Friday, January 2, 2015

I Saw This!! The "I've Been Busy With Other Stuff" Edition

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they? 

In this edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers: 

Snowpiercer - 2013, d. Bong Joon-ho - in theatre
A Most Wanted Man - 2014, d. Anton Corbijn - in theatre
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues - 2013, d. Adam McKay - netflix
Gone Girl - 2014, d. David Fincher - in theatre
The Way Way Back - 2013, d. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash - netflix
50/50 - 2011, d. Jonathan Levine - DVD
Penguins of Madagascar - 2014, d. Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith - in theatre

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ok here we go
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Snowpiercer was a very hotly anticipated feature here at camp Disagree.  David had been monitoring and keeping me appraised of all the ins and outs of the Weinsteins' mishandling of the feature after they acquired the domestic distribution rights.  The film was a smash hit in Korea (where the director hails from) and France (where the source graphic novel was created) and many other places around the world, but the Weinsteins thought that this film wouldn't be palatable to the American market as is and spent a lot of time and money tinkering futilely with its edit.  They were right, though, this is not a film for the general American audience's tastes. But at the same time director Bong Joon-ho's vision is so distinctly his own that you can't successfully tinker with it...there's no American mass-appeal to be found here.

The plot plays out sort of like a video game, as our protagonist (Chris Evans) leads a band of tail-dwellers on a mission to get to the front of the train and take control.  Each step forward reveals a different environment and a different battle.  One is a locked room, another an exposition step, another a brutal melee with axe-wielding guards, and yet another in a classroom.  Everyone on the train is a survivor of an unclear apocalypse which has thrust the Earth into an uninhabitable ice age.  The train, Snowpiercer, contains what remains of humanity, but in spite of the communal struggle for humanity to survive, the class system still exists.  The rich live further up the train, with more space, better food, a comfortable life, while the tail-enders live in cramped quarters, eating rationed black gelatin bricks, and are at the mercy of the front-end establishment.

What makes Snowpiercer so unpalatable to the common North American audience is its tone.  It's an absurd premise which the film takes seriously enough to present its class-struggle allegory, but at the same time the film is all too aware of its ridiculousness and it plays into it with extreme absurdity. Primely, Tilda Swinton represents the voice of the establishment, a wildly cartoonish, buck-toothed, coke-bottle glasses-wearing, Yorkshire-accented matron who proclaims to have the people's best interests at heart in the exact same sneering tone as when she's punishing them (for their own good).  She's a delightfully evil beast.  Meanwhile, the reveal of what exactly that black gelatin brick is made from is comically horrifying, as is Evan's big end monologue revealing his horrifying history (I had to decide whether this speech missed the mark dramatically or was intended to produce awkward chuckles.  I settled on the latter).  The big fight, taking place in the middle of both the film and the train is a brutal marvel, complete with it's unexpected pause in the film's most brilliant moment.

All that said, I was obviously quite impressed with Snowpiercer -- it's an incredibly well made, often visually stunning movie -- but I wanted to love it more.  The anticipation I had leading into the film wasn't met with disappointment, but at the same time I don't think I was ready for what I got.  I had read the graphic novel prior to its release, and it's a rare film that improves upon its source (Le Transperceneige is equally a class allegory, but its journey from the back to the front is a lot less adventuresome, and the characters of the book have no real personality are are only really there as a givers or receivers of exposition...still an interesting book but not as engaging as the film.) but I certainly wasn't prepared for the tonal juxtapositions and the more extreme elements of it.  I think I need to see it again.

(David's Take)

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I find Cold War era espionage romantic and fantastical, while modern-day espionage is frightening. The modern spy war is more of a one sided effort, with intelligence agencies looking to root out not other spies, but potential terrorists who have infiltrated general society with intent to kill and disrupt everyday life.  This leads to uncomfortable extremes, losses of civil liberties, invasion of privacy, and perpetual surveillance, and that's just for the people who aren't suspected terrorists.

The recent adaptation of John LeCarre's Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy was a brilliant bit of Cold War espionage storytelling.  I went into this adaptation of his novel A Most Wanted Man hoping for more of the same, only slightly disappointed to find it set in the modern day, but otherwise intrigued by the similar themes of political in-fighting that get in the way of agencies effectively doing their jobs, and the turns and double turns of supposed allies that wind up wearing away at the soul of people trying to do the right thing.

Philip Seymore Hoffman, in one of his final roles, surprisingly adopts an accent for the role of German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann.  He's witnessing the degradation of his department as American intelligence has more and more influence on his ability to do his job, and this current case, following a suspected terrorist illegally immigrating from Hungary, he clutches onto as his last gasp of relevance.  The suspect, Issa Karpov, is potentially innocent, but also potentially very dangerous, and the film yields most of its tension as it attempts to navigate whether Karpov is a victim or a cunning deceiver.

Director Anton Corbijn came to cinema from music videos, like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, but unlike his contemporaries, he doesn't have a distinctively unique style.  He's a steadfastly solid storyteller, but his visual aesthetic is very grey, grainy and dull.  His previous film, the slow-burning George Clooney-is-an-assassin vehicle, The American, dabbled in espionage elements but not nearly to this same level of complexity.

A Most Wanted Man is potent and intense, but at the same time, unfortunately unmemorable.  Hoffman is Hoffman, reliable as always, even in a suspect accent.  Rachel McAdams' accent falters at times (why they didn't just cast a German actress -- Franca Potente maybe? -- I don't know) but she performs well, showing both fear and resolve.  Grigory Dobrygin is amazing as Karpov, providing the perfect amount of nervous energy that could either signify his guilt or innocence.

A slight spoiler: the film ends on a significant down beat, which is entirely apt for Corbijn's cold and dreary production.  Hoffman's unflinchingly dour grimace finds him (and the audience with him) hoping for any shred of victory, but there's a sad-sack, Charlie Brown-ness to him that you just know means he's never going to get ahead.

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A good friend of mine passed away in mid-2013, the year Anchorman 2 was released.  I mention this only because the first Anchorman was one of his favourite films.  It was a quote machine from which we, and other friends, used to pull from liberally, surpassed perhaps only by The Big Lebowski.  When the media hype for Anchorman 2 ramped up prior to its Christmas release, I felt no small sense of anticipation, but also a great deal of sadness.  The first trailer I saw in a theatre made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

Successful comedies are tremendously difficult to go back to the well to.  More so than any other genre, a great comedy is generally lightning in a bottle.  Subsequent episodes lose a lot of the element of surprise.  The characters become known commodities, the actors more famous, the direction a little more assured and adventurous, and more money is thrown into the mix.  There's not a great deal of successful comedy sequels out there.  Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has in its core a great reason for existing, a great plot premise that justifies another outing, but it's bloated run-time, its over-reliance on stunt casting, and it's increased budget all hamper it from approaching the original in any meaningful way.

The story takes place a decade after the original, in the early 1980s.  Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his co-anchor/wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are San Diego's premiere nightly news team, but when Veronica is chosen to replace the evening news anchor, Ron is apoplectic, and duly dismissed.  Their marriage falls apart and Ron falls on hard times and dishevelled hair.  But a stranger susses him out, offering him a position on his new 24-hour news channel, the first of its kind.  Ron re-assembles the team: Champ (David Koechner), Brian (Paul Rudd), and Brick (Steve Carell) all game for a new adventure following Ron's lead.

They struggle with finding a home in New York and at the 24-hour station, pulling the 2AM-5AM overnight slot, until such time as they discover, essentially, the "Fox News" formula of "News Reporting" which is full of open ended questions and speculation rather than any true journalism.  Amid all the off-kilter silliness, there's actually an interesting skewering of modern day television journalism.  It's unfortunate though that the filmmakers chose not to do a full lampoon (though that's been done elsewhere, like Sports Night and The Newsroom [Ken Finkleman's Canadian programme, not the Aaron Sorkin HBO show]) choosing some ridiculous side-plots and diversions, which, while fun, don't lend the movie a whole lot of coherence.

I liked Anchorman 2, but not tremendously so, and I wasn't so entertained that I felt the pull to revisit it over and over to catch those wildly quotable lines like with the first film.  It has its moments (the "Ron goes blind" diversion is probably my favourite part of the film), but the battle royale (a repetition of the first film but amped up tremendously) feels shoehorned in, bloated, and it stops the film cold, and Brick's romance with Kristen Wiig doesn't yield the laughs that it should (Brick should be a punchline machine, not a focal character).

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(Warning: Spoilers)

Gone Girl feels like lesser David Fincher, clever pulp fiction that surprises in many ways upon first viewing, but would likely yield diminishing returns upon repeated viewings.  Yet, this is a story that requires the guiding hand of a master director, someone who can navigate the viewer through it's many twists, and manipulate the actors through their varying depths in order to tell the story in such a way that it's not mere pulp, in such a manner that it transcends simplistic labels.  Fincher is an exquisite craftsman and despite the genre trappings of its story, it's a masterpiece of storytelling execution.

The opening act of the film is told by cutting between the present, in which Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing, and the past, as narrated by Amy from her journal.  Initially, those flashbacks feel off, with florid dialogue and almost to surreal details of their courtship, marriage and subsequent relationship troubles.  It's only the reveal at the end of the first act, that Amy has faked her own kidnapping, that the journal's authenticity is called into question.  Meanwhile, Nick is immediately thrust under suspicion, and through the film's first act his innocence is brilliantly called into question.  The story tricks from novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (brilliantly adapting her own material like no author previously has) as well as the visual cues from Fincher and Affleck all build a wonderful tension surrounding Nick, especially as the media begins to weigh in and crucify him.  Is he a brilliant mastermind, or a victim of a smear campaign?  Where most stories would draw this tale out over the film's entirety, by revealing the truth at the conclusion of the first act provides the film a who other, more satisfying direction.

The first act feels almost like a film in itself, but the second act negotiates wonderfully Nick and Amy's separate lives. Nick has to handle the media (a particularly spiteful news channel host, played with full Nancy Grace gusto by Missi Pyle), his sister (marking the brilliant arrival of Carrie Coon), the detective investigating both him and the disappearance (a wonderful Kim Dickens), a secret lover, Amy's Family, and the search for Amy.  To help, he enlists a notorious lawyer (a surprisingly phenomenal Tyler Perry) who is a master of navigating the police, the media, his clients and their families.  Amy, meanwhile, has changed her hair, put on weight and disappeared into lower income middle America, quite please with herself, waiting for the right moment to reinvent herself.  Unfortunately, some things fall out of her control, like desperate neighbours and Nick's brilliant turn facing the media.

The third act weaves a cat-and-mouse tale as Nick tries to negotiate all of Amy's various traps, with the Detective likewise starting to find the cracks in Amy's plans.  Amy starts weaving her own plan by way of an old flame (Neal Patrick Harris) that take a supremely brutal, although perhaps not altogether unexpected turn.  The film's epilogue is a stroke of brilliance, flipping the sensibilities of the opening act cleverly on their head.

The undercurrent of the film teeters perilously close to being dangerous, an anti-woman screed, particularly harmful in a #gamergate environment.  However, with such amazing supporting characters from Coon and Dickens, it holds fast as a singular tale of a particularly brilliant and manipulative person, one who is quite obviously sociopathic.  She reminds me of Alice Morgan from the first season of Luther, which is a disturbing new archetype if more of these types of characters start popping up in the wake of Gone Girl's success.

(Note: now that I've written all this, I want to watch the film again, flipping the sentiments of my opening paragraph on their head)

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I think pretty much every fan of  the TV series Community was surprised to see our own beloved Dean Pelton, Jim Rash, up on stage at the 2012 Academy Awards accepting an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Descendants, alongside writing partner Nat Faxon and director Alexander Payne.  We put people into boxes -- actor, writer, singer, cartoonist, whatever -- and it sometimes takes doing something extraordinary to help them break out.

The Oscar win gave Rash and Faxon their opportunity to break out of their expected comedic actor molds (Faxon has cropped up in numerous sitcoms and comedy features over the past half-decade) and to not just get another screenplay produced, but also sit in the director's chair.  The Way Way Back is the amazing result of that, a coming-of-age movie that embraces all the tropes but handles it with even more maturity.

The film follows Duncan, a quiet 14-year-old who is blossoming in puberty and living completely inside himself.  He's forced to go on a "family" vacation to a summer home with his mom, her boyfriend, and his pretty and popular daughter.  As played by Liam James, Duncan is crawling under his own skin.  His gaze is perpetually to the ground, his face conveying little but utter misery, and his life seemingly outside of his own control.  Pam, his mother (the always awesome Toni Colette) is a dominant presence in his life.  She's a coddler, and Ducan is having trouble breaking free from that, or deciding if he wants or needs to.  Trent, his mom's boyfriend (a great turn by Steve Carell) is already adopting the step-father role whether Duncan or Pam want him to or not.  He's not an outright villain, at least at first, he just seems concerned that Duncan isn't very social, but at the same time, his interactions with Duncan come with no spoonfuls of sugar (the film's opening scene has Trent asking Duncan how he thinks he rates on a scale of 1 to 10.  Duncan says "8" while Trent says "5" and proceeds to explain why.  It's a very judicious scene that allows Trent some level of goodwill while still painting him as a bad guy).

At the cottage, Duncan's mom befriends the party-heavy divorcee next door (Allison Janney, amazing as ever) while Duncan's parental issues gives him common ground with her daughter.  With his mom heavily socializing, Duncan escapes on an old banana-seat bicycle he finds in the garage.  He comes across the vacation town's summer water park, run by Owen (the great Sam Rockwell), a fast-talking charmer who senses the boy's need for escape and gives him a job at the park, helping him come out of his shell.  Duncan leads two lives, his quiet, introverted home life, and his king-of-the-world (at least from a 14-year-old's perspective) life at the water park.  He doesn't want his family to know about his other life, he just wants it for himself, a place where he's given responsibility, he has friends, he's treated with respect, and he even has some authority and control.

Rash and Faxon create a realistic daydream for everyone who grew up like Duncan, quiet and unpopular.  Their direction is supremely confident, if straightforward, giving the entire picture a vibrant life that, even around it's darker, unhappier edges, gives the sense that there' always something brighter around the corner.  Personally, as a step-parent, I was sad to see Trent become more of an outright villain, rather than just a villain-by-perspective.  It's a hard role to embrace, step-parenting, and it really does just seems like he's trying to help Duncan, if in a harsh and misguided way.  But his later actions just dismiss any sense of goodwill the character may have had.  Overall, the films a definite charmer, with a terrific cast (Maya Rudolph, Faxon and Rash all have roles in the water park, and some of the ancillary characters, like Janney's lazy-eyed son Peter and the trio of loudmouthed kids at the park really fill out the world) that is everything I had hoped the disappointing Adventureland (2009) would be.

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Today's comedies present a much bawdier version of the double act.  In films mostly spawning from the "Apatow kids" -- those who starred in his short-lived yet beloved TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared -- and Kevin Smith's camp, there's the funny one, who is as often a background character as co-lead, obsessed with sex, genitalia and profanity with no predilection for tact or decorum.  Their outspokenness and profane barbs are regularly surprising since they're so blatantly things people don't say in polite society.  The straight man, on the other hand, tends to be shier, following their more baroque counterpart's leads in any public situation, while at the same time are typically the center of the film, as they are more relatable, and have more "normal" problems with love or career or whatever, which the funny one tends to interfere with (at first) but then winds up helping out with.  Films like Superbad, Chasing Amy, Goon and here, in 50/50, the formula is showing its seams.

50/50 was marketed as a buddy comedy about a young man (Joseph Gordon Levitt) suddenly facing potentially terminal cancer and his best friend (Seth Rogen) who helps him through it.  That's not quite the story, for better and worse, as Rogen's role is background comic-relief-type stuff and not so much faithful companion at every turn.

When Adam learns he has a potentially deadly form of cancer, he finds life radically changing as he sees its potential end.  His distant girlfriend becomes even more distant, his overbearing mother becomes even more overbearing, and his inappropriately outspoken best friend becomes even more inappropriately outspoken.  But Adam finds a bit of sanctuary and camaraderie with two other chemotherapy patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) and an outlet for his true emotions with novice therapist (Anna Kendrick).

As written by cancer survivor Will Reiser, the cancer story is a formidable one, have the sense of authenticity while still managing to be entertaining and not a dour, treacly Brian's Song-type film.  The reality that Adam faces -- not just death, but how others treat him, and how much of a struggle just going about one's day -- is the journey, and whether he dies or survives isn't really at question so much as what does he go through.  As noted, there's not as much Levitt-Rogen bromance as this film was originally sold with, and while there's possibly a more joke heavy/distasteful comedy to be made with that premise, this one balances the genital humour well with the more dramatic moments.

(David Note: David's take!)

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My 5-year-old daughter has been having difficulty with the cinema as of late.  When we went to see Muppets Most Wanted, she had an epic freak out and I've only been able to get her to the theatre once since (for How To Train Your Dragon 2), where she made it as far as the lobby before she turned around and went home.  I've been trying to get her out to other films that I've/she's been excited about (Big Hero 6! come on!) but to no avail.  Penguins of Madagascar, having seen the innocuous TV show, I knew would be without any real intensity and no true surprises.  It was a known commodity, lacking in any real art, but also harmless.

The big screen version acts as prequel to the series, I guess, it doesn't really matter.  Penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private stumble upon a plot by Dr. Octavius Brine (an octopus in a wobbly human disguise, voiced by John Malcovich) to kidnap all the penguins of the world and enact his revenge for their stealing of his aquarium/zoo admirers.  It's thin motivation but the film clings to it, presenting a series of ridiculous hurdles for the Penguins to overcome in order to defeat his evil scheme.  Along the way they team up with The North Wind, a superspy organization manned by polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare), owl Eva (Annet Mahendru), seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong) and wolf Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), who frankly don't think these Penguins are up to the task of saving the world.

The film is, as expected, passably amusing.  The fast-talking Skipper (Tom McGrath) is quite clearly the front man/penguin of the operation and both his speeches and asides are so mile-a-minute that they're really hard to grasp onto fully.  Skipper has a paternal soft-spot for youngest penguin Private, and he continually underestimates Private's abilities as he primarily admires him for his ridiculous cuteness (at least the film posits that Private is ridiculously cute, I didn't really get it).  So the film feature's Private's journey into self-actualization, becoming a real part of the team, like he's always wanted.

It's modestly enjoyable, and imminently forgettable, but on the plus side, my daughter made it through with no freak-outs and no residual after-effects, so it was a win.

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And finally, I finished my book (mostly finished anyway), Quarter City, in December.  Read it on Wattpad, if you like that sort of thing.