Friday, November 28, 2014

BIRDMAN Is Strange, Ambitious, Doesn't Quite Hit Its Mark

 BIRDMAN Review:

- I really, really wanted to love BIRDMAN. From the trailers, I pre-fell in love with the concept of Michael Keaton as a former cinematic superhero star who was now grappling with a showbiz career on the decline, all while being haunted by the ghosts of his past triumphs. The meta-heavy setup was intriguing, and Keaton is an actor who has been underutilized in recent years. BIRDMAN seemed to have all the ingredients to be something special. After seeing it though, I don't know. I recognize that some will love the movie's twisty, unique narrative style. And Keaton *is* pretty amazing in this role, playing an exaggerated version of himself with all kinds of charisma and self-effacing humor. But director Alejandro González Iñárritu's offbeat vision never quite gels into something that 100% works. I was impressed by the film's ambition, but never fully got what it was trying to say. Ultimately, the film's message, I think, is muddled by Inarritu's drive to be clever.

In the film, Keaton plays Riggan, a middle-aged actor who once starred in the much-loved superhero franchise Birdman. Riggan famously turned down the opportunity to make another Birdman film (just as Keaton, in real life turned down the chance to do a third Batman movie), and he's now writing and producing and starring in a play that, he's hoping, will reestablish his artistic cred and finally help him move beyond Birdman. And yet, Birdman haunts him. Riggan has strange visions of the superhero he once played - visions that egg him on and try to convince him that he *is* Birdman, and that, by-god, he should embrace it. Riggan tries to put his past behind him, but part of him insists that Birdman is not only something to be proud of, but an innate part of his being that makes him a real-life, no-joke superhero. 

Here's the thing though: the whole Birdman aspect of the film - this nagging part of Riggan's psyche that just won't die - is the most interesting part of the film. But Inarritu downplays it - having Birdman appear only sporadically, and with little consequence. Inarritu never seems quite sure where he wants to go with the whole Birdman thing, and so the nature of Riggan's hallucinations (or are they ...?) are never fully addressed or resolved in a satisfying manner. What Inarritu seems much more interested in is the play that Riggan is producing. And so BIRDMAN becomes, ultimately, much more about the theater than it is anything else. The director shoots the movie in a way that makes it seem like we're watching one long, uninterrupted take. It seems that what Inarritu is really interested in is capturing the experience of theater. But the play-within-the-movie of Birdman is, sadly, only mildly interesting.

What is interesting is the eclectic cast of characters that populate Riggan's production. Though not actually a cast member of the play, the show-stealer of the film is Emma Stone, as Riggan's daughter, Sam. Stone has a couple of real barnburner moments in the movie, including an absolutely fantastic monologue in the film's first act that is perhaps the best thing she's ever done as an actress. As good as Keaton is here, my number-one takeaway from BIRDMAN was: hot damn, Emma Stone *kills* it in this one. Sam is a girl who has gone through the obvious trauma of having a barely-present movie-star dad, but who is also a walking reality-check for Riggan - never afraid to tear him a new one when needed. She does act out though - and that includes striking up a cringeworthy relationship with the hot-shot star of her dad's play, the much-older Mike (Edward Norton). Norton is also really good here, and also playing a sort of self-parody character. Mike plays off Norton's rep as a self-involved would-be intellectual who tends to try to exert creative control over his projects. And indeed, Mike quickly has a lot of changes he wants to make to Riggan's play. Naomi Watts also appears as Mike's wife - also an actor in Riggan's production. Watts is always great, though her character here feels a little hot and cold and perhaps underwritten.

As for Keaton - he really is excellent here. He's such a naturally funny and charismatic actor, and BIRDMAN lets him show the full range of his talent. I especially loved the scenes where the Birdman persona takes over and Keaton goes full-psycho. I only wish that there was more of a real narrative drive to those scenes, and that they added up to something more than a collection of showcase-pieces for Keaton. But yes, all that aside, BIRDMAN is a great reminder that Keaton is not just good, but great. This is a guy who should be doing Oscar-worthy films. He sinks his teeth into this part, and seems to relish the fact that his character is seemingly inspired by his actual career. Clearly, there's something cathartic for Keaton in playing a role like this, and that comes out in the sheer power, humor, and commitment on display here.

But ultimately, what does it all mean? BIRDMAN squanders a couple of opportunities to at least end with an exclamation point, and instead keeps going past its ideal end-point, concluding on a whimper rather than a bang. The film's dizzying, one-take visual style deserves major kudos for originality and ambition, but it too, seems just a bit gimmicky. I struggled to find a real thematic reason for that style to be used. Just as I struggled to find real meaning in the use of Birdman as a recurring motif and as an actual character that would appear to Keaton in the film. It's a shame, because you sense that there's a truly great film buried beneath the rubble here that is close to getting out. But I'm not sure that Iñárritu is able to get to the real core of the story he wants to tell here, or to find the exact right tonal balance between humor, introspection, and weirdness. Keaton, Stone, and Norton do some absolutely great work in this one, and it's worth seeing for them, and to see a movie that is juggling some really interesting themes, and that's striving for something original and thought-provoking. But there's an uncertainty to this film that keeps it from hitting its mark. Credit it though for swinging for the fences.

My Grade: B

Thursday, November 27, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER Is the Pitch-Black Satire We Need


- The fact that NIGHTCRAWLER was the #1 movie at the American box-office over Halloween weekend is, surely, one of those strange anomalies that will often be mentioned as an exception-to-the-rule - the rule being that smart, weird, adult-oriented, non-franchise films can still do well. Nightcrawler's success may ultimately prove modest in the grand scheme of things, but, this is a film that very much deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It's a film that reminds me of some of the great movies about who-we-are, one part Taxi Driver, one part Network. Jake Gyllenhaal stars - in a soon-to-be-iconic role as weirdo loner Lou Bloom - and he absolutely kills it. He delivers a haunting, strange, funny, and downright disturbing performance as an ambitious outcast whose moral compass is severely off-kilter. This is a film that really shocked me with just how dark and lurid it was willing to go. It pushes its plot to jaw-dropping extremes, and is all the more memorable for it. This is a can't-miss film that, in my mind, ranks right up there among the year's best.

NIGHTCRAWLER introduces us to Lou Boom and instantly makes him into a fascinating, idiosyncratic, and deeply disturbing protagonist. We see him trying to sell pilfered scrap metal, and then desperately, creepily try to convince the scrapyard owner he's selling to to hire him. "If you want to win the lottery, you gotta have the money to buy a ticket." argues Lou. Later, Lou comes across a bloody car wreck, and becomes intrigued by all of the opportunistic video jockeys swarming the crash scene, grabbing video footage in hopes of selling it to local news networks. Lou sees this as a way to make money, as something he'd be good at. So he buys himself a video camera, recruits a down-on-his-luck assistant named Rick, and is off to the races. Lou finds he has an aptitude for monitoring police bands and getting the sort of shock-TV footage that the local news channels crave. He becomes a regular supplier of footage to a local news show run by Nina (Rene Russo). "If it bleeds, it leads" is her mantra.

What's so interesting about NIGHTCRAWLER - and what makes it such a potent satire - is the way in which Nina and her team are repelled and repulsed by Lou, yet also serve as his enablers. As someone who's now lived in Los Angeles for close to ten years, I've seen how uniquely-obsessed LA local news is with sensational stories - the more violent the better. Good luck trying to stay up to date on local politics via LA TV news broadcasts. But if you want to see car chases, car crashes, and gruesome scenes of domestic violence, LA's news teams have got you covered. Of course, local TV news isn't exactly a prime source for news for many people these days, so you might think that NIGHTCRAWLER's premise is potentially outdated. In reality though, NIGHTCRAWLER functions brilliantly as not just a satire of local news' morally-bankrupt bloodlust, but also of any number of institutions that build empires off the blood of others. Lou Bloom represents the nightmare version of The American Dream - an ambitious self-starter who rolls up his sleeves, starts his own business, and ends up becoming a successful entrepreneur. But he does all of this all while his moral compass - shaky to begin with - increasingly shatters. It makes you think: how many businesses, how many institutions, how many empires, were built on blood?

Lou Bloom goes from merely quirky and creepy to downright scary, as he increasingly shows himself willing to do anything and everything to get the footage he wants. As the film progresses, he reveals himself to be a flat-out sociopath. And to its credit, NIGHTCRAWLER doesn't pull punches. This is an extreme film willing to go to very dark, very messed-up places in order to tell its story and make its point. During the film's climactic sequence, in which we see the full extent of Lou's depravity, I've got to say that I was in shock at what I was seeing. The film's intensity will leave you breathless.

Give credit to writer/director Dan Gilroy. The guy's been around for a while as a writer, but this is his first directorial effort. And what an effort it is. Gilroy makes NIGHTCRAWLER a definitive Los Angeles film. He films Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom all around the greater LA area, and he vividly paints Los Angeles at night as a dark place full of secrets and violence and ominous danger. This is not the glamorous side of LA, but the seedy, shady side of the city that residents see often, but that Hollywood often ignores. This is the sort of LA that gives birth to bottom-feeders like Lou Bloom - parasitic people who dwell in the shadows and roam the streets in search of blood. Gilroy infuses his film with creeping-dread atmosphere and a pitch-black sense of humor. He also crafts some truly riveting action, including an edge-of-your-seat car chase that is among the most nail-biting I've seen in a movie this year. The sense of tension in some of this film's scenes is off-the-chain.

So much of what makes NIGHTCRAWLER as memorable as it is can be attributed to Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal's breakout role came from Donnie Darko, in which he showed that he could ably play the oddball outsider. The actor has since dabbled with playing more traditional leading-man characters, but he's always excelled at playing eccentrics. And here is his most eccentric character yet - one which Gyllenhaal makes into a funny-scary mash-up that is utterly distinct and totally mesmerizing. Bloom speaks in a measured, hyper-literal manner that might seem completely comical in other hands, but Gyllenhaal tempers the character's quirkiness with a real darkness and edge. He goes all-in, and so you buy this character despite his over-the-topness. This is Oscar-worthy stuff from Gyllenhaal.

Rene Russo is also absolutely great as TV news producer Nina Romina. Russo makes Nina nearly as compelling of a character as Lou - she's a veteran producer who knows what she wants and tends to get it. But she and Lou are two sides of a coin: Lou's weirdness and depravity is sort of out there in the open - he tries to mask it, but it's there. Nina's depravity is of the slicker, more corporate, more institutionalized variety. It's the kind that's a seemingly acceptable part of corporate America. And yet a key part of her job is making deals with devils like Lou Bloom. As their relationship becomes stranger and more personal, we see the intertwining of the two roles. Is Nina really all that different from Lou? Is she not just Lou with a better job title, more money, and more professional tact? In any case, Russo does a bang-up job of making Nina a fascinating foil and accomplice to Lou. There are a couple of other notable turns in the film. Riz Ahmed is fantastic as Rick - a street kid who gets hired by Lou to be his wingman during his nighttime escapades. Ahmed perfectly portrays Rick as just the sort of desperate-for-cash guy who might be willing to hook up with Lou - but who eventually can't help but question his employer's sanity, as the full scope of his pathology becomes evident. Rick is a character both funny and heartbreaking, and I think Ahmed deserves major attention for his breakout role here. Bill Paxton is also excellent as a rival nightcrawler (the name for the guys like Lou who crawl the city in search of lucrative accident footage for TV news).

NIGHTCRAWLER is one of those films that burrows deep into your psyche and won't get out. Rich in atmosphere and completely uncompromising, it holds a mirror up to the media - and to America - and shows its darkest side in lurid detail. This is who we are, it says, and the truth, well ... it's ugly. Lou Bloom's midnight rides through Los Angeles may just become the stuff of cinematic legend: this is must-see satire of American Dream as American Nightmare.

My Grade: A

Monday, November 24, 2014




- There's a lot to like about the Hunger Games franchise. In an era when it still feels like we're lacking for female-driven blockbusters on the big screen, The Hunger Games stands as a defiant example of just how wrong and shortsighted big studios can be when it comes to diversifying their tentpole franchises. Katniss Everdeen as played by Jennifer Lawrence kicks all kinds of ass, and Lawrence is surrounded by a supporting cast littered with top-notch talent - from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Elizabeth Banks to Donald Sutherland to Jeffrey Wright to Julianne Moore (joining the series with Mockingjay) - who help to elevate The Hunger Games beyond what it might have been otherwise. That said, MOCKINGJAY, PART 1 also exhibits some of the worst tendencies of modern franchise filmmakiing: artificially extending a story to maximize revenue rather than because it's creatively justified, and in doing so presenting a decompressed storyline that is too frequently filled up with scenes of characters literally just sitting and talking in ways that don't drive the plot forward. MOCKINGJAY has its share of memorable, exciting moments - and Lawrence is as great as ever. But in its need to fill out two hours with only half a story, the film takes on the vibe of a 22-episode CW series - lots of on-the-nose dialogue seemingly inserted just to keep things from moving ahead too quickly. To put it simply, MOCKINGJAY is less killer, more filler.

When we last left off at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss' dome-shattering flaming arrow - a dramatic end to the all-star edition of The Hunger Games - had helped spur revolution across Pan-Em. Katniss found herself whisked away by a previously-secret band of freedom fighters that included old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and former games-master Plutarch Heavensbee. Now, the group - housed in a fortified underground compound (also there: a de-glammed Effie Trinket and Wright's science-whiz Beetee), wants Katniss to be the spokesperson for their revolutionary movement. Katniss is reluctant, but she agrees when she realizes that her Hunger Games companion, Peeta, has become a mouthpiece for President Snow's evil empire. Katniss decides to go out on the frontlines with a camera crew, and broadcast the Snow-inflicted devastation and tyranny to the masses (thanks to Beetee's hacking of the airwaves). All the while, tensions escalate as all-out war looms.

There's some really great, effective stuff in this film. There are some really funny and fun moments in which Katniss is awkwardly prepped by Julianne Moore's revolutionary leader Alma Coin - and a braintrust that includes Hoffman's Plutarch and Woody Harrelson's returning (and struggling-to-be-sober) Haymitch - to be the TV-friendly leader of the cause. Later, as the revolution gains steam, there's an absolutely fantastic scene of Katniss singing a rousing spiritual hymn to her friends, which then - in a stunning montage - becomes the battle hymn of revolutionaries throughout Pan-Em. There's also a super-sweet action sequence in which Katniss shoots down Snow's aircraft with incendiary arrows. I generally like director Francis Lawrence, and he's got a knack for crafting really epic, really effective apocalyptic imagery. And so another highlight of the film are some pretty jaw-dropping scenes that portray the destruction and death caused by Snow's systematic annihilation of problematic Districts in Pan-Em. Yep, in MOCKINGJAY we see Katniss drop to her knees and cry out helplessly among skeleton-filled ruins of destroyed cities - pretty epic - and surprisingly dark - stuff. In and of themselves, there are plenty of moments here that set the stage quite nicely for the coming final battle.

However, there are also lots of moments that remind me of the sorts of stuff we tend to see on TV shows that have to uncomfortably fill up 22 hours of airtime every season: people sitting around, talking, in a way that grinds the momentum of the storytelling to a screeching halt. We all know the kinds of scenes I'm talking about from shows like The Walking Dead: one character walks into a room, finds another character brooding there, and the two proceed to have a "deep" conversation in which they verbalize what we could already infer from their actions - often through pointless anecdotes or meandering confessions. Some may praise the inclusion of these scenes in MOCKINGJAY, and call it character-building. Sure, on the surface, yes. But I call it filler. It's ironic, because there's actually a scene in this movie where Haymitch reminds the rebellion's braintrust of Katniss' most memorable moments in her rise to fame, in an effort to dissuade them from trying too hard to package her in an artificial or forced-feeling manner for their propaganda pieces. Haymitch's words should have also been taken to heart by the filmmakers: what we remember about this series are the character moments that come organically in service of the plot, not those that feel like a forced way to shoehorn more "characterization" These scenes also constrict Frances Lawrence, as he's reduced to shooting lots of static scenes of two characters in a room having protracted heart-to-hearts. By the end of the movie, momentum just seems all but drained - rendering even the big, would-be-heart-pounding attack on the rebellion's compound feel pretty blah. The movie rallies in the final few minutes with a surprising final twist, but the shocker is more in its horror-movie-esque, jump-scare delivery than with the actual plot ramifications.

Luckily, the franchise's ace-in-the-hole is still Jennifer Lawrence, who carries the whole Hunger Games on her shoulders and makes even the film's weaker scenes work as well as they possibly could. It's funny, pop-culture watchers are so frequently exposed to Lawrence's goofy, good-natured real-life persona that it's easy to forget how badass and epic of a hero she is as Katniss. The real heart and soul of the film is Katniss' rise from accidental hero to genuine leader and revolutionary. And this is where the movie really soars - again, in large part thanks to Lawrence's performance. Lawrence makes Katniss' gradual acceptance of her role in the revolution feel natural and earned, and so the movie's true climax isn't any plot twist or battle, but a late-movie scene in which a crowd of tattered, embattled citizens collectively show their allegiance and loyalty to Katniss.

Unfortunately, as good as Lawrence is, and as good as some of the supporting cast is (Moore is fantastic as always, and Seymour-Hoffman - RIP - makes even the smallest of moments pop) ... there are still some clear weak links. Josh Hutcherson has gotten better as this series has progressed, but as Petah, he still feels outmatched and outclassed by Lawrence. And I'm not sure how much of this is on Liam Hemsworth, and how much is the script's poor development of Gale, but the character still feels pretty lifeless, present more so to deliver the requisite love-triangle component of the story (this is still YA, afterall), than anything else. The young women of this world continue to outshine their male counterparts. In Catching Fire that was true of Jenna Malone's standout turn as Johanna (she pops up briefly here), and is again true in MOCKINGJAY with the addition of Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, as Katniss-documentarian Cressida. Dormer does well for herself here, stealing a couple of scenes via sheer presence and badassery.

I wouldn't necessarily have minded the first MOCKINGJAY film ending on a cliffhanger if it felt right, and if there seemed like enough material in this one to justify a story-split. But sadly, this does sort of feel like half a movie, and worse, it feels like a movie that is very padded and diluted in the name of ensuring the franchise's extension into four chapters. I'll always enjoy Lawrence in this role, and the stacked supporting cast keeps things interesting. But the decompressed storytelling makes MOCKINGJAY feel more like an episode of a primetime TV soap, and less like the penultimate chapter of the big dystopian action franchise that it is and should be. The movie feels less like it's barreling towards an epic conclusion, and more like it's out for a leisurely stroll. Sure, I'm onboard for the final chapter. But at this point, it's a bit more out of obligation than genuine excitement for what's to come.

My Grade: B-

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BIG HERO 6 Delivers Big Action, Big Heart, Big Fun

BIG HERO 6 Review:

- Disney's animation studio is on a creative roll of late, and the streak continues with BIG HERO 6. It might just be the studio's best CG-animated film yet - a visually-stunning, action packed superhero story that also packs an emotional punch. The movie is just flat-out fun. It one-ups The Incredibles in terms of paying homage to classic superhero and sci-fi tropes, and it delivers a story rich with positive messages that also never lacks for kick-ass action. The film is bound to be a favorite for kids and adults alike.

The key to BIG HERO 6's endearing nature has got to be lovable robot Baymax. Voiced by Scott Adsit of 30 Rock fame, Baymax is a balloon-like medical 'bot that is the lasting legacy of the late older brother of the movie's protagonist, Hiro. Hiro's college-student brother Tadashi created Baymax to help people in need. But after Tadashi is tragically killed, budding robo-expert Hiro attempts to re-purpose Baymax into an anime-esque android superhero. Hiro's motivation is to find the mysterious masked villain who he believes stole his special nanobot tech and may have used it to kill his brother. Joining Hiro on his crusade are Tadashi's science-lab pals: badass bruiser Go Go, geeky genius Honey Lemon, steadfast and strong Wasabi, and goofy fanboy Fred. The friends join hero to form a makeshift superhero team, and they use their science-smarts to create all sorts of cool gadgets, armor, and weapons to aid them in their quest.

All of the characters in the movie are a blast. But the real star of the film is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. In some ways, it's typical boy-and-his-dog (er, robot) stuff - familiar ground if you've seen the likes of E.T., The Iron Giant, How To Train Your Dragon, etc. But it's all done so well here, and Baymax is such a cool character design - that it feels fresh. In fact, the movie uses Baymax to examine some pretty interesting issues about superheroes, violence, and vengeance. There's a legitimately unnerving sequence in the film in which Hiro reprograms Baymax to ignore his medical-aide protocol and simply be an unfeeling warrior with a single-minded mandate to wreak havoc. Seeing the lovable Baymax suddenly go God of War on some baddies is genuinely disturbing, and it serves as a smartly-handled commentary on superhero fiction. In an age in which so many big-screen heroes think fists-firsts, collateral-damage second, it's fascinating and admirable to see a movie like this that makes it seem tragic when a robot designed to heal gets reprogrammed to destroy. We tend to glamorize weapons and violence, so to see that trope turned on its head is pretty interesting.

For an animated superhero action film, BIG HERO 6 has a lot on its mind. The movie deals with death and loss in a poignant, affecting manner. Tadashi's death kickstarts the film's plot, sure, but it's also really sad and somewhat shocking in its bluntness. The movie, in general, just has a raw, emotional honesty that is rare to see in a kid-oriented film. But the way it deals with a very tough, very difficult topic of coping with a family member's death is skillfully handled and ultimately quite cathartic. The film is also relentlessly pro-science. Hiro is a science-whiz, and so are all of his friends and teammates. While yes, this is a superhero fantasy, the movie isn't afraid to let its characters talk in geek-speak and use real scientific and computing principles in its script. The movie is damn smart, and it takes pride in the fact that its characters are too. The scientists in this movie are smart and geeky, but they're also funny, cool, and badass. This is the kind of film that will legitimately get kids interested in science and robotics.

This is also a film that's downright overflowing with geeky awesomeness. Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, acts as the fanboy surrogate here, and his enthusiasm for all the cool stuff that happens in the movie was echoed by me. Whether it's Baymax's robotic rocket-fist, Hiro's deceptively-meek robot fighting-'bot, or what might just be Stan Lee's greatest Marvel/Disney cameo yet ... BIG HERO 6 knows all the right nerd-buttons to push. And I'll say again: the movie's visuals really are gorgeous. The level of detail in the animation is obscenely high, and there are some beautifully-framed sequences in the film - both in terms of some epically huge action set-pieces and quieter moments that can be funny, sad, reflective, and picturesque. The voice work in the film is also universally excellent - though again, I have to give the biggest props to Adsit as Baymax - as he somehow makes a monotone robot one of the year's most lovable and memorable cinematic creations.

My only real complaint with the film is that the late-game reveals feel a bit rushed, with some of the twists - in particular the revelation of the masked villain's true identity - feeling slightly contrived. Ultimately though, the heart and soul of the movie is the Hiro-Baymax relationship, so the third-act story beats are, in some ways, secondary considerations. Still, would have been nice if the plot twists felt a bit more organically set-up and less forced.

That said, BIG HERO 6 is serious fun and surprisingly resonant on an emotional level. Baymax is the best animated robot since Wall-E, and the rest of the movie's main characters are some of the most refreshingly diverse and likable heroes we've yet seen in a modern Disney animated film. This is a movie that just plain delivers on its potential - so jam-packed with science-is-awesome coolness, giant-sized superhero adventure, humor, and heart that it feels like the complete and total package. BIG HERO 6 is a heroic effort indeed from Disney.

My Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

DUMB & DUMBER TO Is Funny Enough To Win Over Fans of the Original Classic


- I was re-watching some of the original Dumb & Dumber the other day. It's one of my favorite comedies of all time - I can still quote it backwards and forwards. But I hadn't actually sat down to watch it in years. What struck me about it upon re-watch is just how *effortless* the movie feels. The humor is over-the-top, but it feels so natural - so organically woven into a plot that is essentially a crime flick re-fitted as a dumb comedy. The joke of Dumb & Dumber is that two idiots have been transplanted into a generic 80's-style crime flick. In DUMB & DUMBER TO, the entire movie is the joke - the world of the film has been terraformed in the image of Harry and Lloyd. The twenty-years-in-the-making sequel is just incredibly eager to please. It's got fan-service, it's got gags a-plenty, and it's got the original stars (hyper-committed to recapturing their classic characters) back in the saddle. And it is very funny in parts, with moments that recall the original's genius. But everything in the new film feels cranked to eleven - from the saturated colors to Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniel's performances to the way that many of the jokes are delivered. It's funny to say this, given how the original movie's release was accompanied by worried writings from critics fearful of America's descent into idiocy (oh, if only they knew what was to come ...) - but the original's brilliance in many ways lies in how understated the whole thing is. Harry and Lloyd just *are.* But DUMB & DUMBER TO seems intent on screaming in our faces that these characters are goofy and hilarious. It's sort of like the middle-aged dude trying to look badass. Sure, maybe he pulls it off ... but it just came more effortlessly back in the day.

All that said, I was sort of won over by the sheer force with which the movie throws us into the world of Harry and Llloyd. As with the first film, there's a good-natured quality to their humor that is infectious, and in 2014, a welcome antithesis to the more irony-drenched, self-aware humor we tend to get in most big-screen comedies. I've always loved absurdist comedy, and my favorite jokes in DUMB & DUMBER TO are the little moments of weird wordplay, surreal sight-gags, and oddball non-sequiturs that wouldn't have been out of place in the original.

Where the second film lost me a little was when it tries to go for more modern shock-tactics. Some of the gross-out gags are funny, but there's something just a bit off-seeming when the movie does jokes about an old-woman's nether-regions and the like. The original movie had a charming naivete that this film sometimes seems to do away with. Also, the sequel sometimes seems weighted down by its own plot. What I love about the original is that the plot is incidental - the MacGuffin is Mary Swanson's suitcase full of money that inadvertently lands Harry and Lloyd in the middle of a crime movie. Rather than go that route here, DUMB & DUMBER TO makes the story all about Harry and Lloyd - following the dimwitted duo as they seek out Harry's long-lost daughter, whose existence has just been discovered. Eventually, the plot evolves to the point where it sort of mimics the original - with Harry and Lloyd targeted by a pair of scheming criminals. But the movie has a lot of plot - too much, I think - and the consequence is that the whole movie is now *about* Harry and Lloyd, and so you lose the great juxtaposition of the original where these guys are superimposed into a movie in which they shouldn't exist.

Carrey and Daniels do a fine job of slipping back into their old roles. They both totally go for it, and have no shame in humiliating themselves, and each other, in the name of getting laughs. I do think that both overdo it just a bit - again, as crazy as these characters were in the original, their weirdness was played in a naturalistic way. Here, it's much more overt and cartoonish. That cartoonishness is highlighted by Rachel Melvin's turn as Harry's maybe-daughter Penny, whose character is like a technicolor version of Harry and Lloyd. Don't get me wrong, Melvin absolutely nails it in this role, and is a ton of fun. It's just that Penny is sort of the ultimate example of how this movie goes *big* with its characters and humor in relation to the first film.

When it works though, it works really well. There are some absolutely great gags in the movie, and some lines that deserve to be quoted alongside all of the classics from the first one. The Farrelly Brothers show they still have great comic timing and a well-honed knack for visual humor, fake-out gags, and understated little moments that turn out to be hilarious. Indeed, some of the funniest moments of the movie are not the big, go-for-broke gags but little tossed-off lines that strike right at the funny bone.

DUMB & DUMBER TO is sort of like seeing a friend you haven't seen in a long time. There's a sense of comfort that comes from the reunion, but also a mild depression when you realize they've let themselves go a bit. Luckily, there's enough comfort food - and enough hilarity - in this decades-in-the-making sequel to make it a pleasant companion to the first film. It can't touch the classic brilliance of Dumb & Dumber, but it's  more than funny enough to justify its existence. Did I like it ahh-laaaht? That might be reaching. But I liked it pretty good.

My Grade: B

Sunday, November 16, 2014

WHIPLASH Hits Hard and Doesn't Let Up


- We've all seen movies about the saintly, inspirational mentor. We know the drill. But WHIPLASH - a remarkable film about the quest for greatness - completely tears down that model and gives us something darker, more complex, and wholly gripping. The film presents a nightmarish vision of a mentor/student relationship that simultaneously feels like a mutually beneficial partnership and a mutually destructive rivalry. Miles Teller stars as the student, Andrew - a 19 year old drummer enrolled at a prestigious New York music conservatory. J.K. Simmons plays the teacher, Fletcher - a monstrous, towering figure who displays brief glimpses of paternal affection that are quickly overshadowed and stripped away by violent eruptions of anger, vindictive mind games, and negative reinforcement. Fletcher is convinced he's only pushing his students to be the best they can be. But it soon becomes clear that while his methods may sporadically be effective, they are, also, extremely dangerous to the impressionable students who have to endure his outbursts. And yet ... Fletcher has a pull on Andrew that Andrew can't quite shake. The two circle each other, and it's in that push-and-pull that WHIPLASH finds its fire. The movie is pure cinematic jazz, a pulse-pounding journey into the abyss that left me sweaty and exhausted. Teller and Simmons are both electric. It's a must-see.

Now that I've seen the film, it's clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle is one to watch. He tells this story in a way that is totally captivating and mesmerizing. The film is ultimately a small-scale story, but Chazelle's direction provides a dark, almost lurid ambiance that contributes to the movie's nightmarish quality. There's a sense of heightened reality to the film. In fact, you might say it takes on the tone and aesthetic of the jazz music that Andrew and Fletcher are both obsessed with. Just when you think things are going to go one way, there's a sudden shift, an unexpected shake-up. 

The scenes of Fletcher with his students are at once funny, unnerving, and downright scary. "Not quite my tempo." becomes a phrase that strikes the fear of god into your heart, as Simmons' Fletcher looms above his students, demanding perfection and more than willing to hurl verbal and physical abuse at any who perform with anything less. The scenes play out like some warped, music-school riff on Alec Baldwin's famous sequence in Glengarry Glen Ross. Fletcher here is not the tough-but-well-meaning mentor figure here - not even close. He's truly mean and nasty - spouting sharp-tonged insults and homophobic put-downs with demonic abandon. The fascinating question here though is: is his awfulness in service of a greater good? By breaking down Andrew and the others, is Fletcher actually making them great? In any case, Simmons is phenomenal here. His Fletcher is a larger-than-life force of nature. He's the nightmare version of every failed-artist, bitter and mean teacher you've ever had rolled into one sinewy package. The character represents the ultimate embodiment of the succeed-at-all-costs mentality. Simmons here is a powder-keg - it's an instantly-iconic performance.

The movie also shines with its musical scenes. The movie portrays musical performance in a way I've never quite seen on film before - not as improvisational art, but as a tightly-controlled, incredibly exacting and precise discipline. This isn't a movie where you see a lot of magically-perfected musical performance that seems to just happen out of thin air. This is a film where you see the sweat pour down the performers' brows, where you see the blood on their fingers from playing too hard, the tears in their eyes as they fight off the looming possibility of cracking under the pressure to nail their parts. That makes for a surprisingly visceral assortment of performance scenes, that run the gamut from tangibly taxing to triumphantly transcendent. In all of them, Teller shines brightly. His face makes us feel Andrew's pain as he pushes himself to play harder, faster, and with pinpoint precision. Teller has impressed in films like The Spectacular Now - he has a Tom Hanks like regular-joe charisma that makes him a natural at playing the everyman. But here, he really pushes himself just as his character does. Andrew is a quiet guy haunted by his father's past failures. He is now driven to be the best, to be an all-time great, like his idol Charlie Parker. Early in the movie, he meets a girl. But if the subplot feels like a distraction, that's the point. Charlie is singularly obsessed with drumming, and that puts him squarely in Fletcher's orbit, despite the clear fact that Fletcher is not only abusive, but has as much interest in assuring the failure of his students as he does guiding them towards success.

WHIPLASH really won me over with its willingness to go to some pretty crazy, unexpected places with its storytelling. There are some great twists and turns that keep you guessing, and moments that genuinely shock. For a movie about a drummer, it's pretty damn extreme. It's bloody, violent, profane, and intense as all hell. It's a journey down the rabbit hole that will leave you reeling. What's also impressive is that it doesn't provide easy answers. Simmons' Fletcher is a bad guy, but he's also not exactly *the* bad guy of the film. Instead, he provides a scary symbol of ruthless ambition and perfectionism that comes at a high spiritual and moral cost. We see the Fletchers of the world all the time: in education, in art, in sports, in business. People whose idea of greatness is more about meeting quantifiable standards of excellence as opposed to doing things that are truly meaningful or lasting. Sometimes, there is an overlap: we see athletes and artists and others who are embodiments of the notion that success is derived first and foremost from hard work and high standards. But then - when we see the teachers who deride their students more than encourage, the coaches who throw tantrums and act like they're at war, the businessmen and women who give up their humanity in search of success - we wonder at what cost does the pursuit of greatness come? That's what makes WHIPLASH so thought-provoking and interesting: it leaves us both awed by Andrew's musical achievements, but also more than a little worried that he's sold his soul - at least a little bit - to get to that point. WHIPLASH makes us question our ambitions in a profound way, and it's a film that has ultimately disturbing implications. But man, this is quite simply gripping-as-hell filmmaking. Brutal and intense, WHIPLASH hits hard.

My Grade: A

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

INTERSTELLAR Is a Mind-Blowing Cosmic Odyssey


- Rarely has a major blockbuster movie been as torn down, nitpicked, and hyper-scrutinized as much as Interstellar. But that's par for the course for Christopher Nolan, who has become increasingly divisive over the years. I too have had my doubts about the director. The Dark Knight Rises, to me, was a real misstep, and it was the sort of misstep that only served to shine a bright spotlight on some of the director's storytelling weaknesses. The Dark Knight Rises made some question the pedestal that Nolan had been placed upon prior to its release. But one misstep does not break a career, and I challenge the doubters to remember just how damn good Nolan's still-short career has been. I still vividly remember the sheer awe I felt after first seeing Memento in the theaters. I was blown away. And time after time, I've come away from a new Nolan film with a similar sense of being filled with awe and wonder to the point of bursting. Nolan always swings for the fences, and even when the narrative scope of his movies is small, the thematic ambition is huge. But INTERSTELLAR is huge in every possible way, and it's huge in a way that few current filmmakers outside of Nolan would even attempt, let alone execute on this level. This is Epic filmmaking with a capitol "E." But does it work? The internet would have you believe that it all crashes and collapses under its own weight. But I say screw the mobs of haters jumping on the Nolan backlash bandwagon. In my view, INTERSTELLAR holds up. It's involving and compelling on multiple levels. It's flat-out mind-blowing, and it's a potent reminder of just how damn good Nolan is. INTERSTELLAR is some truly next-level movie-making that demands to be seen, and seen on the biggest screen possible.

In some ways, INTERSTELLAR reminds me a lot of last year's Gravity. It's not just the outer-space setting, it's the central theme of humanity striving to reach its ultimate potential, achieving spiritual rebirth through scientific progress and an idealistic pursuit of our species' furthermost boundaries. In the near-future world of the film, a crop-killing dust has caused food shortages and air quality issues. The earth is on a dangerous path towards being uninhabitable. What's more, in the heartland where our main characters reside, a deep cynicism has taken root that's supplanted the idealistic frontierism that once characterized America and the American Dream. Our central character is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a natural-born explorer who was a pilot and an astronaut before the dissolution of space program. Now, he, like many, is a farmer - tasked with cultivating whatever crops can be grown in the earth's increasingly harsh climate. His son, Tom, is assigned by his teachers to study farming. For most, this is now their assigned lot in life. Cooper's daughter, Murph, is a science-wiz, but her teachers scold her for arguing with them about what's in her textbooks. The books, it turns out, now say the moon-landing was a hoax designed to push the Soviets into a costly, nation-toppling space race. Kennedy-era idealism is officially dead. The Chuck Yeager-esque hotshot pilot is grounded. Earth is dying, and the world clings to what is left in a cynical prolonging of the inevitable. Sound familiar? Poignantly and unflinchingly, the sci-fi world of INTERSTELLAR is a dark-mirror reflection of our own.

However, Cooper eventually learns that, hidden away in an off-the-grid base, a last remnant of NASA still exists, secretly plotting out a plan that could be humanity's last, best hope for survival. Cooper is recruited by the project's leader - Professor Brand (Michael Caine) - a former mentor of Cooper's - to lead the desperate mission he and his team have devised. Years ago, a group of astronauts were sent to find a new planet that would be inhabitable for humans. The great hope lay with the discovery of a wormhole, that by folding time and space would transport any who traveled through it into a far-off galaxy. Each astronaut went to a different planet, and each sent word back whether there's had potential to be a new-earth. Now, Cooper and his crew are being sent to go through the wormhole, and rendezvous with the astronauts who have given them the thumbs-up. What happens from there depends on how things go back on earth. Plan A: figure out a way to transport humanity en masse from earth to a new planet. Brand has yet to crack the code to accomplish this, so it's not a sure thing. Plan B: use samples on Cooper's ship to repopulate on the new planet, leaving everyone already on earth to wither and die out. Suffice it to say, the idealistic Cooper strongly prefers Plan A.

Cooper is fighting for all of humanity, but most importantly for his family. On earth, he leaves behind his son Tom, his daughter Murph, and his father-in-law Donald (his wife died young). And it's those central, familial relationships that drive much of the film. Because time passes differently for Cooper during his deep-space travels (Relativity in action), his mission sees him miss out on decades of his children's lives. The emotional core of INTERSTELLAR seems like uncharted territory for Nolan. His films have often had a cold, Kubrickian clockwork-like logic at their core, rarely dwelling too much on matters of the heart. But here, amidst the film's hard sci-fi braininess and mission-driven storyline, lies a Spielbergian center of sentimentality. No wonder, given that Spielberg himself was once attached to direct the film. But even so, it creates a sort of turn-of-the-corner moment for Nolan, where his big ideas and logic puzzles are intermixed - and indeed overshadowed - by an exploration of human connection and love that lies at the heart of what INTERSTELLAR is all about. No spoilers here, but I will say that Nolan's mix of Spielbergian heart with Kubrickian remove totally works for me in this context. Stories about traveling through space and time inevitably pose questions about life, the universe, and everything. And I think it's fair to go big thematically when you're going to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Some of my favorite sci-fi visionaries - Ray Bradbury comes to mind - were far less interested in the hard science of sci-fi than with exploring what things like space travel told us about what it means to be human. Nolan is 100% interested in the science of INTERSTELLAR, and despite some liberties taken I don't think you'll find many sci-fi or space movies that have science *more* on the brain than this one. But I also don't think there's anything wrong with injecting a bit of Bradbury-esque reflection into the narrative. It's in the genre's DNA, and it's in the movie's from moment one. This isn't some Lost-esque, would-be sci-fi narrative that suddenly and disappointingly finds all of its answers in the spiritual. Rather, Nolan is theorizing that human connection and relationships are as much of a force in the universe as time, space, and gravity. Again, especially as we go on this journey that takes us to the outer limits of human understanding, that sort of train of thought seems, to me, to be fair game.

Nolan tells this story on the biggest, widest, most epic canvas possible. When he made The Dark Knight, Nolan raised the bar in terms of combining blockbuster filmmaking with cerebral and psychologically complex themes. He again raised the bar with Inception - even as the thematics became even more complex, Nolan gave them a thunderous intensity that ensured the film never lacked for momentum. He does this again with INTERSTELLAR. The film is long and sprawling, but it absolutely flies by. It's that same thunderous power here, even more amplified than in Nolan's previous films. In IMAX, the film's cosmic visuals have you-are-there, larger-than-life pop. As per usual, Nolan grounds even the most jaw-dropping visuals in a frighteningly plausible reality, making them that much more breathtaking. When Cooper and his crew land on a watery planet whose entire surface is covered in mountainous tidal waves, you are floored by the scope of it all, but also the reality of it. The visuals of the movie, like the plot, are informed by science and physics - making them all the more effective. Nolan may not be the clean, precise visual storyteller of an Alfonso Cuaron, but he makes up for it with the sheer force and epicness of his visuals. Likewise, the script - by Nolan and his brother Jonathan - can have moments of clunkiness, but what the two lack in understated grace they make up for with numerous moments of quotable, gravitas-infused weightiness.

The film is additionally propped up by the talent of its cast. Matthew McConaughey, as we all know, has been on a tear of late. The funny thing is, what's going on around him in this film is so attention-grabbing that I think the quality of his performance may actually end up being somewhat overlooked. But make no mistake, McConaughey is fantastic as Cooper. Here's the thing - the Chuck Yeager-esque explorer/pilot part of the role is basically second-nature for McConaughey. He pretty much is that guy. But what's impressive is how well McConaughey handles everything else that the movie throws at him. For one thing, when things get really big, weird, and surreal in the film's third act, McConaughey perfectly nails the insanity of it all while not going too over the top. But even more so, the Oscar-winner nails the relationship that Cooper has with his kids - in particular with his daughter Murph. In many ways, Interstellar is a movie about fathers and daughters, and the Cooper-Murph relationship is key. 

Luckily, Murph is played by two outstanding actresses. It's not surprising that Jessica Chastain is great as the adult Murph, who's grown to be the same age as her father while the effects of relativity have slowed time for Cooper. Chastain is consistently excellent in everything she's in, but here she makes the older Murph a damaged but driven woman - a brilliant scientist who, though she has a fraught and complicated relationship with her dad, may have nonetheless inherited some of his can-do idealism. What is surprising is how good young Mackenzie Foy is as the ten-year-old Murph. It's Foy's devastated reaction to her father leaving her for his mission that makes Cooper's journey that much more intense and important-feeling. 

The other interesting father-daughter relationship is between Michael Caine's Professor Brand and Anne Hathaway's younger Brand. To compare and contrast the two would lead to heavy spoilers. But I will say that I was really impressed with Hathaway here. This role lets her be grittier and more mature-seeming than in past films, and Hathaway seems more serious and restrained than usual. She brings a surprising gravitas to Brand that I didn't expect. As for Caine, he memorably recites "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas - a poem that seems like something that Professor Brand must repeat for himself as much if not more so than for others. But that, ultimately, is the mantra of the film. Rage against the dying of the light. It's the recurring theme of INTERSTELLAR, and who better than Caine to deliver it?

The cast is filled with a host of other great actors. There's a crucial role from a key actor whose identity I won't spoil ... suffice it to say he does a fantastic job of playing against type. There's Wes Bentley and David Gyasi as the other crew members on Cooper's ship. There's a badass cameo from William "Rolling Thunder" Devane. There's John Lithgow as Cooper's father-in-law. And there's a standout voice-acting role from Bill Irwin, giving life to the robotic TARS. Yes, every good space odyssey needs a super-awesome robot to make it complete, and TARS is a damn good one. The design on the 'bot is incredibly unique and fascinating to look at in motion. And Irwin's affable voice-work makes TARS one of the film's most memorable characters.

Some have griped about Hans Zimmer's score, but man, I loved it. I think there may have been some issues where the volume of the score is just too high, to the point of drowning out some key dialogue. But the score itself is fantastic. The main theme reminded me a bit of the cosmically-themed song "Contact" from Daft Punk's Random Access Memories. In any case, the future-synth soundtrack is both a bit of a departure for Zimmer and a perfect fit for the film. It's absolutely brimming with ominous intensity and into-the-void atmosphere. Completely dug it, and I think it will go down as a classic film score.

Oftentimes, it's actually the small movies that give us the best insights into life's big questions. Rarely do we get big, epic sci-fi films that have more on their mind than space battles and comic book soap opera. That's all fine and good, but I say you've also got to appreciate the rare film like INTERSTELLAR that actually, 100%, goes the distance. It takes us into space, through the wormhole, and into the great unknown, and it doesn't take any shortcuts in its journey. The film sees things through to their ultimate conclusion - and yes, that means that we get talking robots, fifth-dimensional ghosts, and ruminations on whether love is a scientifically viable universal force. If that sort of stuff makes you come down with a case of the eye-rolls, then hey, INTERSTELLAR might not be your bag. But if, like me, you live for stories that just keep digging and digging in search of the great secrets of the universe and reality itself, then this is what you've been waiting for. Nolan isn't just hurling paint on the canvass here - there's method to his madness, and those complaining about plot holes will find most if not all of the answers in the film, if you pay attention and think things through. As much as some call out Nolan for over-expository dialogue, the fact is that a lot of key details are found between the lines of the film, in quick moments or simply implied rather than said outright. Nolan's ambition also leads to some serious aesthetic risks. As the film crescendos, Nolan furiously cross-cuts between two times and locations. It's another instance where some might simply tune-out and accuse him of overreaching. But by this point in the film, all cards are on the table and there's no slowing down. The result is, to me, a gripping and operatic sequence that seared itself into my brain. Nolan is more a hit-you-with-a-sledgehammer stylist than a subtle storyteller, but here especially, the subject matter warrants this level of cinematic fierceness.

INTERSTELLAR is ambitious as hell, but I think it holds together impressively. Narratively, it takes its time building to the point where Cooper goes on his space mission. Once Cooper and his crew begin their interplanetary exploration, the film takes on a nicely-pulpy tone that plays out like big-budget 50's sci-fi. It's modern-day Twilight Zone told in grand fashion. Eventually, the film becomes trippy, 2001-esque surrealist sci-fi, but Nolan keeps even the film's strangest sequences rooted in an easy-to-grasp emotional core. But what ties everything together is a thematic throughline that I found incredibly resonant and powerful. Because though this is sci-fi, INTERSTELLAR is a story firmly about the here and now. It's a story about how, in a world where real problems get put aside due to politics and economics, sometimes what we need is to channel our human spirit - to reach back and recapture the sort of can-do, yes-we-can, do-not-go-gently idealism that can lead us forward into a brighter future. Accuse Nolan of going soft, but really, Interstellar is his nod to Silver Age optimism, to Kennedy-era, space-age values. He takes us from darkest night to brightest day. From dust to stardust. INTERSTELLAR is a mission-statement of a movie that, to me, is absolutely huge and breathtaking in the best possible way. Nolan backlash? Hold up, people. One of our best directors has just delivered a tour de force. Save the rage, embrace the stars.

My Grade: A

Sunday, November 2, 2014

JOHN WICK Bleeds Badassery


- Here's the short version: if you dig kick-ass, over-the-top action flicks, go see JOHN WICK, asap. The movie is a balls-to-the-wall shoot-'em-up that will please fans of The Raid and Dredd and other recent entries into the badass cannon. The film, starring an on-top-of-his-game Keanu Reeves, is directed by Reeves' former longtime stunt double, David Leitch. And Leitch, clearly, knows what he's doing when it comes to staging visceral, jaw-dropping action. He also brings a real sense of fun and comic book-esque world building to the table, making JOHN WICK a movie that is all too happy to embrace the absurdity inherent in its plot and premise.

Reeves stars as the titular antihero, a mythical assassin whose mere names causes professional killers to quiver in their boots. Wick's been out of the game for five years though - he left to settle down with a woman and live a quiet, normal life. His guns and other tools of the trade buried deep beneath the floor of his basement, Wick was happy and content. That is, until his wife died of a terminal illness. Her last gift to him was a dog, which arrived posthumously as a way to ease the pain of Wick's loss. Wick was dealing with it all decently, it seemed, until he runs afoul of would be crime-prince Iosef Tarasov (played with snotty brattiness by Alfie Allen, aka Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones). Iosef and his goons break into Wick's house and steal his car. In the ensuing melee, Wick's dog - the last vestige of his dearly departed wife - is killed. Iosef gets away, but he has unknowingly unleashed a beast. Even though Iosef is the son of Wick's old employer, and even though Wick has sworn he was out of the killing business ... well, you had better believe that that cache of guns buried beneath the house is going to get unearthed. And you had better believe that hell is a-coming for anyone who stands in Wick's way.

A couple of things make JOHN WICK stand out from the pack. One is the great cast of supporting characters who populate the stylized world of the film. The movie doesn't go into great detail in its efforts to build out its assassin's creed mythology, but it sort of hints at a lot of coolness and, in broad strokes, imagines this unique world where hired killers have their own icons, rules, safe-zones, currency, and codes of conduct. And in this world, alongside Keanu Reeve's Wick, you'll find the likes of Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynihan, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, the aforementioned Alfie Allen, and fellow Game of Thrones actor Michael Nyqvist, playing his father and, ultimately, the film's Big Bad. Most if not all of these actors are in top form, with the main complaint (which is never a terrible one) simply being that you want more of them. Willem Dafoe - I could have watched a whole movie about his off-kilter sniper. Ian McShane - in top badass form, I would have loved to see even more of his character. Lance Reddick, who already kicked ass this Fall in The Guest, well ... I was just waiting for his character to go full badass, but alas, it never happened. When super badass actors are playing even the non-ass-kicking characters in an action film, you know your cast is loaded. As for Reeves himself, I'm not going to say he's back, because I've enjoyed him in other recent films where I think he got an unfair shake from critics (47 Ronin, anyone?). But I will say that the John Wick character - stoic, rage-filled, a man of few-words, is one that's perfectly-tailored to Reeves. Especially to an older, more grizzled Reeves, now possessed of a gravitas that his younger, surfer-dude self was not. 

The other thing that stands out about John Wick is just how crazy the action is. I mean, look, The Raid, in my view, raised the bar for close-quarters action films, to a level that only The Raid 2 has since reached. JOHN WICK is no The Raid. But it is potentially the American film that, so far, comes closest to the dizzying heights of the Raid. The action comes fast and furious, and there's a balletic brutality to the combat that is thrilling to watch. A couple of sequences - including one particular stunner that takes place in a pulsating nightclub - are stone-cold classics. My one complaint is that there's a pretty big gap between the movie's two or three best action sequences and everything else. A lot of the movie falls short of its most memorable moments.

The third cool thing about the film is, like I said, it has no reservations about being totally over-the-top, and having a sense of self-aware humor about it. This makes for some great grindhouse-esque moments of glorious absurdity. That said, I sort of wish the movie was just a little bit sharper with its humor. Some opportunities for great one-liners seem to be missed, and the movie sometimes seems to forget the humor and lay the self-seriousness on just a little too thick. I would have liked a little more tonal consistency, and for the script to have just a little more zing.

At the end of the day, JOHN WICK earns its badass bonafides, and proves to be a much-better-than-average action flick that features some true "holy $%&#" moments. For action fans, it's a must-see. But I hesitate to hype it up as an instant-classic, as to me the only-okay script and quality-variance in the action keep it from reaching Raid-levels of OMG awesome. But yeah, Keanu owns the role, and I wouldn't mind seeing Wick return for a few more rounds.

My Grade: B+

THE BOOK OF LIFE Is a Fantastic Day of the Dead Celebration


- This is shaping up to be a great year for animated films. Earlier in 2014, The Lego Movie was an awesome surprise. And now, there's another fantastic non-Pixar, non-Disney, non-Dreamworks animated film that is truly something unique and different, all the while telling a classic, timeless story. THE BOOK OF LIFE is a visual feast and a great story - a fairy tale about family that reminded me a lot of the first How to Train Your Dragon, in terms of mixing imaginative fantasy with genuine emotion.

Inspired by the holiday and unique aesthetic of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration THE BOOK OF LIFE is a film that clearly places a lot of importance on conveying the joy and traditions of the festival to a wide audience. With its simultaneously colorful and macabre imagery, the holiday combines the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween with a more personal touch - because it is a time when families honor dead relatives and celebrate the lives they lived. And so the movie is framed in such a way where the entire story is, in fact, a story-within-a-story - a narrative choice that I questioned at first, but that ultimately shows the Day of the Dead as part of a tradition meant to be shared and passed on. To that end, the film begins with a group of rambunctious kids on a field trip to a museum, where a tour guide captures their attention with a story about the Day of the Dead.

And what a story it is. In old Mexico, two deities - La Muerte, ruler of the colorful Land of the Dead, and Xibalba, ruler of the bleak in-between domain of forgotten souls, make a wager. The bet revolves around a group of three young friends - Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. Both boys have eyes on Maria, but for the time being, Maria is content to just be part of a trio of friends. But La Muerte and Xibalba decide to place bets as to which of the two boys Maria will eventually marry - Manolo (who dreams of being a musician despite his father's wishes for him to go into the family business of bull-fighting), or Joaquin (who wishes to honor his deceased father by becoming a great soldier, just like his dad). When the story begins, the three friends are just kids. But later, we rejoin them as young adults, and we see how La Muerte and Xibalba have attempted to influence events in their favor. What's more, in the second part of the story, which picks up as Maria returns from schooling abroad, and Joaquin returns from military adventures, the friends' village faces an outside threat from invading bandits, led by the sinister Chakal. The danger posed by Chakal seems to be a situation tailor-made for headstrong Joaquin to shine. But Manolo - even though he shies away from being the matador his family wants him to be - may yet be the hero his village needs. Especially once he has to visit the Land of the Dead, and help recruit long-departed souls to aid in his village's fight.

The way the story plays out is unexpectedly heartfelt. Sure, we've seen these kinds of stories before, but what's new here is the fantastical wrinkle of Manolo being connected to his lineage not just through his father, but through an entire chain of relatives that still exist in the Land of the Dead. It's a pretty amazing way to talk about the weight of our family and history and how it affects us. Manolo comes from a long line of proud bullfighters, and there's a crushing weight of disappointment that is felt when he cannot bring himself to embrace that tradition. And yet, ultimately, Manolo is strengthened by his family's traditions - once he realizes that it's okay to also go his own way. I've got to admit: as the movie rushed towards a thrilling conclusion, in which the dead come to the aid of the living, and Manolo is literally hoisted up by multiple generations of his family ... it sort of gave me chills. The movie deals with complex themes of family and identity in a way that's both a lot of fun and seriously affecting.

Aesthetically, the movie looks absolutely amazing. I sort of fell in love with the whole Day of the Dead art style back in the day thanks to Grim Fandango, and THE BOOK OF LIFE does that work of art one better. Just as The Lego Movie brilliantly used CG animation to capture a very distinctive look and feel, so too does this film mimic the look of the traditional Day of the Dead figures in a way that hasn't really been seen before on the big screen. It's funny, because in those opening framing scenes, when the modern-day school kids visit the museum, I was feeling underwhelmed by the movie's visuals. But once the story proper starts, the film really comes alive. And once Manolo ventures to the Land of the Dead, things (ironically) *really* come alive. The way that the mythical city is visualized - full of vibrant color and teeming with (undead) life - is truly stunning. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez does a fantastic job here - I'm not familiar with previous work of his, but here, he nails it. Who I am familiar with, of course, is producer Guillermo Del Toro, and THE BOOK OF LIFE does display some signature traits of Del Toro's work - a humanistic look at the fantastic and horrific, eye-popping visual artistry, and a tangible love for cinema that seeps through every pore of the film. Indeed, THE BOOK OF LIFE is filled with all manner of fun little moments that will make movie and pop-culture geeks smile.

Similarly, the voice talent in the film is spot-on. Diego Luna is wonderful as Manolo - and impresses not just with his speaking, but with his soulful singing as well. Channing Tatum is also excellent as Joaquin - doing his best Will Arnett full-of-himself voice, while also bringing a likability and humanity to the character. Zoe Saldana, meanwhile, makes Maria much more than just a girl torn between two suitors. With Saldana's strength propelling her, Maria is quite a strong character. Of course, I also enjoyed the great Ron Pearlman as the scheming god Xibalba, as well as Kate del Castillo as La Muerta. Additionally, a ton of fun actors pop in for smaller roles, including favorites like Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo.

THE BOOK OF LIFE may not have the blockbuster name-recognition of some of the year's other big animated movies, but it's a fantastic film, on par with the best from Disney and Pixar. Not only that, but it's a crafted-with-love celebration of a culture that we don't often see in film or TV beyond cliches and stereotypes, and it brings a unique sensibility and art-style to the table. That said, there is a 100% universal story here about family and legacy, told in a fun, action-packed, visually-dazzling manner. Go see it.

My Grade: A-