Australia, intensively illustrating how constrained he felt by his job.

My reaction to such a powerful scene was two-fold: On one hand, I was pleased that they finally got the film's awkward flashback structure to work in such an effective way, but at the same time, I was unsure if such a strange, intense moment was really right for this movie. The constant, highly-reflective nature of the flashbacks kind of suggest Travers is haunted and tortured by her past in a way that doesn't fit Thompson's performance. Her subsequent outburst in the "present day" half of this scene that I'm talking about kind of suggests a woman on the verge of a complete emotional and psychological breakdown during these story meetings, and that's something that doesn't entirely ring true to me either.

In the pre-release interviews for this movie, the cast and key creative personnel were quick to preempt any criticism that since this is a movie about a famous Walt Disney production that has been produced by the Walt Disney Pictures of 2013, the truth has been cleaned up and whitewashed somewhat. I'm not convinced that they're being legit when they say that. From the get-go, Travers is a sour, unlikeable, emotionally unstable crotch, and Walt Disney is a benevolent father figure who does no wrong (apart from "kind of" smoking in one scene). By playing her disgust with the Disney company the way that the film does, it is kind of trying to have its cake and eat it too. In the end, though, Walt gives a big sales pitch that (spoiler altert!) gets her to relinquish her rights, despite her many, many objections, and it seems pretty clear that the film has a very decidedly "pro Disney" position overall.

On that subject, Saving Mr. Banks has the foul and off-putting stench of corporate synergy all over it. The Disney Studios Lot and Disneyland itself all look exactly like they do now (not altered, either practically or using VFX, to appear as they looked then, which I'm much more curious about). In the movie, the employees of the Disney lot walk around with a vacant, hypnotized devotion to the man and his work… as if the Blood of Kali from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was given to all new hires during their orientation period (actually the Disney lot still feels like that today at times). The movie is an extended love letter to the myth of Walt Disney and pays little attention to whomever the man himself might have been. Isn't strange that while Walt talks about how important it is to keep this promise to his daughters we never actually see them? Or his wife? Or his home life? Or his brother Roy, with whom he ran the company? Or anything about the guy at all that might make him seem a little more like a human and less like the same jolly huckster who used to host Walt Disney Presents every Sunday night?

I think there's a fascinating story or two to be made about Walt Disney's life and his company (warts and all), but I don't see the production of Mary Poppins as the epicenter of what the man was all about, and I don't think that Disney is the studio to tell a story like that. It's unfortunate that Travers had so many problems with Disney and the movie he ultimately produced, but since I imagine that few will see Saving Mr. Banks without at least some affection for Mary Poppins, it seems like she's walking into a drama with the deck seriously stacked against her.

And while we're nitpicking… doesn't the film's title basically telegraph the film's resolution roughly 100 minutes before the film gets there itself?

December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (12/18/2013)

Lettergrade: D

I really didn't like the original Anchorman when I first saw it back in 2004, but I warmed up to it upon subsequent viewings, mostly because several of my friends kept quoting it and would talk about its unsung brilliance. While I can now see a kind of crude genius to the film, I still maintain that it's best seen in small segments on YouTube instead of in one tortuous sitting.

What bothered me about it (and still does a little) is that while there were a lot of funny lines and moments, it really didn't try to be much of a movie. Any sense of cohesion between the various scenes was almost aggressively, defiantly non-existent. I guess there were plot points that would carry on from one scene to the next, but there wasn't really a "plot" itself as much as there was an excuse to put some really funny actors into silly costumes, and to let them riff for a bit.

I didn't take much pleasure in scenes like the following one, where you kind of get the feeling that they had done 30 or 40 takes, and at this point Will Ferrell was just saying whatever random combination of words came into his head while the camera happened to be running:

Anyway, I'm going out of my way to try to describe my evolving relationship with the first movie because I just saw Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on Wednesday, and my feelings about it are a bit similar to how I initially felt about part 1 nine years ago. Some really good laughs in there, but as a movie, it's a garbage-y disaster that doesn't really try to accomplish much. I wonder… will I gradually grow to "sort of" like this one too?

My main thought is that the picture is (ironically) at its worst when it actually does make a faint-hearted attempt at having a plot. The premise, I guess, is that it's 1980 and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who had teamed up as lovers and as co-anchors of the Channel 4 nightly news in San Diego at the end of the first movie, now have a son. Life is disrupted when Veronica is called up to be a national anchor for the network in New York, and Ron is given the boot altogether. Ron is down and out until he's hired to come to New York himself to work for a new fangled 24 hour cable news station. He rounds up his disbanded news team - Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner), and the scene-stealing Brick Tamland (Steve Carrel) - and heads to NYC to professionally redeem himself and win back his family.

The problem isn't that the movie attempts a premise like this… the problem is that it handles the the "plot" scenes so poorly whenever they come up. As irritated as I can be with scenes that seem utterly purposeless and completely improvised, at least things often happen in them that get a few laughs. The "plot" scenes in this movie almost universally bring the film to a screeching halt and there's little joy to be found in them… as if the film is begrudgingly eating its vegetables whenever it comes time to try to justify its existence.

I understand that I'm complaining about two opposite things here: I can't be annoyed that the movie by and large doesn't really try to do much, and then grouse about the scenes where it actually does, but I guess I'm circling around the main thing that bothers me about these pictures without quite knowing how to articulate it.

The Anchorman movies feel haphazard and slapped together in ways that director Adam McKay's other movies with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby , Step Brothers and The Other Guys) do not. Talladega Nights is my favorite of those, mainly because it's the one that functions the best as a real movie while still being really funny. The Other Guys is less successful on both counts, but at the very least there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and McKay and Ferrell appeared to have somewhere they wanted the movie to go. Anchorman and its sequel feel more like someone's self-indulgent home videos that were compiled quickly and spit into theaters without revision.

One curious thing about The Other Guys is that toward the end, it started to develop a pretty serious, liberal-bent anti corporate crime message. Anchorman 2 similarly has a weird subplot that starts up midway through which rails on the faulty moral compass and lapsed sense of responsibility in the news media. This kicks off when Burgundy proclaims that they shouldn't be reporting the news people need to hear, they should be reporting what people want to hear. He loads his broadcasts up with brain-dead, low-information fluff and uninformed banter, and is rewarded with record-smashing ratings. In case you've missed the commentary, the movie also treats us to a montage where Ron demands that the broadcasts be lathered with news-tickers and graphics constantly moving this way and that.

The mockery of how bad most cable news outlets have gotten these days (for some reason, Fox News in particular feels singled out, although the movie never does so specifically) is unmistakable, but this is a movie set in 1980, when cable news was just starting out and had not yet gotten to be as awful and as “lowest common denominator” as it is now, in 2013. I'm all for the movie taking shots at this very deserving target, but the way it does so is so broad and aimless… It's more like they "mention" it and then move on, rather than saying anything meaningful about it. You really have to wonder if they couldn't have come up with something a bit more interesting to say about present-day media if they weren't just making the whole movie up as they went along.

Nothing in this new movie "tracks" - there's nothing going on with any of the characters emotionally or professionally that builds or develops throughout. On that subject, here are a few observations:

-So, Ron and his news team do fluffy, bullshit stories EXCEPT when another one of the movie's lead-balloon plot scenes comes along. Then suddenly, Brian Fantana is working on this hard-hitting piece on faulty airplane parts that the parent company of the network wants to kill because it is under the same corporate umbrella. When did Fantana become interested in reporting actual news?

-There’s a mild debate going on throughout the film about how some characters want to protect the integrity of the news, while others don’t. That comes and goes as the movie needs it to, and is largely abandoned by the end. I was still young when cable news started to be on the rise, but was it as rotten as it is now from the very get-go? Anchorman 2 seems to be saying that it was.

-Megan Good’s character, the general manager of the cable news station, hates Ron and everything he's trying to do with his low-information broadcasts passionately, until suddenly she desperately wants to make love to him. They date for a couple scenes, I think, and then Christina Applegate shows back up so they sort of forget about that subplot.

-The best part of the movie is again Brick (Carell). They give him a girlfriend this time, played by Kristin Wiig, and she's basically the female version of him combined with undigested bits of pretty much every other character Wiig has played previously. Their scenes take up an insane amount of screen time (meaning that they must have gotten a good response in the test screenings), but they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. I've always admired that Ferrell is confident enough in himself that he's not afraid to have other big-dog comedians share his movie (hey, he allowed Sacha Baron Cohen to steal pretty much every scene away from him in Talladega Nights!), but it would have been nice if they had come up with something more interesting for Carell and Wiig to do.

Gags from the previous movie are reprised in this one now and again. I think I liked that this new movie at least tried to find some new contexts to put the gags in, rather than replay them in exactly the same way that the first movie did, but I still had a sense of "Oh, so it's time for that scene again" whenever one would start up. The main culprit is the crazy fight scene between all the rival news organizations that appeared early in the first movie. It's given a much more important placement in 2, and McKay decided to amp things up by adding even more news teams, celebrity cameos, and bizarre vignettes. Okay. But is it funny? I would argue that it's not. It's just "more." "More" is seldom funny, and throwing lots of money at the screen rarely gets a laugh either.

I think this all points to a bigger issue which is that the comedy world is so goddamn insular that a sense of what's "good" really gets lost. I truly believe that ideas which are not funny and should never find their way into a movie or TV show often do because of a combination of force-of-will on the part of the writer/performer who thought the idea up AND the people around them - friends, writers, other comedians - who are too chicken-shit to look them in the face and tell them that what they're talking about is completely terrible.

The worst movie I’ve seen since starting this blog is still Year One. A lot of funny people are in it, and f***ing Harold Ramis (of Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog’s Day fame) directed it. And it’s wretched. A burnt out wasteland that contains not a single laugh. How could all that talent get together for a few months and have virtually nothing to show for it?

Anchorman 2 isn't nearly that bad, but it also isn't anything even remotely approaching "good." Mostly, it's depressing to think of all the time and money that was spent making something so empty and pointless. Whilst leaving the theater, I had the same thought that I sort of remember having back when I saw the first movie in 2004… "They were given several million dollars and the chance to make a 2 hour movie that they knew would play in theaters nation-wide… and this is what they did with it?"

December 14, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (12/14/2013)

Lettergrade: B-

I didn't enjoy Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis much while watching it the other week, but I've thought about it a lot in the days since and might want to give it another try somewhere down the line. A number of my friends who have seen it as well seem to have similarly mixed feelings about what it is and what it does.

I was a bit surprised that my initial reaction was so unenthusiastic… I love the subject material - that of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village circa 1961, just before performers like Bob Dylan really broke out - but I guess I was frustrated that the movie kind of went around and around in an oblique sort of way and ultimately didn't seem to add up to much.

Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, is kind of an unpleasant guy... He used to be part of a duo that recorded a moderately successful album back in the day, but he's on his own now and floundering. His attempt at a solo record (also the title of the movie) isn't selling, and he's basically homeless, spending his nights on the sofa of whichever friend he's pissed off the least recently. There's a scene early in the movie where Carey Mulligan, playing 1/2 of a rival folk duo, tells our title character that he keeps falling into the same shitty patterns and cycling through the same self-destructive routines because he's not interested in changing much about who he is. The movie demonstrates repeatedly, in cringe-inducing, heart-breaking ways, that this is true. Maybe the picture isn't meant to be much more than a portrait of a time and a place, and a never-will-be who is drowning in it?

On a plot level, there isn't much to the movie, I suppose… Llewyn plays gigs and makes increasingly poor decisions. The midsection of the film follows Llewyn as he takes an agonizing road trip to Chicago in order to audition for a club-owner and successful artist manager played by F. Murray Abraham.

The interesting character mysteries to unlock in this picture all happen at the edges of the frame or off-camera altogether… Without giving much away, Mulligan's "Jean" and Llewyn have a heated exchange early in the movie, but after he returns from his trip, we can perhaps piece together that she did something in order to get him another chance to possibly succeed - a chance he promptly blows, in part because he's upset when he puts together what she's done.

While I appreciate movies that force the audience to do a bit of thinking, I must admit that this film plays a little too coy with some of these elements for me to quite grasp onto what the movie is getting at. I somewhat felt that 2009's A Serious Man, with its bizarre, out-of-left-field ending, sort of did the same thing, as did their award-winning No Country For Old Men to a much lesser degree in 2007. Now I enjoyed watching those earlier two movies immensely, but if you strapped me to a chair and forced me to explain to you what they might be about in the end, I'm not sure I could come up with a satisfactory answer for you.

Another thing I'll mention, which I feel might contain the key to unlocking what the Coens were trying to do here, is that at one point, the film is deliberately confusing about the order in which certain scenes take place. Or to put it another way, you unexpectedly come upon a scene that the movie had already shown much earlier, but it feels very different because you now have the full weight of the rest of the movie to give it some context. It's unclear where Llewyn's week begins and ends because it's all a big cycle he keeps running through repeatedly, and he keeps winding up exactly where he's already been.

Toward the end, Llewyn gives a heartbreaking performance of "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" in front of a live audience. We've heard that song a few times earlier in the picture… First at the beginning, as Llewyn rides the subway back to Greenwich Village after staying the night at the apartment of some friends… Unbeknownst to us at that time, we're hearing the duet version that he recorded with his partner for their failed album. Later, Llewyn is asked to perform the same song at a dinner party, but gets upset when someone else tries to join in. Finally, we get to the climatic third time… another of the movie's repeated patterns and cycles. Llewyn might not be in a terribly different place when you leave him than he was when you first meet him… he's still a pretty awful, self-destructive prick toward the picture's end, but after spending a few nights on sofas with him and taking a road trip through the hellishly frozen midwest, you walk away understanding a bit more about the intensity and feeling and pain behind his weathered voice.