Friday, March 28, 2014

Delivery Man

Looks like Vince Vaughn has decided to continue being in bad movies.  However, compared to The Internship, Delivery Man is a huge step up.

The concept is exceptionally ridiculous.  Vaughn plays David Wozniak.  David has a massive debt to a loan shark, a pregnant girlfriend, a crop of weed, and no ambition.  To complicate matters, it turns out that he's the biological father to over 500 kids.  How does this happen?  In his youth, David donated to a sperm bank.  Thing is, his sperm is of such high quality that it soon became the only sperm the bank gave out.  Now, a large contingent of his spawn are contesting his privacy contract with the sperm bank.  Curiosity gets the better of him and he begins covertly checking in on his "children." 

Not only is this plot ridiculous, but this is a remake.  It wasn't enough to make this junk once.  The biggest problem the film suffers from is that it is intensely unfunny.  Chris Pratt almost manages to turn his lines into chuckles, but even he can't help this script.  But the anti-laughs are soon replaced by light-hearted sentimentality.  This is where Delivery Man elevates itself above the horrific The Internship.  Whereas The Internship is basically a lazy, cynical advertisement, Delivery Man's sentimentality has at least a modicum of sincerity.  It just fails at being any good.  And I have more respect for a movie that tries and fails than a movie that aims for mediocrity (and still fails).

Delivery Man would've benefited from a removal of all but a few of the "sperm donor" kids.  If it would've been about 3 or 4 kids seeking him out, we could've really gotten to know them and spent some real time developing their relationships with David.  Instead, the characters all blend together. 

At the end of the day, it's a bad movie.  The concept asks too much of our suspension of disbelief.  Also, the kids are super creepy.  It is stated that they just want to know where half their chromosomes came from, but it immediately becomes clear that they all view David as their actual father.

Don't watch Delivery Man.  If the highest praise I can give it is that it's better than The Internship (and shorter too), you know it's terrible.  Drinking Windex is better than The Internship.

3.5 out of 10

The Wolf of Wall Street

In my mind, The Wolf of Wall Street completes a trilogy of films by Martin Scorsese centered around crime as a means to achieving the American Dream.  What started with the straightforward crime of Goodfellas and was continued in the world of gambling with Casino has now concluded in the world of white collar crime.

The Wolf of Wall Street is easily one of the best films of 2013 and is hands down its greatest comedy.  Scorsese films usually have moments of wicked humor, but he hasn't directed a full-on comedy since the mid-80s.  It's a delight to see that the man has not lost his touch. 

The story revolves around real-life criminal Jordan Belfort's rise and kinda fall.  He arrives in New York ready to make a career on Wall Street.  But in no time, he is taught how to make serious money via questionable methods.  Questionable soon becomes fully illegal which is how the big bucks are made. 

The Wolf of Wall Street also brings us Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance.  He is stellar.  DiCaprio covers so much emotional range and a whirwind of tonal shifts with what appears to be great ease.  It's as if he was born to play Jordan Belfort.  Jonah Hill also knocks it out of the park.  And when he and DiCaprio are on screen together, it's electric and hilarious.  Matthew McConaughey has a small but brilliant role.  He essentially mentors the idealistic Belfort in the real workings of selling stock.  His message is essentially that of Alec Baldwin in The Glengarry Glen Ross (watch this movie) albeit more paternal.  Once Belfort has reached the height of success, he regurgitates that message again but with the manic energy that comes from mountains of cocaine.  It's a film full to the brim with virtually flawless performances.

It's refreshing to see a return to form from Martin Scorsese.  His past several films have been mired in stylistic references to other films.  It's not as intrinsic to his style as Quentin Tarantino, and it's been more prevalent than his pre-Gangs of New York movies.  But whereas Tarantino draws from exploitation films of the 60s and 70s, Scorsese pulls from the canonical classics from the entire cinema history.  I'm sure that there are flourishes in The Wolf of Wall Street that callback classic films, but it's not so obvious this time.  The Wolf of Wall Street feels like fresh vision from a master of the craft.  This doesn't feel like the work of a man in his 70s.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a must-see film.  It's definitely not for the kids.  There's more drug consumption and nudity in it than I've seen in a film in a long while.  But don't let that get in the way of an incredible film that serves as the greatest cinematic condemnation of capitalism run amok in the last few decades.  I'll be revisiting this movie a lot.

9 out of 10

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

This movie is either too long or too short.  I'm leaning toward too long.  Making Mandela longer would require more skill than the folks making this possess.  The work here is good enough, but I would've thought that the story of Nelson Mandela deserved better than that.

The film starts with Mandela's childhood but breezes through that to bring us to Mandela as a young lawyer but breezes through that to bring us to Mandela as a young revolutionary but breezes through that to bring us to Mandela as a domestic terrorist but breezes through that to bring us to Mandela in prison.  Then the film settles into that time of his life.  Being that he was imprisoned for 27 years, his captivity is still breezed through but it takes longer to gloss over nearly three decades.  Then he's released.  The End.

That's what I mean by too long or too short.  The film gives the impression that it should be a two or three film showcase of the various stages of Nelson Mandela's life.  We should have a film showcasing the events that led to his imprisonment, we should have a prison film, and we should have a film of his presidency.  Instead, we have a film that tries to cram it all in to 2 ½ hours.  And the result of this CliffsNotes version of his life is that there isn't enough time to linger on moments of great drama or emotion. 

Despite strong performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, Mandela feels extremely hollow and it's all too often somewhat dull.  The film is a huge missed opportunity.  It fails mightily to show us the importance of Nelson Mandela and his life.  And because of this film, it will be a very long time before anyone makes another attempt at this material.  Unless you feel a really strong desire to see this movie, I'd say pass on it.  You can read the Nelson Mandela Wikipedia page in less time and learn much more.

5 out of 10

Saving Mr. Banks

This movie is barely based on a true story.  The people really existed and Disney did make a film entitled Mary Poppins, but the reality ends there.  I'll leave any truth-seeking up to the curious reader.  While I feel that the real story is more interesting, it wouldn't make for a very good movie.  Saving Mr. Banks is revisionist history at its best.  The film throws history and facts out the window and replaces them with emotion and narrative arcs.  The result is a wonderful, if sappy, look at the making of Mary Poppins.

In this film, P. L. Travers (author of the Mary Poppins books) is forced by impending financial trouble to sell the rights to her character to Walt Disney.  However, she makes the stipulation that she have final say over the script.  Travers flies to Los Angeles and begins causing problems for Disney and his creative staff.  Travers eventually faces her traumatic past and learns to live again.  Mary Poppins turns out to be a pretty good movie.

Tom Hanks is great as Walt Disney.  He nails the rhythm of Disney's speech without ever entering the realm of imitation.  Thing is that Hanks isn't in much of the movie.  Emma Thompson kills it.  She makes her character's growth feel very natural.  Considering that scenes in films are almost never shot in order, it's pretty incredible that she could make the incremental chipping away of her rough exterior appear so seamless.  Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak as the Sherman Brothers and Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi steal every scene they're in.  Their gleeful attempts to showcase the work they've put into Mary Poppins only to be shot down by Travers make for some of the best moments of the film.  Paul Giamatti also makes the most out of a small role.  He's so good that it feels like he's a larger part of the film than he actually is.

Saving Mr. Banks isn't a stellar film.  It's competently filmed at best.  It does feature some really nice crosscutting during Travers' flashbacks.  What makes the film stand out are the wonderful performances and a really strong script.  Director John Lee Hancock was a wise choice to helm this film.  His movies are glossy and clean looking and he seems to gravitate toward sappy "true story" films such as The Alamo, The Blind Side, and The Rookie.  But finally he has a script and actors that elevate his film from merely watchable to truly good.

The music is also worth mentioning.  It's really great.  So good that Thomas Newman was nominated for an Academy Award this year for it.  It's eerily reminiscent of his score for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (also Oscar nominated) but that's not at all a bad thing.  At the very least, Saving Mr. Banks is a nice movie to listen to.

I say that you should totally check this movie out.  Maybe make it a double feature with the excellent documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story which will give you a huge appreciation for those characters.  You know what?  Make it a triple feature, because you're really going to want to watch Mary Poppins after that.

7.5 out of 10

American Hustle

American Hustle is a fairly good, sorta fun movie, but how did it ever get nominated for Best Picture?  It's a jumble of great actors with funny hair having a blast delivering inconsistent performances while the scenery they haven't chewed up looks nice.  It reminds me very much of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven remake (which garnered no Oscar nominations), except less fun.  But maybe that's the brilliance of American Hustle.  Maybe this movie about con men is, itself, a con.  It's all smoke and mirrors to fool you into thinking it's a great movie. 

The story is loosely based on real events.  A con man and his partner/mistress are put in a position where they must help the FBI or go to prison.  The plan to use con men to take down the mob soon involves taking down politicians.  The higher stakes of the plan are further complicated by a budding friendship with one of the marks, an FBI agent's infatuation, and an unstable, jealous wife.

A lot of hubbub has been made about the performances, which comprise four out of American Hustle's ten nominations.  With the exception of Amy Adams and Louis C.K. (and maybe Jeremy Renner), the acting is not very good.  The style of the film is heavily improvisational.  This works only when using actors skilled in improv.  Only Louis C.K. possesses this skill.  Adams and Renner just indulge in very little improvisation and come off the better for it.  Actors may be talented people but they need direction in order to deliver the best possible performance.  These actors are not being directed (so can we call bullshit on David O. Russell's nomination too?) leaving us with a film full of inconsistent/borderline-schizophrenic performances of which Bradley Cooper is the worst offender. (And if a movie is heavily improvised, can it really be nominated for Best Original Screenplay?)

The focus on manic, improv-ed performances ends up overshadowing the plot.  Con artistry (is that a term?) is inherently complicated.  The story requires delicate handling in order to juggle the information that is to be revealed and that which is to be obfuscated.  American Hustle's plot is a muddy mess of information.  The filmmakers couldn't care less about the actual events that propel the characters from one scene to the next.  Therefore, the film ends up just feeling like a collage of scenes.

I did like the return of some of David O. Russell's flashy camerawork.  It was missing from his last couple films.  And I really like Russell's work.  His film pre-The Fighter are incredible.  The Fighter is a fairly good, safe, and ultimately forgettable drama.  The Silver Linings Playbook is a fun romantic comedy masquerading as high art.  American Hustle is a hot mess.  But it's a sorta fun mess.

The movie fully deserved its complete shutout at the Academy Awards this year.  Watch it now, because it'll be gone from public consciousness within a few months.  American Hustle will be the movie you half-watch on a Saturday afternoon on TNT while you iron clothes or do dishes.

6 out of 10


Have you not already seen this movie?  It made over a billion dollars.  Everyone has seen it.  Everyone has made a terrible YouTube video involving some song from the soundtrack.  Get with it!  In all seriousness, Frozen is actually a brilliant film. 

One of the greatest missteps that Disney ever took was doing away with traditional cel animation in favor of computer animated films.  The company looked at the success of Pixar and came to the conclusion that people loved those movies because they were made on computers.  Audiences weren't responding to the incredible stories, profound themes, or lovable characters.  No, they only liked computer animation.  This mentality would fuel some of Disney's worst films.  The company looked at the lackluster response to their Treasure Planet or Brother Bear or Home on the Range and, instead of seeing how awful the storytelling was, they saw an outmoded form of animation.  So, Disney scrapped their animation department and installed a corps of computer technicians.  This immediately lead to a new golden age of animated films from Disney, including such classics as Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little, and Bolt.  Oh, wait.  Those are garbage.  When people complained about the lack of quality and the loss of traditional hand-drawn animation, Disney responded by making The Princess and the Frog.  They animated the hell out of it.  It looks incredible.  Trouble is that they never bothered to make it a good or interesting story.  It's relative failure was the final justification that Disney needed to declare cel animation dead.

What's the point of all this?  Well, Disney came to the conclusion that since people didn't like their computer movies either, it must be the Pixar brand that people liked.  So they bought Pixar.  Once this happened, the Disney animation department suddenly had access to Pixar's "brain trust," a pool of writers and storytellers who are responsible for assembling Pixar's stories.  Disney took another shot at animation.  The result was Tangled, a movie that remains wonderful despite mostly forgettable songs.  Then came Wreck-It Ralph, a movie so funny and likable and emotional that it feels like classic Pixar.  With a couple solid warm-ups under their belt, Disney took the princess-centric storyline and look of Tangled, added the flawless storytelling of Wreck-It Ralph, and (as if to show off) hired some great songwriters.  What followed is the best Disney film in at least 15 years (but I'd say 20 years).

Frozen is the story of a non-specifically Scandinavian princess, Anna, who lives in a far off, non-specifically Scandinavian country.  Her older sister, Elsa, has the power to control cold or ice or something (it's also pretty non-specific).  Out of fear, her parents hold the sisters up in the castle.  Upon the death of the parents, Elsa becomes queen.  During her coronation, Elsa's powers get out of control and she flees into the mountains leaving her kingdom shrouded in ice.  Anna joins up with an ice vendor, a reindeer, and a living snowman to find Elsa and convince her to thaw out the kingdom.

It's been a long time since I really loved Disney princesses and Frozen introduces two phenomenal ones (well, one becomes queen).  Any concern that studios have that boys won't watch movies with girls as the heroes goes right out the window.  Anna and Elsa are incredible characters and viewers, regardless of gender, can connect with them.  Disney princesses are iconic (except Tiana) and lovable.  They are written specifically to carry an entire film.  They have to be so wonderful that all the awesome side characters will do anything to help them.  This is why Disney princesses are a multi-billion dollar industry.  When was the last time you saw merchandise for Mowgli or Arthur or Robin Hood or Basil of Baker Street?  Those are awesome male heroes for awesome Disney movies.  But they don't connect the way that the fairy tales do.  Frozen is a new classic fairy tale.

This is a nearly flawless example of children's entertainment.  As annoying as I find the intense obsession that people seem to have for this movie, it's all completely justified.  Frozen is a movie that we'll all be watching for decades.  It'll go up on the shelf next to Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (the best Disney animated film).  Kids will grow up with the adventures of Anna and Elsa.  It's really exciting to see a film like that.

9 out of 10

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Jason Statham is an incredibly watchable actor.  He makes even his worst films worth at least one viewing.  He's comparable to Charles Bronson.  Bronson was an actor whose films were usually pretty hokey with a few classics mixed in.  He also only played one character: Charles Bronson.  This is exactly the same formula that Statham employs.  And just like Bronson, Statham's very presence in a film is enough for his fans to check it out.  So when I watch Jason Statham films, I rank them only in comparison to other Jason Statham films.  So on a scale from In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale to Crank, where does Homefront come in?  Just below The Mechanic.

Is that clear?  No?  Ok.  Then let's discuss this in the context of movies in general.  When viewed that way, it's just alright.

Homefront is the story of  former undercover agent (DEA I think, but his papers say Interpol) Phil Broker, who is part of a drug bust that results in the death of the drug lord's son.  He leaves the force and settles down to a quiet life in Louisiana with his daughter.  His daughter, who is struggling with the death of her mother, gets in a fight with a boy at school who bullies her.  Because her dad has taught her how to fight, she beats the hell out of the bully.  The boy's mother vows vengeance for the wrong done to her family.  She asks her brother Gator, a local meth dealer, to take care of it.  Gator calls in the biker cronies of the man whose son's death he holds against Broker.  Needless to say, the bad guys get totally Statham-ed.

Despite several fun action scenes, Homefront is mostly pretty dull.  Statham is effortlessly cool, but the even he can't carry the whole movie.  Winona Ryder and Kate Bosworth aren't given much to do (Bosworth really tries though).  Izabela Vidovic manages to not be a obnoxious child despite being in the film just to provide stakes to the final showdown.

The oddest casting choice, however, is that of James Franco as Gator.  The villain of a Jason Statham film needs to pose a real threat.  It can even be an intellectual threat (Jason Statham characters are always super clever and endlessly resourceful).  Franco's Gator is neither physically or mentally a challenge for Statham.  Most of my desire to see Homefront was fueled by my curiosity to see how a Statham/Franco showdown would go down.  SPOILERS!!  Gator kidnaps Broker's daughter and Broker catches him and beats easily beats him almost to death.

During the opening credits are the words "Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone."  That's right, Academy Award nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone!  I knew that I was going to be sitting through a few good action scenes and a lot of dramatic shorthand.  Instead of developing the lead character, he is just given a dead wife and a kid.  There's plenty of weird sappy nonsense in the movie too that is a trademark of Stallone scripts.  Homefront feels like a movie that Stallone wrote for himself, but he's now too old to believably be raising a 10 year old.

Unless you're one a die-hard Statham-ite like I am, I wouldn't  If you are a fan, check it out.  It's got enough fights and Statham charm to make it worth your while.  It'll at least hold you over until The Expendables 3 this summer.

P.S. Charles Bronson is way more awesome than Jason Statham.  For proof, click here.

5.5 out of 10