Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Immigrant Review

The brilliance of "The Immigrant" is in the way the film's themes sneak up on you and resonate with you long after the film is over. You may have certain expectations when it comes to the film, you may think you know what road it's going to ultimately go down, but instead of turning right, the film goes left. It enters territory most other movies would be too short-sighted and afraid to ever delve into. The power that lies within James Gray's film is its theme of forgiveness. How, through all the pain and misfortune our lead character goes through, she somehow manages to learn and understand how to forgive a man who does nothing but mistreat her. When she arrives in America with the view of the State of Liberty in sight, she has nothing but high hopes for her future there with her sister. But, once her sister is forced to stay on Ellis Island, those hopes are dashed. At least, temporarily. And Ewa must somehow find a way to get her sister off the island in a place that's completely foreign to her.

The one gift Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has is her ability to speak English. After she's threatened with deportation, a seemingly charming man named Bruno (played by Joaquin Phoenix) manages to pay her way out of there. The catch? She has to stay with him and Bruno deceives his initial act of kindness by forcing Ewa to become a prostitute.

What's so refreshing and remarkable about James Gray's fifth film is how he manages to subvert expectations at every turn. When Ewa submits to her first customer, you think we're in for a long night. Ewa is going to be stuck in this awful situation until somebody comes and saves her. That's not the case. Ewa actually manages to escape Bruno's grasp for brief period of time and find some distant relatives who offer her a place to stay. Even when things go wrong there, and she winds up back at Ellis Island with Bruno ready to bail her out, she manages to find a way to turn the tables and take advantage of him.

Ewa is a wonderfully written character as are Bruno, and his cousin, Emil. James Gray gives each of these three characters wonderful layers and they end up being more than what they seem on the surface. Ewa shows unbelievable strength in her refusal to give up hope that she can bail out her sister. She is not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with either Bruno or Emil, despite the latter's countless advances. The only thing she's interested in is to be reunited with her sister so that they can embark on the American Dream together.

Though the practice is nearly extinct now, "The Immigrant" is yet another film that demonstrates just how valuable 35mm film is. The cinematography is this film is impeccable, it perfectly evokes the time period that it's set in (1920s New York) with soft lighting, gorgeous browns and yellows. While it may not be exactly what Gray was going for, it's hard not to think of the Ellis Island scenes in "The Godfather Part II" when watching this movie.

Enough can't be said about the performances here either. Marion Cotillard strikes yet again. You realize in this film just how wonderful she is as expressing herself non-verbally. Gray has said that Carl Th. Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was a huge inspiration for the film and this comes through with the numerous close-ups we get of Cotillard's face. Like I said, Ewa is a beautifully-written character, but Cotillard's performance elevates things even further.

She's anchored by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner (who plays Emil). Phoenix has become an actor whose films simply must be seen on opening weekend, at least for him. He has become a marvel to watch on the screen and he has a moment near the end of the film that nearly ripped my heart out, despite the fact that he plays a fairly nasty character.

Renner, on the other hand, is very charming and light-hearted as the cousin of Bruno who makes his living as a magician. It's rare to see Renner play such a warm character. You saw it a little bit in "American Hustle," though that performance is very much supplanted by Hustle's ensemble cast. He gets a big chance to shine in "The Immigrant" and though he doesn't appear until halfway in the movie, his presence is immediately felt.

It has been a long time since I have seen a film whose opening and closing shots are as striking and memorable as they are here. Gray gets away with these slight stylistic flourishes because the film's style never calls attention to itself. Every shot in this movie is in service of the story, and that is especially true of the final shot, which says so much about the film's characters and its central theme without pointing out the obvious. It's an extraordinary shot in a film that never stops being extraordinary all throughout. The Weinsteins seem fit to bury this film because... who knows why? This is easily my favorite film of the year so far and it's one I hope to revisit many times in the future. This is filmmaking at its absolute best.

Grade: A

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Neighbors Review

Last year's "This is the End" felt like both the end and the beginning of a chapter for Seth Rogen and the Apatow crew. Judd Apatow had made stars out of nearly every actor that starred in that movie and here they were, utilizing their larger-than-life comedic personas in this weird meta way. The movie was more than a parody of apocalypse-type movies, it also felt like a parody of the Apatow comedies that had come out in the last decade. It was funny, raunchy, it had lengthy improv scenes, and a surprising amount of heart. That's what made "The 40 Year Old Virgin" an instant classic and it's been the formula ever since.

Many of the leaders of the Apatow crew are now moving on to different, interesting territory. I said "This is the End" was the beginning of a chapter because it marked Seth Rogen's directorial debut (alongside Evan Goldberg). While Seth Rogen has previously played a hand in writing and producing, taking on the director's chair is a whole new venture for him. He looks to follow "This is the End" up with this year's "The Interview," which will be his second effort as a director in two years.  After Apatow turned him into a leading man with "Knocked Up," Seth Rogen saw his career take a brief dip around the years 2009-2010. There was a bit of a Seth Rogen backlash. All of a sudden, people were getting tired of what they felt was the "typical Seth Rogen schtick." But with "This is the End" becoming a box office success, Rogen has proven that he's here to stay. "Neighbors" further echos that sentiment. So why has he been able to turn his career around so swiftly? Because Rogen is playing a much larger role in the production of these movies.

I think it's also important to note that the same is true for Jonah Hill. He doesn't appear in "Neighbors," but next month we'll see him in "22 Jump Street," the sequel to the highly successful 2012 comedy. There was also a brief period where we all wondered where Jonah Hill's career might go soon after he made "Get Him to the Greek." Now with two Oscar nominations and two other highly successful comedies under his belt in the last two years, Hill also seems like he's not going anywhere.

Why bring Hill up? Because I noticed something here. It's been a week now since "Neighbors" came out and it's already on its way to becoming a huge R-rated hit in the box office. I think the Apatow alum may have found a way to keep audiences interested in their movies. The secret? Star alongside an absolute stud.

"21 Jump Street" had Channing Tatum stretch his R-rated comedic chops. "Neighbors" has Zac Efron in that very same position. What's great about Tatum in "21" and Efron in "Neighbors" is that they very quickly make you forget about their status as "heart throbs" as soon as they appear on screen. Efron owns his role as the leader of the fraternity that has bought a house next store to Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne's characters. He's egomaniacal, obsessive; he's a huge asshole. And Zac Efron plays this part with zero difficulty. He's managed turn his clean, pretty boy persona into the perfect frat boy douchebag. It's seamless. Efron just added ten years to his career by making this movie. He's kind of a revelation.

This is the fourth film directed by Nicholas Stoller and it's easily his tightest. Stoller's previous films have all had their bright spots, but they also could've afforded to be whittled down considerably. "The Five-Year Engagement" made this abundantly clear. "Neighbors" feels like a radical change in style in many ways. It's most easily comparable to the rock-and-roll feel of Stoller's "Get Him to the Greek," but the quick cuts and neon colors of the frat party scenes in "Neighbors" feel completely new. Unlike other comedies of similar ilk, the parties in "Neighbors" really do seem rambunctious. They are parties you would definitely want to be a part of, but you also legitimately get the feeling that anything can go wrong.

"Neighbors" stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner. They are married, they have an infant daughter. They live in a nice house in a great neighborhood. Mac goes off to work during the day, Kelly stays home with the child. They have a great life, but they certainly miss the days when they could go out and be social with their friends.

That feeling is expounded when the frat boys move in next door. Teddy and Pete (played by Efron and Dave Franco, respectively) lead the frat. Their mission is to do something truly epic before their senior year is over and go down as legends in their fraternity.

I really love the beginning of this movie. I love how Mac and Kelly earnestly try to make nice with the frat kids. In this type of movie, usually the bad blood between the two parties would become immediately apparent. But in "Neighbors," Mac and Kelly doesn't mind the presence of the frat as long as they "keep it down." Of course, the frat will have a hard time complying with this request, which ultimately leads to multiple showdowns between the Radners and the frat. But, I had a blast watching this couple really try and "hang" with these college kids. They only felt out of their element because they're older than these frat kids, but you could easily see them hanging out at these frat parties if they were 5-10 years younger.

Once the Radners get on the frat's bad side, things take a turn for the ugly... and the hilarious. There are a lot of great battles between these two sides and it often leads to hysterical results. However, the movie takes such a sudden shift, once the Radners call the cops on the frat, that the result feels pretty jarring.

If there was one major flaw with "Neighbors" is that the pacing and the tone varies wildly throughout. Things start off nice and quiet, then it gets loud and fast-paced, then it's nice and quiet again, etc... It's like they keep playing with an on/off switch and never really settle on either one.

I also must put the marketing team to task for spoiling what would've been the biggest laugh of the film. The scene where Seth Rogen sits down in his office chair and it turns out there's an airbag inside? Because that scene plays in the trailer so prominently, it only elicited a collective chuckle in theater I was in. The way the whole thing is set up, you can tell this is supposed to be the biggest laugh of the movie, but they fucking spoiled it in the trailer. It's a moment that becomes a lot less funny when you know it's coming. This is not the fault of the movie, but I was really bummed when the scene came up and I didn't really feel anything. Damn.

But Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne both do a great job of playing the Radners. Throughout, what makes the movie work is that both the main frat characters, and the Radners, always feel relatable. You may even argue that the movie tries a little too hard to make these characters relatable. They each have a somewhat "serious" arc. The Radners secretly wish they can party like the frat kids. Teddy (Efron's character) secretly has fears about getting old and graduating college. I wish there was more of a "show-don't-tell" way of demonstrating these fears. Instead we have other characters yelling "You're only doing this because you're afraid of _____" and it kinda takes the steam out of those moments.

Nevertheless, you gotta hand it to Nicholas Stoller, the writers, and this cast. From the outset, this is a rather simple premise that could easily go wrong if there wasn't any talent behind or in front of the camera. "This is the End" felt like Seth Rogen & company graduating from Apatow University. "Neighbors" feels like a culmination of everything they've learned (by "they," I mean Rogen and Stoller). There's still that raunchiness, that heart, the laughs are definitely there. But "Neighbors" manages to do all this within a 95-minute frame. It starts, it makes you laugh, and then it ends before it ever outstays its welcome. Like your favorite neighbor, this is a film you'll want to revisit over and over again...

...sorry, that last sentence was kinda cheesy.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 9, 2014

Superheroes, A Captain America/Spider-Man Double Review

Before I get started, let me start by explaining my absence. See, here's the thing...

From December 2013 to March 2014 I was writing for three different sites. At least four articles per week for The Playlist, 2 articles/week for whatculture, and then I tried fitting in time for reviews on this site. I wrote more than I ever did in my life and I was finally making money doing it.

But I have a 8-month-old son. I'm married. We're all moving in just under two months. I have this whole new life that I'm about to embark. This has made it difficult for me to give everything an equal balance. I had to figure out how to make it all work concurrently, and I'm still figuring it out. So now it's about taking the right steps to get back on track.

While I've still been writing for The Playlist all this time, I haven't written a review in a while. Let's hope this doesn't turn out disastrously. In the last month, I have only managed to see Captain America and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Here are my thoughts.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

If there was one thing "The Avengers" did a great job of accomplishing, it was Joss Whedon's ability to inject some personality into Captain America. "Captain America: The First Avenger" is an enjoyable enough romp of a film, but the banter between Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Banner, and Thor was what helped make "The Avengers" a classic in the superhero genre. It's also probably why all subsequent Marvel Cinematic Universe films have received a substantial boost in box office gross. Iron Man 3 crossed $400 mill, Thor 2 crossed $200 mill, and The Winter Soldier is currently climbing its way towards $250 mill. These are each feats that could not be achieved by their direct predecessors. We all like Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. has always given the character life. But the other guys? They were a bit stiff the first time around.

So, the question was how the screenwriters would handle the characters after "The Avengers." And since Thor kinda retreated to his old, bland ways. It was up to Steve Rogers/Captain America to right the ship. Luckily, we get a lot of interesting character dynamics in the second Captain America film. The writers brought Black Widow/Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) back into the mix which gave the Captain someone to banter with. But even better is the addition of a brand new character, played by Anthony Mackie. He plays an elite soldier who later reveals himself to be a superhero as well (Falcon, that is).

Aside from those two, Samuel L. Jackson is also along for the ride and is given much more to do. In fact, much of Captain America's plot revolves around Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit. Without giving too much away, turns out half the people behind S.H.I.E.L.D. are actually up to some fairly mischievous shenanigans. It's not quite the intelligence organization we once thought it was. We find out that Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford) is actually the one pulling the strings. And when Nick Fury doesn't want to obey his commands, Pierce does not hesitate to put Nick's head on a platter.

Captain America soon becomes disillusioned. He does not like where S.H.I.E.L.D. is going, he's not entirely sure if he wants to suit up for them anymore. And we get a few brief scenes where Steve Rogers ponders what his life would be like if he no longer wore the suit. What would his life be like? What would he even do with himself?

Unfortunately, before Rogers can have a true crisis of conscious, Nick Fury is in big trouble and the Captain is back in business without any hesitation. Soon, Rogers's willingness to help Nick Fury draws the ire of Pierce and he becomes a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. With assistance from Natasha, the Captain attempts to find out what's really going on behind the scenes of S.H.I.E.L.D. (it's really annoying to type that out...). He eventually comes across a Nazi computer that explains everything, leaving the Capt, along with Natasha, with a thirst for revenge.

I haven't even said much about The Winter Soldier, which is strange because his name is part of the title of the film. There's a reason I haven't talked about him much thus far. While he proves to be a worthy foe of Captain America's, the character is completely devoid of personality. It's Alexander Pierce who gets to chew all the scenery; Winter Soldier is merely a henchman. I really wish more was done with his character, but we do get some interesting insights at the end.

There's a lot to admire about "The Winter Soldier." It's probably the best MCU film since "The Avengers." But I got to say, it was a bit disappointing to see it become "business as usual" towards the second half. All the interesting character moments in the beginning give way to an overabundance of exposition and lengthy action sequences. The movie feels like a tale of two halves and while they're both equally entertaining halves, I wish there was a bit more meat to this story. It's been a month and while I definitely came away satisfied with the overall product, I'd be lying if I said that the film has really stayed with me weeks later.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2

But that's nothing compared to what we get from "The Amazing Spider-man 2." Now there's a film that really makes you appreciate what producer Kevin Feige is doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man, of course, is stuck being a separate entity. Thing is, a reboot of Spider-Man would have actually been interesting in the context of the MCU, but as they are, these "amazing" Spider-Man movies have a "been there, done that" feel. There's nothing special about them. Marc Webb does what he can, and there are some breathtaking scenes where Spider-Man shoots his web all over Manhattan, but the writing here is horrendous, the pacing is completely off the mark, and the acting is simply all over the place. Sally Field, Emma Stone, and Andrew Garfield are perfectly solid. Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti on the other hand? Yikes.

There's no overall driving force to this film. TASM2 feels like a series of scenes that have little relation to each other. At least "The Winter Soldier" had the feel of a '70s political thriller, TASM2 comes off as being completely uninspired by comparison. While there's some great chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, the scenes with them together feel like such a drag. They feel underwritten and it lacks cohesion with the rest of the story.

Speaking of which, there really isn't much of a story here. I'm almost convinced "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" has no plot. Sure, Peter wants to find out the truth behind his parents, he's struggling to get back together with Gwen Stacy, he has to deal with Harry Osborn's inevitable hatred as well as the emergence of Electro... but there's simply too many different story points to this film and it's all so badly put together that the movie never really gets going.

I felt awkward watching Jamie Foxx's performance as Electro. The previews promised a cool, badass villain, but man they could not have botched this character more. Electro aka Max Dillon is a bumbling fool who works at OsCorp. There's nothing to this character other than the fact that he's a nerd that nobody likes. When Spider-Man one day rescues him for getting crushed by a car, Max becomes obsessed with the superhero. Max Dillon winds up becoming Electro in the most predictable series of scenes you could possibly imagine. It felt lifted directly from the very first South Park Christmas episode where Kenny has to climb a ladder and is almost certain to fall to his death. The joke of that episode is that Kenny manages to survive despite the obvious pratfall setup. With Max Dillon, there is no joke here. He's just an idiot who winds up becoming a superhero.

And then he turns on Spider-Man for the dumbest reason. Both Harry Osborn/Green Goblin and Electro turn on Peter/Spider-Man in a matter of minutes. Is Peter Parker really that douchy? Electro turns on him because Spider-Man steals all the attention away from him. Harry turns on him because he won't give him Spider-Man's blood (which we eventually find out would've actually been the right thing to do... I think... kinda skittish on those details).

There's no depth here. As soon as Harry and Peter's friendship is established, it's taken away. The movie could've actually greatly benefited from really exploring these characters, but you know they wanted to avoid that because Sam Raimi's trilogy already covered that ground. So, instead, Harry Osborn gets a Twoface-like transformation into Green Goblin and remains a one-dimensional character like Electro. Seriously, these two may be the worst villains in a superhero movie since "Batman & Robin." They're not fun bad guys, they're just dumb and Spider-Man takes cares of them pretty easily (albeit with some pretty serious consequences).

Simply put, there are just so many things wrong with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" that it's hard to keep track of it all. Denis Leary has a continuous cameo reprising his character George Stacy in the creepiest, dullest way imaginable. TASM2 does wind up having a rather emotional conclusion but it feels shallow and unearned. Believe it or not, the soundtrack and the score are also fairly deserving of scrutiny. The two times Electro reeks havoc on the city, it's accompanied by a score so laughably lame, you have to hear it to believe it. I think Hans Zimmer is simply tired of writing scores to superhero films because he completely phones it in here. Also, what's with the use of that ridiculously overplayed Phillip Phillips song that adds nothing but hokey sentimentality? In one montage (where Peter Parker randomly decides to create a True Detective-esque "obsession wall"), this changes from being a superhero movie to a segment on American Idol.

Overall, I think the problem is that Sony has decided to make this movie for kids aged 5-12. You know, kids who probably didn't see the Sam Raimi films. The humor is overly sophomoric, the romantic beats leave a lot to be desired, and the villains have the collective mindset of prepubescent children. I would never insult an audience in one of these reviews, so when I say, "I didn't enjoy this film because I no longer have the mind of a ten year old," don't take it the wrong way.

It's obvious though, when comparing these films, that Marvel Studios has a much better grasp on these characters even if their films aren't perfect. Fox Studios also has a Marvel property (X-Men) that they've been holding onto for a very long time. We'll see what "Days of Future Past" will bring us. But now that it's been almost two years since "The Dark Knight Rises" came out, and we're still being bombarded with superhero movies, it's become clear which studio has managed to stand out as the leader of the pack. Unfortunately, all of these studios are making a buttload of money so quality doesn't really matter anymore. So, go ahead and bring your kids to TASM2, just don't expect to be too impressed by what you see.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier: B

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: D