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Entries in Christoph Waltz (4)

Friday
May242013

Epic

It’s really hard to hate animated movies, even bad ones. If nothing else, animated movies are typically filled with lush visuals and virtuous messages that children need to hear, even if they are a little too simple for adults. Such is the case with the inappropriately titled “Epic.” It’s certainly not an example of a good animated film, and considering that it’s coming from Blue Sky Studios whose best film is the mostly bland “Ice Age,” that’s no surprise, but it’s hardly a disaster and it sports some imaginative visuals, despite a story you can’t say the same for.

The film starts with Mary Katherine, who prefers to go by M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a teenage girl whose father (Jason Sudeikis) hasn’t always been around for her. Despite this, she is making an attempt to connect with him and goes to visit him in his cabin in the woods. For years, he has been obsessed with a population of tiny creatures he believes to be living in the forest. Most people, including M.K., think he’s crazy, but little do they know he’s actually right. He just hasn’t found the proof yet. M.K. is about to realize this firsthand when she finds herself shrunk down to their size right after the queen of the forest, Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), gives her the chosen forest pod, which will save the forest from Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the Boggans, the evil little creatures who want the forest to decay. That little pod is going to sprout that night and along with the Leafmen, the guardians of the forest led by rookie Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and Ronin (Colin Farrell), it’s up to her to ensure it sprouts in light and keeps the life of the forest intact.

As one might expect, the story is inconsequential and filled with messages about saving our forests and preserving the delicate ecosystem of life on our planet. It’s certainly a good message and it doesn’t beat you over the head with it like last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” but the problem comes when the question is inevitably asked: why save the forest? The answer boils down to an unconvincing “because it’s pretty.” The Boggans, as far as the movie explains, don’t want to destroy the forest because they hate the forest’s inhabitants, but rather because they enjoy living in rot. To them, it’s simply a matter of beauty vs. decay and they prefer decay. The battle to save the forest becomes one of aesthetic purposes rather than one of nobility. Although the decay of the forest would obviously lead to the destruction of its ecosystem, such a point is never made. There are plenty of reasons to save our forests and respect the life in it, but kids watching won’t walk away with that understanding due to a narrow thematic focus.

One must admit, however, that the visuals do indeed paint a forest that looks exquisite and feels alive, so perhaps the narrow focus will benefit those watching. Due to our advanced technology, it’s difficult to make a movie with a presumably large budget like this look bad, but that no less diminishes its beauty. The characters are also animated well and move gracefully through the forest, even during the surprisingly taut action scenes. Watching the film move is a real joy, even if where it’s moving to isn’t particularly interesting.

The story itself is emotionally distant and the characters are flatly written, usually succumbing to the archetypes modern moviegoers expect. Nod is the reckless free spirit with untapped potential while Ronin is the hardened general whose duties to the Queen and the forest are his only priorities. Naturally, Ronin cares for Nod and believes in him, despite his recklessness, and it’s a safe bet to assume that Nod will make him proud by the end of the movie. And you can’t have a movie with characters of the opposite sex without sparking a romance, this time between Nod and M.K., a romance that is never truly built or felt and is largely forgotten by the end, given that M.K. has to return to normal size while Nod must remain in his diminutive state.

“Epic” is nothing but underdeveloped stories that are masked by high flying action and solid voice performances from a talented cast (aside from Aziz Ansari as Mub the slug, who proves he can be just as annoying without having to look at him). It’s sure to delight children, though it won’t leave a lasting impression and the chance to provide them with some meaning is unfortunately passed by for simplicity’s sake. For similar concepts told in vastly different ways, you’re better off checking out Studio Ghibli’s wonderful “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which is far more interesting, beautiful and profound than anything shown here. “Epic” is anything but.

Epic receives 1.5/5

Friday
Dec162011

Carnage

Some of my favorite movies take place in small spaces. That’s because the sheer amount of talent and ingenuity it takes to keep a story interesting without changing location is impressive to say the least. Alfred Hitchcock did it most effectively with Rear Window and the excellent, underseen Rope, but recent attempts have proved to be just as interesting, like John Cusack’s terrific horror thriller, 1408, and Ryan Reynolds’ nail biter, Buried. The newest attempt, Carnage, which is adapted from a play and written and directed by Roman Polanski, is one of the best. It’s a masterful display of intense, focused storytelling that ranks among the best of the year.

The story takes place at the home of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a married couple whose son just recently got in a fight with the son of Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet). The two couples are pairing together to discuss the situation and come to a mutual understanding of what happened. But what begins as a calm discussion soon becomes a heated argument where emotions rise and tempers flare. The two couples are about to show their true selves.

What Carnage does so well is keep the playing field level. It doesn’t take sides in the argument and lets you judge them for yourselves, though you most likely won’t be taking sides either, but it’s not because you’re looking from a neutral point of view. It’s because you’ll understand what all four characters are saying at certain points. Think of it like a game of Pong where your opinion is the dot in the middle. At first, you’ll agree with Foster when you realize that Waltz is more job oriented than family, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that his son beat up another young boy. But then you’ll find yourself disgusted at Foster’s pretentious, holier-than-thou attitude and her gall to basically tell Waltz and Winslet how to raise their son, even though her son is just as much at fault for the scuffle.

That bickering soon shifts from their sons to themselves, however, and the movie really begins to shine a light on their personalities. When most movies set their characters up with certain personality traits that are unchanging, Carnage creates characters that evolve throughout. The troubles of the children begin to take a back seat to the weaknesses of the parents. This naturally causes the male and female mentalities to diverge, which brings the sexes together while the couples drift apart.

Carnage is a very awkward movie, not structurally or artistically, but literally because the situation the parents find themselves in is inherently awkward. It’s a type of situation that has many variations and that many have lived through, which is precisely why it works. It takes a not uncommon event and creates a what-if scenario out of it. It shows a group of people saying whatever is on their mind, a luxury I’m sure many would like to have, yet it’s never mean spirited. Rather, it’s often very funny and at a brisk 79 minutes, it never wears out its welcome. Its ending may be a bit abrupt, but it’s nevertheless profound, showing in one simple shot that the parents made the fight out to be a bigger deal than the actual kids involved with the it.

When most movies can’t manage to maintain interest jetting all over the world, Carnage does it in one small apartment. It’s not flawless, but the ensemble cast is one of the most impressive of the year and the steady-handed direction is beautifully understated. It may be a small movie, but a big heart went into it and if you have the time to spare, it’s definitely worth seeing.

Carnage receives 4.5/5

Friday
Apr222011

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants begins like so many romances do. An old timer (this time a man) recounts his younger days when he met and fell in love with the love of his life. He tells his story to an overly eager personality who hangs on every word he says and is kind enough to spare a few hours of his life to listen. It’s not a bad beginning (despite unnecessary expositional dialogue that essentially spoils the ending, leaving no question as to whether it will end in happiness or tragedy), but it is starting to feel overused. All it does is remind us that we’ve seen this all before in other superior films (like Titanic, for instance). Water for Elephants is not great, but few movies are. At least this one is still worth seeing (barely).

The old timer in question is named Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who has more or less run away from his nursing home and is looking for a position at a circus that is traveling through his town. When he gets there, he spots a picture of the girl he fell in love with, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and begins to reminisce about his days as a young chap (younger version played by Robert Pattinson). He was a Cornell student and on the verge of graduating when his parents were suddenly killed in a car crash. Because of certain circumstances, he lost everything and before he knew it, he was walking the lonely railroad tracks. After some time, a train passed and he jumped aboard, quickly realizing he just jumped on the traveling Benzini Bros. Circus train. Thanks to his studies in veterinary sciences, he was hired by the owner, August (Christoph Waltz), as the animal doctor. It was on this journey that he met and became smitten with Marlena, the owner’s wife.

And the owner is not the friendly type. I guess. August is made to be the obligatory bad guy, but it feels forced. He’s the type of guy who threatens punishment if Jacob doesn’t follow his orders, but then approves of the contradictory choices Jacob makes. He certainly has a mean side to him, but he’s actually kind of charming at times. His character flips personalities so much you don’t know how to receive him: as the hardnosed, no nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway boss man or a generally pleasant guy with an anger issue. By the end, the answer is clear, but it’s a poor juggling act up to that point and it made me care little about what was happening one way or the other.

This lack of caring carries over to the romance, which is incredibly underdeveloped, to the point of wondering what the point was of making the movie. To go into why the romance is left only half finished would constitute spoilers, so I’ll refrain, but what happens near the end doesn’t feel wholly earned. Part of this, however, may be due to the two leads, who simply do not look good together. The 10+ year age difference between the two  is distracting and makes it feel like Witherspoon and Pattinson were put together because of their names rather than because of their chemistry (which is non-existent).

Considering the ridiculous ending that works the absurdity on a number of levels, I find myself questioning why I’m recommending Water for Elephants. The answer is easy: the art direction and performances are fantastic. This is a great movie to watch, even though the story is not a great one to experience. As easy as it is to dismiss Robert Pattinson based on his poor choice of roles in movies like Twilight and Remember Me, it would be doing a disservice to his abilities as an actor. He and Witherspoon may have failed to create a romantic spark, but that’s more a problem of the casting director and is not indicative of how good they can be when separated. Similarly, Christoph Waltz delivers a knock-out performance in spite of his character’s poor narrative evolution, proving that his Oscar winning performance in Inglourious Basterds was not a fluke.

The more I think about it, the more I want to say Water for Elephants is not a good movie, but it is, just less so than I originally thought (much less so). It doesn’t work as a romance, but it works in other ways. So even though you aren’t getting the moving love story you hoped for, you’re still seeing a visually spectacular treat. It’s probably going to work more for nerds (like me) who care about that sort of thing. Those who don’t will likely find themselves staring at their watches wondering when this overlong bore will end. To those people, I say skip it. You know who you are.

Water for Elephants receives 2.5/5

Friday
Jan142011

The Green Hornet

Films based on existing properties carry baggage. Those who have no previous experience with said property look at it differently than fans. While the former can look at it with a blank slate and no preconceived notions, the latter group, at least to some extent, expects it to follow the property’s traditional formula. It is this stark divide that will keep The Green Hornet from reaching major success. Irritated echoes that it was nothing like the old television and radio shows rang throughout the theater as the film came to a close. I can’t vouch for that claim because my ignorance with the franchise stretches far. I fit snugly into the no-previous-experience crowd, which allowed me to enjoy it for what it was, though it’s still a messy movie that comes just shy of being recommendable.

The story is mighty familiar. It follows a rich kid who has just inherited his family’s wealth after the death of his father and decides to throw on a mask and clean up the mean streets. The rich kid this time (as opposed to Bruce Wayne) is named Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), who suddenly finds himself in charge of his father’s renowned newspaper, The Sentinel, which he uses to spread the news of his alter ego, The Green Hornet. His sidekick (and former coffee maker), Kato (Jay Chou) is the brains behind the duo and is able to build useful crime fighting tools, not the least of which includes installing as many deadly weapons as their car, The Black Beauty, can hold.

The villain is played by recent Oscar winner, Christoph Waltz, whose brilliance in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds is toned down here in favor of witty one-liners and goofy mannerisms that stem mostly from the character’s inferiority complex—his desire to be scarier than others. Even when he isn’t on top of his game, however, Waltz charms. Without exception, he is the best thing about The Green Hornet, despite a serious lack of screen time in the first hour.

There’s also little problem with the rest of the cast. Chou may not fully have a grip on the English language, but it isn’t readily noticeable. His comedic timing is surprisingly accurate and he doesn’t stumble through his lines like, say, Jackie Chan. Cameron Diaz, who plays Reid’s newly hired secretary and criminology expert, is good too, though it’s apparent her blonde bombshell days are coming to an end at nearly 40 years old. Seth Rogen is where The Green Hornet falters. Although he has the party boy/funny man side of his character down pat, he isn’t entirely convincing as a superhero. To be fair, his character isn’t given much to do, but that’s what makes him so uninteresting. He’s savvy in neither brains nor brawn, so most of his time spent in battle is behind cover or kicking people while they’re down.

Kato is undoubtedly the star of the show, showcasing skills that Reid simply doesn’t have, but his abilities go beyond what any normal person can do, which include apparent robotic vision and super human speed. It all comes off as a tad ridiculous, but I suspect that was the point. In a cinematic world where superhero movies are becoming increasingly darker, The Green Hornet plays lighthearted and fun. It’s a nice change of pace, but this approach proves to lack the depth of films like The Dark Knight or Watchmen.

The Green Hornet is one of director Michel Gondry’s most straightforward efforts, but this type of content seems beneath him. Rather than play with ideas like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Be Kind Rewind, he is forced to go through the same old song and dance we’ve seen countless times. While certainly no slouch staging action scenes, a skill he isn’t too familiar with, they are still never fully engaging. The ending offers up the most excitement, but by that point, the film had already worn out its welcome. There is an impressive resume behind this thing, but it means very little in what amounts to nothing more than mediocrity. The Green Hornet may only be a minor waste of time, but it’s a complete waste of talent.

The Green Hornet receives 2.5/5