Friday, July 25, 2014

Wish I Was Here - 2 stars

This is the first movie Zach Braff has co-written and directed since Garden State (2004).  Before it opened, the big story about this movie was that Braff started a Kickstarted campaign to get it financed.  He got some criticism from people who felt that a millionaire shouldn't be asking people to donate to his movie.  But as Max Bialystock says, never put your own money in the show. 

In Wish I Was Here, Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old struggling actor, father and husband.  He is supported by his wife, Sarah, played by Kate Hudson in possibly her best performance since Almost Famous.  Sarah works a job she hates, but she believes in her husband's dream of becoming a successful actor.  Their kids attend an expensive private school which is paid for by his father (Mandy Patinkin).  When his father says he can't afford to pay for the kids' education anymore, what does Aidan do?  Put his kids in public school?  Man up and get a job to pay for the private school?  No, he decides to home school them.

This is the kind of movie where instead of being intelligent enough to know teaching kids is hard, Aidan thinks he can hold up shapes and quiz his kids on the difference between a square and a rectangle.  When his daugher explains that she was studying trigonometry in school, he quickly gives up trying to teach them anything.  Instead he decides to take them on trips and have them help fix up the busted swimming pool in his backyard.

Braff is trying to make a movie about what it's like to be 35 and have to face responsibilities, and also exploring his own mortality while trying to cope with his dying father.  But the script isn't smart enough to do much with those themes.  The best the movie can do is have Aidan take his kids out to the desert and stand there with their eyes closed and the sun setting behind them while Arcade Fire plays on the soundtrack.

My biggest problem with the movie is how unlikeable Aidan is as a character.  How long does he plan to chase his dream before he gets a job?  Why doesn't he have time to wait tables in between going for auditions, like every other struggling actor in LA?  We only see him go on one audition in this movie, so it doesn't really look like he's even trying very hard to be a working actor. 

There's a really good scene late in this movie where Sarah confronts him about how unhappy she is.  She says she agreed to work a crappy job and support his dream, but what about her dreams?  I really wanted to see what Aidan has to say to this, but the scene is interrupted by a trip to the hospital, and they never resume the conversation.  The movie wants us to admire him for following his passion, and when he finally lucks into an acting job, we're supposed to cheer for him.  But the character never changes.  There really is no arc to this character at all.

There were so many things I didn't believe in this movie.  For one thing, the kids seem really happy to be performing manual labor.  He gets them out on the pool in the hot sun, and the kids never complain that they'd rather be inside playing video games.  When Aidan takes the kids to the desert, he leaves Sarah some money from the swear jar, along with a note telling her to go pamper herself.  She smiles like this is such a sweet thing for him to do.  But every dollar in that swear jar is money she earned in the first place.

I haven't even mentioned Aidan's brother Noah, played by Josh Gad.  Noah lives in a trailer and obsesses over Comic Con and cosplay.  At one point, Aidan criticizes Noah for not having a job and not getting his life together, which is pretty funny considering Aidan's situation.  There is also this running theme where Aidan is imagining that he's some kind of space explorer, running around an alien world being chased by drones that shoot lasers at him.  It does nothing but slow down the story and it's just ridiculous.

Is there anything good about this movie?  Well, the kids are cute, and they give good performances.  And the story moved along.  When I was able to stop being annoyed by Braff's sensibilities, I was interested in seeing what would happen to these characters.  Despite my problems with the movie, I was still moved by Aidan dealing with a dying father and trying to mend the relationship with his estranged brother.  I give Braff points for what he was trying to do with this movie, even though I don't think he succeeded.  And I just wish that at some point Aidan would get called out for being so selfish. 

Lucy - 3 stars

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American living in Taiwan.  Her most recent boyfriend talks her into delivering a briefcase to Mr. Jang, who captures her and forces her to become a drug mule.  When she accidentally ingests a large amount of this mysterious new drug, she begins to access more and more of her brain, making her into a super intelligent killing machine.

Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman is a professor who's been studying this exact kind of thing for over 20 years.  The movie keeps cutting back to him lecturing about the possibility of what we would be capable of if we could access more than 10 percent of our brains.

This is a crazy, wild movie.  The story is pretty simple, and I thought that was refreshing.  Basically we watch Lucy get captured, get in over her head, then start to kick the ass of everyone who put her in this predicament.  Director Luc Besson (Transporter, The Fifth Element) has a really interesting style.  As Lucy is walking into the villain's lair, Besson cuts away to nature footage of mountain lions stalking a gazelle.  Ok, we get it.  Lucy's the gazelle and these guys with guns are about to take her down.  It's a crazy choice, but I enjoyed it.

The movie is pretty ridiculous.  Lucy at first acts like a trained assassin, with deadly focus and able to beat up henchmen twice her size.  Then she starts getting telekinesis, able to control people and objects with her mind.  She can even manipulate computers, TVs and cell phones.  The movie doesn't bother to explain how (with no camera on her) she can make her face appear on the TV in Morgan Freeman's hotel room, but you just kind of have to go with it.  She has whatever powers the script requires her to have at any given moment.

I was enjoying this movie up until the last 10 minutes or so, when it goes into Transcendence territory.  She starts to mutate into some kind of computer / human hybrid that looks like the Trapper Keeper from South Park.  From there, it gets really crazy.  I have to give Besson points for being bold and taking the movie in the direction he did.  And at least the movie didn't end with a simple shootout or chase scene.

I'm giving this movie 3 stars but I'm questioning myself here.  I had a good time with it, but I don't think it's a very good movie.  Just a crazy, dumb one.  But I enjoyed myself, so there you go.  If you see it and hate it, I won't have any argument with you.

And So It Goes - 1 1/2 stars

Whatever happened to Rob Reiner?  The man who gave us This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, Misery and A Few Good Men should know a bad script when he sees one.  But he went ahead and made And So It Goes anyway. 

Written by Mark Andrus, this movie wants to be another As Good As It Gets (also written by Andrus).  But that movie did a much better job of giving us an unlikeable character and redeeming him by the end.  I'm also tempted to say that Jack Nicholson is much better at playing that type of character than Michael Douglas, but Douglas is given a really bad script to work with here, and I don't think I can blame him.

Douglas plays Oren Little, a rich real estate agent who's trying to sell his $10 million home.  He's living in one of the apartment complexes he owns and being a total dick to everyone else who lives there.  He has no problem taking the closest parking spot so that his pregnant neighbor has to walk a long way to her car every day.  He's also a racist.  When a Mexican couple arrive to look at his house, he immediately dismisses them, because he can't imagine they can afford a house like that.

Oh, but his wife died not too long ago.  The first scene shows him placing flowers on her grave.  This is so that we feel sorry for him, and realize that his grief is probably the reason he is such a jerk.

One day his estranged son shows up.  It seems that his son is going to jail for some white collar crime, and he needs Oren to look after his daughter while he is away.  Oren is the type of guy who has no interest in getting to know the granddaughter he never knew he had, and luckily Leah (Diane Keaton) is there to take care of the girl.  Leah's story is simply that she's a lonely widow and a lounge singer.  She can't get through a song without breaking into tears because each song seems to remind her of her late husband.

There isn't much here to recommend.  The movie isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and I didn't care as much about the characters as the movie wanted me to.  As Oren softens up, like we know he will, it doesn't feel like the change is earned.  He just seems to get tired of being such a jerk and starts to lighten up.

A few other distracting things in the movie:

1. Rob Reiner playing Leah's piano player.  This isn't the first time Reiner has cast himself in his own movie, but I think it's the most distracting.  I usually enjoy him as an actor - his presence really added a lot to The Wolf of Wall Street - but he was distracting in this movie.  Not that another actor would have saved the movie or anything, but he and his bad toupe really bugged me here.

2. The childbirth scene.  From the moment we meet his pregnant neighbor, you just know that she's going to end up giving birth before the movie is over, and Oren will be involved.  Of course he's going to have to deliver the baby himself, and of course help won't arrive until it's all over.  That's some really bad sitcom level writing right there.

There is really no reason to see this movie.

Life Itself - 4 stars

I saw Life Itself at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  Here is the review I posted in January:

Well, this isn't a big surprise. I admit that I'm predisposed to like a documentary about Roger Ebert. But director Steve James did a great job of adapting Ebert's memoir, and it was even more moving than I thought it would be.

Using photos and video clips (of which of course there are many), Life Itself tells the life story of film critic Roger Ebert. We learn about his days as a bachelor and a heavy drinker, his career as film critic of the Chicago Sun Times, his partnership with Gene Siskel, and the cancer that would eventually take his life.

I don't think you have to be a fan of Ebert or of film criticism in general to enjoy this movie. In fact, I would have liked to hear more about how he advanced film criticism and inspired so many other critics. There is some time devoted to the argument that he and Siskel dumbed down criticism by simply saying "thumbs up" or "thumbs down".
But for the most part, it focuses on Ebert the man. We see some really difficult footage of Ebert suffering in the hospital, going through rehab, and arguing with his wife, Chaz. I have read a lot about Ebert's medical troubles, but I had no idea how bad things got. It's also very interesting to see the struggles his wife went through as his caretaker.
As hard as that stuff is to watch, it's also very inspiring. I think at one time or another, all of us have gone through or will go through similar health issues. We'll either be the sick one or the caretaker. It's nice to see that despite the reassurance and the presence of mind he exhibited in his blog, Roger was a normal man going through hell. He got frustrated and upset just like any of us would. And while Chaz was an incredible caregiver and loving wife, she had her frustrations too. Sometimes she had to fight with Roger to get him to get out of his wheelchair and walk up the stairs.
This is a wonderful movie, and I really have a hard time being objective about it since I was such a big fan of Roger Ebert. Many of the clips in the movie are available on YouTube. The clips of Gene and Roger fighting while trying to record promos are great fun, and I always enjoy seeing them argue passionately about a movie. I'm one of those people who will spend time on just to watch their old shows.

Just so you know where I'm coming from. I'm a fan and I feel like this movie was made for me. Hopefully you will enjoy it too.