Life Itself

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I’ve never been one to hold up people as heroes in my life. Sure, I’ve had the normal fascinations and fantasies about sports players and rock stars, but they were always just that: fascinations. They were daydreams about living a life I’ve never experienced, but to me a hero was something more. I’ve only considered myself to have one hero and it was largely a secret to most people. My hero was Roger Ebert. It wasn’t the type of thing one flaunted or put up posters on the wall about, but it was a far more personal connection. It was personal in ways that I’ll never be able to articulate fully. I’ll never understand how someone that I had absolutely no personal contact with was able to hold me under his sway so completely. In my mind, what Roger Ebert wrote was worth reading. Always. However,  I didn’t always agree with his reviews and that may, perhaps, be the thing I cherish most. When I disagreed with Roger Ebert I really had to look to myself and justify my feelings. He forced me to look at films more critically, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Now I find myself presented with the documentary Life Itself, a film based on the memoirs of Ebert directed by Steve James. Roger had given James full access to his life just months before he passed and much use was made of personal footage and interviews with those that knew him best. The only glaring omission to my mind was leaving out all mention of Richard Roeper. It puzzles me as to why those years of their partnership were omitted in his life story. However, the rest of his life is beautifully presented. It is unflinching towards the less desirous characteristics of his personality and faces the tribulations of his cancer treatment with candor and honesty.

I will not be giving this film a grade. Suffice it to say that it moved me to be able to watch a bit of the life of a man I never knew, but yet always felt close to. I cried while watching the end and felt the loss of his passing all over again. I believe that the film will be impressive and moving for even those that weren’t enthusiasts, but that belief is mired in a bias so thick that it’s palpable. To those that are not fans of Roger Ebert this may be an interesting two hours spent learning about the life of a complicated and celebrated man, but to me it was a chance to spend time with my hero, which much like the writings that came before it, is something that I will cherish forever. Rest in peace Roger, and thank you for all that you did even for those you never met.

Maleficent

There was a point during Maleficent where I considered setting myself on fire. I felt that my fellow audience members deserved to see something entertaining that evening and the film certainly didn’t seem to have any interest in providing it. I checked my watch about ten minutes into the film due to an unrelenting desire to be anywhere else and I continued checking my watch every ten minutes for the 17 hour runtime. I emerged from the theater haggard and sleep deprived. I was mentally calculating how many meals I must have missed and how much I longed to see my family. In this delirious state I was informed that Maleficent has a runtime of 97 minutes. I still do not believe that fact.

Maleficent is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story told from the point of view of the villain. Sort of. She’s now the hero and the villain. She’s the only one the filmmakers cared about even a little bit so she has to be all things to all people. The film begins with a young Maleficent that lives in the Moors with a wide range of fantastical creatures. She befriends a trespassing human from a nearby land and they begin a long term friendship that culminates in a betrayal/ rape analogy. Maleficent then spends about twenty minutes as the villain we remember before changing again because the plot requires it.

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One of the major problems with this film is that the vast majority of the plot is described in narration rather than in any of the scenes. The film begins with narration, moves on to a scene, then begins another narration in an endless cycle so that no individual scene requires any semblance of plot. At no point do the filmmakers make any attempt to create anything that could be called an actual film.

Angelina Jolie has championed this project for years and she clearly saw something in the story that she connected with. Her performance is fine in a strangely nondescript way. That may be due to her character changing personalities so many times throughout the film. Jolie still has an amazing ability to act with her eyes and she can nuance her emotions with a glance. I felt bad for her because she gives her all in a truly bad film. She is let down at every step from script to direction to CGI.

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Speaking of the CGI, Maleficent falls victim to the same problem as Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful. A purely computerized environment never feels authentic. It never looks likes the actors are interacting with anything. Maleficent looks like a green screen nightmare with a nausea inducing love for anything that looks strange. All of this is not to say that the CGI is poorly designed. The CGI itself looks fine, but it never melds with the actors. There is a clear disconnect that never resolves itself.

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I would like to make special mention of Sharlto Copley who plays the nemesis to Maleficent in the film. I was wowed by Copley’s performance in District 9 and was looking forward to his future roles. Unfortunately, Copley has been blazingly bad in everything since. He was awful in Elysium and Oldboy and he does nothing to regain any confidence here. It is time that casting directors take a hard look at these performances and reconsider their interest.

I could go on and on about all of the things I disliked about this movie, but the internet would run out of room. Suffice it to say that there was nothing in this film that I liked, and that I feel bad for Jolie who deserves a much better film around her. I would actually be interested in seeing the film that was advertised in the trailers. That film looked like a dark and gothic fairytale with a willingness to embrace its evil side. The finished film is nothing like the trailer lets on. I don’t think I can continue talking about Maleficent. I’ve given too much of my life to this film. I should’ve stopped after the two minute trailer. I probably would’ve been far more satisfied. Grade: D-

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Locke

Locke is an exquisite showcase of how riveting it can be when one actor commands the screen. Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke and he is the only face you will see for the entire 85 minute run time. Not only is Hardy the only face you’ll see, but the entire film takes place inside of his car. Hardy is mesmerizing with a calm charisma and gentle voice that holds everything together. This is a wonderful film full of symbolism and confidence and not only is it a great respite from the bombast of summer blockbusters, but it is a glorious film in its own right.

Ivan Locke is a family man with a wife and two sons and also a successful construction manager on the eve of the biggest job of his career. The film begins as Locke is heading to his car at the end of the workday. As he sits at a stoplight with his left turn signal blinking a flurry of emotions cross his face. The light turns green and Locke still sits, unsure of how to proceed. When the truck behind him honks his horn Locke switches his turn signal to turn right and has made a decision that may jeopardize everything that he has built up in his life.

The film follows Locke as he drives from Birmingham to London while fielding phone calls regarding the set up for the concrete pour that he is supposed to be in charge of the following morning, calls to London to deal with a situation from his past that has come back to haunt him, and multiple exchanges with his wife and sons trying to explain why he is doing what he’s doing. As the film moves on Locke tries harder and harder to hold his life together as everything is falling apart.

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It is an extreme credit to Tom Hardy, writer/director Steven Knight, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos that they have crafted a one location film entirely composed of phone conversations and have made it immensely watchable. While there is nothing groundbreaking in the visuals they are very well done, and Zambarloukos plays with all the night time lights of a highway just enough to avoid being repetitive. He also utilizes different focus techniques that keep things interesting as well as giving a shakiness to the camera that perfectly evokes the feel of driving. There are very few flourishes and the minimalistic camera work only helps focus on Hardy’s performance.

Tom Hardy is quickly becoming one of the best actors working today by taking risky roles and falling into them so completely that it is sometimes difficult to even recognize him. He has done some stellar work in films like Inception, Bronson, Warrior, and The Dark Knight Rises. The reason Locke is so successful is Hardy’s ability to play a man that is very controlled and logical with a soothing voice and a tendency to believe that he can make everything work out the way he wants to. It is a stellar performance worthy of praise that I fear will fly under almost everyone’s radar.

There are mounds of symbolism in the film, some on the nose and some less so. Locke tends to speak about concrete in terms that would directly apply to the situation in his life, but while those symbolic gestures are fairly obvious it is some of the other moments where the underlying layers of the film really stand out. There are elements of integrity, redemption, and confession littered throughout that strike chords across the entire film and really work well in stretching the themes across each section of the story.
Locke is likely going to go largely unnoticed by the general public and that is a shame. There are wonderful moments in an emotional story that are all anchored by a supremely confident performance by its only actor onscreen. This is a movie that film fans will find well worth seeking out. Grade: A

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Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla is a film I very much enjoyed in the same way that I did Pacific Rim last year. It is polarizing and flawed, but the film is best enjoyed by immersing yourself in the two hour ride and letting the experience take you over. Don’t think too much about the ride when it’s done because you will be able to pick it apart and the whole thing will come tumbling down.

Let’s start with things I liked because the flawed elements of the film are numerous and I want to emphasize that I did, in fact, enjoy this movie. The cinematography and shot compositions are top notch. Director Gareth Edwards frames the monsters in amazing ways that conceal as much as they reveal which lets the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. He also shoots everything from the perspective of the human characters enabling the scope and size of the monsters to be more fully realized. There are no Michael Bay-esque omniscient cameras floating around the sky. This grounding of the camera lends itself to our perspective and gives the creatures a size and weight that is usually missing from big budget blockbusters. Perhaps Edwards’ most interesting achievement is the way he makes Godzilla a CGI spectacle that still moves like a guy in a rubber suit. Everything about the monsters works on every level with a couple of fantastic battles in the third act that are completely satisfying.

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Godzilla also serves as Gareth Edwards’ loving homage to Spielberg. That influence is felt throughout is ways both big, small, and on the nose. For example, the main character’s name is Ford Brody. Edwards also cribs Spielberg’s tendency to very slowly reveal the elements that are larger than life. Edwards himself stated in an interview that Jaws was a huge inspiration for this film and it is evident throughout. Edwards tries to evoke the same awe and wonder that Spielberg mined so well in films like Jaws and Jurassic Park. The reason Godzilla doesn’t live up to those films is that it lacks the human and emotional elements that Spielberg has mastered.

The humans are truly the worst aspect of Godzilla. They are terrible. It is terrible acting with a terrible script. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in particular, gives one of the most bland, uninterested, and devoid of emotion performances ever put to film. With a rich cast that also includes, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn it is amazing how much talent Godzilla wastes in its actors. Each actor is allowed to bring one dimension to the table and that’s it. Elizabeth Olsen plays crying wife. David Strathairn plays straight-laced Naval officer. Etc. Bryan Cranston is the only one who makes a go of it and even that is ultimately wasted due to the script. The human element is far and away the worst aspect of the film. However, in a movie called Godzilla I wonder how much leniency can be given to a film that gets the humans so wrong but gets Godzilla so right.

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I would also like to make particular mention of the atrocious and mind-bogglingly bad editing in this film. It is easily one of the worst edited films I’ve seen this year. There is a scene near the beginning where three characters are running away from something and they are in different positions depending on whether they are being shown from the front or behind. From the front, the female character is in the lead, and when they are shown from behind she is shown to be tailing the other two men. There are scenes that end before reaching their climax. There are scenes that end before the action is done. It is just so sloppy as to be appalling at some points.

All of this being said, I enjoyed Godzilla. I was willing to overlook the bad parts in order to enjoy the good. For me at least, a half hour of bad human characters talking nonsense was erased by the breathtaking halo jump sequence. The last half hour of the film features almost zero dialogue and it is little wonder why it is the most successful portion of the movie. This film also features some amazing sound design. From the creature roars to silence this film utilizes sound in a wonderful way that enhances the visuals. Gareth Edwards has a keen sense for visual composition but clearly needs to brush up on storytelling logic and human emotion. This is a monster movie that takes its time getting there, which can be frustrating, but the last portion of the film is exquisitely done. Godzilla is going to be polarizing in exactly the same way Pacific Rim and Cloverfield were. I enjoyed both of those films as I did this one. My enjoyment, and ultimately my grade, is based on my recognition that these films are bad, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. Grade: B

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past is a reminder that with the right passion and in the right hands a comic book movie can still be thrilling and wonderful. This film is an all-out spectacle with visual panache and competent storytelling. It manages to weave in elements from the four previous X-Men films without being overbearing, hokey, or cluttered all while telling a unique story that makes sense within the context of the universe. It is a glorious return to the characters for Bryan Singer and fans of superhero movies should embrace this reunion with open arms.

The story is set in the future where mutants and humanity have both been ravaged in a war with robots known as sentinels. In a desperate last ditch effort, a group of mutants including Professor X, Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Wolverine, and Magneto attempt to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time so that they can prevent the sentinels from ever being built. This allows Wolverine to seek out the younger versions of characters as they were portrayed in X-Men: First Class. To say much more would be spoiling some of the fun so I will let it be.

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There will undoubtedly be backlash over some aspect of the time-travel plot. There always is. For me, in a universe where people can control metal and turn into blue hairy beasts I was able to let the time travel elements fly through with no objection. Suspension of disbelief is required for just about everything involved in an X-Men movie so I don’t understand why time-travel logistics would be a point of dissent. Bryan Singer handled the time travel as well as can be expected and it never seemed to defy its own internal logic so I never had a problem with it.

X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to bring back nearly every actor to appear in an X-Men film, but the focus is clearly on five main characters and an antagonist. Wolverine, played for the 642nd time by Hugh Jackman. Professor X, mainly the James McAvoy version. Magneto, again the younger version played by Michael Fassbender. Mystique, played by America’s darling Jennifer Lawrence. The young Beast as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult. Finally we get to the antagonist- Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage. Trask sees mutants as a threat to humanity and develops the sentinels as a protective measure. Part of the brilliance of this film is that there is no mustache-twirling evil plot. Everyone is at odds with everyone else, but solely due to their beliefs. Everyone acts in accordance with their character. It is a masterful juggling act by Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg to keep everyone involved in meaningful and realistic ways without resorting to contrivance and convenience.

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Especially against the backdrop of the recent deluge of lackluster comic book movies X-Men Days of Future Past stands as a vibrant epic as well as an effective emotional drama. Man of Steel managed to deliver some minor thrills during its superhero moments, but fell flat on its face during character moments. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a wonderful love story that was routinely sidetracked by uninspired superhero moments. This new X-Men film marries both beautifully. We are invested in the drama of the characters which makes the superhero action bonanza scenes more thrilling. It is invigorating to get a comic book movie that lets the drama play out in ways that make sense to the characters and not just as an excuse to show things blowing up.

I have an up and down relationship with the X-Men movies. I was lukewarm on the first film, but X2 is wonderful. X3 had moments that were ok but otherwise it was a pretty mediocre film. Wolverine: Origins may be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and the sequel didn’t fare a whole lot better with me. I did, however, quite enjoy X-Men: First Class, but it seemed like an offshoot more than an official entry in the series. I had major concerns heading into Days of Future Past seeing that I only really enjoyed 2 of the 6 films. The fact that it rivals X2 as the best in the series speaks volumes about how well made this film is.

I will finish this off with one criticism and one praise. The only true flaw I felt throughout the movie is that every character speaks either in speeches or exposition. There is very little banter or small talk. Every line is laced with meaning. It is a credit to the script and the actors that the lines don’t come off as forced. My praise is for every moment that Quicksilver is on screen. Quicksilver is a minor character in terms of the plot, but he has one magnificent scene that is breathtaking, original, funny, and majestic. Quicksilver’s one scene is worth the ticket price alone and is very reminiscent of the Nightcrawler opening scene from X2. I truly hope the future X-Men films find a way to utilize more of Quicksilver.
Just at a point when I was starting to tire of the endless superhero cacophony here comes Bryan Singer’s X-Men. It is a fun film with something to say and I hope that other studios take notice so that maybe we can get a bit more films like this and a bit less like Man of Steel. Grade: A-

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I must admit that I had low expectations for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I tire quickly of the comic book movie tropes and formulaic approach. So imagine my surprise as I watched the film soar past my expectations, come near greatness, and then fall back into a middling mess at the end. There is too much stuff going on in Spider-Man 2 for it to really achieve greatness. It wants to have Marvel studios style levels of universe continuity, which is a shame because if they had cut out the nonsense and streamlined the plot this could have been a masterpiece.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone reprise their roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy respectively. Their relationship forms the crux of the film and it’s at its best when the plot stays focused on Peter trying to balance his responsibilities as Spider-Man, his love of Gwen, and his fear and guilt of endangering his loved ones. The film also introduces Jamie Foxx as a nobody turned Electro, and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn. There are plot threads all over the place and that is what ultimately holds the movie back. Peter is dealing with his relationship and feelings for Gwen, while he’s also trying to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of his parents, intercut with him doing his typical superhero stuff. Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon is a hapless electrical engineer who suffers a terrible accident and must acquaint himself with a very different mindset. All of this happens while Harry Osborn returns from boarding school as his father passes away and he is handed the reins of Oscorp while he is simultaneously trying to find a cure for the disease that has been passed down his family line. That’s an awful lot of plot for one film and even the two and a half hour running time isn’t enough to let each of those stories breathe on their own.

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The most fleshed out storyline, and not coincidentally the most effective, is Peter Parker trying to deal with the implications of his superhero life on his personal life. Hidden in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a wonderful romantic love story about a guy who just happens to have superpowers. It is heartfelt and realistic and you can feel director Marc Webb’s sensibilities most often in these scenes. I was completely engaged in this storyline and the film suffers when it strays from it. I feel that this is partly because the villains seem tacked on. We have no investment in those characters and there isn’t enough time to give their backstories any weight. Too often when the film switches away from Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy the emphasis is on world building for sequels and spin-offs. It feels cheap and fake and detracts from the good thing they had going.

What infuriates me about this film is how utterly useless and contrived the additional plot elements are. It infuriates me because I really enjoyed vast portions of this film. With a little tinkering this whole film could have been streamlined into something wonderful. The 10 minutes fight sequence on a plane should have been cut completely due to it being totally unnecessary and the way it’s shot makes it incomprehensible to watch. The last ten minutes are virtually a trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and have no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and I think it’s those last ten minutes that really really drove me crazy. There is a logical endpoint to this film that carries emotional resonance and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. Instead of ending the film there we are given ten minutes of marketing material. Ending the film in that way tainted my whole experience and is still irksome to me long after seeing it.

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There are a few technical issues I had with the film as well, but they seem like minor inconveniences when presented next to the story problems. There is some truly awful editing in this film and at times is actually appalling. The CGI does a pretty respectable job of envisioning the web slinging scenes through New York, but the battle sequences get a bit muddled. There are many scenes, especially in the Spider-Man/Electro battle, that look like they were stolen straight from a video game. There are no realistic elements and the fakeness is glaringly obvious. I found much of the sound design to be muddled as well, but that could easily be chalked up to personal taste. The technique of the film is not the problem and this is certainly the best looking Spider-Man movie we’ve had yet.

I thought I would hate this film, I wanted to love it, and I ended up just liking it. With some editing this could be one of my favorite superhero movies of all time. Instead I thought it was decent enough that I would recommend people see it in the theater, but not the great movie that it so easily could have been. There was far too much wasted potential and clear studio interference to elevate it as one of the greats. Sad, because it was so close. I think the best option for audiences is to walk out of the theater about five minutes or so before it ends and you will have seen a much better film. Grade: B

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Transcendence

Johnny Depp has become something of an enigma. Depp excels at playing wildly over the top characters with very little grasp of what anyone would consider reality. In Transcendence however, Depp makes a completely different choice. Unfortunately, that choice is to sleepwalk through a performance. His character is completely muted with a monotone speech pattern that never displays any hint of emotion. It mirrors the entire film in many ways. This is a one-note, one-theme movie that never stretches out to reach its potential and becomes a logistical nightmare by the end.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant doctor in the field of artificial intelligence. A terrorist organization attempts to assassinate him, but instead of outright killing him they give him radiation poisoning. He is given a month to live and in that time Caster’s wife (also a brilliant scientist) decides to try and upload his consciousness into a computer. Whether or not they are successful is a question that the film tries to answer.

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In some ways Transcendence is akin to the Spike Jonze film Her from last year. It is science fiction, but delves into topics that are not far off from our own reality. Our technology is expanding at an exponential pace and these films deal with what will happen when that technology begins to intersect with humanity. What does it mean to be human? Can a computer understand human emotion? Is artificial intelligence the next logical step in human evolution? Transcendence broaches these topics but never weaves them into its reality in the way Her did. I will give credit to the film makers for attempting to deal with some thought provoking issues, but the film is a mess and never feels like it actually has something to say.

This is the first directorial feature for longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister. I believe that Pfister would have been much better served by starting on a smaller film and getting his bearings before tackling a hundred million dollar film with a star studded cast. This has all the trappings of a first time director: shots that look very nice but don’t mean anything to the story and are flourishes with no point, camera angles that feel just a tad off, a complete set piece to set piece story with scenes that feel separate from the whole. The last of those is something that Pfister’s mentor Nolan is still guilty of so the carry-over there is understandable. There are just too many little problems for the film to add up to anything great.

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This is also the first screenwriting feature for Jack Paglan. Again there are numerous problems that more established screenwriters would have found ways around. The Cillian Murphy character is completely pointless and from a logic standpoint shouldn’t even be in the film. The Morgan Freeman character is inconsequential. The terrorist organization is never fully fleshed out so their agenda seems vague at best. Caster’s wife, played by Rebecca Hall, is forced to change emotions and motivations on a dime depending on what the script is requiring of her in that scene. The script is a draft or two away from being something poignant, but as is is messy and needs some polish. Transcendence feels like a film that either needs to be longer or shorter. It introduces too many characters and plot threads for the film to deal with in the running time. It should be either significantly longer to give the film time to run with its ideas, or stripped down to eliminate the side characters that are unnecessary in the final version.

It is sad that a film that discusses the logic of computers being able to understand and mimic human emotion falls victim to logic problems throughout. For instance, a terrorist group that wants to rid the world of dangerous technology uses every technological weapon at their disposal. Or the fact that someone was able to build a gigantic underground secret lab with the most high powered computers in existence over the span of two years and no one noticed. It is these kinds of problems that hold the movie back. Transcendence has ambitious ideas that are completely let down by the filmmakers’ lack of experience. In more capable hands this could have been something special, but what we received was mediocre at best. Grade: C-

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