Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jack Reacher

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), Werner Herzog (The Zec)

Bottom line: Jack Reacher is, in a word, painful. It is more like Tom Cruise's Ode to Tom Cruise. That said, with the right atmosphere, this could make for a fun 'bad movie' night.

Based on the trailer, I expected Jack Reacher to be something like Mission: Impossible. I didn't think it would be as good but I certainly didn't expect it to be as bad as it was.

The film opens with a mysterious looking white van driving into Pittsburgh, PA. This came as a surprise to me. I am from Pittsburgh so whenever I see a familiar street, I get excited. As you might expect, Dark Knight Rises was pretty cool. At the same time, this was also a red flag. In fact, I hadn't considered this a red flag, until I saw Jack Reacher.

This is what I'm thinking. Big budget movies try to make a fantasy city: Anywhere, USA. It may look like New York, (or Pittsburgh) but any resemblance is a coincidence. One reason could be creative freedom. They can edit different streets in different cities to achieve a particular effect.

At the same time, I don't have that much film making experience. I know, conceptually, that one can edit different images or locations for a particular effect but what exactly does that mean? Maybe during a chase scene, Tom Cruise drives off the roof of a building and lands in a parking lot? Perhaps the building was in New York and the parking lot was in Pittsburgh. I suppose if the building is convenient and aesthetically pleasing but it doesn't match up with a parking lot, then the film makers could split it between two cites.

Money is probably an issue when making a fantasy city. If, somehow as a result of the movie, people associate the city with something bad then tourism might go down. This seems a little silly though, don't you think? Copyright issues might be more reasonable (if that is the correct word)? A particular building might not want to be filmed.

In any case, let me get back on track with Jack Reacher. Jack Reacher is a military lawyer and he is called to Pittsburgh to help a former military sniper accused of murdering four people. It seems like a closed case: fingerprints and evidence everywhere. Is the man innocent? What will Jack Reacher do?
The title character is supposed to be the man every woman wants and every man wants to be. I kid you not every single woman that see him, swoons. He does all the patented Tom Cruise looks: the profile, the slow turn around and the smirk and, even, the slow turn around smirk combo. Flawless in their execution, Tom Cruise should be proud.

The villain, the Zec, is hilariously bad. He is supposed to be Eastern European but for some bizarre reason he is played by Werner Herzog (he was the narrator of Grizzly Man). There is no effort to mask his German accent either. Maybe he was from East Germany…The Zec is supposed to mean something (like ‘Man” or ‘Human’) in I forgot what language. He was a criminal who was alienated from his people or gang or what-have-you. I checked all of the eastern European languages using translate.google.com and they didn't return anything valid. The reason he (and the rest of the movie) is funny is because it is taken so seriously.

This movie was released a couple months before Tom Cruise's Oblivion. I can't believe it is a coincidence and it makes me wonder about the motive. Was it released beforehand so people get into a ‘Tom Cruise mood’ and get them excited for Oblivion? Maybe they released it so people will go into Oblivion with low expectations. They'll say, "Well, this one has to be better than Jack Reacher." But that seems less likely. Tom Cruise is always solid and that’s one thing I appreciate about this movie. Perhaps they take it too seriously, but it is better that than not take it seriously enough.

I think Jack Reacher should be relegated to the realm of drinking game movies:
  • Take a sip every time a woman swoons. 
  • Take a (small) sip every time Tom Cruise looks like he is thinking, "I am the man."
  • Take a shot every time Tom Cruise does one of his looks (profile, over the shoulder glance, smirk).
I think you would be good to go with just those three rules.

The question becomes, and this is a question that comes up a lot for me, does this movie accomplish what it sets out to do? It wouldn't be fair, for example, to judge Lincoln and Fifth Element in the same way. Both are great movies but in different ways. Jack Reacher tries to be an fun, exciting action movie. It tries to be suspenseful but fails because the plot is predictable.The action is ok but nothing special. The chase sequences are disappointing too. No, I don't believe Jack Reacher achieves what it sets out to do. Can you still have fun with it? Certainly, but you can say that about almost anything.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney, Darren Lemke and David Dobkin. Starring Nicholas Hoult (Jack), Ewan McGregor (Elmont), Stanley Tucci (Roderick).

Bottomline: Before I watched Jack the Giant Slayer, I wondered why it was doing so poorly at the box office. Now I know why...

You know when you sit through the credits of a movie waiting to see the post-credits scene? They are usually at the end of Marvel movies. When waiting for the scene, I always find it mind boggling how many people participate in a film production. In the case of Jack the Giant Slayer, I wonder why, out of the army of people working, didn't someone say, 'Alright, guys, this isn't really going to work'.
Jack and the Beanstalk is a common fairy tale so to make things a little edgier they called it Jack the Giant Slayer. Somehow some magic beans were made and a beanstalk grew to the land of the giants. They came down and started a brutal war with mankind. Erik the Great had a crown forged from the stone heart of a giant. He used this to control the giant army and commanded them to go back to whence they came. They had to obey, you see, because their hearts are linked to the crown. They are compelled to obey. This premise made me feel a little unsure. The giants are attacking us so it is ok to, by all accounts, enslave them. Sure Erik, being Great and all, simply sends the giants away but it still feels iffy. When Jack’s magic beans start to grow, we have the villain try and enslave the giants with the crown. It is a simple enough plot but the movie manages to ruin everything. I will say that my first impression when watching the movie is that it felt pretty racist.

The humans are English. The Giants are barbarians with thick Scottish accents. I found this to be somewhat problematic and I’m not Scottish.

Aside from the accents, the characterization of the giants as barbarians is a bad, dated choice. I think the villain in Disney's Pocahontas called the Native Americans 'savage barbarians'.

They also include the crown jewels at one point, a symbol of English imperialism. Did you know that one of the crowns in the crown jewels is called the Imperial Crown of India?

The movie makes some bizarre anachronistic choices which threw me off any sense of immersion. When climbing the beanstalk, McGregor's character sprouts a thick British accent saying, "Well, let's keep going chaps." ‘Chaps’, according to etymonline.com, was first used as slang in 1716. Even better, one of the English generals wears a monocle which wasn't invented until the 18th century. That's practically the middle ages, am-I-right?

Alright, fine, I get it. This was a movie that was supposed to "entertain". It wasn't meant to be a thought provoking, social commentary but it wasn't even fun to watch. Fighting giants and the giants themselves are great opportunities for creativity. How does one present a fight a giant without turning into Gumbi-Keanu Reeves from Matrix Reloaded? It could be like The Borrowers (which was a fun enough movie)? Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t really provide much more than a tug-of-war match. I wasn’t really excited or inspired by the whole situation.

It seems like the movie was trying to make the situation more exciting by increasing the number of giants. It’s the ‘you thought one would be tough, try an army’ type of thing. But by doing that, it puts too much emphasis on the slavery-crown. The only way to defeat the giant-army isn’t by cleverness or determination but by holding the magical object.

Have you ever worked with a team where your solitary voice was the only one who was making sense? Where everyone else seemed to be on the same wrong page? Despite your best efforts your point is set aside. At some point, you'd probably feel like you want to put your hands up, sit back and wait for the inevitable crash. That's how Jack the Giant Slayer made me feel. Based on how unsuccessful this movie is doing, you probably weren't going to but, just in case you were thinking about it, I recommend that you pass on this movie.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Starring James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodore), Rachel Weisz (Evanora).

Bottom line: Oz: The Great and Powerful was an insulting but very interesting cinematic experience. Don't see this unless you have your critical hat on.

Oz: The Great and Powerful vexed me. I initially hated it. It is froth with sexism and racism and I didn’t understand why it was being well received. Was it the pretty graphics? I doubt it. I started writing this review with disgust but, the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me. Don’t get me wrong as I will explain later I think this is sexist and racist but I also think it is aware. That is, it a more complex movie than I expected and initially thought.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is the prequel, as I am sure you are aware, to The Wizard of Oz. We open, in a black and white, to a traveling circus where Oz (Franco), a talented but unfulfilled magician, performs. He enters the movie from behind a curtain with a music box in his hand. He hands it to his new, beautiful, dumb assistant explaining that it belonged to his war-hero grandmother. Zach Braff, Oz’s assistant, interrupts the seduction. We watch his unsuccessful stage show to establish him further as a fraud or, at least, not a real wizard (he can’t give a paralyzed girl that ability to walk).

Before getting blown to Oz (the place), we watch Oz (the man) speak to a former lover. He plays with a device (a circular ring of mirrors surrounded by images) which projects a basic animation of an elephant standing up on two legs. He tells of his desire for greatness. He wants to be someone like Thomas Edison. From the onset, Edison is placed on this pedestal and he develops as a recurring figure. This is a very interesting move by Oz, at least, with respect to Edison’s role in film history. He is a hardworking, ingenious man to whom we should all aspire to be. That's the type of thing I heard about him when I grew up. But, then I took a film history course…

By playing with this device, we assume that it is one of Edison's inventions. That seems like a reasonable thought. Is it? Negative, Ghost Rider. It looks a lot like a Zoetrope, though there are similar inventions, none of which were made by Edison.

The movie progresses and we come to a scene where the doll wants to be tucked in. Oz says," I am no wizard...but do you want to hear about a real wizard? The Wizard of Menlo Park-"

Imma let you finish but let me talk about film history a little bit.  

Edison financed the work of an inventor named Thomas Armat. In exchange for the financing, Armat's invention of a movie projector would be marketed as the "Edison Vitascope". Edison premiered the device and, before long, everyone used it (or something similar) to make and show movies. Edison was able to leverage his ownership to, essentially, control the film industry. He partnered with some other powerful film people (like George Eastman of Kodak) to dictate how film was to develop in America the being pure economic gain. Alright, don’t get me wrong capitalism is all fine and dandy but not when it is used like this.

Let me put it differently. Are you familiar with Comcast? Do you like Comcast? I don't and I don't think anybody really does. Unfortunately, there isn't really any other choice for Internet. That's why they can charge really high rates and provide minimal services. Do I sound paranoid? I certainly hope not, I am just speaking from personal experience. Anyway, think about a company like that which can control an industry more completely, in a time before anti-trust laws. That's the company Edison formed and he used it for maximum profit. I can go deeper into examples of how they controlled the film market (leave me a comment if you want more and I will provide sources too) but, let me summarize for the sake of our discussion. Edison was not the hero of an inventor that Oz: The Great and Powerful suggests: he was a ruthless, greedy businessman.

Oz is, as I mentioned above, a talented magician. But when he gets to Oz and claims to be a real wizard, he is reduced to a fraud. He uses the smoke and mirrors technology of Edison to build this persona of greatness.  By all accounts, to everyone in Oz, he is what he claims; a hero, an inventor, a veritable Edison. This holds through even to The Wizard of Oz.

Given the history of Edison, why would Sam Raimi make this parallel? This is the director of the original Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell we’re talking about. I can’t believe that this man would make such a gross error of film history. So, it’s more likely the case that he is winking at us. Despite the fact that James Franco’s Oz is funny, attractive, a good man (deep down), consider the Oz we meet in The Wizard of Oz. He is an old, fat cowardly liar. Who in their right mind would want to be him? Raimi is subtly connecting the two characters and linking it to Edison.

My only objection to this parallel is that Oz never gets his comeuppance. It’s disappointing. I’m not saying that every character should be punished for wrongs or that the protagonist should be infallible but this movie leaves is a bad taste in my mouth. After all, this was a movie market towards families. To what extent can or should the director expect his message to be heard? I haven’t mentioned the racism or sexism in this movie, the chief source of my objections.

Oz (the man) is blown into Oz (the place) after some basic character establishment: he is an attractive womanizer who wants to be great. We also hear that he is, deep-down, a good man but only time will tell.

Once he crashes into Technicolor, Oz meets a pretty witch named Theodore (Kunis). The two walk and talk and escape some flying baboons. They spend the night in the woods. Oz wastes no time in seducing her; he produces the same music box and the same story about his grandmother which he gave and told his assistant. “No one has ever given me a gift before…” she says. “No one has ever asked me to dance before…” she says. “No one has ever kissed me before…” she says. The camera tilts up to the stars and we fade into the night as the two continue to dance.

Oz, unlike the smitten Theodore, doesn’t have any intention on staying with her or loving her (other than physically). He just wants the gold and power of becoming the King of Emerald City. But, unfortunately for him, to become the king he must fulfill the prophecy by killing the Wicked Witch, something Theodore and her sister are unable to do. Despite the fact that these two witches have been ruling for who knows how long, they need the white man to fulfill this prophecy.

Theodore is eventually clued in on the fact that he took advantage of her and she turns into a villain. This is pretty darn understandable to me. I will also note that he never once apologizes to her.
Oz meets the wicked witch, who turns out to be Glenda the Good: a beautiful, powerful, blonde witch. She follows in line with the other strong female characters of this movie; she requires the authority of the white male to defeat the real evil witch.

Along the way, Oz visits China Town and meets a broken doll. After gluing her legs back together, the little girl screams and pouts until the reluctant Oz allows her to join the company. What does this teach the little girls in the audience? If you throw a temper tantrum, as long as it is cute, it is ok and you’ll get what you want.

All of the women are capable. They are all on top of their stuff but they cannot actually do anything. Glenda at one point tells Oz to simply shut up. She has everything worked out she just needs the Oz figurehead.

Alongside these women, Oz has two black characters and a monkey. The one character is a feisty midget who works as the trumpet player for the city. When he came on screen I thought, who is this, Samuel L. Jackson from Django Unchained? He plays a really racist jive-talking servant. It was ok (or more ok) in Django Unchained because it was for the sake of irony but, here, it is simply offensive. The other black character is an old, wise tinkerer. They were trying to go for a Morgan Freeman type of thing but coupled with the cheeky trumpet player, it is cheap at best. Last but not least is the monkey. He is a flying monkey (not to be confused with the villainous flying baboons) in a bell-hop outfit. After Oz saves him from a lion, he pledges his life to service in return. At one point, the two are walking to fight the evil witch. Oz says, “…I’m going to get all the gold…and we’ll get you something like a bunch of bananas.” “Bananas,” the monkey replies, “You’re just saying that because I’m a monkey. That is playing to stereotypes and that is wrong…it’s true but that doesn’t make it any less wrong.”

It would’ve been bad enough if Oz just makes the joke which, as the monkey explains, is playing into stereotypes but to have the reply be this makes the situation worse. The movie is saying, “Stereotypes are bad…but they’re true!” What year is this again?

Overall, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a bizarre movie. It is not good but, if you watch it with your critical hat on, I might say it is worth an hour and a half of your time (with, of course, a thorough discussion with friends afterward). I wouldn’t recommend this to families unless you want to have the “this is why racism and sexism is bad” talk. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone unless they want to think and discuss it.

Finishing up this review leaves me at a quandary. On one hand, I found this to be a terrible movie so I'd give it .5/4. On the other hand, digging through my film history books to confirm my suspicions about Edison made this one of the most fun movies I've seen in a while so I'd like to give it a 3/4. I am leaning towards a 3 because this is a tome, like many great movies, which give the viewer the opportunity to question and dig deeper and to think.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Written and Directed by Terry Gilliam. Also written by Charles McKeown. Starring Andrew Garfield (Aton), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Parnassus), Lily Cole (Valentina), Heath Ledger (Tony), Johnny Depp (Tony), Jude Law (Tony), Colin Farrell (Tony).

Bottom line: The only reason I am glad I watched some of this movie was that I came to the understanding that, not only do I not have to finish a movie but I shouldn't waste time watching a bad movie (unless it is a fun-to-watch-bad-movie).

Dr. Parnassus was a monk who bet with the Devil. The devil let him win and granted him immortality. The crux of the plot is that he made another bet with the devil and needs the help of Heath Ledger/Jude Law/Johnny Depp's character, Tony, to win and save his daughter. This is the movie which which Heath Ledger was filming when he died. The different actors play Tony as he enters the Dr's Imaginarium (a device for going into his imagination). Overall, the movie was so bad I stopped watching halfway through, which I will explain below.

I hated this movie. I loathed the style, the story, the cinematography, and the dialogue. Don't see this movie. Life is too short to waste it on a movie like this. It isn't a fun-bad movie. It is just a bad movie.

For a little back-story, and how this movie helped change my perspective on film. I was sitting in my window seat on the six hour flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to San Francisco. When permitted, I opened my laptop and looked through my movies. Unfortunately, I had seen almost all of them. I had been putting off The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus so I might as well watch it. I turn on the movie and put it full screen. I notice the woman next to me, moves in such a way that indicates she has noticed the movie but felt rightly uncomfortable about commenting. She moved that way a little later too, when she saw the title screen.

The flight and film continued and, about halfway through, the man in the aisle seat gets up to use the restroom. The woman says, "Now seems like a good time to use the restroom while he's out." I agreed, put my laptop to sleep and got up. When I returned, the woman took the opportunity to ask me about what I thought of the movie. “I haven’t finished it, I’m only about halfway through,” I say, “But, so far, I’m not the biggest fan” (polite code talk for "I hate it"). "Don't even bother, it doesn't get better". I shrug and continue watching. Another 15 minutes go by and I realize that she is right. In fact, it is only getting worse.

Using our mutual disdain for Dr. P as a starting point, we got to talking about film and had a lovely couple hours of conversation. The woman whose name, I’m sorry to say, I have forgotten, wrote screenplays. I came to agree with her that there isn't really a reason to watch bad movies unless it is for the specific reason of watching them for the camp value.

I don't know about you but I came to the film-loving-party rather late. Spielberg, if my memory serves me, decided to make movies before he was 10 so I have a lot of reading and watching to do. There are too many movies to ever hope to watch all of them so I should generally pick ones that would help make my world better. In fact, we all should pick movies that make our world better.
Before I end this post, I want to note that not everything about The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was bad. It managed to get me excited about film. It made me want to watch a really good movie and to share it with everyone I know. A movie doesn’t have to be a bad, horrible experience; it should be exciting and enlightening. In this way, I am glad I saw some of Dr. P. I say again. I beseech you. Go see anything other than The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.