Sunday, March 30, 2014

Movie Review: "Noah"

You know the story, you know how it goes, but what you really want to know is whether or not director Darren Aronofsky's big screen adaptation of Noah is any good.  Well, if it were a piece of mythological fiction, it might find some audience, but as a far from theologically sound depiction of what actually happened, Noah just doesn't quite cut it.

There were many intriguing ideas on display here, such as the look and feel of the pre-flood Earth, driving home that this is not Cecil B. Demille's vision of the Old Testament, but the film quickly comes unraveled in a lot of made up hokum.  Here's the thing, the original text is relatively short, and there is a fair amount of guesswork that Aronofsky and his crew had to do in order to realize this story, but when they start changing and adding in things that were not in the text merely to suit their artistic needs, that's when I have a problem.

Sure, the six-armed stone giants might have been cool looking, but were they necessary, or theologically accurate?  Similarly, the idea that Noah interprets God's vision to think that all of mankind's blood line should end, therefore he refuses his sons to take wives, save for one, thinking his daughter-in-law is barren, contradicts everything you read in the original Noah story.  Every few lines in the bible it says that Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons' wives, all boarded the ark because God saw Noah as righteous, therefore him and his bloodline, his family, found favor.  They were to be fruitful and multiply.

Bottom line, is that there is still a great film about Noah and his ark out there waiting to be made, but this is not it.  While the acting is good, and the cinematography and special effects are stunning, especially all of the time lapse photography utilized to show the creation of the Earth, the film just took too many liberties and fails to be respectful to those who believe in this story.  As a well made, visually stunning film, I can appreciate the craft on display here as a fellow filmmaker, but only that.

I give Noah a D+!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"The Avengers: Age of Ultron" Gets a Composer

Brian Tyler with Robert Downey, Jr.
It's safe to call next year's Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated films currently in production.  Fans want to know what's going to happen and who's going to be in it.  Yesterday we got some new news regarding the project, and while this news did nothing to drop any hints as to characters and storylines, it's news worth reporting for an entirely different reason.  Composer Brian Tyler, who wrote the music for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, is returning to score The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Personally, I think that this is a big deal and one that all fans should be celebrating out there.  If there's one thing the Marvel Studios films have been lacking is a central, musical identity, and by having Tyler return to do the score, it creates the possibility for them to carve one out.  Tyler's themes he has written for both Iron Man and Thor are fairly catchy and memorable, and I for one would love to see him bring these themes back and weave them in with the existing theme for The Avengers that composer Alan Silvestri wrote for the first film.  Tyler already used a snippet of Silvestri's Captain America: The First Avenger theme in The Dark World, when Loki impersonated Cap, so he is clearly a fan of that theme as well.  Might he bring that one back too?  I can only hope, but Tyler's usage of Silvestri's Cap theme shows that he is not opposed to using themes written by other composers if they work well within the context of the film, and so I am hoping that that's the approach he'll take with Age of Ultron.

Maybe this all makes me seem a bit nitpicky, but music is highly important in regards to films, and it is often the most neglected aspect of these major franchises in terms of consistency.  These films usually have such a quick turnaround from one to the other, the same composers are often already booked on other jobs when the sequel is announced.  The problem that arises is when a new composer comes onboard, they usually just discard what came before and create their own thing.  This has been what's happened with almost all of the Marvel films so far.  It was the one weak link to The Avengers, granted until Brian Tyler there really wasn't a memorable theme written for Iron Man, so I don't fault the first Avengers.  The great thing is, with Brian Tyler, Marvel finally has a chance to break this cycle, and I think that's why he was hired.

Marvel clearly likes Brian Tyler's musical stylings, using him to score a few of their Marvel One-Shots, the fanfare that plays underneath their shiny new Marvel Studios logo, as well as the two aforementioned films he's already scored.  Tyler is becoming their go-to guy, and I think they really needed one, because as I was saying above, consistency is crucial when doing an interconnected franchise like this.  When we see a sequel, we want it to look and feel like the first one, because we already liked it, so why change it.  The thing is, we also subconsciously want it to sound just like the first one too, we just may not know it until we hear it.

Nothing is more comforting for a film fan than when you turn on any Star Wars film and hear John Williams' theme.  A great theme is crucial to creating an identity for a character or a particular story.  I mean, there's a reason why most TV shows still have some semblance of a theme song, because it lets you know that your show is coming on.  The same thing applies to films.  If Tyler utilizes his pre-existing themes in Age of Ultron, we'll know when Iron Man is about to come onscreen, because he will have been announced musically.  It's sort of like how when you hear the Imperial March, you expect to see Darth Vader coming toward you.  Without that march, not only is Darth Vader less menacing, it could be any old bad guy that's about to come around that corner, until we realize, "Oh, it's Darth Vader," and by that point any and all suspense that could have been created in that moment are gone.

Truthfully, I think Marvel is taking a huge step in the right direction with Brian Tyler.  Not only are his scores actually pleasing to listen to, they work in the context of Marvel and can finally give the Marvel Cinematic Universe a musical identity that connects the films, not just visually, but aurally as well.  Here's hoping Tyler succeeds at assembling the Avengers musically for the first time ever.  For a little taste of Tyler's abilities, listen to the themes he wrote for Iron Man and Thor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Movie Review: "Muppets Most Wanted"

Muppets Most Wanted is essentially a direct sequel to 2011's The Muppets, with this one literally picking up where the last left off.  While I am exceptionally glad to find the Muppets back on movie screens, both Most Wanted, and even their last outing in 2011, seemed to be missing that spark that made me fall in love with the Muppets to begin with.  Perhaps it's the absence of any Henson actively involved in the making-of process, or perhaps it's the fact that these past two Muppet films have been the first bigscreen features without the original voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie, Frank Oz.  I don't really know what it is, but Muppets Most Wanted never quite manages to reach the Muppets' previous highs.  Don't get me wrong, Muppets Most Wanted is a fun and entertaining movie for the most part, it just seems like it is trying too hard to be a Muppet movie, rather than letting it flow naturally.

In Most Wanted, we find Kermit and the gang embarking on a world tour with their shady new manager, Dominic Badguy (played by Ricky Gervais).  Badguy's not so subtle name is a perfect clue as to what happens next, when the world's most dangerous frog, Constantine, breaks out of prison and switches places with Kermit.  Badguy and Constantine embark on a massive jewel heist using the Muppet's world tour as the perfect cover, and Kermit, trapped in a Russian prison, must find a means of escape if he's to save the day.

There are definitely shades of The Great Muppet Caper here and there, but it feels more like an imitator of that classic Muppet adventure, rather than an entirely new entry in the Muppet canon.  Here's the thing with Muppets Most Wanted, the representations of the characters are spot on for the most part, and many of the jokes are quite funny, in particular Dominic and Constantine constantly going back-and-forth about Dominic being number 2 to Constantine's number 1, but it just feels like the filmmakers are still trying to justify why they were chosen to make Muppet movies in the first place.  It's almost as if the filmmakers had a checklist of all the things they felt needed to be in a Muppet movie (song-and-dance numbers, celebrity cameos, etc.) and just threw the whole kitchen sink in.

There's never a real clear focus to the film, with it often feeling a touch haphazard in how it jumps from joke to joke, with not every gag landing with a laugh.  Then there's the abruptness that the songs often start with, with very little build up to where it actually feels like a song was warranted at that moment in the film.  And then there's the celebrity cameos, which are just getting too much.  When they did them in the original Muppet movies, they were usually done very sparingly, and the cameos were of such a high level of celebrity, that when you saw them, everyone immediately knew who they were.  I love that Danny Trejo finally got into a Muppet movie, but how many people will really recognize James McAvoy or Stanley Tucci when they pop up?  A far cry from the days when Bob Hope and Orson Welles had Muppet cameos.  Of course, I really don't want this to sound like I hated Muppets Most Wanted, I just think disappointment is more of my feeling.

Muppets Most Wanted is an okay movie, it's just not a good Muppet movie.  When the bar has been set so high, it's hard to reach it.  Really, the film suffers from the same problem that most modern comedies suffer from, a sense of ADD and a barrage of jokes that are not all that witty.  When the Muppets revert to a few bathroom jokes in this film, all I could do was groan inside.  However, this does make it all the more refreshing when a few witty jokes actually crop up.  I laughed my head off when Fozzie impersonated a bear skin rug, as well as when they referenced The Seventh Seal and Silence of the Lambs.  It's in these areas of cleverness that Muppets Most Wanted is the most fun and feels like the Muppets of old, I just wish they'd give Rizzo the Rat more than one measly line of dialogue.  What's up Disney?  Your mascot's a mouse, but you can't give a rat some love?

I give Muppets Most Wanted a C!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Reactions to the 2014 Oscars

So there you have it, last night's Oscar telecast is now in the books.  So what were my personal thoughts on the night?  It was an enjoyable show that was classy, but is fairly unmemorable in the bigger picture of Oscar telecast history.

Ellen Degeneres was a fine host, who was funny and unconfrontational in her humor.  While some Oscar pundits felt that Degeneres was a safe host, in all honesty, the gig of hosting the Oscars is one of the most thankless jobs in entertainment.  If you're nice, like Degeneres, then you're too safe, if you're too mean, then they don't like you either.  There is no way to satisfy every critic out there who holds the classic hosts like Bob Hope up on a pedestal, but I can't help but think that if Bob Hope hosted a modern Oscar ceremony, he'd get hammered by the cynical media the same as any other modern Oscar host.

While Ellen seemed a little nervous during her monologue at the start of the show, she really came alive when she started going out and interacting with the audience.  The whole pizza and Twitter crashing madness were hilarious.  While some pundits felt that was all boring and drew attention away from the show, the bottom line is that it was funny, entertaining, and took the nerves out of the room, which is what a good host is supposed to do.  She played the room very well and managed to get many of the bigger stars in the room to play along.  When you see the usually taciturn Harrison Ford grabbing for pizza, or Brad Pitt handing out paper plates, you realize that Ellen did her job well.

As for the production of the show itself, it was the standard award formula with no real creativity to how it played out, but when it's an award show, you can't really fault them for doing that.  Hey, not everything can be like that fantastic 2009 ceremony hosted by Hugh Jackman, which was one of the best produced stage shows I'd ever seen on television.  The only two things that I really felt the Oscarcast producers let fall through the cracks were their supposed theme of movie heroes and their tribute to The Wizard of Oz.

Both of those things felt like an afterthought and felt sloppy in their execution, with nothing that really highlighted why they were important to this particular Oscar ceremony.  Had they tied each nominee into the theme of movie heroes, then perhaps it might have worked, but instead we just had video montages that were too heavy on modern movie heroes of the past five or so years and not enough of the classics (no Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith).  Plus, they left out Christopher Reeve as Superman in their montage featuring superheroes.  That's like a cardinal sin right there.

Then, The Wizard of Oz tribute was, once again, an uncreative tribute that really begged the question as to why it was important to this year of movies.  The Wizard of Oz is one of the most classic films of all-time, and it does deserved to be remembered, but if you're going to single out one movie's anniversary, then you need to pay tribute to all the other 75 year anniversaries (Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, just to name a few).

Personally, rather than celebrating a classic film's anniversary, I would have much rather the producers done what was done a few years ago where they simply honored every movie released over the past year via montages broken down by genre.  While that's still not the most creative idea, it at least keeps the focus of the show on the point of it, to honor the past year in film, and what better way to honor it than to give time to every movie that got a nomination, and to everyone that didn't as well.

On the award front, everything went exactly as planned with no surprises whatsoever.  I went 22 for 24 in my predictions, missing only Best Film Editing and Best Short Film (Animated).  While I still wish Gravity had won Best Picture, it did win 7 out of 10 Oscars, including director Alfonso Cuaron finally nabbing the Best Director Oscar, which I was over the moon about.  While I love having my best prediction total I've ever had, I do wish the Academy had thrown in a few surprises and upsets, alas, there was none of that.  I mean, would it have been too hard to ask for The Wind Rises to win Best Animated Feature instead of Frozen?  But that's just me.

So another Oscar season has come and gone, and with that is the promise of a whole new Oscar season.  Looking forward to next year, what I really want to see most of all is just more surprises.  Come on, Academy, be more creative in your voting.  While I would love to see a more creative stage show next year, if there are at least two or three major surprise winners, I think that would make the whole night sensational.

As for host, I'd personally let Ellen do anything she wanted, but I doubt she'd agree to back-to-back years, and I don't know if most Oscar pundits would like that either.  Personally, I've become such a big fan of Jimmy Fallon, first on Late Night and now on the Tonight Show, I'd ask him to host.  He'd be funny, classy, and would play the room well.  His fellow celebrities like him, he's nice and not mean, and he can also do a variety of skits, songs, and even a few dances.  He'd be perfect, but that's assuming he'd want to do it.  You really must have a thick skin if you're to host the Oscars, because no matter what you do, there are going to be people who hate it, but maybe Jimmy would be up to the challenge.  If not Fallon, perhaps Kimmel.  Jimmy Kimmel might grate a few people with his all is fair in love and comedy style of humor, but he'd be another good option.

Of course, I have talked long enough, and so I'll wrap up today by doing my first set of predictions for the 2015 Oscars!  I know, a year out from the show and I'm going to try and predict who will get nominated for Best Picture?  That's real dumb, but it's all in good fun.  A fair few of the movies I'll mention will wind up not being as good as they look on paper when finally released, and a few might not even get released this year, given the usual delays you sometimes run into while making a film, but perhaps at least one of these films I mention will be next year's big Oscar victor.

In my mind, the film to beat, from this far out, is Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort, Unbroken, detailing the inspiring true story of Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini, who was a POW detained by the Japanese in World War II.  The first trailer that premiered during the Sochi Olympics was stunning, featuring superb cinematography and some surprisingly intriguing shot choices by Jolie.  Could Jolie be the Best Director of next year, or could this just be another movie that looks great from far out and fails to deliver?  Both of those options are plausible, but as of right now, this is the movie to beat.

Following that, there's director Ridley Scott returning to the sword and sandals world with Exodus, starring Christian Bale as Moses in a more action-oriented take on the Ten Commandment story.  While I still think white people playing Egyptians is weird, the more Gladiator-like approach that Scott is taking with the material is something that's different than the usual bible movie.  Will it be too violent for most expecting another Cecil B. Demille styled biblical epic?  We'll see, but this December release is another to watch when it comes to Oscar.

Other big contenders from this far off are the Olympic wrestler murder tale, Foxcatcher, starring an almost unrecognizable Steve Carrell, as well as David Fincher's adaptation of the best selling novel, Gone Girl.  Plus, you'd have to be stupid and bet against director Christopher Nolan with his new big budget film, Interstellar, detailing a group of astronauts who travel into the far reaches of space via wormholes.  Could it be another 2001?  Knowing Nolan, it'll at least be an entertaining thrill ride and might get him his first ever Best Director nomination.

Rounding out the field are countless other candidates that all have potential Oscar aspirations.  Never discount Wes Anderson's Oscar chances after Moonrise Kingdom, so perhaps The Grand Budapest Hotel can ride the nearly year long journey to a nomination?  As well, there are two Broadway musicals being brought to the screen this upcoming year with Into the Woods and Jersey Boys.  Into the Woods is directed by the guy who did Chicago and stars Meryl Streep.  Whether it will be another Nine, time will tell.  As for Jersey Boys, it's a nice change of pace for director Clint Eastwood.  We'll see if this musical biography about the Four Seasons will bear any Oscar fruit for Eastwood.  Then there's the Nicole Kidman starrer, Grace of Monaco, where Kidman portrays Grace Kelly.  Will the Academy fall victim to the biopic yet again?  I don't think so, but it's definitely in play until said otherwise.

As for a few wildcard picks, keep an eye on Rosewater, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show's directorial debut, where he tells the story of a journalist detained in an Iranian prison and tortured for 100 days.  As well, there's The Judge, where Robert Downey, Jr., plays a lawyer who returns to his hometown to attend his mother's funeral to learn that his father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder.  Then there's Boyhood, the Indie favorite on the circuit, having already premiered at Sundance.  The story tells the tale of the same boy from the age of 5 all the way to 18.  Shot over the course of thirteen years, watching the cast literally grow up in front of the camera, this very well might be director Richard Linklater's best chance ever at an Oscar.  And for a final wildcard pick, keep your eyes on The Fault in Our Stars, the adaptation of the popular Young Adult novel by John Green.  The story of two teens with cancer who meet in a cancer support group is surprisingly funny and emotional, and is one that may very well play to both the young and old's heartstrings.

So that's that.  Here are my first predictions for 10 films that I think might be nominated for next year's Best Picture:

Gone Girl
Into the Woods
Jersey Boys
The Grand Budapest Hotel

I'll leave you all with the current Best Picture frontrunner's trailer, Unbroken.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Predicting the 2014 Oscars

I am not going to lie and say I don't look forward to this night for the whole year, because I seriously do.  Come Monday I'm going to already be thinking about next year's Oscar ceremony.  What can I say?  Once my team wins the Super Bowl, all I can think about is next season.  However, we are currently still in the thick of this Oscar season, which is why it's time for me to present my final Oscar predictions going into Sunday night's show.

This has been a great Oscar season.  What has made this Oscar season so great is that there is the possibility of upsets, which we haven't really had in a few years.  While I personally think that 12 Years a Slave will manage to find its name called out when Best Picture is announced, that still doesn't mean that there isn't a good chance it might be Gravity, or even American Hustle.  Personally, while I'm going to play it safe with my Best Picture prediction, I'm going to be pulling with all my might for the Gravity upset.  The point I'm making here is that while I have been following this Oscar season, nothing has ever been truly set in stone.

When it looked like American Hustle might be running away with it after winning the SAG Award, the Comedy Golden Globe, and tying Gravity for the most Oscar nominations, it only took a little less than a week for that to change.  Once 12 Years a Slave started to rack up the Critics' Choice, the Drama Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Producers Guild Award, it almost seemed as if everything was going their way, but not so fast.  When 12 Years a Slave won the Producers Guild Award, they were in for the biggest shock in the guild's history, it was a tie, where Gravity also won the award.  Along with the Directors Guild Award, and almost every Best Director honor given over this award season, Gravity was beginning to show some major muscle that could net it Best Picture at the Oscars.

Now, as we sit here getting ready for the show, while the safe money is on a 12 Years victory because it has won the most Best Picture or Best Film honors at other award shows, it does not mean an upset is not possible.  That Producers Guild tie is especially intriguing, considering the fact that the PGA and the Oscar Best Picture have lined up more times than they haven't.  Of course, all of this is a moot point if everything goes as most Oscar pundits have had it written for the past week or so now.  I for one really wont deviate much from their thinking, because as I said earlier, while I am going to be pulling for my own personal favorite film, I have to be realistic.

I've known in my gut since last October, when 12 Years a Slave released to so much critical fanfare, that it was more than likely going to win the Best Picture Oscar purely because of its subject matter.  I don't mean that as a slight on the film, I just have seen enough Oscar ceremonies to know the type of films the Academy are most prone to award, and a historical drama about a challenging time in history almost always wins when it's in play.  There's a reason it's called Oscar bait, and while the Indie-produced 12 Years a Slave is a far cry from the typical Oscar bait, it still played like crazy to the Academy.

However, enough of my jabbering and on to more predictions.  What you'll find below is my winner predictions in all 24 categories, and hop on over to this link for a full list of nominees.

Best Short Film (Animated) - Get a Horse!

Best Short Film (Live Action) - Helium

Best Documentary Short - The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Documentary Feature - 20 Feet From Stardom

Best Foreign Language Film - The Great Beauty

Best Animated Feature - Frozen

Best Sound Editing - Gravity

Best Sound Mixing - Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling - Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design - The Great Gatsby

Best Production Design - The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing - Captain Phillips

Best Visual Effects - Gravity

Best Cinematography - Gravity

Best Music (Original Score) - Gravity

Best Music (Original Song) - "Let It Go" from Frozen

Best Original Screenplay - Her

Best Adapted Screenplay - 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress - Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor - Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Director - Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Picture - 12 Years a Slave

So if you're going by my predictions, I am predicting Gravity to win the most Oscars with 6 wins out of its 10 nominations, but I predict it to lose Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, which I predict to win 3 out of the 9 Oscars it is nominated for.  Interestingly enough, I predict that American Hustle will be shut out and not win a single Oscar.  I just think there is stronger work in all of the categories that American Hustle is nominated for that overshadows it.  Whether or not my going out on a limb for Captain Phillips in Editing will pan out, we'll see, but as far as the major acting awards, Director, and Picture, don't expect any surprises.  That's my personal take as to how everything is just shaping up.  Nothing is gonna stop Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, or Jared Leto, at this point.  The only actor who might get upset is Nyong'o, but I still think she'll win it hands down.  We'll know for sure come Sunday night.