Monday, December 15, 2014

Whiplash - Review

Andrew (Miles Teller) is an anti-social, freshman student at the Shaffer Conservatory in NYC. His drumming skills impresses the school's Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who inducts him into the jazz band as the drum alternate, only to then verbally and physically abuse him to achieve perfection in his craft, which causes Andrew to further spiral out of control. WHIPLASH is an excellent thriller, generating a dark tale of the artistic relationship between a conductor and his performer and an electrifying musical romp of the delirious sensation that is jazz. Making a huge splash at this year's Sundance, this is the feature-film directorial debut of Damien Chazelle, who clearly has a great future ahead in this business. The editing is impeccable, the cinematography is brilliantly scoped, the story keeps you on your toes, and of course the musical score and sound mixing is an overdrive of exhilarating fury. But what clearly makes the film a true watch is the acting; Teller taps into some dark areas to show off his character's disturbing personality and fierce prowess on the drums while the absolutely amazing Simmons exhibits a chess-like mind and charismatically despicable behavior. Though I do praise Chazelle's script for its twisty nature and focusing on why jazz is America, it relies heavily on crazy circumstances and melodramatic blowouts. Plus, despite a breathtaking ending, the cathartic release of the film's tension already happens at the end of Act Two, so the story has to quickly assembly another "have your cake" moment. Still, this is a great release and a true highlight of this year in film.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Hatefest 2014 - The Descendants: Here Comes the Payne

Over at one of my favorite movie websites, The Dissolve, a couple of us commenters decided to partake in a group feature in the comments section of every weekday's Read On, a daily page where interesting articles from other sites and further movie news are rounded up. It's called Hatefest 2014. The title says it all; each scheduled commenter lays out an essay on why a certain popular film drives them crazy.

Any visitor of my site will know that I have an immense dislike for Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Naturally, this was my pick. You can click here to see my essay on the site, with some pointed remarks from my fellow cinephiles, or you can just read on below.

HATEFEST 2014: The Descendants - Here Comes the Payne

It's common knowledge for a cinephile that there's nothing more painful to sit through than a bad comedy. I like to add a little addendum to the end of that: in a crowded theater. Seeing a heinous laugh-show at a screening where every seat is taken and you're forcibly pushed into your small seat, unable to even have control of the soda-holding armrests, is like being thrown into the snake pit of idiocracy. People bellowing away, clapping like seals, and pointing at the screen while you stew away in sheer contempt. But I'm not hear to recount the horrors of experiencing the likes of Date Movie, because I'm focusing instead on a product that packed a theater to the gills but then proceeded to give no soul the joy of cinema. Furthermore, it's a movie that broke my heart and pissed me off royally: The Descendants.

Some personal background: My beloved local art theater was lucky enough to start showing the feature in its second-week of its limited release. I was overjoyed at this good fortune; seeing Alexander Payne's first film in seven years weeks in advance means no winter trip to NYC and no scheduling troubles around Christmas time. I quickly made plans to see it with my father, who I had a special night of bonding with after watching Alexander Payne's previous film Sideways in theaters. We get there, find some seats in the back, wait for the rest of the theater to be filled up and the picture to start. "Fox Searchlight Pictures" comes up. There's a big studio audience laugh at a joke involving the middle finger. The joke repeats itself and the laugh is now a minor tremble. A couple of smirks and chuckles, here and there. Total silence. The movie reaches its final scenes and there's no sniffing or anything. The end credits pop up and everybody slowly starts to leave. We bolt as well and we see that our fellow exiting audience members largely had the same reaction as us and made Louis CK proud: no "That was hilarious/great!" but a lot of "Well, that happened."

So, what exactly do I loathe about The Descendants? I could just say that it's nothing more than a work vacation for its cast and crew and possesses a story overfilled with white people problems but there's more to it than that. I have issues in every department of production but my biggest problem is with its award-winning screenplay, written by Payne and former Groundlings/TV stars Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. This isn't a black comedy like Payne's earlier and far better efforts nor is it straight-up certified Oscar bait. It's a dramedy sitcom pilot, a dreadful one at that, stretched out to two hours. It throws out a bunch of swearing from cute faces to incite some relief and delivers a Caligula-like fisting up your ass in order for you to feel its emotions.

Now with my full tank of hate and a few glances at the original novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, let's go through this travesty.

The movie kicks itself off with something very rare to see as an opening: an "in memory." It's a closeup shot of Elizabeth King flaunting a dumb smile, speeding away on a motor boat. I hope you enjoyed that brief 15 seconds of her because you never get to see any more of this actress again. Oh sure, she's in the picture as a comatose prop but we don't see more scenes of her active days. No flashbacks, no diaries, no memories, no narration a la Glenn Close in Reversal of Fortune. Instead, all of the other characters just tell you about this woman. Maybe if the three writers followed the book a bit, they could have shown us why Elizabeth is/was very assertive, strong-willed, and a so-called good mother instead of having George Clooney tell us that she is/was in the most boring, flat-lined delivery. Clooney gets better with his acting down the line but for these rough early goings, his pathetic voiceover skills are hard to sit through.

Clooney begins the show with the following line: "My friends in the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise." First sentence of the picture and already I'm gagging. Mr. Payne and crew, I have always known Hawaii is beset with the same troubles as us all (plus I despise hot and sunny weather), so you didn't have to write out that stupid trailer-friendly line, nor do you have to proceed onwards and show me some exploitative shots of miserable Hawaiians.

Clooney is playing the protagonist, Matt King. Get it? No seriously, do you get it? I hope you do because the movie is going to keep reminding you of his regal, imperialistic name, especially when we get into the major subplot. In the book, Matt actually hates the contentions of his name, especially since he's seen more as a white man than Hawaiian, but this was egregiously left out in the film. Anyway, Matt is shown to be a workaholic lawyer, who of course spent more time on his clients than his family. Now that his wife is in a coma from a boat accident, he has to be the real parent for his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). Miller is very Jonathan Lipnicki here. Don't get used to her because Payne certainly didn't, as he later sends her to background for the rest of the story, only trotting her out to the front stage in order for her to flip the bird, say the word "twat" in rapid succession, or some other obnoxiously bad behavior.

Scottie keeps getting herself in trouble because of her inability to cope with her mother's condition, including sending some rude texts to a fellow classmate. Now mind you, we never see her carrying around a cell phone, nor near a computer at all, so this issue was seemingly pulled straight out of the writers' asses for one sole reason: to have a random character (that being the classmate's mother) come in and drop the exposition dump of the secondary dilemma, which is Matt's decision with regards to the forced upon sell-off of 10,000+ acres of land on the island on Kauai. This pissed-off mother also brings up another troubling ill light to the film, that of there being practically nil cast members who aren't Caucasian. Her and later Scottie's hospital pal Reina are the only two people of a different race in the entirety of this film and both are treated as cold, smarmy assholes.

As the two drive away from the house, Clooney's flat narration comes back in order to flesh out this plot line, including how his cousins flushed away their trust money already, hence why they feverishly want the sell-off to go through without a hitch, and how he's the reasonably thinking one and that he shied away from spending his trust fund, only using his own job-earned money, because they would have told his kids that they are "spoiled and entitled". So, after spending a day at a luxurious country club, they hop a plane to pick up Alex (Shailene Woodley), who's currently staying at a $30,000-a-year boarding school. Yep, you sure did taught 'em, Matt. They find her in a self-destructive state, playing some golf at night with some other drunk friends. After seeing the sight of this, Matt laments how, "all the women in my life want to destroy themselves", and proceeds to individually criticize their crazy behavior and how he can't handle that as a man and a father.

One great omission from book to screen: Alex previously was a teen model and had her pics placed all over Hawaiian tourist crap, which causes Matt to act like Tony Danza circa She's Out of Control. Unfortunately, by removing this icky aspect, the film makes it look like Alex is drinking and doing drugs simply because her parents don't pay attention to her ("You didn't go to [my] play…", she laments at one point), reminding me very much of those awful juvie movies like I Accuse My Parents and The Violent Years. Matt corners her in the pool and tells her the news that her mom isn't going to come out of her coma and they need to notify everyone and make preparations. What follows then is pretty much the best moment of the movie, the heartbreaking underwater shot. Phedon Papamichael's composition, the realistic sound design, and Woodley's acting chops make it utterly distressing.

Alex then drops the bombshell on Matt that Elizabeth was cheating on him, but not before he awkwardly brings up the mom-daughter fight around Christmas in a line that should have been cut from the first draft. What follows is of course the famed running scene. I still don't get it. It's edited clumsily, shot and blocked poorly, Clooney has absolutely no expression on his face other than he's physically winded, and it isn't funny at all. After passing by a random goat on the front lawn (?!), Matt confronts his and Elizabeth's two best friends at their house, where Mary Birdsong stupidly decides to defend her cheating, divorce-seeking friend and her own refusal to inform Matt. Rob Huebel instead talks like a monotone meta hipster, calling this fight an "unique dramatic situation" (who talks like this?), but provides Matt with the guy's name, Brian Speer.

Alex's friend Sid (Brian Krause) is introduced. I loathe Sid. He tags alone for the entire misery adventure on a flimsy reason and literally brings nothing to the story. He does, however, have a major part in the next sequence, which is the absolute low point of the entire film. They inform Elizabeth's dad (Robert Forster), who expresses his grief by calling Matt as a miser and practically slut-shaming Alex. Payne follows this aggravating scene by trotting out Elizabeth's Alzheimer's stricken mother and have the audience laugh at her through Sid. We are technically supposed to laugh at Forster punching Sid out but no, we are also supposed to mock the mom for confusing Elizabeth with Queen Elizabeth. Some members of my audience shockingly did, fun fact. Now, how to make Sid even more hateable in the next scene? Let's then have him mock "the retarded" and how slow they are. Fucking hell.

They find a picture of Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) on a real estate sign on their way home. Now we finally have the chief complaint with the film for every viewer: Elizabeth was going to leave the 2-time Sexiest Man Alive and the kids behind for Shaggy Rogers? Really? I don't mean to be that shallow but this is highly absurd to take in. The next day, Clooney is given his best and meatiest scene, where Matt lashes out at Elizabeth. It's the first moment since the scene with the family friends where Clooney escapes from the emotionless husk he's been displaying since the beginning of the film. But of course, this refreshing bit needs to instantly be nipped in the bud because Matt suddenly becomes a hypocrite and yells at Alex for daring to speak ill of her mother. Alex has her own personal issues and emotional baggage with this horrible person but Matt wants not of it and proceeds to spank her. Scottie responses with the timely declaration, "you've got served!" This scene also makes it clear that Scottie is out of the loop with what's going with mom. Matt thinks it's a great idea and will not have any future repercussions to keep the death sentence hidden from Scottie's cone of vision. What's one of the scenes right after this, mind you? A giant "She's Going to Die!" party with family and friends. Are you kidding me?! I'll get back to this later.

The movie finally gets going, as the group hop the island to search for the missing Speer and inform him of Elizabeth's demise. Let me repeat: They leave the bedside of Elizabeth's at a crucial time, for the medical staff, family, and friends, in order to go on a mini-vacation at an expensive hotel just to find the philander. Plus, they bring Sid along for no explainable reason! Well, there are two reasons. First, the makers knew that they can't have Matt and Alex leave Scottie to her own devices, so Sid was included along to act as her guardian while they go on searching. Yep, the guy who later looks at her 10-year-old boobs and says the sand makes them fatty, is babysitting. The second and real reason for Sid to come along was that there finally needed to be a scene where he and Matt bond over their individual losses and how children act bad sometimes. Let me be clear, I have nothing against Nick Krause; he does his job sadly well as an ignorant dullard and does a good job with this heart-to-heart talk. I just hate the character.

I said the movie now starts but really, it continues its sloth-like pace. Matt may hate the idea of Hawaii being labeled as "paradise" but the makers don't because this section of the film is nothing more than a series of new stock footage for travel agencies. We see the sacred land Matt needs to sell, the beaches, golf courses, a sunset, etc. It all rings hollow for me. Additionally, any form of plot or characterization is hidden away by these visuals and drown out by the excrucitating, nondescript, generic Hawaiian score that marches forever onwards.

Eventually, Matt locates where Brian is staying at (a King-owned beach house no less) and the film suddenly turns into a stalker thriller. Matt literally plants a towel right in front of their section of the beach and patiently waits for someone to come out. In an impressive shot where the background figures come into the same focus as Clooney and the camera pans/dollies quarter-circle right, Matt sees his prey. It's Brian's wife (Judy Greer) and he takes a gander at her bikinied bottom. Later on, he gives her a full-on kiss goodbye, so I'm not exaggerating Matt's skeevy behavior. He acts like a creep to her but can't pump out any info, instead later getting more notes from a loser, drunk cousin (Beau Bridges), who tells him that Speer is the brother-in-law to the Hawaiian developer the King clan is in the majority to sell to and that Speer will get rich from commissions. Matt is so blown away by this, Payne and editor Kevin Tent have him drop on to a seat two times. It looks incredibly amateurish.

That night, Matt and Alex agree to bum rush Brian while they have the chance. WIPE TO THE LEFT. What the hell was that, Payne?! We are the climatic scene and you start it off with one of the worst types of scene transitions? We have had nothing but cuts and dissolves and now you use this? How did this get an Oscar nomination for Best Editing?! Anyway, they confront Brian on the spot and tear him up verbally, all the while Mrs. Speer goes in to look at lasagna. The lasagna that's in the kitchen, which is about eight feet from the open screen door, where the three are having a hearable argument. During this heated discussion, Matt says something that always drops my jaw. He tells Brian that the doctors unhooked Elizabeth from the machines this very morning, so there's a limited time left to see her. Again, these people on a mini-vacation (at least according to everyone else) when the most hellish, soul-crushing moment of a hospitalized loved one has already happened. They leave and hop the plane back to their island, where Sid proceeds to call Greer, "the dumb bitch".

Elizabeth had been moved to the hospice area and now, now Clooney thinks it is the right time to tell Scottie about her mom's fate. Of course, he can't do it himself, so he has a female doctor instead do it for him. Payne milks every exploitative thing he can with this scene, by having the entire audio removed (except when the doctor says, "she will die."), closeup on Miller's crying face, and bumping up that dreadful Hawaiian score. Some of you may think this is the right course of action, since Scottie is 10 years old and you need to be delicate with these matters. That may be so but it doesn't work on me because I have been in this scenario. I was 10 years old when a family friend fell down a flight of stairs and went into a coma. I thought that he would be okay, since there were plenty of news stories of people surviving and it always happens in TV shows and movies. My parents, however, sat me down at the beginning of the ordeal and frankly told me with no sugarcoating that that wasn't the common case and that many don't come out of it. Sure enough, they had to pull the plug on him and my parents told me when the time came for it, not lie the entire time and then finally explain a week or so before like Scottie here.

Meanwhile, in plot B, the King cousins come together to vote on the proposed land strategy, with the majority voting in favor of selling to Speer's brother-in-law, Don Hollitzer. Up to this point, Matt has continually said to all of his cousins that he would agree with the final say. But like a spoiled child, he reneges on the deal at the very last minute. He wants to still own his land, even though he still legally has to sell it in the next 7 years. Obviously, you know since the introduction of this subplot that Matt was going to refuse because that's the morally good thing the hero needs to do but the makers didn't plant the seed of this reversal in thinking. Payne keeps showing Clooney gloomily looking at framed photos of past generations and have him very briefly staring at some fleeting golf courses when on the road but none of this truly equals a fully changed mind. Clooney's middling-to-poor acting in these moments and the maker's lack of focus on this subplot ultimately make Matt more unlikable than before, choosing to save the land not for the greater good or for Hawaii but just to stick it to Brian one last time.

We finally reach the endpoint, with everyone saying goodbye to Elizabeth. As much as I don't like this melodramatic conclusion, especially when Forster comes in to complain and again everybody refuses to tell him about Liz's infidelity, I will say that the cast and crew all do a very good job. After a painful goodbye between spouses and a brief interlude, it cuts to Matt, Alex, and Scottie placing her ashes into the ocean. Matt says, "Well I guess that's it", and the three place their leis into the water, where they spell out "OCY", and fade to white. Perfect way to end. Oh wait, I said this is like a sitcom, so the ending credits needs to be place over a final gag, that being the three eating ice cream and watching March of the Penguins. Way to spoil the moment.

At the 84 Academy Awards, The Descendants only received the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, much to my own chagrin. While Payne and Faxon tried to deliver a speech, Rash swayed out his hips and flaunted his right leg, which was a visual dig at Angelina Jolie's awkward pose earlier in the night. This Oscar highlight reel moment is the true legacy of this movie today. Payne fans seem to forget its own existence, at least in my own estimation, especially when Nebraska came out to major acclaim. I've heard more people praise Clooney for his other 2011 film The Ides of March than this movie since the awards season ended. On the other hand, the movie did give Woodley a breakthrough performance and gave a prime dramatic opportunity to Lillard and Greer. For that, I'm grateful but even with a re-watch, I still can't bring myself to liking this emotionally manipulative movie.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas - Review

KIRK CAMERON'S SAVING CHRISTMAS easily jumps all the way to the very top of the "worst of" list for this year. This utterly insane, scarcely competent film is less of a commercial product and more of a glorified home video and a YouTube rant. It begins with smug boy himself, Kirk Cameron, talking straight to the audience for a good five minutes, about how Christmas is being attacked by sourpusses and the true meaning of the holiday has never been fully explained. So, he rattles off this scenario (the film is sickeningly meta) where his brother-in-law (writer/director/the real main actor Darren Doane) dared to not have fun at his own Christmas party and only Cameron can educate him on its values. In the span of a hour set only in the insides of a car, where the only visuals are a monotonous loop of shot-reverse shot and uncontrollable weather ruins the audio, Cameron proceeds to ramble out multiple deranged theories about the symbols of Christmas that could only have possibly come from someone who just took LSD and did some puff-puff-passing. I'm talking straight-up goofball material here, like how a Christmas tree is actually Jesus' wooden cross, or how Jesus was supposed to totally die upon his birth, or how St. Nick was kicking heretics' asses while motivated by dubstep, or how Christmas presents are like New Jerusalem. I'm not joking. It even gets more weird when Doane later includes a scene where the token black guy and his buddy proceed to go through an entire list of conspiracy theories but in a mocking manner, including insulting Fox News at one point. That pathetic cable channel is the only network willing to give you free publicity for your Christian crap, Cameron and Doane, and you proceed to shit on their open hands and say they are the crazy ones?

A baby wielding an iPhone could have created a better film in every department. The acting is certifiable garbage, with Cameron and Doane often coming across as serial killers. The camera routinely goes out of focus and shakes all about. The film quality jumps from piss-poor 30 fps, then to 24 fps for the Errol Morris-like lucid stories, then to full-on abuse of slow motion. There are several scenes where Doane fades out and then fades back in on the exact same image. One opening sequence is repeated wholesale later in the end. Continuity is beyond shot. The entire musical score is made up of production music. The animated opening credits were cribbed from someone else. And finally, to conclude the picture and stretch it out beyond belief, we have the most whitest, long-winded breaking dance scene ever shown in cinema, where the dancers have no sync yet continue to show off their atrocious skills and where the background kids constantly look bored and refuse to take part in singing an insidious Christmas rap tune. Though it was toxic and needs to be treated exactly like Chernobyl once on video, I was luckily enough to laugh my way through with this travesty. Because I have experienced what has to be death knell of the Christian film industry on its grandest stage.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fury - Review

A wet-behind-the-ears desk clerk (Logan Lerman) is assigned to replace a fallen soldier, who was previously the front gunner of a battle-hard, five-men-operated tank, led by a ruthless but still sensitive Sergeant (Brad Pitt). David Ayer's FURY is satisfactory at best. It's simply an old-fashioned WII pic but with some more "fucks" thrown in, plus the addition of green and red lasers. No joke, the gunfire looks like it came straight out of the G.I. Joe cartoon and proves to be very distracting to this viewer. Anyway, though the action is violently brutal and the film ends with an exciting final stand, the script possesses no new incite into the war beyond some kid soldiers and a few quotable lines. It also doesn't help that you pin point every outcome and twist in the story, including an excruciatingly long scene in an apartment. All of the characters are just basic stereotypes (Stern teacher, preacher, Mexican, Southern boy, virgin) but thankfully the five actors are able to scrounge up some individual talent (Pitt and Jon Bernthal being the best) and show off some good chemistry with each other. Additionally, I will say that my screening was plagued by bad speakers and sound mixing, so the loud warfare scenes came off more flat and quiet. But even if management fixed the issue, FURY is still only an okay feature, worth it if he pay for cheap tickets or the eventual Redbox rental.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Sparks - Review

Set in a stylized version of the 1940's, a vigilante superhero with no powers (Chase Williamson) tells his crime-fighting story to a reporter, starting from his Bruce Wayne-like origin, to his brief team-up with female icon Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell), to his current predicament of being railroaded by a psychotic preacher (William Katt). SPARKS is absolutely loathsome, soaking in a pool of utter misogyny and crass storytelling. It crams so much plot, murky details and vile towards women into a 90 minute running time that it keeps forgetting to actually have its heroes do, you know, heroic things. While am I harping so much on its treatment of its female characters? Because Christopher Folino's script frankly will make Mark Millar, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and the DC Comics editorial staff blush. Let me lay it all out: Pregnant women are violently killed, the hero's grandmother is murdered by goons when his identity is revealed, Lady Heavenly later is raped and has her lower body mutilated off-screen, and then the titled character walks away from his partner/girlfriend in order to hook up with a shapeshifter (Marina Squerciati), who he gladly bumps and grinds with when she's transformed as his former flame and later pimps her out to anyone with $20. Blegh! Even if you're a sadist and tolerate this heinous material, you still have to sit through a ton of bad green screen shots, an Act Two that is completely pointless, and a mystery that is unreservedly easy to solve. Stay far, far away from this miserable mess if you know what's good to you.