REVIEW: Paris Can Wait

26 05 2017

Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait” amounts to little more than a middle-aged French retread of “Leap Year” – rack your brains and see if you can remember that 2010 Amy Adams romance. The setup is simple: a charming American woman needs a ride to meet up with her romantic partner, so she must enlist the help of a native of a charming European man to whisk her across the rural backroads of his native country. Along the way, however, she begins to doubt her allegiances as the extended car trip softens her stance towards the courier.

“Paris Can Wait” offers many gorgeous views of scenic French vistas, but if that’s what Coppola wanted to shoot, then perhaps her energies are better spent filming a promotional spot for the country’s tourism bureau. With all due respect, I’ve seen half-hour TV specials with more meat on their bones than this film. The only bit of content worth serious deliberation is when Anne (Diane Lane) and Jacques (Arnaud Viard) discuss what separates the Americans from the French.

Otherwise, “Paris Can Wait” is a lavish nothingburger of a travelogue that is every bit as self-indulgent as an Adam Sandler comedy set in Hawaii or Africa. The cast and crew get to enjoy the majesty of France’s countryside – the culture, the food, the sheer joy of getting caught up in a moment of inexpressible beauty. We’re left to experience it from afar through the eyes of Anne and her digital camera, which she uses to take Instagram-style foodie pictures that she is too sheepish to share. I couldn’t even get a vicarious thrill from observing. C

REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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REVIEW: Inside Out

20 06 2015

Pixar has long reigned as the champion of both intelligent, creative storytelling and emotionally potent filmmaking.  Something about their computer-rendered world always seems to strike a chord with the one we have experienced, mostly because the purest of hearts beat within the lines of their ingeniously designed characters.

Inside Out” may well be the most vivid realization of the animation powerhouse’s strengths.  Writer/director Pete Docter’s film marks their most innovative vision since 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and their most heartstring tugging piece since 2009’s “Up.”  Every second of the film captures the complexity of the human experience, inspiring laughter, smiles, and tears.  Often times, I responded with all three reactions simultaneously.

In what may inspire the next generation of psychologists, Docter (along with fellow Pixar brain trust members Ronaldo Del Carmen and Josh Cooley – as well as Meg LaFauve) takes on the ambitious task of visualizing the mind.  And not like the opening credit sequence to “Fight Club” or anything, either.  They map out the logic, rationale, and functionality of just about every cognitive process in the brain, both conscious and subconscious.

Remarkably, the thought of “Inside Out” as some kind of cinematic adaptation of a neuroscience textbook never occurs for a second.  As it enlightens us, the film also entertains.  The premise starts off extremely straightforward: five personified emotions vie for control in the mind of a young girl, 11-year-old Riley.  These distinct characters take on additional vitality and vibrance through expert voice casting that draws on the established strengths of the performers.

Amy Poehler channels Leslie Knope into Joy.  Lewis Black brings his trademark tirades (minus the profanity) to Anger.  Bill Hader lends his motormouth to the ever-adapting whims of Fear.  Mindy Kaling adapts her defensive, often put out television alter ego into Disgust.  And Phyllis Smith selects the sad sack elements from her good-natured but sometimes mopey Phyllis from “The Office” and transfers them into Sadness.

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REVIEW: Man of Steel

20 07 2013

Look, it’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  Worse, it’s Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” a bomb of heroic proportions torpedoing its way towards a multiplex near you to steal 2 1/2 hours of your life and $10 of your money.  How this could have been touched by moviemaking Midas himself, Christopher Nolan, truly escapes me.

I personally saw nothing horrendously wrong with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” though I haven’t seen it since 2006 (a fact that may ultimately speak loudest to its quality).  However, I can point out a number of gaping flaws in “Man of Steel.”  It’s one thing to leave a movie nonplussed but another entirely to be angry.  If you hadn’t already guessed, I was the latter upon leaving this film.

Most issues seemed to spring from the lackluster story.  The film takes on the practically futile task of humanizing Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, an invincible being.  He’s always had an identification problem because, well, how many of us can relate to someone who is essentially perfect?  (I’ll speak for myself and say that I certainly cannot.)  While the drama of Clark’s grappling with his power is relatively compelling, it’s told only in brief flashbacks.

And these scenes with his adoptive parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, really only serve to play into the overarching Messianic allegory of the entire film.  I’m certainly not opposed to such grand implications, but they need to be done well (such as they were in Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables“).  “Man of Steel” feels completely disingenuous, exploiting spirituality for its own gain.  If it were any more obvious about its overloaded metaphor, Henry Cavill’s Superman would be wearing the letter t across his chest.

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REVIEW: Secretariat

13 10 2010

If you had a checklist of everything that a sports movie should have, “Secretariat” would have a check in every box.  One might think that with every t crossed and every i dotted, this would be the perfect entry into the genre.  However, for every reason that it should be great, it winds up being completely average.

For two hours, the movie manages to have the same vitality as the dirt that the horses kick up while running – which is to say that it’s lifeless and boring.  Perhaps the biggest problem “Secretariat” faces is that the same dirt has been trod so many times before.  Face it, the race has been run.

It’s not just in horse movies, either.  Sure, there’s the very similar “Seabiscuit,” but it bears a resemblance to any movie that goes by the playbook.  The same formula meant to bring about buoyant inspiration now manages to incite a completely averse reaction.  There’s only so many of these movies we can have before they all just run together to create white noise, and “Secretariat” is just another also-ran destined to play late nights on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the movie was original because it technically doesn’t fit the bill of the underdog story.  Secretariat is a horse bred to win.  His parents are both champions, and everyone who knows anything about horses could predict that he would be something special.  In a somewhat clever twist, the underdog is not the horse but the film’s protagonist, Diane Lane’s Penny Chennery.  Facing financial difficulties around the inheritance of her ailing father’s estate, she banks on one horse to do the nearly impossible: win the Triple Crown.

Yet it’s hard to rally around Lane’s performance because it feels about as fresh as a can of creamed corn.  A strong, independent woman acting independently (and even against at certain times) her husband was unheard of in the 1970s, but Lane deems this unworthy of any sort of attention or importance.  Hidden behind her perfectly settled hair and dolled-up face, Chennery is always incredibly emotionally distant, and in those rare instances that she does show some outward feeling, it feels about as genuine as a slab of fool’s gold.

Sports movies always offer plenty of opportunities to turn a good metaphor, and “Secretariat” has enough to fill an entire motivational speech.  Much of them come courtesy of wasted narration from the mouth of Diane Lane, as if the filmmakers thought they would add something to her character.  They come in excess, in a quantity deserving of the term of endearment gluttony.  I have no problem with employing the simple yet complex art form of metaphors to cater to Middle America, but there’s only a finite amount that can be packed into two hours.  (And for all the Biblical references, they missed the most obvious one in Hebrews 12.)

To bring a movie to life where the ending is already spelled out, there really has to be some element so highly elevated that it can make the sacrifice of time worthwhile.  Despite two Oscar nominated stars, Diane Lane and John Malkovich, and a plot that could really be a winner, watching “Secretariat” is like watching the Kentucky Derby in an empty Churchill Downs.  C

Oscar Moment: “Secretariat”

21 07 2010

“Secretariat” – it looks like a mix between Best Picture nominees “Seabiscuit” and “The Blind Side.”  Translation: someone kill me NOW!

I have now begun to hold the inspirational sports movie genre in the same regard as the romantic comedy genre, which is to say not highly.  They are so incredibly formulaic that they only serve to inspire groans now.  There’s really no way to spice up the whole “underdog comes out of nowhere and becomes a champion” storyline.  And if “Secretariat” is anything like its trailer, we are in for a story so improbable we can see the ending a mile away.  The thing about movies based on highly publicized true stories is that they don’t really have the chance to build any real suspense.

Yet I must say, the movie has several good horses in the gate for an Oscar run.  First and foremost is Diane Lane, playing the tenacious sports-loving housewife role that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar last year.  The Academy may not fall head over heels for a one-year-old rerun, but they do love Lane.  She has a prior nomination (for 2002’s “Unfaithful”), and Bullock did not have any sort of history with the Academy.  I don’t think the “she deserves it” factor will be very high with only one nomination, yet they could surprise us.

There’s also John Malkovich, the three-time nominee who is overdue for a statue.  He’s been known for his more powerful characters, and it would be strange to see them reward him for a fairly docile performance as Secretariat’s trainer.  But the ways of the Academy are strange, and if there’s a weak field, Malkovich could always squeeze in for Best Supporting Actor.  The category tends to be pretty sentimental; past years have seen winners like Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin.

And then there’s the movie itself, which probably wouldn’t have a great chance without ten nominees in the Best Picture category.  Yet out of nowhere, the box office hit and mildly well-reviewed “The Blind Side” stunned on nomination day with a nomination.  That movie overcame its mediocrity by playing well with middle America, who doesn’t want to “get” the pompous artsy fare, and becoming a true word-of-mouth phenomenon.  It did help balance out a field of nominees that included “A Serious Man,” “Precious,” “An Education,” and “The Hurt Locker,” to make the list seem to represent the whole of 2009’s cinematic landscape.  So if “Secretariat” manages to garner good reviews and play well all over America, we can’t count it out.  (And hey, “Seabiscuit” did it with five nominees back in 2003 with half the money, although it did have slightly better reviews and a weak field.)

Then again, after “Seabiscuit,” we saw “Dreamer” with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning, another horse racing movie which bombed financially and critically.  So there is by no means a steady pattern in Academy taste for sports or horse racing movies.  Let’s just hope they don’t start a trend this year.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress (Diane Lane)

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich)