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Paper Towns is a John Hughes Film for 2015 (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Paper Towns (2015)When it was released in summer 2014, The Fault In Our Stars surprised audiences by being a smarter, and more honest terminal teen romance than expected.  For die-hard devotees of author John Green’s book, the movie was a different kind of experience: immense payoff after immense anticipation. The film was entertaining and emotional; exactly what it intended to be. In comparison to the book, the movie falters and its flaws are revealed; it lacked much of the sophistication and spontaneity that made the book so terrific.

The second adaptation of a John Green novel, Paper Towns, now arrives only a year after TFIOS. While the film’s lack of heartthrob melodrama signals this won’t be the surprise smash its predecessor was, it’s actually the better movie.

While the best aspects of TFIOS were lost in its transition to the screen, Paper Towns plays around with decades-old high-school movie cliches in a way the book couldn’t. Its certainly doesn’t surpass its source material, but it both subverts and stays true to genre conventions in a satisfying and occasionally surprising way.

Paper Towns (2015)The movie begins when a gorgeous and slightly mysterious young girl named Margo moves in next to Quentin (Nat Wolff, who had a small but memorable role in TFIOS), who’s instantly in love. Flash forward to their senior year of high school, and the pair’s initial friendship has long faded away. The nerdy, affable Q hangs with the comically immature Ben and clever Radar. Margo, meanwhile, is the most popular girl in school. Q still pines for his childhood crush, but he doesn’t dream of his fantasies becoming reality.

That is until Margo crawls through Q’s window and enlists him as getaway driver/partner-in-crime for a wild, fantastic night of revenge pranks. It all seems too good to be true, and it is. Margo vanishes the next day, leaving behind an immaculately constructed trail of clues that Q obsessively pursues.

The director of the film, Jake Schreier, has studied the John Hughes classics and those film’s successors. Paper Towns has friendship troubles and blossoming romances. A jock throws a party at his parent’s sprawling house, and the expected excess occurs. There is suspense and mystery and twists, and then an enormously entertaining climactic road trip sequence.

Almost every actor slips perfectly into their role. Wolff’s monotone voice and tired yet energized expressions make him just right for the role of Q. He’s instantly likable, though his intentional boring-ness can get a bit tiring. His chemistry with Austin Abrams and Justice Smith (as Ben and Radar) is honest and frankly hilarious. Only supermodel-turned-actress Cara Delevinge seems poorly chosen as Margo. She’s not bad, and her free-spirited energy works well during the prank sequence. But this is a role that calls for an actress with enough charisma to captivate audiences even when she’s not on screen (which, most of the time, she isn’t). Delevinge simply isn’t bursting with that kind of personality.

Paper Towns (2015)Like TFIOS, the movie is visually kind of bland (though at least the soundtrack here is less imposing). Of course, no one comes to a movie like this looking for a technical masterpiece. They come looking for a good time. Like John Hughes, Schreier (or, to be fair, John Green) knows not just when to follow genre conventions but also when to play with them. After building high hopes, the movie’s inevitable third-act meeting comes off as touchingly bittersweet and also a hard slap of reality. The film’s message is about the complexities of teenage life, how the quirks and  personalities of adolescents can’t be defined by the tired stereotypes that kids and movies perpetuate.

That same idea was at the center of another teen film, released thirty years ago: The Breakfast Club. Inevitably, Paper Towns lacks that film’s freshness, and also some raw emotion. But this comparison got me thinking that the Teller of Adolescent Tales job once occupied by John Hughes has been passed to John Green. Paper Towns and TFIOS don’t just follow in the tradition of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. They are those films for the next generation. (Take the analogy further, and you could say Nat Wolff is a current Anthony Michael Hall.) I doubt this film will the have the enduring power of The Breakfast Club, but Green’s books will. Paper Towns is a terrifically entertaining teen flick, but turn to the book if you’re looking for something more substantial.

Ex Machina is Eerie, Unforgettable Sci-Fi (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 24, 2015 | 2 Comments

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina is a science-fiction film but it is notably distinct from other recent entries in the genre. It’s propelled by slow-burning suspense, rather than big and bustling action sequences. It’s unafraid to pose questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence and what constitutes human nature. And, surprisingly, it involves science. More surprisingly, it makes that science consistently gripping.

Directed by first-timer Alex Garland, this is a rare combination of daring independent filmmaking and subtly stunning special-effects. The plot is straightforward. Caleb, a nerdy twenty-six year-old coder, wins a contest at the colossal search engine he works for. The prize is a one-week stay at the gorgeous estate of his reclusive CEO, Nathan. Caleb is initially perplexed by his boss’ solitary lifestyle. He’s shocked when he learns he will be one half of an unprecedented experiment. Nathan has created Ava, a startlingly sophisticated female robot. Caleb is there to asses her humanity. At first, he is astonished by the uncanny realism of Ava, and the technical brilliance of the creation. Slowly, he develops more human feelings for her, specifically love. He begins to question everything: is Nathan on his side? Are Ava’s emotions her own? What constitutes humanity, and can a robot have a real relationship with a person?

Ex Machina (2015)Ex Machina is slow and eerie, dropping clues and building suspense until everything unravels in the absorbing final twenty minutes. The film’s single setting and the limited cast bring to mind a stage performance. Like a play, the film’s themes and ideas work largely because of the distinct performances. As Caleb, Domhnall Gleeson is a nervous and nerdy everyman, amiable and appealing despite sparse background information. Buff and bearded, Oscar Isaac is cold and imposing as Nathan. Isaac nails all the layers of a very sophisticated character. And Alicia Vikander, as Ava, manages to be simultaneously innately robotic and deeply human.

Alex Garland wrote the film’s script without intending to direct, but we should be thankful he was got the chance to helm. The condensed but complex storyline, thoughtful characters, and neat narrative twists are all the hallmarks of an immensely skilled director. The film is as sleekly stunning, consistently clever, and surprisingly self-aware as Ava herself. Technically, the movie is also a marvel. All the robotic technology looks effortlessly real but not too familiar. Rob Hardy’s cinematography provides a jolting sense of immediacy to the story. And the music, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is the perfect compliment to the surrounding dread.

Ex Machina (2015)Ex Machina concludes with a cold, dark, cynical conclusion that will keep you thinking for days. It doesn’t stretch on and on, but instead leaves lots of images and ideas left in your brain.

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Comical and Touching, but a Little Thin (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 8, 2015 | Add Comments

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

 

Mild Spoilers!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and instantly began accumulating buzz. Critics either praised it or panned it, and a flurry of love and hate was bestowed upon the film online. It won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the fest, cementing it’s reputation as a must-see for movie-lovers. There’s no question that Me and Earl stirs emotions (strong tears and big laughs), but it’s a modest, moving little movie, neither marvelous nor miserable.

This is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature, but he’s a longtime member of the industry. He worked for years as an assistant to filmmakers like Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese, before moving on to direct episodes for various television shows. Grieving over the recent loss of his father, he found Me and Earl could be a way to come to terms with his personal struggles.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jesse Andrews (who wrote the script), the film centers around Greg Gaines, the awkward, self-deprecating “Me” of the title. Greg navigates high-school anonymously, attempting to stay on friendly terms with every clique but without actually befriending anyone. Anyone except Earl (though Greg only refers to him as a “coworker”). Together, the pair parodies their favorite films by shooting no-budget shorts with bad puns as titles.

Everything changes for Greg when his mom forces him to hang out with Rachel, a classmate dying of leukemia. Eventually, and rather unexpectedly, the two become close friends. But as their bond tightens, though, Rachel’s condition worsens. Against their will, Greg and Earl wind up making a film that is not a goofy remake of another film, but instead a gift for Rachel.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)The premise of Me and Earl (specifically the Dying Girl part) sounds heavy and a little depressing. Many moviegoers will need a pack of Kleenex. Despite this, the film is consistently clever and often undeniably funny. Gomez-Rejon balances the misery with movie references, sock puppets, stop-motion, and comic dialogue. It may be about a kid with cancer, but the film is often a joy to watch.

This is partly due to the trio of teen actors (who, in reality, aren’t in their teens) portraying the titular leads. Thomas Mann slips into the role of Greg, capturing the tics of the well-meaning, clumsy character. RJ Cyler’s performance as Earl is a frequent hoot, if a bit problematic. And Olivia Cooke, as Rachel, shows great range. She’s sunny and optimistic in one scene, then exhausted and tearful in the next.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)Jesse Andrew’s script has it’s faults, some of which have gained the movie understandable criticism. Take the character of Earl, who’s humorous and sympathetic but also a lazy stereotype. He’s the black best-friend to the white protagonist, talks in heavily-accented slang, objectifies girls, and ultimately serves to empower Greg’s third-act revelation. The other characters aren’t all simple cliches, but many of them are sketched a little thinly. There’s also not a lot of story meat on the film’s bones, which becomes obvious during the sudden finale.

Me and Earl undergoes a major tonal change in it’s last fifteen minutes, as it becomes the full-on tragedy you’ve been subconsciously expecting but definitely didn’t see coming. It’s a little over-the-top, though there aren’t a lot of other ways to deal with this material.

As a director, Gomez-Rejon hasn’t fully grown into his skin. The movie is plenty inventive, deftly weaving in and out of various genres, with snappy comic timing and some unusually clever cinematography. At other times, Me and Earl is Wes Anderson Lite; it has all the conscious cleverness and color-coordinated hipness of his films, but lacks the lived-in feel that pervades his stories and characters. For a director this early in his career, however, the movie shows true talent and an idiosyncratic style waiting to bloom. This is a very movie-y movie; it pulls on all our emotions, and isn’t afraid to show off it’s filmmaking tricks. There are some blemishes in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but it’s so frequently fun to watch and also intensely moving. Like it’s lead character, it’s humble, sometimes unintentionally offensive, but ultimately totally winning.

Tomorrowland: Imaginative, Optimistic, and Overstuffed (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 31, 2015 | Add Comments

TomorrowlandAt a time when violent, male-driven, franchise-continuations dominate multiplexes, Tomorrowland feels refreshing. It’s family-friendly, features two-female protagonists, and isn’t a latest installment in a series. Hollywood rarely releases big-budget action movies based on new concepts, but that’s exactly what Tomorrowland is. It’s also an ode to optimism and imagination, a world-building sci-fi spectacle, a nostalgic Disney adventure, and – maybe too many things, all at once. Brad Bird (who previously directed two Pixar masterpieces, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) stuffs the film with ideas and images, touching on big themes, and stressing important morals. Simultaneously, Tomorrowland manages to sustain a light, bright tone. Yet while the film never collapses on itself, it feels a bit incomplete. Bird has made a good movie out of great ideas.

After opening with an awkward narration sequence, the film starts at the 1964 New World’s Fair. Frank Walker, a science-loving little boy, tries to enter his jet-pack invention into the competition, but is quickly rejected. At the Fair, he meets an enthusiastic girl named Athena, who gives him a look at a bold and bizarre future called Tomorrowland.

Fast-forward to the present-day, where forward-thinking teen Casey (Britt Robertson) tries to save a NASA launch pad from being shut down. She is arrested for trespassing into NASA, but finds a mysterious pin at the jail. That pin turns out to be a temporary ticket to Tomorrowland, and an exhilarating promise from the future.

Spilling too many plot details about Tomorrowland would ruin much of the film’s spontaneous surprise, which Brad Bird has been trying to preserve with the film’s secretive marketing. As trailers have shown, Casey eventually meets Athena and a grown up Frank (played by George Clooney). The trio embarks on a globe-trotting mission to save the future and restore hope to mankind.

Based on the snappy humor, fast-paced action, and striking visual sense he brought to his work with Pixar, Bird would seem like an ideal fit for this material. Watching Tomorrowland, it’s hard to imagine another director being able to inject so much life and humor into such a complicated, exposition-dense sci-fi adventure. He keeps the film comical and clever, even when the script he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof threatens to bog down the fun.

The boundless visual capabilities of animation Bird previously practiced also translate well here. The film is filled with a sense of awe-inducing wonder. The sequences set in the world of Tomorrowland have an imaginative, childlike sense of wonder at odds with the blurry, explosive visuals of most modern action films.

The story is aided by a strong cast, led by Britt Robertson as Casey. Despite being 25, Robertson makes a credible and lively protagonist. As Athena, Raffey Cassidy is sharp and clever, while also able to deliver moments of emotional poignance. Clooney’s trademark personality is at first distracting, even annoying, but he gets slips deeper into his role as the film progresses.

For all it’s strengths, Tomorrowland has some major problems. Chiefly, there are too many things going on. All the different plot-lines compete for attention, resulting in a film that feels oddly slight because of it’s ambition.  There are other issues, such as a few scenes that mistake Men in Black kitsch for futuristic wonder. And the movie’s climactic sequence feels too minor for such a grand adventure.

TomorrowlandDespite these problems, the film still resonates. At the center of Tomorrowland is the idea that optimism and imagination conquer negativity and disaster. The movie preaches that lesson insistently, and sometimes too obviously. Nonetheless, this moral is the most unique and intriguing aspect of the film. Contemporary action films rarely have any sense of purpose, instead committed to following the exhausting formula of explosions and more explosions. Tomorrowland features few action scenes, and the chases sequences that are included never stretch to ridiculous lengths. Instead, Bird tries to convey a simple, important message and instill a wide-eyed sense of joy in audiences. Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood gets the broader message: use your imagination.

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Most Marvel-y Marvel Movie Yet? (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Avengers: Age of UltronFilled with clever comedic character moments, noisy and never-ending battle sequences, and clues to where the franchise is headed next, Avengers: Age of Ultron may just be the most Marvel-y Marvel movie yet. On paper, that makes the movie sound sort of unbearable. (One of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The First Avenger, felt little like one). Ultimately, that is exactly what makes the movie so entertaining.

Director Joss Whedon, totally exhausted by the all the expectations and pressure and guidelines thrust upon him, makes no attempt to challenge our notions about the superhero genre. Or to comment on the complexities of modern America. Or even to inject some fresh new ideas into the Marvel Universe. All he wants to do is make a solid, sturdy, slam-bang, good ol’ fashioned action movie. Assuming that was his only intention, he’s succeeded. And while I still left wanting more, and wondering what more is left for a director to do with Marvel, this is undeniably fun stuff.

Avengers: Age of UltronWhedon’s script for the movie is centered around four or five enormous action set-pieces, all of which are loud, long, and explosive. Everything else in the movie (the comical team banter, an unexpected romantic plot-line, subtly revealing flashbacks) is structured around those action scenes. This is a classic action movie structure, and the actual plot is a classic doomsday adventure. The movie kicks into gear when Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk try to end all violence with an AI peace program, though they keep the plan a secret from the rest of the team. Sooner than later, things go terribly wrong and an evil robot named Ultron is stumbling around and discussing his plans for world domination. So, the Avengers are forced back into action in order to stop the end of the universe.

Hold on, isn’t that basically the plot of the first Avengers? And couldn’t that same basic storyline (team of superheroes overcome differences to save the galaxy) apply to Guardians of the Galaxy? The answer is yes, and yes. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything startling or new here. Not that Whedon doesn’t really seem to care. He also doesn’t bother investing any of the action scenes with any clever choreography or calming coherence (the scenes with a potential “wow factor”, like a Hulkbuster suit donned by Iron Man, were revealed in the trailers).

Avengers: Age of UltronWhat does Whedon care about? The characters. It’s always been the little moments that stand out in these films, and the best sequences in Age of Ultron are the quieter ones. Hawkeye, Hulk, and Black Widow were shoved to the sidelines in the first Avengers movie, so it’s both fitting and gratifying that they’re given starring roles this time around. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johanson are all more confident in their roles, and Whedon has given them all fine storylines (I can’t say anything more, for fear of spoilers). Ultron (voiced with a touch of wit by James Spader) isn’t a great villain, though he’s not a bad one either. But Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, two damaged twins with great power, are fine new additions to the series.

Unfortunately, that means Iron Man, Captain America, and Thora are all given less to do. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans (as Thor and Cap) have never been charismatic scene-stealers, so it’s not exactly a shock that their characters’ earnest cluelessness fades into the backround. On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. has always been the best thing about Marvel movies; surrounded by CGI blurs, he always brings knowing and needed personality. His performance here is easily his most mailed-in, least invested yet (which is not to say he doesn’t get some fine one-liners). You can’t really blame him, though. Seven years ago, the first Iron Man movie gave him a shot at rebooting his career. There’s no doubt he’s thankful for the superstardom these films have afforded him, but he seems a little worn down by it.

What do you I have to say about the movie’s finale? It ends with thirty minutes of things going boom, as every Marvel movie does, and it left me a bit exhausted. Will a Marvel movie ever end another way?

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron has a lot going on in it, more so than any of it’s predecessors. It does not, however, have much to say. Whedon has made a highly efficient, largely effective action spectacle…and nothing more. The resulting movie is a good summer popcorn flick, and that’s a compliment. But the strength of a Marvel film can often be measured by whether or not, walking out of the theater, you are left excited for more. Am I? Not particularly.

Highlights of TIFF 2015 (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | May 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Operation ArcticTIFF Kids, a Toronto kid’s film festival (one of the world’s largest), is a twelve day spectacular of contemporary children’s cinema, collected from all around the world. Flick and Flack attended for their fourth time this year and managed to see some notable films. Here, Flack writes about three standout movies from his weekend in Canada.

Operation Arctic has one unbelievable, sort of ridiculous, insanely intruiging premise: a teen girl and her two younger twin siblings hide away on a helicopter in an attempt to locate their missing father, then end up stuck in Arctic Norway. With no one else around and a limited supply of canned foods to live off of, the dire situation only gets worse as polar-bear attacks and and harsh weather dampen the hopes of the three siblings. Go along with the over-the-top story of the film and you’ll be delighted by a well-executed, old-fashioned adventure yarn. The frigidly beautiful cinematography and some gripping bear battles are highlights.

Top SpinMany of the best documentaries focus on topics that seem uninteresting and odd, but manage to turn them into riveting and informative films. Top Spin does just that. The doc follows three teen table-tennis players as they compete for a spot at the Olympics, balance school with sports, and discuss the joy and pain of competitive sports. It has all the boiling suspense and riveting action of a great sports movie, but with thoughtful, poignant interviews to add some depth.

LabyrinthusBelgian sci-fi adventure Labyrinthus has it’s flaws, but manages to surprise more often than one would expect of a big-budget family film. The adventure begins when Frikke, an average teen, picks up a mysterious camera left behind by a masked biker. He soon realizes the object holds the keys to a dangerous but compelling video game, inside of which a young girl is trapped. Frikke is the only one capable of saving the girl, and it’s up to him to locate and stop the creator of the game. Labyrinthus is a bit like a digital-age update of Jumanji, though it’s darker in tone than that film. The multi-stranded plot does have some weak stretches, and most attempts at humor fall flat, but this is still a refreshingly imaginative adventure.

Amelia Screens at CineYouth Chicago

Posted on | April 15, 2015 | 2 Comments

AmeliaLast year, we wrote and directed Amelia, a five-minute sci-fi drama. We shot it on location in Rhode Island. Now we’re thrilled to have the film accepted into Chicago’s CineYouth film festival. Amelia will play in the Drama Club shorts collection on May 9. Click here for more details.

Seymour: An Introduction is an Illuminating, Intimate Piano Documentary (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 16, 2015 | 1 Comment

Seymour: An Introduction

Some documentaries can be sloppily filmed, perhaps slightly unclear, or maybe even poorly constructed and still win me over because of their captivating subjects. But the best docs accompany their fascinating stories with filmmaking savvy, a unique point of view, and possibly an inventive spin on the genre.

Seymour: An Introduction, which opened in limited release last week, falls somewhere in between those two categories. It’s an intimate, ponderous, lovely examination of music, work, and life, directed with surprising and attentive subtlety by actor Ethan Hawke. There’s not a lot of cinematic flair here, but that’s a good thing. Hawke is rarely on screen and, instead of turning the movie into a movie-star showcase, he lets his subject do the talking.

Several years ago, he was at a dinner party when he found himself seated next to Seymour Bernstein, a piano virtuoso who stopped performing live at age 50 to teach students his instrument. Impressed by his kind, conversational dining companion, Hawke confided a new fear of stage fright to Bernstein, who had experienced similar feelings. Eventually, the actor realized this guy would make for a fine film subject.

And he does. Warm and slyly funny, endlessly talkative and erudite, Seymour is exactly the kind of person you would want to listen to for 90 minutes. Hawke paints this portrait of his subject by weaving together several sequences: a lunch discussion between Bernstein and a former student/New York Times writer; footage of piano lessons; and interviews in the man’s home (he’s lived in the same NYC apartment, alone, for fifty years).

This simple, straightforward approach allows lots of time for Seymour to discuss his opinions on classical composers, concert tours, the beauty of nervousness, the intense correlation between an instrument and it’s player, and the primal necessity of music.

Most directors would try to fill us in on every aspect of Bernstein’s life, but Hawke avoids such biographical predictability (likely either because of his politeness or Bernstein’s privacy) in favor of an informative approach that feels more riveting than introductory. At times, Seymour: An Introduction has the charming comfort of a big, warm hug. It’s not all absorbing entertainment; Bernstein tears up discussing his experiences in the Korean War, and chances are you’ll do the same. The movie moves covers a lot of history and skips between several sequences, but it steadily holds onto a relaxed, low-key, but provocative tone. As soon as you’ve seen the movie, you’ll want to mull over it’s ideas with friends and family. And then? You’ll be itching to start practicing an instrument.

Seymour: An Introduction

So, that’s my take on the film, which I got the chance to see at NYC’s IFC Center. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a Q&A with Hawke and Bernstein no less insightful and delightful than the film. Hawke discussed his reasons for making the film, while Bernstein told sometimes hilarious, sometimes illuminating stories that were left on the cutting room floor. I walked away with a smile on my face and a head full of new ideas.

Catch Me If You Can is Top-Notch Spielberg: Breezy, Delightful, and Melancholy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Breezy and light but undercut with a stinging melancholy, Catch Me If You Can (2002; available on iTunes) finds Steven Spielberg straddling between drama and comedy, and creating a classy, perfectly constructed based-on-a-true-story 60′s caper. It’s seems like an odd choice for Spielberg to direct at this point in his career; it is neither an “Important” historical drama that reasserts his brilliance nor a fantastical adventure that again proves his powers as an entertainer. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful, thoughtfully made late-career film from one of our great working directors.

Adapted from the eponymous non-fiction memoir by the film’s subject, Frank Abegnale Jr., the film begins with a clever game-show scene that gives us our first glimpse of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a few scenes from 1969, which give us a look ahead, the film skips back to 1963. Frank is a teenager living happily with his loving parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) until money problems threaten their middle-class bliss. The family moves out of their spacious home and into a smaller apartment, and then Paula cheats on her husband. The two divorce and Frank, moody, confused, and horrified, runs away from home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)There are two early scenes in the film that hint at where Frank’s life is heading. In the first, his father gives him a cheque book as a birthday gift and tells him he can have anything he wants. Later, Frank is bullied at his new school. Then he walks into French class and convinces everyone he’s a substitute teacher, until his parents are notified. Yet these are mere glimpses of what Frank is capable of. After running away from home, he pretends to be an airplane pilot and gets a job at Pan-Am. Then he forges cheques listing the airline company’s name, and gets away with stealing millions of dollars. And then he gets a job as a doctor, saying he went to medical school. And then he gets a job as a lawyer saying he went to law school. The entire film has this absurd, but absurdly entertaining, “And then he did this” flow, partly thanks to the relaxed and entirely cohesive script by Jeff Nathanson. Within the space of a half-hour of screen time, we see him go from innocent, contented boy to a bittered son of separated parents to man of luxury, riches, and happiness. But is he really happy? Frank asks out a stewardess, spends a night with a prostitute, and occasionally meets up with his dad, but he never settles anywhere or with anyone. Things won’t stay like this forever, of course, and it’s not long before a humorless FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s trail.

Spielberg is on peak form here, swiftly switching gears from ridiculous rich-kid comedy to equally ridiculous cat-and-mouse caper comedy. He clearly relishes the chance to do a 60′s period film and the attention to detail (the Aston Martin Frank cruises around in, the Pan-Am clothing, the spacious suburban houses) is just right. So are all of the actors, especially DiCaprio. As Frank, he’s slick and crafty, a skilled smooth talker. But DiCaprio infuses the role with undertones of guilt, sorrow, and loneliness that make us feel sympathy with him to the end. Hanks has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it by taking the role of goofy government agent and going a little deeper. Walken is also great as the well-meaning but delusional father, and Amy Adams has a fine supporting part as an innocent love interest.

There’s top-notch work all around here, from cinematographer Januz Kaminski, who deftly switches from sunny and optimistic to cool and dark, from John Williams and his suspense-bulding score, and from legendary opening-credits designer Saul Bass, who has a great title sequence here.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Still, it’s Spielberg’s balancing of tones that keeps the whole thing marvelously afloat. There are moments of sorrow and depression and we do get our heartstrings sufficiently pulled. But Spielberg also knows not to dwell on the darker aspects of the story for too long. Instead, he keeps the movie flying smoothly and steadily, like one of the Pan-Am planes Frank pilots. Catch Me If You Can may appear to be a “minor” work by a great director, yet it entertains us (without dinosaurs!), moves us (without Nazis!), and holds us in utter fascination for it’s entire two-and-a-half hour length, not unlike Frank held bankers, pilots, doctors, and the government in awe.

 

A Safe, Not Totally Awesome Oscars Telecast Awoken by Surprise Wins (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | February 24, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015

Despite plenty of surprise Oscar winners, Neil Patrick Harris’ 87th Annual Academy Awards show often felt safe, sometimes sedate, and comfortable with being fine but forgettable. Sure, there were the inevitable offensive jokes (“American Sniper with Bradley Cooper. The most prolific sniper in history, with over 160 confirmed kills. Or, as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning.”) But for most of the show Harris settled for innocuous predictability.

That’s not, however, entirely a bad thing. The opening number, “Moving Pictures”, was an ode to the escapist and inspiring power of movies, with costumed extras, clips, and a cameo from Anna Kendrick. It was rather delightful and, after so much controversy, refreshingly uplifting. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of thing (host appears inserted in movie scenes and tells us how great movies are) performed at countless other Oscar shows. And though this year’s crop of nominees would’ve provided plenty of joke material, Harris opted to honor classic films we’ve seen countless times. Where were the Boyhood jokes? The pre-recorded video where Neil Patrick Harris grows up over twelve years? Where he marches along side MLK? Fights alongside Bradley Cooper? Luckily, a crotchety Jack Black interrupted Harris midway through with a hilarious song about Hollywood’s superhero problem.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable opening number. But almost immediately, it became apparent the show had major script problems. Around half of Harris’ jokes fell flat. The back-and-forth quipping between presenters was often awkward and stiff (Kendrick and Kevin Hart seemed to barely acknowledge each other). Worst of all was a prolonged briefcase gag that didn’t reveal it’s unfunny punchline until the last minutes of the show. Why did Harris’ “predictions” turn out to be a recap of the show’s big moments? My guess is the producers wanted to catch up viewers who tuned in at the end on everything that already happened (isn’t that what Twitter is for?).

Oscars 2015To the producers’ credit, there were some truly winning moments. Lady Gaga toned down her antics but wowed with her astonishing voice during a 50th anniversary medley of The Sound of the Music, and Julie Andrews came out to congratulate her. Otherterrific musical performances included Tim McGraw’s tearjerking rendition of Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and Adam Levine’s flawless falsetto on Begin Again‘s “Lost Stars”. (Jennifer Hudson’s sorta bland In Memoriam number and Tegan and Sara’s candy-colored “Everything Is Awesome” spectacle were less awesome). The night’s high point came, as I had expected, when John Legend and Common performed their Selma song “Glory”. With Legend’s impeccable voice, Common’s rhythmic rapping, a soulful chorus, and lyrics that mention Ferguson, it was a poignant and undeniably affecting highpoint.

Neil Patrick Harris’ highpoint, meanwhile, came around halfway through the show. In a live video clip, Harris was shown backstage, struggling with a bathrobe caught in the door. Reluctantly, he walked away, dropping the bathrobe and clad only in underwear. Within seconds, clued-in cinephiles got the reference: Michael Keaton’s near-naked Times Square walk in Birdman. It was totally hilarious, and it only got better when Harris pushed the face of an anxious reporter away and then told a drumming Miles Teller “Not my tempo”. This type of movie in-joke comedy was sorely missing from much of the rest of the broadcast, but triumphed here.

As for the actual awards, I didn’t totally triumph with my predictions; I correctly forecasted 15 out of 24 categories. For the first ten or so, I guessed every one right (surprisingly, I did best in the technical categories and even correctly guessed the Best Documentary Short category). Though many of the big categories turned out different than I’d expected, in many ways, I wasn’t surprised. I predicted voters would award Original Screenplay to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but they instead opted for Birdman (great dialogue, memorable characters). And I was wrong in thinking Whiplash‘s examinations of ambition and perfection would garner it the Adapted Screenplay prize; the award went to the tightly structured The Imitation Game. J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore, respectively, all seemed to have won the Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Actress awards before the show began, and they all collected their trophies. Best Actor, meanwhile, didn’t go to Birdman‘s Michael Keaton (I thought that would be a sentimental career-achievement sign of respect) but to The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, who physically transformed himself for the role of ALS-suffering scientist Stephen Hawking.

Oscars 2015And then there were the two biggies: Best Director and Best Picture. I predicted Boyhood would win both, or perhaps Birdman would nab one of the two. Wrong. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling dramedy walked away with both, again proving the Academy’s love for showbusiness stories (Shakespeare in Love, ChicagoThe Artist, Argo etc.). As Oscar writer Mark Harris mentioned in an article, the Academy undoubtedly connected to the film’s story of a faded blockbuster star trying to prove his artistic integrity with a daring new project Hey, we can do more than superheroes, was the message conveyed by the win.

Boyhood‘s story (kid grows up) seems more universally relatable, since everyone was once a kid growing up and not everyone was once a very unstable movie star. But the Academy chose to go with a story personal to them. Boyhood may have been too slow, uneventful, artsy, maybe too good for the Oscars. Make no mistake, I thought Birdman was brilliant, but it just wasn’t Boyhood. No movie is, and that’s not only because of the filming-for-12-years thing. It’s the kind of film you feel genuinely lucky to have seen and truly grateful that someone thought to make it. Ultimately, Linklater’s movie walked home with a single Oscar (for Arquette). The one-time frontrunner lost a few key prizes and was left with as many prizes as…How to Train Your Dragon 2!? Birdman‘s final tally was a respectable four wins, tying with The Grand Budapest Hotel (which swept many technical categories) for the most. Whiplash also was next, with three wins; Boyhood and the other four Best Picture nominees each won a single award.

Finally, I want to discuss up the Academy’s struggle with race, which has been a topic of discussion since Selma was largely shut out of the nominations. How did the show handle it? Much the way the largely white SNL did, during their 40th anniversary special: a few mildly awkward, pretty funny jokes and then quickly sidestep the issue.  ”Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…I mean brightest” Harris joked during his opening line. Pretty daring first joke, sure, but that doesn’t solve any diversity issues among the nominees. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself an African-American woman) would’ve been wise to discuss the problem during her speech. She could’ve talked about how the problem exists not just in the Academy, but in the actors Hollywood casts. David Oyelowo wasn’t nominated and that was unfortunate, but not many other non-white actors were major contenders. That said, many Oscar winners chose to address important issues during their acceptance speeches. Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore talked about attempting suiccide at 16, then encouraged viewers to “stay weird”. During his Best Picture speech, Iñárritu asked for better treatment of Mexican immigrants in America. And Patricia Arquette called out unequal pay among men and women (Meryl Streep liked that).

Overall, this was a pretty average Oscar telecast. It wasn’t a straight-up disaster in the vein of Hathway/Franco or McFarlane. At the same time, it’ll be forgotten quicker than both those shows. Like Ellen DeGenres, Harris appealed to all demographics and pleased everyone…but ended up wowing nobody. And did I mention Boyhood should’ve won? Anyway, this particularly insane awards season is over…which means it’s time to through out some 2016 predictions. Here are a few: The Hateful Eight. The Revenant. Steve Jobs. Joy. Miles Ahead. The End of the Tour. Spielberg’s latest. And…Episode VII?

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