A Puff of Smoke – Inherent Vice

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I couldn’t even tell you what the title of this new PT Anderson movie means. The protagonist mentioned it had something to do with maritime law, but like much of the two and a half hour movie those lines of dialogue floated over me in a drug induced daze.

Based on a Thomas Pynchon novel there’s a plot to Inherent Vice, but like many of the best private investigator movies from The Big Sleep to Chinatown to The Big Lebowski to The Long Goodbye, it’s impossible to summarize or even make sense of what happened. Not that this movie belongs in the same breath as those classics, but there are moments hidden in the shaggy 150 minutes where it does.

Private Investigators are the philosopher princes of filmdom. They search for answers and ask questions only to end up disillusioned. I generally find the message of the genre is one of cynicism. Stuff happens, people show up, they die, and there really isn’t any meaning to it except for trying to find around all the sin and lost souls a couple moments of happiness between birth and death. At least that’s what I think Sam Elliott was trying to express at the end of The Big Lebowski.

Not that I feel Inherent Vice was trying to reveal any such truths. From the opening scene it lost me over what the case Joaquin Phoenix was working on. Even if Pynchon is known to be a heavy intellectual hitter, this movie is more concerned with capturing a time and a place and a state of mind. Those are 1970, Southern California, and being really, really high. On those levels the movie succeeds as it’s filled with sideburns, celebrity cameos, and paranoia.

On repeated viewing you might be able to make sense of it all, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Passover Seder: The Movie – Exodus: Gods and Kings

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For everyone who thought Passover Seders are too short Ridley Scott has directed a two and half hour movie telling the story of Moses called Exodus: Gods and Kings. This Moses played by Christian Bale is more Batman than  holy man. He kicks butt and takes names. I’m not sure how faithful this warrior prince side of Moses is to the Bible, but since the Biblical Moses was a stutterer, and Bale speaks quite eloquently, it seems the filmmakers played fast and loose with the text. And if there’s one community that takes source material more seriously then comic book fanboys, it’s Bible fanboys.

But if you don’t take the Bible seriously Exodus is a pretty enjoyable riproaring adventure. Not that it’s saying much, but it is certainly the best movie Scott has directed since Gladiator.

For those who skipped Sunday school, Exodus is set in ancient Egypt where we see Moses as an Egyptian general who learns of his secret past as a Hebrew. They spend an hour showing his warrior mettle and strategic brilliance, but just like when your Uncle Lenny ran his seder, starting things off with the best of intentions to read every page of the Haggadah before realizing he wants to get through the service quickly to eat some matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, so does this movie begin rushing through important details like the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea because it wanted to spend so much time portraying Moses’ bonafides as a badass.

Which is fine, but a bigger deal will probably be made about not just a gentile, but a gentile whose first name is Christian, is playing the part of the most famous of Jews.

You mean to tell me Adam Sandler and Larry David were too busy to play Moses?

Uncle Lenny would not approve.

The End of Superhero Movies- Birdman and Interstellar

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I love comic books. Probably too much. With the exception of a few years in college and high school I’ve been buying them since I was seven years old.

I love movies too. So just about any time a new movie based on a comic book comes out I line up to see it. More and more lately though I find myself disappointed by them. After every Man of Steel or Guardians of the Galaxy my heart gets broken a little more, so I was glad to see Birdman seek vengeance on the evil capitalists who are doing all they can to spit in the eye of two of my three favorite American art forms.

Birdman features Michael Keaton as a mentally ill actor seeking to rebrand himself as a serious thespian after years of only being known for playing the superhero, Birdman. This is perhaps the most cinematically innovative movie since Gravity as it creates the illusion that there is no editing and the entire film was captured in one continuous shot. But the more amazing special effect is Ed Norton. Until this movie I forgot he used to be my favorite actor whose appearance in a movie guaranteed I had to see it. Norton gives a master class in drama as he goes in and out of character in a Broadway play, displaying what a good actor can do in stealing your attention. It goes inside the creative method like no movie has since Black Swan.

Birdman does drag at times when Norton is not on the screen, but it has my deepest appreciation for relentlessly mocking what our superherocentric culture has become eschewing humanity for franchise building. In a society with any decency Birdman would be the last superhero movie ever made. Unfortunately according to this chart that will be not the case.

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20 superhero movies in the next three years alone? I’m part of the problem because I keep paying to see these movies hoping they translate the medium of comics I love so much, but more often then not they make me sick. The new movie Interstellar shows an escape route. The movie’s director Christopher Nolan might have made the best superhero movies ever in the Christian Bale Batman trilogy. Interstellar doesn’t reach those heights. It aims to be a deep thinker’s science fiction mind blower. The dialogue is too corny and lacks any double entendres to require multiple viewings. What it does do exceptionally well is chronicle a great adventure in an ambitious manner. Matthew McConaughey is our hero. A great pilot/farmer/engineer/car spokesman who is our last hope to find a planet where humanity can move to since the Earth is dying.

There is an old saying “the play’s the thing”. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but I take it as when putting on a show you should leave your ego at the door and do what you can to give the audience an entertaining/interesting/life affirming time. Interstellar for whatever its faults does blow all of its load on to the screen. It does not hold anything back for future sequels throwing every idea half-baked or not at us. This is especially refreshing when compared to these Marvel/DC movies that aim to have plot lines that will outlive us all. I thank Interstellar for treating itself like it was a special event instead of a two hour advertisement for its next chapter. I hope that the helmers of these 20 movies I will be seeing take notes, but I doubt it.

Mixed Media – Gone Girl and Kill the Messenger

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If the new movie Gone Girl proves anything it is that humanity has lost.

It’s directed by David Fincher who made two of the most spot on criticisms of our day and age. Fight Club taught us how the media has shaped our mindset of what it means to be a man, with our only out in rebelling our brainwashing being to blow it all up. The Social Network showed what happens when it doesn’t get blown up and how we began to  interact more with technology than our fellow human being.

Gone Girl is the end game. It is unconcerned with making any societal criticisms, rather it is “entertainment”.

Ben Affleck plays a married man whose wife is missing. He seems somewhat worried about her whereabouts, but is most concerned about how he is perceived on TV. There are twists and turns but most important to the characters in the movie are what strangers in faraway states watching cable news in an airport might think about them. If this was a satire, such perspective would be effective, but the movie is stone cold serious that the biggest stake an accused person can face is not imprisonment, but negative Twitter reactions on television interviews.

There will undoubtedly be think pieces about how Gone Girl is a clever commentary on marriage. They will be wrong.Or they will have been written by people in miserable marriages.

And yes, Gone Girl is an extremely well directed, gripping movie that uses our collective hatred for Ben Affleck effectively, but it’s cynicism complete with an ending that gears us up for a sequel, prevents it from having any redeeming values besides being prime fodder for a time capsule to epitomize the worst of our selfie, status update obsessed trending society.

If after Gone Girl you don’t believe media is the enemy of humanity, see Kill The Messenger which makes a similar point. Based on the true story of Gary Webb, a newspaper reporter who claimed the CIA imported cocaine in the US in the 1980’s in order to fund the contras in Nicaragua. His story gained accolades when it was published in 1995 until major media outlets stated Webb’s reporting wasn’t credible.

The movie comes from the perspective that the media is evil and ruined the one good man telling the truth, but then Kill the Messenger doesn’t do Webb any favors by unintentionally showing him having shoddy journalistic techniques. He never tape records his sources, nor does he take detailed notes. Instead he simply writes down a key word or two when interviewing someone like Andy Garcia telling him about a far reaching conspiracy.

But for all its flaws I can admire Kill the Messenger for at least trying to tackle substantial issues, while Gone Girl for all its technical virtuosity wants to leave you with only one thought, besides the need to take a shower, women are the devil.

Who Needs Film Critics? – The Drop and The Guest

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I considered no longer writing my thoughts about movies. I started to feel like the jerk who told everyone at a birthday party that the cake they were eating was going to make them fat. So what if The Guardians of The Galaxy mistook pop culture references for wit and was more concerned at winking at the audience about how funny and hip it was that it never allowed audiences to lose themselves in the movie? The whole universe seemed to love it, so who was I to ruin it by showing everyone how wrong they were and that it was just a two hour episode of The Family Guy?

Then I remembered at birthday parties when people ask me why I’m not eating the cake I usually end up sharing my vegan philosophy and describing the evils of factory farming. So hell, I might as well ruin your night at the movies too. Here are my thoughts on a couple I just saw.

I tend to like things with simple titles especially crime movies and novels, so maybe that’s one of the reasons the new movie The Drop disappointed me so. It had a great cast, it was a genre I enjoy in gritty street crime, and it was directed by Michael Roskam who made a good Belgian movie in Bullhead. But maybe the director’s international pedigree is the problem.  I’m not sure if they get intimidated by movie stars or if it’s a language barrier, but there’s a long line of talented foreign directors who make a mess when they get to Hollywood. Tom Tykwer went from Run Lola Run to Cloud Atlas. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck did the fantastic The Lives of Others to the terrible The Tourist. Roskam follows that tradition.

It’s not that The Drop is bad, it’s merely pointless. The plot of a Brooklyn bartender finding a stray dog and getting caught  in the middle of a heist at the bar he works at relies too heavily on coincidence to take seriously. It takes place in one of those neighborhoods where everyone is a criminal or is sleeping with one, and while the actors in it are good from Tom Hardy to Noomi Rapace (who can’t decide if she should use an American accent or not), it does waste the last movie we’ll ever get to see James Gandolfini in with a thankless part that makes you feel bad for laughing at him as he struggles to run away from a crime. The late Tony Soprano deserved better and so do you.

So go see The Guest. It pays homage to B movies from the 1980’s with a synthesizer heavy score and a story with only one concern, to ratchet up the tension. A family grieving about a son lost to war welcomes a soldier into their home. The guest says he was best friends with the dead son and ingratiates himself into their lives. Then he raises hell. There are no real explanations for his motives, nor is one needed. While it does not provoke deep thoughts or show you something you have not seen before, The Guest does provide cheap thrills and laughs and best of all it isn’t Guardians of the Galaxy.

Monkey Business – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The acting community better shape up. If the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sign of things to come human actors might all soon be out of work.

This prequel to the great Planet of the Apes movies from the last century is also a sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  It takes place years after apes have gained intelligence and humans have died from a plague. You’d figure by now apes would be running things, but they’re living in a Northern California commune until humans show up and all hell breaks loose.

This edition is more flawed then it’s predecessor. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was focused in showing  how apes end up being so smart in those great 1960’s movies while having a fun time doing it, nothing really gets resolved in this chapter. This movie’s only purpose seems to be biding time to set itself up for more warfare of ape verses man in the inevitable sequel, Lunchtime at the Planet of the Apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes worst crime though is how seriously it takes itself. The 1960’s version always had a serious undercurrent of how humans were messing up the Earth, but it wasn’t so heavyhanded in expressing it. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes except for one scene where a mean monkey acts like a goofball, there is no sense of humor. Instead it fetishizes warfare and gunplay and is more worried about how big an explosion can be than telling an interesting story.

That being said the monkeys in this movie are really cute and emotive. The masterminds who generated their computer images perfected the simian movements and characterizations. Whenever monkeys are on the screen interacting with each other, the movie earns your attention.

The problem is the humans keep showing up with uninteresting plot lines and there’s not one Charlton Heston or Marky Mark, or (God help us) James Franco among them. Speaking of which what happened to Franco’s character, was Spring Breakers the continuation of his story?

But a lot of the stinkers I’d seen recently would have improved if they cast apes, computer generated or otherwise, instead of movie stars. It would have been a lot more heartwarming and less narcissistic if in the movie Her a monkey fell in love with his computer instead of a pleased with himself Joaquin Phoenix. If a monkey Captain America had to fight an evil monkey in a suit instead of Robert Redford, it would have had me a lot more involved.

They already have the monkeys writing too many of the scripts Hollywood releases these days, might as well put them in front of the camera too.

The Best There Is At What It Does – X-Men: Days of Future Past

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At this point there have been so many movies based on comic books, even I, a die hard comic book fan, find myself skipping some. I was once a  regular at the opening night midnight screenings, no matter what my responsibilities were the next morning, but the new Spider-man movie has been out for a month and I still haven’t gotten around to seeing it.

Part of the reason is there is such quantity that it no longer seems like a special event to see the stories of my youth transferred to cinema, but the bigger problem has been the quality. Last year’s Superman was disgusting, the latest Thor sequel made me throw up in my mouth, but about once a year a comic book movie gets it right and brings a sense of wonder and humor to the screen. The newest X-men sequel Days of Future Past is just such an occasion.

Inspired by two issues from 1981 of the Uncanny X-men comic by the immortal Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the movie refuses to be a slave to the source material. It picks and chooses which elements from the original story to use, makes up some other elements, adds some different characters and throws in a kitchen sink, a football stadium, and Richard Nixon for good measure.

The comic book version of Days of Future Past was a precursor to the Terminator movies where a character from an apocalyptic future time travels to the present to stop a pivotal moment in their history from happening. In the movie version the future is a dark and dismal 2023, and the past is a groovy 1973 complete with sideburns, lava lamps, Pink Floyd t-shirts, and the afore mentioned Richard Nixon.

Unlike the Avengers brand movies produced by Marvel Studios where each episode seems like a commercial for the next commodity they’ll be hawking in a few months, X-men: Days of Future Past fulfills on its own. Sure, after the end credits there is a teaser for the next X-men sequel  that will be coming out in a year or two. But there is none of that empty feeling of only getting part of a story that will never end as April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier offered us. Instead X-men: Days of Future Past gives you a complete story with a solid beginning, a thrilling middle, and even a satisfying, happy ending.

Captain American’t – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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As I waited around  to see the hidden scene at the end of the credits of the new Captain America movie I began to get depressed. All of these names, all of this manpower, thought and resources spent to give us.this, when the comic book it is based on with only ten names on the credit page was so far superior.

It’s not that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a bad movie. Chris Evans who plays the title role is interesting as a paragon of virtue and his fight scenes are very imaginative. One of the problems with this movie though is Captain America is not on screen enough. There are too many other action figures to be sold, I mean too many other actors fighting for attention on the screen. You have an overweight one eyed Samuel L Jackson limping around, Scarlett Johansson vamping like she’s auditioning for either the remake of Weird Science or a video on a dating website, and Robert Redford one step out of the grave grimaces like he wants to fire the agent who put him in a movie where he doesn’t get to spend the whole day on a sailboat.

But this movie will still be a huge box office success even though no one will remember a single scene from it in three months time because Marvel has transferred their brilliant marketing strategy from comic book shops into the theaters.

Never have the story end.

Everything is always building towards the next story, but that being said would it hurt to have a little fun in the here and now? The only attempts at humor involved Johansson constantly trying to figure out if Captain America is gay or not.

Last year’s Iron Man 3 was so great because it focused on one-liners and surprising plot twists more than setting up future franchises. The first Captain America movie was successful because it tackled the question of what makes a hero while giving us some laughs while not being ashamed of it’s comic book roots.

This movie though, I’m not sure who it was for.  There’s too many deaths for it to be for kids. It has too many characters in it for laypeople to remember who was who (especially the key plot point of who the Winter Soldier was), and it takes itself way too seriously to be for comic fans. Take the character of Batroc.  In the comics he’s a brightly costumed, strong accented wisecracking Frenchman with a pointy mustache whose full name is Batroc the Leaper, in the movie he’s a mixed martial arts assassin . Or the Falcon whose superpower was he could fly and telepathically talk to birds, but because that wasn’t realistic enough in a movie about superheroes they give him a military issued flying suit.  I guess with its video game like fetishization of gun play and Scarlett Johannson this movie’s target audience is boys who are old enough to masturbate.

One thing the movie got right was the way Captain America fights. No other comic book movie came close to showing its hero look as amazing in battle. From the ricocheting of the shield to the leaps he takes  to the distinctive fighting style when Cap was in action it brought the movie back to life.

At least until Redford started prattling off again.

Stories Within Stories- The Grand Budapest Hotel

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At this point I have to strongly consider reading the books of Stefan Zweig. I had never heard of the Austrian writer until a couple years ago when a friend mentioned he was reading his books and then Zweig’s name popped up in the Julian Barnes novel A Sense of an Ending and now in the closing credits of Wes Anderson’s new masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel he gives credit for inspiration to Zweig.

I hardly believe a man like Zweig who committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates holding his lover’s hand could be as whimsical as The Grand Budapest Hotel, but if his writing is half as imaginative and profound as this flick it would be well worth the time to check him out.

With this movie and his previous one Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, might be the reigning titleholder of world’s greatest filmmaker (or at the very least the most literary). As Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam have lost their touch Anderson has followed their tradition of creating in his movies a childlike sense of awe while also possessing the touch of a master craftsman. His recruiting of famous actors and ability to  push them away from their archetype is second to none. His eye for production design is elite and his storytelling is so dense with detail that it feels each character would be worthy of their own movie.

I would need to see this movie a second time (which is something I plan to do at some point) to properly summarize it, but the movie starts with a statue of a famous dead writer then we go back in time to when the writer was alive to hear his memories of when he was younger and  met a man with a hell of a story.  That story is the meat of the movie that uses cinema to celebrate memories and humanity and literature. If you possess a funny bone this movie will make you laugh, tear ducts then your eyes will moisten,  and the ability to read you will leave hoping Zweig lives up to the high standard of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A Rich Man’s Goodfellas – The Wolf of Wall Street

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If there’s ever a movie to blame for the go to representation of the passage of time being changing facial hair and awful fashion over a  soundtrack of that era’s hit songs it is Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas.  Every movie that spanned the ’60’s to the ’80’s that came after it from the good (Boogie Nights, Forrest Gump) to the horrid (Blow, The Iceman) followed that same formula where we know it is 1968 because the guys have long hair and The Rolling Stones are on the radio while everyone’s smoking pot to it being 1977 because everyone has a fu manchu that is doing coke and disco dancing to the Bee Gees.

So you can’t blame Scorcese too much for going back to the well with The Wolf of Wall Street that he himself dug years earlier. He stretches out Goodfellas to three hours replaces the violence with sex and the danger with drugs. The crime is now of the white collar variety, but Leonardo DiCapprio is basically Ray Liotta. He narrates how he went from an ambitious, young, working pup to the king of the world to ratting out his friends to avoid prison. Matthew McConaughey is Robert DeNiro as the celebrity mentor into the dark side and Jonah Hill is Joe Pesci, the pint sized sidekick who takes our protagonist’s worst habits to another level of depravity. If you wondered how Jonah Hill translates to a Scorcese movie, stop wondering and rather ponder on how Scorcese translates to a Jonah Hill movie.

For The Wolf of Wall Street is a straight up comedy, of the bromance school. To see it in any other light is to invite disappointment. There is no hidden symbolism in how we are all sinners and slaves to the almighty dollar in watching the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort from hungry stock broker to multimillionaire con man. The excess is too great for the audience to identify with the protagonist in any serious way.  But the movie’s comedy should be embraced. With the exception of maybe Iron Man 3, this is by far the funniest movie of the year. A good half hour could have been snipped from it’s running time, but there are plenty of classic comedy scenes that will be laughed about for years most of which involve drug abuse from crack to Quaaludes.

While Scorcese’s gangster movies have been criticized for glamorizing violence, the same could be said for The Wolf of Wall Street’s depiction of drugs. Never had I seen overdosing, slurring, and intoxicated driving look as fun as in this movie.