The Big Wedding

ImageWith the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I decided to re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel about moral decay in American Society.  Reading the book again was meant to assist me in my review for the upcoming Gatsby, but it turns out there’s another story of tragic spoiled Americans consumed with their own lavish excesses already in theaters, and it’s called The Big Wedding. 

The Big Wedding is a star-studded turkey of a movie that can be enjoyed as more of an oddity than anything else.  On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about the goofy pitfalls that occur within the chain of events leading up to a big American family wedding.  However, Justin Zackham both writes and directs a film that if anything, actively attempts to rationalize dishonesty as an honorable and necessary trait within the family dynamic.

The story revolves around the Griffin family as they prepare for the wedding  between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and his fiancé Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  The Griffin patriarch is Don (Robert DeNiro) who is hosting the wedding at his home that he shares with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon).  DeNiro continues his series of baffling role choices here, and it’s hard to envision what drew him to the character of Don, although he probably hasn’t played a character who takes this many blows to the head since Raging Bull.  The wedding draws an ensemble cast together that includes Don’s ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and Don and Ellie’s two children Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) both of which vary in degrees of estrangement from Don.  The conflict hinges on the news that Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna will also be attending the wedding, and her ultra-conservative views on marriage and divorce cause Alejandro to plead with Don and Ellie to pretend to be married so not to offend her.  Various other subplots regarding Lyla’s marriage troubles, Don’s relationship with Bebe, and Jared’s awkward fling with Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria fill out the film’s 89 minute running time, but none of them are remarkably interesting or funny.  Additionally, Robin Williams is given absolutely nothing to do as Father Moinighan in a screenplay that feels like a series of wasted opportunities. 

While The Big Wedding certainly disappoints given its potential, it is oddly watchable.  Most of the characters are quite unlikable, and it begs the viewer to question whether this is intentional.  Katherine Heigel’s character is uniquely deplorable, an example being when she candidly announces who she needs to “lynch” to get a Cosmo.  Zackham makes it quite clear that every character has, in one way or another, used deception, fraud, or trickery as a recourse for trying to keep a family together.  This thematic exploration and justification for dishonesty feels wildly out of place in a supposedly fun wedding comedy, but it is a strangely fascinating direction to take.  Perhaps this film would work better if it were more Gatsby and less My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but what we’re left with is a bit of a mess, albeit a somewhat intentional one. D+

The Big Wedding is rated R and runs 89 minutes.  You might want to make sure there’s an open bar before attending this wedding.

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Oblivion

ImageHot-shot pilot moves in expensive, cutting edge fighter jets, wide-scenic shots of Tom Cruise on a motorcycle…get “Take My Breath Away” out of your head – we’re talking about Oblivion here! While the similarities between Oblivion and Top Gun end at the aforementioned, there is no question that “Maverick” has all the right moves to portray galactic mechanic, Jack Harper in the most visually dazzling film of the year so far.

Oblivion opens in 2077 after an alien threat has left Earth a barren wasteland fit only for extracting a few vital resources before humanity abandons the planet altogether to start a new existence on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Cruise’s Harper is a glorified serviceman who supervises and repairs the various resource-extraction devices along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). As the two near the completion of their jobs on Earth, Harper begins having visions of his life prior to the mandatory memory-wipe that is required for service-workers. These visions lead him on a chain of events that cause him to question everything he thought he knew about his life.

Director Joseph Kosinski creates a vividly rich and nuanced futuristic environment where much of the technology feels like what truly is on the horizon. Kosinski directed 2010’s under-rated visual spectacle, Tron Legacy, and it is apparent that he has his finger on the pulse of crisp, sci-fi style. Narrative-wise, Oblivion is a much more complex story than is likely expected. The complexities do provide some depth to the film and force the audience to pay close attention; however, the juxtaposition between the style and the narrative is not smooth. Occasionally, the film is forced into a lull as it tries to tie up its intricate plot points without sacrificing its visual pageantry. This is most apparent in the scenes that develop the sub-plot involving a human resistance leader named Beech (Morgan Freeman) and a mysterious NASA survivor named Julia (Olga Kurylenko).

Oblivion’s chief attributes are clearly its visual elements. Freeman and Kurylenko’s characters are thinly developed and the actors are mostly unremarkable. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that any film that features Morgan Freeman in any role is most likely not a bad movie. Thematically, the film is successful at developing some intriguing ideas about discovery and purpose. The film acts as a subtle homage to familiar films like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Wall-E. Speaking of familiar, the score is oddly reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. This is simply an observation, but having Morgan Freeman in the film as well certainly makes one wonder if this is some form of statement. Regardless, while some will no doubt be puzzled or dissatisfied with the conclusion, Oblivion mostly works as an epic and visually alluring entry into the science-fiction canon. B+

On a side note, seeing the film in IMAX or an XTREME screen is recommended as the film has so much to offer visually. Oblivion is rated PG-13 and runs 125 minutes.

42

ImageFilms about sports are as old as the modern screen narrative gets.   It seems most movie fans have a favorite sports movie, even people who hate sports.  The reason for this is that a great sports movie is often not really about the game.  A great sports movie is about life, passion, talent, and determination.  These films strive to inspire, and the great ones usually do.  42 brings the epic story of Jackie Robinson to the big screen, and if you don’t tear up at this one, there’s something wrong with you.

Robinson’s story is fairly well-known, especially to baseball fans.  What may be a slightly lesser-known facet of Robinson’s story is the role Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey plays in it.  Together Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Rickey (Harrison Ford) attack the prejudice inherent in post-WW II America by using America’s pastime as a weapon for unity.  This is not unlike the strategic move Nelson Mandela took in terms of using a nation’s love for Rugby as an equalizer in post-apartheid South Africa.  The film opens with Robinson already a star of the Negro League.  He is summoned by Rickey to join the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm organization with the expectation that he would be brought up to the majors, breaking the color barrier and becoming the first African-American ever to play major league baseball.   Rickey senses that Robinson is the potential game-changer that he needs because he has both the talent for the game as well as the personal strength to withstand the firestorm that his presence in the majors will inevitably cause.   Rickey represents a dogmatic, purist love for something that has seemingly been soiled.  His motivation is fueled by love and respect  in a time when both of these qualities are in short supply (in terms of race relations).

Robinson’s story is treated with great respect in 42.  Director Brian Helgeland does not sugar-coat America’s racist past, but it could be said that he stereotypes it a bit.   Nonetheless, he uses the game of baseball as a way to survey the various racial perspectives shared throughout different regions and classes in mid-20th century America.  This helps 42 rise slightly above a standard bio-pic into something of an American culture expose.  Robinson is not simply pitted against “racism.”  He is doubted by timid hypocrites like Rickey’s associate Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight).  He is hated by southern simple-folk who are frightened by change like Phillie’s manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk).  He is isolated by skeptical teammates who feel under-valued like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman).  He is also anxious about what his presence means to other struggling African-Americans like journalist, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and idolizing child-fan Ed Charles (Dusan Brown).  Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) effectively reveals the source of much of Robinson’s strength against many of these different and difficult stresses.

Consequently,42 is one of the best films of a young 2013, and it is certainly an excellent addition to a long line of great sports movies.  It does rely on stereotype and simplification from time to time, and Robinson is also depicted as a virtually flawless individual.  However, these choices are clearly deliberate, and when an audience analyzes the intentions of the film, these choices make sense.  At the end of 42, we are left feeling a strong sense of history as well as the emotional dynamic between the strength of a team and the even greater power of an individual.  A-       

The People’s Critic Mourns the Loss of Roger Ebert

ImageRoger Ebert died today, April 4th at the age of 70. He announced on April 2nd that his Thyroid Cancer had returned, and within two days it finally claimed the life of one of the most successful and renowned names in the world of modern entertainment.

When it comes to film criticism, there is no one whose impact was greater than Roger Ebert’s. Personally, one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my love for the movies started with Ebert’s weekly film reviews and nationally syndicated TV program. Much of his fame and notoriety came from his relationship with the late Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel. Siskel and Ebert became household names and their trademarked “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system became the most coveted recommendation a film could receive. It has been said, that the popularity of Siskel and Ebert’s unique but simple recommendation actually decimated the relevance of an entire generation of film critics. With the passing of Siskel, Ebert continued the show, using it to introduce and launch other worthy names in the world of film criticism as well as to continue to maintain the standard of the profession.

Roger Ebert was more than just a traditional film critic, however. His sense of humor and his intellect made him a favorite guest on talk shows from The Tonight Show to The Howard Stern Show. He was a very gifted writer whose often poetic way of capturing ideas into words began with screenplays and later evolved into what writing about movies could be. His reviews often enjoyed a sense of anecdotal quality. He interacted with a film and expressed it expertly so that each review felt personal and honest. His vast knowledge of the history and nostalgia of film aided him in his ability to provide excellent insight. Additionally, he always had his finger on the pulse of what mattered in the industry. He championed and attended film festivals, he criticized studios when they refused to release films early for critics, he attacked the MPAA when its ratings seemed to conflict with the essence of a film’s audience, he stayed on top of trends in film, and he provided memorable and fascinating commentaries on a wide range of films from critical favorites like Citizen Kane to some of his personal favorites like Dark City.

In 2006 a diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer coupled with complications from surgery left Ebert unable to speak, but this did not stop him from continuing to be a major presence in the world of film. Ebert kept up his column at the Chicago Sun Times and embraced the social networks, regularly posting “tweets” on Twitter about the movies. While his “voice” has been gone for several years, his true voice was never gone, and even in his passing, a his legacy will continue not unlike the immortality of the cinema he loved so much. Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert, and for the last time – “the balcony is closed.”