Top 5 Movies I Regret Watching

The list grows daily….

  1. King Arthur (2004)–Directed by Antoine Fuqua

In this re-imagining of the King Arthur Legend, Arthur becomes a moralistic Roman Calvary officer. This film replaces the legendary elements and creates a grittier vision. The narrative depicts the time period directly after the Roman Empire withdrew from England. In my opinion, an Arthurian film needs Merlin, otherwise why bother? King Arthur still enthralls numerous people because of its mystical and fantastical elements. At the heart of the story lies a tale about a courageous warrior who rose up to defend his homeland and the outlandish characters he encounters along the way. Taking away all these elements renders the story pedestrian and boring. This “realistic” film contained mysteriously bloodless fighting sequences. Apparently ancient warriors never bled when slaughtered with swords. Perhaps the greatest injustice is the portrayal of Guinevere. The film tries to turn Guinevere into Xena Warrior princess, but at least Xena wore clothing. I highly doubt warrior princesses fought in just strategically placed leather straps.

  1. Apocalypse Now (1979) -Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my college freshman literature class. Heart of Darkness tells Charles Marlow’s experiences as an ivory transporter along the Congo River. Explored themes include alienation, confusion, doubt about imperialism, heroism, and civilized versus “savage” societies. At its most abstract, the narrative attempts to understand an alien culture.  Within the context of  of the collapse of imperialism in the late 19th Century the narrative works. Apocalypse Now is an extremely loose adaption of the novella in that it borrows a majority of the themes and motifs. However, the movie is a bloated anti-war narrative set in the 1970s during the Vietnam War that borrow the themes of the novella and places it outside of the  historical context. Conrad’s novella is an excellent exploration into the difficulties of overcoming cultural arrogance. But it really does not translate well when the historical context is radically changed as it was in Apocalypse Now.

  1. Elf (2003)-Directed by Jon Favreau

I am probably in the minority but Will Ferrell’s brand of humor never appealed to me. In this movie Ferrell plays an elf named Buddy. Turns out Buddy is not an elf, he is a human who ended up in Santa’s sack as a baby. Adult Buddy no longer fits in with the elf community and sets out to find his biological father.  A grown man running around in tight leggings and acting like a twelve year old is not funny after the first three minutes. The script lacks subtlety, nuance, and polish. The only Will Ferrell film that I have found remotely funny was Anchorman. But Ferrell played the straight man and everyone else acted crazy. If Ferrell is playing the straight man then I think he is funny, but his off the wall situational humor is just painful to watch.

  1. Transformers (2007)– Directed by Michael Bay

Any film based off a line of action figures is going to be either tolerable or cringeworthy. The first film details the struggle between two Cybertronian (aka robotic) races who bring their struggle to Earth. Only a clueless teenage holds the power necessary to end the struggle once and for all. If you peel away all the special effects and fire, the narrative is so thin to render it transparent. Maybe I just needed to be a teenage guy in order to appreciate this film in all its Megan Fox and CGI glory. But, hey, as long as everyone is running from exploding giant robots the actual story and characterization seems inconsequential.

  1. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)-Directed by George Lucas

Actually Episodes I, II, & III are all films I regret watching. Part of the problem with this prequel trilogy is the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. It was cute in the first film, but horrendous in the other two installments. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have zero chemistry. The prequel trilogy would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Qui‑Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Both Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are fantastic actors and Qui-Gon Jinn is extremely more interesting than Anakin Skywalker.  The most glaring problem lies in the screenplay. There are so many cliched and simplistic lines that the film is almost unwatchable. I think George Lucas possess amazing world building abilities and his original trilogy is an undeniable classic. But screenwriting is not Lucas’ forte and the results are painful.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). A modern fairy tale.

Tarantino’s 9th Film.

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
  • Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
  • Running Time: 161 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 28, 2015 (US Premier)

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. (From IMDb)

I love movies. Everything about the process fascinates me.

The storytelling, the acting, the characters, the directing, and the cinematography all have to meld together just right to make movie magic. Bad movies and amazing movies require the same process of creation, but the margins between failure and success relies on all the components working perfectly.  If only one part of the movie process breaks down, the whole film goes from Oscar worthy to Lifetime prime time showing.

It takes just as much effort to make a bad film as it does to make a good one. 

Quentin Tarantino loves film making. You can see it in the meticulousness of his films. Each shot comes across as a love letter to cinema. Now a lot of times the attention to detail gets lost in the story, no one can ever claim that Tarantino shies away from violence. All the gore and violence can hide the excellent camera work behind each shot.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood strays away from Tarantino’s usual fare and reserves the violence for when you least expect it to appear.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolves around the fading career of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

In 1959, ten years before the main narrative, Dalton starred in a successful television show called Bounty Law. In 1969, no one seems to care about the career of a faded 1950s Western star. Floundering around, Dalton feels even more adrift once the hotshot director Roman Polanski and his young wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door. Literally new Hollywood moving in on “Old” Hollywood. Cliff feels the sting as well since his salary depends upon Dalton working. In this new decade, Cliff functions more as an all around handyman, chauffeur, and best friend than stunt double.

In 1969, Dalton lives in a Hollywood he no longer recognizes. Due to a series of bad decisions, Dalton left Bounty Law after three seasons to pursue a movie career. This transition did not work out and Dalton has struggled to find his place ever since. Unlike today, television stars rarely worked in movies and film stars almost never appeared on television in the 1960s.

A successful television show is the closest thing to a steady paycheck that actors come close to attaining. Giving up a stable television paycheck to pursue movie glory requires a lot of gumption and luck. Sadly, Dalton possesses loads of gumption but little luck. He and Cliff spend most of the 1960s drifting on the fringes as Dalton carves out a sad career playing the guest “heavy” on a string of television shows.

The movie feels like a series of vignettes about Hollywood in the 1969 versus a tight narrative. Dalton’s career in the film heavily mirrors Clint Eastwood’s trajectory. They both starred in successful western themed television shows, struggled to break into the mainstream movie world, and found redemption in Italy starring in popular spaghetti westerns.

Hollywood today does not resemble the Hollywood of 1969. Tarantino presents a reverential, rose colored, fairy tale view of Hollywood on the verge of the 1970s. Indeed, I finished the movie wishing the world presented in the film actually existed. The bad guys get what they deserve and the good guy rides off into the sunset on his horse ready to fight another day. Or in Dalton’s case gets invited over by Sharon and Roman. Almost the same thing.

I contend that Cliff Booth represents the heart of the film. He sticks by Dalton through thick and thin, is willing to do anything for his friend, and works hard to stay out of trouble. Cliff comes from a troubled background, served in the military, and may have murdered his wife (this is Tarantino after all). Yet he is fiercely loyal and sticks around to help Dalton survive a rough patch in their mutual careers. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. Cliff sticks around because of friendship and mutual respect, not money. Plus Brad Pitt still looks amazing. You go man.

Rick Dalton survives alcoholism, depression, and terrible bit parts on sad television shows. If anything, his arc shows the downsides of fame. He hits the crest of an amazing wave of success that soon crashes down on him. Falling into despair, he loses touch with his work ethic until he meets a young child actress who reignites his passion for the craft. Fame alters reality and makes it hard to function when you go from dizzying success to working as a bit player. But Dalton perseveres and sees a resurgence once he puts his pride behind him and embraces Italian cinema.

Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, actually existed. She was an American actress and model during the 1960s. During her short career, she played several small roles on television before appearing in films. She regularly appeared in fashion magazines as a model and cover girl. After receiving positive reviews for her acting, Tate became one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers of the 1960s and seemed verged for stardom in the 1970s.

Tragically, on August 9, 1969, Tate and four others were murdered by members of the Manson Family at her home. At the time of her death, she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Margot Robbie floats through this film like an ethereal vision. Tarantino treats Tate almost reverentially and presents her in the best light possible. But he also does not gloss over some of her person problems. I think Tarantino treated Tate quite well and honored her memory.

Tate serves as the direct comparison to Dalton, the shining star illuminating the falling meteor.

Charles Manson and his “family” briefly appear in the film. The actors do an excellent job capturing the creepiness and unnerving dedication of cult followers bent on evil. However, this film does not actually focus on Manson and his evil gang. Tarantino pulls them in more as a representation of the darkness that exists on the fringes of Hollywood. In this fairy tale, Manson is the villain but exists in the shadows until exploding into focus in the third act.

For a Tarantino narrative, the climax comes surprisingly late into the film. He treats Dalton and Cliff like old friends and gives them time to introduce themselves to the audience. When the payoff comes, it is short and gory in true Tarantino fashion.

As a fan of old movies, I really enjoyed this. Could the narrative have benefited from some tighter editing? Yes. But I thoroughly enjoyed the rambling, seemingly randomness of the story. Tarantino is not my favorite director but I appreciate the artistry of his films and he almost always comes up with something original. I recommend the film, but it is not for everyone.

 

On Remakes and Redoes

If at first you don’t succeed, recast and try again.

Every year Hollywood comes out with a remake of either a classic film or a story that under performed the first time but built a cult following. Usually the filmmakers put a new spin on the story to justify the remake. Animated films become “live action” or an all-male ensemble film is reworked as a female led endeavor. The past couple of years have seen several high profile remakes debut and flame out at the box office. Examples include:

  • Ghostbusters (2016)
  • The Hustle (2019)
  • POSEIDON (2006)
  • Dumbo (2019)
  • Stepford Wives (2004)

Examples of successful remakes:

  • Ocean’s 8 (2018)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Beauty & the Beast (2017)
  • The Parent Trap (1998)
  • Freaky Friday (2003)

Why do some remakes work and others crash and burn?

Partly nostalgia and partly the quality of the story. A shot-for-shot remake will always come across as a lesser film due to a lack of originality. No one would want to see a shot-for-shot remake of Avengers: Endgame because it would feel like a parody of the original. Put a different spin on the story or introduce new characters and the remake may work.

Let’s examine Cinderella. The story of a poor peasant girl who meets a dashing prince. Popular films built on this narrative includes:

  • Cinderella (1950)
  • The Slipper and the Rose (1976)
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997)
  • Ever After (1998)
  • Into the Woods (2014)
  • Ella Enchanted (2004)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

All these films follow a basic plot: young woman is born into a middle class family. Her father remarries (or dies) and the step-mother (or future mother-in-law) treats her poorly. She meets a dashing, rich man. A misunderstanding occurs, they briefly break-up, and, after a short interlude, they beat the odds and rise above their petty disagreements. Each of these films builds upon the Cinderella fairy tale but put a different spin on the story. While all the films are “Cinderella” they approach the story in a manner that feels original. Hence, the remakes feel new. Disney’s 2015 Cinderella differs just enough from the 1950 film that it does not feel like a remake made only for monetary purposes.

Remakes fail when the filmmakers do not add in enough “new” narrative to justify the story. Switching out the gender of the leads, while maybe increasing representation, does not automatically make the remake a better film. The Hustle, the Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, fizzled at the box office because the script did not work. Even with two talented leads, if the script adds nothing new to the story line, then it will flop. Remake for the sake of remake leads to the world of poorly produced television films that play in a forever loop at 2 am.

Remakes that did work, like the Lindsay Lohan remake of the 1961 Hayley Mills vehicle The Parent Trap, either update the story for modern times or add a new twist. Technically one could argue that Toy Story 2, 3, & 4 function as remakes of Toy Story. Yet each film works because they do not recycle the original story, they just add onto the original premise of toys coming alive when humans leave the room. A simple premise that opens up a world of storytelling possibilities.

Finally, some film ideas that work as animated stories do not function well in “live action”. Dumbo the animated film, is a rather dark story that works because the elephants do not seem real. Just enough difference exists between the onscreen elephants and real elephants that audiences can enjoy the story without feeling bad. The recent remake failed because the hyper-realism takes you out of the movie and makes it hard to suppress reality. Plus the story worked great in the 1940’s, but not so much in 2019. The culture and the state of entertainment has changed drastically since the 1940’s and the narrative did not address this enough to make the story feel new. I think a Dumbo remake would have worked if the filmmakers had kept it animated.

Like all films, remakes of popular movies does not guarantee success. Audiences are fickle, especially when dealing with nostalgic films from childhood. I am of the opinion that if the director and screenwriter cannot find a unique spin on an existing story, than a remake should never happen.

What do you all think? What remakes have you enjoyed or hated and why?

 

 

Fury (2014)

War is hell

  • Director: David Ayer
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal
  • Screenplay: David Ayer
  • Music By: Steven Price
  • Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov
  • Running Time: 134 Minutes
  • Premiered: October 17, 2014

Synopsis: April, 1945. Allies make their final push in the European Theatre and battle-hardened sergeant Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and a five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a jumpy rookie thrust upon them, Wardaddy and his crew face overwhelming odds in their attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

Review: Fury is probably the grittiest war movie to be released in recent years. There is no shine or gloss; this is an intense and rough examination. The movie follows a Sherman tank crew in the US 2nd Armored Division. This is the first WWII film to focus on an armored division. Most war films focus on the infantry, air force, SEALS, Special Forces, or Marines.  Tanks are little more than armored furnaces. One good shot by anti-tank gun and the crew is burned alive. Fury does a fantastic job of capturing the visceral horror of tank battle.

The Fury tank crew consists of Wardaddy (Pitt), Bible (LaBeouf), Gordo (Pena), Coon-Ass (Bernthal), and Norman (Lerman). Together they set out on a mission to storm Berlin. Norman is the “noob”, and his inexperience puts the other men at risk. Wardaddy is offended that a green soldier is thrust upon him and does his best to toughen up Norman. This leads to a scene depicting an event that is little more than an execution. The overarching message of this movie: history is brutal. And David Ayer lives up to this theme, the fight scenes are brutally ugly and graphic. The film is definitely a hard R.

Fury is a war film that wants to immerse the viewer in the chilling reality of warfare. Each scene sets out to visually assault the viewer with mud and guts. There is only the thinnest of plots. Instead it is more of a series of vignettes of brutal nightmares where the crew can either kill or be killed. The final battle scene culminates in the crew facing off impossible odds and trying to ward off defeat. While this is a bit of a war movie cliché, it was executed well and does not end the way you think it will. The Fury crew is not composed of the cookie-cutter Hollywood war heroes.  These men are battle hardened and border on the animalistic. Be prepared for battle, this is an action movie with little “deep” dialogue.

In the few scenes where the crew is not in combat, the men are shown dealing/not dealing with coming off of an adrenaline high. They curse (some more convincingly than others), pray, and beat up on each other. The rest of the time they walk about in a dejectedly grim manner. There is one scene that I felt was rather out of place. Ayer decided to add some character depth by alluding to a sexual encounter between Norman and a German woman. The whole scene was odd and struck a discordant chord with the rest of the film. There is no redemptive or humanizing aspect to this chapter in the film. None of the characters are fully formed and have little backstory. So this odd sexual coming-of-age scene really interrupted the flow of the film.

Brad Pitt’s acting had improved enormously in recent years. He owns his character and commands each scene. Wardaddy comes across as a damaged and battle hardened sergeant. This is good, because I have a hard time taking Shia LaBeouf seriously. Every time I see him all I can think about is his character Stanley from Holes. However, his character never feels out of place. Michael Pena and John Bernathal tried their best with the little material given to them. Only Pitt and Lerman had semi-developed characters. Logan Lerman has come a long way from the clean cut Percy Jackson. In Fury, Norman is a nervous recruit who is pulled out of the typing pool and thrust into a tank. Lerman does a great job depicting Norman’s terror and unwillingness to sacrifice his conscience. Considering the lack of character development, all the actors did a fantastic job depicting their respective characters. Unfortunately, the lack of development meant that I did not have an emotional connection to any of the characters.

Overall, I recommend the film. It is well acted and directed. At the end you will have an understanding of what it was like to drive a tank in combat.  Fun fact: Fury is the first WWII movie to use a functioning Tiger I tank in production. Tiger 131 is the last functioning Tiger tank in existence (fact courtesy of my brother).

 

The Imitation Game

Science gets sexy.

  • Director: Morten Tyldum
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley
  • Screenplay: Graham Moore
  • Based on the Book by: Andrew Hodges
  • Cinematography: Oscar Faura
  • Score by: Alexandre Desplat
  • Running Time: 114 Minutes
  • Premiered: December 25, 2014 (US Release)

Synopsis: During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects,” this is the philosophy that the narrative is built around. The Imitation Game is a historical drama set in England during World War II. This drama explores how several cryptologists and mathematicians managed to break the mysterious German Enigma machine. Most of the narrative explores the struggles of the genius mathematician Alan Turing. Actually, this is more of a character study wrapped in a larger story. The story is told in a semi-linear format; there are a lot of flashbacks to Turing’s early life.

The Imitation Game opens during the winter of 1952 with British detectives entering the home of Professor Alan Turing in response to a burglary. Instead of investigating the robbery, the detective arrest Turing on charges of “gross indecency”. The film flashes back to the late 1930s and explains how Turing came to work with a mish mashed group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers. For the first half of the film the narrative details the difficulties of the team and how they react to Turing’s eccentricities. About halfway through the film they finally break the code and the pacing speeds up. This leaves the audience to deal with the moral conundrums and math problems missing from the first half of the film. There are also talks of double agents, intrigue, and Turing’s homosexuality to keep the story moving.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s career continues to go from strength to strength. He adds another feather to his cap with his excellent portrayal of the conflicted Alan Turing.  Cumberbatch manages to strike a balance between intensity, vulnerability, and charisma. In his own unique way, Turing manages to cast a spell over the audience. Somewhere between the teary eyes, slight stammer, and innocent looks, Cumberbatch infuses life into a complex character. His portrayal is worthy of the Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Alex Lawther plays the young Alan Turing in the flashback scenes. Lawther does a fantastic job portraying young Alan’s struggles to fit in at his boarding school. It is entirely believable that the young Alan eventually grows into Cumberbatch’s conflicted genius. I think Lawther has a brilliant career in front of him. Mark Strong and Charles Dance were as fantastically forceful as usual. Downton Abbey alums Allen Leech and Matthew Goode help round out the cast of genius codebreakers.

Keira Knightley does a solid turn portraying Joan Clark and her struggle to find acceptance in a male dominated world. I am not the greatest fan of Knightley’s acting, but I thought she did an excellent job. She plays off the rest of the cast quite well and her character brings out a touch of humanity in Turing. Joan is a brilliant puzzle solver and quickly becomes the only person Turing enjoys talking with, their relationship leads to Turing’s quirkily endearing but half-hearted marriage proposal.  As the movie is mostly about breaking Enigma, the relationship development occurs rather quickly. Actually none of the characters are overly developed, with the exception of Turing.

The Imitation Game tries to strike a balance between exploring Turing’s life and his efforts to help break Enigma. As a result, the film never really shows the messy complexity of his life. Which is probably a good thing since this film is not really about Turing’s personal life struggles. Turing lived during a time when the Labouchere Amendment was still in effect so Turing’s sexual preferences were illegal. The narrative uses Turing interrogation by a sympathetic detective as a framing device for the voiceover narration. This depicts Turing as a bright genius who was burned out way too soon. But it also kills any sense of linear progression. While the flashback scenes were well executed and seamlessly interwoven throughout, I am still not a huge fan of this style. Sometimes the exploration of Turing’s life overwhelms the emotional drama stemming from cracking Enigma. I would have preferred a more detailed exploration of the moral conundrum Turing and company find themselves in since they cannot tell anyone about their accomplishment, Cinematography wise the film is gorgeously shot. The 1930-1940s aesthetic is beautifully brought to life. This is an excellent historical drama, even though the ending felt rather rushed.

The Adjustment Bureau

Are we just puppets?

  • Director: George Nolfi
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly
  • Screenplay: George Nolfi
  • Based on Novella by: Philip Dick
  • Music By: Thomas Newman
  • Cinematography: John Toll
  • Running Time: 106 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 4, 2011
  • DVD Release: June 21, 2011

Synopsis: The affair between a politician and a ballerina is affected by mysterious forces keeping the lovers apart. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: The Adjustment Bureau is similar to The Matrix and Inception in that it also explores the concept of free will and predestination. Based off a Philip Dick short story, the movie explores the effect of life adjustment. These legions of adjusters who manipulate events in order to make sure everything goes according to plan. Of course the narrative never really explains whose plan the adjusters are following, they just work off the book of predetermined life courses. The film is not a deep exploration about time and decisions, instead it is a romantic tinged exploration of fate versus choice.

While The Adjustment Bureau is not a serious film it has an intriguing plot, exploring why some people are unlucky in love. In this case, out lovelorn hero is a politician named David Norris.  Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a congressional candidate who is increasingly averse to his chose profession.  One fateful evening David finds his career in jeopardy because of some salacious phots acquired by the New York Post. That same evening, David walks into a men’s restroom at the Waldorf Astoria and encounters Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Elise’s devil-may-care attitude intrigues David, but security chases her out and he fears that she is gone forever. This sets up the main climax because Elise and David were never meant to meet, even though they find themselves drawn to one another.

David then sets out to find Elise but finds his attempts hampered by mysterious forces. These forces turn out to be men wearing suits and fedoras who constantly duck into/out of random doors. These adjusters are Harry and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery). They for the Adjustment Bureau and go around making corrections to lives that have gone askew.  Such as David and Elise meeting. Mitchell tries to convince David that pursuing Elise will ruin her life. However, the heart wants what the heart wants and David blithely ignores the warning. This causes David and Elise to start exploring the rectilinear world of Manhattan and the path of crisscrossing wormholes, which are not subjected to the laws of time/space.

This is where the film really let the ball drop. Harry and Richardson are these all-knowing beings who have knowledge about future events and are tasked with putting people back on the path designed by the Chairman. So Harry and Richardson spend all their time trying to keep David and Elise apart. These guys have supernatural powers, they can access a series of doors that permit them to travel around Manhattan in seconds. However, these abilities are not explained and what they can/cannot do is never totally clear. This makes their involvement overly convoluted and confusing. Instead of coming across as an ominous presence, the adjusters seem more like convenient plot devices. Whenever David and Elise are close to finding happiness, in swoops the adjusters to change the script. I would have liked a more detailed exploration of the mythos behind the adjusters.

Unlike The Matrix and Inception, Bureau misses the mark focuses on romance over suspense. Damon and Blunt own every scene they are in, their characters really pop off the screen. This is by far Damon’s most romantic role and he does a great job portraying a lovelorn guy. Blunt is charming as the free-spirited Elise. They have great onscreen chemistry and sell the whole star-crossed lovers scenario. Anthony Mackie and John Slattery are shortchanged and do not have much to do onscreen. The narrative would have been stronger if the romantic arc was relegated to a subplot. Instead, the film should have explored the tension between David and the adjustors. Most of the plot resolution occurs too early and does fulfill the suspense hinted at in the beginning of the film. At the end of the film, I still had questions about the adjustors. Are they humans or angels? Why was Norris singled out from every other adult male on Earth? Do the adjustors monitor the entire world or just Manhattan? Why is the Chairman so interested in David and Elise? Also, the narrative barely explores the theological differences between free will and predestination.

Perhaps the best character in the film is Manhattan. The city is gorgeously represented and the cinematography makes the city sparkle. The screenplay was well-written and the main characters were well developed. I hope Blunt and Damon do another romantic type film, they were the highlight of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film. It just needed more depth in order to be amazing instead of adequate.

 

 

Midnight in Paris (2011)

A walk down memory lane

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates
  • Screenplay: Woody Allen
  • Music By: Dario Marianelli
  • Cinematography: Darius Khondji
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Premiered: June 10, 2011
  • DVD Release Date: December 20, 2011

Synopsis: While on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, a nostalgic screenwriter finds himself mysteriously going back to the 1920s every day at midnight. (From IMDb)

Review: Nostalgia is a strong emotion. It paints memories in sepia colored tones and fills people with romantic whimsy. People can experience nostalgia both for their own past and events they have never experienced. Sometimes people feel detached and out-of-place, as if they were meant to live in a different time period. Woody Allen explores this concept in his excellent film Midnight in Paris. This is Allen’s 41st film and is one of his better ones in recent years. My exposure to Allen has been limited, I have seen Match Point, Small Time Crooks, and the horrible Scoop. After watching Scoop I decided to forgo all future Allen films. That is until a friend of my saw Midnight in Paris and said it was a film I needed to watch. I was hesitant but went and loved the screenplay. It is charming, sophisticated, and dripping with literary references. Allen is far from being one of my favorite directors but he did a fabulous job with this movie. Midnight in Paris is one of the few films I can re-watch multiple times and still enjoy it as much as I did the first time.

Midnight in Paris is marketed as a romantic comedy. However, it is more than that and calling it a straight up romance is a disservice to the story. It is more an exploration of the human longing to belong and the illusion people have that a life different from theirs would be much better. In this film a family goes to Paris on business. Part of the family is an engaged couple, Gil and Inez, who are planning to marry in the fall. Gil and Inez are supposedly in love, but Gil might be slightly more in love with Paris in the spring. He is disillusioned with life and looking for some meaning. Gil has made a career out of screenwriting for Hollywood studios but still harbors a dream of being a successful novelist along the lines of his literary idols. Inez wants to live in an upper-class American suburb in Malibu and he wants to live in a small Loft apartment in Paris. He wants to wander around Paris and retrace the steps of Hemingway. Inez just wants to go shopping and moon after an old college crush. One night, Gil wanders off by himself and, as the bell rings midnight, finds himself transported back to the 1920s.

This film is almost like looking into the daydreams of literature majors. It includes “cameos” from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Picasso, and others. Allen must have had a blast writing this screenplay, his dialogue is sharp and satisfying. The narrative contains jokes about everyone from Hemingway to Luis Bunuel. But Allen also takes the time to ponder the role of the artist and the importance of not undervaluing the present in favor of the past. After all, it is impossible to live in the past since time always moves forward, never backwards. Midnight in Paris is seductively shot by Darius Khondji. The movie opens with a three minute montage of Paris’ famous landmarks, though the montage lasts longer than strictly necessary. Khondji portrays the modern time in sharp focus with somewhat harsh lighting. As if the modern time has lost all the magic of the past. Everything is loud, almost crass and the people are unrefined. While the scenes set in the 1920s are depicted in sepia tones and soft focus, a tad hazy around the edges. Just like in a dream or a rosy painted memory. Everything feels slightly too good to be true yet comforting at the same time. The dichotomy between the two time periods is wonderful and helps to make the movie seem more like a dream inside of reality. Khondji did a fabulous job making the past come to life and implore the audience to pay attention, Paris is a place where magic can happen.

All of the characters are believable and relatable. Gil is essentially a more charming version of Allen himself. Wilson displays remarkable range, definitely a more nuanced performance than he has given before. Sometimes he even sounds like Allen during a few flustered moments, of which the screenplay offers plenty. Though Wilson is a stronger actor than Allen and really keeps the movie anchored. Rachel McAdams portrays the self-serving Inez, Gil’s shopping obsessed fiancée. She seems to view Gil as more a milestone than a partner, someone who could be easily replaced. She spends most of her time in Paris avoiding Gil and hanging out with her old college crush, Paul. Inez is the antithesis to Gil, very focused on the future and disregarding the past. McAdams does a good job playing the “bad girl”, though Inez has nothing on Regina George from Mean Girls.

Tom Hiddleston is perfect as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is the perfect combinations of artist angst, anxiety, suaveness and a slight streak of obsession. Corey Stoll is Ernest Hemingway, he steals every scene he is in. I wish he had been in more scenes. Stoll makes Hemingway come across as a tortured force of nature. Adrian Brody puts in a hilarious cameo as Salvador Dali. He is both bizarre and profound at the same time. For not having a lot of screen time he certainly leaves a strong impression. Another treasure is Kathy Bates’ performance as Gertrude Stein. Bates portrays stein as an American, practical, no-nonsense, kind, patient, and possessing a keen eye for talent. She is just like the Stein Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast, he memoir from his time living in Paris. Bates portrays Stein with the authority that cemented her in history as an icon.

Besides Owen Wilson, the most enchanting performance is from Marion Cotillard. She portrays Adriana, an aspiring fashion designer who has a history of becoming a muse to a string of artists. Her connection with Gil is both instantaneous and undeniable but numerous barriers keep any kind of romantic relationship from budding. Cotillard possess an understated charisma that is perfect for this role. Adriana is almost ethereal, slightly unformed and hazy around the edges. She is the perfect counterpart to Gil: in love with the past, enormous with Paris, and willing to walk around and enjoy the small moments. Gil’s relationship with Adriana is sweet and romantic. Wilson as Gil injects the right amount of wide-eyed ingenuousness along with a dash of Allen’s famous nebbish. Their relationship is innocent and enchanting, just how the beginning of a relationship is supposed to look like. Meanwhile, Gil’s relationship with Inez seems more brittle by the moment. As Gil spends more time in the past, he neglects his modern relationships. Thus seeming to confirm his contention that the past is greater than the present.

During the last fourth of the film Allen eventually makes his point: the alluring danger of overwhelming nostalgia. Gil’s obsession with the past is preventing him from living a satisfying life in the present. And this means trouble for the future. After all, how can the future come about if you are constantly stuck in the past? Allen’s point is that all periods of time have their allure but they also have their downsides. One time period may seem more desirable but this idea is formed without taking into the account the uglier side of the past. Midnight in Paris does in excellent job weaving together deep thoughts and a sophisticated comedy, a trait that has been noticeably missing in Allen’s recent works. This is a lovely film and a great tribute to the literary geniuses of the 1920s.

 

Chef (2014)

Happy from Marvel cooks a Cuban

  • Director: Jon Favreau
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: John Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony
  • Screenplay: Jon Favreau
  • Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau
  • Running Time: 114 Minutes
  • Premiered: May 30, 2014
  • DVD Release: September 30, 2014

Synopsis: A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family. (From IMDb)

If the Food Network ever decided to branch out and bankroll a cinematic drama, Chef might be the result. Be warned, watching this film will make your taste buds salivate and your stomach grumble. It is, essentially, an extended commercial for Cuban food with a sweet storyline about redemption weaved in between. Jon Favreau-the writer, director, and star-returns to the indie movie circuit of his roots. He is currently best known among mainstream audiences as the director of Elf, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, and as playing Iron Man’s chauffer Happy. There are obvious parallels between the main character, Carl Casper, and Fvreau’s own experiences in Hollywood. Chef is a heartwarming tale about recapturing a lust for life and a commentary on being an artist in the modern world.

Chef follows the creative fall and rise of Carl Casper, the titular character. Carl is the Chef de cuisine at a high-end LA restaurant. However, his workaholic habit and dissatisfaction over cooking the same menu for ten years has wreaked havoc in his personal life. He is divorced from Inez and barely spends time with his son, Percy. When a popular food critic gives an unflattering review of Carl’s work, this causes him to go off the deep end and let out his frustration over his career. One thing leads to another and Carl finds himself without a job and a shattered professional reputation. At his ex-wife’s urging, Carl opens up a food truck specializing in Cuban sandwiches. Accompanied by his former co-worker Martin and Percy, Carl revitalizes his professional career and fixes his personal life.

Written by Favreau, the screenplay is tight and has the classic three-act structure. The film moves at a pleasant pace and never drags. Something pertinent to the main plot is always occurring on screen. Favreau is not oblivious to the hardships of creating a business from scratch, though he does present a best case scenario. Then again, the running time does not allow for a lot of digression from the main narrative arc. So a best case scenario is needed or else the narrative would be bogged down by needless drama. In a nod to the generational gap between father and son, the main subplot follows Carl learning the pitfalls and benefits of twitter. Percy is the tech savvy 10-year-old who sighs heavily when dad just does not get social media. It is a nice homage to the need for social media in promoting new businesses but also an object lesson on being careful about what you post.

From a directorial perspective, Chef is a tight film with very little superfluous details. Favreau clearly cared about the film and took pains to make it visually pleasing. Though, after the sixth closeup of masterfully assembled edible concoctions, you might wish Favreau had not dedicated so much screen time to food. These scenes flawlessly serve as a visual reminder that Carl is meant to be a master chef. Even the act of making a grilled cheese sandwich becomes elevated into the realm of culinary magic. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau perfectly captures and glamorizes the process of food preparation. It is much more appealing than anything found on the Food Network. Other stylistic choices include a travel montage, a string of Vines, and live Tweeting help to establish the film as taking place in the current century. Otherwise, the narrative could have been placed in any year after 1950. The result is a distinctive and enjoyable film that is visually appealing and fun to watch. Though I always crave barbeque and Cuban food once the credits starts to roll.

Favreau plays Carl. He is an engaging presence and commands attention without overpowering the supporting cast. Carl oscillates between being a charismatic artist, rock-star chef with nothing to lose, and an insecure middle-aged man who regrets some of his past decisions. He is a believable character and comes across as someone I could meet at the local Farmer’s Market. Emjay Anthony portrays Percy, Carl’s son. Percy is affable, well-behaved, and longing for some quality attention from his father. Anthony has excellent chemistry with Favreau and the father-son dynamic is believable. John Leguizamo is Martin, Carl’s business partner. While Martin is a rather one-dimensional character, Leguizamo has a strong screen presence and adds the flamboyance needed to play off of Favreau’s more subdued acting. Robert Downey Jr, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, and Amy Sedaris make cameo appearances as characters used to move the narrative forward.

This is definitely a male centric film and there is nothing wrong with that fact. It is a cross between a self-discovery and road trip bonding film. To help balance out the story and explore Carl’s personal life, there are two female roles. Inez, the ex-wife, is portrayed by a slightly subdued Sofia Vergara. And Molly, the restaurant hostess/personal friend, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Neither character is given much to do besides motivate Carl to pursue a more fulfilling opportunity. However, while the roles could have been expanded, anything more developed would have detracted from the main point of the film. Chef is about finding balance and enjoyment out of work and life. Carl first has to fix his unhappiness at work before he can focus on the problems in his personal life. So the narrative rightly deals with Carl learning to be happy, not his complicated love life. Though there are enough scenes detailing his personal life to flesh out both sides of his life. Both Sofia and Scarlett put in solid performances.

Chef is a pleasant cinematic road trip through the great culinary cities of America. It is exactly what it was marketed as, a delightful and heartwarming story about redemption and second chances. This is a nice palette cleanser from all the heavy handed dramas, cynical documentaries, and flashy blockbusters that dominate the box office at the moment. Favreau embraces the simple joys of life and the entrepreneurial spirit that inspires people to chase their dreams. The film is not flashy, preachy, political, or overly complicated. And in a world where nearly every movie forces a political agenda down the audiences’ throat, it is a refreshing cinematic experience.

Cinderella (2015)

Once Upon a Time…

  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Rating: PG
  • Starring: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett
  • Screenplay: Chris Weitz
  • Music By: Patrick Doyle
  • Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
  • Running Time: 105 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 13, 2015

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger. (From IMDb)

Review: Cinderella is one of the most popular fairytales from the European canon. There are multiple retellings from the gruesome to the wholesome. And the story has been adapted into musicals, movies, and radio dramas. But they are all essentially the same, a non-noble girl ends up marrying a dashing prince. One of the reasons this tale has such staying power is the element of hope woven into the narrative. Cinderella hopes for a better life but never expects to find it in the glittering halls of a castle. Good triumphs over evil, the stepmother and stepsister get their comeuppance for treating Cinderella so abhorrently. This adaption adds some depth to the classic fairytale without losing its charm. It is a glittering affair packed with ornate chandeliers, candelabras, gorgeous ball gowns, and a slightly off kilter fairy godmother. Kenneth Branagh manages to create a magical narrative that pulls the audience in and keeps you entranced until the end. Branagh does a much better job with Cinderella than he did with Thor.

With a screenplay by Chris Weitz, Cinderella empowers its main character by interweaving an effective morality tale about kindness and being yourself. On her death bed, Ella’s mother encourages her to always be courageous and kind, a mantra repeated throughout the film. The screenplay emphasizes that Ella is not a princess, she is simply a country girl who treats everyone around her with courtesy and respect. Even when they do not deserve such treatment. She still has her sassy moments, like when the stepsisters assume she cannot speak French and she admonishes the Prince for following tradition because that is the way things are done. Lilly James is a delightful Cinderella and she is a delightful presence on screen. I love her character in Downton Abbey and she is just as good on the big screen. And she more than holds her own against the force of nature that is Cate Blanchett. Branagh did a fantastic job of making sure Blanchett did not upstage James, especially since she easily could.

Blanchett is obviously delighted to play the slightly over-the-top stepmother. Unlike other “evil” villains in fairytales, Blanchett’s lady Tremaine is not technically evil. She is merely a widow without an income with two daughters to support. So when an advantageous opportunity presents itself, she jumps on it and uses the situation to further her advantage. Lady Tremaine is not wicked, she is just an opportunistic manipulator. In this tale, Tremaine never feels quite at home in Cinderella’s ancestral home, so when her husband dies, she makes Cinderella the outsider. While this is not a nice move on her part, it is an understandable move. Also, Blanchett has some of the most elaborate costumes in the film. In some scenes, her outfits nearly upstage her acting. Sandy Powell, the costume designer, tries to evoke a 1940s femme fatal feel with the Blanchett’s costumes. The result is a lot of elaborate soignée updos, a leopardskin dressing gown, and a slightly feral edge. Blanchett definitely evokes a Joan Crawford vibe as she sashays across the screen.

The stepsisters are a wonderful source of comic relief, played wonderfully by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. They dress like ornate cupcakes and everything about them is slightly off. Their unquenchable materialism is a strong contrast to the earthiness of Cinderella. The narrative makes a strong comparison between flightiness and compassion. Also, Sophie McShera plays kitchen maid Daisy in Downton Abbey and she seems to reveal in playing the over-the-top Drisella. Both Grainger and McShera enjoy playing the crazy unaccomplished stepsisters.  And Robb Stark plays Prince Charming and he finally gets a happy ending. Richard Madden was an excellent choice to play the Prince. He has piercing blue eyes and a suave demeanor. It also helps that he looks fantastic in Regency period clothing. On a more important not, the Prince is the perfect foil for Cinderella and the screenplay adds some depth to his character by exploring his relationship with the King. Of course none of the characters are sufficiently developed, but the Prince was given enough depth to avoid becoming a caricature.

Branagh also manages to turn the dance at the ball into an actually romantic moment. James and Madden have good chemistry and the dance emphasizes and focuses the attraction. Though my favorite scene is the one between Cinderella and the fairy godmother. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful as the slightly ditzy fairy godmother and the scene where the pumpkin turns into a carriage is perfect. My one complaint is the digital mice. While the relationship between Cinderella and the mice worked in the animated film, in this version it just seems ridiculous and out-of-place. Otherwise, this a charming fairy tale film. It is not a philosophical or moral tale. Instead, it is exactly what it says it is: a fairy tale. I enjoyed every moment.

 

 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Rating: PG
  • Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charlie Ruggles, May Robson
  • Screenplay By: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
  • Music By: Roy Webb
  • Premiered: February 18, 1938
  • Running Time: 102 Minutes
  • DVD Release Date: March 1, 2005

Synopsis: While trying to secure a $1 million donation for his museum, a mild mannered paleontologist is pursued by a flighty heiress and her pet leopard “Baby.” Dr. David Huxley finally receives the much anticipated intercostal clavicle bone needed to finish the brontosaurus skeleton. He is equally excited about his upcoming nuptials to his uptight secretary. The museum desperately needs the $1 million endowment from Mrs. Carleton, so David sets out to win her and her lawyer’s approval. However, the flight heiress Susan Vance-Mrs. Carleton’s niece-continues to involve David in a series of screwball misadventures.

Review: I cannot believe this movie flopped. There are all the elements needed for a perfect comedy: a leopard, an overtop heroine, and an uptight hero. This is one of my favorite screwball comedies and I wish Hollywood still made movies in this vein. Imagine a comedy without any crudeness, cuss words, or disgusting physical situations.

This is the second film starring Cary Grant made with Katharine Hepburn. The other films included Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Bringing up Baby is a romantic comedy that borrows inspiration from the classic Shakespeare plays of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Hepburn’s character follows in the tradition of strong women with a fiery wit and ready supply of comebacks. Unfortunately, the character of Susan Vance is one of the reasons that Bringing up Baby flopped. Film critics of the 1930s found the character to be flighty, unsubstantial, and unconvincing. And of course I disagree with this assessment. The film is merely a light hearted comedy, not a complex study of the romantic entanglements that men and women find themselves entangled within.

Thankfully, the film managed to gain a strong fanbase after it was shown on TV in the 1950s and 1960s.  This managed to increase the popularity of the film. The 1972 film, What’s Up Doc?, is meant to be a reinterpretation/tribute to Bringing up Baby. In this adaption Barbara Streisand plays the over-the-top heroine and Ryan O’Neal is the hapless scientist. Personally, I think the ‘remakes” humor is enhanced after seeing the original film.

Modern romantic films could learn a lesson or two from the screwball comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The romantic films of today tend to be overly contrived, incredibly sentimental, poorly written, and mainly create unattainable expectations.  Screwball comedies are meant to be light entertainment and slightly ridiculous. Film viewers are meant to feel happy and uplifted after watching not groaning due to overly dramatic and soppy sentimentalism.  Bringing up Baby is a great comedy and worth watching at least once. After all, how many other films use a leopard named Baby as a plot device?