Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Night Before: An Amusing Christmas Carol Practically Ruined By Its Trailer

It's a tired discussion... a trailer can effectively ruin a movie.  It can do so in a number of different ways.  The first way is that it can provide the plot to the entire movie leaving you without anything to even want to see (the most egregious case of this is Castaway).  Then, a trailer can fool you into believing that the film you will see is brilliant and that it will follow a certain actor or storyline and completely mislead the viewer (also, for the worst case of this, see the newest Godzilla).  But, to me, the thing that a trailer can do that is the absolute most foul is show all the best jokes and hilarious moments from a film.  Now, we've all come to expect a certain standard of comedy from a Seth Rogen film and until now trailers for his films have always given us good laughs, but allowed for the best laughs to be hidden until actually viewing the film (No, I don't count The Guilt Trip in this). Most of the time the trailer will go so far as to show an alternate joke in a scene in the trailer so that when we see the movie the scene is the same, but the joke is fresh and inventive. Unfortunately, that trend has ended with The Night Before which provides its laughs almost entirely within the trailer leaving not much else to laugh at within the film.  And while this isn't exactly the film's fault, anyone who goes to see the movie based off of watching the trailer is going to feel a bit underwhelmed.

What we do have here, as noted in the trailer, are three best friends out the night before Christmas as is tradition to party the night away.  They do this because fourteen years prior, Ethan's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) parents were killed by a drunk drive and his best homies Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) didn't want to leave him alone on Christmas. So, they've all essentially grown up and grown apart and meet for one last rendezvous before they part ways never to act so juvenile again. Each one is going through their own personal shit and it all comes to a head in the night.  Ethan is suffering a break up and the fact that he makes excuses never having to fully grow up even though he's a 33-year old man.  Isaac is about to be a father and while he's holding it together on the outside, inside he's dying.  This comes out due to his wife's present of every drug ever for him to do on the night before (something also seen in the trailer). And Chris is dealing with the fame of being a pro football player, having only gotten good at such an older age due to steroids.  The three friends race around New York City looking for an elusive Christmas party they've never been able to find fourteen years prior.  And, as I've mentioned several times, this can all be found in the trailer.

The film is funny.  And I'll give Rogen and co. credit that had I gone into the movie blindly, I would've laughed a lot harder.  The selling point scene in the trailer where Rogen, high off of a cocktail of all the drugs he's taken throughout the night, pukes in the church and screaming about how the Jews didn't kill Jesus.  This is a great comedic scene, however it was attached to every. single. preview. And while not every funny moment (Rogen getting texts from a phone that isn't his) is ruined by the trailer, the expectation that there would be more comedy outside of what the trailer shows just wasn't present enough.

There is a certain charm to the film and all three of the main characters are very likable.  There is a bit of A Christmas Carol parable happening intertwined with a creepy drug dealer (played hilariously by Michael Shannon) that isn't ruined and lends to the fun of the film. There's a lot of heart as we have also been accustomed to getting within a Rogen film.  But, the comedy is really lacking.  As Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie certainly aren't known for being comedic actors, we know from past films that they can also hold their own when it comes to a funny film. It does make me wonder though if the movie suffered from the lack of the ability to improvise as well as Rogen does when he's in a film with the Apatow crew (Jonah Hill, James Franco, Jason Segal, Paul Rudd, etc.).

There's also a bit of unevenness to the film that has a bit of trouble balancing the real life problems with the comedy. There's also a couple of scenes where the group gets separated and it doesn't feel organic, it feels forced in order to get another plot point addressed or stretched to make a mediocre joke. I know it feels like I'm bashing the movie, but it's mostly because there were such high hopes for it. There hasn't been a very good Christmas comedy to come out in recent memory that's for adults.  We keep getting bland kids Christmas films, films like Black Nativity, or the worst-- those whitewashed family comedy/drama films about rich white people problems (I'm looking right at you Love The Coopers).  And, yes, this is the best adult Christmas comedy since Bad Santa, but it doesn't have a lot of competition.  So, my advice is this: if you haven't seen a trailer for it, don't watch one.  See the movie blindly and the jokes from the trailer that all made us chuckle, in context will make you laugh hysterically.  For those of you that have seen the trailer, maybe wait until this one hits Redbox because there's really no other draw to bring you out to the theater to see this particular film.


Trumbo: Someone Please Keep Casting Bryan Cranston in Everything

It's a shame that Bryan Cranston was such a little known actor until Breaking Bad because he could've been giving us gold for years before. I knew him as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle and was always a Cranston fan, but was never going to take the guy seriously.  Then, obviously, after Breaking Bad I wanted to see more and more of Cranston as a leading man.  However, since the show's end he has been in two films.  That's it.  Two.  The first was Godzilla where he was highly publicized in the trailers and killed off quickly within the first fifteen minutes of a terrible film. The second is Trumbo. Cranston turns in a brilliant performance showcasing his talent as an actor and providing a strong case that this man needs to headline more and more films. Trumbo as a film is a small time biopic that deals with a very embarrassing time in our country's history, but deals with it in a unique way.

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) is a masterful screenwriter in 1947, about to be the highest paid in the entire world.  However, he is also an admitted member of the Communist political party. During this time, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were in the midst of high tensions seeking to find spies in each other's countries for spilling government secrets.  Propoganda films coupled with American ignorance led common folk to believe that anyone affiliated with the Communist party was, in fact, seeking to destroy the United States.  Therefore, the 'out' members of Dalton's Communist group, ten screenwriters, were blacklisted and sent to prison simply for having different political beliefs. While they seek to free themselves through the first amendment, all of them lose their jobs, unable to put their names on a film.  Each is slandered by highly regarded journalist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) making sure none of them will ever work again. In order to keep writing and fling a high-flying middle finger at the industry, Trumbo and his troupe (Louis CK, Alan Tudyk, and co.) begin writing and re-writing scripts for a sleazy production company led by Frank King (John Goodman).  However, they all write the scripts under fake names. This works well until one of the films, Roman Holiday, written by Dalton wins the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and no one is able to accept the award.

The film ping pongs back and forth between Dalton's fight against his freedom of political party choice and his need to keep writing.  It presents a fair picture of a flawed man whose message can, at times, be a bit hypocritical.  Even one of his closest writing friends brings up the fact that he preaches equal distribution of wealth, but strives to live the rich guy life. Dalton wants to be a successful writer as well as a martyr. This leads to his home life becoming severely stressful and a tarnished relationship between him and his oldest daughter (Elle Fanning).

Trumbo is a very good film that is made even better by the stellar performances. Clearly Cranston gives his all to the role and gets lost in it.  What's great is that he's someone new.  There's no Walter White.  There's no Hal.  He IS Trumbo.  He's Trumbo even down to the manner in which he speaks, all old-timey and black-and-whitey.  But the dream cast surrounding him are all wonderful as well. Louis CK plays the tired, but resilient writing friend of Trumbo.  He's able to be the voice of reason as well as the comic relief. John Goodman is the quirky sleazeball King who has no interest in a good script, just a finished one. Helen Mirren is so snake-like that you genuinely learn to dislike her presence in a scene, even though we've grown to love her over the years.

Jay Roach in a directorial role very different from past films (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) is able to subvert comedy in favor of character. What a character brings to the scene can either be funny, or sad, or heartwarming, or heart wrenching. The story itself is not a happy one, highlighting what ended up being yet another black mark of American history happening almost at the same parallel time as segregation in schools. However, this isn't the story of Americans affected by the blacklist. This is the story of the Hollywood 10, and more specifically, Dalton Trumbo who refused to be a doormat to an ignorant country persecuting those for their own God-given beliefs. It's a very good movie highlighted by the fact that Bryan Cranston, once again, shows he can play with others, but can still stand out as a one-man band.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2: Bland and Uninspired... Like Gale

I had not been privy to The Hunger Games book series until the announcement of the film series.  I read what it was about and it intrigued me.  I mean, 25 people out to kill the shit out of each other where only one can survive sounded like a bloody good time.  So, I read the first book and I was a huge fan.  Then, after seeing the first movie, I liked it... but it fell under the common curse that the book was far superior to the movie. I didn't have an opportunity to read the second or third books, but Catching Fire is my favorite movie of the bunch.  And while Mockingjay Part 1 was a decent set-up movie, it seemed to drag on a little bit too long and was fairly evident that it didn't need to be split into two films.  This may have been why Part 2 was so fundamentally underwhelming.  While I thought the conclusion to the saga was a pretty good one, the film itself is just kind of a muddy, sloppy, mundane film.

Part 2 begins right when Part 1 leaves off.  Katniss is in the hospital after being attacked by a brainwashed Peeta.  This isn't the only time in the film that a bunch of people will die and Katniss will be knocked out only to wake up later in the hospital. The film uses this crutch three times.  There will be a big action sequence commencing, then something mildly violent will happen to Katniss and she will wake up in the hospital hours, even days later and we don't get to see the rest of the fracas. The rebels of each district are finally ready to attack the capitol, yet the capitol isn't going down without a fight.  The gamemakers have set traps every ten feet outside of President Snow's mansion for a good hundred blocks.  They're going to watch the rebels kill themselves on television. The president of the rebellion (Julianne Moore) doesn't want Katniss to fight because she needs to be the face of the new world, but we know Katniss better than that.  She escapes to fight along side *shudder* Gale and co.  And that's it.  The story wraps up.  People die.  People survive.  There are zombies under the ground.  There's a scary kind of oil that kills people.  And everyone is super serious.

I think what just didn't jive with me is the lack of fun everyone seemed to be having. There's Katniss who is carrying the entire weight of the rebellion and the deaths of those fighting for the cause under her shoulders, so it makes sense that she's not very happy.  Peeta is confused about who everyone is as he's trying to make sense of reality after having been brainwashed.  Gale is a whiny little Twilight bitch who seriously needed to get killed in a gruesome way. And everyone else is just humorless. Yes, there's serious shit happening around the characters, but the other films had more fun.  With character actors like Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Elizabeth Banks there was an aura of fun surrounding the horrific events of the stories.  But, all three of these characters have a collected screen time of probably five minutes. When there isn't a lot of fun characters, things get too serious, and the dialogue gets really hokey. There are some very bad lines in this film delivered extra serious.  This shouldn't be the source of the fun of the film.

There's also not a lot of action in this film... probably due to the fact that its been drawn out to make an entire second film, but the action that does occur onscreen is very choppy and hard to follow.  We're given these characters to follow, but in one of the craziest and scariest scenes of the movie, there's so much chaos and quick camera zips that when people get killed, you can't even tell who it is. You have to count the survivors minutes after the action has ceased. Then, there's the ending that felt to me like it was very anti-climactic.  I haven't read the book, but in the middle of the surge on the mansion... once again Katniss gets knocked out... and everything is recapped to her.  We don't get to see the aftermath.  We don't get to see the entire moment we've been waiting three films to see. It felt unfair and like it would work much better in a book than onscreen. And the very last scene before the credits is the dumbest thing in all of the movies (yes, even dumber than Gale's entire being).

It isn't all bad, it's a still a fun story, I just felt like the movie wasn't handled as smoothly as it could've been.  Really, the greed of splitting it up into two films hindered it more than it helped it (other than financially), and I'm sure they're cooking up a few idiotic sequels and spinoffs.  But, overall the franchise is much better than most young adult franchises and even the worst parts of the film are better than just the trailer of the new Divergent film.  I'm also guessing it works better as book... and not split into two.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Hidden Gems of 2015 (Films Not Reviewed, But Still Deserve Attention)

 For this blog I try to see everything that I can that looks halfway decent.  I try not to subject myself to films that I KNOW are going to be both awful, but a waste of time and money.  However, sometimes a film won't come out to a theater near me or I just missed it during its run and am too late to post a review.  This doesn't mean these films don't still deserve their fair share of recognition.  Below are five films (so far) in 2015 that weren't reviewed by me but are still worthy of your attention.


Maggie is a quiet film about zombies and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I realize the word 'quiet' and zombie/Arnold don't really go hand in hand. And while I still would've love to have seen a zombie action film where Arnie single handedly takes on the Zombie Apocalypse... this film does service to the zombie indie fare and even shows us that Arnold still has some acting chops left in him.  The story is about a father who has to reconcile with the fact that his only daughter has been infected with the zombie virus and only has a limited time left.  He's living with the nightmare that he knows, very soon, he will have to kill his daughter.  It's a zombie-drama, but it's a very well made film.

The Gift

The Gift was a widely released movie that I always had a bit of curiosity about, but just wasn't able to see it.  From the trailer, it looked like your standard stalker flick where a dude slowly stalks a family leaving them gifts and forcing a friendship, until they tell him to go away and he snaps and goes crazy, leaving them terrible gifts, killing their pets, until finally trying to kill them. We've seen this movie a hundred times before, but there was something about The Gift that made me wonder if we're defying the convention here. Joel Edgerton makes his writing and directing debut and in my head I felt like his debut film wouldn't be one where he copies a genre that has long since been dead. Then, it got a decently high score on rottentomatoes and I had to check it out.  So, after doing so I was pleasantly surprised.  Not only is it a very different movie than the normal audience is expecting, it's also very suspenseful.  What's great is that there is a lot of audience interpretation throughout about what exactly is going on, but this doesn't distract from the narrative on screen. The ending, while a little bit more fucked up than most people would like, is still a twist that I didn't see coming until right when it was happening.  Also, watching Jason Bateman portray a raging douche was something refreshing and awful to watch.

Beasts of No Nation

 You may have not heard of this film, but you've probably seen it heavily advertised on your Netflix account. That's because it wasn't released for theaters and when the film was made, Netflix bought the rights to it to show exclusively online and streaming. It's Netflix's first full-length feature film and it is a doozy.  It tells the story of a young boy in Africa whose parents are gunned down by rebels and who escapes into the jungle only to be swept up by a faction commander and turned into a child soldier.  It is a very difficult movie to stomach, but it is a beautiful film to watch. Cary Joji Fukunawa, one of the creators of the first season of True Detective, left the show before the second season (thank God) to make this film.  It's a gorgeously shot film, but its subject matter will lend probably only a single viewing. Also, along with the brilliance that is Idris Elba, this is some of the best child acting on film I've ever seen.

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour is another film that I really wanted to see, but didn't come out near me.  It tells the story of an interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his week long trip with writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) who he is interviewing. This was a movie that grabbed me from the beginning. It's a very dialogue heavy film, but it's between two genius minds (one who looks up to the other, and the other who tries to downplay his intelligence in order to feel 'normal').  It explores the humanity behind the elite and the famous. The conversations range from hilarious to heartbreaking. It's got moments of humor, but you watch it for the Sorkin-esque back and forths between the two leads.  Jason Segal will be forgotten for this role, but he turns in a performance that is Oscar-worthy.

Bone Tomahawk

I'm willing to wager that pretty much anyone reading this has not heard of Bone Tomahawk, which is a shame.  However, in 2015 there really is no way to market this film. It's a western led by Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox.  Westerns and Kurt Russell don't really have much box office selling power (unless, of course, Tarantino's name is attached).  However, this film is one of my favorites of the entire year.  Don't be discouraged that it's a western, especially if you aren't a fan of the genre.  Because although it is the over-arching genre and selling point, there is a lot of genre crossing going on in the film.  It's action packed, it's a slow moving drama, it's hot moments of downright laugh-out-loud hilarity, it's got elements of horror, and the gore is some Eli Roth might even have to look away at. It's nothing short of an incredible film.  Russell plays a town sheriff and friend to a man whose wife is kidnapped by cannibal Indians.  Him and his posse trek across the frontier trying to find her and avoid getting killed themselves.  Each performance is magnificent but Richard Jenkins steals the show.  He's not just the comic relief, but he's the guy you want to comment on everything. There is something for everyone in this film and it's one you can find on Amazon to stream cheap.  I highly recommend you taking a look.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Spectre: All Hype, No Martini

Since the brilliant rejuvenation of James Bond with Daniel Craig, he's been an "every other one" kinda Bond.  While I feel like Spectre is at the lower end of the Craig totem, a low grade Daniel Craig bond is still better than almost every single Dalton and Brosnan Bond (we all know Goldeneye was great). To me, Casino Royale is one of the best Bond films ever made... not just of Craig's filmography, but the entirety of the Bond universe. Since then it's been every other movie that has lived up to expectation.  Quantum of Solace had a lot of pressure to be just as good and while the first hour was decent, the entire film fell flat in the last hour.  No more action.  No more fun.  Just blah.  Then came Skyfall to remind us how awesome Daniel Craig actually is and what a superb Bond villain looks like.  So, naturally how do we follow up a stellar Bond villain performance by Javier Bardem? The greatest acting villain of the 20-tweens... Christoph Waltz.  And while Waltz was born to be a Bond villain, unfortunately the movie around him doesn't really stack up to the par we know Craig and Co. can live up to.

Since Skyfall, MI6 has rebuilt, but they've also been corporate'd up. With a new head boss trying to eliminate the double-O program, Bond is off to solve a mystery surrounding the late M's death. This leads him to a secret society headed by Waltz's character, Blofeld.  He casually announces he's been the catalyst surrounding all of the deaths of women Bond has loved (though it's never explained exactly how...). This spirals Bond's adventure off to meet former villains, a new Bond girl (meh), a new henchman (kinda cool), and a lot of explosions that may or may not make a lot of sense. It isn't the best put together Bond of the bunch, but it does have its moments and it's still a hell of a lot better than Quantum.

What works well: The cinematography is brilliant.  Every shot is gorgeous and the set pieces are breath-taking. Sam Mendes proves once again that he is a master of his craft and has definitely earned the right to make two Bond films in a row. The opening sequence is one of the best of any Bond films.  It's right up there with the parkour scene in  Casino Royale.  The opening of this film (mostly done in a one-shot take) is the most memorable scene of the film. The action sequences (including a helicopter scene) are better than expected and definitely live up to the Bond name. Daniel Craig, though he's getting a little older, a little more tired, is still a very likable and capable Bond himself. Christoph Waltz is a great villain, both calm and ferocious.  And Dave Bautista brings his own silent charm as a stereotypical henchman a la Oddjob.

What's not working in the film: Pretty much everything else.  Starting with the song after the opening sequence... it sucks.  A lot.  Sam Smith has no business affiliating with any Bond film ever. The story, while definitely intriguing throughout, is still a little bit strange. The new Bond girl, while gorgeous and a great actress, has very little chemistry with Craig.  I didn't believe their love for a second. The last forty minutes of the film or so have a very strange feel to it.  While it isn't bad, it just takes a weird left turn to camp-town instead of staying grounded in reality like the previous Bonds have done.  I see what they're trying to do with it with the barrage of homages to past Bond films (like an injury to the villain that cuts his face, and the appearance of a white fluffy cat, and the big henchman that doesn't talk) but with the Daniel Craig Bond films, we've been led to expect reality within the world.  Once you get to "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die", we giggle at the reference, but it takes us out of the reality of this Bond.

Then there's just stupid moments like when one pipe in a giant volcanic underground laboratory gets bashed... the entire thing blows up.  Or when a henchman is killed after a huge fistfight and Bond asks, "What now?" and it cuts to him and the girl in bed... it starts to feel weird.  At the very climax of the film at the end, there's just this strange aura around it where it doesn't feel like any of the previous Craig films, but has gone right back to campy, silly, improbable Bond.

I'm not saying that this is what kills the movie, but it sticks out like a sore thumb and gives the movie a strange feel.  I still enjoyed watching it and was amazed by the spectacle of the action, but I was left confused and wanting more. If this is the last Bond with Craig... I suppose it's a decent send-off.  I, however, would like one more because if history tells us that he's an "every other movie" kind of Bond... the fifth one will be the perfect send off.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Steve Jobs: The Douchebag Cometh

There are certain writers who bring a real piece of themselves to their writing.  Only a select few writers can you go into a film blindly and be able to tell they wrote it just by the way the character's speak.  The Coen Brothers are one.  My favorite screenwriter Shane Black is another.  But, probably the most distinct writer, especially of dialogue, is Aaron Sorkin.  You can smell a Sorkin script a million miles away. He's got a way of making his characters speak that sound almost nothing like the way normal humans speak to one another, but is so overtly compelling and almost musical. It's fast paced, it's quippy, it's brilliant, and it's like careening down a river on your back screaming for your life, but enjoying the ride just the same. The only problem, if there is a problem, with this is that most of the characters wind up sounding exactly the same differentiated only by the actors that play each one. The most catastrophic of this is Sorkin's show The Newsroom that had a great first season, but got just a bit too preachy and Sorkin-y by its second. The best of Sorkin comes in his work with The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball and even Charlie Wilson's War.  While it seems like every Sorkin script gets more and more Sorkin-y, Steve Jobs takes it back down to a manageable level that adds to the appeal of the film and even humanizes one of the film's least likable characters.

Let's just put this out there right now: Steve Jobs was an asshole.  Like, a really big asshole.   Like, there comes a point where it doesn't really matter what he's accomplished in the technical world, he's just such an asshole that you may or may not stop caring. He's a self-centered, egotistical, manipulative asshole that probably didn't deserve this film which, and I'm only assuming, went a little kinder with his character than he actually was in life. But... what he did accomplish, and the legacy he leaves behind, it is remarkable what the man did. The film is divided into three acts set during three separate years of his life (1984, 1988, and 1998) in the same auditorium during three key product launches of Jobs' life. Everything is set before he walks out on stage, but he deals with four major people before each speech.  The first he encounters is his marketing exec (Kate Winslet) trying to keep Jobs together and away from total egotistical breakdown.  The next is his ex-wife trying to convince Jobs that he's fathered a daughter, even though he doubts the paternity test that's said he's a 94% of being the father.  The third is his college partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) with whom he's had a falling out.  And the fourth is CEO John Scully... a man he has a different history with during each act of the film. And that's all it is.  We get essentially the entire life and history of Steve Jobs within three forty minute segments of his life.

The movie is constructed much like a stage play (which it could easily be turned into) where not much happens in the world of compelling action, but everything is dished out through quick dialogue.  This type of format is a Sorkin wet dream.  But, it's extremely effective.  There are no lulls in the story, there is no heightened awareness that nothing visually of consequence is happening on screen and we're simply watching people talk to one another. But, it's always compelling and never boring.  There is, however, this juggling act in the mind of the viewer bouncing back and forth between being impressed with everything Jobs did in his career -  from actual impressive invention to a ballsy as hell bluff that paid off - to digesting the fact that he truly is an asshole.  There isn't a single person in the film, with the exception of perhaps Kate Winslet's character, and a few minor instances with his daughter, that isn't treated like they are far below Jobs' boot heel. He's a mess... but he's also a genius.

Obviously, the one thing that goes along with a Sorkin script are the impressive actors that play out that script.  Fassbender is fantastic, so much so that Ashton Kutcher couldn't hold his ball sweat. Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and even Michael Stuhlberg are, as per usual, their ever wonderful selves. But, it's the performance of Seth Rogen that stood out to me.  In the history of Rogen as an actor, we've grown to know him and love him... but to also expect just one thing from him.  He's not exactly a multi-dimensional actor.  He's been a one note pony... but that note is good enough to carry him from film to film.  (I never saw Take This Waltz, so let's assume he's the same in that if he isn't).  However, Aaron Sorkin gave the man another dimension, another note.  He just did for Rogen what he did for Jonah Hill in Moneyball.  I didn't see Seth Rogen in the film.  I saw Steve Wozniak.  The way he speaks, his mannerisms, even his laugh wasn't typical Rogen fare. He deserves just as much praise, if not more so, than Fassbender who, once again, turned in an Oscar-worthy performance.

Steve Jobs is a very good movie.  It's melodic, but frenetic.  It's compelling, yet slow.  It's an anomaly in film because if you sit back and think hard about the man, you realize that you're literally just watching a very intelligent and successful asshole.  But, thanks to Sorkin's structure and script, along with Danny Boyle's beautiful direction, we've been given another level to Steve Jobs that may or may not have actually existed.