Total Pageviews

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014 (Round 2)

Best Picture:
1. Birdman (Previous Ranking: 11)
        I don't really love its chances to win the big one, but at this point, it's legitimately the only movie I can't imagine missing out on a Best Picture nomination. This showy show-biz tale is right up Oscar's alley.
2. Boyhood (Previous Ranking: 5)
        The only reason this ever seemed like it could miss was because of distributor IFC's limited track record with chasing Oscars. This one's brought too many grown men to tears to worry too much about that now. 
3. The Imitation Game (Previous Ranking: 9)
        I feel good about Birdman and Boyhood; from here on out, it's a crap shoot. This Alan Turing biopic is right up the Academy's alley, and boasts of strong early reviews, and a lauded lead performance.
4. The Theory of Everything (Previous Ranking: 29)
        Ditto literally everything listed above... only with Stephen Hawking instead of Turing.
5. Selma (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Did a Martin Luther King biopic just drop into this race at the last second?!? It did, and the reviews are stunning, but will it pick up enough buzz in time?
6. Foxcatcher (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Some say it's too cold or weird for Oscar. I say Bennett Miller has never directed a movie that wasn't a Best Picture nominee. I'm not about to start betting against him.
7. Unbroken (Previous Ranking: 8)
         The true story of survival in captivity, directed by Angelina Jolie, written by the Coens, scored by Alexandre Desplat, shot by Roger Deakins, and starring buzzy up-and-comer Jack O'Connell? There's enough to like here to move Unbroken to the top spot. Too bad no one has even seen it yet.
8. Into the Woods (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Another Oscar season, another big Rob Marshall spectacle ridding in on the truly endless coat tails of his Chicago. The guy might not have another Best Picture nominee in him, but if Into the Woods is a hit, it's status as the year's lone musical should keep it in the conversation.
9. Gone Girl (Previous Ranking: 7)
         Oscar loves David Fincher, and this was the biggest box office hit of his career. It's not really their style, but with 10 potential slots, not every movie has to be.
10. A Most Violent Year (Previous Ranking: 15)
        J.C. Chandor's previous couple of films (Margin Call and All is Lost) were both Oscar players, and with the white-hot leading pair of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in front of his camera, I like his odds to be offered a seat at the 'big kids' table.
11. Wild (Previous Ranking: 22)
12. Interstellar (Previous Ranking: 13)
13. Still Alice (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
14. Whiplash (Previous Ranking: 12)
15. Inherent Vice (Previous Ranking: 1)
16. Fury (Previous Ranking: 18)
17. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Previous Ranking: 34)
18. Mr. Turner (Previous Ranking: 16)
19. American Sniper (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
20. Rosewater (Previous Ranking: 41)

Best Director:

1. Alejandro González Iñárritu---Birdman
        As with all things Birdman, AGI is all but assured to get in, so let's just put him at the top of the list, and reassess the rest when the nominations drop. He might not win the golden man, but he's making the final five for sure.
2. Richard Linklater---Boyhood
        I kind of like the narrative for the perpetually underrated Linklater to win an Oscar on his first at bat, but that's just it... in his 20+ year's of filmmaking, he hasn't even been nominated once. Hopefully things go according to plan, and we can finally stop saying that.
3. Morten Tyldum---The Imitation Game
        There's no real reason to have Tyldum ranked ahead of Marsh, just as there was no real reason to rank Imitation ahead of Everything in my Best Picture rankings. These movies are destined to duke it out through the end of February.
4. James Marsh---The Theory of Everything
         Didn't you read what I just said?!?
5. Ava DuVernay---Selma
        What a story it would be; only the second woman to win Best Director, and the first ever African American. This is worth keeping an eye on.
6. Bennett Miller---Foxcatcher
7. Angelina Jolie---Unbroken
8. Rob Marshall---Into the Woods
9. David Fincher---Gone Girl
10. J.C. Chandor---A Most Violent Year

Best Actor:

1. Michael Keaton---Birdman
        Again with Birdman? Keeton a carbonite lock for the nomination; who knows after that?
2. Eddie Redmayne---The Theory of Everything
        Finally, something Everything has over Imitation! A steadily deteriorating Stephen Hawking is capitol letters OSCAR BAIT, and early word on his performance is rapturous.
3. Benedict Cumberbatch---The Imitation Game
        Hasn't this guy been 'the next big thing' for about 5 years now? Oscar has been pleading for a chance to nominate him, and in Imitation Game, it finally has one.
4. David Oyelowo---Selma
        Listen: if you're playing Martin Luther King in a well-received movie coming out at the end of the year, you're in line for an Oscar nod. It's really only icing on the cake that Oyelowo's supposedly great in the picture.
5. Steve Carell---Foxcatcher
        The guy from The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin?!? Everyone's known that Carell is great in Foxcatcher for almost a full year now; the interesting part will be seeing is Oscar can take this guy seriously.
6. Jack O’Connell---Unbroken
7. Oscar Isaac---A Most Violent Year
8. Timothy Spall---Mr. Turner
9. Channing Tatum---Foxcatcher
10. Ralph Fiennes---The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Actress:

1. Julianne Moore---Still Alice
        Overdue, and in a very flashy role. Even at a not-really-old-in-any-sense-of-the-word 54, she'd be one of the oldest Best Actress winners of all time, but with Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep in Oscar's recent past, I don't really see that hurting her. The fact that hardly anyone has heard of Still Alice kinda does...
2. Felicity Jones---The Theory of Everything
        The supportive wife of a mentally decaying mathematical genius? If this role had Oscar written over it any more boldly, they'd have already given it away... wait... they already did!
3. Reese Witherspoon---Wild
        The actress race is particularly thin this year, and Witherspoon practically gets this whole movie to herself. Until Hollywood starts coming up with better roles for women, that'll almost always be enough to get in (Not trying to throw shade on Reese; she's supposed to be great in Wild).

4. Rosamund Pike---Gone Girl
        Her role in Gone Girl is Juicy with a capitol J. Some worry that overwhelming dislike for her character might be a hinderance; I'm more concerned with what the Academy thinks of the film as a whole.
5. Emily Blunt---In the Woods
        Look, it's kind of a shot in the dark, but if Blunt, well liked by just about everyone, can steer a gargantuan musical production into the big race, who's to say she can't win Best Actress?
6. Amy Adams---Big Eyes
7. Hilary Swank---The Homesman
8. Shailene Woodley---The Fault in Our Stars

Best Supporting Actor:

1. Edward Norton---Birdman
        I'm tired of this, aren't you? Norton's getting in for sure, but I have no earthy idea if he can win.
2. J.K. Simmons---Whiplash
        Everyone and their house cat wants to anoint Simmons as this year's Supporting actor winner, but I have a boat-load of pause for you. The movie is crawling it's way 3 million box office, and as any fans of Albert Brooks' Drive performance can tell you, being a veteran of the craft doesn't really mean a hell of a lot to Oscar unless you're reeeeally up there.
3. Mark Ruffalo---Foxcatcher
        Ruffalo garnering an Oscar nomination for playing a nice-ish guy in a Best Picture nominee wherein he's overshadowed for a pair of buzzier lead performances; if it worked for The Kids Are All Right, it should again work here.
4. Ethan Hawke---Boyhood
        I didn't really see this happening until recently, and I could still be talked out of it fairly easily. Problem is, this category is pretty thin, which means that whole 'I filmed this movie for 12 years' thing might be enough in and of itself.
5. Tom Wilkinson---Selma
        I wasn't really certain how to fill this last slot, but I sided with pedigree. Wilkinson is a former nominee who plays a U.S. President in a movie that might make some serious noise. Let's play it safe.
6. Josh Brolin---Inherent Vice
7. Garrett Hedlund---Unbroken
8. Domhnall Gleeson---Unbroken
9. Chris Pine---Into the Woods
10. Alec Baldwin---Still Alice

Best Supporting Actress:

1. Patricia Arquette---Boyhood
        A respected industry veteran who's been acting since the late 80's, and has yet to add an Oscar nomination to her resume. The fact that she's in a likely Best Picture frontrunner should help, and Oscar tends to looove his struggling, self-sacrificing mothers.
2. Jessica Chastain---A Most Violent Year
        Arquette's perfect opposite. This would represent Chastain's third nomination since she absolutely EXPLODED onto the scene in 2011. Patricia's got about ten years and a million movies on her, but Chastain's upward movie star trajectory might just be too powerful.
3. Emma Stone---Birdman
        The only potential Birdman nominee who I feel compelled to call a 'potential' nominee. She still feels safe, just not a safe as her cast mates. 
4. Carmen Ejogo---Selma
        There's a fairly bold line in between the top three here and the rest of the field. If I'm taking a flyer on somebody, give me the actress playing Coretta Scott King.
5. Keira Knightly---The Imitation Game
        This last slot is a total crapshoot. If Into the Woods is a hit, I like Streep or Kendrick, but as of now, I'm going with a sizable role in a potential Best Picture winner.
6. Meryl Streep---Into the Woods
7. Anna Kendrick---Into the Woods
8. Laura Dern---Wild
9. Carrie Coon---Gone Girl
10. Katherine Waterston---Inherent Vice

Best Original Screenplay:

1. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo---Birdman
2. Paul Webb---Selma
3. Richard Linklater---Boyhood
4. Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye---Foxcatcher
5. J.C. Chandor---A Most Violent Year
6. Damien Chazelle---Whiplash
7. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan---Interstellar
8. Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness---The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. Mike Leigh---Mr. Turner

Best Adapted Screenplay:

1. Graham Moore---The Imitation Game
2. Anthony McCarten---The Theory of Everything
3. Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson, and Richard LaGravense---Unbroken
4. Gillian Flynn---Gone Girl
5. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland---Still Alice
6. Nick Hornby---Wild
7. James Lapine---Into The Woods
8. Paul Thomas Anderson---Inherent Vice
9. Jon Stewart---Rosewater

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Interstellar (Release Date: 11-7-2014)

        To say that Christopher Nolan is in rarified air as a tent-pole filmmaker would be the ultimate understatement: no other director can currently turn a mere movie into a cultural event simply by attaching his name. Spielberg used to have it, Tarantino might get there yet, and Cameron would share the mantle if he made more than one film per decade. As is, Nolan alone is afforded movie-star treatment by both the studios that market his pictures, and the audiences that greedily lap them up. It should come as no surprise that all this adoration has emboldened him to take even further risks; with the release Interstellar, Nolan's first since dutifully wrapping up his Dark Knight saga, finds the auteur marching to the beat of his own drum, traveling to the farthest reaches of space all in the name of chasing his muse.

        Hollywood's own Lazarus (Matthew McConaughey) stars as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and current farmer (they make those?) living in a vaguely post-apocalyptic American midwest. Rather than zombies or artificial intelligence, Earth's ruination is brought about by a newly untenable climate; rain hardly falls, dust sweeps through towns like a menacing brown fog, and our only viable crop left is corn (Take THAT, USDA!). Humanity's last hope manifests in the form of a wormhole that is discovered somewhere near Saturn, a portal behind which mankind hopes to find a new home. Cooper reluctantly accepts the mission, leaving behind a much beloved daughter (a terrific Mackenzie Foy) and an afterthought of a son (Timothée Chalamet) with only a puncher's chance of ever returning.

        It's easy to forget that Nolan's name hasn't always been synonymous with enormity. As recently as  2006's The Prestige, the guy hadn't even made a single epic. Then came The Dark Knight (and, I'd like to posit, the influence of composer Hans Zimmer), a film who's unnerving scale and runaway success properly put Nolan on the pop culture map, and laid the tracks for his career forever more. Interstellar might be his most daunting undertaking yet, a nearly three-hour-long space voyage that finds as much value in explaining the Theory of Relativity as is does in tugging on heart strings, all while consciously and constantly calling to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey with truly reckless abandon. There's no doubting the film's ambition, but the subject of its actual achievement is ripe for debate.

        Nolan has never bared his heart to this degree. It's commonplace to hear his work described as 'cold' or 'inhuman,' and in the same year that David Fincher laughed off those very same criticisms by crafting one of his iciest works to date, Nolan opted to confront them head-on. Problem is, this might not have been the right movie to finally shift his heart all the way down to his sleeve. The cross-cutting that transpires between Cooper's galactic adventures and his children's dust-bowl suffering diminishes the effect of both, while certain scenes that juxtapose the powers of love and science remain tremendously vague, and would likely be more at home in the diary of a 14-year-old girl. Nolan and writing partner/brother Jonathan also stir a little government conspiracy into the pot, often via clumsy expositions delivered by poorly cast villains who slowly reveal 'ah-hah's that play more like 'ho-hums.' There's even a big twist at the end!!! I'll say this about Interstellar: you're buying a whole lot of 'movie' with your $13, even if it's kind of a mess.

        The primary culprit, as it tends to be in Nolan's work, is the screenplay. Where his heavily plot-driven/plot-hole-ridden films of the past have always managed to distract viewers from their faulty mechanics with the allure and power of spectacle, Interstellar sees the details finally catch up to the Brother's Nolan. The film is littered with head-scratch-worthy internal logic, and dialogue that's so on the nose, you might never smell again. And while I anticipated a ready and fair comparison between this and last year's Gravity, Interstellar's closest relative is actually another Nolan offspring, Inception. Both movies are obsessed with the time delineation, parental guilt, love and its perception, anti-gravity, the intimidating power of water, twist revelations, and plots that function more as puzzles than narratives. Had we never seen (and marveled at) Inception, this might be a wholly different conversation; as is, Nolan's latest feels a touch warmed-over.

        Interstellar is all about reaching out beyond what we've previously accomplished, in terms of both the film itself, and the production behind it. Even Matthew McConaughey, now three years into the McConaissance, has something to prove, trotting out his newly-minted Oscar-winner status for a mainstream audience who hasn't seen him in anything since The Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past. He's fine in the picture, employing his steady southern drawl to endearing effect, and really hitting the high notes in his handful of 'oscar scenes,' but one still wonders if this film wouldn't benefit from a less famous face at its center. His 'movie-star-performance' dial is set firmly at 11.5, an odd choice for... you know, a crop farmer, and the thinly-written Cooper ensures that the thespian always comes first to mind before the character.

        Look, there are elements of Interstellar that work like gangbusters. Certain space travel sequences are near jaw-dropping, and the action, especially as presented in IMAX, shows Nolan again at the top of his game, all while the sound nearly deafens. And even if the director struggles to bring some of his thorny, emotionally driven ideas all the way home, the mere way that he presents them is often harrowing, with certain moments and concepts that rattle around in your head for days. Wether these positives properly outweigh the detriments is really all in the eye of the beholder, and somehow, nearly a week after heading to the stars with Nolan and McConaughey, I'm not sure where exactly I stand. Interstellar is undoubtably a mixed bag, one filled with ample amounts of both treasure and trash; your level of enjoyment will likely be determined by how willing and patient you are to sort through it.

Grade: B-


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Leftovers: Summer 2014

Leftover Movies:
Edge of Tomorrow: 
        Tom Cruise's latest action spectacle/savior-complex accommodation Edge of Tomorrow is that rarest of things: a big-budget blowout that followed a box office trajectory usually reserved for independent films. While opening weekend receipts weren't exactly anything to brag about ($28 million on a reported budget of 178...), the dual power of Rotten Tomatoes and word-of-mouth made the movie a sleeper hit. An amalgamation of Groundhogs Day, Saving Private Ryan, and any number of sci-fi action romps, Edge tells the story of Major William Cage (Cruise), a PR representative for the ongoing futuristic war against the aliens who would love nothing more than to avoid the battle field altogether. This becomes problematic when an intense extra-terrestrial encounter renders him nearly immortal, his death automatically resulting in a total reset, Cage waking up in the very same place where his day started. Cruise is great in the film, constantly toying with his self-image with at least some degree of intentionality, Emily Blunt serving as the convincingly badass Joan of Arc at his side. Director Doug Limen packs the action sequences with much more gravity and visceral punch than your average summer tent-pole, the randomness and brutality of war evident every time that the bullets starts flying. I'm not exactly the first to make this point, but Edge of Tomorrow might just be the greatest video game movie ever made... even though it's not based on anything you can play with a controller. Exciting, fun, and unnerving in nearly equal measure, Edge stands out as one of Summer 2014's very best.

Leftover Music:
Brill Bruisers---The New Pornographers: 
        Before Carl Newman changed his first name to A.C., before Dan Bejar began destroying, and before Neko went solo, there was The New Pornographers. Despite each of their individual successes as solo artists, indie rock luminaries of the early 2000's are back with their best LP in nearly a decade. Brill Bruisers is an 'event album' in every sense, its gathering of buzzy names over-shadowed by arena-rock anthems and ingenious song structures that always save the best for last. This is still power-pop at its most elemental, but the riffs crafted by Newman and Todd Fancey pack infinitely more punch this time around, the undeniable chords of the title track crashing down like the high tide, closer You Tell Me Where smoldering before it finally lights on fire. Even the scaled-back jams work, Neko Case's deceptive anthem Champions of Red Wine riding zippy synths to its heartening climax, Hi-Rise captivating ears with is steady, airy churn. Like Arctic Monkeys, MGMT, and Franz Ferdinand before them, The New Pornographers are a band living far past their purported expiration date of the late 2000's, and on this evidence, they won't be slowing up anytime soon.
Drop the Vowels---Millie and Andrea:
        Here's something you won't be hearing on the radio anytime soon. This collaboration between Miles Whittaker (of Demdike Stare fame) and Andy Stott is about as dark, dingy, and dusty as dance music can possibly be, but unlike Stott's 2012 masterwork, Luxury Problems, Drop the Vowels is willing to gun up the RPMs. These tracks aren't exactly party jams, their nebulous construction, and lack of either hooks or non-sampled vocals rendering their sound esoteric, but those with the patience to let these leering, nocturnal tunes sink in will be hard-pressed to keep their toes from tapping. 51 straight minutes of lo-fi hiss and sneaky-deep grooves.

Familiars---The Antlers
        From the first elegant, delicate notes of Palace, you can tell that something has changed. The Antlers have always been something of a down-tempo outfit, but Familiars seeks to take that thesis to a new level, nearly refusing to shift out of first gear. The approach can take a little getting used to, but when given a chance, these slow-burn beauties sink deep into your bones. No song better exemplifies this idea than Intruders, a spacey 5-and-a-half minute piece that wafts slowly through the air like fog or mist, stripped down to the point where every last note and symbol tap makes a lasting impression. The track, like its nine other album-mates, is bolstered by swooning horns that peak and fall with effortless grace.
         While not exactly an album you'll be hearing on the dance floor anytime soon, one of Familiars' greatest strengths is the way the consistently stayed pace allows the bigger moments to leap off of the recording. The catharsis brought on by the sweeping trumpets of closer Refuge darts straight to your core, but nothing matches the powerful breakdown that serves as Director's foundation-shaking climax. Band leader Peter Silberman's voice has never been more ghostly or powerful, and in Parade and Hotel, he's penned anthems that stand among the band's best. I never thought The Antlers would make another album on the level of their masterful full-band debut Hospice, but Familiars completely flips the script, opening up a new sonic era for one of America's most under-appreciated outfits. My favorite LP of the year so far.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Monday, August 11, 2014

Boyhood (Limited Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        Richard Linklater has been making feature films for the last 23 years, and we're only just now starting to figure him out. Undoubtably one of the most under-appreciated directors of his generation, Linklater's formal elasticity has helped him make minimalist art films (Slacker, the Before trilogy), layered character studies (Dazed and Confused, Bernie), rotoscope animation drama for adults (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), and live-action studio comedy for kids (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). This reluctance to be placed in any single box has threatened to become the very box itself, the auteur's insistence on variety serving as a defining trait of his filmography. Another is sparkling dialogue, as anyone who's melted over Jesse and Celine's crackling discourse, or poured over Waking Life's myriad of delightfully thorny ideas, can readily attest. With the release of Boyhood, the critical conversation has shifted to his obsession with time, the Before series having already incorporated the passage of literal years onto its fictional canvas, Dazed serving as a time capsule waiting patiently to be unearthed. All theories are right in their own way, but I'm here to posit my own; Linklater's real love affair is with the notion of growth.

        Back in the summer of 2002, Linklater cast a 7-year-old boy named Ellar Coltrane in the role of Mason, a character who would take his cues from the young actor's real life, rather than the other way around. Over the course of the next 12 years, Linklater and his crew embarked on yearly visits to Houston, filming for about a week at a time on each occasion. Without a concrete script to work off, the filmmaker consulted with Coltrane and the other three leads (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater, the helmer's daughter), molding the story according to the real-life development of all of the actors, the kids especially. There is no plot, only a two-and-a-half hour window into the youth of a human being, resulting in a film that could somehow be described as either a dull bore or a towering epic depending on whom you're talking to. And since it's me who's talking, let's go with epic.

        I have never seen anything quite like Boyhood. The most obvious comparison is Michael Apted's Up documentaries, but those films, which check in on the real lives of the same handful Brits every seven years, observe the aging of their stars over the course of many chapters, and many hours. Watching this young boy grow into puberty and then approach manhood over such a relatively short period of time makes a real emotional impact, a special effect more awe-inspiring than anything a computer could ever make. One usually shies away from praising a film for its concept above its execution, but Boyhood is that rare instance where form starts to bleed into content. However riveting the story may or may not be, the experience of watching Coltrane stumble through that awkward, immediately relatable thing we call growing up, all while his parents develop both wisdom and wrinkles before our eyes, is undoubtably the most emotional aspect of the picture.

         Another oddly relatable property are the Harry Potter books and films, a collection of stories that featured growing characters/actors whose collective adolescence ran parallel to that of their primary audience. We certainly know that Mason is Generation Hogwarts, Boyhood oft-referencing the series, and even taking time to revel in the joy of a midnight release of The Half-Blood Prince. The picture is constantly dating itself in this manner, and while one wonders how these year-specific citations will effect the film in the future, they recall the impression and importance of pop art on young brains. The fact that six-year-old Mason loves Dragon Ball Z, 14-year-old Mason loves The Dark Knight, and 18-year old Mason reads Breakfast of Champions and jams out to Arcade Fire is neither a mistake nor a minor observation; his interests chart the moments that, at the time, felt important in popular culture, as well as our protagonist's continuing maturation.

         Casting a pair of children in a decade-plus film project is obviously a risky gambit, but for the most part, both Coltrane and Linklater come up aces. The latter grows from the sort of in-your-face precociousness youngsters often take on into an aloofness readily familiar on the faces of many young adults. Coltrane's journey is a bit more rocky; he proves endearingly observant and pensive during his single-digits ages, then morphs into a counter-culture punk, complete with greasy hair, painted nails, and forth-baked ideas on philosophy and society as a whole. I cannot say, in good conscious, that I liked teenaged Mason, but the brattiness that will undoubtedly turn off a multitude of viewers rings completely true to me. Some will claim that Linklater's writing drops off at this point, but all of the cringe-enducing self-satisfaction marks a recognizable point in adolescent development. Hawke and Arquette are perhaps even more wonderful, Arquette especially, as parental figures who attempt to steer their children onto the 'right path,' an agenda that eventually helps them locate their own.

        The last filmic comparison I want to bring up is Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a flick which Boyhood will likely follow into a Best Picture nomination. No, there are no dinosaurs on hand this time around, but the way in which both filmmakers present childhood memories less as momentous occasions than a series of poignant minor moments strikes an awfully deep chord. Boyhood might not be electric entertainment from cover to cover, but neither is life. I usually don't like this argument, as it favors films that treat boredom as a sort of artistic virtue, but this is an entirely singular example. Linklater's piece isn't a slice-of-life movie with covert plotting and a relatable human cast; it's a slice-of-life unto itself, posing as a feature film. When most movies fail to intrigue for a few consecutive minutes, you start looking at your watch; when Boyhood hits a lull, you just sort of wait it out, just like you would analogous dull periods in your own life. The only things that come off inorganically are the start and the finish, and only because life lays claim to neither an explicit genesis, nor a definite conclusion, outside of the literal. Even after a slow-moving 165 minutes, the end credits still provide a jolt; there's so much more life to live, and Mason has only just begun.

Grade: A

Friday, August 8, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Release Date: 8-1-2014)

        In case you still haven’t noticed, Marvel Studios is on to something. In a day and age where your average summer blockbuster takes on a gravity previously reserved for Oscar hopefuls, Marvel’s output uses levity as a sort of inspired counter-programming. They’ve also got that whole inner-connectivity thing going on, a rhetoric that serves to creatively handcuff the film-house’s narratives, but has proven successful enough to shake the Hollywood business model to its very core. When it was first announced, Guardians of the Galaxy sounded more like a scouting report than a proper film, a product designed to test just how obscure the brand could get before turning folks away. In reality, it’s the very opposite; Guardians is Marvel’s big power move, correctly betting that our collective previous investment would again put butts in seats, and that said butts would be primed and ready for a comic book adaptation that functions as a comedy first, and an action movie second.

        Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a human orphan and conman who traverses odd ends of the galaxy looking for his next big score, a Han Solo avatar in his own mind. Near the picture's opening, Quill steals a mysterious metal orb with sights set exclusively on the nearest inter-galactic pawn shop. The theft prompts a sizable bounty to be placed on his head, one that a wise-cracking, genetically mutated raccoon (Rocket, as voiced by Bradley Cooper), and his anthropomorphized tree sidekick (Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) would love to get their grimy mitts on. Then there's Gamora (Zoe Saldana), assassin and hench-woman of the power-hungry Ronin (Lee Pace), and adopted daughter of ultimate celestial baddie Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who's tasked with retrieving the orb, but might just have a few ideas of her own. There's also a tatted-up brute named Drax, as well as Glenn Close's incredible hairpiece, but that's probably enough zaniness for one paragraph.

        Like Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) before him, director/co-writer James Gunn treats his Marvel debut as an enormous coming-out party. After contributing a pen to such obvious Hollywood cash-grabs as the live-action Scooby Doo movies and 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, Gunn retreated into independent film, focusing on genre send-ups like his gross-out, alien slug invasion film Slither, and the twisted cape-and-callow cautionary tale Super. This affectionate riffing carries directly over to Guardians, and while many have praised the movie for the way it frequently skirts expectations and rhetoric, it also employs them where it sees fit. Its parody comes from a place of affection, like a friend who has known you long enough to poke fun at your tendencies every once in a while. The key word, as with all things Guardians, is fun.

        Gunn's picture is also an eye-dazzler, hoping from one planet or location to the next, each new setting beautifully rendered and admirably textured. The technical elements on hand, from costume and production design, to special effects, to sound work, are all steady and assured, while the Oscar for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling has already been shipped out to Marvel Studios, and should be getting there in about a week or so. Even the oddball sound track, comprised of soft-rock hits from the 70's for reasons that prove move affecting than one could have possibly predicted, is a perfect choice, befitting and bolstering the film's tone in equal measure. Everywhere you look, Guardians is having its cake, and eating it too. Well, almost everywhere...

        Marvel's stayed MacGuffin problem crops up once again, yet another superhero movie who's plot is set in motion by something shiny that could destroy EVERYTHING (are these movies written by cats jonesing to chase laser pointers?). The climactic battle again features an endless onslaught of sound and fury signifying nothing, led by a bad guy who we never learn to truly care about (Pace). This wouldn't be such a problem if the film wasn't so good at endearing us to its characters, the movie baring a deep, unmissable affection for its characters that's downright contagious. I expected to giggle at Pratt's pluckiness and grin at Saldana's badass-ery, but emotionally connecting to a talking raccoon and a CGI tree? Now that's movie magic.

        Guardians of the Galaxy is near-ideal popcorn entertainment, a creation so deftly calibrated that you start to wonder why more films don't follow its lead. Instead of inundating us with further gloominess and destruction, why don't big film studios... you know... create characters we like and care about, write a few good jokes, and come up with a unique visual design? Maybe it's just too much to ask, but the experience of watching Guardians in a packed auditorium that erupted into applause upon the film's conclusion reminded me that this sort of fair is supposed to be fun first, and everything else second. Gunn's film, one of the funniest and strangest Hollywood offerings in recent memory, understands what our American tentpoles have been missing, and delivers it in spades. I've always chided Marvel for exclusively making good, not great movies; looks like I'll be changing my tune.

Grade: A-

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        A funny thing happens when you allow a few days to pass between first viewing a film, and subsequently writing about it. Sure, some flicks stay right where they were, stationed as beloved, loathed, or forgotten in a manner that is largely immovable. More often than not, however, a little reflection time can serve to elevate, diminish, or (most importantly) clarify the story you just absorbed. Then there's that mysterious third category, wherein initial disappointment/revery becomes muddled upon reflection, causing you to wonder where the two hour experience stops, and where your own projections onto the piece begin. That's why I've been scared about writing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (see what I did there?); the film that plays in my head and the picture that's currently lighting up screens across the world might not be the exact same thing.

        Ten years have passed since the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and they have not been kind to Homo Sapiens. The Simian Flu, briefly explained in the last film's conclusion and this one's opening, has wiped out nearly all of earth's human population, leaving enlightened ape Caesar (performed in motion-capture by Andy Serkis) ample opportunity to steer the monkey mob that flanks him into a primitive sort of social structure, with language, ethics, and culture ever-evolving within. These advancements encounter a sudden threat when a couple of apes stumble across a handful of humans on a scouting mission, forcing the newly dominant species to decide just how to deal with their former captors.

        It's pretty heady stuff, all this moral ambiguity and juxtaposition between societal genesis and extinction, especially for a movie that also features CGI chimps double-fisting AK-47s while riding on horseback. Yes, the goofiness of it all occasionally shines through, but just as with the previous chapter, Dawn is far more straight-faced than one would have thought possible with this premise. Credit spousal writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, here paired with Mark Bomback, for maintaining an ideal through-line between this and the script for their surprisingly cerebral initial installment. Then there's director Matt Reeves, who's visual approach to the material is worlds removed from Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt's crisp, clean, glowingly white aesthetic. Reeves is all about rainy jungle terrains that are straight out of Jurassic Park, with an extra pinch of darkness tossed on for good measure (really, another 2014 summer tent-pole is going to reference György Ligeti’s Requiem?).

        And this is exactly where my expectations, reflections, and research have undoubtably effected my final analysis. I was HUGE on Rise when it first premiered nearly three years ago, and while subsequent encounters might knock it down a peg, the film is absolutely in my top ten big budget summer flicks of the last five years. I also have a thing for Reeves; I will go to the grave defending his brilliantly creepy Cloverfield, and still think that his remake of Let the Right One In is superior to the original (and yes, I'm fully aware of how many readers I just lost with that last sentence). That's a lot of anticipation to throw onto one movie, the kind of expectations that turn the above-average into the starkly disappointing. To be completely honest, the film, as I sat in my comfy, air-conditioned theater, did not rise up to those otherworldly expectations (see what I did there?). But for whatever reason, being its enthusiastic critical response, its numerous comparisons to Hollywood classics like Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, or its own organic growth within my brain, I've found myself at a place where I'm worried about over-compensating. The internet sure can warp a brain, can't it?

        This much I know for sure: technology wise, this is one of the most impressive offerings I've ever seen adorn the silver screen. Serkis is worthy of every drop of praise he consistently receives for being the Michael Jordan of motion capture acting, but he's nearly matched by Toby Kebbell as Caesar's untrusting foil Koba, and Karin Konoval as the emotive, I-can't-believe-that's-not-real orangutan Maurice. To be sure, there are moments when the artificial apes aren't perfect, but the way that they're almost seamlessly blended into a non-artificial environment is simply a marvel to behold. The action here, one of the low points of Rise, a film that didn't really seem that interested in blockbusters' normative shock and awe, is equally dazzling and weary-making, an epic that understands both the weight and toll of the violence it displays. I have a few gripes; Kebbell's Koba becomes a tad simplistic by the film's conclusion, and the humans once again come off a bit faceless. But this is undoubtably a strong film, and one that I can't wait to see again in order to gain a greater understanding. As of now, I'm worried about under-rating it because of my gargantuan expectations, or over-rating it because of the degree to which I've talked myself into being a through-and-through advocate for the picture. I'll go with the grade you see below, and remain EXTREMELY open to changing my opinion upon further examination.

Grade: B+

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Release Date: 6-27-2014)

         Say what you will about Martin Scorsese's ability to capture the mental instability of power-hungry males, or Quentin Tarantino's commitment to plunging head-first into his stylized fantasy land, but no American director manages to get as much of his pure psyche up onto a movie screen as Michael Bay. An auteur by each and every single definition of the word, the man's films retain an unmistakably similar world-view from picture to picture, not unlike the killing-yourself-to-live through-line in the work of Darren Aronofsky, or the sense of cosmic futility that remains ever-present in Coen brothers flicks. Bay likes his explosions big, his jokes juvenile, his runtimes elongated, his girls underaged and underdressed, and his guns ever-blazing. This might sound like par for the course in terms of summer action blockbusters, all sound, fury and expensive effects cobbled together by committee, but the Transformers films, Age of Extinction perhaps especially, are nothing of the sort. The problem here isn't too many cooks in the kitchen, but rather one single chef with unimpeachable control over the menu, and a decidedly closed-minded pallet. Ridiculous as it may sound, this series is a deeply personal under-taking, a clumsy, unrelenting eruption of one man's unbridled id and pubescent fantasies, subsidized by a massive pile of cash, and supported by millions the world over.

        Those neither engaged nor made comatose by Extinction's furious bombast (two camps that represent at least a small majority of the film's audience) will find the tale of Bay to be the most interesting aspect of the film. It certainly isn't the plot, a laughably asinine collection of government cover-up cliches and cardboard-cutout characters that serves to steer us from one action set-piece to the next. Laying its scene 5 years after the men in metal completely demolished Chicago, the hilariously entitled black-ops missive Cemetery Wind, spear-headed by the ruthless Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), has hunted down and killed nearly all remaining transformers, Autobots and Decepticons alike. Meanwhile, down-on-his-luck Texas inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, taking over leading man duties from Shia Labeouf), impulsively buys a beat up semi-truck for reasons that never become fully clear. And hey, wouldn't you know; that hunk of junk turns out to be Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), thus throwing Yeager, his teenaged daughter (Nicola Peltz, the new subject of Mike Bay's omnipresent ogling), and her car-racing boyfriend (Jack Reynor) into a narrative upon which they have the utmost minimal effect.

"The urine you discharge during the inevitable p*ss-break is guaranteed to flow better than any dialogue in this near three-hour movie."
        ---Ben Rawson-Jones (Digital Spy)

"Even by the low IQ standards of the three previous Transformers films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is grave and exceptionally stupid, with a plot as bewildering and incoherent as a caffeinated 5-year-old's explanation of the multiverse theory."
        ---Kirk Baird (Toledo Blade)

"Sitting through Transformers: Age of Extinction is like binge-watching the death of the human spirit."
        ---Devin Faraci (Badass Digest)

        These are just a few examples of the bilious reaction critics are having toward Bay's latest, but I personally cannot sum up the raging anger many are leveling against Age of Extinction. Yes, it is a long 165 minutes of mind-numbing stupidity, but the story they tell about this filmmaker, and the audience that netted the picture $100 million in its opening weekend, is a marvel to behold. Many films have a way of making fun of their audience throughout their runtime, but Extinction seems far more focused on insulting the legion of critics who have proven unable to derail the franchise thus far, Bay exacting revenge on all whom have doubted him, assuming his loyal viewers will equally relish in his anti-intellectualism. To boot, endless climactic throw-down is set in Beijing for reasons that feel inescapably cynical (Those holding out hope for a more artistic impetus should consider that A) a transformer literally says 'take the [MacGuffin bomb] to the biggest city' and B) Age is slated to become the highest grossing film in the history of China by the end of the week). Amidst the chaos, a why-did-I-sign-up-to-be-in-this? Stanley Tucci berates Wahlberg for his lack of a plan, at which point the action star asks if the Oscar nominee would like to take the reigns. Tucci cowers, and is told to shut up; one wonders who that message was for...

        That same level of frustration and backlash is felt throughout the film, and while the Transformers saga has always been derided for its spiteful worldview, this one raises the bar significantly. His 'bots seem especially vexed, Prime bellowing his intention kill someone in nearly every single scene, while a pair of his his more-than-meets-the-eye cronies display deplorable levels near-treachory (John DiMaggio) and hateful xenophobia (John Goodman). Then there's the problem with women; where else would we find a director so determined to keep his eye candy under-aged that, instead of finding his studly leading man a 20-something to romance, he's forced to go the daughter route to insure that his camera-violated starlet was born in the year 1995!?!. And who subsequently places her in constant un-fun mortal danger, including being pinned to the ground with a gun pressed hard against her temple? As a matter of fact, only one of the women with any real screen time (Sophia Myles) is over the age of thirty, and she's presented as a cold, calloused heart-breaker. Something tells me Bay hasn't always been too successful with the ladies.

         But here's the thing: I still think that the auteur truly believes that he's being all-encompassing and generous as opposed to displaying bigotry. Like the other three films in the franchise, Extinction is utterly determined to feature a multi-ethnic cast, only to have them play brazenly insulting and racist caricatures (Ken Watanabe continues to troll this summer's American blockbusters by pandering down to the very worst in Asian stereotypes, and going for broke). At one point, Marky Mark, an American flag waving in the background, sings the praises of his daughter to his (unspecified, but probably?) deceased wife by looking into the Texas night sky with a sense of ineffable wonderment plastered across is face. A shooting star slices through the night time. Seriously... a shooting star. Does that sound like a cynic to you?

        Look, by no means am I trying to recommend Transformers: Age of Extinction to you: it's brazenly moronic, subconsciously bitter, and the whole-point-in-even-going action sequences don't feel quite as inspired as in either the first or third installments (this and Revenge of the Fallen are neck-and-neck in the race for 'worst in the group,' with a slight edge going to Fallen). But for me, the joy of laughing at inhuman dialogue and beyond-canned delivery (Wahlberg is among the finest readers of stupid dialogue currently working in American film), paired with a think-piece about a man essentially treating gargantuan blockbusters as therapy sessions, is simultaneously thought-provoking and thought-annihilating. I wanted to think of a perfect closing line to finish this article, but, for my sanity, I need to stop thinking about Transformers, and I need to do it now.

Grade: I don't know... just don't go see it

Monday, June 9, 2014

Jack White: Lazaretto (Release Date: 6-10-2014)

        "I'm becoming a ghost," Jack White declares on the jaunty Alone in My Home, "so nobody can know me." Yeah... good luck with that. 15 years after The White Stripes' self-titled debut first met the world, White continues to ride an enormous wave of goodwill and fame, one he seems only semi-determined to outrun. It's clear the guy doesn't want to be thought of as a one-trick-pony, playing a crucial part in about 17,000 different bands in the last handful of years, even creating his own studio and label (Third Man Records), and producing other artists' work in his abundant free time. That said, he doesn't seem entirely ready to let go of past glories either, his solo music periodically indistinguishable from his more famous duo, while his recent buzz-generating interview with Rolling Stone magazine further confirms that the black, white, and red trim is still on his mind. If his solo debut, Blunderbuss, expertly (if perhaps obsessively) split the difference between experimentation and familiarity, his follow-up, Lazaretto, feels notably more determined to push further out into newer, more varied sounds. It's also decidedly messier.

        The early cuts from Lazaretto that have made their way across this internet in the last several months could readily be described as false advertising. Something tells me White was in in the bait-and-switch; our first taste of the LP, High Ball Stepper, was released on April Fool's Day, for crying out loud! The track, a swampy instrumental equipped with both bizarro mood shifts and a hefty helping of raw might, is completely singular on the disc, both for its lack of lyrics, and its jagged, schizoid sonics. Then came the title track, something of a White Stripes throwback that rides White's signature lyrical braggadocio and swagger through the 1:25 mark, when a savage guitar tares the track in half. It's an exhilarating burst of a song that works perfectly as a lead single, three-and-a-half minutes of lightning in a bottle. Too bad there's not more like it here.

        As was the case on Blunderbuss, White splits his time here between two different bands, fronting the all-male Buzzards and all-female Peacocks in alternating succession. It comes as no surprise that the men are more frequently tasked with the 'harder and rockier' tracks, but the degree to which that rule is followed this time around is highly restrictive. A damning example of this comes when the aforementioned title track is followed by Peacock-powered Temporary Ground, a modest ditty whose subdued fiddle and folksy sway can't help but be over-shadowed by its loud and rowdy forbearer. As a matter of fact, almost all Peacock numbers lead a listener to wonder when things will pick up again, such as serviceable piano-lead closer Want and Able, and the breathlessly bitter and awe-inspiringly arrogant Entitlement (Somehow I kind of mean that in a good way). Alone in My Home and I Think I Found the Culprit manage to rise above the malaise with lovely harmonies, twinkling instrumentals, and a bit more forward-moving momentum, but for the most part, Jack's ladies seem to be on hand for largely aesthetic reasons, and are given precious little in the way of engaging material.

        The Buzzards have all the fun here, such as on piss-and-vinaeger single-in-the-making Black Bat Licorice, a dingy blast with splashy percussion and a vengeful verve. It's enough to make one wonder what might have happened if White had dedicated himself to their bigger sound exclusively... until one remembers that he already did that for over a decade. Lazaretto, even more so than its immediate ancestor, sounds like a transitional album, suffering from the growing pains of an artist doing everything in his power to expand the walls of the box he's been put in without actually vacating the space altogether. It must be tantalizing, all of this musical freedom after so many years of self-imposed focus on the same basic goals and sounds, but the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach only serves to hinder this record. Wether he fleshes out his bluesy, down-tempo sound with the Peacocks, or regains his throne as a full-time rock god with the Buzzards, here's to hoping White just picks a side next time around. Many parts of Lazaretto work, but cohesive it ain't.

Grade: B-