Friday, September 26, 2014
So far this year, the Cap'n hasn't had to write a "So You Won't Have To" review, which is honestly preferable on my end. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind biting the bullet for you folks every now and then, but any year I can go nine months into without seeing a movie bad enough to merit a SYWHT is a good year. Also, I've been trying to avoid those unless it's bundled into a Bad Movie Night or a Summer Fest. It's better for everybody, it seems.
But once and awhile my curiosity gets the better of me, or opportunity permits me to watch something I had decided probably wasn't a good idea to see, and as a result I'm going to satisfy your morbid curiosity about former filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. At this point I can't even call him a director, because if what he's doing in Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill for qualifies as "directing," then I need to rethink my stance on the quality of Asylum productions. I really don't know what happened to this guy, because the Cap'n was a fan of Rodriguez deep into his career. I'll still defend El Mariachi, Desperado, The Faculty, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the first two Spy Kids movies. I think Spy Kids 3-D and Once Upon a Time in Mexico have problems, but I still enjoy them. Planet Terror and Machete are a heaping help of down and dirty fun.
For 9 years, Rodriguez and Miller hinted that they were planning on adapting A Dame to Kill For - one of my favorite Sin City stories - as a sequel, but they kept putting it off to make garbage like The Spirit or Spy Kids 4*. All the while, my enjoyment of Rodriguez films continued to drop off, so while there was some hope when he and Miller decided to actually make A Dame to Kill For, Machete Kills seriously hobbled my expectations. Even with my hopes in check, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For managed to disappoint.
Let's start with something you might have noticed from the trailers (if you watched them) and were wondering: no, there's no reason that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's new character has anything to do with A Dame to Kill For, or Powers Boothe as Senator Roark, or Bruce Willis' extended cameo as ghost Hartigan (yes, ghost Hartigan). While they could have easily just made A Dame to Kill For the entire film, Rodriguez and Miller again decided to cram in other stories as "filler," to pad out the 94 minute running time. Two of them add nothing to the Sin City universe at all, and the last one seems to contradict the first movie (if not, by extension, the comics) altogether.
I don't want to spend more time on this than necessary, so let's just say that the Marv-centric "Just Another Saturday Night" was unnecessary, too short, and doesn't set the tone in the same way that "Keep the Customer Satisfied" did in the first film. Since I'm guessing that's what it was intended to do, even after nine years, it fails to remind us why we're here to watch a Sin City movie. It isn't as clear here as it is in "Nancy's Last Dance," but Mickey Rourke's Marv makeup looks horrible. I'm not quite sure why, but I'll chalk it up to the lighting, or digital after-the-fact "lighting," because Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger don't usually provide such lousy prosthetics.
The second (and, I guess, fourth) segment is "The Long, Bad Night," a never published Sin City story by Miller, focused on card shark Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), who runs afoul of Senator Roark (Boothe), perhaps by design. The story has no payoff to speak of, particularly when you factor in the last segment, which undoes everything significant about Johnny's plan, but if you want to see Christopher Lloyd and Lady Gaga in semi-useless cameos, I guess this scratches your itch. It has some of the worst use of a green screen set (where only the door is real) I think I can remember, and we haven't even made it to the ubiquitous use of terrible green screen yet.
"A Dame to Kill For" at least gave me some hope with the inclusion of Eva Green as Ava Lord and Josh Brolin as the pre-surgery version of Dwight, but those hopes were quickly dashed by the overall execution of the story. Maybe it's just how cheap everything looks, or how playing it "hard boiled" somehow translates to everyone snarling or sneering, which makes a two dimensional comic strip one dimensional on the big screen. It's laughable how bad everyone is, and Green is actually perfectly suited to play Ava Lord, but comes of terribly under the "just go for it" direction of Rodriguez and Miller.
Brolin might have been all right, but the inexplicable decision to keep him, post surgery, and not bring back Clive Owen was a horrible idea. Rodriguez has no excuse, as Machete Kills was filled with actors who came in as they were available (which, admittedly, led to its "piecemeal" execution), and Sin City famously features a conversation between Mickey Rourke and Rutger Hauer that was filmed weeks apart. Putting Josh Brolin in a "Clive Owen Wig" and giving him a few prosthetics to make him look slightly different (honestly, I couldn't tell until the close-up) doesn't cut it. Unless Clive Owen flat out refused to be involved with the film (and he didn't - he was shooting The Knick), Rodriguez could have figured out something.
There are plenty of small parts in A Dame to Kill For, giving Rosario Dawson a chance to come back as Gail, Jaime King to play Goldie and Wendy again, and Jamie Chung to step in as the new Miho. Ray Liotta and Juno Temple set the tone of the segment off in the wrong way where he hysterically overacts, but at least that's something. Christopher Meloni, Martin Csokas, and Jeremy Piven have almost nothing interesting to do with one-note characters, and I didn't even realize Piven was supposed to be playing Michael Madsen's Bob. He makes no impression whatsoever, like Stacy Keach playing a penis head with boils in one scene. Dennis Haysbert admirably steps in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute, although he lacks the stature to really pull it off, especially against Brolin and Rourke. Also troubling was the fact that I could see the seam of his eye prosthetic on the edge of Haysbert's nose half the time. Are we really sure this movie cost Robert Rodriguez $60 Million dollars?
Seriously, before I get into "Nancy's Last Dance," which is the "Exhibit A" of what's wrong with A Dame to Kill for, can I mention how cheap everything in this movie looks? Where did the 60 million go, because it wasn't in the CGI rendering of every background. That looks somehow even worse than the last Sin City movie, and that was from 2005. There a moments of almost comically bad green screen work, where (I kid you not) the camera moves to mask the fact that the actors are hanging in the air (static) on wires. I laughed out loud when Nancy (Jessica Alba) and Marv "jump" over a fence, and by that I mean they didn't move at all and the camera panned down to the fake ground they were "landing" on. It's embarrassingly shitty looking; the kind of crap you'd expect from DTV, not a 60 million dollar movie.
Okay, I've already spent way more time on this piece of crap than I wanted to, but let me finally chase off any die-hard Sin City fans who are mentally attempting to wriggle their way out of this review. Let's talk about "Nancy Last Dance," a newly created piece by Frank Miller designed to give Jessica Alba a showcase and close out A Dame to Kill For. And, in doing so, taking a dump all over "The Hard Goodbye" and "That Yellow Bastard." Right now, I'm going to SPOIL "The Long, Bad, Night," because, who cares? You're never going to see this awful movie, even if you, like me, wanted it not to suck as hard as it does. At the end of "The Long, Bad, Night," Johnny comes back to Senator Roark's back-room card game to beat him (again) just so that "everyone knows I beat you twice. They won't talk about it here, but it'll get out there, and everybody will know." Roark kills his illegitimate son, and goes back to playing.
Immediately after this happens, "Nancy's Last Dance" starts, which undoes the significance of Johnny's act by jumping forward in time past "That Yellow Bastard" and "A Dame to Kill For" to a seriously broken Nancy. She's a drunken mess, angry at Hartigan for dying and angrier at herself for not shooting Roark when he left Kadie's Bar in "The Long, Bad, Night." She cuts her hair off, mutilates her face with a piece of broken glass, and decides it's time to kill him once and for all. While this is happening, Ghost Hartigan is wandering around, giving us the half-mumbled musings that come from Bruce Willis phoning it in as a favor. But here's where it gets stupid. If you'll remember, Senator Roark is alive when Marv is arrested and executed in "The Hard Goodbye," which is why it makes no sense that the very same Marv helps Nancy break into Roark's house and is just outside the room when Nancy kills Senator Roark. And how does she kill him? Well, he has the edge on her all the way through the scene until Ghost Hartigan appears in a mirror and scares him.
I'm going to let you digest that for a minute. Take your time.
Now, this could be filed under "fanboy nitpicking," and I wouldn't blame you if you decided to go that way, but "Nancy's Last Dance" feels like Miller trying as hard as he possibly can to find a way to put Nancy and Marv together in a story we haven't seen that gives some unneeded closure to her story. He does so at the expense of the logic of not only his stories, but of the first movie. I read some forum post about how maybe Marv was supposed to also be a ghost (hence why he couldn't follow Nancy into the room) but there's a lot of Marv interacting with people when Nancy isn't on-camera for it to all "be in her mind," I get the mental break part of it, but the pretzel logic in this segment is pathetic. Coupled with the horrible "action" and really bad looking Marv prosthetics, or the Ghost Hartigan in Nancy's living room that might be impressive if everything but the couch wasn't a green screen shot, it's just the final nail in this movie's coffin.
Rodriguez killed any interest I had in the Sin City, Machete, and Spy Kids series in the span of three years. That's an impressive feat. For bonus points, I couldn't even finish watching the From Dusk Till Dawn TV show. I think I'm finally, officially, done giving this guy chances. Whatever it was he had, it's gone, and like Kevin Smith, Rodriguez persists in pushing on, pursuing his own stupid interests in as lazy a way as humanly possible. No amount of gratuitous nudity and extreme violence is going to hide the fact that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For looks more like a star-studded fan film than an actual movie. It's not worth my time and it's certainly not worth yours, but I guess I'm glad I saw it So You Won't Have To.
* I was going to say Shorts, but I didn't want to confuse people who wouldn't know Rodriguez made a dumb kids' movie with the Robert Altman film Short Cuts.
Monday, September 22, 2014
If you're going into Jon Favreau's Chef expecting something new or innovative in the realm of filmmaking or storytelling, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. Chef sticks to the basics, with a plot so predictable that you can guess how it all plays out within ten minutes. There's no reinventing the wheel, just Favreau working with his friends in the service of an age old story about the busy man who needs to slow down and appreciate life, interspersed with lengthy montages set to his favorite music. And that's not a bad thing at all.
Chef is the cinematic equivalent to comfort food, appropriate considering that's the Raison d'être of titular character Carl Casper (Favreau). He was once known for his adventurous menus, for risk taking, but since he's been the chef for Riva (Dustin Hoffman)'s Los Angeles restaurant, Casper's had to curtail his ambitions. He still likes to change things up, with the support of his sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and line cook Martin (John Leguizamo), but when influential food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes in to review the menu, Riva orders him to "stick with the classics." Michel tears the menu apart, and Casper mistakenly takes to social media to air his grievances, and becomes an unwitting viral sensation.
I mentioned in my review of Frank that Chef's only real novelty is its mostly accurate portrayal of how social media works, largely through Percy. Carl has no idea how to use Twitter and makes the mistake of using his new account to attack Ramsey Michel publicly. Percy uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine to document their trip across country (notable stops include New Orleans and Austin), as well as to advertise where they'll be next. While I can't say how long Chef will be out there before some of this seems dated, Favreau does use the concept of "viral videos" and the new "social" world we live in a way that doesn't feel contrived.
This is mostly speculation on the part of the Cap'n, but it feels like Chef is a "back to basics" for Favreau after Cowboys & Aliens. It's a stripped down, less complicated movie that limits special effects to on-screen indicators of someone tweeting (I can't lie, hearing a "bird" noise after every "message sent" got a little old) and an almost bare bones plot. Again, this is not a bad thing, and if it was the palate cleanser that he needed after the lukewarm reaction to Cowboys & Aliens, then I'm glad that Favreau excels in telling stories we've heard before this well. It's almost surprising how little I minded the fact that I knew exactly where Chef was headed and, beat by beat, it does nothing more than what you'd expect. He makes even the oldest movie clichés feel natural and is amiable enough as the lead that you don't mind he's playing the old favorites.
It might also help that Favreau brought along a lot of old friends, even if just for minor roles. I didn't mention that Iron Man and Iron Man 2 alums Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. pop up in semi-extended cameos. Johansson plays Molly, the hostess at Riva's restaurant and maybe Carl's girlfriend (this is never really clear, but he definitely takes her home and cooks for her while she's sitting in his bed) who urges him to break out of his routine. Downey Jr. has a one scene cameo as Marvin, Inez's first husband who bankrolls El Jefe and buys the food truck for Carl. He may or may not have hooked up with his ex-wife after Carl split up with her, and he has a penchant for people wearing footies in his office, but Marvin seems like a basically decent guy. It's reasonably clear that Favreau worked with friends as they were available, which explains why Cannavale, Hoffman and Johansson aren't in the last scene when just about everybody else is. There are no real "villains" in Chef - even Oliver Platt has his moment of redemption as Ramsey Michel that leads to an unexpected (from the source, anyway) 11th hour version of a twist. Or as much of one as Chef can have.
The music is also very good, a combination of Latin and New Orleans Jazz, soul, Motown, a little bit of rock and roll, and more than a couple live performances in Austin and Miami (Inez's father is played by Perico Hernandez). There's an unusual sing along to a Jazzy version of "Sexual Healing" with Martin and Carl, mostly because Percy is in the truck with them. Favreau spends as much time showcasing music he enjoys as he does on montages of food preparation, and while I'm not someone who does a lot of cooking, it seems legit. Maybe someone who is or has been a chef can watch this and set me straight, but it does feel like he's not faking the prep work. Favreau is definitely not faking the language in a kitchen, and if anything is going to hold Chef back from being "family friendly," it's the persistent profanity. But again, it's not a cleaned up version, nor is it designed to be as vulgar as, say, Waiting...
Unlike a lot of movies I review here, Chef has the chance to appeal to the broadest swath of audiences, and I'll admit that even I came away with positive feelings. The Cap'n is usually the kind of grumpus who wouldn't bother watching something this easy to call early in, but Favreau has a pretty good track record, as far as I'm concerned. I think a great many of you will like it even more than I did, and it's an easy recommendation for just about anyone: foodies, music fans, or date night-ers. Just don't judge me if I get back to watching horror movies or anything like that. I mean, October's almost here...
Thursday, September 18, 2014
In the interest of full disclosure, I've had a bad go of it when it comes to "mumblecore." Oh, I've tried, but I usually can't finish a Joe Swanberg movie (as short as they are) - that includes Happy Christmas, 24 Exposures, and Drinking Buddies, which I got the farthest into before getting bored and turning the movie off. So far, the only thing that came out of the "mumblecore" movement I even remotely enjoyed was Adam Wingard's You're Next, which apparently qualifies as "mumblegore" but seems too well scripted to really fit into the "improvisational" filmmaking style.
This comes up because The One I Love, from first time director Charlie McDowell and first time screenwriter Justin Lader is produced by the Duplass Brothers, they of The Puffy Chair, Cyrus, and Jeff Who Lives at Home. Given the previous paragraph, I'm going to let you guess whether I liked any of those movies. Take your time. Okay, so you're back and if you thought that even the presence of John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill could sway me on Cyrus, nope. Hated it. But I had heard really good things about The One I Love, particularly about the premise, which I'm going to SPOIL the hell out of. If you want to go in knowing nothing, stop here and know that The One I Love is "mumblecore" in the same way that You're Next is, which to me means it isn't. It's a very interesting riff on The Twilight Zone, and I'll leave it at that until you're done.
Okay, for everybody else, I don't feel bad SPOILING The One I Love at all because you're not more than ten minutes into the movie before the "twist" happens. McDowell is essentially working a variation on the "Two Hander," with Mark Duplass (The League) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) as Ethan and Sophie, a married couple on the rocks. There are trust issues, he's too analytical and she's too judgmental, and even their therapy sessions are largely spent glowering at each other. Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends a retreat out in the mountains that "renews" relationships, so they agree. The house seems nice, the grounds are pretty swank, and even the guest house is fully furnished.
There is, it seems, more going on than meets the eye, but it's less important than watching Moss and Duplass interacting with very different versions of their characters (more Duplass than Moss, as the "other" Sophie isn't much of a factor until late in the film) and what it does to their already fractious relationship. Ethan finds himself competing for his wife's affection with, well, himself, only a more appealing version. Out of desperation, he pulls a potentially relationship damaging act of subterfuge, one that comes back to haunt him when they discover that the "other" Ethan and Sophie are able to leave the guest house. Their final night at the house is indeed a tense one, as both Ethans and both Sophies have dinner and attempt to navigate mutual suspicions. And then, near the end, we have some idea why the therapist isn't answering his phone and what purpose these "others" serve. I'll save that for you to find out.
If this was a largely improvised movie (as per "mumblecore" ethos), it certainly didn't feel like it. Some of the conversations between Moss and Duplass felt a little open ended, but that might have more to do with the ambiguous nature of the situation Ethan and Sophie are in. There's a considerable amount of set-up / payoff in the film, particularly at the end, and while I'd technically classify the film as "science fiction," it's mostly realistic in execution. Since they have to carry the lion's share of the film, Moss and Duplass have a lot of work to do and are always interesting to watch. Duplass, in particular, creates two very different takes on Ethan, who are fundamentally the same person, but whose approaches to life and agendas couldn't be more different. Moss is largely relegated to one Sophie, as we simply don't get a lot of time with her doppelganger, but the way she opens up over the course of the film is something special indeed. Danson's role is essentially a cameo (his wife, Mary Steenburgen*, also has a tiny role as Ethan's mother via voicemail), but his presence looms late into The One I Love.
Despite my apprehension at the presence of Mark and Jay Duplass producing and the concerns I might be walking into another meandering drama about relationships captured with improvisational, hand-held aesthetics, The One I Love really grabbed me and didn't let go. It's a fun trip back into the Twilight Zone, and that alone would make it worth recommending. Fortunately for you, there's plenty more to enjoy, as long as you enjoy low-fi sci-fi. Don't let the "mumblecore" producing credentials shy you away - this one is worth your time.
* Steenburgen is also McDowell's mother, and Danson his stepfather, for trivia buffs.
Friday, September 5, 2014
As I have been led to believe, Frank (2014) is the prequel to Robot & Frank (2012), which doesn't make a lot of sense to the Cap'n, but we'll go with that. I haven't seen Robot & Frank, and maybe I should so that this review makes more sense, but based on the IMDB synopsis it seems like the "Frank" character that Michael Fassbender is playing grows older and becomes the "Frank" that Frank Langella plays. Or maybe he's the robot. I'm not sure. I never pictured Fassbender's Frank becoming a jewel thief (SPOILER if you haven't seen Robot & Frank, like me), but I could maybe see him becoming a robot. It actually makes more sense that way, but what do I know?
Nah, I'm just pulling your chain; Frank (probably) has nothing to do with Robot & Frank, but if I had seen the latter film I'd give it the old college try to make tenuous connections. Frank minus Robot is about Jon Burroughs (Domhall Gleeson), who is just a normal guy that wants to be a musician. The only problem is that he's terrible at it. He writes lots of songs, but they're all strictly observational - the beginning of the film follows Jon home as he tries to come up with ideas, and mostly he sings things he's sees, like "lady with the red coat / what you doing with that bag / lady in the blue coat / do you know the lady in the red coat?". He lacks inspiration, and feels like his normal, suburban life in Ireland is to blame.
By chance, he's sitting on a park bench when the keyboard player for Soronprfbs decides he's had enough and that he wants to drown in the frigid waters. This puts the band in a bit of a predicament, as they have a gig that night. As he's standing next to their manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), Jon casually mentions he plays the keyboard, and he's in. What he's in, as Jon (and we) will learn, is more than he could imagine. By this point in the film, we've already heard Soronprfbs on the radio, where an interview devolves into screaming profanity as members of the band attack each other, and that turns out to be pretty much the dynamic that Jon steps into.
Frank Sidebottom) at all times, even in the shower. No one in the band has ever seen him without the head, and nobody will discuss it with Jon other than Don.
After a disastrous gig that begins with the band noodling and Frank singing non-sequiturs and ends with Clara and Baraque screaming at each other and storming off stage, Jon assumes his adventure has come to a close and he returns to his desk job. But Frank calls, offering him another gig, and Jon hops back in the van. They end up somewhere in the Irish countryside, in a cabin in the woods, where unbeknownst to our protagonist, Don has rented out the place to record Soronprfbs's album. Since only Frank knows what it should sound like, that could take a while.
Now, at this point in a movie about an everyman outsider who joins an abstract, stand-offish group / band / etc., we typically have a good idea of what's going to happen: the "weird" band and the "normal" hero are going to meet somewhere in the middle, both will find their groove and everything will turn out great at the big gig. Everybody learns something about themselves, the mean person turns out to really respect the protagonist or they find love, blah blah blah. Without spoiling anything, Frank doesn't go that way. It turns out that Jon, who begins communicating about the band in a clandestine manner via Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube, is a terrible fit for the band. His musical ideas are terrible, but he convinces Frank that the people following the band online love Soronprfbs (don't try to pronounce it - none of the members do). His sway over Frank only further alienates him with Clara, and when Jon takes the initiative and books the band at South by Southwest, his true intentions come out. And that doesn't work out so well, either.
Were I you, I wouldn't go into Frank expecting a comedy, because while it is often funny (or at the very least, amusing), there's a dark undercurrent to the film. The original keyboardist isn't the only person involved in the band that gives up on living, and the contentious atmosphere never softens. While it's frequently an interesting movie to watch, Frank keeps you at a distance until the very end. The last scene brings about some sense of setting things right, but on its own terms, and in the meantime it's hard to find a character to sympathize with. Jon transitions from affable to duplicitous not long after they arrive at the cabin, and the other chief option, Frank, is a mystery until late into the film.
This is not to say that Gleeson, Fassbender, and Gyllenhaal aren't all very good in their roles, but that the characters seem off-putting by design, and you have to really work to want any of them to succeed. I'm not sure how the average moviegoer is going to respond to (SPOILER-ISH) Clara being right all along and Jon being totally wrong about Frank's ability to process actual fans. The film is, at times, dead-set in going the opposite direction of what you expect, and tonally I found it very similar to Calvary. Ostensibly Frank and Calvary are comedies, but both spend more time examining human nature and its frailties and less on making sure the audience feels comfortable with what they're seeing. Which is not to say that this is a bad thing, because I very much enjoyed Calvary and I like a lot of Frank, particularly the pitch perfect way it closes.
Frank should also probably get some credit for accurately portraying the way that social media is used, although that might date the film as the internet pushes forward. Like Jon Favreau's Chef - an entertaining, albeit totally predictable movie I might review down the line - Abrahamson, Ronson, and Straughan use Jon's knowledge of Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube to help turn Soroprfbs into a viral sensation in a way that reflects how it usually happens, which is pretty much what Chef does with Twitter and Vine. I appreciated the effort, particularly in a cinematic landscape where computers are often a lazy way to get exposition out.
The songs, for the record (no pun intended, but what can you do?) range from pretty entertaining to "what?" The last song, in particular, is the catchiest, despite the fact that I misunderstood Fassbender's singing and thought the chorus was "I love you, wall" instead of "I love you all," which does change the closing scene a little bit. Without getting into why she's singing them, it's also quite amusing to hear Clara's renditions of "On Top of Old Smokey" and "I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper." Jon's songs start out fitfully silly and devolve into wordless garbage by the end of the film, but I'm almost positive that was by design, so I won't criticize that too much.
Finally, I can't leave out the truly impressive feat by Michael Fassbender, who manages to convey a great sense of empathy and enthusiasm in Frank without the benefit of facial expressions. He's behind the mask, which you can see in the poster above, and aside from a brief period when he begins describing his facial expressions to ease Jon's discomfort, Fassbender relies entirely on his body language and voice (in a strange, slightly ambiguous "American" accent) to bring the character across. If you weren't somehow already impressed by his acting before, Frank will push you over. That is, if you don't mind an almost relentlessly downbeat "comedy". It's tempting to call Frank a "black comedy," but I'm not certain that quite captures the film. Like its titular character, Frank is an odd bird. It's not for everybody, to be sure, but if you liked Little Miss Sunshine and thought the ending was too "upbeat," this might be your kind of movie. I have the feeling I'll revisit Frank at some point, if for no other reason than to figure out how a robot and jewel thievery get shoehorned into this universe...