Sunday, March 30, 2014

[Review] Muppets Most Wanted

 "Looks like the studio ordered a sequel," Statler says as he looks into the camera at the audience, right before the crew of Muppets break into the opening song. "The second one is never quite as good!" they sing. And while that's true here, it's still one of the many comical lines in the pleasantly entertaining Muppets Most Wanted, where the self-reflexive humor is turned up to the max.

The plot begins with Constantine, a bizzaro Russian Kermit, as he escapes from prison. He's the #1 villain in the world, but he's a funny one. Meanwhile, The Muppets are prepping their world tour, and Dominic (Ricky Gervais) signs on as their mischievous agent. In a case of mistaken identity, Kermit and Constantine get switched--Kermit gets sent to a Siberian prison that's lead by a hard-nosed guard named Nadya (Tina Fey), while Constantine joins the Muppet crew. It's a mess.

Muppets Most Wanted piles on the laughs through its dialogue and gags. The prison scenes in particular, are a riot, showing some hilarious images: Kermit getting wheeled in wearing Hannibal Lecter attire, Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta singing a Boyz II Men song, the sequence of Kermit's botched escape attempts.

Even though it's a step down from the 2011 predecessor, Muppets Most Wanted is thoroughly enjoyable and it never really falters. The constant cleverness, jubilant musical numbers, and love for its characters make it a sequel worth seeing.

Cameos on cameos on cameos.


[Review] Bad Words

Jason Bateman stars in his directorial debut, Bad Words, a profane comedy about a 40-year-old guy who enters the National Spelling Bee by using a loophole. Guy (that's his name) is a jerk, but he knows his stuff. He keeps his questionable intentions a secret, but the premise is a bit too thin on intrigue to make us care where it's going.

On the flight to the Bee, Guy meets Chaitanya (Rohand Chand), a young kid (and a future spelling opponent) who is full of questions. Of course, Guy gets annoyed. The two keep bumping into each other and Guy eventually takes Chaitanya under his wing, but he isn't really the best role model (to put it lightly). You might be thinking that some of this seems remarkably familiar to Bad Santa, even down to half of the title. Coincidence or ode?

The problem with Bad Words is that it isn't funny enough to be an above average laugh piece, it isn't clever or sharp enough to work as a subversive comedy, and its serious side is too haphazard to fully resonate. The jokes are cheap and the lines fall flat, rendering the humor as a bland brand of crudeness, often seeming like an excuse to string together a bunch of long foul-mouthed insults. It all functions as setup for the film's redemptive/revenge plot, but this tale of two halves is only minor on both ends. Is there a word for that?


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

[Review] Ernest & Celestine

If you're burnt out (or Frozen-ed out) on the massive hype of Disney's latest powerhouse, and you're looking for a lower-key animated story that is actually more superb, then Ernest & Celestine is a the one. This French-Belgian import recently released in the U.S., and it was a sleeper Oscar nominee in the animated category last year, but it may very well be the best, yet most overlooked of the bunch.

In the small world of Ernest & Celestine, the mice live exclusively underground, and the bears live exclusively above ground. Both animals are taught to fear each other and avoid possible contact. Celestine, our main mouse, is a a curious optimist, dreaming of becoming friends with a bear one day. Meanwhile, Ernest, our main bear, is just waking from hibernation, and he's beyond hungry. One night, Celestine journeys up into bear territory in order to steal teeth for the mice dentistry (this is her job). Ernest stumbles upon her, and his first thought is "MEAL." With some quick talking, Celestine convinces Ernest not to eat her, and agrees to help him break into a candy store. The two get into some trouble, things go awry in their respective towns, and they end up fleeing and hiding away in Ernest's quaint forest shack.

Finding a lot in common with each other, they form a sweet bond of friendship. This renders one of the most heartwarming images that will appear on screen this year (it involves the two cuddling under an umbrella next to a candle as snow falls through a hole in the roof). But the cheeriness stops when they learn they're on the MOST WANTED list and are being hunted by both the mice and bear police. Celestine and Ernest must pull off something special to overcome the situation.

Ernest and Celestine is as charming and profoundly cute as it seems on paper. It's a miniature and intimate tale, but the themes of tolerance and breaking boundaries are conveyed gently and effortlessly on a universal scale, all within a brisk 75 minute running time. The squiggly hand-drawn style animation gives the film the delightful look of a children's book coming to life, and the watercolor hues are alluring in every frame. Quiet and poetic in its approach, the soothing piano accompaniment is a perfect musical touch.

Don't let anything stop you from seeing this wonderful film.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

[Review] Le Week-End

Nick (Jim Broadbent) & Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are an older couple who take a vacation to Paris for the first time since their honeymoon. We get a very quick idea of where their relationship stands. There's tension and disconnect. They know one another's ins-and-outs, for better or worse. And their patience has worn thin with each other (or is it actually strong after all these years?) The two ponder whether it's possible to love and hate someone at the same time.

During a drunken, mischievous night on the town, the romance briefly rekindles. Then the film takes a slight turn when Nick runs into Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a former student of his who is now a successful and pompous author. Morgan invites them over to his house for a dinner party. This mid-section of the story slows a bit, but is redeemed by some stellar dinner table speeches.

The script is excellent as a meditational relationship study. I guess you could sort of call it a grandparent of Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. It's full of frank and insightful lines, from the self-deprecating: "I'm amazed by how mediocre I've become", to the droll exchanges: "You make my blood boil / It's the sign of a deep connection"; "People don't change / They do... They get worse." And the more lyrical, deeper-cutting: "Think of me as falling out of a window, forever, for I am truly fucked." ...All of this amid the beautiful, and ya know, romantic backdrop of Paris.

Le Week-End is a slice of life, as it is.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

[Review] The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much like a multi-layered pastry, both visually and story-wise. It's concocted with both sweetness and tartness, as well as a constant swirl of melancholy and tragedy that is difficult to avoid.

The story is told as a flashback within a flashback through multiple narrators. It revolves around Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the eccentric hotel concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the new deadpan Lobby Boy, whom Gustave takes under his wing. Controversy ensues when Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in amazing make-up), an extraordinarily rich and dear friend of Gustave, passes away. Two different wills surface, causing a battle for her fortune. Gustave is accused of murder, he and Zero steal a priceless painting from her estate, and all hell breaks loose.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional universe that parallels 1930s Europe during the brink of war. These elements of fascism and violence weave their way in and out of the narrative, invading the film's bright exterior. And Zero's sad back-story is revealed later on.

It's pretty incredible how meticulously detailed and finely wrought the film is--from the set designs, the timely movements of the characters, and the precise framing. The shot setups are boxy, whether it be an elevator, a jail cell, a phone booth, or a confession booth. These box shots reflect the stories-inside-of-stories aspect and it's just a sleek compositional look in general. The whip pans and zoom-ins navigate these spaces with deep focus, and the crafted miniatures add a great sense of intimacy. The Starbursts-like color palette is eye-popping, in the way that the colors clash from an interior design standpoint, but you wouldn't mind grabbing a handful and shoving it into your mouth. All of this makes The Grand Budapest Hotel the most technically Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film to date, and I haven't even mentioned the stop-motion ski chase scene yet.

The cast is huge. Aside from the aforementioned, there's Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Everyone greatly matches their characters. Some roles are just tiny, but this keeps it from feeling overloaded. But of course, Ralph Fiennes is the show-stealer, and rightfully so. In this role, he's charming and complex, sophisticated and hilarious, and his line deliveries are on-point.

Wes Anderson's screenplay is terrific. There are some tremendous lines of dialoge, and the jokes whizz by and pile on before you have the chance to chuckle at the first. But the film's most memorable, weighty, and embodying line comes from Gustave during one of the more serious moments: “You see? There are glimpses of decency in this slaughterhouse that we used to call humanity, and what we aim to provide in our simple, humble, dignified… oh, fuck it.”


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

[Review] Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Based on a segment of the 1960s animated Rocky and Bullwinkle series, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is polished up with crisp, rounded 3D animation for contemporary times.

Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burell) is a genius dog with world renowned accomplishments, and he has an adopted son, Sherman (Max Charles), who has gained lots knowledge from the teachings of Peabody. Their backstory is told early on in a cute and sentimental montage.

After a few adventures via Mr. Peabody's highly advanced invention, the WABAC machine (a time machine), it's time for Sherman's first day of school. During lunch, Sherman gets picked on by a classmate named Penny (Ariel Winter), and the two get into a fight. Mr. Peabody gets called into the school to have a chat with the principle and is questioned about whether he's a proper guardian for Sherman.

Mr. Peabody invites Penny's family over in hopes to resolve the conflict. Peabody keeps the parents entertained, while Sherman and Penny attempt to make up. It doesn't go so well until Sherman decides to show Penny the WABAC machine (even though Mr. Peabody told him to keep it a secret). Penny ends up warping to Ancient Egypt, and Sherman and Peabody journey back through time to find her. This results in a wild chain of events and several detours to Renaissance-era Florence and the city of Troy, all in order to complete the mission of getting back home.

All of this looks odd on paper, but in the world of cartoons, it makes so much sense. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a fun ride that also operates as an educational lesson that explores different time periods and introduces several prominant historical figures, while spouting out facts and tidbits left and right. The film is only mildly humorous, but it has a considerable amount of heart, mostly stemming from the *ahem* (Dog)father and son relationship.

The film won't blow your mind, and it pales in comparison to the greatness of last month's Lego Movie, but you won't regret taking the trip.


Monday, March 10, 2014

[Review] The Wind Rises

Legendary director, Hayao Miyazaki, delivers his final film with The Wind Rises. It's packed with the dazzling, intricately-detailed animation that we come to expect from Studio Gibli, and it's as gorgeous as ever. The story itself is less whimsical and more Casablanca and Gone With the Wind than Miyazaki's usual fare, and it goes out on a complex and emotionally powerful note.

Jiro, the main character, is a dreamer with his eyes toward the sky. His life goal is to be an aircraft designer. We first meet him as a young child, and then the film flashes forward to where he saves a girl named Naoko during an earthquake. Several years later, the two reunite and fall in love. But unfortunately, she's badly sick with tuberculosis. The story revolves around their relationship and Jiro's passion and strive for perfection in his career of inventing stealthy airplanes. But there's a dark and conflicting edge beneath the gorgeous clouds, as the exact model Jiro invents is set to be used in the impending World War II. This harsh reality is most pronounced when Jiro presents his design, promoting its speed and saying, "If you don't carry guns, there's no problem", only to be met with laughs by the engineers.

The film is a deeply layered look at ambition and the complicated idea that someone's apparently innocent work could be used so strongly against their intentions--to the levels of absolute destruction. From an early age, Jiro wanted to see his product fly high, but not for purposes of war. There are some lulls in The Wind Rises--where you might actually catch yourself daydreaming, but overall, it's a seriously bittersweet and hauntingly transcendent send off.


Friday, March 7, 2014

[Review] In Fear

In this British thriller, Tom & Lucy, a young couple on a road trip to a festival, decide to stop and stay at a hotel. On their way, they journey down a series of sketchy dirt roads that almost archetypally scream, "Yeah something isn't right..." They get lost and things turn especially threatening when night falls. It starts raining (of course), shadowy lurkers stalk the couple, mysterious evils manipulate their path--setting up dangerous traps, almost like Cabin in the Woods but without the meta.

The film is familiar territory, yet it feels welcoming instead of trite. It's a psychological-horror that's efficient and well-crafted, arriving during a small crop of contained thrillers that unfold in real-time, such as Grand Piano, Silent House, and even the new Neeson vehicle Non-Stop. There is some excellent camera work, which alternates between voyeuristic shots and the internal anxieties of protagonists.

In Fear's story keeps you guessing (Lucy even asks the ultimate question, "What the fuck is going on?!"), even though it's void of any magnificent twists or eye-opening reveals. At best, it's a solid little film to view on a dark and stormy evening, and it might raise your levels of paranoia next time you flash your headlights into the unknown.


[Review] Non-Stop

I'm just going to refer to the main character in this film as 'Neeson'. Because let's face it, Non-Stop, an action story about a rugged Air Marshal taking down a mysterious killer on a plane--is very much Neesian fare. I mean, look at the poster!

Neeson boards the flight and makes a few brief acquaintances with various passengers. Once things take off, Neeson receives a text that reads: "In exactly 20 minutes I'm going to kill someone on this plane." Suddenly, everyone is a suspect, every passenger's move is magnified, and Neeson is forced to take some drastic measures. "Safe protocol" is tossed out the window.

Facing major complications, Neeson tries his best to track down the culprit. The plot if full of misdirections--cameras cue to certain individuals, only to make the mystery even more difficult to solve. Some well-executed turns (AKA 'Shit just got real' moments) take place, heightening the suspense and holding interest throughout most of the duration.

Non-Stop definitely gets pretty ludicrous toward the end, but I think that's the only thing that people really saw coming.