Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Netflix This: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

     Obviously there are dozens of coming-of-age films that deal with outsider teenagers and shy boys and girls, films that delve into sex and drugs and the nervousness and embarrassment that some high school students feel on a weekly (if not daily) basis. But of the past few years, I would rank last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower as one of the best: filled with incredibly strong performances (particularly Logan Lerman in the lead role of Charlie), emotional depth, and a sense of everlasting nostalgia, Perks is well worth a watch for anyone that has experienced love or loss.
     The movie's based on the bestselling book of the same name by author Steven Chbosky. Curiously--and incredibly--the film is also directed by him, too, marking the Renaissance man's first major foray into film making. You'd never know he was a first time director. The plot: Charlie is a bit of a loner, one of those kids who enters school on the first day and sits alone at lunch, pecking away at his food like a little bird as he glances at all of the laughing popular kids.
     Soon enough, he catches the eye of two other semi-outcasts named Sam (Emma Watson, is a breakout role after the Harry Potter series) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, whose frightening turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin was memorable and horrific). These two--at first--seem like a couple, but they're actually step siblings. Throughout some parties, sports events, dances, and drug use, Charlie merges into the friend group that Sam and Patrick are a major part of ("Welcome to the land of misfit toys," Sam tells Charlie, in one of the very few annoying lines of the film). As Charlie grows more comfortable (and with the aid of a pot brownie), he opens up: one of his best friends recently killed himself and he has had a lifelong depression with visions due to a mysterious event in his childhood involving his aunt and a car accident.
     The three main performances are really stellar, and although I haven't read that the book that this film is based on, I can imagine that the portrayals would satisfy any fan of the written word. It's clear that when Charlie sees Sam for the first time, he is completely smitten. Their budding sort-of-more-than-friends relationship never falls for any annoying cliches, and the chemistry between Emma Watson's Sam and Logan Lerman's Charlie is completely palpable. The tension builds into the final third of the film, when secrets are revealed and Charlie's illness comes to the forefront. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was heartfelt and surprising, and it's one of the better films of 2012 that didn't receive much fanfare.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard, or John McClane's Quick and Very Painful Death

     The original Die Hard came into cinemas about a month before my 4th birthday, so I didn't witness John McClane's hard fought, down-and-dirty battle at Nakatomi plaza against creepy terrorist Hans Gruber (portrayed with brilliant snark by Alan Rickman) and his henchmen for a good 5 or 6 years after that. But it will always hold a special place in my movie-loving heart: it's still one of the greatest action films, and it never grows tiresome. The first two sequels (Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard with a Vengeance) were worthy entries in the growing franchise, showcasing some of the same wit, humor, and realism (to a degree) as their predecessor. McClane gets beaten and bloodied, and his character is rarely portrayed as an over-the-top killing machine like in action films that came before it. He wasn't superhuman--near death experiences and humility were all part of the game. After a long hiatus, McClane was back in 2007 with Live Free or Die Hard, which took the series away from its roots into a slick and polished actioneer that might as well have been directed by Michael Bay; luckily, it contained enough of a semblance to the original film to be considered pretty watchable, maybe even sort of fun. Now we come to the 5th entry of Die Hard, titled A Good Day to Die Hard.
      ...And I'm almost speechless. Yes, every sign pointed to this outcome: the film was directed by a man named John Moore, whose previous credits include Max Payne, Flight of the Phoenix, and Behind Enemy Lines (that action movie starring Owen Wilson of all people). It was written by someone named Skip Woods, whose previous screenplays were Swordfish, the videogame adaptation Hitman, and the remake of The A-Team. The films trailers, though a bit deceiving because explosions in small doses are exciting, didn't really show any dialogue. And the initial reviews were incredibly atrocious (17% fresh on But still: I wasn't prepared. A Good Day to Die Hard fell far below my expectations which were already extremely low. The film didn't need to reach the heights of any of the previous installments, it just needed to be kind of fun and mildly entertaining. It's not even close to that. It's a big squishy turd that the production company and Bruce Willis should be ashamed of.
     The so-called plot of A Good Day to Die Hard doesn't really even need to exist. The film spends less than 15 minutes of absolutely laughable conversations before moving from action set piece to action set piece with no thought of innovation or respect for the audience. The basics: John McClane--who is still a great shot because he's at a shooting range when we first see him--travels to Russia to try and reconnect with his estranged son. You see, during all of that police work John had to due during the first films, he didn't spend enough time with his children. So young McClane became a spy with the CIA (wtf?) and rarely talked with old McClane. When John arrives, things go wrong and things go Bang.
     The film--in absolutely opposite fashion of the original Die Hard--is so implausible that it almost made me sick to my stomach. An example: McClane picks up a large machine gun (maybe a SAW) and proceeds to mow down a group of well-equipped mercenaries entering a doorway. This elite unit doesn't stop though, they keep pouring into the doorway one after another like brainless zombies in the latest Call of Duty game. Here's another: at one point early in the run time, McClane is in a truck chase. He proceeds to get into an accident, barrel-rolling the massive vehicle 4 or 5 times. Then he gets out (unhurt), gets hit by a car and steals that car (unhurt), proceeds to take a cellphone call from his daughter in America, and crashes that car too. All while swerving around, yelling "Jesus Christ" and "I'm on vacation!". Speaking of McClane yelling unoriginal and uninspired catchphrases, the script is an absolute travesty. He probably says "I'm on Vacation" at least 7 times before emptying his clip into a "scumbag". The actual dialogue between characters in the film is no better: it mostly consists of sarcastic father/son chitchat about absentee dads and troubled kids. The villain(s) have no depth and no death in the entire film matters, because there is less than zero character development and just about everyone is annoying anyway. Most anyone could come up with a more entertaining and innovative script by finger smearing excrement on a piece of toilet paper in a New York City public bathroom.
     I guess some of the early carnage-covered action is the one part of A Good Day to Die Hard that isn't a detriment to the film. The truck chase near the beginning of the film must have cost millions of dollars in explosions and imploding vehicles, though it's not particularly innovative in any way. It's great if you enjoy watching cars flip into the air, glass shattering in every direction, and a shaky-cam directing style that's more likely to make you want to regurgitate your lunch than actually enjoy yourself. But it gets far worse the further into the film you go, specifically the second half. The reliance on CGI is disheartening. Instead of still being a relatable and human hero, John McClane has turned into a computer generated videogame star, hanging off the edge of spinning helicopters, falling dozens of stories through glass floors and debris, and having some sort of regeneration ability that allows him to walk off seemingly lethal injuries like nothing ever happened.
     Like Hans Gruber at the end of the first film, A Good Day to Die Hard falls from a great height, bringing the franchise down so fast and so hard that it seems like you can hear it's death rattle. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis has recently stated that a 6th film is potentially in the works (especially if A Good Day opens to huge weekend numbers). That's unfortunate. In the plethora of movie sequels that completely destroy the memory of the original film (the one that most recently comes to mind is last year's Taken 2 [not that Taken is on the same level as Die Hard]), this entry in the Die Hard ranks among the worst of the worst. It's a complete abomination that violates your cinematic love for a once-revered character and turns him into the latest indestructible killing machine who would be more at home on your Xbox than the nearest movie theater.     (D-)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Side Effects of Side Effects

     Director Steven Soderbergh has been around since 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape, but he's really hit his stride since the turn of the millennium, churning out a wide variety--full of low-budget quirkiness or big-budget bombast--of feature films in that 12-year time span. Last year, two things happened with his career: he released two really interesting movies (the martial-arts-focused Haywire and the capitalism-metaphor-filled Magic Mike) and announced his retirement (or a significant hiatus) from film directing. Side Effects, which was released this past week, would be his last film released into movie cinemas--he's also got an HBO film about Liberace titled Behind the Candelabra (starring Michael Douglas with Matt Damon as his gay lover) airing later this year. Though he doesn't leave the big screen with a giant explosion of a film, Side Effects is a solid Hitchcockian thriller that speaks bluntly about America's obsession with pharmaceuticals while throwing twists and turns that excite more than frustrate.
      Emily (Rooney Mara, whose bipolar mood swings in Side Effects show that her starring turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't just a fluke) is a young wife who is depressed and decides she needs to see a shrink after a momentary lapse of judgement leaves her in the hospital. Dr. Banks (Jude Law), takes an interest in Emily, either for her "wounded bird" personality or her interesting situation. Emily's husband (portrayed by a little-more-useless Channing Tatum, unlike in Magic Mike) has just been released from prison--for insider trading--and just wants Emily to get over her depression episodes and have things back the way they were when the couple was first married, madly in love. Emily, who has tried and changed dozens of anti anxiety/depression medications (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.), gets convinced by Dr. Banks to try Ablixa, the new and special thing on the pharmaceutical scene--he's getting paid $50,000 by the drug company to be part of the testing process.
     Speaking of anxiety, Side Effects is the type of film that causes just that, and it's mainly due to Soderbergh's excellent direction--full of claustrophobic closeups, his signature digital video shooting techniques, quick flashes of surprising (sometimes violent) outcomes, and eerie music, it's a film that almost warrants a Prozac popping just to not break out into a sweat. When Emily begins taking Ablixa, abnormal things begin to happen: intense sex, happiness, sleepwalking, and a singular violent act that propels the film into its sharp-turned final third that is typically intense. Did Dr. Banks know some of the terrible side effects of this new drug Ablixa? Are certain people in cahoots with the pharmaceutical company? How real are Emily's depressive states? All questions with (mostly) unpredictable answers.
   The performances are also noticeably solid in Side Effects: Rooney Mara displays some of the same cunning and mood swings that she showed when starring as Stieg Larsson's beloved heroine. And though Emily doesn't have the same penchant for violence when backed into a tight corner, she has a wily way that can turn any situation upside down. Jude Law, as Dr. Banks, stands out a bit more than normal, too. As Emily's psychiatrist, he has a naive sense of being carefree when it comes to prescribing any number of anxiety pills and medications that very well can make people's lives worse. Catherine Zeta-Jones also pops up as a colleague (or rival, depending on the situation) of Banks in the world of psychiatry, but her portrayal is underwhelming and a little cliche. She looks more apt to walk out of a cheap porn movie than a 2013 new release. But (again)Soderbergh's direction always drowns everything in claustrophobia and nail-biting foresight, allowing the viewer to always be present in Emily's struggle with depression and the depressing medication she has to take to survive daily life.
     This isn't some big statement on the condition or circumstances of our pill-filled world, specifically America--the country where every other person you meet is on some sort of pharmaceutical that supposedly makes their life better. But it does enough the raise a few questions about the ethics of prescribing medication with atrocious side effects and living life in a zombie-like haze for no real reason. Side Effects is really a pretty simple film: a tight thriller that is good winter entertainment. It's entertaining, and all you need is a mild suspension of disbelief and a free evening to witness Soderbergh's last entry on a long list of quality films.     (B+)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Netflix This: Safety Not Guaranteed

     This poster to the left is the hook that catches the viewer in Safety Not Guaranteed, a little film from last year that is heartfelt and touching and is about a man who claims he's building a time machine and the the reporters who try and get a story out of him. It's a tough movie to try and explain, and it's even harder to give reasons of why someone should watch it: it's part comedy, part sci-fi, part low-budget independent and always interesting. Jeff (Jake Johnson) is a writer for magazine who comes up with the idea for a story on this peculiar gentleman in a brainstorming session for interesting article ideas. For the short journey, he needs two interns to help him out along the way with background information. Darius (Aubrey Plaza in a starring role) is a lonesome and sarcastic young woman looking for a change and Arnau (Karan Soni) is a computer nerd who is completely unsuccessful with women.
     When we meet the so-called time traveler, named Kenneth, we find he's just a worker in a grocery store who seems nervous and has a concern that he's being followed by the government. Deciding that a female touch has a better chance of infiltrating Kenneth's (maybe insane) mind, Jeff sends Aubrey to learn more about the mysterious man. Kenneth is portrayed by Mark Duplass, who lately has been popping up in numerous indie quirky comedies that showcase his wit, sarcasm and strangeness (some viewers may also recognize him from FX's The League). He really shines in Safety Not Guaranteed as a man that you can't quite get a grasp on. Is he mentally ill? Does he just want to find his lost love? Or is he really a scientist with the ability to travel along the space-time continuum?
     Safety Not Guaranteed is better than typical low-budget eccentric indie comedies because the acting and script are top notch for this type of production. These are characters that seem real when they're speaking and getting into interesting situations--they're not just caricatures mass-produced by scriptwriters in a think tank fueled by too much coffee. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass really shine as two individuals who slowly get to know each other and figure out that the real reasons they both want to travel back in time are important and life-affirming. And the ending is something to think about for days.