Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Founder - 9 stars out of 10

The Founder - 9 stars out of 10

Once you have seen "The Founder," you will never be able to look at McDonald's in the same way.  The devious business practices of Ray Kroc are infuriating, but Michael Keaton portrays them in a very interesting way.  Ever since "Birdman" rejuvenated his career, every performance by Keaton is layered and finessed.  In this instance, his character earns our sympathy and even becomes our hero for 75% of the movie.  It isn't until the very end that we realize that his business savvy is not admirable and see him for the total weasel that he is.  I still get steamed every time that I drive past the golden arches and realize that they were stolen.  The supporting cast adds to the backwards emotions that we feel.  Heroes like the McDonald brothers (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and Kroc's first wife (Laura Dern) come off as annoying and unreasonable until we realize that they were the only good people in the story.  I'm surprised that this film was completely snubbed by the Oscars.  The production staff vividly captured the 1950's drive-in restaurant culture and the writers managed to turn a series of business deals into an interesting, emotional story.  While the focus is on Kroc, it is really a behind-the-scenes look at the birth of the fast food industry.  I appreciate "The Founder" for its unique story and family-friendly content, but it just might ruin McDonald's for you forever.

[Pictured: I imagine that it is surreal for the older generation to see the McDonald's of their day brought back to life]

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - 4 stars out of 10

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - 4 stars out of 10

Wes Anderson's unique style causes his films to be hit or miss with the designation as "hit" or "miss" varying from person to person.  For me, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a major miss.  My disappointment was actually a surprise as I have enjoyed most of Anderson’s work.  Films like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” offer an outside of the box look at the world but this film reads more like a parody.  And the parody doesn't really work.  The eccentric Anderson style is evident in the opening sequence and the unique dollhouse-like set, but the comedy lacks cleverness and his signature head-on shots.  There is a chance that I would have better understood the film is I was familiar with Jacques Cousteau.  I have never seen one of his oceanic documentaries so I have a difficult time assessing whether the homage properly captures his adventures.  Still, I find that the entire story leans too heavily toward the silly side of the fine line that defines Anderson’s style.  It makes sense to me that his other films have been on the Oscar ballot but this one didn’t catch the eye of the critics.  One of the hardest pieces of this film to judge is the acting.  The cast is populated by big names like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, and Michael Gambon.  These talented actors latch onto the script’s deadpan style, which causes the overall quality of the acting to seem mediocre.  Intentional as this may be, the end result is rather boring.  You never know what to expect next as this film progresses, like the Brazilian guitarist who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese.  Yes, I did say SongS.  “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a mildly entertaining film but I wouldn’t judge all of Anderson’s work based on this one film.  Once you’ve seen a proper realization of his eccentric style, this film will sink to the bottom of your list as it has for most of us.

[Pictured: One of the only signature Anderson head-on shots finally appears toward the very end of the film]

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Pete's Dragon (2016) - 7 stars out of 10

Pete's Dragon (2016) - 7 stars out of 10

If you are looking for a remake of the 1977 Disney musical “Pete’s Dragon,” you are in the wrong place.  Disney’s 2016 film shares a title with the 1977 film and that’s about it.  This is not necessarily a criticism, as I rated the original with 5 stars and feel that this rendition offers a stronger story and a more timeless feel that will help it to age better.  I’m sure that fans of the classic are offended that this reboot is actually a complete rewrite from the time period (1900’s to 1980’s) and location (New England to Pacific Northwest) to the characters (Pete is now a non-verbal jungle boy) and a story that bears no resemblance to the original.  Even the mood is a complete departure with the story being told as a straightforward drama, supported by a breathtaking score by Daniel Hart that creates some highly emotional moments.  But I believe that Disney saved the character of Elliot the dragon from fading into obscurity by giving him a medium in which he can be appreciated by a new generation.  Disney has been an innovator in the film industry since Walt first started mixing live action footage with cartoons in the 1920’s, but we live in a time where the seamless incorporation of a cartoon dragon into a live-action story can’t get audiences excited.  Instead, Disney decided to incorporate an animated dragon into a live-action story (wait a second…)  While the concept is the same, an important part of innovation is adjusting to the times in which you live. Disney knew that modern audiences thirst for realism and this film thrills us by making us feel as if we’ve truly seen a dragon.  I love that Disney maintained the general appearance of this giant, lovable green dragon when they transformed him from intentionally cartoony to completely realistic.  It serves as a reminder that the most important part of each story is the bond between boy and dragon.  The story does not stray too far from your typical child-befriends-something-odd plot but I didn’t mind the predictability too much.  One of the main things that is missing is “Candle on the Water.”  I’m fine with them removing the musical numbers from the film but I believe that they could have found a clever way to incorporate the song into the story as a tribute to the original.  I really thought it was coming when one character referenced a song that they used to sing, which made it even more disappointing when it turned out to be another song.  The acting was probably the film’s biggest letdown.  After being blown away by recent performances from Jacob Tremblay in "Room" and Neel Sethi in "The Jungle Book," Oakes Fegley's turn as Pete seemed to lack the emotional depth that I have come to expect out of child actors.  Robert Redford is good, which is contrasted by Bryce Dallas Howard who is average and Karl Urban who comes off as an overactor.  A more sinister villain may have helped to enhance our emotions, though the capture scene was pretty brutal.  Kids will enjoy this complete reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon” more than adults, but I’m always thankful for a quality, clean film that all members of the family can enjoy together.


[Pictured: The best part of the film is clearly the impressive animation of the dragon]

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chicago (2002) - 10 stars out of 10

Chicago (2002) - 10 stars out of 10

"Chicago" is a visual masterpiece.  Say what you will about other Best Picture Oscar nominees being more deserving of the award, but there is no denying that this is a great film.  The racy Broadway musical comes to life through director Rob Marshall's out-of-the-box vision for the story.  His interpretation creates a seamless duality between the real world and the vaudeville sequences in Roxy's imagination.  It is something that initially made me hate the show (since none of the musical numbers actually happen) but now it has become the most endearing characteristic.  It allows the audience to see Roxy's disillusioned, warped perspective of her crime through her eyes.  To create these larger than life musical numbers, it was essential to have an all-star costuming and production crew.  These costumes include very little clothing for the first third of the film, which successfully brings the burlesque style to life (although it makes it a little awkward to watch with your parents or significant other).  It is no surprise that the film won the Oscars for Costume Design and Art Direction (now known as Production Design), but it is equally surprising that the film was robbed of an Oscar for Best Cinematography.  Many would argue that this was the most deserved award out of all of its nominations.  The  film would be completely disjointed without the clear visual contrast that distinguishes the bleak real world from Roxy's vividly colored imagination.  Amongst the nominations and awards, the most memorable piece of the film is it's exciting 1920's ragtime musical score.  The "All That Jazz" and "Cellblock Tango" sequences have become iconic while the marionettes of "They Both Reached for the Gun" and the "Razzle Dazzle" circus assure that the film is constantly unpredictable.  But none of this would matter without the catchy tunes and impressive vocal performances by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifa, and John C. Reilly, ALL of whom were nominated for Oscars!  Even Richard Gere, whose singing voice was slightly odd, had the perfect tone for his fast-talking character.  The movie could not have been cast better and these songs will be running through your head for weeks after it ends.  "Chicago" may be edgy but it is  a must-see for both its significance in cinema history for revitalizing the movie musical and for its stunning production design that achieves perfection in the catchy musical numbers.


[Pictured: You will never forget the Cell Block Tango once you've experienced it]

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pulp Fiction - 4 stars out of 10

Pulp Fiction - 4 stars out of 10

I am aware that I am in the minority when I say that “Pulp Fiction” is overrated.  This iconic film is considered by most to be Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece and one of the most important films ever conceived, but for me it is too difficult to watch.  First, the film is filled with extreme content for the sake of being extreme, hence the film's title.  I can tolerate a lot in films but this one has so many unnecessary f-words that they lose their meaning by the end.  Beyond the f-words, there is too much lewd dialogue and the Ving Rhames scenes is unwatchable.  I literally get nauseas through that entire sequence.  Films like this are risk vs. reward: when you risk turning people away with extreme content, you’d better be able to make them feel like it was worth it through a poignant or worthwhile ending (“12 Years A Slave” immediately comes to mind).  Unfortunately, the extreme content fails to yield a gripping story and the dialogue-driven script turns the majority of the film into a melodrama.  As far as Tarantino films are concerned, I much prefer "Django Unchained" and "The Hateful Eight."  These a little less extreme but deliver a significantly larger reward in the end.  The greatest asset of “Pulp Fiction” is its style.  It comes complete with Tarantino’s signature division of the story into chapters, a classic use of nonlinear storytelling, and a lot of it just feels “cool.”  Samuel L. Jackson’s recitation of scripture, John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s “Twist” sequence, and Harvey Keitel’s turn as “The Wolfe” is fun to watch.  The entire film is incredibly bold as it subscribes to the philosophy of go big or go home.  Every sequence pushes boundaries but gets bogged down by too much dialogue.  Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay but I would argue that the profanity and too much dialogue in general are what drag this film down.  Most critics and film fans consider “Pulp Fiction” to be a classic but I believe that it would be more appropriate to categorize this film as “infamous.”  The Bruce Willis/Ving Rhames scene alone forces me to tell people that it isn't worth watching.  It is fascinating to read articles that analyze everything from the film’s commentary about modern cinema and hypotheses about the contents of Marsellus’ briefcase to the significance of Vincent‘s trips to the bathroom as each trip seems to trigger a potentially fatal situation.  The issue is that you have to suffer through the content before any of the philosophizing makes sense.  For me, the risk is not worth the reward.


[Pictured: These are some of the coolest characters in film history but the extremity of the film's lewd content makes them difficult to enjoy]

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Legend of Bagger Vance - 4 stars out of 10

The Legend of Bagger Vance - 4 stars out of 10

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" is underwhelming.  With Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron in the lead roles, you would assume that this film will blow your mind; however, it is important to note that this film came out in 2000 before Smith and Theron had established themselves as amazing dramatic actors in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Monster" respectively.  Their inexperience shows, though it makes room for a nice performance by character actor Bruce McGill to shine through.  The saving grace from an acting standpoint is that this was Jack Lemmon's final role before his death.  His narration is a fitting epilogue to his successful career.  The main issue with the film is the story which is predictable and never really goes anywhere.  The ending signals that the main character has experienced an important transformation but he is almost the same as he was before.  On top of that, the love story is completely underdeveloped.  It's a shame that the simplistic story could not match the grandeur of the film's cinematography and score.  It is a visual marvel from the time lapse footage of clouds to the beautiful Savannah setting and the crowd fading away as Damon focuses on the hole.  Most importantly, the camerawork creates a visual storytelling that helps us to track the progress of the golf match.  Rachel Portman crafts a score that alternates between fun ragtime melodies and Thomas Newman-esque ethereal sounds.  It effectively captures the Depression-era setting in conjunction with the mystical aspects of the story.  The technical aspects almost make the film worth watching but there are many sports dramas that would be a better use of your time.  Although I generally like films directed by Robert Redford, "The a Legend of Bagger Vance" is a fluke and should step aside for a quality mystical sports drama like "Field of Dreams."


[Pictured: It's a shame that the acting and story fail to match the visual beauty of the film]

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Encino Man - 2 stars out of 10

Encino Man - 2 stars out of 10

“Encino Man” is sooooo 90’s.  It has everything that you would expect from a cheesy 90’s comedy including various montages of a cavemen’s antics in modern society (most stereotypically at an amusement park).  We also get to see the caveman placed into a high school setting where he inevitably becomes popular, a museum where he sees his ancestors, and he even hijacks a car that ends up driving sideways, balanced on two wheels.  And of course, no 90’s high school film is complete without a prom scene.  It subscribes to the dumb comedy formula established by “Wayne’s World” but lacks the creativity and originality of its predecessors.  Imagine the classic mall sequence from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” for 90-minutes with only one character.  The 33-day shooting schedule shows through hastily shot scenes and a lack of acting finesse.  If you think that Brendan Fraser is overly slapstick as George of the Jungle, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen him acting like a caveman that can barely speak a word.  One of the biggest issues that people have with the film is Pauly Shore.  I actually don’t mind him since the majority of the film matches his signature airheadedness.  It’s amazing that people see his films and just accept his personality as typical of the 90’s.  More than anything, it helps me to better appreciate Shore’s character in “A Goofy Movie.”  Sean Astin makes an okay protagonist but the real standout is Megan Ward as she makes “Robyn” into a genuinely likable character, something that is difficult to find in this story.  “Encino Man” serves as evidence that an entire generation just accepted films comprised of random sequential montages and dance sequences loosely tied together by a plot.  If you want to see an entertaining brainless comedy, stick to “Bill and Ted” or “Billy Madison.”


[Pictured: "Encino Man" hits every 90's stereotype you can imagine, including a montage at an amusement park and the casting of Pauly Shore]