Friday, February 28, 2014

Blue Jasmine

This will wrap up my mini Oscar-themed series of reviews, as I don't have time to watch and review the rest of the nominated films (though admittedly there are some I'd just rather not see). Hopefully you've enjoyed the reviews or at least found them helpful for the upcoming Oscar festivities this weekend.

Despite being an unabashed movie lover, I've never really worshiped at the alter of Woody Allen like many film fans do. Most of what I've seen has been pretty hit-or-miss with me, though I absolutely loved Midnight in Paris which came out a few years ago. Then I tried to sit down and watch To Rome with Love, which I found to be completely boring and had to turn it off less than thirty minutes into the movie. I've found that Woody Allen can sometimes come up with really imaginative and clever character-driven stories, and other times he gets too focused on something that ultimately undermines the story he's trying to tell. With that kind of introduction, it's not surprising that I didn't spend top-dollar to see Blue Jasmine in theaters, despite the positive word-of-mouth I've heard and the Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett.

Coming off a turbulent relationship and left completely penniless, Jasmine is forced to move across the country to live with her unrelated sister Ginger (they were both adopted by the same parents). After an estrangement caused by Jasmine's ex-husband conning Ginger's husband out of their lottery winnings by getting him to invest in his crooked real estate business, things are particularly prickly between the two sisters as Jasmine returns to San Francisco. Though Jasmine is used to a lavish lifestyle, she struggles with the humiliation of starting from scratch and can't help but offend those around her with her snooty attitude towards what they deem "acceptable". No one really recognizes the psychological damage inflicted on Jasmine, however, until she finds another eligible suitor who might be the key to returning to her life of prosperity.

I find it difficult to deconstruct character pieces like this, because there isn't really a story structure, per se. All of the scenes that are presented to the audience are to tell us more about the title character and to form an opinion of her in one way or another. Based on that criteria, Woody Allen does a tremendous job of splicing together moments from different times in Jasmine's life to formulate a thesis as to why she's become the way we find her in Blue Jasmine. His directorial instincts are spot-on here as we slowly unravel her history and discover the depths of her psychosis.

Having said that, it's also (in typical Woody Allen form) sort of a darkly-comedic portrayal of her tragic situation. She routinely offends her sister's friends with her scathing indictment of their mediocre lifestyle, and she finds it hard to condescend her lofty ideals enough to actually recapture the success for which she constantly longs. The script is expertly written, and Allen knows exactly where he's going as he lays down a labyrinthine path towards character revelation. 

Of course, this is helped immeasurably by an absolute powerhouse performance by Cate Blanchett, who has probably never been better in any role in her career. She seems to completely embody this character and her magnetic portrayal of a psychologically broken woman whose life is in complete shambles makes everyone else seem superfluous. It'll be a crime if she doesn't take home the Academy Award this weekend.

The reason I can't entirely go with this movie is that it focuses so much on why the main character is so messed up and forgets to give us characters we actually like. Most of the characters are certainly designed to engender our sympathies, but there's nobody to root for in this story. Everyone makes bad decisions and ultimately, there's little redemption to be had for poor Jasmine, or anyone else for that matter. Were the ending not so abrupt and even a little depressing, perhaps I would have enjoyed this movie more. As it is, Blue Jasmine is an artistic character exploration that's well made and impressively performed, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.

Still, I am a little surprised it didn't garner a Best Picture nomination, based solely on the overwhelmingly positive critical response (to the tune of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes). Despite the lukewarm final paragraphs of this review, I really did appreciate what this movie did and Cate Blanchett's performance in particular is a revelation. For that reason alone I would definitely recommend people see it, though if you're not keen on Woody Allen's style you can probably skip it. I give Blue Jasmine three stars.

BLUE JASMINE is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content

Saving Mr. Banks

The Academy Awards are just a couple of days away, so I am scrambling to finish this mini Oscar-themed section of reviews before the trophies are handed out on Sunday. Though this particular film was a rather heralded release and poised to be an awards contender in many different categories (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, etc.), it was surprisingly only nominated for Best Original Score at this year's ceremony. Had my wife not already seen this movie, I would have definitely made more of an effort to catch it in regular theaters a lot sooner, but as it was I saw this movie for the first time within the last two weeks.

Based on the true story of Pamela L. Travers, author of "Mary Poppins", Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatization of her negotiation with innovative film-maker Walt Disney over the film adaptation in 1961. On a mission that has lasted nearly twenty years, Walt refuses to let the rights to the popular children's novel slip through his fingers and is pulling out all the stops to court Ms. Travers. Setting her up in a luxury hotel, allowing script approval and even accompanying her to Disneyland, Walt still cannot crack the shell of the stubborn author. However, there is much that remains unseen about P.L. Travers, as events from her past may hold the key to unlocking her childlike optimism and embracing the opportunity to make things right, if only through imagination.

This is kind of a strange product for Disney, as it's a PG-13 film about the creation of one of its most child-friendly properties. Truthfully, I was shocked to see the movie's rating after seeing it, as there was nothing particularly frightening or mature about its content in my mind. Some of the flashback scenes to Travers's past can be slightly unsettling at times, but I've seen far more adult material in many PG movies. Perhaps it managed the PG-13 rating simply to imply a more adult-focused story, as children will probably find little to enjoy in this film.

One of the fascinating parts of this film (and something that I'm naturally predisposed to liking anyway) is the behind-the-scenes look at the screenwriting process of one of the most popular films in Disney's history. Though it might not be entirely factual, the employment of tape recorders at Ms. Travers's behest allows me to be fairly confident that most of what we see in the writer's room is fairly accurate. Here is where Emma Thompson really shines as she portrays a wide array of emotions from stubborn defiance, to cold indifference, to reluctant excitement and finally to fragile vulnerability. It's a great performance, and I'm a little sad to see it be ignored by the academy.

Perhaps the most surprising role in the film was Walt Disney himself, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks in yet another Oscar-snubbed performance. I actually have to confess that the first time I saw that Tom Hanks would be playing the iconic role of Walt Disney, I cynically reduced it to blatant Oscar bait. Even going into the film I had a little of that bias clouding my view, but that quickly went away when Walt was first shown on screen. Hanks has a subtlety to the role that invokes an authenticity to Walt's genuine desire to bring joy to others. His and Thompson's interplay is one of the most entertaining things in Saving Mr. Banks, and for a few moments in the film I actually forgot it was Tom Hanks and not Walt himself.

I've given a lot of compliments to this film, but I have to say that a flaw was pointed out to me that I find myself compelled to mention. Throughout the movie, but especially at the beginning, Ms. Travers repeatedly expresses her deep, emotional connection to the character and her desire to keep her safe from meddling hands. However, as the story progresses (and this may be a slight SPOILER) it becomes clear that her connection isn't with Mary Poppins at all, but rather with the Mr. Banks character. The flashback scenes reveal the personal nature of her book, as it vaguely reflects her own life experiences, particularly with her own father, on whom the Mr. Banks character is loosely based. Mary Poppins herself is really secondary and sort of takes a back seat in a movie that seems like it would feature her more. Having said that, I think the relationship she has with her father is fascinating and that her protectiveness of the Mary Poppins character may simply be her re-write on history where the character succeeds in saving her father.

Sorry to delve into spoilers for a moment, but I couldn't really discuss my biggest (but still not all that big) problem with the film. Overall, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful story delving into the back-story of a film that I personally didn't realize had the emotional depth that it does. Everything is tied together seamlessly by the fantastic score by Thomas Newman, deservedly nominated for this Sunday's Oscar ceremony (it was also on my top ten list of 2013, where you can find a sample of the score if you're interested). This was a very enjoyable film despite how much it made me want to go to Disneyland, and I give Saving Mr. Banks a solid three and a half stars.

SAVING MR. BANKS is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


The Academy Awards are just a couple of weeks away, so I figured I would review some of the films that will be featured on Oscar Sunday. My experience with Nebraska is one of the weirdest I've had with a movie in a long time. Admittedly, I was supposed to have reviewed this film over three months ago. Prior to this film's release in November, I wrote a promotional piece where I predicted that it would earn tremendous accolades and multiple awards nominations. Based on director Alexander Payne's track record and the intriguing shooting style of the film, I immediately wanted to see this movie when I was approached to write the feature article, having never even heard of the film until then. I was supposed to attend the press screening of the film as well, though my crippling school schedule prevented me from doing so. While it certainly took more time and effort than I expected, I am pleased to say that I have finally seen Nebraska.

In Billings, Montana, an elderly man named Woody Grant is convinced by a mail-in sweepstakes letter that he's the winner of one million dollars. However, in order to collect his prize he needs to find a way to travel the hundreds of miles to Lincoln, Nebraska. Though he initially makes several unsuccessful attempts at the journey by foot whenever his wife's back is turned, Woody eventually convinces his son David, who realizes the entire thing is a scam, to accompany/drive him to Nebraska. Knowing his father doesn't have a lot of time left, and concerned with his erratic behavior, David takes advantage of the trip to get to know his dad, even as Woody begins to spread the word of his massive pay-day to shark-like relatives and so-called friends.

This is one of the most fascinating films I've seen in a long time. Bruce Dern is incredible as the soft-spoken Woody, concerned with nothing else but collecting his one million dollars. It's no surprise that he received a Best Actor nomination for the performance. His mannerisms are so innocent that you feel genuinely bad for the guy when he falls for the seemingly obvious scam, even as he drowns his other emotions in beer (which the former alcoholic doesn't call "drinking"). There is a lot of ironic humor in this film, and it's an honest yet hilarious portrayal of small-town life. Parts of it are silly and others are almost poetic, but it's the balancing act that Alexander Payne pulls off that brings everything together in such a satisfying way.

Though Nebraska is filmed in black-and-white, it doesn't call attention to it like some modern films tend to do. Having seen the film, I can't imagine it being captured in any other way. There's a reason it was nominated for Best Cinematography as the camera work fully utilizes its unique format as it perfectly frames the story in the vast expanses of Nebraska (the state). Simplicity is such a strength to this film in story, in dialogue and in visuals that it seems to mirror its main character in many ways. It's a great father-son road film, and I think everybody should try to watch it with their dads if possible.

Before I wrap this up, let me just take a moment to explain the R-rating this film was tagged with by the MPAA. While the movie does technically use the F-word twice as well as a few other swear words, it is by no means an "R-rated movie" in terms of content. Moneyball, a movie I love, had as much swearing (and surprisingly just as many F-bombs) and it was somehow rated PG-13. If the rating is turning you off from seeing the film, just ignore it this time.

Nebraska is a beautiful film, not just in terms of camera work, but also in the subtlety with which this story is told. It's a simple story of a relatively simple person, but the emotional insight it provides is quite complex and heart-tugging. This is one of the best films of 2013, and I hope everybody who is even slightly interested in this film gets a chance to see it. Though there are a lot of highly-rated movies on the site lately (it's not my fault I saw the really good ones all at once), I have to give Nebraska four stars.

NEBRASKA is rated R for some language

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Lego Movie

When I first heard that Warner Bros. was making a movie based on the Lego property, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Films based on toys have a very troubling history in my book (Transformers), and it would have been easy for WB to rest its laurels entirely on the brand they're representing. With all the Lego tie-ins that have been introduced over the years, a cynical part of me expected this to be a half-baked attempt to cash-in on a kitschy idea. However, all of my pessimism immediately evaporated the moment I saw the trailer for this movie. In case you were wondering, don't worry - not all of the good scenes are in the trailer.

Emmet is as ordinary as a Lego person can be. He always listens to the same song, watches the same TV show, and always follows "the instructions". Though Emmet is relatively content with his ordinary lifestyle as a builder, he often longs for companionship. No one seems to notice him, even the people he sees every day. On one particularly painful occasion where he is not invited out with the guys after work, Emmet goes beyond the boundaries of the work site and sees a beautiful, rebellious girl named Wyldstyle. Rather than report her instruction violation, however, he tries to follow her and winds up coming in contact with a mysterious, red object known as a piece of resistance. This inadvertently anoints him as the "Special", the subject of a prophecy foretelling his thwarting the evil schemes of Lord Business and saving the Lego universe...

Anyone who has played the Lego-themed video games can tell you that the funniest parts are the in-between scenes where Lego characters act out parodied scenes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones. This movie harnesses that wonderful physical comedy, combining it with clever writing and wonderful voice actors to make one of the most creative films I've seen in years. What they have managed to do with this movie is nothing short of genius, as they created the perfect new franchise. There is obvious appeal for kids, but the material is intelligent enough to give adult audiences an equally enjoyable time. Not only that, but it has the enthusiasm and imagination to make each member of the audience feel like a kid again, being swept up in the wonder of childhood fantasies.

There are so many perfectly executed characters in this film that it's impossible to name them all. Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is the most likable guy you could imagine, and his journey to find his inner "special" is better than most of the live action movies I saw last year. Even a side character like "Bad Cop" (awesomely performed by Liam Neeson) that no one would expect to be anything more than a one-off gag actually gets a satisfying character arc.It's a star-studded cast, but the actors perfectly complement the story rather than overwhelm it as some animated films tend to do (The Croods). There are tons of hilarious cameos and amazing in-jokes for the older crowd, and the running length flies by faster than you'd probably like.

By making the animation mimic stop-motion with Lego pieces, they've actually created an opportunity to do something unique that allows this movie to stand out. Luckily, this screenplay is also just as inventive as the amazing visuals. There are a lot of twists and turns in the film's narrative, but it all comes together in a really surprising way. I seriously can't say enough about this film's creativity and cleverness, and I think it's going to reap some massive financial benefits as a result. Warner Bros. knows they've got a hit, as they've already green-lit the sequel. Releasing in the notoriously slow month of February, The Lego Movie is poised to be an early box office juggernaut in both ticket sales and the unlimited opportunities for tie-ins and cross-overs... how I wish could get a piece of that pie...

To sum up, this movie is fantastic and will surely reward repeat viewings as the humor is so plentiful that it's impossible to absorb entirely upon a first viewing. Not only is this not the shameless commercial for the titular blocks it could have easily become, but it stands in the same realm as Toy Story in my opinion. This is obviously the best film I've seen this year (as it's the only film I've seen this year), but I have a feeling it may end up being high in my top ten at the end of the year as well. While I won't make the case that this is a perfect film (despite the amount of times I used the word "perfect" in this review) I think the overall average of how surprisingly good this film is demands a dramatic star-rating. I give The Lego Movie four stars.

THE LEGO MOVIE is rated PG for mild action and rude humor