Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MoviePass: The theatrical Netflix

Yes, I know, this place is awfully musty and dusty lately, but I did that on purpose to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Ok, I really didn't. I haven't been posting here much lately, because my newspaper job takes up much of my writing energy. However, Sir Critic will become more active again soon, partly because of a program called MoviePass.

Netflix has discs and their red envelopes; MoviePass has their red credit card and theatrical movies. For a set amount every month, you can see as many as one movie per day in a theater. You "check in" to a theater, like you do on FourSquare or Facebook, and that activates your card. You then buy your ticket with the card, just like you would a regular credit card.

This is a godsend for movie nuts like me who still like to see movies in a theater. The fee varies by market; for this Southwest Ohio resident, it's about $30 a month. There are a number of caveats though. I see at least 100 movies in the theater for a year, so it's more than easy for me to justify the monthly fee.

You have to have a smartphone to make it work. The iPhone uses the MoviePass app, all other phones use a mobile website. If your phone is dumb, you're out of luck. All the more reason to join the 21st century.

The program touts itself as "unlimited," but it actually has distinct limits. You can only see one movie per day. Though I often pull double or triple features, I can live with this. It just means I spread my moviegoing out a little more, instead of lumping most of it into the weekend. You also can also see each title only once, and that's a bit of a bummer, since I like to revisit my favorites or figure out opaque movies like The Master. But again, I can live with it, since I'm lucky enough to attend preview screenings.

MoviePass is not accepted at any and every theater. Rave dominates the Dayton market, and they're not in the program. Regal Cinemas are, however. One of those is very close to me, and a new one is being built south of town, to be located at Austin Landings. The two art houses here, Neon and Little Art, are also in the program.

MoviePass will only pay for one ticket per show, so if you have a friend, that friend pays unless you're feeling generous. If you have a date, I suggest using MoviePass for your date, then paying for the other ticket. That also means MoviePass is not ideal for couples with kids, although I think there is such a thing as a joint account.

And here's the biggest caveat of all: Since MoviePass is so new, bugs tend to run through the system. Te very first time I tried to use it, the kiosk wouldn't take my card. The second time I tried, the site wouldn't check me in at the theater. And on another occasion, their site didnt list all the titles playing in a theater. Fortunately, MoviePass does have attentive customer service. They worked with me and resolved my problems amicably. If worse comes to worse, and you have to use a regular credit card to pay for your ticket, MoviePass will refund you the cost of said ticket.

So do I recommend MoviePass? It's great for movie buffs like me; for the more casual moviegoer it may be less handy. Check it out and decide for yourself.

Since I've spent this entire post not actually reviewing any movies, I'll give you a preview of coming attractions, dates subject to change.


FRIDAY: Wreck it Ralph, Disney's latest.

THIS WEEKEND: Flight, Robert Zemeckis' welcome return to live action.

NEXT WEEK: Skyfall, the movie of 2012 I am most looking forward to seeing.

NOVEMBER 16: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.



Friday, October 12, 2012


Argo lies beautifully while telling the truth. That's what makes it the best film of the year thus far.

Usually, when a movie declares that it's "based on a true story," it already feels patently false. That phrase is usually code for, "We based the idea on reality, but then made the rest of it up." Argo is based on the declassified true story of a CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who concocted a harebrained scheme to free six Americans from Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis. He actually told the Iranians they were a Canadian filmmaking crew scouting locations for a cheeseball sci-fi movie. I defy even the most imaginative novel writer to hatch such a plot.

Working from a great screenplay by Chris Terrio, Ben Affleck cements his status as a great actor-director. Showing great promise with his debut, Gone Baby Gone, then skillfully refining his craft with The Town, Affleck progresses to his most impressive feat of all: making a crackling thriller-comedy.

Yes, comedy. Of course, there's nothing funny at all about the Iranian hostage crisis. But there is something morbidly amusing about how this rescue unfolded. Consider that one of the operatives was makeup man John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes. He's played by the always terrific John Goodman, who cracks that the target audience of a movie is "people with eyes." Matching Goodman zinger for zinger is Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel, who boasts that he knows Warren Beatty because he "took a leak next to him at the Golden Globes."

Juxtaposing these wiseacres with a perilous life or death rescue mission could have derailed the movie, but Affleck masterfully balances the tones. Not only does he shoot logistically complex sequences with painstaking historical detail, but he knows just when to release the tension with a well-timed joke. And in so doing, Affleck gets inside the wonder of movies as a whole. He shows how the movies are so captivating, the allure of even a fake one is enough to deter hostile Iranian guards. I daresay the mix of suspense and humor is on the level of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. I can only applaud a movie that throws in a reference to Muppets Statler and Waldorf.

Comparing Affleck to Kubrick is high praise indeed, but that's just how impressive Affleck's skills have become. I've already seen the movie twice, projected digitally both times. Yet Affleck fills the opening titles with the kind of speckles you'd see on a movie print from the 70s. Those don't appear in digital projection unless you put them there. So even the technical BS is a marvel. Maybe Argo fudges a few details to pump up the drama, but when the very subject of a movie is the art of lying, such deceit is commendable.


Friday, October 05, 2012

REVIEW: Frankenweenie

Going into Tim Burton's Frankenweenie scared me - and not for the right reasons.

Burton has been in a slump of late. Alice in Wonderland was hugely popular, but I couldn't see why. I thought it was cluttered whimsy that tried too hard to make sense of nonsense. HIs last film, Dark Shadows, was even worse, representing the nadir of his career. He hadn't made an A-range film since Sleepy Hollow. And his last foray into animation, Corpse Bride, was underwhelming too.

Still, I took solace in the fact that instead of grafting his twisted sensibility onto someone else's idea, Burton adapted himself. Frankenweenie began life as an animated short that got Burton, a onetime Disney animator, Hollywood attention. Now he's expanded it into a feature - and thankfully, it's kind of a return to form.

I'd stop well short of calling it a great movie. As is so often the case, Burton excels at creating worlds but stumbles creating fully realized characters. The lead character, a young Victor Frankenstein, is sweet but dull, at least for a kid who reanimates his own dog. And the other kids aren't terribly interesting either. The most fun character is the spooky science teacher, wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau, whom Burton directed to an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Since the kids are rather plain, it took me a while to develop rooting interest in the story. Then, thankfully, things get really wacky when the other kids try to replicate Burton's experiment, with wonderfully bizarre results. I don't want to give away too many visuals, but I'll give you this clue - the nastiest Sea Monkeys you've ever seen.

It also helps that this material is obviously close to Burton's heart, making the emotional pull stronger as the movie goes along. And I can't help but enjoy a stop-motion animated film in black and white. Frakenweenie isn't the great movie it could have been, but it at least gives me hope that Burton's career is alive ... It's alive, it's ALIVE!




PS: The 3D here is decent, but inessential. You won't miss anything if you see it flat.


Thursday, October 04, 2012

REVIEW: Pitch Perfect

They say that the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Not me. The way to this man's heart is through his ears. If a talented actress can also sing, any crush I already have only intensifies. I already had a crush on Anna Kendrick. Turns out she sings quite well. Ergo, Pitch Perfect was fun for my ears.

Yet, returning to some semblance of level-headedness that I abandoned in my lead paragraph, I must confess that Kendrick and the other actresses aside, Pitch Perfect isn't as fun as it could have been.

The movie, directed by Jason Moore of Avenue Q fame, has some of the same scrappy, perverse charm that stage musical did. It just doesn't have quite enough of it. What might have been Glee with teeth is more akin to Revenge of the Nerds with acapella and projectile vomit.

You heard me. Projectile vomit. This movie not only has several puking scenes, but the plot hinges around a bitchy leader of an acapella group (Anna Camp). She so dramatically loses her lunch, even Linda Blair would flinch. On top of that, most of the men in this movie are about as thrilling as a bottle of Kaopectate.

The gross-out jokes and for that matter, the dullard males are quite unnecessary because the girls truly carry this show - and their vocals and comic chops had me smiling broadly. As she did in Up in the Air, Kendrick plays an outwardly aloof girl who eventually softens and becomes more charming than she thought possible. This time out, though, she has a sassier side who sings a sharp version of "Cups" by Lulu and the Lampshades.

Rebel Wilson (Bridesmiads) has been touted as the movie's scene stealer, and indeed she robs them left and right. But I also liked the comic spark of Brittany Snow (Hairspray) playing Chloe, the perky singer who finds a heretofore undiscovered low register. Then there's the terminally undervalued Elizabeth Banks, one of the movie's producers, playing a singing competition commentator alongside John Michael Higgins. Clearly, these two made their lines up as they went along, and they seem to have more fun than anyone.

I wish I liked Pitch Perfect more than I did, but the movie sings more often than it croaks. Now excuse me while I download Anna's songs from the soundtrack.




Monday, October 01, 2012

Combo (Sorta) Review: Looper/The Master

One thing I like about being the master of my own blog is that I can take my time with reviews if I need to. And last week, I saw two films that simply couldn't be reviewed right off the bat: Rian Johnson's Looper and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.

I very much admired both, but I couldn't quite wrap my viewing arms around either one, partly because both films play with time. Looper does so by dint of being a time travel thriller, while The Master's deliberate pacing made me feel like I was watching it in a state of suspended animation. Time doesn't tick by in either one of these films so much as swirl around you.

These two films wouldn't seem to have much in common, but they share one conundrum: How do you evaluate films in which the lead characters are, not to put too fine a point on it, pricks? Do you have to like films where you don't like the people? Can you?

The short answer is, sure you can. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull centers around a particularly savage prick named Jake La Motta, and that's the one of the best films ever made. The key is either to lock into a secondary character, or to at least find the central figure a fascinating train wreck. Looper takes the former route; The Master the latter.

Since Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same aloof, unpleasant character, it's like having two strikes rolled into one. But there are mitigating factors: the sheer charisma of both, and the emotional draw of the character played by Emily Blunt.

Levitt/Willis is not a model citizen, but it's fun and really spellbinding to watch the two of them play the same characters at different ages in the same space. But it's Blunt who really provides the emotional center of gravity in the movie as the forlorn, mysterious woman Gordon-Levitt stumbles across. She has already gone on record to say Looper is the best movie she's ever been in. I would also argue it's her best performance.

That I've spent this much time discussing the characters in a Rian Johnson film is telling. The rub against Johnson has been that he's more clever than assured as a storyteller, but Looper finally finds Johnson connecting on both visual and emotional levels. Johnson has a vivid imagination that doesn't make the future look like a variation on Back to the Future or Blade Runner - it feels lived in, even while it's turning the world upside down. The film can't escape a certain aloof quality, and Bruce Willis made a better time travel movie with 12 Monkeys, but Looper is so dizzying that I didn't always know which way was up - and that's all to the good.

I also often didn't know which way was up in The Master, and there, the disorientation is more troubling. People have complained, not unreasonably, that the lead character played by Joaquin Phoenix, is too opaque and the storytelling too elliptical. It is indeed difficult to draw a bead on a character who may be beyond redemption.

And yet, that may be precisely the point.

The Master is a journey into the soul of someone who seems to have lost his soul. Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a vet struggling after World War II - is certainly not unemotional - he's prone to violent outbursts. But he is also surely a man without a center of gravity, and so it might be fitting that the movie seems aimless and distant. So is Freddie.

But he's not the only lost soul here. I would also argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is too, in his own way - and that's why Freddie fascinates him. Sure, Dodd is more certain of himself and what he knows - or thinks he knows - but he's also prone to outbursts whenever anyone challenges his outlandish faith. And what does it say about a man who radiates magnetism on the one hand, yet allows himself to be emasculated by his stern wife, played by Amy Adams?

This much is not in dispute: the acting is fiercely good. Hoffman is eerie yet assured, while Phoenix radiates a magnetic vibe of anxiety, of sheer intensity, that rivals that of Daniel Day-Lewis. Adams proves once Again that she's not all sweetness and light. We saw her play tough in The Fighter, here, she gets to play chilling.

Those who dismiss The Master are, I fear, being too facile. This is not a film that can be absorbed in one sitting. By the same token, It may not be a masterpiece either - it takes too many detours and leaves them dangling for that. I can't grade it right now - but I also can't shake it. That means something.

Looper: A-

The Master: Incomplete (good thing I'm not on Metacritic)