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Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Friday November 21, 2014

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The central joke in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is how the main character, Albert (writer-director Seth MacFarlane), is really a 21st-century man stuck in the American West of the 1800s. It’s not a time travel movie. Albert just reacts to everything around him as if he were, you know, Seth MacFarlane, born in 1973, raised in relative safety and security, allowed to get soft on TV and pop culture. He can’t shoot a gun, doesn’t have much courage, mopes around a lot. He doesn’t hate where he is so much as when he is.

His vernacular is 21st century but his surroundings are 19th. A big block of ice crushes a man transporting it. “Oh, that went South so fast!” he shouts. When he gets a song stuck in his head (the inspired “Moutache Song”), his friend, Anna (Charlize Theron), tells him to think of another. “How?” he says. “There’s only like three songs. And they’re all by Stephen Foster.”

At one point he says, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” Which is true. Basically he’s the moviegoer or the TV watcher. He’s us, suddenly stuck in the movie.

That’s the central conceit, the central joke.

A Million Ways to Die in the WestWhy doesn’t it quite work?

I laughed out loud a lot, sure, but then we’d get some scatalogical bit that would just make me wince. Or the plot would pick up unnecessarily and transport us to the obvious place.

The story has a classic, dull structure:

  • Boy loses girl (Amanda Seyfried) by chickening out of a gunfight.
  • Boy is nursed back to health and some semblance of courage by hotter girl (Charlize) and Native American mysticism.
  • Boy gets girl (Charlize) by winning gunfight.

The movie, in other words, still buys into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, and blah for that. Did Woody Allen, in his early films, have his character, his schlemiel, become “brave”? Did Woody’s movies begin as parodies of the genre only to buy into the tropes of the genre? When is Hollywood going to stop doing this? You’d think MacFarlane at least would know better.

At the same time, I still thought the movie would be popular. The trailer was funny, MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) has his rabid following, his first feature, “Ted,” grossed $218 million two years earlier. Instead, “West” was one of the summer’s biggest box-office bombs: More than 3,000 theaters, a Memorial Day weekend release, but only $42 million total.

Because?

Because the West, I assume. Because we don’t know Westerns anymore. Because we don’t care for them. The title is about the million ways to die in the West but its box office showed us the million-and-first.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday November 18, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here, in no order of importance, are some of the big questions we ponder while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”:

  1. Will our heroes find a sustainable planet in time to save the human race?
  2. Will Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) make it back to Earth in time to see his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)?
  3. Why is Brand (Anne Hathaway) such a bitch?
  4. Who’s the “they” that are leaving mysterious messages for us, as well as opening up wormholes?
  5. Did anyone in the audience trust Dr. Mann (Matt Damon)?
  6. What’s causing the dust storms that are making Earth uninhabitable in the first place?

Here are your answers: 1) Yes; 2) Yes, but she won’t be Mackenzie Foy; 3) Bad writing?; 4) Us; 5) No; 6) Global warming, one assumes, but Nolan never says.

“Interstellar” is an epic ride but a bloated disappointment. McConaughey is good but the others aren’t, particularly. I figured out way too early who the ghost was, and that Mann wasn’t trustworthy. The science and cosmology went way over my head while the plot points were way too telegraphed. I knew where the movie was going but not the reasons for our getting there.

Then that ending. “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started,” Cooper says, sitting on his porch with a beer. “I want to know where we’re going.” That’s why I think the daughter storyline was a mistake. It was the lifeline back to Earth we didn’t need. We just needed to go.

Plan A is to TOS as Plan B is to DS9
“Contact” did this, too, didn’t it? Jodie Foster traveled across the universe just to find Daddy again. Here, Cooper goes into space, through a wormhole into another galaxy, down onto several inhospitable planets, and into the heart of a black hole, only to find ... his daughter. Or himself. He’s the thing that sent him on the mission. He’s the ghost in Murphy’s bedroom. It’s like everyone in Hollywood has read too much e.e. cummings:

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The movie opens with the Earth in a dustbowl, crops dying (there goes okra), and Major League Baseball surviving by barnstorming (I like the “World Famous” in front of  “New York Yankees”). During a parent-teacher conference, Cooper finds out Murph has gotten into fights for insisting that, per her daddy’s book, not to mention her daddy, we actually did land on the moon in the 20th century; it wasn’t a hoax as the official Texas textbooks insist. (Another favorite moment. Cf., this.)

Murphy, a sensitive child, is also teased for insisting there’s a ghost in her bedroom behind the bookcase. Christopher Nolan's InterstellarHer father, a man of science, insists that there’s not, but encourages her to accumulate the data. Later he says this: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Immediately you pick up on “ghost.” Shortly thereafter, the other shoe drops: “If he’s the ghost as a parent, then is he the ghost in the ... Right.”

A message left in the dust in binary code leads Cooper to coordinates which turn out to be the remnants of NASA, the outfit he worked for before it all went bad. Guess what? They’ve been sending scientists into space on the sly. Its mission? To seek out new planets for new civilizations; to quietly go where no man has gone before! And now they want to send Cooper. He’s perfect for the role—the last great astronaut. Although one wonders if he was so perfect, why they didn’t seek him out on their own. He was just down the road.

That’s Plan A, by the way: seeking out new planets for new civilizations (TOS’s storyline, basically). Plan B is a space station (DS9’s storyline). Except, well, the man who’s running the whole program, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), later admits, on his deathbed, that he lied his way through the whole thing. He doesn’t have the data to make Plan B work. And Plan A? They’re never coming back. Combine Brand with Dr. Mann, the cowardly, sweaty schemer, and scientists don’t come off looking too good in this thing, do they?

Anyway, amid many tears, many promises to return, and many version of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into that Good Night,” the team—Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Giassi), and Doyle (Wes Bently from “American Beauty”)—go into space in a 1960s-style Apollo rocketship, dock with the spaceship Endurance, and spin their way into the wormhole on the other side of Saturn. And the grand adventure begins.

That’s the part I liked best—when I was reminded of a slower, grittier, less fantastic version of “Star Trek,” the original series, season one. That sense of going down to a planet and not know what you’d find. On this planet, time speeds up—an hour is seven years—and that mountain in the distance? That’s a wave. (Probably the coolest moment in the movie.) On that one, our great man, Dr. Mann, awaits in stasis. But is his data trustworthy? Is he? (Cue: creepy TOS music. Then cue battling TOS music.)

I probably wasn’t truly bored until Brand, female version, started talking about love love love. She’s been battling with Cooper from the get-go, she just caused the death of Doyle by moving too slowly in the face of a mountain-wave (not to mention the loss of an extra 15 years, Earth time), and with two planets left to check out, she insists on going to the one with Edmonds, who is her lover, rather than the one with Mann, the most respected of the scientists, who has sent back positive reports about his planet. “Love is not something we invented,” she says. “Love transcends dimensions of time and space.” Blah. Thankfully, she loses the argument, they go to Mann’s planet, but of course Mann (a symbolic name?) makes it all go bad.

So apparently we should follow our hearts. Or something.

Women troubles
To be honest, the daughter was such an unforgiving character, and Brand such an awful character, that I began to backdate Nolan movies. Does he have a problem with women? Are his female characters either haunting presences forever out of reach (“Memento,” “Inception”), or are they in-your-face and in love with someone else (Rachel Dawes)? Here, Murphy is the ghostly, disappointed presence, Brand the shrill one.

And what was the point of all that drama back in Texas? The fight between Murphy and her older brother (Casey Affleck)? That plot leads nowhere.

The movie begins to spin out of control about the time the Endurance does—into a black hole—and Cooper winds up floating in some vague physical representation of time, on the other side of his daughter’s bookcase, trying to get his message across. After that, he wakes up in Cooper Station, revolving around the late, great planet Earth. Plan B has worked, thanks to the data he sent his daughter via wristwatch, and outside the hospital they’re playing baseball again. He sees his daughter on her deathbed (cameo: Ellen Burstyn), and sees his home as museum piece. Then he has his moment with the beer on the porch. So off he goes to find Brand. But hopefully not to set up a sequel.

I had hopes for this one, but too bad. The lesson, one last time, Hollywood:

For wherever we go (into the blackness of space) 
Let’s find something more than our own stupid face

Posted at 07:50 AM on Nov 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The story’s about what the movie is.

As sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Major League Baseball attempt to tap into an underutilized region of the world (India) in “Million Dollar Arm,” so with “Million Dollar Arm” Walt Disney Pictures attempts the same. Bernstein wants Indian pitchers, Major League Baseball wants Indian fans, Disney wants Indian moviegoers.

Or, to put it another way, they all want Indian dollars.

None of them succeeded particularly well. Just don’t tell the movie that.

Bucks for Bucs
It’s a feel-good movie, soft around the edges. Early on, Bernstein, down on his luck, is watching TV with his assistant Aash (Aasif Mandvi), and cricket comes on. Bernstein rattles off a few reasons why it’s not a real sport; Aash just stares and sputters. I wanted to hear why it was a good sport. A smarter movie would’ve given us those reasons in the same amount of time but “Million Dollar Arm,” despite being written by Tom McCarthy (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), isn’t a smart movie. Million Dollar Arm with Jon HammIt’s a warm bath of a movie.

You see where things are going early on and the movie takes its time getting there. Bernstein loses the big client, the creditors are nipping at his heels, then switching back and forth between Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent” and a game cricket, he comes up with a scheme. “How fast do they pitch in cricket?” he asks Aash. “Fine. How fast do they bowl in cricket?”

Apparently it’s based upon a true story. In reality, it became a reality show in India: “The Million Dollar Arm.” In the movie, it’s more grassroots. Bernstein travels from Indian city to Indian city with a sleepy scout (Alan Arkin, who could do the role in his sleep), a shrugging, bureaucratic Indian assistant, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), and an over-eager Indian assistant, Amit (Pitobash). They find two handsome kids who can throw in the low 80s, Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), and Bernstein brings them back to the states to train under Tom House (Bill Paxton). That’s the first half.

The second half is equally transparent. As the boys need to become better players, Bernstein needs to become a better person. In the manner of Hollywood movies, these coincide. I.e., the boys are only able to display their true talents once Bernstein cares enough to let them. Once he tells them to just “have fun,” once he allows Amit to give the inspirational speech, once the tryout becomes a real tryout (on a ballfield before a few scouts) and less sideshow (in a parking lot, before cable-TV cameras), then they flourish.

Well, “flourish.” They throw in the low 90s, are signed to minor league deals by the Pirates, and ... that’s the end. The movie would have you believe signing kids to minor league deals saves a sports agency. Nope. The kids don’t bring in the bucks until they make the Bucs.

And they didn’t. In real life, Dinesh Patel pitched a few games in the Gulf Coast league—the lowest rung of the minors—before returning to India. Rinku Singh stuck it out, made it to Class A ball for a few years, didn’t do poorly (overall: 10-6, 2.99 ERA), but was done by 2012. Not bad for a kid who never picked up a baseball until he was in his 20s, but he’s not saving anybody’s bacon.

This is just business
We get a few OK moments in the movie’s two-plus hours. Paxton is believable, Arkin—as I said—can do the role in his sleep, and Lake Bell, as Brenda, the doctor-in-training tenant next door, is refreshing. Her character seems like she has a life beyond the movie’s storyline. “She seems like a real person,” Patricia said as we watched.

I like a line of Vivek’s: “Don’t lose patience, J.B. You are going to need it in India.” I laughed out loud at a line from one of the scouts: “I’m sorry, but they’re not for the Mariners.”

Otherwise, it’s a squishy, sunset movie. It’s a multibillion-dollar business telling us that “This is just business” is a line bad people say ... after they take our money.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Nov 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday November 14, 2014

Movie Review: Le dernier diamant (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why doesn’t “Le dernier diamant” (“The Last Diamond”) work? Why is it boring?

It’s one of those “perfect crime” movies. Simon (Yvan Attal) and his friend Albert (Jean-François Stévenin) are partners in low-level scams, but Albert hooks them up with Scylla (Antoine Basler), a skinhead-looking type, to steal a great, cursed diamond on display in Antwerp. How cursed? The woman running the Antwerp exhibition has been found dead in her car; it’s her daughter, Julia (Bérénice Bejo), who is running the show now.

That’s one of their ins. The thieves get inside information from Julia because Simon successfully woos her as “the supersecret security consultant her mother never told her about.”

Maybe that’s my problem with the movie. I went to see it for Bérénice Bejo, yet she plays a sap in it. She’s a sap in the first half, overemotional in the second, and only gets to save face (by adopting another) in the final act, as everyone bands together to scam the scammers.

Generally in a perfect-crime caper (see: this), we root for the criminals. The leaders are decent men, painstaking professionals, but one thing goes wrong and they get caught. Here? Le dernier diamantThere’s Simon, who’s vaguely professional, and Albert, who’s sympathetic but a comic-relief screw-up. The others, Scylla et al., are vaguely threatening non-entities. There’s no one to root for. Other than Bérénice. Who’s play for a sap.

What do we have to believe to believe this movie?

  • That Scylla needs Albert and Simon as partners.
  • That Simon can successfully woo Julia.
  • That Julia looks like Bérénice Bejo but is somehow dateless.
  • That the thieves think the best way to get away with the diamond is for half of them to portray cops, who alert everyone to the attempted robbery, rather than simply vanishing in the night. (This is introduced to fool us, the audience, not Julia and the other folks at the exhibition.)
  • That Julia’s father, Pierre (Jacques Spiesser), will still act as inside man for the thieves even though: 1) they’ve killed his wife; and 2) are scamming his daughter.
  • That the woman they get to scam the scammers isn’t a policewoman but Julia wearing a rubber face mask and blonde wig; and that everyone thinks this is a good plan even though Julie has no experience in doing any of it ... and she’s wearing a rubber face mask and blonde wig.

The movie is derivative and half-hearted. Simon is kinda charming, but hardly George Clooney. Julia is ... Who is she? What’s her life like?

It’s tone-deaf, too. Because Albert screws up, an old woman with a tiny dog sits before her vanity mirror to see a giant hole in her hotel-room wall. It’s comic, but then, off-camera, she’s killed. The dog winds up with Albert. That’s comic, too—at least the audience kept laughing at the dog’s appearance—but to me he’s just a reminder that they’re all responsible for this old woman’s death. It’s as if home invaders killed Patricia and I but took Jellybean. And isn’t that sweet?

“Le derniet diamant” is supposed to be a love story, too, right? Simon winds up helping Julia retrieve the diamond, then—after some prison time—he and she live happily ever after. Or at least for an evening of banging. But would Simon have done this if Scylla hadn’t betrayed everyone by killing all but two of the thieves? And why did he leave talkative Albert alive? That’s not a thread to leave loose, exactly.

This is writer-director Eric Barbier’s fourth film but the first I’ve seen. I have no reason to see the others. 

Posted at 06:25 AM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday November 12, 2014

Movie Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

More than just local TV news, Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is an indictment of modern American success. It’s about a man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and finds his niche and makes a name for himself and creates a business. He does it with the following qualities:

  • Hard work
  • Persistence
  • A complete lack of ethics and morals

You hear about the first two qualities a lot from folks who disparage those who don’t make it in America, but not much about the third. But that helps. In America, ethics just get in the way.

The right kind of blood
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts the movie a petty thief, bug-eyed and alert, a small dog chained to a fence and looking for escape. He drives a clunker even as passes ATMs and dealerships with red sports cars: the easy reminder of all that he doesn’t have. But then the cops catch up to him. Actually, no. They just pass him on the way to the scene of an accident, where Louis watches Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a nighttime freelance cameraman for local TV news, or “nightcrawler,” doing his thing. Intrigued, he asks him for a job. Nightcrawler with Jake GyllenhaalHe gives the awful, Dale Carnegie schpiel we’ve already heard him give: a hard worker who sets high goals. No dice. So he goes into business for himself.

Turns out he’s perfect for the job. Filming people hurt? Dying? Entering the homes of shooting victims without permission? Moving bodies to get a better shot before the police arrive? All in the game, yo.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” Loder tells him early on, seemingly bored with the cliché, which, we quickly find out, isn’t even true. Blood is wanted but it’s got to be the right kind of blood. Black on black crime? Local news, in the person of graveyard-shift KWLA news director Nina Romino (Rene Russo), isn’t interested. She wants urban crime (read: colored) creeping into the suburbs (read: white). The racism presented here is behind-the-scenes but overt and accepted. “Think of our newscast,” she says, “as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

Louis is persistent and methodical throughout. After his first forays and successes, we get a montage of the stories he files and labels on his home computer: “Carjacking”; “Toddler stabbed”; “DWI crash”; “Savage dog attack.” Eventually he’s able to buy that red sports car and more expensive cameras. He hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a hemming and hawing kid he can verbally bully. And eventually Loder, tired of the competition, offers him a gig. But now Louis turns him down. Loder offers again. Same. Repeat. Finally, Louis tells him, matter-of-factly, “I feel like grabbing you by your ears and screaming in your face, ‘I’m not interested.’”

The next night, gearing up for sweeps, Loder scoops him and crows about it. So Louis fiddles with something under Loder’s van and the next time we see Loder, he’s the accident victim, being carried away on the stretcher while Louis hovers overhead, filming. Loder bleeds, so he leads. He who holds the camera holds the power.

“I will never ask you to do anything,” he tells his hires later in the movie, “that I wouldn’t do myself.” But that pretty much encompasses everything.

Gyllenhaal hardly blinks in the movie. He’s monstrously creepy—never more so than when he marshalls his facts and stats and Dale Carnegie schpiel to blackmail Nina into sleeping with him. You know when you leave a movie and momentarily imagine yourself as the hero? I left “Nightcrawler” feeling as super creepy as Louis. Talking with Patricia afterwards? Everything I said felt off. Smiling at a boy on the escalator? There was nothing good in it. I felt everyone could see the creep inside me.  

But then the movie—perhaps aspiring to the cynicism of “Network,” or the craziness of “The Stunt Man”—takes it a step too far.

Not the smart move
Patrolling, Louis and Rick hear of a home invasion in a ritzy neighborhood—the perfect story!—and arrive before the cops. Hell, they arrive before the criminals leave. There’s a big gate in front, with a long driveway to the mansion, and Louis runs down with his camera. When he gets to the house he hears gunshots, hides in the bushes and keeps filming. He films two men leaving; then he goes into the house and films the bodies he finds; then he rushes the footage to KWLA News.

Except he doesn’t tell them, or the cops, about filming the murderers leaving the home. Instead, he tracks them down himself, stakes out their place with Rick, and, when they drive to a local fast-food joint, calls 911. Cops arrive, there’s a shootout, then a car chase. Cars go flying like in an action movie. Louis is creating his own movie. He’s a movie director. For good measure, he makes sure that Rick, who’s begun to blackmail him, gets killed in the process.

The problem? Up to this point, for all of his ethical and moral and legal gaps, Louis has made the smart move. He’s done the thing that furthers his career. But here? Withholding evidence to set up a car chase? That’s the dumb move. The risk is huge, while the reward .... I would argue the reward would’ve been greater if Louis had simply done the right thing. Sure, film the bodies inside the house, but also reveal the getaway shots. He would’ve been the “hero cameraman.” The center of attention. A minor celebrity. Plus he still could’ve filmed the capture—it just wouldn’t have been as cinematic. Offer the cops a quid pro quo. I lead you to the bad guys, you tell me when you’re going to make the bust so I can film it. Isn’t that how it works? Instead, this. “Nightcrawler” is a fun, cynical movie, but this is a cynical bridge too far for me.

I’m curious, by the way, if this is how it works—if local TV news truly rely upon freelancers for most of their footage. I wouldn’t be surprised. More, I’m curious about a question the movie doesn’t raise—that it’s not its business to raise—but which is inevitable if you think for two seconds: What’s the appeal of “If it bleeds, it leads”? For viewers, I mean. Why do people want to see blood? And why do they want the particular kind of story that Nina breaks down—urban crime creeping into the suburbs? Most viewers, one assumes, are from the suburbs. Such stories, one assumes, make them afraid. So why do they want to feel afraid? It’s something I don’t understand. It’s something I’ve never understood.

The crowning touch? All of the local TV anchors in this indictment of local TV news are played by real-life LA anchors: Kent Shocknek and Pat Harvey and Sharon Tay and the like. Because they agree with Gilroy’s indictment of their industry? That would be nice. But one assumes it’s because it’s Hollywood. One assumes they just want to be part of the broadcast. 

Posted at 07:19 AM on Nov 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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