The Heisenberg Sincerity Principle

The Upside

by Matt Weiner

The man who can’t feel a thing meets the man who hasn’t cared for anybody but himself. You will not believe what happens next.

Actually, if you’ve seen any inspirational movie about overcoming adversity in the last half century, you will totally believe what happens next. There is one big surprise in The Upside, though, and it’s how committed the leads are to making it way less cynical than it has every right to be.

I’m not sure it’s enough to redeem a film that’s been done dozens of times, but at least it makes this entry highly watchable. For this version, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star as the odd couple from different walks of life who learn valuable lessons from each other in unexpected ways.

After being paralyzed from the neck down and losing his wife to cancer in short succession, billionaire investor Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) has given up on life. A chance encounter with street-smart parolee Dell Scott (Hart) brings a burst of fresh air into Lacasse’s narrow world, and Dell is hired on as a live-in aide.

Lacasse sees potential in Dell and appreciates having someone who treats him as a person, not merely someone to be pitied or ignored. It’s an admirable sentiment, and the chemistry between Cranston and Hart is the most winsome part of the movie. And a good deal more enjoyable than the contrived romantic subplot with Nicole Kidman, who gets to put her real accent to good use but not much else.

Cranston and Hart play off each other so well that it makes you wonder why not put that talent to work with a less hidebound story? The Upside is an adaptation by Neil Burger of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was wildly popular despite suffering from the same clichés. The script for the remake by Jon Hartmere manages to make the story a little more subtly endearing than colonial when Lacasse, doing his best platonic Henry Higgins, teaches Dell to appreciate fine art and opera. Just a little.

But banish those nagging doubts from your mind. The Upside pleads to be taken as all text, no subtext. This is, after all, a movie that turns themes, lessons and even symbolism into neatly packaged dialogue. You won’t hear anything new, but a lot of it is genuinely funny and well-delivered.

And who am I to judge the French for shopworn sincerity? They’re not the country that gave an Oscar to Crash.

Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.

Bond of Brothers

Last Flag Flying

by George Wolf

“Men make the wars, and wars make the men.”

Last Flag Flying is a loving salute to the enduring nature of honor. Thoughtful and sometimes genuinely moving, it’s also not above getting laughs from three aging veterans trying to buy their very first mobile phones or arguing about the ethnicity of Eminem.

It is 2003, and Larry, aka “Doc,” (Steve Carell) is looking up two old Marine buddies for a very specific purpose. Doc, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) all served in Vietnam together, and now Doc needs his friends to help bury his son, who has just been killed in the Iraq War.

Once the men learn that the official story of the boy’s death isn’t exactly the real story, Doc declines a burial at Arlington, deciding to transport the body for a hometown funeral in New Hampshire.

Older gentlemen out for a wacky road trip? Is that what’s going on here?

Those fears are understandable but unwarranted, as director Richard Linklater confidently guides the film with gentle restraint and his usual solid instincts for organic storytelling. Some good-natured humor is framed from the three outstanding main performances, but it never derails the resonance of these characters grappling with the cyclical nature of sacrifice.

Linklater adapts the script with source novelist Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the 1970s servicemen-centered flicks Cinderella Liberty and The Last Detail. Last Flag Flying draws many parallels with the latter film, as it is not a stretch to see these characters as the Detail men taking stock of what the years have changed – and what they haven’t.

Though the perfectly-drawn contrasts of the three personalities seem manufactured at times, it matters less thanks to Carell, Cranston and Fishburne, who are never less than a joy to watch. You’ll need tissues handy for the touching final moments, but Last Flag Flying makes the tears, and the trip, worthwhile.

The Man Upstairs

Wakefield

by George Wolf

“Who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold for a moment…just vanish completely?”

Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) gives in to that impulse, and his moment of resignation becomes months in a self-imposed exile, wallowing in self-pity and watching his family from an attic window.

Sure, Howard has a nice job, beautiful family and sweet home in suburban New York, but he’s been lulled into a stupor by the whole domestic routine. After yet another trying day, Howard ventures up to the attic above his separate garage…and decides to stay there.

Writer/director Robin Swicord adapts E.L. Doctorow’s short story with a workmanlike precision, dutifully providing all the building blocks for this high-concept parable, but never finding the depth or profundity she seeks.

Cranston, here’s a shocker, is fantastic, digging commendably deep in a search for the humanity his character badly needs. Howard has some first-world problems, as he labels suburbia a place people can feel “protected from what’s wild,” but can’t challenge his privilege with anything more dire than dumpster diving or poor hygiene. Howard is far from likable, and though Cranston is all in, finding a reason to root for his quest is tough sledding indeed.

As he spies on his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters, Howard fancies himself the veritable wise old hermit, observing the folly of modern life and dispatching simple truths. It’s well-meaning, but these truths are of the standard greeting card variety, rendered even less impactful from the film’s inherent need to tell (through voiceover narration or talking-to-himself musings) instead of show.

At times, Wakefield has the feel of a one-man show. With Cranston, the man makes it worth watching, even when the show can’t quite keep up.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Gym Class Heroes

Power Rangers

by George Wolf

Let us put an end to our petty squabbling and share a delicious warm donut, for Power Rangers is here to confirm what we long imagined. The key to saving the world lies in defending your local Krispy Kreme.

It’s true, and as long as this reboot taps into that Saturday morning vibe and Elizabeth Banks yells gems like “Push them into the pit!”, there’s some over the top fun to be had. Getting there, though, is damn near insufferable.

For an origin story, we get stitched-together remnants of better movies (Breakfast Club, Spiderman, 127 Hours, Breakfast Club again) and warmed over teen angst. The five young heroes are diverse in personality, ethnicity and lifestyle, and John Gatins’s script wields these cliches like a pandering Hulk smash.

It’s just a shame our new Rangers can’t morph until they “really get to know each other.”

What to do?

What if…we cue the strings and take turns telling each how nobody “gets me” and how awful it is to be a great looking teenager! Then we can be mighty! Yep, mighty lame.

Just when you’re wondering why Bill Hader’s voice and Bryan Cranston’s face are in this mess, here comes Banks as Rita Repulsa (nice!), a gold-eating, scenery-chewing villain from space! Once Rita starts destroying the Earth, Banks starts saving the film, and director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) finds the throwback groove we’ve been waiting on for over an hour.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

The Oscar nominations are out, and – as is the case every year – the nominees with horror movie skeletons in their closets are fully accounted for. We’ve discussed the great Mark Ruffalo’s not-so-great The Dentist in previous podcasts, so we’ll leave that one in the closet this week. Rooney Mara just missed the cut, as well, with only a cameo in her sister Kate’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. The only problem with Tom Hardy was basically determining which bad horror movie to choose (which basically means Tom Hardy is filling in for George “Oh So Many” Clooney this year.)

Who made the grade? Who might take home an Oscar regardless of this horrific offense in their background? Provocative!

Listen to the whole podcast HERE.

5. House at the End of the Street (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence starred in three films released in 2012 – The Hunger Games (maybe you’ve heard of it?), Silver Linings Playbook (winning her first Oscar), and House at the End of the Street. One of these is not like the others.

Lawrence plays Elissa, high school badass who moves into a secluded new house with her single, doctor mother (Elisabeth Shue). Legend has it, out in the woods behind the house roams the crazy-ass, murdering sister of the cute if damaged neighbor boy, Ryan (Max Thieriot).

House at the End of the Street is a smorgasbord of ideas stolen from better films and filmmakers, although it is not a god-awful mess. Whatever success it has is thanks to Lawrence, whose talent knows no bad screenplay, no clichéd character, and cannot be overshadowed by a tight, white tank top.

4. Blood Creek (2009)

What would be more compelling viewing than Superman Meets Batman? Henry Cavill’s run-in with a Nazi zombie played by Michael Fassbender. Clearly.

A Nazi scientist finds a Viking runestone on a West Virginia farm, where blood sacrifice turns him into an ageless monster, and a weird, runestoney ritual keeps him bound in the farmer’s basement. That guy – that Nazi zombie – is played by Michael Fassbender. Whose mind is blown?

Cavill comes into the picture when his character Evan reunites with long lost and presumed dead brother Victor (Dominic Purcell). Some crazy farmers have had him locked up all this time, taking his blood for god knows what purpose.

Truth be told, Cavill offers a fine turn full of longing and regret, and Fassbender is mesmerizing. The guy cannot turn in a bad performance. He’s completely feral, totally unhinged. It’s like he has no idea that the movie he’s in is so, so, so very bad.

The effects are terrible, the medieval Viking hocus pocus is beyond ludicrous, Purcell cannot act, and the script’s lack of logic actually makes you long for director Joel Schumacher’s better efforts, like Batman and Robin or 8MM.

Seriously, that’s how bad this is.

3. Critters 3 (1991)

Long before Django Unchained, Titanic, or even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a barely pubescent Leo DiCaprio donned a day-glow t-shirt and a pre-teen scowl to battle Gremlin rip-offs in Critters 3.

They are furry, toothy, ravenous beasts from outer space and, until episode 3, they were content to terrify rural folk. But now they’re in the big city, and (in a clear rip off of the not-quite-as-terrible film Troll), they are pillaging a single apartment building and terrifying all those trapped inside. It’s a comedy, really, the kind with farting furballs and dunderheaded people. Which is to say, one that’s not particularly funny.

Serving up the same derivative comedy/horror pap you can find in one out of every three films made that decade, Critters 3 has a lot of hair in scrunchies, oversized blouses belted over colorful leggings, stereotypes, and actors on their careers’ last legs. And Leonardo DiCaprio, which will forever be the only reason this movie was released to DVD.

2. Minotaur (2006)

Oscar nominee Tom Hardy is truly one of the most talented actors working today, and I’m sure he’s proud of all his films. Except maybe this one.

The film plays like Jabba the Hutt’s palace set in Middle Earth, except in place of Jabba we have Candyman (Tony Todd, whose actual character name is Deucalion, but he’ll always be Candyman to us). Todd is king of the realm, and beneath his castle lives a Minotaur who requires a blood sacrifice. Periodically he rounds up youngsters from Theo’s (Hardy) village and drops them down below.

Hey – just like the Rancor!

Theo secretly takes the place of one of the sacrificial lambs and hits the underground to slay the Minotaur and reclaim his (probably long dead) love. Hallucinations, danger, and stilted medieval dialog await below the castle, while up above, Deucalion wants to get it on with his sister, who wants to get it on with Theo.

The sets are pretty terrible, as are the accents, props, costumes. Oh, and the Minotaur! He’s like an angry Muppet. But Hardy acquits himself reasonably then quickly goes on to better things.

You will, too, but why not indulge?

1. Dead Space (1991)

A distress signal from a research lab on the planet Fabon draws in maverick space cowboy Steve Krieger (Marc Singer, from such superior films as Beastmaster 3) and his cyborg shipmate Tinpan. Oscar nominee and billion-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston plays an infected scientist more sympathetic to the creature he’s created than to the crew this merciless muppet feeds upon.

Jesus God this movie is bad.

The story is utterly nonsensical. No, not that scientists removed from earth have unwittingly created a monster. But why do they feel obligated to share all their secrets with some rando space ranger, why does he take charge of the vessel, why does everyone wear blue unitards underneath their lab coats, who on earth thought Laura Mae Tate could act – well the unanswerable conundrums are legion.

But Cranston tries. He tries to create a character, tries to generate chemistry with other actors, tries to be both villain and victim, tries not to look like a mannequin when the giant mutant tears his head clean off. He totally fails, don’t get us wrong, but damnit, he tries.

Startlingly Relevant

Trumbo

by Hope Madden

“We are going to have to do some things that we never did before, and some people are going to get upset about it. But I think that now, everybody is feeling that security is going to rule.”

Those are Donald Trump’s words as to why he’d consider warrantless searches, Muslim databases, and closing or surveilling mosques – a fear-monger-fueled attack on civil liberties and basic humanity. What’s scary is the idea that he’d consider doing things “we never did before,” because, as Trumbo points out, we’ve done some pretty nasty things in the name of xenophobia.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) had been the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood before the blacklist. He and nine others chose to stand up for their first amendment rights, finding themselves in contempt of Congress and facing jail time. What you may not know, and the film hopes to point out, is that Trumbo was at the center of the shameful period of history from its opening to its close.

As fascinating a history lesson as Trumbo is, too much competes for your attention.

Though the cast is lousy with talent, that almost becomes its weakness. There are so many people to draw your consideration, with few characters feeling as if they serve the larger story as much as they require attention of their own.

Elle Fanning is wonderful, as usual, as Trumbo’s eldest daughter – a social activist like her father. Helen Mirren is delightfully wicked as Hedda Hopper, gossip columnist and anti-Communist instigator. Louis C.K. offers perhaps the most naturalistic performance in the film, which, while quite solid on its own, actually emphasizes the sometimes stilted performances around him. Meanwhile, Diane Lane is utterly wasted in the conflicted but supportive wife role.

Even smaller roles sometimes rob focus from the central character and story. John Goodman and Stephen Root liven things up as Schlockmeisters Frank and Hymie King, and Christian Berkel is a scene-stealing scream as Otto Preminger.

Cranston’s central figure should be the undisputed star, though, and the fact that so many others pull for your attention is a shame, because the Breaking Bad star tosses off droll one-liners like an old pro, and his chemistry with every other actor onscreen is wonderful. He epitomizes the writer’s inherent yin and yang with effortless humor and skill.

There is an expression of weary panic on his face as he sees the direction his beloved country is taking – one of ignorance, fear, and hatred. It’s a look we can probably all recognize about now.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Oh No! There Goes Tokyo!

Godzilla

by Hope Madden

Movies love to depict our fear of science, a trend that dates back to Edison’s 1910 rendition of Frankenstein. But the real frenzy came with the onset of the atomic age.

Among the countless “creature features” spawned by our global fear of the destruction science had wrought, Godzilla reigned supreme. Ishiro Honda’s Hiroshima analogy simultaneously entertained and terrified as it tapped our horrified fascination with the destruction, once unthinkable, that was suddenly an ever-present danger.

Back in 2010, visual effects maestro Gareth Edwards tread similar ground of societal guilt, dread and terror with his underseen alien flick Monsters. More than anything, though, that film clarified his aptitude for creature action, a talent that serves him well for his Godzilla reboot.

He’s assembled a phenomenal cast for the monster mash up, though I’m not sure why. Award-winning actors Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche and Aaron Taylor-Johnson appear onscreen (and do little else) as we wait for the epic battle between Godzilla and two new creatures with a taste for radiation.

Taylor-Johnson is a military bomb defusing expert who leaves his wife (Olsen) and their son behind in San Francisco to fly to Japan to bail his crazy scientist/grieving widower father (Cranston) out of jail. He’d been caught trespassing on a site quarantined for 14 years – ever since the nuclear reactor disaster that killed his wife.

Well, there’s more to that story than meets the eye.

The talent-laden cast doesn’t get the opportunity to flesh out their characters, so there’s little human drama to cling to as chaos approaches. Perhaps even more damaging, Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham’s screenplay fails to truly lay blame for this behemoth blood match on mankind.

Flaws aside, Godzilla delivers the creature feature goods. Few summer blockbusters contain such gloriously realized action sequences, gorgeously framed images of disarray, or thrillingly articulated beasts.

Edwards never hides his inspiration (the lead’s name is Brody, for God’s sake).  While he draws from Jaws, Aliens, Close Encounters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and any number of previous Godzilla efforts, the amalgam is purely his own.

This is an easy franchise to take in the wrong direction. Who remembers Godzuki? But Edwards brings a competent hand and reverent tone to breathe new life into the old dinosaur.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars