Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movie Review: Sex Tape

Sex Tape
Directed by: Jake Kasdan.
Written by: Kate Angelo and Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller.
Starring: Cameron Diaz (Annie), Jason Segel (Jay), Rob Corddry (Robby), Ellie Kemper (Tess), Rob Lowe  (Hank), Nat Faxon (Max), Nancy Lenehan (Linda), Giselle Eisenberg  (Nell), Harrison Holzer (Howard), Sebastian Hedges Thomas (Clive).

The premise of sex tape – that a long married couple with two kids film themselves having sex, and then have to get copies of the video back from all their friends and family – promises a raunchy, offensive sex comedy. This is doubly true when you consider that the two stars and the director made Bad Teacher together – which wasn’t a great movie, but certainly went for broke in terms of potentially offensive, sexual humor. The most shocking thing then about Sex Tape is how utterly it is. The film goes through the motions of being daring and sexual, but is basically just a rather lame slapstick comedy where the talented stars are stuck with a bunch of lame gags that generate very little in the way of laughs. What makes matters worse is there are a few moments – mostly small, quiet ones, that hint at the comedy this could have been had it went for it.

The film stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel as Annie and Jay – and like every other married couple with kids in the comedies of this sort, they have really cool jobs - she’s a blogger, about to sell her blog for big money, he works for a record label, or radio station, or something – it’s music related anyway. As the movie opens, the movie flashes back to college (I think) when Annie and Jay first meet and screw like rabbits – any time and any place – until she gets pregnant, and they get married. And then, of course, their sex lives grow dull and stagnant. So one night to get the groove back, they film themselves having sex, Instead of erasing the tape, Jay accidentally syncs it the cloud – and it goes to all the iPads they have given away (which is apparently a hell of a lot – why the hell don’t I know anyone who is giving away iPads. Because apparently neither of them have any idea how technology works, they believe they have to physically get back their iPads. That leads the pair to do some humiliating things – and of course learn some lessons, grow together, etc.

Diaz and Segel are fine comedic actors – and they give the movie their best shot, but the film never really gels. Most of the movie moves at such a rapid pace that the pair never have a chance to create characters that are realistic and natural together. The rapid pace could have worked except for one major problem – nothing much happens, it just happens really fast. The film moves from one unfunny set piece to another and goes nowhere.

The best moments are mainly throwaway, isolated incidents – I loved all the paintings that adorn Rob Lowe’s walls for example. Lowe, as the head of the company who wants to buy Annie’s blog, is actually probably the best one in the movie – even if he is essentially riffing on his Parks & Recreation persona. It can still be funny though.

But most of Sex Tape just never really works – is never really funny. I think a funny movie could be made out of the same basic material of Sex Tape, but it would require the movie to take itself a little more seriously. Like most Hollywood movies, it has a rather infantile view of sex – sex as imagined by teenagers who have never really had sex. If it took itself a little more seriously and given the comedy more of an edge – any edge really – perhaps it could have been funny. Diaz, Segel and director Jake Kasdan are capable of doing that. With Sex Tape, they simply didn’t deliver.

Movie Review: The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem
Directed by: Terry Gilliam.
Written by: Pat Rushin.
Starring: Christoph Waltz (Qohen Leth), Mélanie Thierry (Bainsley), David Thewlis (Joby), Lucas Hedges (Bob), Matt Damon (Management), Ben Whishaw (Doctor 3), Tilda Swinton (Dr. Shrink-Rom), Sanjeev Bhaskar (Doctor 1), Peter Stormare (Doctor 2).

Whatever else you can say about Terry Gilliam, you have to admit that the man sticks to his guns, and makes films that are strange and undeniably his own. Sometimes, like in Brazil (1985), 12 Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) that means a genuinely great film. Other times, like Tideland and The Brothers Grimm (both 2005) – that means a terrible one. But even his failures are at the very least interesting – they are honorable failures, and if Gilliam doesn’t always hit what he’s aiming for, you have to admire him for at least trying. Unfortunately his latest film, The Zero Theorem, while not as bad as Tideland or The Brothers Grimm is far closer to them in quality than his masterpieces. It doesn’t even come close to the level of something wonderfully weird as his last film – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It’s a film full of ideas, but unfortunately they seem like half thought out ones than something more. His cast is committed, and his visuals are typical Gilliam – which means undeniably beautiful and unique. But after a while, you realize the film is really an empty vessel.

The movie takes place in the not too distant future, where the inventively named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) works as some sort of computer hacker (how any of the technology he uses works it not explained – which is probably for the best. He’s the best the company has got – but he’s terribly anti-social and wants to work from home. He is eventually able to convince Management (Matt Damon) – to allow him to do that. Management even gives him his own pet project – The Zero Theorem – to work on. Management thinks that if Qohen is successful, he will somehow be able to prove that all human existence is meaningless. But Qohen is not able to concentrate on his work even at home. He meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) – a beautiful, younger woman who seems to like him, and he has no idea how to respond. Management also sends over his brilliant teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges). Plus, his heart isn’t into it – he doesn’t really want to prove that everything is meaningless just as he has found love – if that is what he and Bainsley have.

The movie has a lot of talk – too much really – about the nature of the technology and humanity’s dependence on it, and the effects of that dependence. It’s a rather obvious message – that we would all be better if we simply unplugged instead of spending all of our time in front of screens, communicating with people they never actually see instead of interacting with those around us. It’s a timely message – and one that cannot be delivered often enough, considering how many people seem not to understand it – but it’s one that Gilliam beats into the audience’s heads pretty much from first frame to last.

Gilliam has always been better at world building than narrative. And the world he builds in The Zero Theorem is visually stunning from beginning to end – a hyperactive, candy color dystopia where everyone thinks everything is perfect – until of course, Qohen starts digging. He is great when it’s just him and a computer – and that’s the way he wants it – but when he stops being simply distracted by Bainsley and Bob, and actually connects with them on an emotional level – he realizes he wants something more – or at least the illusion of something more. Waltz is brilliant – or at least as brilliant as he can be in the role, which is a relief because I was starting to believe that he was always going to be lost outside of a Tarantino movie. To be great in a Gilliam movie, you have to commit to the weirdness, and he does that just fine. Matt Damon is very good as Management as well – his costumes are genius. Thierry is fine as Bainsley, even if she never rises above the level of female perfection personified – although that’s kind of the point of her character.

All The Zero Theorem really needed was a story – or at least more than its one very obvious theme – to connect all of that weirdness. At his best, Gilliam is able to pull that off. The Zero Theorem is far from Gilliam at his best. It proves he can still direct something weird and visually stunning. Now, he just needs to find a story worthy of that visual talent. The Zero Theorem isn’t it.

Movie Review: Particle Fever

Particle Fever
Directed by: Mark Levinson.

The CERN Super Collider in Switzerland is one of the most complicated machines ever built by man. They started construction in 1985, and it wasn’t ready to conduct any sort of experiments until 2010. At one point, America was going to build their own super collider in Texas – but Congress killed the project because they didn’t see any money in it. They were right about that. The information gathered from the CERN Super Collider and its experiments have no commercial applications. Instead the only purpose it has is to try and discover the mysteries of the Universe – how things came into being. So, you know, nothing important.

Watching Particle Fever is a fascinating experience in so many ways. I couldn’t help but feel anxious for the theoretical physicists in the film. They have spent the entirety of their adult lives – decades in some cases – coming up with theories about the building blocks of universe, and how they all fit together. When the results of the experiments from the CERN super collider become known, the odds are that some of the theories they have worked for decades on will be proven completely and totally wrong. They are all geniuses – but even geniuses can be wrong. The film builds suspense by explaining the different theories – basically Super symmetry and Multiverse – in terms that are fairly easy to understand (and if I, you never took a physics course in my life can get it, I think everyone else could as well). Basically it all boils down to the weight of the so-called Higgs particle – something that had only been theoretical until the Super Collider came online. If it weighs more than 140, it would be more in line with the Multiverse theory – if it’s closer to 115, then it would prove super symmetry. The suspense comes not only from the difference between these two theories, which there is a “friendly rivalry” about among theoretical physicists – but also because if the Multiverse proves to be correct, it could be the end of theoretical physics as we know it. There will be no further to go.

This probably sounds like a dry, academic documentary – the type of film that you’re forced to sit through in a high school physics class. To a certain extent, that’s true – I cannot imagine that high school teachers will not be showing this film in their classes for years to come. But it’s also an entertaining film – it lets you get to know some of the personalities of the people behind the theories, and the people who are actually building the machines. For fans of The Big Bang Theory, it’s a more serious version of the conflict between Leonard and Sheldon – and it’s amusing at times.

The film is also quietly profound. Congress was right when they said that the project would never make them any money. But it’s still one of the most important projects in human history. We should want to know how the earth came to be, and all the mysteries about our universe. This costs money – billions of dollars in fact – but there are some things more important than money. Even if the CERN super collider is, in economic terms, just a money suck, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It may make it even more so. Particle Fever is a movie for science nerds – there’s no doubt about that – but it’s also for anyone who is interested in the origins of our universe. That really should include everyone,

Movie Review: Sabotage

Sabotage
Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: Skip Woods and David Ayer.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (John 'Breacher' Wharton), Sam Worthington (James 'Monster' Murray), Joe Manganiello (Joe 'Grinder' Phillips), Josh Holloway (Eddie 'Neck' Jordan), Terrence Howard (Julius 'Sugar' Edmonds), Max Martini (Tom 'Pyro' Roberts), Kevin Vance (Bryce 'Tripod' McNeely), Mark Schlegel ('Smoke' Jennings), Mireille Enos (Lizzy Murray), Maurice Compte (Sapo), Martin Donovan (Floyd Demel), Michael Monks (ASAC Phelps).

Writer-director David Ayer has made his career making mainly violent movies cops on the front lines – fighting against gangs, drug dealers and other very, very bad people. Often the cops themselves are just as corrupt as those they are trying to take down. At their best – as in his screenplays for Training Day (2001) or the underrated Dark Blue (2002), and his last directorial effort End of Watch (2012) the films are gritty, violent, exciting, well directed, well written and well-acted. And then there are his other movies – where things never quite come together. Films like Street Kings (2008), and his latest Sabotage, which seems like they should have promise, but somehow never quite reach their potential.

The film opens with a group of DEA officers, led by John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as the storm a drug house and kill everyone they come in contact with. And then they find the money – and curiously, they stop. They grab some of the money, and put it into baggies and send them down into the sewer so they can pick it up later. Not everything goes according to plan, they lose one of their own, and somehow the higher ups know that $10 million is missing from the money pile they found (even though they blew it up). They cannot prove anything though – and after a few months, the team is working together again. But they don’t trust each other – the money disappeared before they could go back for it. And then, one by one, they start dying. Is the Cartel after them? Or is it someone closer?

If Ayer knows how to write one thing it’s masculine, male bonding that come dangerously close to homoeroticism (he did, after all, write the original The Fast and the Furious). He has never had much success is writing believable female characters – and the two major female characters in Sabotage are good case studies as to why that is. Mireille Enos delivers perhaps the best performance in the movie as Lizzy –the lone female member of Schwarzenegger’s DEA hit squad – and yet her main personality trait seems to be that she’s the biggest asshole of them all. Olivia Williams plays a DC cop who catches the case of the DEA murder, and continues investigating even when it becomes clear that the DEA itself won’t help her – and don’t much care that the team they thought was dirty is ending up dead. Arnold’s Breacher does though, so they team up. It would not surprise me to find out that the role was written for a man, and they just decided to switch it to a woman late in the process – it feels like it was written exactly the same as the male roles in this movie – right down to the not so buried sexual tension between her and Arnold.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. For the most part, the cast is made up of talented – or at the very least interesting actors – but none of them are given anything interesting to do, or even any real character traits that differentiate them from each other – they’re all muscle bound, tattooed buffoons who take way too long before they start really understanding what the hell is going on in the plot. I learned, after watching the film that apparently the original cut of the film was closer to three hours, and was edited down to its current runtime (just under 2 hours) at the behest of the studio who wanted it to be an all-out action film, rather than the mystery film Ayer wanted. Perhaps the longer version was a better film – a more complete one – as I certainly did get the impression on more than one occasion while watching Sabotage that there were whole scenes and sequences missing – as we moved from one place to another with an awkward transition that didn’t work. Yet, I cannot imagine that an additional hour would have solved all of the films problems – and would have certainly made the film slower. If Sabotage has anything going for it, it’s that it never stops moving, it goes from one action sequence to another without slowing down. And Ayer does know how to film these scenes – not an exciting but bloodless way of a PG-13 movie, but in a more brutal, bloody R-rated way.

For Schwarzenegger, this is an interesting choice – it’s a much darker character than he usually plays, even if he isn’t quite the bad guy either (had they included the alternate ending that is one the Blu-Ray – which crosses the line between exciting action, and misogyny, so good call on cutting it, he would have). In some ways, I almost think that this was an attempt to do something more serious – the final scene seems to want to evoke Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, even if the film in no way earns that sort of ending. Based on his work here, and in last year’s The Last Stand, I think Arnold can still be an action star. He does need to find some better screenplays though. Sabotage has some good action in it – but everything around the action either doesn’t make sense, or is just plain bad.

Movie Review: Dom Hemingway

Dom Hemingway
Directed by: Richard Shepard.
Written by: Richard Shepard.
Starring: Jude Law (Dom Hemingway), Richard E. Grant (Dickie Black), Madalina Diana Ghenea (Paolina), Demian Bichir (Mr. Fontaine), Kerry Condon (Melody), Emilia Clarke (Evelyn), Jumayn Hunter (Lestor).

When we first meet Dom Hemingway, he’s getting a blowjob in prison, as he delivers a monologue about how legendary both he and his cock are. It is a profane and brilliant moment, that the movie doesn’t really come close to matching for the rest of its running time, but it’s an honest opening sequence for the movie. If you’re offended by that, you may as well leave, because the movie will essentially be one profane scene after another. The movie has a plot, but it feels like it’s an excuse to let Jude Law, who plays Hemingway in a fine performance, deliver one offensive line after another. Law is the only reason to see the film, which doesn’t attempt to do anything you haven’t seen in dozens of other British gangster movies. It’s fun to watch Law cut loose – but eventually, even that gets a little tiresome.

Dom has just spent 12 years in prison for his part in a robbery. He could have only gone away for a year or two, but he refused to name names – which has earned him a debt from Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) – who has become incredibly wealthy while Dom rotted away. Fontaine plans on paying Dom for his loyalty. But the 12 years in jail cost Dom more than his freedom – his wife divorced him, remarried and died while he was on the inside. His daughter, Evelyn (Emila Clarke) hates his guts and wants nothing to do with him. Dom eventually comes out of jail with nothing but a friendship with Dickie (Richard E. Grant) – but even that doesn’t seem overly close. We’re about half way through the movie before Dom even notices Dickie has lost a hand.

Law fully commits to his performance as Dom. He gained weight, grew some ridiculous muttonchops, affects a lower class accent, and basically performs the whole movie full of false bravado. He is insecure underneath all that posturing, but he doesn’t want anyone to know that. For the most part, he drinks, he smokes, and he beats people up, he swears, and basically acts like an asshole. And Law nails the performance. Unfortunately, there just isn’t anything else in the movie worthy of Law’s performance.

The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard, who has made some decent movies in his career – the little seen serial killer film Oxygen with Adrien Brody and Maura Tierny, the hitman-businessman friendship of The Matador (2005) and the journalists in a war zone film The Hunting Party (2008) – which all worked better than this film. Perhaps the difference is that in those films, he made multiple interesting characters to make up for his lack of interest in a plot. In Dom Hemingway, Law really is the whole show.

It’s an admirable effort on Law’s part, and the movie is never really boring, and he is always interesting to watch. But at the end, you wonder what all the effort really adds up. The whole film feels like its setting something up, that the film never really delivers. It’s worth seeing for Law – just don’t expect there to be anything else in the film worthy of your attention.

Movie Review: The Nut Job

The Nut Job
Directed by: Peter Lepeniotis.
Written by: Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis & Robert Reece & Daniel Woo.
Starring: Will Arnett (Surly), Brendan Fraser (Grayson), Liam Neeson (Raccoon), Katherine Heigl (Andie), Stephen Lang (King), Maya Rudolph (Precious), Jeff Dunham (Mole), Gabriel Iglesias (Jimmy), Sarah Gadon (Lana), James Rankin (Fingers), Scott Yaphe (Lucky), Joe Pingue (Johnny), Annick Obonsawin (Jamie).

The Nut Job makes the same mistake that a lot of animated movies do. It assumes that all you need to make a good animated film for kids is a bunch of cute, talking animals and a lot of colorful action sequences. The jokes are tired and lame, but the filmmakers try and make the film move at such a rapid pace that no one will notice. It doesn’t work. Even my almost three year old daughter – who will normally sit through anything animated, no matter how lame, got bored of this movie in a hurry. As she went off to play, I decided to stick it out to the end. I should have followed her lead.

The film is about Surly (Will Arnett) – a smart aleck squirrel, who unlike all the animals who live in the park looks out only for himself and not the group. After pushing the other animals a little too far, he gets himself banished, and has to fend for himself in the big city. That’s when he discovers a new nut shop, and is determined to rob it of all their nuts. One of the park animals – Andie (Katherine Heigl) discovers his plant, and forces him into a partnership – they will share whatever they steal. But the leader of the forest creatures – Raccoon (Liam Neeson) has other, more nefarious plans. Oh – the nut store owners don’t really want a nut store. They simply rented the space so they can tunnel into the bank next door. They’re pulling off a complicated heist on a group pulling off a complicated heist. I guess that’s what passes for originality in movies these days.

The animation looks rather cheap for a major motion picture. The characters are cute, but not very memorable. The action sequences are fast moving but never build any real suspense or energy. The jokes are tired – and not even a talented vocal cast can add any humor or energy to them either.

The film just kind sits there on the screen without ever really inspiring any sort of passion – even positive or negative. It’s hard to truly hate a film that is this mediocre and unambitious. At only 885 minutes, it’s at least over rather quickly – so quickly in fact you barely notice that the plot really is rather lame, and not very well thought out, and pretty much jettisoned in the last half hour in favor of one chase scene after another. It’s not an awful movie by any means – it’s just a dull and completely forgettable movie. I’m already starting to forget what happened in the movie – give it a few weeks, and I won’t remember anything more – or really are that I forgot. It’s the type of movie made by a studio as a quick way to make money in the doldrums of January. All movies are like that to a certain extent – most just aren’t quite so obvious  about it.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: A Movie (1958) & Report (1967)

A Movie (1958) and Report (1967)
Directed by: Bruce Conner.

Bruce Conner made over 20 shorts in his career, that spanned 50 years, and also saw him dabble in the other arts. His films are all (as far as I know anyway) are all montages, editing together pre-existing found footage in innovative, often brilliant ways. He has been referred to as the “father of MTV” (to which he responded, simply “Not my fault”) – and even directed a few music videos himself (like Mongoloid for Devo). Probably his two best known films are his debut – A Movie from 1958 and Report from 1967. A Movie is only 12 minutes long, Report only 13, but both are masterful, innovative and brilliant movies.

A Movie is Conner’s best known, and the most widely available (you kind find it on Youtube easily). The film combines stock footage from B movies, newsreels, soft core pornography, and other sources into a brilliant montage, that one supposes, tells mankind’s violent history, and then perhaps looks into the future.

It all starts out innocently enough, with shots of cowboys and Indians in battle from some old B-movie. Set to a wonderful score (Respighi’s Pines Of Rome), and featuring Conner’s brilliant montage editing, the film starts there, and then seamlessly transitions to other shots – an African epic with elephant instead of horses, scenes of a train racing, car crashes, onto daring water stunts, that all ends in spectacular wipeouts. This part of the movie is thrilling, and it must be said extremely entertaining. Conner is showing us cinema as spectacle, and just how exciting that can be.

And then, the film takes a much darker turn. He moves on from these “fun” scenes, in a brilliantly edited sequence that shows us a man in a submarine looking through a periscope and seeing a beautiful, scantily clad woman – and then we immediately cut to the first of many images of an atomic bomb exploding. This is when the movie gets much more serious, and darker. Conner uses the same music and the same editing technique that made the first half of the film so thrilling, but now his images are darker – not just the atom bomb, but shots of firing squads, shots of dead bodies in a huge pile, what I think is the Hindenburg, although it hardly matters, as it is once again a spectacle of death. His editing grows even more frantic, more “exciting”, but suddenly the audience is confronted with real world death and destruction – the cinema as spectacle can make anything exciting, if edited together properly.

And then A Movie ends on a much quieter note – that of a scuba diver swimming through the water, before disappearing into what appears to be a whole in the ocean floor. Mankind, having destroyed the earth with the atomic blasts we see, is returning to the sea.

A Movie is a masterpiece of editing that makes the audience confront the artifice of movies themselves – how the movies lie to us all the time, and most of the time we don’t even realize it. By using shocking imagery, but using the same editing technique that makes Hollywood spectacles so thrilling, and the same background music, the audience is forced to confront the reality of what movies show us all the time. It is a masterpiece of its kind.

Report, made nine years later, is an even darker, more disturbing movie – perhaps not as endlessly watchable as A Movie, but perhaps even more powerful. Report was made in 1967, and looks at the Kennedy assassination of four years prior. It starts with a wonderful montage of images from that day in Dallas on the President in his motorcade, slowly down the footage, and repeating it often, as we hear frantic radio reports of mass confusion as to what is happening. We never see any of the footage of the Kennedy assassination itself – Conner substitutes a brilliant image of a bullet passing through a light bulb in its place.

This sequence – roughly half the film – is brilliant in and of itself, a wonderful, powerful “recreation” of the frantic events of that day that Conner drills home with his images and the radio announcers voices. As much as any other depiction of the Kennedy assassination on film – from Oliver Stone’s three plus hour JFK, to Martin Scorsese’s own brilliant montage in the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (set to Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall), Conner capture the mass confusion and sadness of the event.

Yet, I think it’s the second half of the film that is even more brilliant – and pushes Report into the realm of the best shorts of its kind ever made. After the depiction of the assassination itself, Conner flashes back to earlier in the trip to Dallas, with more calm new reports telling us mundane details – like what the President and First Lady are wearing, etc. In part, this seems like a more innocent time – if he had done this segment first, like many would have, it would be thick with foreshadowing, except of course, he also showed us what happened. What Conner also does is flash forward to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination – Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby, the parading around of the gun that killed Kennedy, and splices these images together with ads from the time – a washing machine for example. By doing this, Conner is making clear how the media sells everything – they sold the image of the President and the First Lady, elevating their status, and then sold the President’s death – they do the same thing with the people we admire, and exploit their deaths, much like they sell anything else. This makes the film even more complex and fascinating.

Judging on these two films alone, Conner was a master at editing – taking images most people would not associate to each other, and making their connection clear. If his reputation isn’t quite on the level of some other avant-garde filmmakers of his day, it could be because he never liked his films shown on home video, or the internet. While many short films have found their way to Youtube, the only one of Conner’s that is readily available there is A Movie. (I also saw Report on Youtube, but when I went back the next day to watch it a second time, it had been removed – so I guess I watched a copy of Report that was illegally uploaded – although I did not know this at the time). Hopefully at some point, we will get a proper collection of Conner’s films for home viewing (if Criterion can do Brakhage and Frampton, why not Conner?). Reading about his other films – especially Cosmic Ray (1961), Luke (1967), Marilyn Times Five (1973), Crossroads (1976), Mongoloid (1976), Mea Culpa (1981) and America is Waiting (1982) all sound fascinating, but appear to be unavailable for any type of viewing. Here’s hoping that sooner or later, they are available for all to see. Conner was undoubtedly right – like all films, his are best seen in a theater – but the reality of the situation now is that if films aren’t available for home viewing, they run the risk of being forgotten.