Much Ado About Nothing

The Bling Ring (2013), directed by Sofia Coppola

Man of Steel (2013), directed by Zack Snyder

Much Ado About Nothing (2012), directed by Joss Whedon

You know those times when you just can’t shake the sleep off? You feel like your head is in the clouds as you struggle to focus and get on with your day? Well, you know what the cure is.

Triple-shot!

Oh yes, we’re turning it up a notch today, my readers.

(OK, so what’s really up is I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately but haven’t had the time to write about some of them so I’m doing it this way to catch up. The other way sounds more intense though, no?)

Up first is Sofia Coppola’s latest peek into the lives of the rich and narcissistic, The Bling Ring, a sort of Spring Breakers-lite on the trappings of a materialist and celebrity obsessed society.

The film is based on the real-life robberies of some of LA’s who’s who by a group of high school kids who managed to slip into celebrity homes and sneak out with millions of dollars worth of “product.” And we’re not talking drugs and money here. Well, some of that, but mainly purses and whatnot.

Few have more insight into the pitfalls of privilege than Sofia Coppola, who grew up in its midst thanks to her birth into New Hollywood royalty. I’m not a fanatic fan of Coppola, aside from her last film, Somewhere, which is terribly underrated and a brilliantly quiet meditation on the emptiness of fame and excess.

Unfortunately, Coppola’s style doesn’t meld well with the subject matter of The Bling Ring. Any points Coppola makes about celebrity culture and errant youth are grasped early and firmly in the film, and really no elaboration or deeper insight is gained by going any further. Instead we have scene after scene of robberies and partying, which through the unblinking stare of Coppola’s lens is, well, just plain boring.

It’s not without some lovely touches and shots, such as a one-take wide angle of the teens slipping into a celebrity home and quickly ransacking its goods. The lights turning on and off and the ant-like movement of the thieves provide a jarringly macro perspective of the crime.

Ultimately though the film is an exercise which may sound good on paper, but fails onscreen. Its points are obvious, its setup dull. And plus, call me crazy, but isn’t one of the main points of the film the danger of celebrity worship? Is making a Hollywood film about these kids really helping that?

Man of Steel, about the budgetary opposite of The Bling Ring, is a film I saw about a week ago and haven’t thought of since. That’s not a good sign.

I stick up for Zack Snyder, but I’m not sure why, other than I rather liked The Watchmen and nobody else did. In any case, this is his retelling of the Superman origin story, along with his massively scaled showdown with General Zod, played by Michael Shannon, one of my favourite actors.

It’s not so much the film is bad, it’s rather that it’s not exceptional in any way. I don’t think we needed another origin story for Superman, but even so, this one adds nothing new to the mix other than massive (albeit dark and shaky) special effects and an attempt at grandeur which falls well short of the mark.

I’m normally a proponent of the modern darker retelling of superhero stories, but if any of them lend themselves well to an old-timey spirit of good versus evil, right and wrong, it’s this Canadian creation (that’s right) and I’ll take the simplicity of the Richard Donner films over the muddled anxiety of Man of Steel any day.

Man of Steel is one of the more major disappointments of the summer so far.

On the other end we’ve got the director of the one of the biggest superhero movies of all time, Joss Whedon, going indie in all sorts of ways for his modern retelling of the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

After the grandiosity of The Avengers Whedon must have been looking to slow his roll a little, because it doesn’t get much more stripped down than this film. Largely in one location, shot in black and white and using only a handful of actors for dialogue Whedon needed only to shape and contextualize, Much Ado About Nothing approaches Shakespeare with a crisp, cool simplicity.

I’m no Whedon fanboy at all (I disliked Cabin in the Woods and have never watched his TV shows) but his nerdy humour and eye for quirk work well with the play’s story of mixed messages and veiled love.

He approaches the material with a breezy zaniness, staying true to Shakespeare’s comedy, which, let’s face it, was often rather silly.

Much Ado About Nothing is best for its humour. It was pretty neat to be in a theatre full of regular ole people laughing themselves silly over Shakespeare. It’s a lovely blend of the humour of the words working with the sometimes slapstick work of the actors to create a movie I imagine anyone finding funny. It’s really a lot of fun.

Beyond that the black and white looks great, the actors seem to be having a lot of fun (especially Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as bumbling cops) and the whole thing comes off as a particularly enjoyable lark.

Well done, Mr. Whedon.

So there, I’m glad we had a chance to catch up. How are things with you anyway?

The Bling Ring, Man of Steel and Much Ado About Nothing are in cinemas now.

Broken City (2013), directed by Allen Hughes

Mama (2013), directed by Andres Muschietti

In my effort to save money and to see more movies at the same time I did a double-shot cheap Tuesday night at one of our local theatres here.

So I thought, why not write a double-shot cheap review? Do you feel frugal and smart? Or just cheated? Exactly.

Plus, what better way to review two mostly forgettable, mediocre movies that have absolutely no relation to one another? Exactly.

First up for the night was Mama, a Canadian-Spanish horror/ghost movie, “presented” by Guillermo del Toro and staring everybody’s new favourite actor, Jessica Chastain.

Now when I see that a horror film is “presented” by Guillermo del Toro I prepare myself for something a little different, likely quite gothic, with some elements of fantasy. I’m thinking Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Orphanage (which I must admit, I have not seen).

Dead on (pun intended). While it has its share of conventional horror moments (weird noises in the house, faces in mirrors, “it was just a dream” moments), Mama also has enough creativity behind it that it not only comes across as scary, but also compelling.

It’s kind of a weird mix, to be honest. While on one hand there’s this really rather intriguing story of a (SPOILERS) long-dead escaped mental patient still searching for the baby she stole, and of two little girls she takes in and raises, there’s also this side where they have to visit an archive at some point, and consult an expert, and have the woman hear something weird and creep around the house until something scares her and us.

Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The plot is far too complicated. Characters go off to do their own thing and are forgotten about for long periods of time. There’s so many agendas by so many characters it’s hard to care about all of them. Some of them are quickly tossed aside, making me wonder why they were needed in the first place. Some of the “gotcha!” scares are a little much and there’s too many of them.

But the ghost, the horror part of the film, is genuinely creative and well wrought. It’s all CGI but it works really well and the design of the ghost is rather unique and very effective. I had the old chill down the spine feeling on more than one occasion.

The gothic atmosphere also works well and gives the material a grandiosity modern horror films tend to reject (thank you Paranormal Activity). I mean, how many cliff-top ghost story finales do you see anymore? It lost me at the end with the butterfly finale and us somehow being asked to see it as a beautiful compromise that the ghost is going to drag a little girl away to death (presumably). Didn’t buy it.

But in general, Mama is a unique and well made ghost story.

Skipping merrily to the other end of the cinema, I sat down for Broken City just as it started.

Broken City was marketed as an action film, complete with hip-hop soundtrack, but it’s actually a political thriller, lots of talking with some occasional bits of action.

This one is getting panned, but you know what? I didn’t mind it. Sort of like Mama, I thought it was decidedly OK but with some definite positives (that’s my only way to tie these two films together).

You’ve got Wahlberg doing his Wahlberg thing (which I like), you’ve got Russell Crowe playing a character with a personality (which was a nice change from Les Miz), you’ve got BC boy Barry Pepper (if you want to see me embarrassed ask me about the time I met Barry Pepper) and you’ve got an urban political plot with ins and outs and backstabbings all round.

The Hughes Brothers have a way of making movies that under no reasonable reasoning should work, but that I can’t help but like. I still haven’t quite put my finger on why. I’m a From Hell fan. Now that’s out there in the world. I also thought The Book of Eli was an entirely decent movie.

I had the same reaction to Broken City. Nothing especially interesting was going on, but through competent directing and engaging performances it drew me in. I enjoyed watching it, wanted to know how it played out. That’s not what I would call a rave review, but maybe this is a case of exceeding low expectations.

(Huge Spoiler) The worst part for me was seeing Coach Taylor all shot up. It got personal at that point.

The film is not to be taken seriously. I don’t see it as an accurate representation of urban municipal politics or as a relevant voice against corrupt government. It doesn’t reach anything nearly that lofty. But as a political thriller with more than a few entertaining twists and turns, it works, to a point.

So there you go, my cheap Tuesday, cheap thrills, movie night. I’ll save intellectual musings for films worth it. If you want thoughtless entertainment, these are two viable options. Especially for half price.

Mama and Broken City are in cinemas now.

Les Misérables

Les Misérables (2012), directed by Tom Hooper

I think I have to start off my review by saying this is the first time I have ever had any exposure to the musical or the story of Les Misérables. Well, aside from this version.

And I have to say, as a first time viewer, it looks like it must be one heck of a good musical. Of course, it’s hard to tell in this movie. Les Miz may be a great musical but this is not a great movie, and it”s frustrating because with only a few directorial decisions Hooper has managed to ruin the entire show.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Les Miz seems to be a musical and a story of epic proportions. It’s a story of redemption, love and liberty set against the majesty of 19th century Paris.

But you get no sense of this thanks to the choke-hold Tom Hooper has managed to put on the story through his insistence on shooting nearly the entire movie in close-ups.

It’s a interesting gimmick and I get that he’s going for some sort of Passion of Joan of Arc, French, intense emotion, Carl Dreyer-type thing, and at times it works. But two and a half hours of close-ups is a hard thing to endure and it ultimately suffocates the grandeur of the story and the music in a way it never manages to overcome.

At certain points in the film I was desperate for an establishing shot, just something, anything, that would help me to situate the story and give it some spacial context. There is a scene where Javert is chasing Valjean through some MC Escher-like alleys and the audience can’t possibly have any idea what is going on because we are never shown how any of these settings are oriented. Even with the characters, I had trouble figuring out how they fit into the world around them because I’m too busy staring into the inside of the inside of the pores on their face (not a bad thing in the case of Hathaway).

It was an absolute relief and joy to see the one wide shot of Paris at the end of the film, something that would have been very handy to have at the beginning to allow us to feel where these characters are and understand the world they live in.

And in the ongoing problem of modern action movie directing corrupting everything, we now have a grand Hollywood musical that looks as though it was made by three high school students with camcorders.

Really, I’ve said it before about other directors, but somebody needs to buy Hooper a tripod, because the handheld look gets old and nauseating fast with Les Miz. It’s another part of Hooper’s quest for immediacy and intimacy, but I honestly feel it takes away from the power of the story, the acting and the music, because it leaves us constantly trying to get our bearings and figure out what we’re looking at.

The style of Les Miz seems like an experiment, a gimmick, and one that ultimately fails.

There are redeeming qualities to the film, found mainly in performances, especially Anne Hathaway, who can sing circles around the rest of the cast. Hugh Jackman is good, and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide some mild comic relief in what is otherwise a drearily serious movie.

I think an unsung hero (excuse the pun) is Eddie Redmayne, best known to me for My Week With Marilyn. He is as good, if not better, than most anybody else in the film and I think if his star power were a little higher there would have been Oscar buzz surrounding him as well.

The only true dud is Russell Crowe, who I have a particular interest in and have written about before. It’s a miscasting more than anything, because Crowe does not have the charisma to pull off this character. I don’t think he shows a facial expression throughout the entire movie, and his voice is sub-par (a criticism I hate to make, because who the hell am I to talk?). I wanted ferocity and villainy from him, but he exudes boredom.

This is a long-standing tradition, but I think it’s funny that we still can’t bother to do foreign accents in movies set in foreign lands, and, even more so, that the English accent is still the stand-in accent for any nationality. Are you telling me that actors of the calibre of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe can’t pull off a reasonable French accent? I mean, they’re putting on an American accent, so why not?

And while Hooper’s little cockney street urchins are charming, why were they in the streets of Paris? Are there no French children who speak English they could have hired? It’s a small point, and not one that overly bothered me, but just once it would be nice to see that effort taken. Hearing cockney on the streets of Paris just took me out of the world I was supposed to be enmeshed in.

Out of what I’ve seen so far this is the only real dud in the Best Picture category for the recently released Academy Award nominations. It’s not without its positives and parts are exceptionally engaging, but the whole event is ruined by Hooper’s direction. I admire it’s tenacity and for taking a chance in an industry where few chances are taken, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t pay off.

Les Misérables, the musical, could make for a great movie, but this is not it.

Les Misérables is in cinemas now.

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo (2011), directed by Cameron Crowe

This is a movie about a family that buys a zoo. And then they say to each other “We bought a zoo!” a whole lot. Seriously. I have to say though, I’m a big fan of the literal title. This one isn’t quite as bang on as Hobo With a Shotgun (about a hobo with a shotgun) or even Cowboys and Aliens (which featured, primarily, cowboys and aliens), but I’ll take it. And it’s not entirely literal because really, I didn’t have anything to do with the purchase of this zoo. Don’t include me in your zoological financial transactions. I just signed up for a movie, nothing more. Just so we’re clear.

This is also the movie that everybody made fun of when it came out. We don’t take to kindly to sentiment and innocence in our culture these days, so when a movie by Cameron “The Sappy” Crowe staring Matt Damon as a single father who moves his family to a zoo and, it looked like, learns how to love again came out, people threw up a little in their mouths.

Here comes the honesty train: I kind of liked it. Granted it’s been a bit of a crummy week and I was in just the right mood for something innocent and hopeful. But still, it was sweet. Shut up.

By no means is it perfect, or a great movie. It’s far too long, has one to many ‘uh-oh, are they going to be able to get the zoo open?’ obstacles (that rain sequence was entirely unnecessary) and is, no question, sappy. But come on. They buy a zoo! There’s tigers and peacocks. How cute is that?

Let’s be honest about what saves this movie really: it has the cutest little girl in the world in it. She’s seven and her name is Maggie Elizabeth Jones, and even as a fully grown adult male with something left of my youthful masculinity intact (debatable) I gotta say: cute as a God-damn button. If this little girl doesn’t make your heart melt like T-1000 then you are made of sterner stuff then I (and mimetic poly-alloy).

Not that one little girl is reason enough to make a movie, but without her We Bought a Zoo would never hit those high notes. Crowe has always been good with casting, though, and this is a great example. We understand why Damon’s character, Benjamin, is trying so hard to do right by his family. Not that he shouldn’t for an ugly, boring daughter, but we get invested as an audience because we instantly fall in love with her too. She’s so well-spoken and adorable. Maybe it’s cheap but it works.

And who doesn’t like Matt Damon? He could play Pol Pot and I would still probably root for him and want him to be my best friend. Then again, that would be a really strange casting decision.

Only Scarlett Johansson looks out of place. Not only because she’s 27 (my age) and Matt Damon is 56 (okay, 42. But seriously Matt, back off dude). And not only because she is clearly a movie star goddess and is cast here as someone who spends most of her time cleaning up monkey dung. Beautiful, and not-beautiful, people can clearly do whatever floats their beautiful, and not-beautiful, boats.

Yet still, I never quite believed her. It’s probably just me and it is because it’s SCARLETT JOHANSSON playing a zookeeper nerd. Kevin James is a bit of a stretch (for other reasons. I mean, you need a degree right?) but Johansson? I’m probably just jealous. I would buy a box factory if Scarlett Johansson worked there.

The other portrayal I really question is John Michael Higgins as Walter Ferris, the crotchety, stickler of a zoo inspector. He is set up as the comical villain of the movie who may prevent the zoo from being opened. Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me a zoo inspector is probably a pretty important thing to have. Not only does he make sure the animals are being treated well but he assures the safety of the visitors. Dude asks for higher fences on the lion enclosure though (which are like three feet high, by the way) and we’re supposed to treat him like the dean from Animal House.

Really they should have never been allowed to open. They (spoiler) let a grizzly bear get loose and it wanders into town. If I had been the zoo inspector I would have shut that whole place down before someone gets mauled. I mean, what if it was Scarlett Johansson? What then?

Still, if you feel like getting off your supercool, ‘I don’t believe in feelings’ high-horse (or zebra) and watching a nice, sweet, innocuous movie that might make you smile, then I’m going to recommend this one. It’s even good for kids (although when did we start letting people say ‘s@#!’ in PG movies?), with more then enough laughs and gags for the older folks. And it’s got a good heart. I may have even got misty eyed. Shut up.

We Bought a Zoo is available on DVD and Blu-ray.