Archive for March, 2013

On the Road (2012) Walter Salles

Posted in O on March 28, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $25 million

Gross so far: $8 million

Again, jumping the gun a bit but will gladly change the review if anything major changes.

We have a rarity on the blog. Normally on these adaptations I say „I’ve never read X so I’ll have to judge the movie on its own.“ But this time I’ve actually read On the Road and of the Beat in general. So much so one of my first trips was to New York to Greenwich Village where the Beat Generation started. It was like an extremely dorky pilgrimage  I had some expectations for this movie going in mainly because of the director. Walter Salles directed another road novel called The Motorcycle Diaries which was a journal chronicling one of Ernesto Guevara’s trips with his friend. Salles did a great job of romanticizing the journey and also the personal story of a friendship on its last legs. When it comes to On the Road, I think something got lost in translation.

On the Road is based on the book of the same name. It was a semi-biography by Jack Kerouac and it is about struggling writer Sal Paradise. Sal meets a free spirited person named Dean Moriarty and they go on a series of journeys across the country.

I’m sure you probably think that now I have a source material I recognize I will pick apart how the movie’s plot is so different from the book. To be very honest, despite reading On the Road quite a few times, I actually had to refresh prior to seeing the movie. Maybe that can be attributed to my Swiss cheese memory or maybe it is some cue to bad writing. I prefer to think that I don’t remember the exact specifics to the plot because that doesn’t matter so much as the themes and the characters.

Much of On the Road was a rejection of ideas and culture of the time. The American Dream was the nuclear family with a wife and kids and you were firmly planted in one city with a stable job. Sal was a restless and directionless every man who gets seduced by Dean’s spirit of adventure and his counter culture attitude. Roots? Real happiness is the open road and the beauty of the country. Family? Careers? Chains that tie you down. Meet friends wherever you go and have parties with lots of sex, booze, and drugs. Dean seems like the best friend you could ever have and the life is exciting. But during the course of the book Sal experiences the disillusionment of that ideal and the illusion finally wears off of Dean. Dean is a free spirit, but that comes at the cost of being a selfish asshole who is not responsible to anyone or anything. So while I don’t remember the plot specifics of who went where and did what, it is memorable (at least for me) for other reasons. It is a coming of age story that while is set in the 50’s, still speaks to people today.

All that goes into why I think something got lost in translation by Brazilian director Salles. Because stuff happens in the movie that happens in the book, but to the audience that is all it is. Stuff. We never get that context which explains why it is important and in the story. One scene that is a great example is when Sal has about a five minute scene when Sal meets the immigrant woman Terry (Alice Braga). In the movie you see Sal meet Terry, he goes to stay with her on a work camp near a cotton field, they fuck, and they go their separate ways. Now while most men won’t object to seeing Alice Braga’s boobs, they may be wondering why this is in the movie. After all, Terry never shows up in the rest of the movie and she is never mentioned again after Sal leaves. And you don’t see that Terry made any lasting impression on Sal or that she taught him any lessons in life. In the book, she represents a more stable life for Sal. They love each other, but by entering into this relationship Sal is dedicating himself to a kind of pre-made family (Terry has a child already) and a daily grind in the cotton field. Sal is not ready for that kind of commitment, gets restless, and leaves her citing a weak excuse.

Many reviews have pointed to the meandering nature as a negative and I think it is for the purpose I described. Take another scene where Sal and Dean go to a nightclub where they meet jazz saxophone player Walter (played by Terrence Howard). They go, they hear some jazz, they have some small talk with Walter, and that’s it. Once again, you are left wondering why the hell that is in there. Jazz was big in On the Road because, again, it was counter culture. Sure there was jazz, but it was weak ass watered down Benny Goodman/Tommy Dorsey crap. Yeah, I just gave a 60 year burn to Tommy Dorsey. What? Real jazz was seen as pure inspiration and had a little rebel rock and roll spirit to it. Our characters also hung out with and sometimes made love to people of color which was also taboo at the time. So, in the context of the book you have our characters hearing this sexy and cool music and breaking with many social conventions. In the movie we have a pointless scene where Sal and Dean smoke weed with Terrence Howard. It is like Walter Salles was working from a checklist of plot points from the book without really getting what it means.

I also think that applies to the cinematography; specifically to the road shots of America. This is a story that romanticizes travel but I found much of the shots of America to be lazy. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. Do you know when other movies have to lazily establish where in the world you are so they show an obvious landmark? Like, if you are shooting in Brazil, you will show that gigantic Jesus statue. Or if you are establishing London you will do Big Ben or some such crap. It is kind of the same thing here and I blame it on the fact Salles is obviously not familiar with the US. The characters are going to San Francisco? Well, show the Golden Gate bridge! The quality is seriously contrasted when the characters go to Mexico. Salles is not only Brazilian but is familiar with Central and South America due to The Motorcycle Diaries. So the shots of Mexico are gorgeous without needing landmarks. We see the beautiful desert and the mountains and valleys. Salles found choice locations in places as diverse as Arizona, Argentina, and Chile. But then our characters go back to New York and lets just go to a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Yawn.

So lets move on to the acting. Sam Riley is unremarkable as Sal Paradise but partially I think that is due to the character being mostly an observer to the story. Garrett Hedlund gives a break out performance as Dean. He is both very charismatic and very vulnerable when the scene demands it. Kristen Stewart was also heavily billed in this movie probably due to Twilight. Does this make me forget her awful acting in Twilight? Short answer no. You can tell she is trying to break out of that Twilight mold with a heavily sexualized role, but when you have to see her try to act up to the other people in the movie you want her to go away and leave the acting to the big boys.

The supporting cast is star studded as I gave a few names earlier but as I mentioned, most of them are nothing roles. The only people that leave any impression are Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst. Dunst does so much with her limited and (lets face it) shitty role she embarrasses Stewart by contrast. I could list all the other guest stars but it’s not worth it.

Now I’ve been criticizing for most of this review but in the end, On the Road is a mixed bag. The quality of most of the movie is prone to bipolar swings. At times the movie is beautiful and at others it is lazy and lackluster. At times the characters have some genuine touching moments, and at others they are unlikable one dimensional asses only out for sex and drugs. At times, you get a feeling of the period and the characters, and more often than not you feel like you are getting pointless scenes with unremarkable characters. At times you feel like the themes are coming through, and at others the movie seems like a meandering mess. This isn’t a bad movie, but it is a disappointment. On the surface Salles seemed like the perfect director, but in reality the movie needed someone to grasp the spirit of the text, and not someone who sticks too literally to the text.  

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Alex Cross (2012) Rob Cohen

Posted in A on March 7, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $35 million

Worldwide Gross: $30 million

One for the Money wasn’t the only botched attempt at bringing a beloved book series to the big screen.  I consider the Alex Cross to be the bigger botch because not only was there a bigger audience for the books, but the Cross character was already established in two movies starring Morgan Freeman.

I won’t even bother to ask why this movie underachieved.  Instead I’ll tackle the elephant in the room with the casting of Tyler Perry in the title role.  On the one hand, I understand what the producers were thinking in casting Tyler Perry.  Alex Cross has the potential to be a major franchise and you want to guarantee the most money you can.  Tyler Perry is probably the current most successful black star.  So naturally, Perry will bring in his demographic while the action will draw in everyone else.

But there is a problem with Perry too.  He can’t act.  I’ve seen enough Tyler Perry movies to believe I can accurately judge.  Sure, he has a good character with Madea, but that doesn’t make him an all around good actor.  It would be like saying since Jim Varney can do Ernest movies, he is a clear choice for Sherlock Holmes.  People were making Madea jokes when Cross came out, but I guarantee you if Perry were a strong enough actor, he would have given a powerful enough performance to make you forget that character.

This is the movie that should have done that.  In this movie Cross‘ wife gets murdered and he is driven to the point where he no longer cares about justice but about bloody revenge.  When it gets to the point where Cross is embracing the dark side you don’t buy it.  Perry is gasping out lines about meeting the bad guy at the gates of hell but with his soft puffy face and soothing voice it comes off more like John 3:16 rather than Ezekiel 25:17.  Too Biblical?  Okay.  Instead of thinking he’s comin and hells comin with him I’m thinking he’s coming and cookies are coming with him.  It’s just so strange you have this tall muscular man who should be so physically imposing and scary but he comes off like a teddy bear.  I didn’t buy for a moment this was a dark tormented character who was on the edge.

There are other problems to Alex Cross besides the acting.  The first is that this is a really cheap movie.  I know $30 million dollars is a lot of money but in terms of Hollywood you see that kind of budget for an independent movie rather than a big screen thriller.  To put it in perspective, one of the latest Woody Allen movies cost around $20 million dollars and Allen movies are nothing more than characters talking to one another.  Now budget is not an indicator of a movie’s success but there is something else to keep in mind.  There are dozens of cop shows that are on TV right now that not only tell a decent story but have a budget behind them.  I believe one episode of any CSI show is well over a million dollars.  So with all that competition on free media, why release something with what appears to be the same production values as a sweeps week CSI show.  Hell, I even prefer the Tarantino directed CSI two parter rather than Alex Cross.  The filmmakers needed a little bit more spectacle to give the audience a reason to pay for this rather than see any free cop show.

And even looking past all that, the execution of the story isn’t good either.  The dialog is filled with ham fisted exposition and the plot would have been generic in the 80’s.  It is a typical cat and mouse style thriller with Cross chasing some killer MMA fighter.  Even after seeing this movie I had a hard time seeing why Cross is so special a character.  They initially try to paint him as a black Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn’t really do anything during the movie to showcase his talents.

Many reviews have trashed Matthew Fox’s performance as Picasso because he is over the top and chewing the scenery.  I actually welcomed his scene chewing because I think he realized this was a plodding generic cop thriller with lame dialog and there needed to be something to spice it up.  His performance was hilarious and was the only entertaining thing in this slow film.

Despite all my complaints I didn’t hate this film.  Maybe because I never read any of the Patterson novels I can’t cry out betrayal.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a bad film.  However, this is only because there is nothing in this movie that really stands out.  This really does feel like any filler episode of any gritty cop show except with some spotty acting.  There is nothing howlingly awful but nothing to make it special.  If you really want a great modern take on Alex Cross go watch any two episodes of BBC’s Luther.  Idris Elba was originally supposed to play Cross but bowed out.  His performance of the tortured DCI Luther is great and you will wonder why this guy hasn’t made it big in the US already.

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen) 1997

Posted in D, Woody Allen Retrospective on March 5, 2013 by moviemoses

Harry Block (Woody Allen) is suffering from writers block.  Block is known for writing stories based on his real life which upsets all the people who know him.  We follow Block as he is going to be honored at a college.  During the trip in which he brings his son and a prostitute, he is haunted by characters and stories from his past.

After about 15 minutes of watching Deconstructing Harry I let out a sigh.  It wasn’t a sign of boredom or exhaustion but of relief.  I had been waiting for this Woody Allen for a long time.  After seeing many of what I consider to be lazy efforts, this felt like the first time in a long time where Allen got his edge back.

The plot is similar to a Bergman film called Wild Strawberries.  But with the dreamy elements and for those not familiar with Bergman, the better comparison is with Allen’s own Stardust Memories.  Stardust was Allen essentially copying Fellini’s 8 ½.  I was left a little cold with Stardust because it felt too much like Allen was straight up emulating Fellini.  What I love about Deconstructing Harry is that this feels like a truly Allen style interpretation of 8 ½.  This is not Fellini’s voice but Allen’s.

The humor in this movie kind of reminded me of a Monty Python movie.  Holy Grail for example seemed to be several knight related sketches they corralled together under a loose main plot.  Deconstructing Harry seems like several joke concepts Allen had written out about writers and sex and creativity all tied around the main plot of Harry Block having writers block.  For example, Block is explaining his writers block to his shrink and he relates it to a skit about an actor (played by Robin Williams) who is literally out of focus in the world so he walks around as this fuzzy blob.  Another skit involves Harry going to hell to get back his girlfriend from the devil played by Billy Crystal.

There is some debate as to who this movie is about.  Some argue this is partially about Allen while others say this is critical of Phillip Roth.  I’ll plead ignorance on this one cause while I know some about Allen, I know absolutely nothing about Roth.  I do see some merit in the comparisons to Allen.  I am not someone who believes Allen’s films are strictly biographical but I do think loosely based.  I don’t think we are seeing real life Woody events on film but Allen’s thoughts on creativity, philosophy, and love reflect his real attitudes.   So I don’t think his girlfriends are shrews or any of the crazy stuff happened, I do think the underlying nugget is that Allen recognizes he has done some crappy things in his life.

Like I alluded to before, I love the fact Allen is going all out on this one.  While before, he might make a single movie out of a joke concept, here it is rapid fire skits.  Allen is going full on adult humor and his witty rapid fire dialog returns.  It may be argued that the movie is hard to get into because Block is unlikable but I don’t see a problem.  For one, the movie isn’t asking you to side with him on everything and I find that for all the crap Block dishes out, the world gives it back in equal measure.  Block acts like a juvenile and gets treated as one by the people around him.  Allen has always been his best critic and the self deprecating humor is especially biting.  The ending also doesn’t feel sugar coated and seems somewhat optimistic while not being rose colored.

Deconstructing Harry had been one of the first Allen movies I had seen.  While I liked it, I had not seen it since that time due to the DVD being discontinued (DVD copies are now rare and expensive).  Seeing it again for this retrospective I forgot how much I absolutely love it.  This was such a relief to see Woody Allen back in stride and this movie easily is one of my favorites from him.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) Bryan Singer

Posted in J on March 5, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $195 million

Gross so far: $40 million

Yes, like my John Carter review I am jumping the gun with calling this a bomb.  But coincidentally, seeing as how people are already likening this to the studio crippling disaster that was John Carter, I think I am safe in my prediction.

I think the lackluster opening is at least partially to blame by the trailer.  I don’t believe I am alone in seeing the trailer complete with shit CGI and being put off.  I’m pretty sure I made audible “Ugh” by the time it was over.  You may be thinking at this point I came into this movie expecting shit and got the same.  In reality, my expectations grew a bit with the reactions coming out of it.  Sure, Jack got a 50-something percent on Rottentomatoes but some reviewers were glowing over it and audience reactions have been more favorable than overall critical reception.  I wasn’t expecting a great movie, but an entertaining movie.

The question now being bandied about is “Did we REALLY have to make a $200 million dollar movie about Jack and the Beanstalk?”  Any movie can be done it is just a matter of how well its done.  If this was a fun childrens movie that was exciting and cleverly written people wouldn’t care what the subject matter was.  Last year we had a movie about Snow White but it was done well enough that sequels are now in production.  I think I have a more relevant question which I think relates to the quality of this film.

If you are going to make a movie that is 95% CGI and 5% real things like people, then why don’t you just make a completely CGI film?

I mean, what’s the point?  Do they really think they are fooling us this this Phantom Menace level CGI dreck?  Okay my question has turned into three but they all mean the same thing.  I don’t think anyone would have a problem if Jack the Giant Slayer were an animated film.  You can make Jack in whatever style you want and the success of the movie would depend on the content of the story and characters.  Instead I am constantly being taken out of the movie because I can’t stop thinking:

That’s a green screen.

That’s a green screen.

Jack is talking to a tennis ball.

Those characters are climbing up a 6 ft tall green thing in front of a green screen.

That character is pretending to ride a horse in front of a green screen.

I’ve never seen Ian McShane more embarrassed.

Now Ewan McGregor is talking to a tennis ball.

Now the princess is in a cage surrounded by a green screen.

And so on.  In an animated movie you can immerse yourself in the world.  But when you have real people in an animated world your suspension of disbelief is being shattered all the time and it makes it so difficult to ever get into it.  None of the action did anything for me cause all I saw in my brain was someone doing combat rolls in a completely green room dodging nothing.

However even looking beyond that there is not much for me to be interested in.  The whole movie has a been there, done that sort of feel to it.  All of the characters are stock and one dimensional: Jack wants to be a knight, Isabelle wants to marry for love instead of being a princess, etc.  Now I get these characters and story come from a simple fairy tale but the trick is to build on that.  Instead Jack is a void of charisma off the rescue the cinematic equivalent of Princess Peach.  I just didn’t care and the writers don’t give much more than the most basic of motivations.

The only person who injects any kind of personality into his character is Ewan McGregor doing a more flamboyant version of his Obi Wan.  It’s not great but compared to everyone else he is Errol Flynn.  Even Stanley Tucci, who usually revels in hamming it up for these bad movies, feels so boxed in by the lackluster writing.  You have to seriously question the writing when the height of humor is a fart joke.

This movie’s target audience probably are the same children that would listen to the original story.  The stock characters would be fresh to them, the simple story won’t challenge them, and the bodily humor is right up their alley.  I think the older you get the less mileage you will get out of it.  I thought the characters were bland and uninteresting, the plot is bare bones, and the effects will take you out of the movie constantly.  I didn’t hate this movie, I was just bored by it.