Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Trip To Italy Review

Michael Winterbottom’s, “The Trip to Italy”—a sequel to Winterbottoms “The Trip” from 2010—is an example of how minimalistic comedy can be done well.

It’s a road trip comedy—in which British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play semi fictionalized versions of themselves—but nothing over-the-top or out of the ordinary happens. In fact the closest thing to “action” that happens is in a scene where the two are trying to navigate their way through Italian traffic. There are fragments of drama that could easily be expanded on and made into a plot but instead Winterbottom keeps the focus on the mundane, comedic interactions between Brydon and Coogan as they travel around the Italian countryside, staying in nice hotels and eating great food.

The picture is essentially Travelogue mixed with comedy. It’s a series of improvised back and fourths between the two actors, which gives the movie a relaxed, directionless energy. It helps immensely that the chemistry between Brydon and Coogan is impeccable. These two are not just actors in a movie asked to riff off one another, these are real friends who have decided to go on a trip together and riff on each another in the process, while someone films them with a camera.

However, while the movie may feel aimless and lacking in cohesion it isn’t. As the movie goes on and the two make their way from one luxurious Italian town or fine dining establishment to the next there’s a sense of progression; it doesn’t just feel like a bunch of comedic riff’s stitched together. And as silly as these comedic riffs can get--often times they turn into impression-offs between the two guys; Brydon for the record can do a great Al Pacino and Michael Caine—they address a variety of important topics, ranging from history and culture, to growing old and mortality. These are intelligent, as well as humorous dialogues. Oddly enough, the poet Lord Byron is a common topic.

At the same time, even when addressing these serious/heavy topics the comedic momentum stays in tact. The scene where Brydon--pretending to be Michael Buble—proceeds to fake interview Coogan is both an amusing dialogue as well as a chance for Coogan to genuinely reflect on his career and where it might go from here.

As I said before, various dramatic strands and conflicts are introduced throughout the movie. Coogan’s relationship with his teenage son since getting divorced from his wife, the minor disconnect between Brydon and his wife that leads to fling between him and a random British girl. Coogan’s career dissatisfaction, Brydon being offered his first serious role in an American movie, and so on. And while these strands get somewhat developed, they don’t become the focal point of the movie. They’re acknowledged but they’re also not neatly resolved by the end. Because of this style, you never know where the movie is going to go. It never gets caught up in the plot conventions characteristic of comedies. In the end “The Trip to Italy” is what it would be like if two characters from a more traditional comedy movie decided to take a break from the action and go on a trip together.

Like “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy” is good film, but I’m not sure it’s one you need to drop everything and rush out to see. I didn’t end up seeing “The Trip” until just a couple months ago when I happened upon it on Netflix Instant.  These are funny minimalistic movies, no doubt, but they’re good to watch in the comfort of your own home.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Frank Review

It’s difficult to not let a smile creep onto your face whenever the titular character of Frank (Michael Fassbender) comes on screen in Lenny Abrahamson’s quirky Sundance standout “Frank.” Along with having a normal fit body he wears an oversized, painted artificial head. An artificial head complete with big, wide, blue eyes and a small oval mouth resembling a fish’s. With the head on—which is most of the movie—Frank always looks like he’s in a constant state of astonishment. He’s the leader of an experimental pop band but wearing this head is more than just an attempt to have an original appearance as a musician. For Frank, wearing the head is a lifestyle; even in a private place like the shower he insists on wearing it.

So then why does he wear it? Well, he’s crazy. If that sounds like a spoiler it really isn’t. While Frank never directly addresses it—when confronted about it by someone early on he responds by saying all faces are weird—it’s pretty easy to figure out. We learn that Frank had an abusive childhood and spent time in a mental institution. This oversized head is his way of coping with the world around him, his security blanket. He’s only truly alive when he has the head on and it’s easy to see why his band mates—people with their own issues—fawn over him. He’s enthusiastic and encouraging, almost spiritual. Always managing to find inspiration in everything, even a loose thread on a couch. But he’s also obsessive and unstable.

He’s a peculiar, and entertaining, character to watch and Fassbender—having to perform without his own face—gives an endearing, spacey performance. His muffled, slightly slurring voice perfectly suited to such an eccentric person. Unfortunately, the movie around him isn’t quite as eccentric and inspired but instead a relatively one-note tale of weirdos who don’t want to be normal and the normal outsider who threatens their lifestyle.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Frank and his merry band of misfits are seen from the point of view of that normal outsider Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a struggling musician who becomes the band’s keyboardist. Gleeson is appealing in the role but the character is nothing more than your typical dorky Indie film protagonist. A loser, tired of his mundane unsuccessful life that’s just happy to be a part of something so bizarre. So happy that he constantly updates his Twitter for us to see on screen. (A quirky touch that gets old fast.) Without a second thought he goes to live with them on an isolated compound out in the woods to help record their album.

In their almost blind devotion to Frank and his “genius” the band resembles a cult. A dysfunctional cult at that. There’s constant bickering among them and certain members threaten to kill themselves or leave the compound, all while they try and make music through unorthodox ways. At one point during a playing session Frank makes everyone pretend to be chickens, and pretend to lay invisible eggs. All of this can be amusing to watch but after a while it starts to feel directionless. You want to say: O.K., we get it, they’re all weird! What else is there? The supporting characters by and large remain underdeveloped. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s cold and intense performance as Clara—who doesn’t like Jon being there—starts to feel especially narrow and inauthentic.

However, as the movie enters its homestretch things only get more fatiguing. After weeks of recording videos of the band and uploading them to YouTube, Jon lands them a gig at South By Southwest. A gig that doesn’t go so well. Again, all of this feels aimless, Abrahamson doesn’t seem to have much to say other than: Look how weird these guys are! And really the only point of tension is that Jon wants to give the band exposure, but they don’t want it. Because, you know, they’re weird and unstable. The picture becomes a schlep and even the trajectory of Frank’s character becomes cliché and uninteresting. Initially an enigmatic personality he eventually turns into just an average mentally ill person. Again, not a spoiler.

Fassbender gives a great performance and it never gets old watching him and his unusual head interact with the environment around him. “Frank” is by no means a bad movie--there are great moments in it, even during the tedious third act--but in the end, Frank’s an entertainingly bizarre character in need of a better movie.


Monday, August 25, 2014

The November ManReview

Pierce Brosnan gets to relive his James Bond glory days in Roger Donaldson’s “The November Man” as Peter Devereaux, a former C.I.A operative that’s called out of retirement for one last mission. And it’s fun to see the sixty-one year old British actor play the part of the seasoned professional. Outsmarting government agents and bad guys—sometimes the two overlap—while kicking butt with ease. Brosnan doesn’t have to do much acting; he’s still got the suave smirk, the rich and soothing accent. Unfortunately, Brosnan is let down by a screenplay that’s too by-the-book and convoluted.

Based on the book “There Are No Spies” by Bill Granger, with a script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, most of the movie’s action takes place in the city of Belgrade, Serbia. Though it may as well be referred to as: European Action Movie Playground, as gunfights, car chases, double crosses, big revelations and other action/thriller clichés happen without any trouble. The entire Belgrade police department appears to have taken a vacation while the events in the picture unfold and the pedestrians on the street may as well be cardboard cutouts. Normally this lack of interaction between the environment and central characters and events wouldn’t be a big problem but everything in “The November Man” feels too familiar. I mean we’re talking about yet another movie about yet another ex-Operative who’s called out of retirement. And Donaldson simply mixes in too many familiar ingredients resulting in a movie that probably thinks it’s being clever and complex when it’s bloated and muddled instead.

The strongest aspect of “The November Man” is the rivalry between Peter and young agent Mason (Luke Bracey) a former pupil of Peter’s. After Peter is reactivated by his former boss Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) and things go south, Mason chases Peter around the crowded Belgrade streets. While not great, the master/apprentice dynamic between Bracey and Brosnan is engaging and it’s entertaining to watch Brosnan gain the upper hand at nearly every turn. Had it just been about the rivalry, “The November Man” could have been at the very least a decent action/thriller. But Donaldson insists on adding in all these other familiar contrivances to try and complicate things.

Peter has to protect a young social worker Alice (Olga Kurylenko) who has some important information on the Russian president elect’s malevolent past. A flexible Russian female assassin that’s hired to kill Alice disappears and reappears sporadically throughout the picture and towards the end Peter’s twelve-year-old daughter is brought into the mix as well.  All of these things making the picture more complicated and cliché than it needs to be. The daughter strand is a particularly lazy attempt to raise the stakes late in the game, as the character is nearly robotic.

All of these twists and turns that take place aren’t very surprising and the final mysteries involving Alice’s true identity and who the real antagonists are can be seen from a mile away. Not only that, the continuity between scenes is confusing at times; sudden transitions may leave you asking questions like: “hey, wasn’t that guy just being held in a C.I.A. interrogation room? How did he become in charge of the entire operation to find Peter?”

 As I write this review there are already plans to make a sequel, which makes sense considering the movie concludes with a number of loose ends. Assuming the audience is going to be entertained enough by the first installment to want another one before the first one even comes out is risky. Especially when it isn’t an existing property. “The November Man” is by no means terrible—Brosnan’s charm certainly makes it watchable—but it’s not compelling or original enough to generate much interest in a sequel.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill for Review

I’ve never been a great admirer of Robert Rodriguez.  Like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard the forty six year old Texas born filmmaker is a self-taught “student of cinema,” a one man crew—often times assuming the role of editor and director of photography in addition to directing—and like Tarantino, he has an affinity for trashy exploitation cinema. However, unlike Tarantino, Rodriguez doesn’t quite have the same ability to take that movie love and transform it into something very unique and substantial. He’s made fun movies in the past—“From Dusk Till Dawn”—but even his best movies have more style than substance.

I’m not exactly sure why but after he made the 2007 Grindhouse homage “Planet Terror,” he began repeating himself. He came out with yet another Grindhouse parody “Machete”—based on a fake trailer made for “Planet Terror”—a mildly entertaining popcorn movie but the joke had already been mostly played out. After that he went on to make a fourth “Spy Kids” movie—one that used Smell-o-vision, I might add—and then a “Machete” sequel entitled “Machete Kills.” And now he’s made yet another sequel, this time to 2005’s “Sin City” with “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”

And like “Machete Kills,” “Dame” is repetitive, boring, misogynistic and ultimately pointless.

The original “Sin City” was a solid picture; old-fashioned Film noir with comic-book physics. Characters can jump off high buildings without getting hurt. It’s essentially a male comic-book nerd’s dark, seedy interpretation of film noir. In “Sin City” the males are hardboiled vigilantes spouting Phillip Marlow-esque dialogue or despicable sadists, while the women are either hookers or strippers. Though what made the original slightly more interesting than an average pulp crime picture was the dazzling visual style that walked the line between animation and live action. The black and white, rainy, dreary panels—with splashes of color-- from Frank Miller’s original comic books were brought to life on the big screen. All the environments were added in via postproduction and the actors were coated in digital makeup.

The same visual style is back in “A Dame to Kill For” and it’s really the only thing that makes the movie somewhat watchable. At the same time, Rodriguez and co-director Miller don’t bring any new innovation to the visual style. The movie is all visual sensation but it’s the same visual sensation we saw nine years ago.  Nothing has evolved. The same action set pieces are repeated again and again; characters jumping out of windows, not one but two mansions belonging to baddies are infiltrated by the protagonists, and endless scenes of strippers dancing. My God is there a lot of stripping! (But more on that and the film’s overall treatment of women in a moment). Visual flourishes like when characters on screen turn into white silhouettes against a solid black background are done and overdone. In fact they were overdone already in the first one.

The movie consists of thinly written yet still confusing vignettes—all involving revenge in some way or another—that are vaguely connected but don’t flow with each other very well and contain hollow shells of characters. All the characters from the first movie are back—minus the ones who died—but they may as well be new ones. The key purpose of sequels is to deepen the characters and further explore the world; “A Dame to Kill For” does neither. We learn nothing new about these people. Mickey Rourke as the hardened character Marv was one of the best parts about the original and yet in the sequel he’s left playing second fiddle to the less interesting characters Nancy (Jessica Alba) and Dwight (Josh Brolin) as they carry out their various revenge plots. Brolin does the best he can with the part but unfortunately he’s saddled with the film’s stupidest moment. After being double-crossed and beaten up by a devious dame Ava (Eva Green), his plan is to infiltrate her mansion disguised as an assassin hired to kill Dwight. The only thing is, his “disguise” consists of a new hairdo. That’s it. No changes to his face. Nothing. And he’s instantly discovered. Honestly, what were Rodriguez and Miller thinking when they wrote that?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a small impression as Johnny, a fresh faced, cocky gambler that gets in over his head when he arrives in Sin City. Though even he’s reduced to a tiny vignette—split into two parts—that mostly consists of him winning in poker and getting beat up for it, only to end in a disappointing anticlimax.

However, it’s the female characters that are given nothing to do. Nothing to do except look sexy. Again, they’re all either hookers or prostitutes. Is this a world that Rodriguez and Miller would like to live in? For God’s sake, an entire section of the town is run by prostitutes. And perhaps what’s most frustrating about it is that the two directors probably think they’re writing strong female characters. While these strippers and hookers do tote guns and do a fair share of ass kicking they’re still wearing skimpy outfits and they’re still hookers and strippers.

Eva Green’s diabolical Femme Fatale controls men through sex—revolutionary, right? —which wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t spend three quarters of her part naked. Lying in a bathtub nude, lying on a carpet nude, going for nightly swim in her outdoor pool… nude. And poor Jessica Alba; she spends the majority of her role stripping at a strip club, or guzzling vodka. Not saying a word. Alba’s not a great actor by any stretch but give her something more to do, please!

I could go on and on. The constant Film noir narration by the multiple characters gets annoying. I know narration is a trademark of the genre but even the great classic noir protagonists didn’t talk over every scene. In “Sin City” no detail is left undescribed. Probably because Rodriguez and Miller have nothing much to show.

I hate to write off Rodriguez as a filmmaker but based on the way he’s going now—making sequels that no one asked for—I’d say he hasn’t an original idea left. Nothing new to put on the table. I’ve never had much excitement or anticipation for a Rodriguez movie before but now I don’t have any. It’s as simple as that.


If I Stay Review

R.J Cutler’s “If I Stay”—based on the book by Gayle Forman—is really two movies in one; the first is about the blossoming love between a shy cello player and a cool leather jacket-wearing hunk in a rock band. The second concerns the same cello player Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) in a coma after a car accident kills her entire family. While in the coma Mia’s soul can walk around out of body and she must decide whether she wants to stay with her leather jacket-wearing fellow Adam (Jamie Blackley) or pass on to the next world.

In other words, the teen romance angle isn’t strong enough to carry the story on its own so Forman felt the need to throw in the semi supernatural tearjerker element. And while the teen romance angle isn’t very compelling, it’s the supernatural tearjerker element that throws the movie into extreme sappiness and stupidity.

Mia is your typical quiet good girl who mostly keeps to herself, having only one loyal friend. She’s a Classical music nerd—she has a sticker in her school locker that says, “I Heart Yo Yo Ma”-- and is self conscious about it. However, her musical talent catches the ear—and the eye—of older boy Adam. With his rugged good looks and laid-back attitude, Adam is a typical teen girl fantasy boyfriend. A cool cat that falls in love with the quiet nerd girl? And accepts her for who she is? Anyway, they fall and love and everything seems to be going great, until Bam! A family drive on a snowy road turns tragic. Mia is left an orphan and in a coma—bummer, right? —and through flashbacks told by her out of body soul we get the backstory on her and Adam’s romance and the events leading up to the accident.

The teen romance flashbacks aren’t nearly as bad as I thought they would be. I fully expected to be rolling my eyes within the first ten minutes or so. It’s more that they’re just so flat line and dull. Everything feels so tame and unremarkable. And for a movie about teenagers, the situation feels far too neat and tidy. Mia has a cool boyfriend who sees her for who she is, she has two hip ex rocker parents—played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard—who are very supportive of her and give the perfect advice when its needed. There’s not much conflict, and the only conflict there is the usual boyfriend/girlfriend ups and downs—both Mia and Adam want to pursue their musical dreams—and Mia moping around, afraid that’s she’s not good enough for Adam. Which, by the way, gets really annoying after a while. Here she is, an ultra talented musician and she’s worried about a guy. I know this isn’t new ground in teen movies, but that’s the problem. We’ve seen this too many times.

While nothing in the flashbacks is actively bad it all feels underwhelming and derivative. The screenplay by Shuana Cross just sort of hums along, hitting the usual beats. The dialogue, for the most part, is poorly written. Characters say certain cliché statements—“I thought I had it all planned out,” “Things can change in an instant,”—as if they’re profound and insightful, there are some awkward attempts at humor—Mia saying early on she would like to “lick Adams face”—and finally lines that were clearly meant to be romantic but come off just plain stupid. At one point Mia says, “I want to dive into Adam’s world.” And yet, despite these flaws the flashbacks in “If I Stay” are tolerable, mainly because of Moretz. The seventeen-year-old “Kick Ass” actress is clearly above this material but does a surprisingly good job at playing the shy, nerd girl.

However, “If I Stay” runs into its biggest problems during the “Mia in a coma” segment. Cutler and co. could have subtitled this part of the film as: Mia’s Soul Running Frantically around the Hospital. Putting aside this “a ghost but not actually a ghost” gimmick, all of the drama—more like melodrama—and sadness in the story is concentrated to this part of the film, which proves to be too much. The flashback scenes while derivative never felt over-the-top. “If I Stay” is somehow both underwhelming at overwhelming simultaneously. Moretz’ performance goes from sweet and understated to overdone, yelling and crying. We’re treated to an endless barrage of teary eyed friends and family members having one way conversations with Mia’s comatose body, telling her to “hold on” and “you still have a family” etc. while Mia’s soul watches the action. (Man, the more I think about that gimmick the stupider it sounds).  If there was any kind of subtly employed in the flashbacks, none can be found here, the filmmakers try oh so hard to make you cry. And Cutler moves this section along at a snail’s pace, prolonging the inevitable ending.

With a better script and more energetic direction the flashback scenes in “If I Stay” could have actually made a decent teen romance picture by themselves. As I said, Moretz is good here, as well as most of the supporting cast. Even Blackley isn’t unwatchable. But these days, I guess normal none supernatural teen love stories aren’t sellable and so what little is actually good about “If I Stay” is blotted out by the hospital sequences and the superfluous “twist.”

I’m clearly not the target audience, and I’m sure fans of the book and the genre will be satisfied. For the rest of us though, “If I Stay” is yet another lackluster film to come out in this mostly lackluster movie month.