Palo Alto(5/24/2014)

5-24-2014PaloAlto

Sometimes seeking out independent cinema feels like an exciting journey into the best work that cinema has to offer, but other times it almost kind of feels like you’re scouting the AAA minor leagues for a strong prospect.  That’s certainly how I felt when I walked into the film Palo Alto, which focuses on what is probably my least favorite subject in indie cinema: bored aimless suburban teenagers.  In fact, the coming of age genre itself has been something of a plague as of late, which is why I didn’t even bother to see such films as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back, The Spectacular Now, and The Kings of Summer.  Still, I was interested in seeing Palo Alto in part because it didn’t look as navel-gazingly autobiographical as some of the above films, but mainly because I wanted to check out a promising young director: Gia Coppola.  Daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola, niece of Sofia and Roman Coppola, and grand-daughter of the great Francis Ford Coppola, Gia is quite literally of a promising pedigree.  Of course I’m no believer in genetic predestination or nepotism, but you ignore the future of the Coppola clan at your own peril.

Based on a short story collection written by James Franco (yes, that James Franco), Palo Alto looks at a group of teenagers who are adrift in the titular San Francisco suburb.  The primary characters are probably April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer).  Teddy is, at his core, a fairly sensitive person with art skills but he also lacks a personal identity and often unthinkingly allows his obnoxious friend Fred (Nat Wolff) influence him to do stupid and self-destructive things.  April is also an inwardly smart and athletic young person, but not an overly adventurous person and she hasn’t necessarily formed an identity within her school.  This puts her in a somewhat vulnerable position when her soccer coach (James Franco) starts to make inappropriate advances towards her.

So, what we have here is a movie about peer pressure, inappropriate teacher-student relations, and generally about suburban malaise.  If these are new issues to you, you haven’t been paying much attention.  These were already clichés when they became mainstays on teen soap operas in the 90s and they were certainly clichés by the time they showed up in this movie.  As such the challenge anyone accepts when trying to make a movie about this kind of stuff is to find some kind of original take on it that makes their film stand out in some way shape or form.  Does Gia Coppola do this?  Not exactly.  She certainly handles the issues with more care and realism than, say, “Dawson’s Creek” but it’s hardly the first film to do this and it probably won’t be the last.  Still it does deserve some credit for navigating these waters rather deftly.  The depiction does seem to be pretty realistic and nuanced and the film does successfully avoid most of the dated “jocks vs. nerds” stereotypes that less carefully high school movies tend to fall prey to.

The film is also elevated somewhat by a number of strong performances by heretofore mostly unknown young actors.  The film is especially a good showcase for Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts), who’s apparently been doing the child-actor thing for years but who’s just breaking into films this year.  She’s a little bit older than some of her co-stars, but you wouldn’t really know it from watching the film.  I was also impressed by Nat Wolff, who has to play a really unsympathetic asshole of a character and mostly manages to pull it off in a believable way that doesn’t go too far over the top.  I was a little less impressed with Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer), who has something of a blank expression on his face for much of the film, but he has his moments and doesn’t detract too much from the film.

So, I guess that brings me back to the question that drew me into the movie in the first place: does Gia Coppola have the chops to carry on the family name?  The answer to that is… probably.  Her interests certainly seem to be much more in line with her aunt than with her grandfather, but she demonstrates a grasp of tone that in some ways seems a lot stronger to me than what I’ve seen out of Sofia.  She manages to give the whole film a very appropriate “morning after the party” tone, and she rarely makes any overly jarring mistakes.  She also probably deserves a decent amount of the credit for having gotten as many good performances out of young actors as she did.  So, yeah, I do want to see what she does in the future even if this particular movie isn’t really for me.  Hopefully with this under her belt she’ll find better uses for her talents than an adaptation of one of James Franco’s stupid vanity projects.

*** out of Four

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Godzilla(5/17/2014)

5-17-2014Godzilla

Warning: The following review contains spoilers

There’s no denying that the creature otherwise known as Gojira has earned his place in pop culture.  Whether he’s stomping the life out of Bambi or the subject of a Blue Öyster Cult song he’s a ubiquitous figure and many a childhood has been spent watching poorly dubbed versions of “Godzilla vs. [fill in the blank].”  Hell, he even has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.  In spite of all that, I think it is worth taking a step back and questioning whether there’s really a place for the big scaley guy in discussions of fine cinema.  Think of it this way, there have to date been 29 Godzilla movies (including the first American remake in 1998) and of all those I’d only say one is actually “good,” that of course being the 1954 original.  Honestly, even that original movie is kind of shaky.  It certainly has a not so subtle anti-nuke message at its core, but it has pacing problems and the human characters are pretty forgettable.  As such there were certain limits to how excited I was going to get about yet another attempt by Hollywood to bring Japan’s favorite monster back to America.

Appropriately, this version of Godzilla begins with a nuclear accident.  Specifically it begins with the meltdown and destruction of a nuclear plant in Japan where an American scientist named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) have been working.  The meltdown kills Sandra and leaves Joe devastated and looking for answers.  The main action of the film begins fifteen years later, when Joe is arrested for trespassing in the Chernobyl like quarantine zone that was left in the nuclear plant’s wake.  This forces his now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco to go bail him out.  Despite Ford’s frustration with his father’s conspiracy theories, he still agrees to go with his father into the quarantine zone, where they find a secret government installation being overseen by a scientist named Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) which has been studying a strange egg-like object that was found at the nuclear plant after the meltdown.  Almost as soon as the father and son arrive something goes wrong, the egg-like object hatches, and a giant spider-like monster (dubbed a MUTO) emerges and begins to cross the Pacific.  To make things even more interesting another giant monster also seems to appear and begin a pursuit of this MUTO.  The monster in pursuit is a large reptilian creature with spikes on its back, there’s been some record of it in the past, and those who’ve been studying the records of it have come to call it “Godzilla.”

I don’t know if this was actually public knowledge before the film opened and I just missed it, but I was genuinely surprised by the fact that there were other monsters in this movie besides Godzilla himself.  The inclusion of these “MUTOs” certainly helps to keep the movie from following the same formula that its 1954 and 1998 predecessors opted to go with, and for the most part I approve of their inclusion with the one reservation that they look an awful lot like the aliens in Cloverfield, Super 8, the 2009 Star Trek, and… well, they look like they were designed by J.J. Abrams.  Still I like that screenwriter Max Borenstein managed to find a logical (if somewhat convoluted) reason for all three of these monsters to have been hiding for so long and to have emerged all at the same time.

What the script is less successful at doing is finding a reason to keep its main characters involved in this ordeal at pretty much every stage of its timeline.  It pretty much relies on coincidence to explain why all this craziness just happened to go down as soon as Joe and Ford arrive at its ground zero, why the paths of the monster just happens to follow Ford into two separate major cities, and why Ford just happens to be exactly the military specialist that’s needed to carry out the film’s climactic missions which he just happens to be in the right place and right time to participate in.  For that matter, I wasn’t all that impressed by Ford as a character.  For the most part he seemed like a pretty bland character with few defining features aside from the fact that he loves his wife and is frustrated by his father.  On top of that, Aaron Taylor-Johnson just doesn’t bring a whole lot to give this thin character any life.  He just seems like yet another one of the bland American Apparel models that have been held up as the new breed of action hero in the last five years or so.

Of course there’s a reason why Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t on this movie’s poster, that distinction goes to the film’s title character, which is the real element that will make or break this movie.  As you probably know from the posters, trailers, and Fiat commercials, the producers have opted for a fairly traditional take on the Godzilla creature design this time around.  This Godzilla is tall, he’s got spikes on his back, and yes, he breaths fire.  Ironically enough, the CGI used to bring him to life might actually be one of the movie’s least impressive special effects.  The various explosions and moments of destruction in the movie look great, and the CGI used to render the MUTOs looked really good too (which might explain why modern blockbusters have been so enamored by this alien design), but Godzilla himself feels a little more fake than his surroundings.  That complaint is of course relative, this is still a really good looking creature just maybe not quite as seamless as, say, the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the Na’vi in Avatar.

For the most part this Godzilla provides everything you could want from a big budget disaster movie in 2014.  It does a great job to tickling action scenes throughout its runtime instead of getting bogged down in long sustained set-pieces and it also manages to keep a fairly serious though not overly dour tone.  It also renders the idea of kaiju fighting each other in a much more dramatic and interesting way than Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. What it doesn’t do is give its audience a whole lot to chew on.  The film makes some lip service to the anti-nuclear sentiment of the 1954 original, but it doesn’t really update it in any particularly novel way.  The film gives some lip service to the notion of allowing nature to solve nature’s problems when Dr. Serizawa suggests that the army would be better served by simply allowing Godzilla to fight it out with the MUTOs instead of trying to fight it with conventional weapons.  That logic probably makes lot of sense the old lady who swallowed the fly, but how does it apply to reality?  Are we supposed to just do nothing and hope that nature provides some solution to the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters that the MUTOs are supposed to represent?  I don’t think so.  No, at the end of the day this is just a silly monster movie of the kind you should probably turn your brain off in order to enjoy, albeit one that is for the most part exquisitely made.  Sixty years from now I don’t think this is a movie that will have people pondering the political mindset of the time and place of its creation the way that the 1954 movie does today, but for those looking for a high quality summer blockbuster it will more than serve its purpose.

***1/2 out of Four

Neighbors(5/10/2014)

5-10-2014Neighbors

If you were to ask someone who the greatest action star of the 80s was they are almost certainly going to tell you it was Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Was it because Schwarzenegger was a great actor? No. Was it because he starred in truly great movies? Not really.  I’d argue the real secret to Schwarzenegger’s success was consistency.  While Stallone and Van Damme would often find themselves starring in absolute dreck in-between their hits, Schwarzenegger was able to establish a certain level of quality control throughout his career.  When you went to a Schwarzenegger movie you could be pretty confident that it would at least be as good as The Running Man.  I’d argue that, in the world of comedy, Seth Rogen has managed to do something similar since his emergence in 2007’s Knocked Up: unlike the Adam Sandlers and Will Ferrells of the world he’s managed to maintain a pretty consistent streak of solid films.  To date his only real out-and-out failures have been The Green Hornet (which was a misguided attempt to venture outside of his usual comfort zone) and The Guilt Trip (which seen by so few people that it couldn’t really affect his reputation ).  It’s because Rogen has been such a reliable performer that I found myself seeing his latest comedy, Neighbors, even though its trailer did nothing for me and its premise seemed a bit off.

In Neighbors Seth Rogen is paired with Rose Byrne as one half of a young married couple with an infant daughter.  They’ve recently moved into a home in a quiet neighborhood and while they’ve settled down they aren’t quite ready to put their partying ways behind them.  While they may still view themselves as young and hip, their tolerance is quickly put to the test when the house next door to them is purchased by a group of college students and converted into a fraternity house.  Initially the young couple tries to act cool around the frat guys, but it quickly becomes clear that no amount of politeness is going to prevent the party animals next door to quiet down and stop littering in their proximity.  Quickly a feud forms between the two parents and the fraternity’s leaders (Zac Efron and Dave Franco), which escalates into elaborate pranks going both ways as one side tries to rid themselves of the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking to realize that this basic premise is pretty contrived.  For one thing, the movie seems to take place in a town that doesn’t have any zoning laws.  I’m sure there have been cases where fraternity houses have been placed in residential neighborhoods and have caused strife, but I’d think there would be some measures in place already to prevent scenarios like that.  Additionally, the movie tries to very quickly eliminate sensible solutions to the problem like calling the police or rallying other neighbors to their cause in ways that stretch credulity.  That’s not really a huge deal, sometimes you need to just go along with things like this in order to get a movie going, but if you’re going to do something like that there better be a whole lot of laughs to make up for it and frankly I think this movie is a little bit deficient in that regard.

If the film falls short it probably isn’t for lack of talent.  Seth Rogen is mostly performing up to his usual high standard and here he does a pretty good job of (slightly) maturing his usual man-child slacker character.  Rose Byrne also does a pretty decent job of holding her own in this usually very male dominated genre.  On the frat side of the rivalry are actors like Christopher Mintz-Plasse (of Superbad fame) and Dave Franco (who’s really careening toward typecast territory), and they both do serviceable jobs in their roles.  The real question mark going in was Zac Efron, who’s been increasingly trying to enter the world of R-rated comedy now that prepubescent girls aren’t swooning over him anymore.  I’d say that he’s mostly alright here and doesn’t detract too much, but you can tell that he isn’t a comedy professional and there probably are other actors who could have added more to the movie.

At the core of Neighbors is a pretty solid set-up for a raunchy comedy.  The generational strife of the story is well set-up and in spite of a handful of hiccups along the way, the movie actually does come together by its end.  It’s because the film has a decent foundation that it’s that much more disappointing.  The jokes here just aren’t good enough. I chuckled here and there but this just didn’t elicit the same kind of belly laughs that comparable movies like This is the End and 21 Jump Street did.  That said, the elements that make the movie disappointing also bring it some redemption.  There was enough going for the film that I was mostly able to enjoy watching it even if it didn’t really have me in stiches.

**1/2 out of Four