Tuesday, November 29, 2011
To date, I've only see one 3D movie in theaters, Tron: Legacy, which I enjoyed immensely for reasons that had more to do with its story and visuals. Re-watching it on blu-ray recently further solidified that opinion, but even when I first reviewed it I conceded the use of 3D technology was "defensible" due to the immersive nature of the story (i.e. being sucked into a computer program). This got me thinking what past titles could benefit from a 3D re-release. Of course, this still doesn't mean I'd consider seeing them, especially when I could just pop in the DVD at home, which is cheaper, not to mention a whole lot more comfortable. But in the following cases below (some obvious, others not) I can see where a 3D conversion and re-release in the format is more than just a cash grab, and even somewhat excusable for one reason or another. There's probably many more, but it's a start.
Though I've strangely never met a single person who holds this view, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is widely regarded by many as "The Greatest Film Ever Made." Much, if not all, of that adoration comes from its groundbreaking technical achievements. With its deep focus photography, details in the foreground and background would really pop out in 3D, making it seemingly the perfect fit for the format. A re-release could also help shake its stodgy stigma as a homework assignment. It won't happen though. Supposedly Welles' dying wish was that his film not be colorized or tinkered with. This definitely qualifies as "tinkering." Even a full fledged remake seems likelier.
9. Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)
If ever a film was made for the format it's this. That's not to say the 2006 original (a superior effort) isn't, but the sequel takes everything the first did and jacks it up (remember the race track sex scene? the guy's head being kept alive?). It's more over-the-top, more nonsensical and more ridiculous, thus making it an even better fit for 3D. For some reason when I think back on the movie I remember it in 3D, which has always been the gift of the Crank series. So they may as well just go ahead and do it. With Crank 3D already in the works they should convert the first two and roll the trilogy into theaters together. That's something I might actually pay to see.
Here's a no-brainer. Given the technology kick Spielberg's been on lately it wouldn't surprise me if it's the works already. Supposedly there are already plans to film the impending JP4 in 3D so a re-release of the 1993 original in this format is a definite possibility. And I'll admit it isn't a half-bad idea when you consider a T-Rex getting right in your face. As a theater experience it couldn't get much better than this. It's basically what 3D was created for.
Another no-brainer. I remember seeing this in the theater opening week and thinking nearly all of its impact would be diluted if seen on the small screen at home. As a story there really isn't much there (a bunch of scientists chasing tornadoes) but there doesn't need to be. A big effects movie of the highest order that would benefit immensely from a 3D conversion, literally taking you into the storm with debris, houses, trucks and cows flying right at you.
There were supposedly studio discussions with director Christopher Nolan about shooting this in 3D but he rejected the idea. While I can't say I disagree with his decision and the finished product was amazing, it could have worked. Would it have enhanced the experience? I'm not sure but down the line if they converted and re-released it the decision would at least make some sense. Like that year's Tron: Legacy, the narrative revolves around being transported into another world and you can't help but wonder how that extended sequence with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page would have played with those buildings and streets unfolding in your lap.
Here's the only selection on the list where 3D technology can actually draw attention to an overlooked, difficult film that wouldn't get it otherwise, perhaps even improving its mainstream prospects. I'm betting very few people have even seen it and those who have are probably too traumatized by the experience to talk about it. Challenging and inaccessible beyond belief, Gasper Noe's 2009 psychedelic nightmare defies any sort of formal explanation. I still don't know what I think of it, but I do know it would look incredible in 3D. It's 2001's trippy Stargate sequence stetched over 2 hours, boasting some of the most awe-inspiring visual effects produced on an independent budget, and a first person P.O.V. that throws you head first into life, a death and beyond. A 3D conversion would only complete the process, taking you all the way in.
While it has its few supporters, anyone who was able to sit through 2008's underwhelming Speed Racer will have to admit it got one big thing right: The visuals. 3D can give this critical and commercial flop a new lease on life with a fresh presentation that plays to its biggest (only?) strength. When watching it at the time I thought a 3D release was more than justifiable and still do. The question is whether it'll still be a mind numbing bore. There's no way to know for sure but this is the film's best chance at survival.
You knew this would show up on here. It had to. Of the films listed it's the most likely to happen. And I'm betting soon. As someone who's no fan of The Matrix at all and thinks it only offers impressive visual effects, it's of little surprise I'd offer it up as the perfect 3D conversion candidate. And if we're lucky maybe everyone will be so dazzled they'll forget how awful its two sequels are and they'll can convert those too. 3D will never fix the huge story flaws in the trilogy but it could get us so lost in the Matrix we'd at least maybe temporarily forgive them. Going in this direction could only result in improvement.
Speaking of twisters. The wicked witch, the yellow brick road, flying monkeys, falling houses. It says a great deal about the quality of a film released in 1939 that it could be re-released today and the images and effects would benefit--and perhaps be enhanced-- by 3D. And that's not even taking into account the story, which also seems to be the perfect fit for this technology. It's yet another example of the viewer being transported to another world, making the use of the format defensible. The unforgettable transition from Kansas to Oz can now not only go from black and white to technicolor but from 2D to 3D. There's also that added bonus of getting to see a classic film we've experienced many times over in a whole new way. Should they do it? Of course not. But if they did, I'd have to at least acknowledge they picked the right movie to experiment on.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The ultimate trip indeed. We absolutely shouldn't do this but there's no denying the temptation. And as much as I hate to admit it, there's no question this would work. Among films considered classics you're unlikely to find one that inspires as divisive a reaction. People either love this or hate it, and while I consider myself firmly in the former camp, it's possible what supporters appreciate most about Kubrick's classic will only be enhanced in 3D while naysayers' complaints (such as its pacing) would likely diminish. It doesn't "need" it since it's an experience either way, but it would be nice if a glorious 3D presentation that accentuates even more of the film's visual strengths could sway those who never got on board. The Stargate sequence alone justifies the idea.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O'Dowd, Jill Clayburgh
Running Time: 125 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Dubbed "The Hangover for women" when it was released to much box office success this spring, Bridesmaids resembles that comedy as much for its weaknesses as its strengths. To be fair, it is slightly superior to The Hangover, even if that film at least extended us the courtesy of not crossing the two hour mark. No comedy should be that long. Ever. It's just unnecessary. I should really just go ahead and not recommend it for that miscalculation alone, as it joins the likes of Wedding Crashers and Knocked Up in biting off more story than it can chew and occasionally struggling with tone, but the writing and performances (namely one) ultimately save the day here. It's a slight notch above those other comedies and though I giggled more than I busted a gut, it definitely entertains the whole way through.
As with other Judd Apatow productions it faces the problem of trying to mine laughs from real life situations that sometimes feel too real, uncomfortably flirting with dramatic tragedy. That's certainly the case here as single, thirtysomething Annie (Kristen Wiig) is asked by lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to be maid of honor at her wedding. Still reeling from her bakery business going belly up and regularly sleeping with sleazebag Ted (a hilarious Jon Hamm) the exciting announcement of her best friend's nuptuals only rubs salt in Annie's wounds, bringing all her insecurities to the surface. Making matters worse is the arrival of Lillian's prissy new best friend Helen (Rose Byrne), the trophy wife of the groom's boss who's threatening to displace her in the wedding and in Lillian's life, sparking a bitter feud. They're joined by the other bridesmaids: Frustrated housewife Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey), goody two shoes Becca (Ellie Kemper) and Lillian's future sister-in-law Megan (Melissa McCarthy).
The movie's at its best when it's most ridiculous, not taking itself too seriously while reaching for the crassest laughs. A scene in a bridal shop when the bridesmaids suddenly and uncomfortably feel the after effects of a Mexican meal they had earlier is hilarious, as is a plane trip to Vegas where a drugged Annie unintentionally jeopardizes the well being of everyone on board. Most of the film deals with the feud between Annie and Helen, which is comical, until the movie dramatically overreaches, sugarcoating it with life lessons and trying to wring sympathy for an overly pitiable protagonist. It really didn't need to do that. The movie's funny and the characters likable so less would have definitely been more in terms of spelling out how we're supposed to feel and sending a message, but this is an Apatow movie so no surprises there.
Up until now the jury's been out on Kristen Wiig as a leading lady who can carry a film and after this I'd say the jury's still out, which isn't to say she did a bad job at all. There's no question she's a gifted physical comedienne and possibly even a great actress but it does take some getting used to seeing her as a romantic lead in mainstream comedy, which could be attributed to the goofy persona she's perfected all these years on SNL. She kind of carries that over to this so it was hard to escape the feeling I was watching a highlight reel of her best sketches strung together over a two hour period with some drama thrown in. The movie really belongs to Melissa McCarthy who deserves every bit of praise she's been getting for her award-worthy supporting performance as Megan, a butch, brash government employee with an unsatiable sexual appetite. To say she steals every scene she's in would be an understatement. I wondered how infrequently we see a female character like this in a comedy. Keeping us unsure of what this woman will say or do from one moment to the next, McCarthy creates this unusual, one-of-a-kind persona from the ground up. Most impressively, she doesn't turn Megan into a joke, but a cool lady, finding the humanity and motivation behind her outrageous behavior. The rest of the bridesmaids are dispensable with the exception of Byrne's Helen, who's essentially a snobby, arrogant stereotype, albeit a very funny one. But a braver comedy wouldn't have attempted to redeem her. Chris O' Dowd brings a likable charm and sincerity to Officer Rhodes, a local policeman whose fledgling relationship with Annie might just be the one dramatic element in the story that's a home run, mostly due to his skillfully understated performance and natural chemistry with Wiig.
Although this was co-written by Wiig, it's surprising to learn it was directed by Paul Feig, who created TV's brilliant, short-lived Freaks and Geeks. This definitely isn't that. There's no mistaking it's a mainstream comedy primarily aimed at women, to the point that it could easily be considered a "chick flick," and that's fine. I can see where it also definitely has appeal for both genders and it's unlikely any guy would be complaining that they were dragged to it. Every year there seems to be a comedy everyone falls head over heels for and I'm left scratching my head wondering what the big fuss was about. Expectations can be a funny thing. Bridesmaids works, but doesn't when it occasionally forgets to be a comedy and plays it too safe, hammering home the truth that each successful comedy released these days seems the same as the last. But at least this is mostly a good one.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, Phyllis Smith, John Michael
Higgins, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon
Running Time: 92 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
If Bad Santa took place in a classroom and was unfunny it would be called Bad Teacher. It goes without saying Cameron Diaz is no Billy Bob Thornton but after watching this I'm starting to wonder if that would have even helped. While her performance as disgusting, repulsive middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey isn't anything to write home about, she can't shoulder too much of the blame. The film refuses to fully commit, merely going through the motions of a premise that should be smart and edgy, but instead becomes boringly repetitive. It's okay to have a depraved female protagonist carrying a comedy, but you better make her funny. And if she isn't, you better not try to redeem her. That's the worst offense right there.
After being dumped by her rich fiance, gold digger Elizabeth is forced to resume her teaching job at J.A.M.S. (John Adams Middle School) with the hope of earning enough for a boob job. Classes consist of her showing movies, smoking pot, cussing at students, napping and trying to get her claws into new, but somewhat goofy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Appalled do-gooder Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch) teaches across the hall while gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) is clearly smitten with Elizabeth, but has no shot. Sweet, naive faculty member Lynn (Phyllis Smith) seems thrilled someone's hanging out with her. Principal Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins) has a chronic dolphin fetish and is completely clueless as to anything that's happening.
The trailer for this (which oddly seemed to feature scenes not even present in the final cut) promises something that doesn't quite materialize. It promises Bad Santa. It delivers Bad Santa Lite. This isn't the the first time commercials made a crude comedy look edgier than it is but that doesn't make it any less disappointing that it's so by the numbers. Part of me wants to commend Diaz for diving into a project that deviates from your conventional female driven rom-com but the truth is this doesn't really differ from that at all. It's the same blueprint, just a little meaner. The character's motivations are so shallow and pointless, her schemes so unimaginative, that after a while I just lost energy rooting for a comeuppance that isn't in the cards. Though it's likely Lucy Punch's screechy Ms. Squirrel caused me to lose energy way before that.
The movie's saving grace are the other supporting players, especially a hilariously geeky Justin Timberlake, whose musical talents (and opinions on slavery and sharks) are put to good use. He's just as funny here as on SNL and supplies the few laughs there are. Jason Segel's role as Elizabeth's suitor is immensely underwritten and unrealized but at least he's good, milking it for all he can with limited screen time. They deserve better than this. So does the usually charismatic Diaz, even if she seems to be scraping the bottom of a barrel with her choices lately. You can probably count on one hand the number of actresses capable of creating laughs and rising above material like this (only Tina Fey, Ana Faris and Kristen Wiig come to mind) so she doesn't exactly need to hide her head in shame. The director, Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard), has made some quality comedies in the past but Bad Teacher just feels thrown together and pedestrian. There are a number of nods to inspiring teacher movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, which only serve as a reminder that my time may have actually been better spent watching one of those preachy educational dramas. When those fail they're just painlessly cheesy. But when comedies do, it can be painful.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz
Running Time: 132 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I've never read an X-Men comic, never saw any of the previous movies and have no familiarity with any of the characters in the superhero franchise. So saying that, the highest compliment I can give (and it's a big one) to Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is that it made me care and want to see more. For a while I even forgot I was watching a superhero movie and by the time it fully morphs into that by its finale, it's a transformation that's well earned and impressively handled from a technical standpoint. The origin story it weaves is compelling, making especially excellent use of its time period and setting to convey an atmosphere that makes the film play more like a lost James Bond entry (back when they were fun) than another cash grab for Marvel along the lines of Iron Man 2 or Thor. It's good to make money and build a franchise but you need a foundation to do it on and Vaughn gets that, crafting an entertaining, often mature PG-13 rated adventure that doesn't insult audience's intelligence and delivers thrilling action when necessary.
The origin story goes all the way back to to the swinging early 60's to show how young mutants Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Leshner/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) become allies when they're recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to stop the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Seeking revenge on former Nazi doctor Shaw for the death of his mother years ago, Erik's bloodthirsty obsession and cynical outlook clashes with Xavier's decidedly more peaceful worldview, planting the seeds for an eventual feud between the two friends. We also meet Xavier's blue-skinned adopted sister Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) struggling to accept to her identity. She's joined by Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) and Armando Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), all outcast mutants with special gifts they've yet to find the ability to fully control or understand.
The script juggles multiple storylines as the story jumps between settings and time periods with what seems to be little effort at all, making the over two-hour running time fly by in a flash. There isn't a dull moment to be found and given how many characters there are a suitable amount of attention is paid to each one that goes beyond just exploring their powers. Setting the action against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and social unrest of the 60's could have easily been a clunky device but the story of these mutants being ostracized and used by the government resonates since it only enhances already existing themes.
Three performances are legitimately superb and they're the three most crucial to the film's success. Best known for his breakout supporting turn in Inglourious Basterds, Michael Fassbender kills it in his first mainstream starring role, simmering with low-key intensity and bitter, pent-up anger as Erik and believably selling his character's slow building transformation into Magneto. When the climactic encounter with Shaw arrives it's a testament to Fassbender that it not only feels epic, but its result earned. As a hard-partying womanizer turned peacemaking humanitarian McAvoy's in a far different mode here than we've ever been used to seeing him while Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence is the heart and soul of the film, bringing needed depth to Raven in showing how she gradually loses her innocence. Kevin Bacon chews scenery even speaks German at one point, having a blast as the villainous Shaw. Casting the physically striking but emotionally vacant January Jones as diamond-skinned ice queen Emma Frost was a stroke of genius considering it's her only big screen role so far that's efficiently covered up all her weaknesses as an actress, or at least has given her a convenient excuse for them. If she's the weak link, it doesn't show for a change. As the only non-mutant, Rose Byrne makes MacTaggert seem essential rather than the odd woman out.
Vaughn stacks the film with many memorable scenes taking full advantage the retro time period and setting, incorporating impressive production design and clever musical choices, such as a recruitment montage set to Gnarls Barkey's "Run" and the use of Freddy Cannon's "Palisades Park" during a club sequence. This is how a intelligent comic book movie should be made and it wouldn't be a stretch to say it raises the bar, especially for those still feeling burned by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If my average rating seems to betrays my enthusiastic reaction that's only because I still have my doubts as to whether the film will be worth returning to repeatedly if you weren't a fan to begin with. Here's hoping I'm wrong, and that's certainly possible given how much there is here to appreciate. It's fun seeing back stories of characters I've only heard about and seen pictures of play out in ways more interesting than I suspected. Whether a sequel can build on that remains to be seen, but at least I'd be looking forward to it. X-Men: First Class proves to be just the shot in the arm the superhero genre needs.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden
Running Time: 123 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
For as many story plots get recycled and movies remade it's at least reassuring to know there's still new and surprising ways acting performances can blow you away. The one given by Saoirse Ronan as a 16-year-old assassin in Hanna is proof of that. It's one thing for an actress her age to summon up enough poise, confidence and physical presence to believably portray a trained killing machine but what stuck out most for me out when it ended were all the other scenes where she's also called upon to play a scared, awkward teen. Comparisons have already been made to last year's Kick-Ass, which featured Chloe Moretz as a tween aged, foul-mouthed superhero killer named Hit-Girl but that character was was more satirical in nature. Director Joe Wright is deadly serious here, and takes a huge gamble in the process. But when it ended I was left with the feeling I had witnessed more than your routine action thriller, even if no one could be blamed for thinking that when evaluating the plot on paper. Half action movie, half beautifully twisted fairy tale, it's not for everyone and will probably put off as many as it thrills, but it's still difficult to claim you've seen anything exactly like it.
Raised and trained in the woods of Finland by her father, ex-CIA agent Erik (Eric Bana), 16 year-old Hanna Heller (Ronan) is ready to go out on her own. With just the flick of a switch, a transmitter alerts the government to their location, setting their plan into motion for Erik to escape and Hanna to eventually meet up with her dad following a trek through Germany. Getting in the way of that reunion and leading the charge in their capture is the calculating Marissa Zeigler (Cate Blanchett) an obsessive CIA operative with a personal connection to the case who clearly wants Erik taken dead, but also harbors a strange fascination with the girl. Moving at a deliberate pace that effectively builds tension and suspense, Hanna's journey at times more closely resembles a road trip than a manhunt as she falls in with a married couple (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) on vacation and forms a friendship with their teenage daughter (Jessica Barden) but Marissa's always lurking in the shadows, as is her flamboyantly sadistic henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander). Trained to kill but emotionally unprepared for the real world around her, Hanna must evade capture long enough to reunite with her papa in Berlin.
While the plot may seem bare bones on the surface, but that's to its credit as the discoveries come in the details. Beyond the exciting action, this is really coming-of-age character study interested in exploring the psychological implications of an isolated child suddenly thrust into the real world without a life raft. Trained only to kill and protect herself, the most memorable sequences occur when Hanna's confronted with everyday life. This is a girl who can shoot someone in cold blood, but is scared to death of an electric kettle, giddily jumps up and down at the sight of an airplane, and has no idea how to work a remote control. She's been taught multiple languages and history by her father and is given a rehearsed back story to tell strangers, but there's no substitute for actual experience, which is why her journey is so scary. So far ahead of any child her age in terms of physical capability and intelligence, what stands out is how far behind she is emotionally. Because the script is so deeply interested in getting into the protagonist's head space it becomes more than your standard action outing, which could turn off some viewers expecting only chases and kills (not to say there isn't plenty). There's an artistry at work that we're not used to seeing in a mainstream thriller in terms of the editing, performances, visuals and most memorably, an adrenaline fueled, pulse pounding score from the Chemical Brothers that couldn't possibly provide a better backdrop for many of the brilliantly choreographed action sequences.
Ronan's performance is flat-out unbelievable for precisely how impressively she handles Hanna's duality, shifting from scared little girl to trained assassin and back again at seemingly the drop of a hat. The underrated Eric Bana's greatest asset as Erik is his ability to invisibly slide into the fatherly role and not mind being upstaged by his younger co-star. As their nemesis, Cate Blanchett looks to be having the time of her life hamming it up as the "wicked witch" hunting the little girl, giving the kind of villainous performance that isn't too far removed from her work in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a few years ago (albeit this time in a quality film). Even while struggling a bit with what I think is supposed to be a southern accent, she makes Marissa Zeigler a cold, calculating perfectionist and I loved the small details that were put in to show that, like her obsessive dental hygiene and sterile apartment. She's a villain with an edge in a movie that not only feels edgy but also more "R" than "PG-13." Part of that could just have to do with the subject matter, though more of it probably has to do with presentation, visual style and tone.
There's one brief, but masterful performance that hijacks the movie and turns it into something darker and meaner. As Marissa's right hand man Isaacs, Tom Hollander almost seems to be channeling A Clockwork Orange's Alex if he were creepily reimagined as an effeminate tennis tracksuit wearing owner of a transvestite disco club. And how many villains have ever get their own catchy theme song, much less one so catchy even they whistle it? Hollander's total screen time probably doesn't even exceed 5 minutes but he makes each one of them terrifying, leaving the kind of indelible mark that deserves to be remembered come awards time.
If there's one small mistake hampering the script it's in revealing a key piece of information about Hanna that would have been better left unrevealed. One of the story's biggest strengths right from the gripping opening sequence was it's realism so there's disappointment in having a plot device introduced that's more common in a superhero or sci-fi movie, which this strives to be much more than. There's a thrill in believing for 2 hours that a young girl could be trained from an early age to do this stuff so providing a scientific explanation robs that notion of some of its mystique. If it's okay with the filmmakers I'll just pretend they never went there since that slight slip-up hardly hampers the enjoyment of the whole experience, especially with when you have an ending that not only makes ingenious use of an unconventional setting, but provides real closure. You can almost hear the book closing shut on the movie, concluding almost exactly as it began. But the best thing about Hanna is how it never seems to be wimping out in any way, taking risks while challenging the audience to appreciate details that push it out of the comfort zone we've come to expect from most mainstream action thrillers.