Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The minor Philip Seymour Hoffman

After the very sad and tragic passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I kept thinking back to his performances in Twister and Along Came Polly.

Twister? Along Came Polly? Why those when I could be talking about Almost Famous or fricken Capote, for which he won an Oscar?

Well, yes, Twister and Along and Came Polly. Neither of those is a great movie. Twister is entertaining junk, and I can't even recommend Polly, which was thoroughly mediocre. I won't even say that Hoffman gave great performances in either movie.

What Hoffman did do is stand out in both, and I think that's actually a trickier feat than his great performances. Long before he died, it was no secret how fearless and powerful Hoffman was. But it's easy to talk about his best work. Many people have already done that and done it very well. However, I think greatness shows not only in what you bring to the best movies, but what you bring to the average ones.

Twister was the very first time I can recall seeing him. (Many tributes have mentioned Scent of a Woman as his first notable role, and I saw that movie, but I honestly don't remember much of anything about it  except for the scenery that Al Pacino ate like the Tasmanian Devil.)  And yet, as Hoffman leaned over into Jami Gertz and whispered, "It's the suck zone," there was a charisma there, a unique energy. I remember thinking, "This guy is somebody to watch." He definitively proved that when Boogie Nights came out the following year. 

By the time Along Came Polly arrived in 2004, Hoffman had Happiness, Magnolia and Cold Mountain under his belt, and Polly seemed like a step backward. It struck me as his Twister character after he'd lost his job as a storm chaser. When I reviewed the movie, I said Hoffman was "slumming."

Maybe he was. Even so, Hoffman still stood out as a very unique presence in a very mediocre movie. Most of his gags were gross, such as squeezing grease from one slice of pizza to another and then eating it, but I remember that a lot more than anything Ben Stiller or Jennifer Aniston were doing.

Now he's gone. And I still have trouble wrapping my head around that fact. I'll miss seeing his amazing diversity in powerful movies like Doubt and The Master, in which he had astonishingly different personalities and chemistry with the same actress, Amy Adams. But I'll miss seeing him in the small stuff too. It's not only sad that he won't be around to make great movies greater. It's sad that he won't be around to make average  movies cool, if only for a few scenes.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

REVIEW: Liberal Arts

I rented this from Netflix because I find Elizabeth Olson very, very appealing, and indeed the movie works largely because of that. She and co-star/writer/director Josh Radnor have a very easygoing, vibrant rapport, so as long as the movie sticks with them, it works. Unfortunately, it takes too many side detours, with Zac Efron's comical/wise stoner being especially precious and superfluous. On the whole, though, this is a wise look at learning to live in the moment, even when you find the moment stifling.  Sometimes that other side isn't all it's cracked up to be because we aren't ready for it yet.

Liberal Arts IMDB entry.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Every movie I saw in 2013

On the Big Screen

  1. Les Miserables B
  2. This is 40 B-
  3. The Impossible A
  4. Not Fade Away C-
  5. Promised Land B
  6. Zero Dark Thirty A
  7. Gangster Squad C
  8. Mama B
  9. Django Unchained A
  10. Warm Bodies B
  11. Oscar Nominated Shorts A-
  12. Side Effects B+
  13. A Good Day to Die Hard D
  14. Silver Linings Playbook A+
  15. Argo A+
  16. Beasts of the Southern Wild B
  17. Life of Pi A
  18. Amour B-
  19. Lincoln A
  20. Jack the Giant Slayer C+
  21. The Master B+
  22. Oz the Great and Powerful B
  23. The Call B-
  24. Safe Haven C
  25. The Croods B+
  26. Stoker B+
  27. West of Memphis A-
  28. Olympus Has Fallen B+
  29. The Gatekeepers B+
  30. 56 Up A
  31. Evil Dead (13) B+
  32. 42 B
  33. Oblivion B-
  34. Mud A
  35. The Sapphires A-
  36. Iron Man 3 B
  37. The Great Gatsby B+
  38. Star Trek Into Darkness A
  39. Fast and Furious 6 B+
  40. To The Wonder C-
  41. The Hangover Part III C+
  42. Now You See Me B
  43. Frances Ha A-
  44. Man of Steel A+
  45. Monsters University B
  46. The Bling Ring A
  47. This is the End A-
  48. Much Ado About Nothing A
  49. Before Midnight A
  50. World War Z B
  51. The Lone Ranger B-
  52. The Heat A-
  53. The East B
  54. White House Down B-
  55. The Apartment A+
  56. Pacific Rim B+
  57. The Princess Bride A
  58. 20 Feet from Stardom A
  59. Despicable Me 2 B+
  60. The Conjuring A
  61. The Way Way Back A-
  62. Swing Time A+
  63. Son of Dracula C+
  64. The Black Cat A-
  65. The Wolverine C+
  66. Fruitvale Station A+
  67. Blue Jasmine A
  68. Good Ol’ Freda A
  69. Elysium A-
  70. The Magnificent Seven A-
  71. Lee Daniels The Butler B
  72. I’m No Angel B+
  73. The Bank Dick B-
  74. Beach Blanket Bingo B
  75. The World’s End B-
  76. The French Connection A+
  77. The Spectacular Now B+
  78. 2 Guns B-
  79. Blackfish A-
  80. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints B+
  81. Short Term 12 A+
  82. Drinking Buddies C+
  83. You’re Next B+
  84. The Family B
  85. Insidious Chapter Two C
  86. Prisoners A-
  87. Rush A
  88. Safety Last A+
  89. Don Jon A-
  90. We’re the Millers C-
  91. Captain Phillips X2 A
  92. Gravity X3 A+
  93. Enough Said A-
  94. Metallica: Through the Never B
  95. 12 Years a Slave A
  96. Carrie C
  97. The Counselor D
  98. The Fifth Estate C
  99. Ender’s Game B
  100. About Time B
  101. Thor: The Dark World B
  102. Dallas Buyers Club B+
  103. All is Lost A-
  104. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  B+
  105. Frozen A
  106. Philomena A-
  107. Saving Mr. Banks B+
  108. The Hobbt: The Desolation of Smaug B+
  109. Nebraska A
  110. American Hustle X2 A
  111. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty C+
  112. The Wolf of Wall Street A+

    On the Small Screen 

    1. The Man Who Knew Too Much A-
    2. Compliance C+
    3. How to Survive a Plague B+
    4. Everything or Nothing A-
    5. Game Change A-
    6. Searching for Sugar Man A
    7. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  B
    8. The Killers (46) A
    9. Smashed A-
    10. The Killers (64) B
    11. Anastasia (56)  B+
    12. Peeping Tom A
    13. River of No Return B
    14. Baby Face B+
    15. Helter Skelter B+
    16. Storm Warning B+
    17. The Long Goodbye A-
    18. What’s Up Doc A-
    19. Public Enemies B+
    20. The Canyons D+
    21. $ellbrity B
    22. I Wanna Hold Your Hand A-
    23. Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out A-
    24. The Woman in Black C
    25. Making the Shining B
    26. Sound City B+
    27. Upstream Color D+
    28. 12 Angry Men A-
    29. Fast and Furious B
    30. Lovelace C
    31. Passion D+
    32. Brick B+

Thursday, June 13, 2013

REVIEW: Man of Steel

This is a fantasy. A careless product of wild imagination. And my good friends, Man of Steel is all the better for it.

For months, I actively worried about this movie. The last one, Superman Returns, was better than most people say it is, but those who complained it was too meditative and ponderous had a point.  When I realized that Zack Snyder was directing the new movie, I swallowed hard. I had greatly enjoyed his debut film, the Dawn of the Dead remake, but each successive film got worse, culminating in the juvenile rampage called Sucker Punch. And yet, I held out hope because Christopher Nolan was producing and co-writing the story. Maybe he would keep Snyder's excesses in check.

As it turns out, he hasn't. Man of Steel bears all the hallmarks of Snyder's hyperactive approach, and if anything, his direction is wilder than ever. But what's different this time is that the material actually supports and merits the over-the-top style. This is a film about what would happen to Earth if a platoon of Kryptonian soldiers decided to invade, and Superman put up a fight. The planet gets shellacking of absolutely immense proportions

But that's what woud happen in a Superman story with ultra-high stakes. No other movie has captured the adrenaline rush of a superhero story with such unbridled abandon. Drew McWeeny of Hitfix raised my eyebrows when he said the action made The Avengers look quaint. He wasn't kidding. Man of Steel left me breathless and exhilarated in a way I haven't felt in a very long time. THIS is the kind of gargantuan action that Michael Bay has been trying, and mostly failing to mount for decades. Snyder choreographs his action with just enough control that I was always dizzy, but never lost.

Even more importantly, the action, powerful though it is, does not snuff out the drama. As they did in Batman Begins, Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer move forwards and backwards in time to show how the past influences the present. Superman Returns had the noble intent of exploring the loneliness of a god-like alien, but became lugubrious along the way. In Man of Steel, we more directly see the cause and effect as young Clark wants to use his powers but can't, giving Superman's conflict the emotional import it needs. At the same time, Nolan and Goyer add novel tweak the Superman mythology, such as making Kal-El the rare natural birth on Krypton - and making his parents criminals in the process.

The actors, by and large, are terrific. It's no surprise that Michael Shannon (General Zod) plays menace well, and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) elevates every project she does with her intelligent sunniness. Diane Lane is somewhat underused as Martha Kent, but Kevin Costner has his best role in years, as does Russell Crowe, playing Superman's father.

Then there's Henry Cavill in the title role. Ever since Christopher Reeve left his indelible mark, other actors have been unable to escape his shadow.That's because none played Clark Kent as well as Reeve. Playing Superman isn't so hard, but making the Kent disguise believable is.  So Cavill, for the most part, doesn't try. This story doesn't require it. He brings the appropriate physicality to the role without overdosing on moodiness.  How well he plays Clark will be best explored in future movies, but I'm confident he'll pull it off.

That said, when the credits rolled, I could only wonder how the sequel could possibly match the sheer scale of this movie. I'm very anxious to find out, when the first movie is the best one I've seen so far in 2013.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I might have felt more generous toward Baz Luhrmann's wild take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. But as it stands, it's more like The Good Gatsby.

It's certainly more praiseworthy than most critics have said, but when the best praise I can give it is in comparison to the 1974 film, that's not saying enough. Back then, The Great Gatsby wasn't so much filmed as it was embalmed. With the lead roles miscast and a leaden pace, the whole thing felt as stiff as a starched collar. It had no pulse.

Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby certainly has a pulse, but it's an erratic one. At first, it's mesmerizing. The director's florid visuals explode off the screen with quite literal fireworks, while Gershwin and Beyonce (together at last) blare forth on the soundtrack. His 1920s roar with blinding colors and dizzying camera tricks. The use of 3D is enveloping as our point of view careens from New York's skyscrapers and zooms through the city streets. Moulin Gatsby, anyone?

So the problem isn't so much that it's over the top. With Luhrmmann at the controls, that's a given. The eye candy certainly fits the themes of putting on false fronts. But eventually, the stylistics become wearying.

In Luhrmann's past movies, the wild visuals seemed to flow from the material. The heated emotions of Romeo + Juliet made a wild style fitting. Moulin Rouge was such a unique world, it couldn't help but be delirious. This time, Lurhmann's hyperactivity feels grafted on to the material, and it doesn't always reflect Fitzgerald's graceful prose.

Case in point: in one shot we see a billboard with the familiar book cover art of the eyes looming over the city. That might have been clever if used once or twice, but Luhrmann beats us over the head with it like a desperate Cliffs Notes writer. His style makes Gatsby seem more like Charles Foster Kane, an error the 1974 movie also committed.

And yet, I still recommend Luhrmann's Gatsby, largely because of the actors, who sell the material. Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby looms larger than life but is touchingly vulnerable. No longer is he merely a romantic cypher. Joel Edgerton makes for a genuinely menacing Tom, and with Carey Mulligan, I finally understood why Gatsby made such a fuss over her. Only Tobey Maguire disappoints as the rather dull narrator.

I am thankful that we finally have a cinematic Great Gatsby that is worth seeing. I only wish that it was as good as it could have been.




Thursday, April 25, 2013

Memo to Michael Bay: All Pain, No Gain (red band trailer)

Memo to: Michael Bay
From: Eric Robinette, your number one fan (LOLZ)
RE: Pain & Gain - red band trailer
My dear Mr. Bombast (née Bay),

I'm done, Mike. I just can't take it anymore. When even one of your trailers turns my stomach, I'm turning my back.

I've been putting up with your cinematic cacophonies for nearly 20 years. Ive been watching you since you turned a Wilson Phillips video ("You Won't See Me Cry") into a Victoria's Secret ad. I've seen all your movies except the original Bad Boys. (Oxymoron ahoy!) Heck, I stuck with you after Bad Boys II, even though I felt like I ate bowls full of raw sewage for a year by the time the credits rolled. You managed to bamboozle me into kinda-sorta liking the third Transformers movie, thanks to pretty decent 3D.

But no more, Mike. I now know how to quit you. And I didn't even need to see Pain & Gain to reach this epiphany. All it took was the red-band trailer. I'm going to review that instead of sitting through your movie. Life's just too short, ya know?

:17 - Saracastic thumbs up to the fat chick! Nice!
:32 - "I had a wife, two beautiful daughters - thank God I left her. Now I'm with seven honeys!" Misoogony is funny!!
:55 - Haha! People with little dicks are pussies, right? You manage to make Rebel Wilson unfunny, Mike. That's a feat.
1:25: Taser joke. Seems you're trying to make a comedy, Mike. You really shouldn't. You can't. I don't mean you can't as in you suck. I mean you just can't. You can't direct comedy any more than I can breast feed a baby.
1:53: Slo-mo spit shot! When you made Pearl Harbor, the best shot was from the point of view of the bomb. Now the most interesting thing you shoot is saliva at 48 frames per second. Progress?
2:05: Multiple shots of strippers. Last year was the day in the sun for strippers, Mr. Bay. Magic Mike you ain't.
2:23: Gay sex joke implied. Cos we all know that's a riot.
2:30: Midget humor! That only works if you're a foul-mouthed teddy bear, Mike. Again, it's so last year.
2:39: Stuff blowing up, blah, blah, yada.
2:54: Dog carrying severed human toe in mouth. I think that one speaks for itself.
3:05: Bullying is funny! I'm a disabled man, Mike. That shit touches a nerve.

I see a few critics, including some I like, have given you a pass this time, Mike. What the hey, it's a free country. But some of your defenders are liable to say that your movie is satire and is poking fun at the lunkheads. I've heard similar arguments made when assholes pushed people around and their defenders lamely said, "He was just KIDDING!"

Despite all the warning signs, despite all the bad reviews, I've always gone to see your movies, partly because writing these reviews was fun. But the fun has drained away when you make a movie called Pain & Gain, and it's obvious that only the first word in the title applies.

Toodles, Mike. It's been real.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Farewell, my friend and hero

I saw Roger Ebert on two occasions. The first time was a lengthy interview he conducted with Martin Scorsese at the Wexner Center in Columbus. I remember vividly the ecstatic overload of movie love that poured from both those men. Marty chattered in his unmistakeable mile-a-minute fashion, while Roger probed the director to explore the nooks and crannies of his great career.

The second time was about a year ago at my very first film festival, when I attended Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He seemed frail then and rather slow of step. But that glint in his eye was unmistakeable - he loved the movies shown there, and he loved that hundreds upon hundreds of people had come to experience those movies with him in that huge auditorium of the Virginia Theater. That remains one of my fondest memories.

The journey to the Virginia took root 28 years before I was born. Outside of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, Roger Ebert was the pop culture figure who had the greatest influence on me. All of them were born in June of 1942 - Paul and Roger on the same day, Brian two days later. The stars aligned spectacularly back then, but Roger's influence was maybe the most profound.

He and Gene Siskel didn't get me into movies per se. I always gave my dad the most credit for that, when one day he brought home a stack of tapes that included 2001, Taxi Driver, After Hours and A Clockwork Orange. I took those movies and ran far and fast with them. Once I did, it was Roger leading the charge.

Roger was the one who convinced me that it would be cool to write about movies for a living. And for a while, I got to do that. Not for as long as I would have liked, but I still got to do it, making me luckier than most. And when I wrote - back then and right now, as I type these words - I always thought of Roger.

His was a conversational style that drew the reader toward him - but not beneath him. Roger talked to his readers, not at them. His reviews were always him saying, "Hey, let's chat about movies for a bit." Best of all, he threw himself Into his reviews so much, I felt like I knew him. I felt like he was right there in the room with me. When he wrote, I could hear him. And I wanted people to hear me too. Many of my readers have told me that my reviews are very me, which I take as the greatest compliment. I got that from Roger.

The most important gift Roger gave was his empathy. He played fair, and he was reasonable. He could be vicious if he wanted to be, but he wielded not so much a cutting tongue as a keen wit. One of my favorite slams of his came from his review of Exit to Eden.

"On the first page of my notes, I wrote, 'Starts slow.' On the second page, I wrote 'Boring.' On the third page, I wrote, 'Endless!' On the fourth page, I wrote, 'Bite-size Shredded Wheat, skim milk, cantaloupe, frozen peas, toilet paper, salad stuff, pick up laundry.'"

But Roger was at his best when he wrote about how good a movie was, or about how movies should be seen. Today, too many people treat movies like chewing gum. Even if they like it, they tend to forget about it after they're done with it. People don't treat movies with enough respect. How else to account for all the impolite talkers and cell phone users (of all ages) in theaters?

Even the people who make the big blockbusters tend to be cavalier about them. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but I wish Hollywood had more ambitious goals than making licenses to print money. Roger once wrote:

There is nothing wrong with a large audience, nothing wrong with making money (some of the best films have been the most profitable), but there is something wrong with the calculation. If the magical elements in a movie - story, director, actors - are assembled for magical reasons - to delight, to move, to astound - then something good often results. But when they are assembled simply as a package, as a formula to suck in the customers, they are only good if a miracle happens ...

We have, after all, only so many hours in a lifetime to see movies. When we see one, it enters into our imagination and occupies space there. When we see movies that enlarge and challenge us, our imaginations are enriched. When we see dumb movies, we have left a little of our better selves behind in the theater."

Roger Ebert left our world on Thursday, but he left his best self behind in his words about movies. If we can see the movies through eyes like his, we - and the movies - will be all the better for it.