Review: Last Vegas

poster last vegasAbout half way through the movie I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “This is so good.”  It’s not unconventional, or provocative, per se.  it is predictable, but only because it’s perfect.  Last Vegas has tons of diverse talent that syncs up instantly for a symphony of comic wit and sincerity that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.  While I say it is predictable, that is only because it turns the only way I think it can be truly satisfying.  That is not to say that the movie is not full of fun surprises and misdirection that truly pays off.  I can only describe the experience as gleeful.

The story is of four old friends– plaid by actors in roles designed to accentuate what makes them great: Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Robert DeNiro– who grow apart and get the gang back together 58 years after its inauguration for an unlikely bachelor party in Las Vegas.  Imagine a classy, soulful, sharply comedic, heartfelt spin on the Wolf Pack that may well be superior to even the fist Hangover film.  The roster for the crazy Vegas weekend includes a Florida retiree who isn’t ready to be a Florida retiree, a grandfather who’s family fusses endlessly about his health, a successful businessman in Malibu eulogizing his mentor, and his old best friend, a widower and recluse who no longer speaks to him.

The movie is about all kinds of relationships, but it’s just fun to see the guys cut loose, judge a bikini contest, go clubbing, meet celebrity look-a-likes in drag, rediscover what they mean to each other and what they appreciate about their lives.  I really think this film is a home run.  It seems effortless the way the highs and lows come together to make a fully developed and satisfying movie experience that can be repeated.  The performances are all fantastic, including Mary Steenburgen, who plays a Las Vegas lounge singer the boys become smitten with.

It hits all of the tones that it should.  It’s a Bachelor Party movie and what’s more, it’s set in Vegas and the scene is captured really well and the cast deftly maneuvers it with style, cunning and hilarity.  I also like that much of it feature The Aria, vs. Caesar’s Palace, which is the usual.   Much of the comedy of the film comes from the fantastic direction of Jon Turteltaub, who I’m sure not only informed the actors, but got some of his own jokes in from his perspective as a storyteller.  I recently saw another Turteltaub film, The Kid, which stars Bruce Willis.  It was a lot of fun too and Jon really knows how to direct.  Writer Dan Fogelman (The Guilt Trip) is no slouch himself and these guys are in top form and collaborating with the crème de la crème of acting.

The bottom line is, Last Vegas is a well paced, disarming comedy that is deceptively heartfelt and delivers in all genres it touches on with lightning fast speed and dexterity.

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Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

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“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

gi poster iron man 3May third is finally here and that means Iron Man 3 is finally out.  The timely third installment about a terrorist regime bombing various locations across America and waging war against Tony Stark does not feel like an Iron Man movie.  It’s dramatic and dark with a surprising amount of death and violence that clearly eschews a pre-teen demographic, while on the other hand incorporating light comedic moments often with a young boy who helps Tony out of a few scrapes.  The film overall is fairly balanced though it loses me a bit at the climax and while it differs substantially from Jon Favreau’s hits, Shane Black has clearly taken ownership of the franchise and made it his own in an admirable way.

This is a straight action flick with Tony doing a lot of the heavy lifting after his suit breaks down leaving him stranded in Tennessee.  There is plenty of comic book material to drool over, but it only serves as a framework to support this gritty action drama that Tony surprisingly finds himself involved in, rather than a more likely Wolverine.  In fact, many moments on-screen, particularly between him and the kid, reminded me of Hugh Jackman and made me wonder if the makers of Iron Man 3 unwittingly made a better Wolverine movie than the soon to be released sequel to the X Men spin-off.

There are many things to love about Iron Man 3.  For starters, every one of the actors takes it so seriously.  It’s not pandering, and they have worked hard to get to the emotional core of everything, so that when the play it it’s wholly believable.  It goes a long way toward suspending disbelief when fantastic elements, such as remote controlled automated Iron Man suits, or unstable,  combustible, bioengineered A.I.M. operatives would otherwise threaten to undermine the credibility of the film.

Another thing I love is the individuality of it.  I like how it doesn’t try to fit the mold of the other two and instead, puts Tony way out-of-place, just to see what he does there.  It’s really cool to see how he responds to the need for Iron Man, without being able to get into the suit.  I think that was the most intriguing Idea at the beginning stages of planning the film, and it holds really strong and makes it a really unique story for the genre.

There’s plenty of danger, plenty of humor and plenty of opportunities for Tony to rely on ordinary people to help him through his Search for the infamous Mandarin.  From set up almost all the way through the film it is riveting, flawless, exciting, and fun.  For as much thought that I know went into the staging of the film however.  I do wish a couple of scenes had been cut from the final piece.  I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who’s not yet seen it.  But there is one moment near the end that I know everybody thought would be really cool and reinforce Tony’s anxiety and doubt beneath his cocksure approach to being a hero.  They probably played this moment in their minds and considered it one of the more definitive scenes in the film and cutting it out would be unthinkable.  While it is a surprising turn of events, I found it to weigh down the rest of the climax and it sort of pulled me out of the fantasy when no one on-screen, Tony in particular, seemed to really react.  From there, the resolution didn’t really work for me and it somewhat deflated my elation from seeing such a uniquely daring interpretation of Iron Man on-screen.  Luckily, the scene at the end of the credits put a big smile back on my face, and I there is much more of the film that I admired than otherwise.

I do have some burning questions, ranging from why the President doesn’t even look like Obama, to how the Iron Man suit runs without the arc reactor in Tony’s chest.  There is very little by way of explanation for any of the technology, which I like.  On the other hand It felt this time around the suspension of disbelief was taken for granted and stretched a bit beyond its limits without any proper support.  The pains originally taken to reinforce the character’s believability are gone, which is slightly alienating when that credibility that inspires belief is one of the things that made the franchise so appealing and such a tremendous success.

The innovative approach to making the film more of a pure action genre and somewhat skirting the science fiction/fantasy elements of the comics resulted in a breathtaking adventure that puts Tony Stark in the type of position more fitting for Ethan Hunt or James Bond.  It’s fun to see the result and it’s even greater to realize that there is room in the films of the Marvel universe for great stories to be told through different lenses.  I appreciated the tonality of Iron Man 3 over that of The Avengers.  Once again the envelope has been pushed and even though Iron Man 2 remains my favorite I happily accept this new installment as a win for team Marvel.