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The Zany Brilliance of an Underappreciated Animation Master

Posted on | October 8, 2014 | Add Comments

What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones now at the Museum of the Modern Image

Generations have enjoyed the inventive, endlessly entertaining cartoon creations of Chuck Jones, the man behind Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. But the saying “You don’t know the name but you’ll know the work” unfortunately rings true about him. “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones”, a new exhibition that opened at NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image July 19 and ends January 19, finds the skill behind the slapstick. 

I recently got a chance to visit the exhibit, and can say it’s an illuminating, absorbing, and comprehensive must-visit that all animation fans will love.  Through a predictable but extensive collection of artifacts, writing, clips, quotes, and interactive touch screens, visitors learn Jones’ story starting with his groundbreaking work during Warner Bros.’ golden era of Saturday morning animation, onto his later work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Phantom Toolbooth, and, finally, his influence today. Prolific certainly describes the man; he directed over 300 films (most of them shorts, admittedly.)

Those who perceive Looney Tunes as a childish diversion (like I did) will reconsider after they’ve seen this show, which rightly heralds Jones as a true artist. The exhibit’s highpoint comes with a darkened screening room that shows some of Jones’ greatest work, with introductions from Pixar mastermind John Lasseter. The selected shorts, a kind of greatest hits collections, show impressive range, true skill, and infinite invention. It’s fun to see the advancements in his career by watching these films. Vintage Looney Tunes displays his knack for creating iconic characters (in Wagner spoof “What’s Opera Doc?” and Broadway comedy “One Froggy Evening”), while “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” shows his tender side, while remaining delightfully rewatchable. He was also a witty storyteller capable of clever, intellectual brilliance, as proved by the surprisingly sophisticated Oscar-winning geometrical love story “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics”.

Walking away from the show, you’ll be left with a deeper understanding of the painstaking work that goes into a 5-minute animated short, and discover one of foremost masters of the trade. Chuck Jones’ skill for creating layered plots and stunning visuals may be often mimicked today, but his hand-drawn style and simple comic timing may remains wholly unique.

For more info on the show, click here.

Good Morning Vietnam (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | August 18, 2014 | 1 Comment

With Robin William’s death still in sight (as well as Flack’s tribute post), now is the time to delve into the comic genius’ trove. I’d never seen Good Morning Vietnam before, but I certainly will see it again. Five years after Mork and Mindy, the first of his projects that really got him noticed, and only two years before Dead Poets Society, one of his popular and powerful performances, Williams began what many describe as his “golden age”. From Hook to Hamlet, Ms. Doubtfire to The Birdcage, Jumanji to Aladdin, and of course Dead Poets Society to Good Morning Vietnam, he displayed a variety of talents and the true span of his acting capabilities. In Good Morning Vietnam, he showcases it all.

The basic plot: Williams is Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey who is sent to host a segment of AFR’s Saignon radio shows. What rivets you to the screen? William’s all-out performance. Director Barry Levinson allows him large chunks of time to improvise as a radio host would. And in those moments we see Williams overflowing with humor, constantly joking and constantly one-upping himself with a line rivaling the last.

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Asides from Williams, the film is solid. Never wandering too far onto the tearjerker side, Levinson weaves a story that seems simply a comedy set during and referencing the Vietnam war. An hour in and a twist involving Cronauer being thrown into the midst of a bombing sets the film on a new path. As the films starts to get more serious and the humor less frequent, we are drawn into an equal parts-suspense-war film drama-and still comedy that manages to make everything seem okay through the lens of Robin Williams’ mouth.

Levinson does make the mistake of sometimes playing it too safe with a “villainous” Sgt. with very little making him menacing, other than the fact that he does endanger Cronauer. A romance has really nothing to it other than “she looks nice” and because much of the film’s second half revolves around it, it does become tedious. And yet, the moment you notice these flaws, Williams is back on the air, the camera displaying nothing more than a shot of Williams yelling into a microphone.

The structure of the film is very different than other comedies where there are a few stars, all equally funny. Instead, William’s easily steals the show. Yes, a young Forest Whitaker in is in the secondary role. Yes, the story is tragic and funny at the same time. And yes, all in all it’s a great film. What brings it together however, and what you’ll remember is Williams performance.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 16, 2014 | Add Comments

The team unites in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)“What should we do next? Something good or something bad?”, ask the roguish human protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. “A bit of both!”, he decides. Unfortunately, the film is more bad than good.

For most viewers, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be a new concept. This ever-rotating roster of intergalactic heroes debuted as a comic in 1969. James Gunn’s often tedious, sometimes amusing new film revolves around two MacGuffins (Hitchcock’s term for a desired object that everyone’s after). First is Peter Quill’s Sony Walkman, and the mixtape his mom made for him, which he’s listening to as a kid when the movie begins. He’s interrupted when his grandfather invites him to visit his dying mom, who hands him a mysterious present before her death..

Years later, Quill is a criminal space cowboy raiding the galaxy for cash, women, and Mysterious Objects of Extreme Importance to the Plot. Which brings us to the second MacGuffin, a highly dangerous silver orb. In a scene reminiscent of Raider’s of the Lost Ark‘s opening, Quill is about to plunder the orb when he’s caught by an alien baddie named Korath (Djimon Honsou), who working for Ronan (Lee Pace) who’s working for Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s out to destroy the universe.

Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)Anyway, Quill escapes from Korath and soon learns that the blue orb is no everyday blue orb. Quill, no with a bounty on his head, finds himself working with four bickering alien outcasts. They are: Gamora (Zoe Saladana), an assassin who betrayed her employer; Ronan; Rocket Racoon (Bradely Cooper), a mutated murderer of an animal; Rocket’s sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) who’s vocabulary is limited to “I am Groot”; and Drax the Destoryer (pro wrestler Dave Bauitista), a brute force alien out to avenge the death of his family. The five some must keep the blue orb out of the wrong hands, in hope of saving the galaxy.

If this all sounds like a dense, exposition-heavy bunch of plot it’s because it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the planets of Xandar and Nebula. Director Gunn doesn’t shy away from introducing an audience to not just a world, but a galaxy. That he expects you to remember it all is ridiculous; the idea that he wants you take it all seriously is laughable.

It may seem foolhardy to hope for originality in a Marvel movie, but Guardians, with it’s fresh cast of oddball characters, looked like an enjoyably fluffy action-comedy. Too often, however, it’s a familiar, forgettable, slightly frustrating film. The screenplay, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is a hackneyed puddle of genre movie tropes: The Avengers meets Star Wars, with a side of Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the like. Opening with the dying-mother cliche basically sets the tone for the rest of the film, which gleefully rips off better ones. 

James Gunn, a B-movie hand who’s directed gory genre fare like Slither and Super, should’ve done more to differentiate the film from his influences. Sure, the characters are inventive and weird but the story (misfits overcome differences and unite to save the world) has been seen in everything from Seven Samurai to The Avengers. The space battles are no different; none of the action scenes are particularly thrilling. At least, the movie clocks in at two hours, a modest length compared to The Avengers.

That’s harsh, yes, especially because the movie could’ve been worse (and some of it’s Marvel relatives are). When the heroes squabble and quip in a way reminiscent of the all-star banter of The Avengers, Guardians becomes a light, goofy send-up of the genre tropes it’s suffering from. Standing on a balcony with a view of the cosmos, Gamora tells Quill, who’s fallen for her, she doesn’t dance. “Really?”, he responds. “Well, on my planet, there’s a legend about people like you. It’s called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, it’s the greatest thing there is.” Quill’s mixtape-from-mom (perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure) also provides some hilarious incidents of interspecies-misunderstanding, like when a puzzled alien thug picks up the Walkman and listens to Blue Swede’s ”Hooked on a Feeling”. Moments, like this one, of riotous, pop-culture parodying, self-mocking stupid-fun liven up the whole film.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goes from jokey criminal to galaxy savior in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)So does Chris Pratt’s uproarious performance as Peter Quill. Pratt’s best known for NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and has had small roles in Oscar-bait like Moneyball (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Her (2013). Now, with Guardians, February’s The LEGO Movie, and next summer’s Jurassic World, he’s Hollywood’s next big leading man. Here, he sends up the conventional action-man with a goofy, charming brand of humor pitched between witty and dumb. Pratt is like a relaxedly comical Harrison Ford; a slacker-thief who’s as quick with a gun as he is with a quip.

Guardian‘s disappointing melding of cliches, stereotypes, and instantly forgettable chase sequences with something fresher and funnier makes for a frustrating film. It’s possible Marvel, the all-powerful movie machine of sequels and money, and super-producer Kevin Feige, keeps a steady hold on their directors’ creative freedom. Jon Favreau, with the first Iron Man, managed overcome the obstacles, as have some others. Yet too often do Marvel movies feel like overlong commercials for a comic-book universe meant to sell, sell, sell. What if Marvel is the auteur - albeit a crass, commercially driven one – behind their films. You can see the touch (or crushing, destructive stomp) of the studio in all their movies: similar story lines and themes marked by a goofy sense of humor and explosive action scenes.

Perhaps that explains why Guardians is so comical and fresh in some parts and dull and stale in others. The good parts (the team bickering, the soundtrack) make the bad ones (monotonous action, conventional plot) so much more infuriating. Marvel Studios is the guardian of one of Hollywood’s most important franchises, but it wouldn’t hurt if let in some more creativity.

Robin Williams: Teacher, Alien, Nanny, Legend

Posted on | August 13, 2014 | 3 Comments

John Keating (Robin Williams) inspires and surprises his students in Good Will Hunting (1989)After hearing the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death at age 63, I wanted to watch one of his films. My pick was Peter Weir’s high school tear-jerker Dead Poets Society (1989), about a group of boarding-school boys inspired by their unconventional English teacher (played by Williams). The film, though sometimes cliched and sentimental, is inspiring, witty, and thoughtful, not unlike William’s character. In the last stretch of the film, director Weir truly transcends the feel-good genre and creates something deeply poignant, heartbreaking, almost lyrical.

Despite a shortage of screen time, Williams steals all of his scenes as the quirky, Walt Whitman-quoting, John Wayne-imitating hero who influences his students. Clearly a skilled actor, Williams makes every moment count in an inspirational, drily funny performance. Reaffirming how unforgettable the role is, Apple featured his “What will your verse be speech?” in a memorable iPad ad, last fall.

Alien Mork (Robin Williams) and human Mindy (Pam Dawber) in Mork and MindyOf course, this was only one terrific performance in a career full of them. A star was born when audiences saw his bizarrely hilarious breakout performance in ABC’s alien-out-of-water sitcom Mork and Mindy. After four years, the show was canceled and Williams moved onto film roles, like The World According to Garp (1982) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which garnered him his first Oscar nomination. He continued his string of drama-comedies with two more Oscar noms: for Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King (1991). He eventually won, for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting (1997).

Though his most revered roles were his dramatic ones, Williams (originally a stand-up comic) could always make an audience laugh. His high-pitched voice, zany facial expressions, and rapid comic timing made him a distinct comedian with a unique brand of big-screen humor.  Who could forget his performance as divorced-dad turned cross-dressing nanny in the hilarious Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)? Or his voice role as the pop-culture referencing Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992)?

Mrs. Doubtfire is not your normal nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)No one will forget those performances, or Robin Williams himself. We’ve lost a legend but we still have his body of work to make us laugh, bring tears, and remind us a true great’s talents. Nanu, nanu.

Boyhood (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 9, 2014 | 6 Comments

Boyhood charts Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18SPOILERS!

With Boyhood, a childhood saga that follows a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, director Richard Linklater has pushed the capabilities of film to the fullest. For a couple of days a year for 12 years, he shot the same cast and tracked the growth of his child star Ellar Coltrane with genuine, unprecedented truth. This couldn’t have worked with another medium; it works because it is a film. Boyhood is a cinematic triumph that reaffirms the power of the movies. If that sounds like hyperbole, go watch it.

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky, backed by the sounds of Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”. Cut to Mason, the boy we will follow for 12 years (or 165 minutes), lying on a grass field and looking at the clouds. His mother, Olivia, tells him it’s time to go.  We soon learn Olivia is a struggling teacher and that he has an annoying, star-student older sister named Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, daughter of Richard and appropriately irritating). Mason spends his time with neighborhood friend Tommy, doing graffiti, biking, and flipping through a catalog of barely-clothed women. He moves to Houston, where he reconnects with his liberal musician father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who weaves in and out of Mason and Samantha’s lives. Olivia gets remarried and divorced, and remarried again. Mason finds new friends, faces bullies, experiments with drugs and drinking, and suffers break-ups. He tries to figure out what he wants to spend his life doing and looks for the meaning of it all. We watch him grow from being a bored gamer who could care less about school to an angst-ridden rebel to an endlessly chatty shutterbug slacker. Life goes on.

A young mason (Ellar Coltrane) at school in Boyhood (2014)Watching Ellar Coltrane grow up as Mason is a revelatory experience.  It was a considerable gamble on Linklater’s part, casting a kid who could grow up to be anyone. That’s what makes Coltrane’s performance so uniquely impressive. We’re there, watching, as he grows taller, his voice deepens, and he, ultimately, arrives as a powerful screen presence. It’s a terrific performance, made up of twelve terrific performances. Coltrane smartly shies away from overacting and the spunky, perky attitude of typical child actors. He makes Mason a quiet and timid youngster, then a chatty creative type. It’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and realistic kid performances ever.

Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) high-school graduation after-party in Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are no less powerful as his parents, wisely underplaying two realistic roles. As a single mom trying to go back to college, raise two kids, and get remarried, Arquette is subtly remarkable. Olivia is a nuanced character, who reveals layers of sophistication, sorrow, and love throughout the film. Arquette has a particularly poignant scene with Coltrane near the end of the film that may reduce many viewers to tears. Hawke is just as wonderful but gets some more lighthearted moments as Mason Sr.: a compassionate but often absent dad, an angry ex-husband, and a musician who’s forced to move on to other work. Whether he’s having fireside conversations about Star Wars or discussing the meaning of life with teenage Mason, Hawke is understatedly funny and unexpectedly wise, despite his modest screen time. Arquette and Hawke’s underplayed skill dawns on you as the film draws near it’s end, just as Mason realizes how important his parents have been in his life.

Boyhood is very much an actor-centric film, but it’s also a landmark directorial triumph for Richard Linklater, who mixes indie aesthetics with documentary realism. At the start of filming, he had no script for the film, preferring to come up with new ideas each year. Linklater was also wise to focus not on coming-of-age film cliches but smaller, more meaningful moments like camping trips with dad, a high school graduation after-party with family, and a symbolic, spiritual hike that ends the film. Actually, Boyhood, like life, is a whole made up of lots of little moments that cumulate into something meaningful over time. Linklater doesn’t make his thoughts on growing up too obvious, instead letting you develop your own take on the film’s messages. Yet there’s a profound beauty in how he deals with the fleeting nature of childhood and the idea that life is just a bunch of seemingly unimportant moments that add up to something greater. There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end of the film where Olivia, talking to Mason before he drives off to college, comments on how her life is one big chain of events that goes by too quickly. After three marriages, going back to school, and sending her kids to college, the only major event left in her life is death, she tells Mason. Capturing small yet significant memories of childhood and turning them into a thoughtful mediation on life isn’t an easy task, but Linklater has succeeded.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with Olivia (Lorlei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar coltrane) in Boyhood (2014)

Charting Mason and his family’s story over the first decade or so of the 21st century, Boyhood also functions as a reflection on the 2000′s so far. Historical and cultural milestones can be seen throughout the film: Mason and Samantha attend a party celebrating the release of the latest Harry Potter book, their father talks to them about the war in Iraq, and Mason is always playing with the latest video game console. In the film’s funniest scene, Mason Sr. has his kids put Obama signs on their neighbors lawns – and even snatch a McCain sign from one house. Adding to the nostalgia-inducing time capsule element is the wonderful 00′s-spanning soundtrack, which includes The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Wilco, and others. Years from now, the film will serve as a seminal snapshot of 21st century life.

Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood (2014)

Has there ever been a movie like Boyhood? Michael Apted’s documentary 7 Up documentary series and Francois Truffuat’s fictional Antoine Doinel films have followed kids as they grow older over many films. Yet Boyhood is so remarkably specific in telling the story of Mason’s family and so universally relatable in charting a child’s growth that it manages to create one of the most believable portraits of childhood, family, and life ever captured on film. It’s also one of the most funny, reflective, beautiful, tragic, and absorbing movies you’ll see all year. The hype about it has been towering, yes, but believe it. By following a boy from 6 to 18, Richard Linklater has created an entertaining, heart-rending portrait of 21st century family life in America. It forces you to think, moves you to tears, compels you to laugh, and encourages repeat viewings. An enthralling, unforgettable triumph of cinema as original, engrossing, delightful, and heartbreaking as anything in recent memory.

Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 2 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 13, 2014 | Add Comments

Caesar (Andy Sekis) isn't sure if he can trust humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an inferior sequel to the surpassingly enjoyable 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, truly pushes the boundaries of motion-capture (the process of using actors’ motions as the basis for creating animated characters) in ground-breaking ways. The scale is truly unparalleled: dozens of ape actors performing in the wild, not a green-screen box, and filmed in non-conversion 3-D. And the results are often extraordinary: a horde of running apes, a brutal simian showdown, facial performances with sentiment and humanity. “They’re just apes, man”, a human character tells another. “Do they look like just apes?”, comes the response. Thanks to a cast that stars Andy Serkis, as human-sympathizing ape Caesar, they look like apes, but also characters with thoughts and emotions.

It’s a shame, then, that director Matt Reeves doesn’t put the technology to use in a better movie. The action picks up long after James Franco has been wiped out by the Simian Flu, while what’s left of humanity congregate in a war-torn dystopia filled political metaphors. Power is running low, so a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his new wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), attempt to make peace with the apes and gain access to a hydroelectric dam that could restore electricity. Malcolm forms a bond with ape leader Caesar, but fellow chimp Koba (Toby Kebbell) wants to lead the apes to war against humans. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human leader, also wants to protect his species in any way he can, which he thinks will lead his species to battle.

Reeves, a horror helmer known for Cloverfield and Let Me In, knows how to stage some rousing action sequences but struggles with making audiences care about his take on the end of the world disaster film genre. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s obvious, unsubtle script is also to blame, with dialogue that rarely conveys that isn’t already clear, and human characters that seem plucked from disaster movie past. In action scenes, there are moments of laughably strained credibility. And the moments of human drama are nothing we haven’t seen in better, smarter movies.

The humans are torn against saving apes or killing them in Dawn of the Planet of the Planet of the Apes (2014)Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, and the rest of the human cast do little with the lines they’re given. Clarke, bland as can be, seems entirely miscast as Malcolm, while Russel and Smit-McPhee do their best with characters that seem like forgotten strands from a poorly-drawn first-draft. Oldman is surprisingly tender in his brief scenes and lends some depth to a not-quite bad guy, though even he succumbs to the laughably overblown script in his final moments.

While the mo-cap animation is gorgeous, there’s simply too many apes to keep track of. Differentiating animated characters who speak in hand-gestures and look confusingly similar is not an easy task and the director and screenwriters are too busy dividing their time between two species to give either enough thought. Serkis and Kebbell, though, give phenomenally affecting performances, though their costars don’t get enough focus. The opening scenes, meanwhile, could’ve used a bit of cleanup from the animators.

Not everything about Dawn is awful. Michael Giacchino’s score is filled with eerily effective piano and stirring strings, while Michael Seresin’s cinematography is rough and real (and reminiscent of Wally Pfister’s work on The Dark Knight trilogy). If there’s one thing Dawn does better than Rise, it’s the sense that the characters are living in a fully-developed world, thanks to James Chinlund’s rough, real production design. Matt Reeve, meanwhile, makes a few daring directorial decisions: spending long stretches with the apes, killing off the first film’s lead characters before this movie even begins, and holding back on big acton for an hour. Speaking of which, the apes’ fiery attack on the humans is pretty thrilling.

Koba (Toby Kebbell) is ready to kill some humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)At the end of the day (or world, in this case), a few adventurous ideas and some neat technical tricks can’t save one of the most boring, bloated blockbusters in recent memory. Dawn of the Planet Apes is more clever than some action movies but it rarely makes us care about its characters without being formulaic. Yes, the motion-capture technology behind all those apes might create new opportunities for future films-but that doesn’t mean you should see this one.

A Hard Day’s Night (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 10, 2014 | Add Comments

The Beatles perform in A Hard Days Night (1964)In 1964, The Beatles were still four best friends who had recently found themselves on the top of the world. Sgt. Pepper, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, India, Brian Epstein’s death; that was all to come. After all, Ringo had joined the band a mere two years before. To many adults, they were just the latest pop act unlikely to have any lasting influence. In epitomizing this moment in the band’s career and being a riotously enjoyable piece of art, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is practically perfect entertainment; a feature-length rock ‘n’ roll advertisement disguised as a cinema verite-style black-and white art film.

The Beatles goof around in A Hard Day's Night (1964)50 years after it’s July 6 release, the film still exudes the sincere spontaneity of the Fab Four with classic songs, indiscriminate wittiness, and an irreverent sense of what’s real and what’s plot. Lester, then an obscure British director picked by the band because of a Peter Sellers short John Lennon loved, has said the film’s on-the-go nature is due much to The Beatles’ inability to remember their lines. “The structure of the script had to be a series of one-liners,” he has said. “This enabled me, in many of the scenes, to turn a camera on them and say a line to them, and they would say it back to me. There was very little structure that was planned, except that we knew that we had to punctuate the film with a certain number of songs.” So unscripted was the film, that when filming was over there was only one song left to record- the title track, though the film didn’t have a title. (In the end the term a “hard day’s night” was a Ringo phrase that Lennon told Lester about at lunch, and then went to record afterwards). Turns out the approach worked just fine. When the group meets Paul’s “grandfather” on a train, the moment is so downright amusing and random that it seems like the band made up the entire scene right then (some of it they probably did).

Central to the appeal of the film, is, of course, The Beatles themselves. Whether they’re performing, dancing, or being interviewed, the four come off as goofy, surprisingly regular pranksters who want to escape the confinements of celebrity life and just party. Lester doesn’t do a lot to differentiate the group but the differences are there already. John is the cheeky bad-boy who happens to be leading the band; a sly jokester, yes, but also the one with the most obvious musical talent. Glad to simply party, Paul is the fun-loving pretty boy with the strange “grandfather”. George, comical but often quiet, might be the hardest to categorize but always seems to be having a good time. And Ringo is Ringo: droll, lonely, soft-spoken, and possibly the most distinct of them all.

John pokes fun at Paul's grandfather  (Wilfrid Brambell) in A Hard Day's Night

In limited re-release now, the film sports a spiffy new restoration, taken from the original 35mm negative, reverted to it’s original ratio, approved by the director, cleaned up by innumerable digital tools, and scanned in glorious 4K. And you really can tell the difference. The whole film has a newfound visual clarity, without totally altering the vintage, grainy beauty of Gilbert Taylor’s raw and real cinematography.

It’s a testament to the film’s power that the songs never overshadow the other scenes.With songs like these, that’s no easy feat. Cleaned up with a 5.1 Dolby mix, those gorgeous pop harmonies have never sounded so infectious, nor has the simple, iconic instrumentation sounded so musically brilliant. Apart from the title track (possibly music history’s greatest single chord) and the wonderfully danceable “Can’t Buy Me Love”, few of the songs are the type of Beatles classics that anyone on the street would recognize, which makes rediscovering the soundtrack such a joy. John’s harmonica part on “I Should Have Known Better”, Ringo’s punctuating drums on “I’m Just To Dance With You”, Paul’s beautiful, surprisingly melancholy “Things We Said Today”, George’s gorgeous guitar on “And I Love Her”: rarely is pop this infectious, influential, and flawless.

The Beatles are chased by a mob screaming fans in A Hard Day's Night (1964)The classic songs, the extempore hysterics, the raw cinematography…it all comes together in A Hard Day’s Night, one of the most delightful and important moments in the last of fifty years of music, movies, and culture. For proof, see the opening-credits scene. John, Paul, George, and Ringo flee a mob of screaming fans, as they dodge girls, run through cars, and hop on trains, all to the sounds of “A Hard Day’s Night”. Some things come and go. The Beatles isn’t one of those things.

Belle (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | June 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

Belle 4 Stars

Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a mixed-race adopted aristocrat who can't dine with her own family
Early on in Belle, a thoughtful and often engrossing new period drama, the title character asks her aristocrat uncle/caretaker, who happens to be William Murray the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) a question: “Papa, how may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?” So lies the central question of the film, which manages to tackle important issues of race and class but also function as a riveting romantic drama.

Belle begins at a bustling seaside port where a Royal Navy widower (Mathew Goode) reunites with his illegitimate mixed-race daughter, Elizabeth Dido Belle. Belle is then taken to England, where she will be raised by her father’s aristocrat family. After a tense argument between her father and his, she begins living a privileged life with her uncle, two aunts (played by Emily Watson and Downton Abbey‘s Penelope Wilton), and blond cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gordon). For a while, the family lives together peacefully and pleasantly.

Once Belle and Elizabeth are put on the marriage market, however, everything changes. Belle’s suitors wouldn’t dare marry someone of color, but if she doesn’t find a suitor she’ll live a life of shame. In a clever yet confusing twist, Belle has the benefit of a guaranteed inheritance, while her white cousin does not. Still, marriage problems seem trivial when Belle discovers her uncle is the judge of the Zong massacre court case, which focuses on the Zong slave ship crew that, when in low supply of water, threw some of 142 African slaves into the water. The polite and business-like Mansfield doesn’t want to go against the Zong’s insurers, who are central to British trade, despite a young British lawyer (Sam Reid) who tries to convince him otherwise. Oh, and the young lawyer is love with Belle.

The film, from Misan Sagay’s script, is part soapy love story, part tense legal drama. To great effect, director Amma Assante combines the historical elements of both genres to create an engaging and surprisingly fresh period piece.

It can’t hurt that Assante has such a talented cast to work with. As Belle, newcomer Gugu Mbath Raw is powerful and moving, while Sam Reid brings political vigour to the role of love interest. In the supporting cast, Tom Wilkinson is suitably stiff yet tender at heart and Emily Gordon, Penelope Wilton, and Sarah Gordon make layered and flawed female relatives for Belle.

Story-wise, there’s plenty of historical significance and relevant themes on display. Though the Zong massacre trial is filled with enough thought-provoking ideas for an entire movie, the film questions Belle’s suspended cultural status, portrays Mansfield as a conflicted and layered character, and pits the two cousins against a pair of nasty suitors without resorting to laughable stereotypes. One particularly saddening moment comes when the aforementioned suitors’ mother meets Belle and remarks “I had no idea she’d be so…black.” It’s Assante’s unflinching willingness to wrestle with big ideas about slavery and marriage that truly sets Belle apart.

Godzilla (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 28, 2014 | Add Comments

Godzilla isn't happy in this 2014 rebootGodzilla 2 1/2 Stars

The biggest surprise in Godzilla isn’t a twist or unpredictable character death. Instead, it’s a lack of fun. And isn’t fun all you could ask for from a summer blockbuster?

After flashbacks to 1954 and 1999, the film jumps to the present day. Following a visit to his wife and son, bomb disposal Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) travels to Japan to bail out his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), recently jailed for trespassing. Cue the “there’s something out there” monologue from Joe, who feels the government’s earthquake tests are really trying to stop something greater. Of course, Ford ignores his father’s warnings and Godzilla and two new beasts are soon stomping all over the world. While Ford regroups with the Navy to save everyone, a pair of scientists try to stop a no-nonsense admiral (David Strathrain) from dropping a city-destroying bomb on Godzilla. The scientists predict Godzilla will save us all, but can the government risk the fate of mankind using a unprecedented scientific theory?

Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are worried...very, very worried in Godzilla (2014)

From Max Borenstein’s formulaic script to the emotionless performances, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is as conventional as you might expect. The film’s fatal flaw, however, is the ultra serious tone. With a wit-less plot and constant dread, Edwards makes everything feel as serious as if this was really happening (not all action movies have to be so dark and brooding). Amidst all the docudrama-levels of horror, it would’ve been nice to have at least one joke about scaly reptiles taking over the world.

Edwards manages to waste an all-star cast (also including Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, and Elizabeth Olsen) on cliched roles. And it shows; none of the actors seem to be having fun, even though they’re starring in Godzilla.

Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leads a bomb disposal team in Godzilla (2014)Cheesy dialogue, a disappointing ending, overlong build-up…the problems are many. Yet, occasionally this is a fascinating beast. Early on, there’s some plot twists that truly catch you by surprise. Meanwhile, Edwards and Borenstein’s messages about nature manage to pose some interesting, important questions about mankind’s ignorance towards the environment. In the technical departments, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is often brilliant, like the gorgeous tracking shots during the film’s climax. And there’s a truly exhilarating action scene near the beginning that’s one of the most nail-biting in recent memory.

Godzilla wreaks havoc on the Golden gate ridge in Godzilla (2014)

And then there’s the monster fights, which are actually fun. Every so often, the film indulges in the kind of head-to-head kaju (Japanese for monster) fights Guilermo del Toro dreams about. When Godzilla finally breathes blueish lightning down a predator’s throat, you’re reminded of why you came to this movie, and of the kind of uproarious summer adventure Godzilla could’ve been.

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