Saturday, January 9, 2016

Big Hero 6

Year 8, Day 9 - 1/9/16 - Movie #2,209

BEFORE:  Like I said the other day, it's funny how people discount information that doesn't prove their case - you can call this the first Disney superhero film, but since Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, you have to at least mention "The Incredibles", right?  Because that would be the first.  And "The Incredibles" was a take on the Fantastic Four, which was a Marvel property, and since now Marvel is owned by Disney, too, that was a neat way to avoid a lawsuit.  It's OK, Disney also owns Star Wars, the Muppets, ABC and ESPN, so you can smell the corporate synergy working.  (One of us, one of us...)

T.J. Miller carries over from "How to Train Your Dragon 2".  And I realize I never watched the first 5 Big Hero films, so I hope I can follow the story....

THE PLOT: Prodigy Hiro Hamada and inflatable robot Baymax team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.

AFTER: Given the similarities to "How to Train Your Dragon 2", it's not surprising that the two films were up against each other for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  What similarities?  A teen boy central figure that lost a family member, who can fly thanks to a character he trained himself, teams up with his male + female friends to defeat an evil entity that uses invention/tech similar to his own.  See?  Just move the setting from Viking Land to future New San Fransokyo, and it's nearly the same movie.  I would have given the edge in that contest to "How to Train Your Dragon 2", but voters might have been turned off by a sequel, and mistakenly thought this one was more original, as if that means anything any more. 

"Big Hero 6" is based on a (relatively) obscure Marvel comic book - there's that corporate synergy again - and I was all set to chide this movie for having a character named Hiro who becomes a hero, ripping off Hiro Nakamura from NBC's "Heroes", but the truth is, Hiro Hamada came first - the comic book character was introduced in 1998, and the "Heroes" TV show made its debut in 2006. 

But they sort of wiped the story slate clean to make this movie, and I think that was a wise decision - this way they don't have to explain who Alpha Flight is, or bring Sunfire into the mix, they can do an origin story the right way and let a story develop in proper narrative order.  See, it can be done.  

But I've got issues with they way that inventing works here, it's sort of an all-purpose way of fixing every problem.  The best inventions take a specific problem (losing your socks in the dryer, for example) and then figure out a bit of tech that targets exactly that.  There are exceptions, of course, as people sometimes try to invent one thing and accidentally stumble on another.  But nobody locks themself away in a lab and thinks, "I'm going to keep tinkering until I invent something that fixes everything."  

Baymax was built as a medical robot, for example - his creator (Hiro's brother) saw a need in some communities for proper medical care, so he built something that would address that problem.  Then Hiro took Baymax and tinkered with him so that he'd be able to do whatever he wanted him to, or whatever the story demanded, and that's just not feasible.  First he was an invention, then he became a walking contrivance.  The people who write "Iron Man" treat the armor the same way - they may start with a list of features that Stark's suit has, but if it needs to do something new, they just retro-engineer that, assuming Tony Stark coincidentally built that feature last week, in-between panels. 

Hiro's microbots are a similar contrivance - what do they do?  Everything.  His battlebot was an invention, but his microbots are pure fantasy.  And I guess fantasy is OK, but if they want kids to be interested in science and inventing, a noble goal, they're setting the bar way too high.  Like Hiro, kids are going to end up staring at a blank piece of paper for a long time because they can't wrap their brains around a problem that's so poorly defined, which is the problem of "everything".  I'm guessing it would be better to start small, figure out how a circuit works, let's say, and then expand out from there.  (Maybe that's just how I think, I'm in the business of problem-solving as pertains to movies, but I can't solve the whole thing at once - instead I solve today's problem today, then tomorrow I'll solve tomorrow's problem, and then hope somehow the whole thing comes together...)

Plus, if this film is set in the future, even the near future, one assumes that cool things will be invented between now and then, and that takes a little bit of the impressiveness out of Hiro's (and everyone's) inventions.  For all we know, they're only making slight modifications to things that people will invent 10 years from now, and they're 12 years out.  But maybe now I'm over-thinking things. 

It was obvious to me that Hiro trained his superhero friends individually, and forgot to train them as a team, but at least the film didn't hit the audience over the head with this plot point.  There wasn't this rallying moment where they said, "Come on, everyone, we have to work TOGETHER!" even though that's what essentially happened.  Instead the encouraging message was to "stop, think about a way around the problem" as if that would just automatically happen.  Again, as with the inventing, if someone doesn't have the proper knowledge base as a frame of reference, they probably won't be able to think creatively around something.  If they were trained with their powers only one way, they might be stuck in just one train of thought.  But, they are all science geeks, so maybe you can assume they're used to thinking experimentally - but the kids at home, probably not so much.  

NITPICK POINT: Honey Lemon?  Is that a character or a cough drop flavor?  And her super-powers come from carrying around a purse?  What a way to set back the image of strong female characters.  

NITPICK POINT #2: Hiro loses his invention, and...that's it?  He can't rebuild or re-create it?  Did he forget to take proper notes or something?  OK, so I guess he's depressed, but logically if someone invents something, they should be able to invent it again, which isn't inventing, it's just rebuilding.  His brother took many notes when he built Baymax, and that's shown as a process of trial and error and more trial.  By contrast, Hiro just "invents" and I guess it's a one-time thing, because he seems to have no interest or ability to re-do his work. 

Also starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit (last seen in "We're the Millers"), Daniel Henney, James Cromwell (last seen in "The Artist"), Maya Rudolph (last seen in "The Way Way Back"), Damon Wayans, Jr. (last seen in "Let's Be Cops"), Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, Alan Tudyk (last seen in "42"), with cameos from Billy Bush, Stan Lee (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy")

RATING: 6 out of 10 pain levels

Friday, January 8, 2016

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Year 8, Day 8 - 1/8/16 - Movie #2,208

BEFORE: The animation block continues tonight, I can probably come close to clearing this category from my list before I need to switch to something else.  Kristen Wiig carries over from "Despicable Me 2", voicing the character Ruffnut tonight.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "How to Train Your Dragon" (Movie #920)

THE PLOT: When Hiccup and Toothless discover an ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace.

AFTER: It's been four years in the real world since the first "How to Train Your Dragon" film, and about the same amount of time has passed in the fictional land of Berk.  Nearly everyone on the Scottish-like (or is it Viking-like) island has their own dragon, dragon racing is now a thing, heck, they've pretty much converted to a dragon-based economy, finally coming off the outdated sheep standard.  

Hiccup, now 20 years old, and his dragon Toothless are charged with exploring and mapping new islands, and during this process he encounters a band of dragon trappers and their foe, a mysterious female dragon rider.  No spoilers here, but she turns out to be rather important, and her backstory answers several lingering questions.  Like Hiccup, she believes that humans and dragons are not enemies, and neither should dominate the other, they should all work together.  

There's a nice contrast here between the "good" dragon riders who believe in this sort of ideal, and the "bad" dragon riders who engage in trapping and trying to dominate the other species.  Otherwise I fear there would be too fine of a line between the factions.  It's also nice that there's a mix of male and female characters here, Disney can only seem to make animated films about solo characters, so they end up making films that are either "boy" films or "girl" films, and I don't see why they can't make something with a group of characters like this.  (ASIDE: Several critics praised "The Force Awakens" for having the first strong female Star Wars character, which is a pile of ridiculousness.  What about Leia?  Padme?  Ahsoka Tano in the "Clone Wars" show, and more females in "Star Wars: Rebels".  Some people just don't do their research.)

If I've got any complaints, they'd have to do with the frenetic flying action, which is nearly enough to cause motion-sickness.  If I were watching this in a theater in 3-D, I'd probably feel a little queasy.  Plus there are just way too many types of dragons, which probably helps sell a lot of toys, but it starts to feel a little like Pokemon with dragons if there are 30 or 40 different breeds, all with different powers. 

NITPICK POINT: I get that the Alpha dragon has the ability to control all of the other dragons.  But if Drago doesn't believe that dragons and humans can bond, how did he get the ability to control the Alpha in the first place?  Something in this equation doesn't quite add up.   

Also starring the voices of Jay Baruchel (last seen in "This Is the End"), Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"), Gerard Butler (last seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies"), Craig Ferguson (last seen in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"), America Ferrara (last heard in "How to Train Your Dragon"), Jonah Hill (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Djimon Hounsou (last seen in "Amistad"), T.J. Miller (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last seen in "The To Do List"), Kit Harington (last seen in "Pompeii").  

RATING: 7 out of 10 flaming arrows

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Despicable Me 2

Year 8, Day 7 - 1/7/16 - Movie #2,207

BEFORE: Great news, I found out that TCM has released their February screening schedule, which is their "31 Days of Oscar" programming (yes, it extends into March, but only by two days this year).  And once again, they've adopted the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" format, meaning that like my chains, each film will share an actor with the film before it and the one after it.  Perhaps I'll report on each day's TCM programming, just to make note of which films I've already seen, which ones I'm adding to the watchlist, and what the connections are.  After a couple years of them scheduling films by such arbitrary categories as story location and year released (ugh, how common...) it's nice to see a return to clever organization.  Plus, I may have copied them, but now I can say they're copying ME.  

Linking from "Foxcatcher", this should be fairly obvious, Steve Carell carries over.  

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Despicable Me" (Movie #1,102)

THE PLOT:  Gru, the world's most super-bad turned super-dad has been recruited by a team of officials to stop lethal muscle and a host of Gru's own. He has to fight back with new gadgetry, cars, and more minion madness.

AFTER: Yes, I realize how jarring it is to go from a tense sports drama like "Foxcatcher" to a silly CGI film made for kids, but honestly after two days of dark subject matter, I could use something silly.  I'll take the opportunity to cross off a few animated films in a row, because really, it's the same voice-over actors popping up in these things again and again, as you will see.  

The first "Despicable Me" film showed Gru's acts of villainy, like shrinking and stealing the moon, but ended with him adopting three young girls that were part of his scheme.  The sequel picks up after he's given up his evil ways and trying to be a good single parent, meanwhile deflecting all attempts by neighbors to set him up with their single female friends.  We later learn that Gru suffers from a fear of rejection, traced back to his first failed attempts at dating when he was young.  

At the same time, he's contacted by the Anti-Villain League, an sort of international spy organization, and recruited to track down a missing serum in a mall - the theory being that it takes an ex-villain to think like a villain and track down another villain.   He's paired with a female agent, Lucy Wilde, in a fake bakery with a punny name, and it doesn't take an evil genius to see that romance could bloom in such close quarters.  

One of the store-owners at the mall bears an uncanny resemblance to someone he once knew back in his villainous days, but that person was thought dead, and in that line of work, hardly anyone ever fakes their own death or pulls off daring last-minute escapes.  Things get further complicated when one of Gru's daughters starts to notice boys, and the possible villain has a son who's her same age.  

Meanwhile, Gru's minions start mysteriously disappearing...if only everyone weren't so busy with the spy operations, they might take a minute to notice.  What could possibly be happening to them?  And can we possibly pad out the film to 90 minutes without them?  

I'm not sure why, in this imaginary James Bond-meets-The Incredibles Universe (or maybe it's Austin Powers-meets-Megamind) that all of the women seen are really skinny with toothpick-like legs, and all the men are practically round.  What sort of message are we sending out to the kids, that women need to be skinny, but men don't need to care about their weight?   That's not healthy in the long run, for either of them.  

Also starring the voices of Kristen Wiig (last heard in "Her"), Benjamin Bratt (last seen in "Red Planet"), Russell Brand (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Miranda Cosgrove (last heard in "Despicable Me"), Steve Coogan (last seen in "Ruby Sparks"), Ken Jeong (last seen in "Rapture-Palooza"), Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, Moises Arias, with cameos from Nasim Pedrad, Kristen Schaal (last seen in "The Muppets").

RATING: 6 out of 10 fart guns

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Year 8, Day 6 - 1/6/16 - Movie #2,206

BEFORE:  You might have noticed, all of my films this year have been released relatively recently, everything so far from 2013 or later.  That trend's going to continue for another week, and I think it's largely because about one-third of the films left on my list are from 2013 or later.  I didn't watch the films of 2014 during 2014, because I was busy watching the films of 2012 and 2013, and so on.  

Sienna Miller carries over from "American Sniper".

THE PLOT:  The Schultz brothers, the greatest U.S. Olympic Wrestling Champion brothers in history, join Team Foxcatcher, led by multimillionaire John E. du Pont, as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul - a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

AFTER: I'm not really seeing the appeal of this one, partially because it's such a slow build and a dark subject matter.  No spoilers here, but if you're familiar with the true events behind this story, then you may spend the entire film wondering when that shoe is going to drop.  

There are plot points that are also quite unclear here, by intention it seems.  Maybe no one really knows what happened between rich wrestling sponsor du Pont and his intended Olympic protege, Mark Schultz - but that's a problem because the director may not have felt comfortable making a leap in logic if the complete facts were unavailable.  

I guess it works as a character study of someone who was so rich that he felt he could get anything he wanted, and if he couldn't be a wrestler himself, he could live vicariously through the athletes he funded.  Whether his interest in getting up close and personal with training wrestlers was misguided or something more sinister is (mostly) left up to the imagination, though close-ups of him grappling with Mark can certainly be viewed in a prurient manner, if one is so inclined. 

What's clear is that Mark exhibits signs of being in an abusive relationship, even if the exact nature of that relationship is not completely clear.  His brother, who joins the wrestling team at Foxcatcher later, is able to sense this, even if all of his questions about the relationship seem to go unanswered.   

I also felt a little out of the loop, similar to how I sometimes feel watching a boxing movie, if a film about sports doesn't find a way to give me a little information about an athlete's moves, which I'm somehow supposed to understand.  I sort of picked up on the fact that when du Pont was demonstrating some wrestling moves while his mother watched that those moves were quite basic, perhaps laughably so, but when the championship matches were displayed, I honestly don't know a winning move from a losing one.  I could sort of pick it up from the context, like whether a wrestler was happy or defeated after the match, but a little information about the various holds and pins, the ways someone can win or lose a match, would have gone a long way. 

I was about to point out that both this film and "American Sniper" were Oscar nominees, but not for Best Picture.  "Foxcatcher" didn't get a Best Picture nomination, and now I sort of understand why.  But Carell was nominated for Best Actor, as was Bradley Cooper for "American Sniper" and neither won.  Again, I now sort of understand why.

Also starring Steve Carell (last seen in "The Way Way Back"), Channing Tatum (last heard in "The Book of Life"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "In the Cut"), Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "The Butler"), Anthony Michael Hall (last seen in "Happy Accidents"), Guy Boyd (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Lee Perkins, Francis J. Murphy III, with cameos from Brock Lesnar and the real Mark Schultz. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 towels

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

American Sniper

Year 8, Day 5 - 1/5/16 - Movie #2,205

BEFORE: Well, I had a good run, starting the year with four films in a row about entertainers - comedians, voice-over artists, James Brown and punk bands.  But now I have to put a pin in that topic and come back to it later.  Now comes some more challenging material.

Hey, the Talking Heads had that song, "Life During Wartime", which mentioned vans full of weapons and such, and now here we are - no, that seems like a stretch.  The truth is that most of the actors from "CBGB" didn't link to anything, so Kyle Gallner, who played Lou Reed last night, carries over and plays a soldier today.  I realize I've been relying on some fairly obscure actors for linking, but that's going to change.  Umm, starting tomorrow.

THE PLOT:  Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind. 

AFTER: OK, how about this for a thematic connection - Hilly Kristal was great at running unsuccessful bars, but was ill-prepared to run CBGB when it took off.  In a similar fashion, Chris Kyle seemed to excel in the street battles of Iraq, but couldn't seem to handle his time spent with his wife back in the U.S. between tours.  Eh, it still seems like a stretch.

I should mention that I'm aware of the controversy surrounding the accuracy of this film as it relates to Chris Kyle's memoir, and also the accuracy of the memoir as it relates to the war in Iraq.  For the purposes of my review, I'm only going to focus on what's presented in the film, because I haven't read the book, and I don't have firsthand knowledge of what went down in Fallujah.  (So, the scene where Chris Kyle charges across a minefield on a white stallion, shooting two sniper rifles at once, single-handedly protecting the military convoy MIGHT be a bit of an exaggeration...)

I'm more bothered by - AGAIN - the need to make a non-linear montage mess out of a man's life, the feeling that a film just HAS to start with the most gripping moment (Kyle protecting a convoy with a sniper rifle, forced to make a decision about whether to shoot children with weapons) then snapping back to show us Kyle going through training, then back further to show us 10-year old Kyle in a schoolyard fight, etc. etc.  He's a rodeo star, he's a kid, he's a sniper, all in seemingly random order.  If your narrative is strong enough, you should have no problem starting at the beginning and working forward in regular fashion - why does everyone suddenly need to be so "arty" and non-linear?

Eventually the time-jumping ceases, and the film settles into a (presumably) linear narrative, as marked by subtitles detailing which of Kyle's four tours we're on now.  This is helpful, sure, but it doesn't make up for the start of the film, where he's simultaneously 35, 12 and 23, or thereabouts.  Kurt Vonnegut got away with it in "Slaughterhouse Five", but other storytellers should think twice about trying this.  

In one of the early scenes (both in Kyle's life and in the film, though with all the time-jumping, you can't take that sort of thing for granted...) his father imparts this bit of wisdom after a schoolyard fight - (and I'm paraphrasing here...) "Son, there are only three types of people in the world - sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.  Now, sheep do whatever anyone tells them, and wolves are bullies.  I sure don't want my sons to be sheep, but I don't want them to be wolves, either." He goes on to suggest that only a lucky few get to be the sheepdogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves, as if this is some brilliant insight.  How about - there are only two types of people in the world, those who use ridiculous anthropomorphic metaphors and see the word in absolutes, and then there are reasonable, rational people who don't do that. 

(Meanwhile, 10-year-old Chris was probably thinking, "Darn, why can't I be a walrus?  They're so cool.  No, wait, a unicorn!  Dad, I want to be a unicorn!")

If I'm undecided on this film, it's because I can't tell for sure if it's pro-war or anti-war.  Or if someone tried to hedge their bets by not taking a clear stand, so that the audience would see whichever message they want.  Clearly Chris Kyle (the character) was very gung-ho about serving in Iraq, he believed that by fighting the war THERE, he was preventing it from coming HERE.  But what if that's not true?  What if shooting civilians (admittedly, ones trying to hurt U.S. soldiers, but, still, civilians) there only created more enemies in the long run?  What if every Iraqi shot by a Navy Seal sniper or other soldier had a son, brother or friend who then became more determined to harm Americans in the future?  

And can we talk about gun culture in America?  The film felt JUST shy of drawing a connection between taking a kid hunting for deer, and then flashing forward to him sitting in a sniper's nest in Iraq, debating whether to take the kill-shot on an Iraqi kid.  And if that soldier is scarred by his experiences, gets PTSD over what he's seen and who he's killed, how do you NOT trace that back to his time shooting deer and ducks out in the wild?  Then fast-forward a little further, after the war, when a man trained to kill has trouble readjusting to society - is it any wonder we have so many mass shootings in this country?  Some of the homegrown shooters must have military backgrounds, right?  Like that D.C. sniper from a few years ago?  Or the shootings at Fort Hood, Camp Shelby, Chattanooga, etc. 

If this film is accurate, then Chris Kyle eventually found some solace by working with other veterans, but it seems like mostly he took them out to the gun range.  Right, just the thing to help them forget about their war experiences, great idea. And no, that didn't end well for Kyle. 

Ultimately, what's the difference between a U.S. soldier using a sniper rifle to take out civilian threats in Iraq, and a former soldier using a sniper rifle to take out civilians in the U.S.?  One's work is sanctioned by the government, that's all - he's protecting our troops, and the other guy's psychotic?  I think there might be less difference between the two men than we've been led to believe. 

Also starring Bradley Cooper (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Sienna Miller (last seen in "The Girl"), Keir O'Donnell, Luke Grimes (last seen in "Taken 2"), Sam Jaeger, Eric Close, Jake McDorman (last seen in "Live Free or Die Hard"), Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, Brian Hallisay, Navid Negahban, Mido Hamada, Chance Kelly (last seen in "Little Children"), Ben Reed, Elise Robertson, Troy Vincent, with a cameo from Jonathan Groff (last seen in "The Conspirator").

RATING: 5 out of 10 Humvees 

Monday, January 4, 2016


Year 8, Day 4 - 1/4/16 - Movie #2,204

BEFORE: From yesterday's film about the "Godfather of Soul" to a film about someone called the "Godfather of Punk".  Geez, it's almost like I planned it or something.  Ahna O'Reilly carries over, she played a TV reporter last night, and plays a magazine reporter tonight.  

A look at the New York City punk-rock scene and the venerable nightclub, CBGB.

AFTER: I've lived in New York City since 1986, and I can tell you the first time (probably) I saw the famous nightclub CBGB.  I was down on the Bowery looking for a stool for a (non-punk) music video, and the stores that sell restaurant equipment were all down there, a few blocks south of the club.  My reaction was probably along the lines of "Huh, so that's where it is."  I used to read the Village Voice back then (for the cartoons) and writers talked about the place like it was some kind of holy temple of music.  But I was never into the punk scene, and honestly I was a little afraid to go there, so for me it became one of those places like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building that only tourists visited, and "true" New Yorkers avoided.  The music groups I liked used to play at other clubs, like the Bottom Line, anyway.  

But the directors I worked for were part of the music video and art-video scene, so they idolized artists like Lou Reed, David Byrne and some band called Television that was supposedly revolutionary, though I didn't know their music, and it was never played on the radio for some reason.  I guess I knew who the Ramones were, but they never seemed that talented to me, but I guess since they came up from the underground scene they could only afford two chords, but I swore I'd give them a try if they ever learned a third one. (I only ever bought one Ramones CD, when they covered songs made famous by other people, who were real songwriters and didn't just say "Hey, Ho" over and over.)  

There must be a word for the form of nostalgia one might feel that covers experiences you never had in the first place, right?  I mean, the place was famous for launching thousands of bands in its 33-year history and still managing to clean the bathrooms at least twice.  I get it, that vomit in the corner might have come out of someone famous, so it's probably best to leave it right where it is, for both legal and collectable reasons.  But I digress.  

The first few times I was aware of Hilly Kristal, I thought for sure that some writer had misspelled the name of Billy Crystal, and his editor failed to catch all three typos.  But I kind of like him as a character in this film, because he wasn't so gung-ho to be doing what he was doing.  Running a failing bar was just a job, one that he knew well, and he didn't know how to do anything else well.  Even when CBGB's took off, he found out he was no good at running a successful club, so other people had to be brought in to do it - he'd rather spend his time managing failing bands and getting them out on the road so they could self-destruct in someone else's club, not his.  Again, legal reasons.  

Hilly had the right idea, but managed to be in the wrong place at the right time.  CBGB stands for "country, blue grass and blues", and that's the type of music he wanted played in his club.  He thought that country music was going to explode and he was correct, though he had the bad fortune to open his club about 800 miles away from Nashville.  Instead he had to audition punk bands, and damn it all if that type of music didn't become popular too.   How many people set out to do one kind of work and find themselves doing something else?  It's fascinating - but I didn't understand why he was so excited to have a club in a bar in order to cut down on the noise complaints, and then told every band that if they played too loud, he wouldn't book them?  This was quite unclear. 

The main reason to watch this film, once it gets rolling, is the stunt casting - hey, isn't that the guy from "The Hangover" as a punk rocker?  Isn't that the girl from "Watchmen" as Debbie Harry?  That kid from "Harry Potter", that guy who was in "Dodgeball", and that guy from the Foo Fighters as Iggy Pop?  

After further review, I've determined that both "Get on Up" and "CBGB" feature mostly lip-synching, which does seem to tarnish Chadwick Boseman's performance a little if he can talk like James Brown but not sing like him.  But then again, who can?  So the judges have reviewed the play, and the original rating stands.  In the case of "CBGB", one wouldn't expect an early live performance of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" to sound EXACTLY like the record, especially when the record didn't even exist yet.  But if what we hear in the film doesn't sound like the record, the audience might not know what song it was.  And it would be a lot of extra work to record a different band playing "Roxanne" by the Police in a way that sounded enough like them to be recognizable, but different enough to sound like a raw, rough-around-the-edges band instead of a studio recording.  Having a look-alike band lip-synch to the familiar track is the cheapest, easiest solution, but I still don't have to like it.  

The comic-book style transitions were a little jarring, because in my mind, there's no connection between punk music (cool) and comics (geeky).  I mean, both CAN be part of the underground scene, but to me they're not really part of the SAME underground scene.  I can see comic-book panels used in a film like "American Splendor", but I didn't really get it here, until I realized they were referencing Punk magazine and other fanzines.  Again, not my thing but I have to allow it.

Also starring Alan Rickman (last seen in "The Butler"), Donal Logue (last seen in "Disclosure"), Ashley Greene (last seen in "Shrink"), Freddy Rodriguez (last seen in "A Walk in the Clouds"), Johnny Galecki (last seen in "In Time"), Justin Bartha (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Estelle Harris (last seen in "The Odd Couple II"), Malin Akerman (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Richard de Klerk, Rupert Grint (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Ryan Hurst, Stana Katic (last seen in "Quantum of Solace"), Kyle Gallner (last seen in "Red Eye"), Josh Zuckerman, with cameos from Taylor Hawkins, Joel David Moore (last seen in "Avatar"), Bradley Whitford (last seen in "Cobb"), Mickey Sumner (last seen in "Girl Most Likely").

RATING: 6 out of 10 glasses of Fresca

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Get on Up

Year 8, Day 3 - 1/3/16 - Movie #2,203

BEFORE: This connection's easy, from hard-working comedians and (not-really) hard-working voice-over artists, to the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business", James Brown.  I started a thematic chain on musicians last year, with "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Masked and Anonymous", but I didn't get to finish it within 2015.  This year I'll follow up with this biopic, plus tomorrow's film and "Sid and Nancy", "Whiplash", "Idlewild" and so on.  I guess I have to add "Jersey Boys" to the list, if I want to touch on the Four Seasons, maybe I can pair it with that film about Brian Wilson, "Love & Mercy".  Now, where are those films about Janis Joplin that everyone was talking about making, a few years back?

Actor linking is easy, too - Fred Melamed carries over from "In a World..." to play a record executive today.

THE PLOT:  A chronicle of James Brown's rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

AFTER: This film illustrates the difference between "art" and "arty".  "Art" is subjective, I suppose, but mostly it describes those things that are aesthetically pleasing, things that are beautiful and seemed to come into existence organically, naturally, apparently with little effort.  "Arty" is what you get when you can't separate the product from the process that made it, when someone was trying just a bit too hard to make art, and what shines through unintentionally is the pretentiousness or B.S. of its creator.  And if someone aims for "art" and they miss, "arty" is right there to catch them. 

This is a biographical film that set out to break all the rules about biographical films - heck, why not, James Brown never followed any rules and made his own way in the world, why shouldn't a film about him do the same?  Because films aren't supposed to break rules, films are supposed to present information in a way that the audience can understand and get behind, and any breaking of the rules just ends up interfering with that process.  

First rule broken - the events of James Brown's life are not presented in order.  Sure, this is a big personal bugaboo, my OCD prefers it when things are organized, but I also feel that since James Brown went through the trouble of living his life in a particular order, perhaps he knew best and we should honor memory life by watching the scenes unfold in that same way.  Certainly it would be easier to understand, easier to keep track of who he was married to at any particular time, but instead I have to try to piece together the details of his life, try to assemble some kind of mental chart of what happened when if I want to try and understand his career arc.  Anyone who doesn't understand the narrative technique being used here is bound to have a real problem - wait, he was famous, now he's struggling again, now he's divorced, now he's back with that wife again?  

The film opens, for example, on James Brown entering his own production studio with a loaded shotgun, presumably strung out on some chemical, threatening his own employees in order to find out which one committed the sin of dropping a deuce in his private bathroom.  Really?  The man had a long, impressive career in the music industry, and THIS is where you choose to start?  I maintain that cutting up the pieces of a person's narrative and then spooling them out in near-random order is nearly an admission that the story is not strong enough to play out chronologically.

Second rule broken - the fictional James Brown seems keenly aware that he's in a biopic, often breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience, or looking at them with an "I know, right?" awareness, as if he can't believe what's taking place in his own life.  (Marvel Comics pulls this all the time with their character Deadpool, a comic-book character who's often aware that he's in a comic with an audience reading.  Within continuity, this is explained by the character being clinically insane.)  But the end result is that I was made aware that I'm watching a film, and that pulled me out of the film reality and messed with my suspension of disbelief.  I say, find another way.  

Third rule broken - and this is not the same as the first rule.  The laws of time and space are further bent by having different iterations of James Brown show up where they don't belong.  (First he's Benjamin Button, then he's Deadpool, now he's Billy Pilgrim?)  For example, when he's stopped by police after that shotgun incident, it's the adult James Brown driving the truck, but it's the child James Brown who steps out.  As if to say, at a moment of personal weakness, he was still that scared, abused boy inside.  Give me a break.  Arty, arty, arty.  

Look, I get that the juxtaposition of different images, from different times, can lead to a greater truth.  And if you want to draw a connection between, for example, James Brown in his flashy "Godfather of Soul" suit on stage and a preacher he once saw in church, moving in a similar style, I get that.  You can show him watching the preacher as a small boy, and then later when he's on stage, it will be a callback. Why couldn't the filmmaker trust the audience enough to remember what we saw before, and make the connection ourselves?  We're smart people, we'll get it, and then we'll feel smart for connecting the dots, but if the filmmaker does it for us, putting scenes from 40 years apart right next to each other, it sells the audience short, assuming we're too dumb to notice things like this on our own. 

What is impressive here, and what was most impressive about James Brown, are the concerts.  Here they had to stage not one James Brown performance, but a dozen or so, from different eras, with different musicians, different costumes and they all had to ring true - and in doing that, the movie succeeded spectacularly.  A James Brown performance from the late 1950's would be much different from one in the 1970's, and that would be much different from one in the 1990's.  I'm reminded of The Fab Four, a Beatles tribute band I saw perform in Vegas, and they did a few numbers in the black suits, a few more in the Sgt. Pepper uniforms, and then they closed the show dressed as the Beatles from the cover of the "Abbey Road" album.  If someone did the same as James Brown, a tribute concert going through all his different eras, that would be like the best parts of this film.  Assuming the actor did his own singing, that was a powerful acting job.

But, as is, with all the other stuff thrown in, it's more like a confusing mess.  All we really learn is that James Brown "paid the cost to be the boss", and didn't we already know that going in?

NITPICK POINT: What was gained by showing people who were upset that a group of black musicians were staying at their hotel, swimming in the pool, if 5 minutes later they were seen dancing to the music from band's rehearsal?  Were they racist, or not?  This seemed like a too-quick reversal, the situation thus counter-acting its own point.  If racism were so easily overcome by the enjoyment of soul music, it wouldn't even be a thing.

Also starring Chadwick Boseman (last seen in "42"), Nelsan Ellis (last seen in "The Butler"), Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "Into the Night"), Viola Davis (last seen in "Syriana"), Jill Scott, Craig Robinson (last heard in "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters"), Octavia Spencer (ditto), Lennie James, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Mychal Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Tika Sumpter, with cameos from Aloe Blacc, Nick Eversman, J.D. Evermore (last seen in "Dallas Buyers Club"), Ahna O'Reilly (last seen in "Jobs"), Allison Janney (last seen in The Way Way Back"), John Benjamin Hickey.

RATING: 4 out of 10 blindfolded kids with boxing gloves