March, 22nd 2014

Divergent

Baltimore magazine

 

Hollywood is so laughably predictable. A film based on a YA triology about a brave heroine in a dystopian universe does well at the box office and they don’t think to themselves, “Wow. People really DO want to see a variety of diverse stories featuring young heroines!” Instead they think, “Wow. Young people want to see stories based on YA trilogies about brave heroines in a dystopian universe.”

Sigh.

And so we have Divergent, aka, The Hunger Games but with less fun wigs.

In this film’s version of the future, Chicago is the only city to have survived the apocalypse. (Totally believable. If they can survive their own winters, a little nuclear winter should be a snap.)

The whole population has been divided into factions—and it’s a bit like high school. There’s Erudite (the brains), Candor (the school narcs), Dauntless (the jocks), Amity (the hippie tree-huggers), and Abnegation (the student government). Basically, it’s The Breakfast Club goes dystopian. Our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a member of Abnegation and, as well as being the governing faction, they’re known for their lack of vanity and selflessness.

Anyway, when a child turns 16 in this...

2:43 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
March, 21st 2014

Bad Words

Baltimore magazine

 

Quick q before we get started:

Do you think it’s funny to freak out a 13-year-old girl by putting ketchup on her seat and congratulating her for getting her first period?

If you answered, yes, you’re probably going to like Bad Words.

If you’re like me and you answered no, you might find it a bit problematic.

Okay, I’d be lying if I said that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut didn’t make me laugh a bunch of times, because it did. We all have different thresholds for offensive humor. Mine might be different from yours. But I tend to think that when you wield this kind of nasty humor, it needs to be in the service of some sort of meaningful or satisfying whole. And I’m not sure Bad Words quite passes that test.

The premise is amusing: Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who, thanks to a technicality (he never graduated 8th grade), is able to compete in a series of spelling bees, leading up to the televised nationals.

Guy, as it turns out, is a genius—with a photographic memory. He’s a natural. Still, he takes pleasure in playing mind games with his competition, mocking one contestant for being fat (sigh) and implying that he slept with...

10:31 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
March, 20th 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Baltimore magazine

 

 

It’s easy to say that Wes Anderson has a soft spot for the outliers, oddballs, and eccentrics of this world. But it’s more than that: He absolutely reveres them. Weird isn’t just a good thing to him, it’s the only thing.

His heroes, which include Rushmore’s teacher’s-pet-from-hell Max Fischer, the Ahab-like titular character of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and the preternaturally precocious Sam of Moonrise Kingdom have a few things in common: They tend to be obsessive and stubborn and fastidious. Often they, much like Anderson himself, are drawn to the formality, gentility, and artifacts of a bygone age. And they are convinced, unwaveringly, of their own moral and intellectual superiority.

And now we can add Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) of The Grand Budapest Hotel to that group. He might very well be the most explicitly heroic of the bunch.

He’s the concierge of the hotel, still a place to see and be seen just before the outbreak of World War II, but already a symbol of fading Old World glamour. He’s as conscientious and perfectionist as you would want a concierge to be: Pleasing his customers is his number one priority—even if that means...

10:00 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
March, 3rd 2014

Stars, They're Just Like Us! My 2014 Oscar Wrap-Up.

Baltimore magazine

 

Has Twitter changed the Oscars?

I ask this because, several years ago, Dave Letterman was basically run off the stage for treating the Oscars with too much irreverence (remember his infamous Uma/Oprah bit?) and last night Ellen DeGeneres was serving pizza, collecting tips, and compelling Brad Pitt to hand out paper plates.

As stars have become more accessible thanks to Twitter and Instagram, it only stands to reason that they’d be more willing to let down their hair and show their human side at awards shows.

(All the more reason why Jimmy Kimmel’s pre-show shtick—where he climbed through a TV and berated a grotesquely slovenly couple for daring to live Tweet the Oscars—seemed so tone deaf and unnecessarily nasty. It was totally antithetical to the spirit of the show.)

Of course, the genius of choosing Ellen to host the Oscars is that she’s not really irreverent at all, certainly not in a way that has any teeth. She’s not Seth MacFarlane making rude jokes and smirking smugly at the audience. She’s not Ricky Gervais (who has hosted the Golden Globes, not the Oscars), gleefully skewering Hollywood culture with several surgically-placed barbs. She’s more of the “stars, they’re just like...

10:34 am Comment Count Tags: Oscars
February, 28th 2014

Non-Stop

Baltimore magazine

 

In a way, Liam Neeson has done the “reverse McConaughey” in that he went from being a semi serious dramatic actor to a genre star (in this case, action). His trajectory is doubly remarkable when you consider that the guy is 61 years old.

It’s funny because, since the glory days of Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger, the movies been searching for the new go-to action hero. Various young men have been trotted out—Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pine, Chris Evans—none quite sticking. So Neeson’s success is a bit like a Viagra ad: You want something done, ask an old guy to do it.

And why not? Liam Neeson is a commanding physical presence, with a deep voice, and—helpful!—actual acting chops. I still prefer the “sensitive Liam” of Husbands and Wives and Love Actually, but that’s just a personal preference.

In Non-Stop—which I have also dubbed Lady Mary on a Plane— Neeson plays a variation on his new persona—basically a badass who is also a good guy. Here, he’s Air Marshal Bill Marks who’s on a flight to Norway when he receives an anonymous text message: Put $130 million into a bank account or one person on the plane will die every 20 minutes. (Although there’s a lot of...

11:33 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
February, 27th 2014

If You Build It, They Will Vote: My 2014 Oscar Predictions

Baltimore magazine

 

I have a (semi) foolproof strategy for guessing which film is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The film basically has to be very entertaining/accessible while also making the voters feel good about themselves. It’s really that simple. The film has to give off the whiff of importance—if not actually be important—but never at the expense of the entertainment value. (Films that are historical, literary, or confront social justice are particularly well received). Auteurship is fine, too—voters like to think of themselves as highbrow—as long as the film isn’t too artsy. If the film has expensive production values, all the better. The Academy likes some bang for its buck.

There are exceptions, of course. Oscar can’t resist a big, splashy musical (see: Chicago). And sometimes they dole out make-good Oscars for directors who should’ve won for earlier, better work (see: The Departed). But for the most part, it’s a solid formula.

Let’s put it in action, shall we? Here are the past 10 winners.

Argo, 2012: Wildly entertaining and the Iran Contra affair is history, right? (The more historically edifying, but significantly less entertaining Lincoln...

1:30 pm Comment Count Tags: Oscars
February, 20th 2014

Pompeii

Baltimore magazine

 

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the Screen Gems pitch session when they hatched the idea for Pompeii.

“It’ll be like Gladiator…but with volcanoes!” one producer would enthuse. "It's . . . Gladcanoes!"

“And in 3D!” another would chime in.

Yep, not since SyFy’s Sharknado has a high concept been so, well, high. Pompeii is ridiculous, but at least it knows it’s ridiculous. I mean, it’s got to know it’s ridiculous. . .right?

The gladiator parts are so generic, they might as well have been assembled in a lab:

  1. Bored slave master eating grapes? Check
  2. Studly slave gladiator seeking to avenge the evil Romans who slayed his family? Check
  3. Beautiful noblewoman who loves him? Check
  4. Brave fellow gladiator who goes from enemy to frenemy? Check.

And so on.

Kit Harington, of Game of Thrones fame, plays our hero Milo, complete with CGI-enhanced abs. I love Harington as Jon Snow—he’s a world-class pouter. But let’s just say his range is…limited. Here, he’s less gladiator than boy toy. For those about to die…here’s my Blue Steel.

Kiefer Sutherland is on hand—counting the days...

12:03 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
February, 12th 2014

Winter's Tale

Baltimore magazine

 

Breathe a sigh of relief, Labor Day! We have a new frontrunner for Worst Film of the Year!

Oh, how to explain the many ways that Winter’s Tale goes wrong, except to say . . .every way?

It’s based on a book (that I confess to have never read), and succumbs to every possible pitfall of adapting a novel: It feels plodding and episodic. There’s an overly pedantic voiceover explaining its spiritual “themes.” Character backgrounds and motivations are murky. Seemingly significant characters show up for one scene, then disappear.

Here’s what I could make of the plot: A thief (a raven-haired Colin Farrell, looking a lot more like Snapes than anyone could’ve possibly intended) runs afoul of a crime boss (Russell Crowe) who is also a henchman for the devil. (I’d tell you who plays the devil in this film, but I’ll let you stumble across that howler on your own.)

The thief is rescued by a mystical white horse—alternately called a dog because…well . . .er. . .it must be explained in the book—and falls in love with a beautiful red-headed woman who’s dying of consumption. (She’s played by Downton Abbey’s milky-skinned Jessica Brown Findlay and any...

4:07 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
February, 10th 2014

The Lego Movie

Baltimore magazine


The Lego Movie has absolutely no business being as good as it is. It was released in February, generally a graveyard for films. It has its product placement built right into the title. It’s also in 3D which, Gravity notwithstanding, is rarely a beacon of quality.

And yet, The Lego Movie is one of the most hip, hilarious, and nimble movies you’re likely to see all year. (Moral of the story: You can’t judge a film by its title, month of release, or number of visual dimensions.)

It helps that the film looks great. While there’s clearly lots of CGI, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller also reportedly used more than 3 million actual Lego bricks to construct the film’s world (I’ve been assured that no Legos were harmed during production). The result is remarkable—the Legos have dimension and movement and depth. You feel like you can reach out and stack them.

And then there’s the script—packed with enough one-liners, pop culture references, and winking commentary to fill up several movies. (Despite its title, the film is actually anti-commodification).

Emmet (the voice of Chris Pratt) is just a regular construction guy in Lego land...

4:33 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
February, 7th 2014

The Monuments Men

Baltimore magazine

 

New aphorism: With great casting, comes great responsibility. I’ve heard people say, of The Monuments Men, “with a cast like that, you can’t go wrong!” Actually, the opposite is true. When a cast includes the likes of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote), expectations are raised. And if the film doesn’t deliver, it’s doubly disappointing.

At least I can see why everyone signed on (the cast also includes Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, and redoubtable character actor Bob Balaban). The story—based on real events—is a doozy. During World War II, a carefully selected team of curators, art historians, architects, et al were recruited to hunt down and recover priceless works of art that the Nazis had stolen. You see, Hitler, with classic hubris, had hoped to create the world’s greatest art museum. (I’m yet to see a movie about Hitler that doesn’t mention his thwarted aspirations as an artist and The Monuments Men doesn’t disappoint—although in this case, I suppose, it’s appropriate.) The recruits, mostly middle-aged and, in some cases, too drunk or feeble of body to have...

10:55 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
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