Monday, October 29, 2012

New Home!

The Soap Box Office has moved to its new and much improved home! Click the link to check out our new digs! Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, October 15, 2012

New Things Coming!

About 8 months or so ago, I finally decided I'd had enough with Blogger and I began the task of building a new, legitimate website with a .com and everything. I've been working on it ever since. And by working on it, of course I mean thinking about working on it and continually getting distracted by other things. I've finally decided that if I'm ever going to get this thing done, I'm going to have to eliminate distractions and get down to it. With that in mind, I will be taking the next week off from writing in an effort to figure out this whole website building junk. The plan is to re-launch The Soap Box Office at its new home sometime next week. Maybe even Monday if I'm lucky. So please bear with me while I try to change everything over and swing by if you're interested in seeing the (relative) progress as I go. Wish me luck!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Seven Psychopaths

Anticipation can be a seriously fickle mistress. Nowhere is this principle more apparent than when it comes to the follow up to a successful creative venture, whether it be a film, an album, or anything else. If you see and come to love a movie made by a previously unknown director, you almost immediately start looking forward to his/her next project. You build up a level of anticipation for said upcoming project and as such, it becomes tougher and tougher for the follow-up film (or album or what have you) to measure up to the first one. It’s quite unfair, really. Such is the case with Seven Psychopaths, a perfectly decent dark comedy that disappoints based less on its own merits (or lack thereof) and more on the merits of its predecessor, In Bruges.

Marty (Colin Farrell) has been having trouble focusing. A struggling writer with a substantial alcohol problem, Marty is trying to come up with the characters and plot for his aptly titled screenplay, Seven Psychopaths, but failing to find the right inspiration. Sensing his friend’s troubles, Billy (Sam Rockwell) attempts to help Marty by providing some curiously detailed, psychotic stories and introducing him to his dog kidnapping partner, Hans (Christopher Walken). But when Billy snatches the wrong dog, one belonging to an emotionally disturbed crime lord named Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the trio has to evade a group of gangsters, culminating in a final showdown right out of the movies…or so Billy would have it.

The words one would use to describe Seven Psychopaths would be these: “Solid”, “Decent enough”, “Mildly satisfactory”, “Not bad”, or maybe even, “Pretty good.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. The concept is fun and entertaining. There’s a distinct Woody Allen feeling about this film mixed with Get Shorty sensibilities and that suits the self-aware undertones well. In this analogy, Farrell plays the role of Woody Allen in the form of writer/director Martin McDonagh and he does so well. I’ve always liked Farrell even when his movies were painful and I’ve enjoyed his recent resurgence. He’s a talented guy who, I think, just needs to have talent around him (on screen and off) in order to be great. Rockwell also has some very strong moments, though they are at times tempered by the feeling that he’s not doing anything new (though perhaps that’s an unfair criticism). Both of them are outshined, though, by Harrelson who brings hilarity to a role that badly needs it and Walken who, I think we can all agree, is always a genuine treat to watch in action. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Walken in a new movie and as such, Seven Psychopaths reminded me of what great presence the man has. The seriously dark nature of the film, too, suits the cast and allows them all to show off their skills.

The problem with Seven Psychopaths is two-fold. One, the narrative struggles to stay on target and build momentum. The first 20 minutes move along fast and the pace, combined with the introduction of some hilarious characters, makes it a thoroughly enjoyable beginning and the final 20 minutes wrap things up nicely. But in the middle portion, Seven Psychopaths takes some strange turns and slows to the point of bogging down at times. It’s a stop-and-go approach that left me somewhat frustrated. Two, Seven Psychopaths just isn’t up to par with In Bruges. I readily admit that this is an unfair criticism but I think it’s one that a large number of viewers will have in mind. In Bruges is a triumph, a modern classic in the dark comedy universe, and seeing as how it is the only other McDonagh film I have to go off of and the similarities in tone between it and Seven Psychopaths, it is difficult to refrain from comparing them. I anticipated something great and while the concept is great and at least one scene is magnificent, the end product is only alright. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Review: Looper

We’re entering a golden age, my friends. For sci-fi nerds like myself, the last 15 years or so have been a harsh climate; perhaps not a desolate wasteland but certainly a less-than-hospitable, arid landscape. The 90s were fairly painful for the genre and while the early-to-mid-2000s weren’t awful, the number of good sci-fi films was far exceeded by the number of bad ones. For every Memento there was a 6th Day, for every Matrix there were two Matrix sequels, and so on and so forth. But over the past few years, we’ve seen the resurgence of smartly written, ingenious science fiction films, from low budget surprises like Moon to the biggest film of 2010, Inception. Looper, then, only serves to further my belief that the sci-fi genre is coming back in a big, big way.

In the future, time travel has been invented and subsequently prohibited to the point that only the mob has the means to use it. When they want to eliminate someone, they send the person back in time 30 years to 2044, where an assassin, known as a Looper, kills the target and disposes of the body. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a prominent member of the Looper society and he enjoys the life he’s carved out for himself in the midst of a bleak society. But when Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) shows up as his target, he fails to complete his kill, forcing him to go on the run to avoid the wrath of his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), as his future self sets out to complete a gruesome task.

There is so much more to Looper than what I just set forth but this is one of those times where I believe the less you know going in, the better. To this end, writer/director Rian Johnson and the studio behind him did a remarkable job of preventing the trailers and advance buzz from letting too much out of the bag, to the point that a significant member of the cast is nowhere to be found in any of the previews. That’s quite rare and the studio deserves some real credit for heeding Johnson’s pleas and playing it close to the vest. Looper unfolds brilliantly and quite unexpectedly, bringing a number of surprises to the table even when you think you have the whole thing pegged. None of this is done in a, “HAHA! GOTCHA!” sort of way (see: every M. Night Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense) but rather as a natural part of the film’s progression.

This is an extremely well-written film from both a conceptual and a narrative standpoint. Far too many sci-fi films die almost at conception because the writer had a great idea and no understanding of how to develop it. There are a dozen places where Looper could have fallen apart but in these moments you can see the painstaking steps Johnson took to pave over the pot holes that tend to pop up on the time travel highway. This begins with limiting the scope of what can and cannot be done with time travel and who has access to it, a stroke of brilliance that keeps Looper on track at all times. It is a very focused film and one that doesn’t waste time on lesser sub-plots or the pointless display of cool new technology that you usually see in futuristic films. Everything is handled with an almost earnest sense of purpose and Johnson weaves every character and every aspect of his film together so that everything matters. Johnson also displays an exquisite understanding of time management. Looper runs just under two hours and yet, as a result of its unerring focus, it is able to accomplish far more in that time than I would have expected. The film feels much longer and much more immense than it really is and I mean that in the best way possible. You feel like you know the characters, know the concept, and know the stakes better than you really should in a movie of this length.

Johnson’s incredible work behind the camera is equaled only by the rich performances in front of it. To be sure, Looper is filled with great supporting work from Emily Blunt, Garrett Dillahunt, and especially Jeff Daniels among others. But the bulk of the load is handled by Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Pierce Gagnon (whose name I would implore you not to look up if you haven’t see the film as it could ruin a significant plot point), all of whom come through magnificently. What Willis does here isn’t much different than what we’ve all come to expect from him over the last decade but this is a weightiest role he’s had in quite some time and I felt like he treats the material with a seriousness you don’t always see from him. Old Joe is a haunted, determined man and Willis exemplifies that quite well. Gagnon is simply a scene stealer of the highest order and I will say no more about him so as to avoid a spoiler. And Gordon-Levitt brings a boat load of nuance and subtlety to his role, making it clear why he was the perfect choice for this role. Joe is hard and dangerous but also insecure about his place in the world and Gordon-Levitt hits that mark over and over. In addition, he does a remarkable job of looking like Bruce Willis. Yes, there are prosthetics, makeup, and special effects in play here but his striking resemblance to Willis has far more to do with Gordon-Levitt’s mastery of Willis’ facial expressions, mannerisms, and behaviors. If you knew nothing about Willis’ presence in this cast and sat down to watch the movie, you would almost immediately note the Willis-isms that Gordon-Levitt slyly displays. It’s uncanny, really, and it makes Looper all the more enjoyable.

In the end, Looper is a tremendous achievement, a sci-fi film that hits the mark on virtually every level. The concept and plot execution is fantastic, the visuals are gorgeous, and the action is well-paced and efficient. Moreover, Looper rewrites the time travel handbook and sets the stage for Hollywood to officially enter a new golden age of sci-fi. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 10/8

Seth MacFarlane was announced as the host of the 85th Academy Award presentation next year. This drew a mixed reaction from the Internet but as a friend of mine said, what the Oscars need more than anything else is a song and dance man and MacFarlane certainly qualifies. It has to be better than Anne Hathaway, right?

The cast of Arrested Development sat down for a photo shoot with Entertainment Weekly and it looked like this. I want to go to there.

Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame has been added to the cast of the female version of The Expendables. Great call.

Wes Anderson recalls his favorite Bill Murray movies that Anderson did not direct. Whoever first introduced Anderson to Murray was really on his/her game that day. Thank you so much.

My pal Terrence over at The Focused Filmographer has officially earned himself a movie-related TV show. So cool! Check out the video.

Weekend Box Office Report
The good news for the studio behind Taken 2: the film’s $50 million debut makes it one of only three such debuts ever in the month of October. The bad news: the other $50 million films are Paranormal Activity 3 and Jack-Ass 3D. Not exactly elite company. Still, though, that’s a substantial amount of money and Taken 2 did some serious business overseas, too, making it commercial success even if critics weren’t impressed. Frankenweenie was the exact opposite of Taken 2, garnering acclaim from the media and fanboys alike but missing on the family market it looked to attract. Not entirely a surprise but still I would say a little disappointing. And Pitch Perfect continued to grow its audience, reaching profitability in two short weeks. Very smart marketing on that one.

1.       Taken 2 - $50M
2.       Hotel Transylvania - $26.3M ($76M)
3.       Pitch Perfect - $14.7M ($21.6M)
4.       Looper - $12.2M ($40.3M)
5.       Frankenweenie - $11.5M
6.       End of Watch - $4M ($32.84M)
7.       Trouble with the Curve - $3.87M ($29.71M)
8.       House at the End of the Street - $3.69M ($27.53M)
9.       The Master - $1.84M ($12.31M)
10.   Finding Nemo 3D - $1.55M ($38.96M)

DVD Releases
Guys! Guys! GUYS!!! The big day is finally here! We’ve all been looking forward to it and yes, there was a time when I thought it would never happen. But all our struggles, our perseverance, our stick-to-itiveness has paid off. This week we will all FINALLY be able to purchase the first season of Whitney on DVD, thus completing our collective lives in a way Dorothy Boyd never could complete Jerry Maguire. I’m just so happy, guys. Best. Show. EVER. (If you believed any of the previous paragraph, I’d like to kindly ask you to leave this space and never come back.)
                                                                New Film Releases
Rock of Ages – Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise
The Raven – John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans
Shut Up and Play the Hits – James Murphy, Chuck Klosterman
                                                                New TV Releases
Bones: Season 7 – Emily Deschanel, David Boreanaz, Michaela Conlin
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 7 – Charlie Day, Glen Howerton, Rob McElhenney
The League: Season 3 – Mark Duplass, Nick Kroll, Paul Scherer
Whitney: Season 1 – Whitney Cummings, Chris D’Elia, Rhea Seehorn
                                                                New to Blu-Ray
Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut (1986) – Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Vincent Price
Red Dawn (1984) – Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen
Strangers on a Train (1951) – Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman
Dial M for Murder (1954) – Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) – Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Bruno

The Thing You Should See
Prometheus – Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
Okay, really I should have titled this selection, “The Thing I Really Liked Even if a Ton of People Tore it Apart Like a Dollar Store Piñata.” I don’t know if you’d like Prometheus, dear reader. It currently holds a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.4 mark on IMDB but I feel like every review I read or opinion I received on the film, the reviewer expressed either disappointment or all-out loathing and it was especially unpopular with fanboys. I, on the other hand, quite liked Prometheus and accept it for what it is: a reintroduction of Ridley Scott to sci-fi and a table setter for the movies that are to come in the series. It’s not Alien but then again, what is? Also, if you know of any support groups for people who really dig this movie, please let me know.

New to Blu Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
E.T. The Extraterrestrial Anniversary Edition (1982) – Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote
There were several good choices this week. Little Shop of Horrors is a film for which I hold great affection, The Great Mouse Detective is an underrated Disney movie, and I’m kind of excited for the re-release of Red Dawn which I’ve never seen. But how could any of these fine films hold a candle to E.T., one of the landmark films of my childhood and one of my ten favorite films of all-time? There are people who don’t care for E.T. and/or were scared of him growing up and I like to call those people “Communists.” Seriously, though, this is a film that left an indelible impression on me as a kid and still holds a tremendous amount of magic for me to this day.

Coming to a Theater Near You
Dear professional film critics,

What were you thinking? We were given two wide release films to choose from this week and foolishly you praised Frankenweenie more than I thought you would (85% actual versus my 71% prediction) and panned Taken 2 with more vigor than I would have imagined (19% to 26%). I’m not worried about my own predictions, though; no, I’m worried about your group as a whole. Collectively, you chose to endorse an undead, animated, black and white dog over Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson, guys. Who do you think you are?! Have you not seen Liam Neeson in action? He’s not going to take this slight sitting down. No, he’ll formulate a plan, use his particular set of skills, and unleash a massive counter assault complete with machine gun fire, lightsabers, and neck chops. Oh, the neck chops! You sealed your own fate, critics, and there’s nothing we can do for you now. I wish all of you the best in your attempts to run and hide. Except you, Armond White. I hope he gets you first.


Argo – Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
During the Iranian revolution, a CIA agent (Affleck) extracts a group of American captives across the border by disguising them as a film crew. I’m still not completely sold on the rejuvenation of Ben Affleck as an actor. But as a director? Total confidence. The early buzz on Argo has been outstanding, the plot is supremely interesting, and I love this cast. Also, I think it’s great that Affleck is taking himself out of his comfort zone and making a movie that doesn’t center on the city of Boston. Really looking forward to this one. Rotten Tomatoes: Fresh, 92%

Sinister – Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
A new homeowner (Hawke) finds a box of disturbing videos in his attic that leads his family to an encounter with a horrible supernatural force. I’ve been really looking forward to this opening. Not because I’m dying to see it; on the contrary, my dislike of horror films is well documented. No, I’m excited for the opening because it means the constant barrage of trailers and advertisements that pop up anywhere and everywhere and scare the living crap out of me will finally come to an end and I’ll be able to sleep again. I’m so tired, you guys. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 75%

Here Comes the Boom – Kevin James, Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler
With his school’s extracurricular activities in danger, a bumbling teacher (James) takes up MMA fighting in order to earn the money the school needs. Ordinarily, I’d write off a Happy Madison film like Here Comes the Boom as mindless entertainment that isn’t for me but isn’t really hurting anyone. This time, though, Adam Sandler and his lackeys have crossed me. Here Comes the Boom is basically a carbon copy of last year’s Warrior, if you stripped out all of the significance, the realness, and the heart. Warrior is a GREAT film and one that has been criminally overlooked whereas Here Comes the Boom is undoubtedly a heap of rubbish that will probably bring in a healthy box office take. This makes me angry. Warrior is on Netflix Instant and it’s brilliant. Go watch it instead of this, I implore you. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 31%

Seven Psychopaths – Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson
A struggling writer (Farrell) gets roped into his friend’s (Rockwell) misadventures that bring him into contact with a host of interesting characters. This is writer/director Martin McDonagh’s follow up to 2008’s In Bruges, a dark comedy with extensive critical appeal and great rewatchability. I caught a screening of Seven Psychopaths last week and while I enjoyed it, it’s nothing special and most certainly isn’t for everyone. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 83%

Friday, October 5, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Safe"

By winning an MMA cage fight in which he was supposed to take a fall, Luke Wright (Jason Statham) runs afoul of the Russian mob. Instead of just killing him outright, the mob runners kill his wife and tell him that if he ever gets close to anyone again, they’ll murder that person, too, leaving Wright in a perpetual state of guilt and loneliness. He drifts from place to place, longing for death but too prideful to end his own life. Things change for Wright, however, when he stumbles across Mei (Catherine Chan), a young girl with a gift for numbers who is at the heart of a bloody battle between the Chinese, the Russians, and the dirty NYPD officers Wright used to work with. Having put himself in the line of fire for all three groups, as well as Mayor Tremello (Chris Sarandon), Wright hatches a dangerous plan to keep Mei safe and settle some old debts in the process.

Whether or not you’re a Statham, you have to give the guy some credit for milking his moment in the sun for all its worth. He is, shall we say, limited as an actor and his work is far from varied. He is, however, very, very good at what he does and he has now put together a decade of titles in which he has cracked skulls with the best of them. Statham has experienced a longevity that I never would have imagined and he shows no signs of being slowed down by stinkers like Killer Elite or In the Name of the King (*shudder*). More than anything else, the man is likeable and as such, we (read: “I”) keep coming back to his films unquestioningly, almost absentmindedly. “Statham has a new movie? Welp, I guess I’ll be seeing that at some point” is a sentence I’ve said to myself a dozen times over the last few years. I never expect much, and many times I come away unimpressed, but I always come back for more.

Safe might just be the best movie Statham has headlined to date. It has a slightly different tone to it than, say, The Transporter in that it is far less concerned with style and one-liners. Instead, Safe has a surprisingly good plot with which to work and takes a few twists that I did not see coming. It doesn’t take itself too seriously (thankfully) and it isn’t what you would call “sophisticated” but there’s a well-rounded script at play here that continually puts Wright and Mei in better-than-average situations. Wright is a strong character and he displays a depth that you don’t usually get with Statham. Mei is a quality compliment to Wright and she is a fitting spark for his rejuvenation.

Safe delivers some excellent action sequences (duh) that allow Statham to show off his most marketable skills but it also has an energy about it that I felt was missing from other Statham films of late. It moves at a brisk pace without cutting corners and continually pumps in more adrenaline in relatively smart ways. There’s one twist toward the end that could have used a little more elaboration and I wish director Boaz Yakin (of Remember the Titans fame) would have upped Sarandon’s screentime a bit as I felt that character could have been a bigger player. But all in all, Safe hits the mark on everything you want from a small-scale action flick and reminded me once again of why Statham continues to draw me in.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: Lincoln, The Lone Ranger, The Hobbit

Identify Thief (February 8) - Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy
I can't say I'm holding out much hope for Identity Thief to be good necessarily. Bateman's track record over the last few years is sketchy to say the least and you couldn't call the humor on display in this trailer. On the other hand, Melissa McCarthy is one of the more talented physical comedians in the industry and it looks like they're going to turn her loose here. I don't know, could be a decent bet for a lazy Sunday rental.

Promised Land (January 11) - Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook
This definitely looks to be a little strong on the preachy front but still, with a cast like this, Promised Land can't be too bad. It's good to see Damon re-team with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant and Damon also co-wrote the script with Krasinski. It's got a great pedigree but can it deliver?

The Croods (March 22) - Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds
I haven't been all that interested in this film's production but I must say, if the trailer is any indication, The Croods is much closer to How to Train Your Dragon than I would have imagined. It can't be much worse than the collection of garbage we've gotten in the kid-friendly department this year.

42 (April 12) - Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Alan Tudyk
How has it taken this long for us to get a Jackie Robinson biopic up and running? This seems like a no brainer to me. I'm excited to see Ford in a role that has some meat to it and the cast surrounding Boseman (as Robinson) is stellar. I do have to say, though, the first look feels a little bit too much like The Express which wasn't all that impressive. I'm intrigued though.

The Lone Ranger (July 3) - Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, Tom Wilkinson
I don't know exactly what it is about this project. Maybe it's that Depp hasn't been the star of a good movie in a long time (seriously, IMDB his most recent half-decade or so). Maybe it's that The Lone Ranger has been in some version of pre-production for what seems like 20 years. Or maybe it's that the trailer is only a giant mechanical spider away from looking exactly like Wild Wild West. But whatever it is, I'm having a hard time mustering up much excitement for this one. Am I alone in this?

Lincoln (November 16) - Daniel Day Lewis, EVERYONE ELSE WHO HAS EVER BEEN AWESOME IN A MOVIE (and Sally Field)
With this cast (seriously, just look at the IMDB cast list), this director, and this subject matter, you can pretty much pencil Lincoln in as a frontrunner come Oscar season. I just hope it doesn't have the same tone as War Horse, which I kind of hated.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14) - Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
I have one and only real concern going into the three chapter version of The Hobbit. It's not the stretched out length of the story or the fact that Peter Jackson is clearly adding stuff or this whole 48 FPS film speed thing. I don't care about any of those things. My concern is that the dwarfs look goofy. I thought Gimli looked a little too funny in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but it wasn't a big concern because he was just one dude among a bunch of men, elves, and hobbits. But now that there are 12 of them and they're the majority of the main characters, I wish they looked a little less family friendly. And because of this concern I will only watch this movie 8 times in the theater, not 9.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: "The Master"

There are certain films, outstanding, quality, great, amazing, incredible films, that do not play well with the masses. Critics, filmmakers and other members of the industry love them but the average moviegoer does not. If you only have the opportunity to spend your hard earned money at the theater once a week (or a month, or a year…), more often than not you want to see the big hit, the blockbuster, or the date-y movie that you can talk about with your friends. And that’s fine. No, that’s more than fine; that’s as it should be. As a huge fan of popcorn/blockbuster films, I greatly appreciate the near-universal appeal of the movies that value entertainment above all else. That said, I also have a deep seeded love for independent cinema and the small-scale pictures that are likely to dominate award season. As such, I have to walk a line here when it comes to recommending a given movie to the average moviegoer, to which this space is dedicated to. With that in mind, let me say this up front: you’re not going to like The Master

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) spends the years following World War II moving from job to job, always unhappy and always running into trouble wherever he goes. A veteran with some serious mental problems and a righteous alcohol addiction, the only thing Freddie really seems good at is making hooch, hideously strong, borderline toxic hooch. Freddie’s life changes, however, when he stows away aboard a boat bearing Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his family up the Eastern Seaboard. Dodd is a doctor, a philosopher, and a writer, among other things, who has created an appealing and controversial set of beliefs for himself and his growing base of followers. Dodd takes his religion (though it is never referred to as such) and embarks on a grass roots campaign of sorts to spread his good word and accumulate the power that comes along with it. For some reason, Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and sets him up as a kind of lackey, a position that perturbs the rest of Dodd’s followers, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). But as Dodd and the group struggle to attain worldwide relevance, Freddie’s individual challenges prove to be too difficult to manage.

On the surface, I think that paragraph properly encapsulates the plot of The Master. It goes much deeper than that, though. This is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (not to be confused with the hack, Wes Paul Anderson of Resident Evil fame) fictionalized version of the rise of L. Ron Hubbard and his cult-like religion, Scientology. It is both an account of how the words and ideas of great men can be used for evil and an indictment of this particular religion itself as well as (perhaps?) belief systems altogether. That’s my analysis, anyway, though I am completely certain that there are levels to this film that I missed entirely; maybe lots of levels. I have a feeling that if you read a dozen reviews for this film, you’d find a dozen different ideas about what The Master really is about. In layman’s terms, this is “a real thinker” and it is as incredibly smart as it is maddeningly complex.

What is not complex, however, is the quality of the acting contained within The Master. Every once in a while I see a movie and come away fully believing that I have just seen the performance that would eventually win Best Actor/Actress. It happened last year with George Clooney in The Descendants and while Clooney ended up losing out to the buzz saw that was The Artist and Jean Dujardin, I stand by my assertion: Clooney was magnificent in that film. Given my track record, this will probably be the equivalent of putting a curse on these fine actors but I’ll go ahead and say it: I would be very surprised if anyone tops what Phoenix and Hoffman have done here. Hoffman’s performance is what I would consider to be his most charismatic and magnetic one to date and those qualities come incredibly naturally to an actor who I’ve never really considered to be either. Dodd is powerful and charming but it is his barely-contained rage and an edge of desperation that makes the character stand out. If you will pardon the pun, it is a masterful performance. Adams, too, hits her mark with extreme precision, embodying the old saying, “Behind every great man there stands a great woman.” Her character never receives the attention given to Freddie or Dodd but it is no less important and should garner Adams a load of award attention.

But it is no slight to Hoffman or Adams when I say that their performances pale in comparison to that of Phoenix who WILL be the Best Actor winner when the Oscars roll around (sorry for jinxing you, Joaquin). I have no idea what Phoenix’s real mindset is at this point; I’m not sure if anyone does, including Phoenix himself. His off-the-wall retirement, subsequent foray into hardcore rap, and years-later confession that the entire thing was a bit is one of the weirder Hollywood stories of the last decade and has left me with a great deal of confusion as to what to actually expect from the man. But the fact of the matter is he is a supremely talented actor who is capable of a historically great performance. This is that performance. One scene in particular, a long shot in which Dodd questions Freddie for a full three minutes while the latter refuses to allow himself to blink, should be enough to get Phoenix’s name on the nominee list.

Freddie has so many issues at work within his body and mind and Phoenix is able to display each of them in exquisite detail. His brutal alcohol dependency, his low IQ and lower self-esteem, his sexual deviance, his war-ravaged body and even further damaged mind, his hatred of authority and his secret craving of that which he hates, all are brought forth with a perfect blend of force and subtlety. Freddie is an incredibly rich character with which to work to be sure but I’m not sure there’s a singly actor in Hollywood who could better embody him than Phoenix, save for perhaps Daniel Day Lewis. Phoenix even transformed his body into a gaunt, hauntingly sickly appearance that reminded me of Christian Bale’s transformation in The Machinist. This is truly a powerhouse performance that will stick with you long after you exit the theater.

My one complaint about The Master, and ultimately the issue that will prevent it from being an audience-friendly film, is that I felt it lacked a purpose. Or maybe it’s that I simply can’t grasp the purpose. There is no questioning its pedigree; I honestly can’t imagine that I will see another film this year that is as well-made as The Master is. The camera work is magnificent, the shot selection is unbelievably good, and the score (by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood) drives the film flawlessly. But from a purely storytelling perspective, I’m not sure what the goal is. In this way, The Master is very similar to last year’s Tree of Life but whereas this film works much better as a character study and a platform for exquisite acting, Tree of Life reached me personally on a near-spiritual level that The Master lacks. That doesn’t keep it from being a tremendous film, however, and one that will certainly find a spot among the year’s best with critics, filmmakers, and cinema junkies alike. But if you’re looking for a good date movie, a fun night out with the guys, or a nice family outing, I would suggest literally any other movie that is currently available to you. This is not the droid you’re looking for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: "Trouble with the Curve"

Recently a friend of mine read one of my reviews and remarked that I spent the majority of the review ripping the film apart and then gave it a decent grade. My responses was that I feel like I need to justify and illustrate my reasons for docking a grade even if it’s not a bad film and told him he needed to come around when I really dislike a given movie. I hope that friend is paying attention today because I’m about to unload both barrels on Trouble with the Curve, a film that will undoubtedly wind up at the top of my worst of the year list.

Things have been better for old Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood). At one time a prominent scout for the Atlanta Braves, Gus has fallen behind the times and hasn’t had a “hit” in a while. What’s more, his vision is beginning to go and his contract is up at the end of the year. Gus is looking at a retirement he wants no part of. With the Braves holding the second pick in the upcoming draft, Gus is sent to scout Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a power hitting phenom that every team in the league covets. Sensing that Gus is struggling, his daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), tags along for the trip, putting their already contentious relationship to a test it almost cannot handle. When they come in contact with Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a former player whom Gus scouted who is now, in turn, scouting for the Red Sox, he sparks a few well-needed conversations that put father and daughter on a path toward self-discovery and forgiveness.

I thought long and hard about Trouble and did my best to come up with some positives. Here’s what I could muster:

1. I snickered to myself during this movie approximately four times. Not outright laughter, you understand, but still, a mild expression of amusement;
2. Amy Adams is pretty;
3. The second act isn’t the worst second act I’ve ever encountered;
4. I like baseball. Not as it pertains to this film, though; just, in general, I like the game of baseball;
5. There’s a great Ray Charles song that plays over the closing credits.

That’s all I could come up with and alas, that’s not nearly enough to keep Trouble from being an unbelievably awful film on basically every level.

First of all, this movie is filled to the brim and beyond with every cliché you could possibly imagine. It’s like the filmmakers (whom I’ll address again shortly) were playing “Terrible Movie Cliché Bingo” when they put this mess together. Father-child tension: Check! Old man idioms: Check! A youngster who just doesn’t respect his elders: Check! A happy ending tied up with a pretty bow even though it doesn’t fit the narrative of the film AT ALL: Check! The list goes on and on, enveloping every aspect of Trouble in a haze of irritating clichés that would ruin even a good film, let alone one as poorly written as this one.

The clichés, though, only serve to highlight Randy Brown’s abysmal script that is full of more holes than the proverbial Swiss cheese, if the Swiss cheese was also rancid and covered in a foul green mold. The first act boxes the film into its inevitable and worthless course, the second act finds a tiny smidgen of momentum by taking the focus away from Eastwood, and then the third act comes along with all the storytelling acumen of a mentally challenged monkey. Quite honestly, this is a script that wouldn’t have been deemed strong enough for a made-for-TV movie on the Hallmark Channel. The “plot” is a paint-by-numbers travesty that is as predictable as they come save for one small break in which the story takes a very weird and dark turn for a brief second and then is washed over as if it never happened. (Because what family-friendly film would be complete without a near-rape? All of them, you say? Right you are.)

Likewise, virtually all of the characters are as razor-thin and one dimensional as you could possibly get which makes their respective and inevitable “redemptions” all the more painful. Note to all writers out there: if your character shows no signs of not being a crusty old son of a gun throughout the whole of your script/book/play, then your plot reeks of falseness if he suddenly turns out to be a decent human being at the last possible moment. That’s exactly what happens with Gus, who spends the entirety of the film making it clear to the audience that he is a miserable, unlikeable old coot and then makes a miraculous turnaround because…well, because you can’t end a manipulative, toothless movie like this one without a happy ending. Mickey, too, is exceedingly unlikeable and unsympathetic, a trait I did not know Amy Adams was capable of displaying. Concerning her struggles, I found myself thinking, “Oh, your father wasn’t there for you as a kid? Well, join the club, there are like 3 billion members worldwide.” This is the sort of script that could (and probably should) end a man’s career.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Trouble stands, for me at least, as proof that Clint Eastwood is done. I grew tired of Eastwood’s “grizzled old man” bit long ago and to be honest, I haven’t liked one of his performances in almost 20 years. But this movie takes things to a new level of depressing and aggravating. At the very least, Eastwood’s old man act, complete with barely intelligible grumbling, high-waisted pants, and general dislike for everything, has always seemed genuine. But in Trouble, it comes across as forced and uncaring, as if he’s doing a parody of himself in Gran Torino or Million Dollar Baby. Moreover, he spends a good portion of the first 30 minutes of the film talking to himself, delivering winners like, “Breakfast of champions” in regards to a cold can of Spam and “singing” the lyrics of “You Are My Sunshine” to a gravestone. I half-expected the Obama Chair to make a cameo. It’s wretched acting and worse yet, it’s an embarrassment to an actor who used to be GREAT.

All of that doesn’t even take into account the atrocious depiction of baseball (both on the field and off), the most mailed-in conclusion of any drama I’ve ever seen, or little things like the presence of snow on the ground despite it being the middle of summer in the Deep South. The longer Trouble went on, the harder it became for me to sit still resulting in what I’m sure was an annoying experience for the person sitting next to me as I squirmed and shifted from side to side, praying for the pain to stop. It’s the movie narrative equivalent of being water boarded to death rather than being afforded that quick and painless bullet to the head (a fate I longed for as I sat through this movie, by the way). I can’t imagine anyone under the age of 60 enjoying Trouble AT ALL and while I’ve probably seen worse movies over the years, this is one that unquestionably belongs in that conversation.
(Yes, that's a zero star review, the first I've given in 2 years. Well done, guys.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 10/1

Gina Carano has been confirmed as one of the major players in the all-female version of The Expendables. I enjoyed Haywire much more than I thought I would and Carano is a good starting point for this movie.

JJ Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron have teamed up for a sci-fi TV series that will probably end up being somewhere between the greatest TV show ever and the greatest thing ever in the history of the world. (Overselling!!!)

Angela Lansbury has been cast in Wes Anderson's next film. Betting Lansbury is about to give ol' Betty White a run for her money.

Actor Johnny Lewis died last week and Hollywood reacted with sadness but, perhaps even more sadly, without shock. Mr. Lewis, who played an important supporting character on Sons of Anarchy for two seasons, had some serious demons, unfortunately.

Check out FlixChatter's "Small Role...Big Performance" blog-a-thon!

Fandango Groovers gives us his favorite movie concerning each respective sport. Great list!

Weekend Box Office Report
Well, at least September ended on a relatively high note. After a disastrous month with some of the lowest weekend totals of the year, a trio of new movies brought a few people back to the theater and will hopefully build some momentum for the industry as we move into Oscar warm-up season. Hotel Transylvania far exceeded expectations, scoring the highest opening weekend ever for a September release and the second highest opening for an Adam Sandler movie (behind 2005’s The Longest Yard). Looper, meanwhile, brought home a solid opening, though as a sci-fi nerd, I’m a little disappointed to see that it wasn’t embraced with more vigor from the action/sci-fi/nerd crowd. The R-rating probably didn’t help but I had hopes for a slightly higher box office total. Pitch Perfect illustrated the proper use of a limited release schedule, scoring a high per theater average and building great word of mouth for its nationwide expansion this weekend. On the other hand, Won’t Back Down only just managed to clip the top ten in its opening weekend with a total that makes it one of the worst wide opening films ever. I guess that shows that when you anger your target market, your film is in trouble.

1.       Hotel Transylvania - $43M
2.       Looper - $21.2M
3.       End of Watch - $8M ($26.16M)
4.       Trouble with the Curve - $7.53M ($23.72M)
5.       House at the End of the Street - $7.15M ($22.22M)
6.       Pitch Perfect - $5.2M
7.       Finding Nemo 3D - $4.06M ($36.47M)
8.       Resident Evil Retribution - $3M ($38.7M)
9.       The Master - $2.74M ($9.63M)
10.   Won’t Back Down - $2.7M

New to DVD
This week’s choices are more varied than what we’ve been treated to of late. On the down side, we have a host of CW TV shows that we’ve all been looking forward to (!!!), one of the worst films of the year (Dark Shadows), and a movie that would make my personal short list for “Film That Should Immediately Be Stricken From the Record and Forgotten Forever” (Annie). But on the plus side, we’re also being treated to the most recent season of two high quality sitcoms (New Girl, How I Met Your Mother) and two beloved classics (Cinderella, Princess Bride). Not too shabby.
                                                                New Movies
People Like Us - Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer
Red Lights - Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy
Peace Love and Misunderstanding - Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen
                                                                New TV
How I Met Your Mother: Season 7 - Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris
Magic City: Season 1 - Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kelly Lynch
Hart of Dixie: Season 1 - Rachel Bilson, Jamie King, Wilson Bethel
Nikita: Season 2 - Maggie Q, Shane West, Aaron Stanford
90210: Season 4 - Shenae Grimes, AnnaLynne McCord, Tristan Wilds
                                                                New to Blu
Cinderella (1950) - Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton
Pet Sematary (1989) - Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Masters of the Universe (1987) - Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster
Annie (1982) - Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett

The Thing You Should See
New Girl: Season 1 - Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris
You guys. New Girl is so ridiculously funny. It took a few episodes for it to find its groove. In fact, I almost quit watching after the third episodes. But in the fourth and fifth episodes, the show started to take off and from there it was just crazy good. Deschanel is certainly a great starting point but the real strength of the show rests on the shoulders of Johnson, Greenfield (who got an Emmy nomination, whatever that may be worth) and Morris. If you haven’t bought in yet, give this first season a run through. If I’m being honest, it’s possible that I look forward to New Girl more than any other sitcom each week. It’s that funny.

The Thing You Shouldn’t See
Dark Shadows - Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer
Ugh. That’s almost all the energy I can muster up in order to describe what a rotten movie Dark Shadows really is. The characters are one note, the plot is unbelievably perfunctory, and the tone is unnecessarily and unfittingly harsh. It’s a mess and worse yet, it’s a lazy mess. Here’s hoping this is the last Burton-Depp pairing for a while.

New to Blu Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
Princess Bride: 25th Anniversary Edition (1987) - Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin
I don’t usually highlight films that have already received a Blu-Ray release. But when the film is The Princess Bride and it’s a 25th anniversary edition…exceptions must be made. I’m pretty sure everyone with access to the Internet has seen this movie and that Amazonian tribesmen know that rodents of unusual size do, in fact, exist. This is, quite simply, a modern classic.

Coming to a Theater Near You
I went three-for-four last week and would like to thank the critics for agreeing with my predictions and making me look at least sort of smart. Looper performed within the range I predicted, though a little higher (93% versus 88%), Hotel Transylvania fell slightly lower than I expected (43% to 50%), and Won’t Back Down angered critics almost as much as it did educators (30% versus 35% predicted). I missed wildly, though, on Pitch Perfect (73% versus 27% prediction) because I neglected to consider the “Girl’s Night Out” faction of the critics out there. My bad. I still stand by my assertion that the movie looks horrible for me personally.

Taken 2 - Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
A group of Serbians attempt to kidnap Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his family in order to exact revenge for the death toll Mills racked up in the previous film. I love this idea. Taken was one of the surprise hits of 2009, a rare worthwhile January release that oozes rewatchability. This plot idea is a perfect next step for this franchise as it immediately puts Neeson and his adversaries right back into the situations that made the first film so much fun instead of moving away from the tried and true formula. That also appears to be the biggest issue with the film, though, as most negative reviews (of which there are many) have pegged it as a near carbon copy of the first film. Personally I look forward to seeing Liam Neeson beat the tar out of anything so I’m in but we’ll see how it turns out. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 26%

Frankenweenie - Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short
A young boy (Tahan) conducts an ingenious science experiment that brings his beloved dog back from the dead. Early reviews have been good and the idea is smart. But how many times is Tim Burton going to burn us? It seems like every time he’s made a movie in the last decade we get all excited about it, only to find that the movie stinks, just like the last one. Dark Shadows may have been the last straw for me. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 71%

Also New: A group of misfits find themselves confronted with an evil force in the found footage flick V/H/S…Two close families have their relationship put to the test in The Oranges…a young adopted girl (Yara Shahidi) goes up against an ambitious housewife for a town prize in Butter…Director Eugene Jarecki takes a look at the U.S. drug policy in The House I Live In…and Pitch Perfect expands wide.